South Dakota Review vol. 40.1
Let's start with sonnets. Actual sonnets, 14 lines, iambic pentameter, correct couplets, the whole nine yards. How many men write sonnets to women they date or even to women they love, now or ever? I invited Sarah to dinner at my apartment on our third date, and she wound up spending the night. It was quite a night. I sent her the first sonnet the following afternoon.
On buckwheat, breast meat, marinara,
On hot cross buns, on aubergines exotic,
I beg to sup with you, Ms. Sarah,
On cornucopias of love, quixotic.
While palm and artichoke yield up their hearts,
I pledge to you, sweet tart, my brimming trough.
Come, share those tender thighs, and other parts
Of viands redolent in steaming broth.
But hold! Lest I at once your hunger sate,
Let us repose awhile, and take a glace.'
Too soon there's nothing left upon the plate,
And what's ingested now will surely pass.
For once we've shared your Port, your pears, your Brie'
We're left to lick the bones of memory.
"How nice," Sarah responded in a one line e-mail. "You are a sweet man."
Well, okay, I knew she was busy, but this was hardly the anticipated accolade, the thrilled phone call, the breathless proposal for another encounter. Clearly, something more was needed. Something more was always needed with Sarah.
My friend Louie is in a terrible relationship. He would be the first to tell you. He knows this terribleness so well, so intimately, that he has become a pretty good bloodhound when it comes to other terrible situations, actual or potential. We talk frequently.
"You've got the girl's part," he told me today.
The reference was to Sarah, by now my girlfriend, a comely Bronze Age archeologist and fully liberated provocateur who seemed to be on the verge of leaving me every week or two.
I don't like the girl's part. Not a bit. But I am not above appreciating the irony. I used to tell my women writing students that I was truly tired of
bad boyfriend stories and I assumed most editors were as well. I used to say, "Write a bad girlfriend story. The concept will be viewed as so bold and original that editors will jump all over it."
Now I'm dealing with a truly bad girlfriend. And with bad girlfriends, it seems, you get the girl's part.
Why put up with a bad girlfriend, you might ask. Why not just move on? Here are some reasons. Sarah is very bright, quick on the uptake, funny, and full of energy. She is a pretty, vivacious, hazel eyed blond. She is unpredictable, confrontational, and charming -- people are drawn to her strength and beauty. She is efficient, organized, hard working, and accomplished. She is devoted to her mother. She has a PhD and perfect breasts. At forty, she looks thirty, and is considerably younger than I. And though she is a bad girlfriend, there are moments of true affection, spontaneous acts of kindness and concern that yield glimpses of a potentially very different Sarah.
This is what is so maddening about her. She has such incredible potential to be a good girlfriend, even an outstanding girlfriend.
In some karmic sense, I may deserve bad girlfriends now for having been a bad boyfriend and husband in the past. But to find myself thinking and feeling the girl part ... it's unnerving. I try not to say the girl stuff to Sarah — that would be too embarrassing. But I want to. It feels like a shift is underway as implacable as geology, a sea change, and I am just along for the ride.
Permit me a short digression to reveal a potentially telling moment of male intuition regarding Sarah. My cat, Lionel, has issues, and as a consequence, he is on PROZAC. It comes in liquid form, tuna flavored. Once a day, in the morning, I spritz an eye dropper of this soothing sauce on a tablespoon of actual tuna fish and he gobbles it right up. It seems to help.
The people at the vet clinic didn't lie. They told me he had a biting problem. They told me he had been found abandoned, wandering in the halls of an apartment building. They said that he had been adopted once and was returned for biting.
But he was drop dead gorgeous — 18 pounds, orange with brown stripes, a head like a tiger cub and huge, pale green eyes. And I think I identified with him. Neither of us had an easy childhood. We were both prickly and independent.
Okay, so I figured we would work on the biting.
He wasn't feral. Whoever put him out in the hall had taken the trouble to remove his balls and front claws. He was a failed investment, thrown out like a broken TV. It seemed obvious that person had also smacked him around. He was hand phobic — he ducked away, and if the hand persisted, he attacked it. I named him after the Rutgers Zoologist, Lionel Tiger. In the first two weeks with me, before I learned his habits, he bit me twice, deep bloody bites that spanned my arm because his jaws were so big. After each incident, I screamed at him and retired to the bedroom, while he would skulk and cry plaintively in the living room. A mini dysfunctional family. After the second bite, I consulted the vet and we put him on PROZAC.
Slowly, over time, his fears diminished. He grew comfortable in my presence. He ate from my hand. He could be petted for limited amounts of time, and occasionally he would purr.
By the time Sarah arrived in my life, Lionel's psyche, though still troubled, seemed to be on the mend. I worried that she would be seen as an intruder, a third presence in the house. She required my attention. She preempted his place on the couch and in my bed. Yet Lionel was tolerant of Sarah, and I was secretly proud of my patience and parenting skills.
Until one morning, when Sarah was standing by the stove cooking scrambled eggs (it was the only thing she ever cooked for me, and she did it very well, mixing in some cream cheese and chives). As we reconstructed it, the position of her legs made it difficult for Lionel to get to his food bowl. It is not clear how long he tolerated this, but eventually he attacked her. Really sank his teeth into her calf. She screamed, the eggs went flying, and I jumped between them, yelling at Lionel and chasing him from the kitchen. I was upset, mortified, and yet, as I staunched her wounds and spoke soothing apologetic words, an errant thought crept in...he knows, I remember thinking. Somehow Lionel knows that Sarah is a bad girlfriend.
Okay, I know it's a stretch to assume the male bonding between Lionel and me has attuned him to some intra species vibe indicating female danger. Why should this attack signify anything more than a neurotic cat with food deprivation issues?
I am getting ahead of myself. I have yet to make my case that Sarah is, indeed, a bad girlfriend.
Where to begin?
Let's go back to the sonnets. Disappointed by her casual response to my first offering, and after a bit of research in her field, I e-mailed her the following two days later.
Shall I compare you to a Bronze Age site?
You are as classic, and your depths as sweet.
No Stone Age maiden, you of shimmering light,
No maid of Iron casts your golden heat.
Positioned twixt the gray of iron and stone,
Your Age is like no other known to man.
Your shining glory comes into its own,
The burnished beauty of the Minoan.
Yet I detect some reticence in you
To yield your ancient mysteries in full,
Expose your treasures to my ardent view,
And play Pasiphae to my raging bull.
Antiquities are timeless, we are not,
So we must strike, love, while the bronze is hot.
This time she called me. "Well done," she said. "Really very clever. But you know the poem of yours I really liked? It was the one about the cat that died that summer at the beach. That was so moving and heartfelt."
In addition to doing archeology Sarah teaches it, so she is used to handing out marks. She is a manifestly intelligent woman, yet I had to explain to her that when a man writes you sonnets (even bad sonnets), your job as a woman was to be flattered and appreciative, even gushy. It was not to grade them in relation to his other poems. I wrote her two more sonnets before I realized I was never going to get the response I was seeking.
Ah, the girl's part. The things I cannot say.
You don't appreciate the things I do for you.
Sarah was a critic and a nudge (take your shoes off, you can't smoke here, look at the state of your closets, did you shower?).
This can be taken as a form of caring and indeed I tried to take it as such, but she was relentless in her pursuit of my perfection. Clothes were scrutinized,
accoutrements examined. (I can report that she approved of my watch, a 1981 Tissot). My apartment was deconstructed and found wanting in several respects — an immediate trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond was needed to replace my towels and bathmats. My personal habits and hygiene were remarked upon. My physical appearance and health were analyzed (my thumb nails were striated and my skin was sun damaged. Maybe a pound or two could come off?)
You're always finding fault with me.
Christmas came. Our first Christmas together. I got Sarah a book called "The Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break," a reference to her period of archeological specialty, my sonnet, and her aversion to my very occasional smoking. It was also one of The NY Times Notable Books of the Year. Clever quadruple play, I thought. I also gave her an anthology containing a prize winning story of mine. A lover's gesture, no? In addition, I went to "La Petite Coquette," (accompanied by a woman friend to second guess me) and blew two hundred dollars on an ounce of champagne silk and white lace, a half slip I knew would look impossibly hot on her (and it did). For good measure, I threw in dinner at a trendy, overpriced restaurant and a Broadway show.
Pretty goddamn thoughtful, wouldn't you say?
I mentioned to Sarah a couple of things I could use. She was very busy in December, but she turned up two gifts for me. One was a battery operated Plexiglas device designed for night reading. She explained that when I stayed at her apartment, I could use it to read without disturbing her sleep. The other was a hat. I don't wear hats, but it was a nice looking hat, black suede with fur earflaps. It was warm. It fit me.
It was her father's old hat, which she had taken to wearing. She gave me her dead father's hat for Christmas. And be advised that this was not a gift fraught with emotional significance; she had simply bought a new winter hat that she preferred.
Holidays mean nothing to you. You don't even make an effort...
Sarah has a studio apartment in Williamsburg, with a postage stamp terrace and nice views of lower Manhattan. Though my apartment in Soho is more than twice the size of hers, Sarah was restless and unhappy there much of the time. She felt confined, stifled. She would throw open the windows in the winter. She would root through my closets and drawers, a true archeologist, unearthing secrets, organizing, cleaning up. She complained that she could not sleep in my apartment, that I snored, moaned, and twitched. She alleged that when we slept in her apartment in her bed (a futon versus my queen), I was silent and still. On more than on occasion when she stayed with me, I awoke to find she had gone, slipped out in the middle of the night and headed home.
Your independence, your so called freedom, your need to get away...don't you see that all this is really just a fear of commitment?
Now take sex. I am a proficient and attentive lover by most reports, but I am not indefatigable. Sarah was aggressive in her pursuit of sex with me, aggressive in her demands, and ultimately insatiable. Early on, this sexual hunger was flattering, especially from a younger woman, and I must say we had a number of very hot encounters, even by Sarah's unusually high standards. But whereas most women are happy with one orgasm and delighted with two, Sarah was decidedly not. There was something desperate about her need. One orgasm was just a "warm up." Three, four, five, or more, were required, while (at the risk of being indelicate) things got progressively sloppier to the point where it was like making love to a warm bathtub. What started as pure pleasure often wound up feeling like...work. And after a few months, she began to hint that our more recent epic fornications had, perhaps, not been...well...quite up to expectations.
Then there was oral sex. Was she accomplished in this regard? Yes, indeed. Would she do it? Not very often, and not very happily. Did she want it? Constantly. That was her preferred route to orgasm number one. Did I oblige her? Well, yes, till I realized it was mostly a one way street.
You want sex all the time. You just use me for your pleasure.
Though he has been castrated, Lionel still has a sex life of sorts. I dangle a length of clothesline with a plastic ring on the end enticingly in front of him. He will seize the ring in his teeth and hop over the rope, straddling it. He will then proceed to hump the rope in the classic fashion of a mating cat holding the female by the scruff of the neck in his jaws. Even without his balls, there is some genetic code telling him what to do and how to do it, which can be evoked by a substitute as sorry as a strand of rope. Watching him, I want to do the same thing to Sarah, grab her by the neck and take her from behind. I told her some time back that I was used to being the initiator of sex more often than not. I told her it was a guy thing, this need, for which I made no apology. I further remarked that there were still some seventies feminists around who had trouble with the notion that equal does not mean the same. "Vive la difference," I said.
Ah, communication. I put my thoughts about our sexual dynamic in a long e-mail to Sarah, in which I hinted that she might even find she enjoyed giving up some of the control in bed that she maintained so rigorously in all other parts of her life. I suggested we discuss it when she arrived that evening. An e-mail sailed back. Really, everything was fine from her end, and if she got dissatisfied in the future she would probably just drift away. She was tired and hated those kinds of discussions. Couldn't we just skip it? Yet when she arrived, after her photography class, she seemed contrite. She had spoken to her photography teacher, a gentle gay man in his fifties who seemed to serve as her therapist in times of stress (when we first started dating, she had described me to him as follows: "Well, he is a little ancient, but then, I am an archeologist"). Her teacher had told her that if I had asked for a serious discussion she really should honor the request.
So we talked. Or I talked and she listened. Sarah paid lip service to my ideas and suggestions. She would always placate me when I was angry or upset to get us beyond that point, but her behavior never changed one iota, in the bedroom or anywhere else.
You say you will change but you don't. You agree with me because you think it will make me feel better, or to shut me up...
What's left of my romance with Sarah reminds me of the story of the two Jewish ladies at a Catskills resort. One says, "The food here is terrible!" Her friend responds, "Yes, and such little portions!" Sarah has been squeezing our time together down and down. Granted, she is under pressure to finish an urban survey project for the Historical Preservation Society (it seems there is a smidgen of glamour in archeology, some historical interest, and much tedious detail). And granted, she spends time tending to her elderly mother who lives on the upper West Side. But she has also continued her gym, her photography, her other activities with no letup. We no longer spend weekend days together. She has us down to two nights a week which usually begin after 8:00 PM, so whatever sex we have is either late at night after a full meal or occasionally in the morning, assuming she hasn't slipped out the door in the middle of the night and doesn't have to work right away.
I have always been partial to the sensual circadian rhythms of southern European life: work from 8:00 AM till noon, leisurely sex, leisurely lunch, nap, and back to work at 4:00. I reminded Sarah that we were both freelance with considerable freedom to set our own schedules. I said our current schedule wasn't just bad, it was terrible. She smiled and shrugged her shoulders — couldn't be helped, she was very busy right now. I finally laid out my minimum requirements, time wise, to continue in a committed relationship. They were flexible. They were reasonable. I sent them to her.
I don't see much of you these days...you have time for everything but me.
Sarah shot back an e-mail. She was feeling restless. The sex wasn't so good recently. I was a lovely man, but this thing we had didn't really feel long term to her. She wanted to date other men. And so on. I wrote her back (with some relief actually) and wished her well.
So Sarah and I have broken up. Interesting term, broken up. It implies a shattering rather than a parting. But it was more of a parting, really. It was not unexpected. Twenty-four hours ago we were an item, as the saying goes. Now, we are no longer, though she still occupies two slots on my speed dial. My mind takes odd directions. Have we each become half an item?
And then a week later Sarah sends another e-mail. Did I still think X-rated thoughts about her? She missed me. Maybe we could get together in a friendly, casual, sexual way (I believe the term is fuck buddies, a linguistic contribution from the gay community). I wondered if such an arrangement would make us three quarters of an item.
The girl's part goes on. The echoes, the reverberations, continue as Sarah drifts on the periphery of my life. She called Friday evening. She was in the neighborhood. She said she could pop right over. In spite of everything, Sarah always lit up the room for me when I encountered her after any absence; her radiance always made me forget, in the heat of the moment, what a bad girlfriend she really was. I thought about her offer and said no. I did not want casual sex with Sarah, though the fact that I would turn down casual sex with an attractive woman — any attractive woman — was a small and not entirely welcome revelation. Was this maturity? Wisdom? Or was it just my internal calculus deciding the rewards were not worth the effort of rising, once again, to the challenge that was Sarah?
Men confuse sex and love all the time. That's why they feel that post coital emptiness. That's why they
can't wait to get their pants on and leave. It occurred to me that Sarah was writing this story for me, one reverse gender cliché at a time.
You break up with me, and then you want to come by now and then for casual sex. You want sex without commitment.
Lionel jumps up onto my desk. He is so large I have to clear a space for him to sit. He looks at me calmly with his luminous green eyes; I am certain there is a trace of tiger somewhere in his lineage. He licks my hand and purrs. I am once again wholly his. And though I no longer have a girlfriend, he still has his sex rope. He never seems to tire of his rope. The rope never disappoints, a compliant and silent partner to his primal jungle fantasies.
Louie calls me. He is miserable. He has had six years of misery punctuated by intermittent hot sex. He tells me he asked the girlfriend to leave. Again. After all, he told her, it's my house. She mocked him. She dared him to throw her out, and he found that he could not insist. "I'm a coward," he says.
I'm tempted to tell him to go out and get a nice piece of rope. He could hang her with it. Or hang himself. Or get a whole new sexual dynamic going, maybe even make her jealous. Lots of possibilities.
But instead, I say, "Louie, you've got the girl's part."