My dad always called it—like, when he was talking about my mom—“playing tapes in your head.” Hearing what you want to hear. Living off muscle memory instead of reality. When you look at someone new and can’t get a clear picture because of all the ghostly layers in front. It’s like relationship cataracts.
I needed new glasses. We were about one year in, and I’d already learned not to open myself up to your judgment. But I wanted someone to help me choose new glasses. (Just like I wanted someone to help me pick work heels—slutty—and a new winter hat—you look like an eraser—and a dress for my friend’s funeral—at least we only have to see you in it once, aw I’m just kidding, no but really….)
In the store, I hooked a pair of roundish brown tortoiseshells over my ears. I looked for you. You were in a corner, on a pouf, looking at your phone. I moonwalked over and began to vogue in front of a mirror. When it got nothing, I leaned over and vogued on your face, making you pretty, making you hot, crowning you the king of the ball, Benny Ninja from America’s Next Top Model, granting you a coolness you didn’t even know existed, all those square halos around your head.
You didn’t like them. (The glasses.)
You thought they looked like yours. They were different shapes and sizes, but it’s true both pairs were brown. Which I guess is an unusual shade for eyeglasses. (Although not in Brooklyn.) You stormed out of the store, hissing that looking like me was the last thing you’d ever want to do.
Anyway, later that night, we met your friends for drinks. It was almost your birthday. The story came up and I told it in a funny way, making both of us the heroes and the glasses the villains. I cast the whole thing as hapless and funny: me Diane, you Woody, and my new specs the runaway lobsters. You both had black glasses before, your friends said. Who cares if they match again now? You said, wasted and honest, Because she looks better in them than I do.
I see the disappointment in your friends’ faces and I hang my head in shame—for both of us, for different reasons. And I hear the Yardbirds….If you've ever been to New York City / You know what I'm talking about, yes you do / Well, if you've ever been to New York City / You know what I'm talking about / They got such pretty little girls in that big town….
Round about two years in, you said a terrible thing to me. The funny thing is, I never thought about leaving. (Remember what made me do it, finally? It was Matt’s text about a chicken-flavored lollipop.) That terrible thing you said, my worst fear, the most awful and damaging thing a man could say, didn’t make me think of leaving. When you insisted on starting the laundry at 10 p.m. on Sunday nights, I thought about it then. Thought about it when you went out with your best friend, who you’d once slept with, and slunk back too late, whiskeyed up and giggly. Other times too, of course. But not then, when it was obvious.
That fact hurts more now than what you actually said. Although I can still hear those words rolling across the floor of my brain and tocking into each other. Like fat, heavy, blue-veined marbles.
Anyway, I didn’t let you touch me for a month. When I gave in, you had sex with me on the floor (this was at the old apartment, on 38th Street, the one where the next-door neighbor remixed his own techno tracks and the dog walker stole a thousand bucks cash the day before we moved out) and honestly, I don’t think you noticed I stared into space the whole time. I just looked at the ceiling and wondered if this was what it felt like to do a rape scene in a movie. And in my head, while you were recording yourself into my memory, a tape played: I'm a man / I'm a full grown man, yeah / A man / I'm a natural-born lover-man / You don't talk about / A man.
You cried when you were very, very drunk. Got weepy over how much you loved me. Sometimes on the subway. Sometimes at a bar. Sometimes you would vomit and the next morning, doing a Clorox douse that lit up my entire nasal passage, I would wonder what I was cleaning. Was it 90% puke and 10% evaporated tears? 85-25? Less? What percentage should I be hoping for?
I used to read about domestic abuse on a bulletin in a bathroom stall in my first-year dorm. They tacked it up a few weeks after we moved in. Does he put you down in front of your friends? it said, black block letters on a purple background. Does he make you feel less than? Does he say that no one else will have you? That no one else will put up with your crazy? That no one else will ever want to fuck you? Does he think that he’s a man / a full grown man, yeah / a natural-born lover-man, but really he’s….
Three and a half years in, I thought to myself—you are living stereotypically. You are a pamphlet. Take the mental questionnaire. Fill it out honestly. If you answer yes even once, tell a Resident Advisor or the Dean of Students. (Except this is adulthood, where the closest thing you come to true authority is a good therapist and when you find one of those, you almost want to get the fuck out, because at that point they’re so achingly close to being the parent you always dreamed of that you can’t stand it.)
I never took the questionnaire. Because I love you / Just the same / And I want you / To remain / By my side. It’s a bizarre feeling when you realize you’re re-enacting something from a piece of purple paper you used to shit in front of.
We broke up because you walked slowly from the subway to our front door the time I got food poisoning from chestnut soup during restaurant week. I thought I was going to lose it in my pants, and you—the one with keys—took the tiniest steps home. Like your feet were bound. Like someone was watching and you didn’t want to seem like a man in a rush. Eventually, I yelled at you. Then I snatched the keys and ran up the four flights of stairs, sphincter loosening with each step.
We broke up because I made dinner and put a bowl down in some grease on the stove. You leaned in close to scream at the side of my face, keeping your arms straight and your body far away. If I’d turned 90 degrees and kissed you, we would have looked like two very chaste cartoon figures, two strawberry shortcakes sweetly smooching. She’s so respectable / she’s so respectable / did you love her / no no no / did you hug her / no no no / did you squeeze her / no no no / did you kiss her / no no no
I walked into our second bedroom and sat, choking down gummy Velveeta mac ‘n’ cheese. Moments later, you followed me in. You wanted me to eat dinner in the living room. I started crying. Why did you yell at me, I said. I didn’t do anything to you, I said. Your eyes softened. I ate my cold dinner in the living room. Because honestly, four years in, it felt ridiculous to sit by myself in the dark.
I’m a year out. I thought I left you behind, the tapes shredded in my car, shiny brown guts spooled all over the passenger seat, but I wonder when I can have myself back again. I wonder when I’ll get over wasting half my 20s. I wonder when I’ll stop instinctually adding, then removing, your favorite foods from my grocery cart.
Anyway, I almost recorded a football game for you the other day. I tried to cure myself by taping it and watching it alone. I have no idea if it worked. It's hard to tell because, you know, I still hum them. The sad songs of smart women.