Break: Scenes From a Separation

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Part Five: Forced Perspective

I didn’t know anyone who died on September 11th, but a couple of months later, I met someone who’d escaped. He’d done some writing about his experience, and I had some of my own writing, and a third party invited us to read our work in the same place. It turned out that my piece was a little showier than his, and the man e-mailed me the next day to say that I’d ruined his time, since he’d had to share the spotlight with me. He went on to say that despite this, he’d enjoyed my piece, and hoped we might meet again one day.


   I couldn’t believe it. Usually, I was the one tracking down strangers’ addresses in order to give them compliments. And now here was someone doing it for me. And not just anyone, but a man who had cheated death. A man whose sense of what was truly important in life now had to be heightened beyond belief. It was hard not to feel special.
   The man and I started e-mailing. Getting-to-know-you type messages. He was self-deprecating and funny. He had good taste in art and music. He couldn’t seem to stop complimenting me. Eventually I mentioned something about my husband, and in early January, the man suggested that we all get together for dinner.
   That night, I put on my makeup very carefully. When I got dressed, I acted like it was no big deal that I was wearing a tight black turtleneck that usually stayed in my drawer. At the restaurant, I criticized my husband’s parking, and he said, “Why are you trying to pick a fight with me?” I said I didn’t know, even though I did. I wished he weren’t there. I wished I were meeting the man by myself.
   My husband and I had been together for nine years. From the start, we’d never had very much passion. Even before we got married. We went to see a counselor about it, and she said she didn’t think it was a problem. She said we seemed to burn a lot of sexual-type energy in our creative collaborations. This sounded good to us. Anything that allowed us to stay together without passion sounded good to us, since we liked each other so much.
   When we walked into the restaurant that night, the man was already there. I worried that I wouldn’t recognize him, but then he stood up, and I remembered the broad shoulders. He was taller than my husband, and handsome, and when we shook hands, he held on tight.
   I sat across from the man, and my husband sat next to me. Whenever I smiled at the man, he smiled back. Whenever I spoke, he listened carefully. Very quickly, the man started revealing private things about himself. He told us about an ex-girlfriend who had broken up with him over the phone. He told us about another artist he was jealous of, even though this artist was also his friend. He told us his dad was an asshole. Soon, my husband and I were revealing private things, too. It was intoxicating. At one point, the man’s ex-girlfriend came up again and, feeling a little giddy, I said, “Was she as cute as I am?” My husband barked my name in admonishment, but the man didn’t seem to mind. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “No, she wasn’t.”
   I began to think about the man constantly. So did my husband. He had a hard time making friends, and the man’s openness was really appealing to him. The man liked us, too. The first time we invited him over for dinner, we drove him home afterward. In the car, he turned to us and said, “You guys are probably the two greatest people I’ve ever met.” It was too soon, yes, but it was becoming very clear that the man was on a sort of accelerated living schedule. He didn’t talk that much about his escape from the second tower, but when he said things like this, it all made sense.

He looked up at us and said, “Am I a third wheel?” We assured him that he wasn’t, but it was a startling idea. One of us would have to go.

   For the next month or so, we saw the man every weekend. He was good friends with another couple, but he ditched them temporarily for us. When I worried to him that their feelings might be hurt, he shrugged and said, “They’ve seen me for the last ten years.”
   One night, we all went out for pizza. At the restaurant, my husband and I sat on one side of the table, watching the man devour slice after slice after slice. He seemed like a bottomless pit. When he was finished, he looked up at us and said, “Am I a third wheel?” We assured him that he wasn’t, but it was a startling idea. That one of us would soon have to go.
   In mid-February, the man went out of town. The day before he left, he brought one of his most valuable possessions over to our apartment for safekeeping. My husband wasn’t home from work yet, and I asked the man if he’d like to walk up to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. When we got there, I took a few pictures of him with the skyline behind him. Then we went and sat on a bench. It was bitter cold, but the sun was shining. I wished I could lean into the man or reach for his hand, but I didn’t. My husband’s name came up, and I asked the man if he wished my husband were there. “Right now?” the man asked, and I nodded, and he laughed a little and said no.
   While the man was out of town, our e-mails heated up. One day I mentioned that I was getting a haircut, and he wrote back asking just what kind of haircut I was talking about. I said it was only a trim, and he dropped it. Another day, the man told me he was depressed. He’d had a disastrous romantic encounter with a woman he’d known for years, and he gave me some of the intimate details. He said he felt funny telling me this stuff, but this was after he’d already told it. On the 14th, I wrote and offered to be his temporary valentine, and he responded with: Yes, Happy Valentine’s Day. Be Mine.
   The man was afraid to fly back to New York. He called us from the airport before he took off, and my husband thought I sounded too excited to hear from him. So when the man landed and called us again, I let my husband answer. I listened to him tell the man about all these things that were depressing him in his life, and I wished he would shut up. I wished he would understand that the man was probably ecstatic not to be dead, and he didn’t want to hear about all this crap.
   The next day, I met the man for lunch. We went to sit by the East River in his neighborhood for awhile, and he told me more about his sex life. It seemed like it was pretty terrible. It seemed like every time he tried to sleep with a girl, something frightening or humiliating happened. I tried to be sympathetic to the man. I tried not to sound alarmed by what he was telling me, so that he would keep talking. I kept thinking that if the man could just say these things out loud and see that they weren’t so shameful, maybe he would feel better about his life.
   As we headed back to the man’s apartment, we were quiet. The sun was lower in the sky, and when we walked between buildings, it was cold and shaded. Finally I told the man that I thought there was some sexual tension between us. I asked him if he agreed, and he laughed. Once he’d stopped, he said yes, there was tension. We then retold the whole story of how we’d known each other, except this time with the freedom to say how we’d really been feeling. When we got to his apartment, we didn’t touch. Just looked at each other, then turned away, then looked again. Later, though, when we said goodbye at the train station, the man hugged me for a long time.

We didn’t want to work on our problems. We wanted to have sex. Specifically, I wanted to have sex with the man.

   That night, I told my husband about what had happened with the man. There was no question that I wouldn’t have done this. For me and my husband, talking was everything. Neither of us had ever taken much stock in the idea of silence being mysterious. What was mysterious to us was how deep a conversation could go. How much you could figure out if you were really willing to expose yourself. Maybe we weren’t always so excited about getting into each other’s pants, but getting into each other’s heads was a different story.
   My husband didn’t have a particularly strong response. He picked up a couch cushion and threw it down. He called me and the man a few names. He mourned the loss of his new friend. Mostly, though, we spent the evening trying to figure out two things: why he wasn’t more jealous, and why I, who’d had fierce crushes on people before, had suddenly acted upon one. In the end, we decided it all came back to passion. We just didn’t have any. It was nobody’s fault — not ours, not the man’s. That was just the way it was. We hugged each other and cried for a while, then got up and fixed dinner.
   The next day, we went to see another counselor. We were pretty sure we were going to get divorced, but it was a big decision, and we thought we should make it carefully. This woman listened to me and my husband. She didn’t seem particularly interested in our story about how we’d never had any passion. Instead, she zeroed in on all the bad behavior we’d racked up over the years. “No wonder you don’t want to have sex with each other,” she said. She went on to suggest that if we were willing to work on some of this stuff, we might start to like each other a little more. It sounded reasonable enough, so we agreed to give it a try.
   Still, we left her office that day feeling pretty disappointed. We didn’t want to work on our problems. We wanted to have sex. Specifically, I wanted to have sex with the man. The counselor had actually told me that it didn’t really matter if I did or I didn’t. She said that now that I’d opened up this can of worms, there would be no putting the lid back on. At this point, she said, I was just going to have to see how things played out.
   So that was how it went. I continued to go over and visit with the man, while my husband hung around our apartment. “You mean he’s just sitting there by himself?” the man would ask me. “He’s watching TV,” I’d say, and the man would shake his head and say he just didn’t get it.
   The man felt very guilty. I don’t know that he missed my husband so much as he missed not feeling guilty. Maybe the guilt would’ve been bearable had he not made his way out of the second tower. But now, when he was constantly wondering about how he’d managed to escape when so many others hadn’t, it was clearly becoming overwhelming.

We wrapped our arms around each other and I let myself sink against him. It was something just to have my face so close to his, to hear him breathe.

   That first week, he got a rash all over his left hand. He’d never had it before, and he called me up looking for a diagnosis. I gave him my guess, eczema, and he went on the internet to look it up. He found pictures of gravely disfigured people, then got off-line and called me back. He said, “I’m turning into the Elephant Man.”
   I brought the man some steroid cream, since I get eczema, too. I rubbed it onto his hand for him, in between the knuckles, the fingers, down around the base of his thumb. It probably shouldn’t have been a turn-on, but it was. Later, we wrapped our arms around each other and I let myself sink against him. It was something just to have my face so close to his, to hear him breathe.
   There were maybe a couple of weeks of this. Intense hugging, lap-sitting, and hand-holding. The man wouldn’t kiss me on the lips, and sometimes, when we were feeling goofy about things, he made me chase him around his apartment before I finally had him pinned underneath me. Occasionally the man gave up on trying to keep control of himself, and things grew more intimate. “I can’t believe I did that,” he would say afterward, and his guilt would return with a vengeance.
   The guiltier the man got, the quieter he got. He was no longer the man I remembered from that first night in the restaurant. The one who had spilled his guts about pretty much anything he could think of. I didn’t know what to do about this. I needed the talking. I had seen the man as someone who could talk nearly as well as my husband, and who also turned me on. This was the only reason I had gone for him.
   The one thing the man did say, on a very regular basis, was, “Are you and your husband getting divorced?” Sometimes he was angry when he said it, sometimes he was neutral, sometimes he was romantic. But he was getting impatient. On the phone in April, he blurted out, “Shouldn’t one of you be sleeping on the couch by now?” He just didn’t understand the counseling. To him, if you weren’t attracted to someone, you had no business being with them. Period. Talking about how you weren’t attracted to them was hardly going to make a difference.
   Only it was making a difference. Nothing huge, but still, my husband and I were experiencing some improvement in our relationship. We were beginning to gain some perspective on this issue of passion. We were beginning to see that we were both naturally attracted to people who made us work our asses off for love.

He said, “Are you staying with your husband or not?”

   The man was definitely making me work my ass off. Well, he wasn’t making me do anything. He was only pulling away from me, and I didn’t want him to, and I started losing my mind a little, trying to get him to stay. I think I thought that if I just kept poking at him, I’d eventually hit the button that would make him come back. The old him. The one I’d fallen a little in love with. Only no one likes to be poked at. Most especially, I would have to imagine, people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which the man surely was.
   Part of me worried that I wasn’t being brave enough. That if I would just leave my husband once and for all, the man would start talking again. And maybe he would have. I don’t know. Only what about the next time something went wrong? A life without talk just seemed way more terrifying than one without passion.
   Which wasn’t to say that I was going to stay with my husband, either. Or that he was going to stay with me. In fact, for the most part, we were pretty sure we were going to break up. Only we hadn’t escaped from the second tower. We were not on an accelerated living schedule. We were depressed as hell and sick of the whole mess and tired of hauling our asses over to the shrink’s twice a week, that was for sure. But it was talk, and we believed in talk, and we were going to keep talking.
   By early summer, I had stopped hearing from the man. So I called him. We had a surprisingly nice conversation, and at the end of it, I asked if we could meet. The man agreed, so on June 2nd, I went over to his apartment. I missed him terribly — or, the version of him I had frozen in my mind — and I wanted to try to get through to him one last time.
   When I arrived that evening, he was tense. He was watching a movie called While You Were Sleeping, and he wouldn’t look at me. I told him I felt like Elaine in The Graduate, when Benjamin takes her to a strip club on their first date and makes her cry. “Okay,” the man said, and he turned the TV off. “You want to talk? Let’s talk. What do you want to talk about?”
   He was making fun of me, but I went ahead and talked anyway. I can’t remember what I said. Probably something about how much he meant to me. Most of what I said was about how much he meant to me. At one point I got down on the floor and scooted over toward his chair. I leaned my back against his legs, thinking this might make a difference. As soon as I touched him, though, he jumped up and yelled, “What are you doing?” Then he ran in the kitchen and took a seat at the table.
   Eventually I got up off the floor. I went and sat back down on the couch. I started to cry, and he didn’t say anything. He didn’t make a move. I tried to talk while I was crying, and I got snot all over myself. I wished he would come and sit next to me. I wished he would put his arm around me and say, “It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.” But he didn’t. He said, “You have to figure out your own problems!” I told him I knew that, and that I was trying to. Then he said, “Are you staying with your husband or not?”
   I told him I was. It just kind of fell out. It wasn’t necessarily true, but I didn’t know what else to say. I had the feeling that every time I told him the real truth, which was that I didn’t know, he thought I was dicking him around.
   That was pretty much it. The end of things. The man called me a cab, and I got ready to leave. I made him hug me one last time, and he did. I hung on for as long and as tight as I could, until he pulled away and said, “Okay, that’s enough.”
   Outside, the cab took a while to come. When it did, I started crying again. The driver was a middle-aged Hispanic man, and he ended up being the one who told me that everything was going to be okay.
   My husband was out of town that weekend, and the next morning, I called him at his hotel. It was early, around seven. He said, “Oh. I thought you were someone else.” Then he explained that a woman had just called his room, asking to speak with some man who wasn’t there. When my husband told her she had the wrong number, she’d started talking to him about his cock and the various things she wanted to do with it. He got kind of turned on, and he stayed on the line for awhile before hanging up. Then I called, and I didn’t want to do anything with his cock.
   A few days later, I finally had those pictures of the man developed. The ones of him up on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, with the East River and lower Manhattan behind him. In each shot, his hair is messed up, like he’s been sleeping. He’s not wearing any gloves. His head tilts toward the empty space in the sky where his office used to be. Only now, with the aid of a little forced perspective, he is, miraculously, the tallest thing standing. 

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


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