“A week without you, thought I’d forget. Two weeks without you and I still haven’t gotten over you yet.”
Nancy didn’t like it when I teased her about her house. Put politely, it was unfinished. What was meant to be the baby’s room, with its careful design of overlapping squares hand-painted on the walls, had become a storage-space; miscellaneous items suffering a slow transition to the garbage. Her hardwood floors had stains. Light bulbs dangling from fixtures. Things in the yard that hadn’t been moved since they were put down fifteen years prior. A storm destroyed the fence, with only the posts a reminder that her yard had once been enclosed. The front lawn with crabgrass and mushrooms.
Not that one needed to be tremendously perceptive to realize that the house, more or less, had ceased any major evolutionary activity- the kind where the first time homeowner is gifted a Time-Life “Home Repair & Improvement” book set, with plans made that foresaw holiday duties on the path to grandchildren.
“I’m breaking through, I’m bending spoons, I’m keeping flowers in full bloom- I’m looking for answers from the great beyond.”
She said she wanted a fairy tale. Not something fairy tale-like, or fairy tale-adjacent; not the kind they sell at Target, or the Magic Kingdom version with the anxious college girl sweating to death in her ballroom gown while telling you about all the books she read before the gnarly beast swept her away. Something where you’d never dream of compromising things with the words good enough to control expectations while still acknowledging the positive. She wanted the real deal.
Where it wasn’t good enough to spend your nights together laughing at jokes that only you’d both understand, between bouts of incredible sex, and looking into her eyes and telling her that she was beautiful and really meaning it. This wasn’t a fairy tale- this was something else- and if it wasn’t good enough to be a fairy tale, what was it?
“I dressed up in scarecrow, she dressed up in white.”
She told me that she likes “fuck boys”- a terrible, disingenuous cope of a nomenclature; a way for women to reclaim power in an otherwise powerless situation, thinking that, in our modern landscape of gender equality, a slur designed for a man who has too much sex will have the same sting as one made to shame women- fuck boys, she said, because she likes the way they talk to her. She was over forty with three kids; when she ditched the hubby, she got herself a personal trainer and breast implants- which was probably the most sensible thing to do. Ride the midnight train out as far as it will go- better to have your pick of fuck boys than to get a look at the kind of loser who’d take you seriously.
A few years after graduating college, with the idea in mind to become a literature professor, I found myself going to graduate school for a degree to teach high school English. Not a terrible idea entirely, but I was entirely unaware of what made it terrible; I was expecting it to be something that it never was- genuine– and this slight in understanding would set me back years.
“‘Cause we came here to set this party off right, let’s bounce tonight. And if they don’t let us in through the front, we’ll come through the side.”
Marisa had me drive her to her mother’s apartment so she could steal money; behavior I never endorsed outright,but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t complacent; an accomplice, if we were to be arrested, which we wouldn’t be, her mother was a dingbat. She’d keep loose cash in the drawer next to her bed, and every few weeks Marisa would dip into it like a broken ATM. Hundreds of dollars missing; thousands over time. Her mother had alimony coming in from Marisa’s lawyer father- when shit hits the fan, everyone becomes a thief.
She’d take enough to get a half-ounce from our dealer and have some left over to pick up dinner. Sitting next to a Family Dollar listening to “Waiting for the Man.” He’d text that he was “just pulling in to the parking lot” and show up an hour later- he knew you weren’t going anywhere.
Brought a bagel sandwich and bag of chips back with me- the indie label, kettle-cooked kind that you pay a dollar more for and is more heavily saturated in a higher quality oil- safflower, which is less likely to cause heart disease; something I can only appreciate in retrospect.
“Run and tell all of the angels, this could take all night…”
Nancy had done her part by having a kid. Something anyone could point to as making her accomplished enough– anything on top of that is a victory lap. No one would fault her for keeping things quiet- drinks on the weekends, maybe a date, vacation time over the summer. This is how she eased into her forties, and there was nothing terribly wrong with it- even if her only wish were to politely color within the lines and walk away with a terrifically neat and tidy picture of a life well lived.
First time I had dated someone so incredibly settled– she even had a house to go along with the kid. Only a few years older than me, but it felt like decades. With my baseball cap turned slightly askew, I still think I’m a twenty-five year-old rock star with a full road ahead of me. This is the fantasy you indulge in when you’ve never chosen a path- you pretend that you still have choices, and that you could be smug about those boring types with their suburban homes and vacation clubs.
“On Marty’s right was dear old Mom, who was once very attractive and bright. Now, at forty-seven, she was overweight, drank more than was good for her and had more food on her plate than anyone else.”
I wasn’t trying to have sex with Christine, but I wasn’t opposed to it. She was in town visiting from some far off country where she had gotten a job teaching English, picked up a relationship, burnt through it, and came back to her hometown to regroup before doing it all again. She’d come back home for gift cards and praise, complementing her courageous and free spirit, to have a few parties in her honor- maybe hook up with some old flames- and leave before it all started feeling too familiar. I never left our hometown; I was neither courageous nor a free spirit.
We were the first generation to explore our late-twenties as unmarried. As it turns out, this only extends adolescence, creates expectations that life won’t likely meet, and gives you a handful of addictions to grapple with for the next decade. If you’re lucky, you’ll have your head screwed on by forty and then spend the rest of your life playing catch-up like you’re running out of time on a level of Super Mario Bros. (1985)– the background music fast and anxious so you don’t forget.
“Runaway with me tonight, dream the dream and light the light.”
Maybe it’s just part of growing up, feeling the depth of responsibility which that role entails- or the side effect of a tendency to lean toward narcissism- but I’ve never been able to let go of guilt. Lying in bed at night, thinking, how could I have been better or what could I have done differently. You put pressure on yourself to live up to an arbitrary ideal, and when you don’t, you never let yourself forget it. Maybe this is why I can’t sleep at night.
And when I’m lying in bed restless, I’ll often think about Christmas 1983. I don’t think I have coherent memories earlier than 1983, and if I take a moment to really focus, I can remember the feeling of newness and exploration I felt at that age- almost as if I were conscious of it at the time, but I know this is probably only how I see things in retrospect. I was obsessed with Masters of the Universe– captivated by the cartoon, and there were no better days than going to Toys R Us and getting to pick out one of the figures to take home. Of course, I preferred Skeletor to He-Man; even at three-years-old, I wanted to be the bad guy.
Nothing ends well. I hate to be the one to tell you, but if you didn’t already know, romantic endings are for Hollywood. Real life wouldn’t have made it past a single test screening. I’ve never watched someone die, and my hands carry the softness of a man with intellectual savvy- I’ve never known hard labor and this is something I appreciate. After I scrub diligently for twenty-seconds and dry thoroughly, I enjoy the soft touch of my fingertips on my reasonably ageless face. People are shocked that I’m forty- and with a baseball cap turned slightly askew, I can still fuck reasonably young women.
But this isn’t going anywhere. The joke is that once you hammer out the formula, in your Henry Frankenstein fuck laboratory, you’re already halfway bored by the results. They say the journey is more satisfying than the destination, but once you’ve slipped into the realm of hindsight, you wonder if that’s just another bit of Hollywood bullshit. You have so many of the same interactions that it all blurs together and becomes part of your muscle memory- like realizing Punch-Out (1987) is a rhythm game- you could do it blindfolded. You thought you were Tony Soprano, a playboy with a dark side, but you’re really Livia- “it’s all a big nothing,” something you understand now more than you ever thought you would.
“If you’re gonna scream, scream with me. Moments like these never last.”
I ended up with the plaid button-down because I needed a nice shirt to wear on dates– I was single again and recently set up a new OkCupid profile. I had found success on that platform in the past, although it felt like a thousand lifetimes ago when I was dating the daughter of a colleague in my English department while screwing her best friend on the side. All through the magic of online dating, but stay in a lecherous, testosterone sapping relationship long enough and all you’ve learned gets lost to time- too many Diet Cokes in BPA laden plastic cups at Friday’s, too much time spent in front of network television, an unwilling prisoner of your girlfriend’s viewing habits. Why are women obsessed with TV? Modern relationships should carry a warning label.
Women like preppy men, a friend’s girlfriend had told me. Read their profiles and find something you have in common. “Mutual interests.” Perhaps your values will coalesce. Women in their thirties are different, she said- you can’t talk to them like everything is just sex. They want a caring, intelligent man. They’re over their asshole phase.