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Break: Scenes from a Separation

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS


 

Part Three: Stumbling

On Friday, April 18th, I had a drink with a man — my first date since the separation. He was a book editor, someone I knew through a friend of a friend. I had no idea what he looked like or how he talked, but we’d had some nice e-mail exchanges, so I figured we’d probably have a good time.
     The editor had suggested we dress up, which sounded kind of fun to me. I then proceeded to go overboard, buying myself a new black coat to wear with one of my favorite body-skimming dresses. I felt guilty about spending the money, but then I thought, Well, maybe I’ll have a good time and it’ll all be worth it.
     When I got to the bar at the Bryant Park Hotel, I was stopped by a cute guy dressed in black at the entrance. He told me I absolutely had to check my coat, that there was no room for coats in the bar.
     “But I just bought this,” I said. “Don’t you think it looks nice?”

promotion

He looked me up and down and said, “Yes, but the dress is nicer. C’mon. Hand it over.”
     I took off my coat.
     “You need a table?” he asked.
     “I don’t know,” I said. “I’m meeting someone.”
     “Are they here yet?”
     “I don’t know,” I said again.
     He grimaced. “Blind date?”
     I nodded, then headed into the bar. It’s a big, dungeon-type place, with medieval chandeliers. I like it because it’s where I first met my friend Nina, also after an e-mail relationship had been established. I thought this boded well. At the bar at the back of the room, a man was standing alone. I figured this must be the editor. He had a nice enough face, though that’s never really my first concern. My first concern is: does the man have a flair for conversation?
     He didn’t have a flair. At least not for my purposes, which I admit, can be nebulous. I sensed it almost immediately, as soon as we’d introduced ourselves. It wasn’t his fault — this was simply a mismatch. The price you pay for agreeing to a blind date. The problem was that I wanted to go home immediately, and I knew this wasn’t allowed, and I began to feel agitated.
     We ended up getting a table. On one side was a tiny couch, and on the adjacent side, a chair. I took the couch, but then so did the editor. I squeezed further into my corner, while he started to talk about a famous author he knew.

I’d been living in fear of his new girlfriend, whoever she was going to be.

He talked for a long time, and I tried my hardest to listen. Then I got fed up and insulted the author. The editor naturally became a little defensive, and spent more time praising the author and his various charitable works. Eventually the editor stopped talking and attempted to engage me in conversation. I sat there with my arms crossed, looking straight ahead, offering curt, occasionally coarse answers. It was not one of my prouder moments.
     After about forty-five minutes of this, the editor excused himself to go the bathroom. The coat check guy wandered over to see how I was doing, and I told him not good. “Oh boy,” he said. “Not your type?”
     I shook my head.
     He thought for a second, then said, “Okay, listen to me. This is what you have to do. You have to say that your sister just called, and that she needs you right away. You got it?”
     I nodded, grateful. Not so much for his idea, but for his company. The reality was, I don’t have a sister. And I’m a lousy liar. I could never have pulled off what he was suggesting in a million years.
     The editor came back from the restroom and started talking some more. I was worse company than ever, my conversation with the coat check guy having reminded me of my new coat. Finally I stood up and said I had to go. I shook the editor’s hand, and we both went to get our jackets. The coat check guy helped me on with mine, then gave me an encouraging look that seemed to say: See? I told you that thing about your sister would work.
     On the train, I couldn’t stop kicking myself about how much I’d spent on the coat. When I got home I called Nina, and she looked at a picture of it on the internet. She assured me that it was a wardrobe basic and that I needed it anyway, which helped for a while, but then I started obsessing again.
     The person I really wanted to confess to was David. I wanted him not to be mad that I’d spent our money like this (we remain financially entangled), but mostly, I wanted to know if he thought the coat looked good.

I found that I really loved this: being told what to do.

For ten years, he had been the one to tell me what looked right on my body. That coat was the first thing I’d bought on my own in ages. As I’d stood in the dressing room, sizing myself up in the mirror, I’d literally had no idea what to think. The sleeves seemed to be the right length, the buttons weren’t pulling anywhere, I didn’t look particularly fat. Aside from those few observations, though, I’d felt lost.
     But I couldn’t tell David about the coat, because then I knew I’d end up telling him about the date. And I worried that if I told him about the date, he’d feel free to go on more of them himself. It was completely selfish of me, but I didn’t care. I’d been living in fear of his new girlfriend, whoever she was going to be, ever since he’d moved out.

That night, I wrote to my friend Christopher about my blind date. When he wrote back, he described that moment when you know things aren’t going to work out: The world starts to feel flat and dry as tin, or something like that — utterly soulless. I told him I couldn’t have said it better myself.
     I knew Christopher slightly from many years ago, then saw him again this past January, at one of my readings. David and I were still together then, trying to make things work. That night, I’d worn the same dress I wore to meet the editor, and when Christopher first saw me in it, he said, “A vision.” Later, I sat next to him on an old couch, and he showed me his favorite line from the story I’d just read, which he’d written on his hand. He told me that he’d been writing on his hand since he was ten. He worried that it could be depressing for someone to find him dead someday, then have to wipe off his last messages to himself.
     In 1992, Christopher’s fiancée died in a car accident. A few years later, he wrote a book about it. I’d always wanted to read this book, but somehow never got around to it. Then my first column went up, and Christopher and I started e-mailing, and I thought about his book again. I mentioned to him that I wanted to read it, and he said no. He said that even though it had already been published, he wanted to rework it a little first. He said I could read it after it had been streamlined.
     I found that I really loved this: being told what to do. Nothing even remotely resembling this dynamic had ever occurred between me and David. So I savored it for a couple of days, then went down to the library and had the book sent to my branch.
     It turned up about a week later. After checking it out, I went and found a table, then opened to some random pages and read a few paragraphs. Then I shut the book. After a few minutes, I opened it back up, read a few more things, then shut it again. I tried to work on a new short story for a while, then I got up and returned the book. I lied and told the librarian that I’d only needed to check a couple of things in it, and now I was done.
     This is what I read: after his fiancée’s death, Christopher began sleeping with a woman whom he clearly adored, but who was loud and who fought, like I can sometimes do. Then there was a funny letter that his fiancée had sent him, like I can sometimes send to the men I love.

I remember myself now from before I was married. I was not so great at this stuff.

I read a letter, too, from the nurse who had stayed by the fiancée’s side at the end of her life. And then, when the fiancée had been alive, a story about how she had screamed endlessly at the sight of her dead dog. I read that Christopher absolutely wants children. I gazed at the picture of him on the back flap. It had been taken by his fiancée, and as dear as he looked to me, I wondered if he could ever really belong to anyone other than the photographer.
     When I got home, I wrote and told Christopher everything. That I had ordered the book even though he’d told me not to; that I’d skimmed a few pages then returned it; that I couldn’t read it because I was too afraid of finding out that I wouldn’t fit his bill. This, I knew, went against all the rules. It was too much, too fast. I was not playing anything cool. He wrote back soon enough, though, saying not to worry about it; that I shouldn’t be exposing myself to anything upsetting right now; that, like he said, he wanted to rework the book anyway. All of this while graciously ignoring the fact that I had apparently just made some sort of pass at him.
     If I really wanted to, I could chalk this behavior up to my recent separation: the brattiness with the editor; the panic with Christopher. I don’t think anyone would say that wasn’t a reasonable explanation. But it wouldn’t be true. The fact is, I remember myself now from before I was married. I was not so great at this stuff. The very first boy I ever slept with informed me quite clearly that the things I said to him concerning the whole experience were not what girls were supposed to say. Poor Nina has spent ridiculous amounts of time trying to instruct me in the decorum of male/female relations, only to have me run off and do the exact opposite. I don’t mean to avoid decorum. I really don’t. It’s just that words have always been truer friends.
     On Wednesday, April 30th, Christopher and I talked on the phone. Toward the end of the conversation, things started to get a little personal. He wanted me to give up some information I had, and I was somewhat reticent. “C’mon,” he said. “I won’t press the advantage.” Of course this is it. The real reason we withhold from one another: power. To be able to say this out loud, though, seemed astonishing to me. And then, of course, to also mean it.
     In the end, I told him what he wanted to know. In the end, it is what I will tell anyone. 

Part One: Lost Cause
Part Two: Light Arms
Part Three: Stumbling
Part Four: Push and Pull
Part Five:
Forced Perspective

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Alicia Erian is the author of a novel, Towelhead, and a collection of short stories, The Brutal Language of Love. Alan Ball wrote and directed a film version of Towelhead, which will be released later this year.

 

©2003 Alicia Erian and Nerve.com