We're Dead and Sleeping With Ghosts
We sat at the small table facing one another, our faces golden in the flickering candlelight, the chill of the night kept at bay by a handful of heating lamps. The expanse of white table cloth couldn't have exceeded three feet, but it might as well have been three miles. I looked at him and recognized him as the man I love, but that love was a certainty much like the one we have for facts we have memorized before an exam, things we know to be true but for which we have no proof, no emotion, no first-hand knowledge.
A server refilled my water. I watched as the glass began to sweat in the comfortable heat, a shimmering frost collecting until golden drops formed and slipped along its surface. I envied the water, suddenly; it seemed so much more alive by the mere fact that the temperature was changing it, transforming it, liberating it from its prison behind walls of glass.
"What's wrong with us?" he asked me, at last, perhaps for lack of answers within himself.
Photo by Debs. (Flickr)
"I don't know," I responded, meeting his eyes.
"I have been asking myself this question for weeks -- months," he said. "There is nothing wrong with us. There is nothing identifiably wrong with our relationship. You're perfect. You're brilliant and beautiful and we have incredible sex – "
"And you're brilliant and gorgeous and, yes, we have incredible sex," I added. "And we have a charming apartment. And we're going places in our careers. We're financially secure. We're healthy. We have everything. And yet – "
"I don't know. I don't know what's wrong with us."
"I don't know how to fix it," he said. "I'm trying. But I can't fix something if I don't know how it's broken."
I didn't say anything.
"Maybe it's me," he said. "I can't feel anything."
"Maybe that's simply a defensive maneuver to distance yourself from the situation," I told him.
"I've made distance, too," I said. "It's to keep from experiencing what feels like a sort of death."
"That dream I had -- " he started. "The one that woke me, and you asked me what I'd dreamed and I wouldn't tell you…"
"I dreamed we were having lunch," he said. "There was another man."
A server brought our meals. I thanked her and looked back at Rodrigo.
"You were married to him," he said.
I let out a breath.
"And we were having lunch?" I asked, my knife cutting across the cognac peppercorn sauce over my steak.
"Yes, as friends," he said, picking up his own fork. "And that was fine. I woke up and I realized -- I just want you to be happy, whatever we choose to do."
I put down my knife and looked at him.
"I'm so sorry I pushed you to tell me what you'd dreamed," I said. "That can't have been easy."
He looked at me blankly.
"I just want you to be happy," he repeated.
"Happiness is not really something I want to strive for," I said. "Happiness is an elusive, transient thing. I would rather feel alive than strive to be happy. I feel dead."
"Yes," he responded.
"So what happens?" I asked.
"I don't know."
"Do you want to end things?"
"I don't know."
The tender beef melted in my mouth, but I couldn't taste it. I looked at the glass, surrounded by golden beads of condensation, streaking their way down like tears. I had no tears. I had nothing.
"I'm never going to find anyone like you," he added. "I know that. But I know that we can't sustain this. I just don't know why. And I don't know what we can do."
"Let's take a break," I offered.
"What does that mean?"
"You're going to New York tomorrow, for a week."
"So go, go and find a way to come alive again," I told him. "I'll do the same."
"What then? We'll live together but not be together?"
"When you get back, we'll talk about what we have learned. If we need more time, I'll go north. I have to go to Napa to work on my book anyway."
"And what happens on the break?"
"Whatever needs to happen," I said. "Within reason, of course."
"Don't get arrested, don't get anyone pregnant, don't get any diseases and don't fuck in the house while my things are still there."
"And if we decide to end things?"
"Then we make sure the other person has enough time and help to go wherever they decide to go next."
Instinctively, I jumped into the logistics of that statement. The emotional quotient was too high -- I couldn't face it. But I could face logistics. I realized, suddenly, that we only had one of a great many things. That's what happens when people nest, they consolidate. I'd never done that quite like this. I had always been ready to leave -- suitcase packed under the bed -- but with Rodrigo, I had started to nest. I had wanted to nest.
Suddenly, all our adventures in consolidating flashed across my mind. My rich woods had crashed against his austere chromes and glass, but we'd met somewhere in the middle, laughing, brainstorming, planning, never fighting. We never fought about anything.
I thought about the crystal whiskey set I'd recently bought him. I thought about the desk he'd built us so we could work side by side. I thought about the little bistro he'd made on the patio so I could stay up late and work long into the night with a fire beside me to keep me warm, and the cushions I had added to the chairs to make it more cozy, and the magazines from the 1920s I'd bought to place in that magazine rack that matched so perfectly, but which I'd lost at auction.
I thought about how we'd discussed the perfect towel color and settled on varying shades of gray because my art and his photography would provide all the color the house ever needed. I thought about my canvases he'd hung and the one he kept moving into the bedroom, which looked so sparse still with nothing on the walls because we never seemed to get around to finishing the decorating.
I thought about how we rode our bikes into the sunset, how we worked for hours without bothering one another, how we could game until sunrise, how he moved about the kitchen, how he looked after my orchids and made sure there was always food in the fridge. I thought about how sometimes, when we had groceries delivered, he also sent me roses, for no reason other than because he knows I love flowers.
A tear cut down my cheek in silence, like one more golden bead along the side of the glass. It fell on my plate and slid toward the sauce. I looked at it vacantly and I thought about how Rodrigo didn't really need me. I thought about how logical he was. How he didn't require me to emote, how he'd never chastised me for being "remote" or "too logical." I thought about how he knew to leave me alone. Were these bad things? Had we traded in intimacy for a sense safety in one another?
"We are so perfect in our respective dysfunctions," I said. "We're so goddamn perfect. I don't understand what's wrong with this."
"Honestly?" he asked. "I think it's that we have no strife. We've always had strife. There was always something to fight against. It was always us against the world in some way."
"And now we have it all."
"Yes. There is nothing more to fight for."
"We don't know how to be with each other during peacetime."
"We're creatives. We need strife."
"Can we fight for us or is fighting ourselves the ultimate formula for self-destruction?"
Rodrigo didn't say anything.
"This is the first real conversation we have had in months," I noted.
"I'm really glad I can talk to you about this," he said. "Because it's killing me."
"I've missed talking to you like this," I replied. "Even if we're breaking up."
"We're not breaking up."
"Apologies, I mean: even if we're going on a break."
He rose and pulled me into his arms.
"Let's go home," he said.
I didn't want to go home. I wanted to go on a long drive and never go home again. Home -- what is home? Where is home? When I walked into our apartment, I felt like we'd stepped into a country overrun by an occupying army, a country we were supposed to know but didn't quite recognize now that the debris had been cleared away, though we still called it ours.
That night we had sex, beautiful sex. Afterward, as we lay in bed together, I thought about a conversation we'd once had during which I'd asked him if he would ever have an orgy. He'd told me that he wouldn't because sex was about ego and the ego required certain standards of aesthetics be met and an orgy left too much room for ugly things. Sex was a masterful performance; there was no room for the ugly, the uncoordinated, the untested and unmastered. We had beautiful sex, yes -- perfectly orchestrated, carefully calibrated, synchronized sex.
I have never had sex like the sex I have with Rodrigo and I doubt that I will ever have sex like the sex I have with him with anyone else. Sex for us is not altogether human; it's art. It's beauty. It's one of the perfections.
I tried to remember as we lay there in the dim light when we'd last had sex as humans, not gods. I tried to remember the last time we'd fucked in a crude, careless way, in a way that signaled that it was more important to try to penetrate one another's carapace with kisses just so we could be that much closer together, bones and ligaments and vessels writhing out of sequence like the parts of two joyfully imperfect mammals. I tried to think of the last time we'd fucked without thinking about beauty or symmetry or art or of executing cataclysmic orgasms, the last time we'd fucked simply wanting to lick one another's soul and all the wounds and truths of it, however ugly.
Had we ever? Had I ever been his solace? Or had we recognized in one another the emotional fortress we hoped to one day build? Had we barricaded ourselves and grown tired of awaiting a siege that would never come, locked up as we were, out of the reach of everyone else, including one another?
What am I so afraid of? What is he afraid of? Can we go there? How does one go there?
The next day, I took a cab to meet him at a café. He hugged me briefly, kissed my neck and got in a car headed for Los Angeles International. I stood on the street corner of Main and Navy in Venice and smoked half a pack of cigarettes until my body was shaking with cold. I waited for the chill to reach me, but it never got beyond my skin.
Standing there, I remembered an evening while sitting on the patio and he told me he couldn't feel anything.
"Do you still love me?" I asked him.
He took a long time to answer, but finally he said, "I know I do, I just can't feel it."
"Our defenses are greater than ourselves," I responded, completely calm. I knew it should have hurt. But it didn't. It won't hurt for months, maybe years. If I have it my way, it will never hurt at all. But it needs to hurt. I need to hurt. He needs to hurt. If it doesn't hurt, we'll lose this. Do we want to lose this?
"Maybe a serial monogamist isn't supposed to be doing this sort of thing," he'd said on that last night over dinner.
"Are you calling me a serial monogamist?" I asked.
"I was speaking for myself."
"I thought you were speaking about me."
You too, his eyes seemed to say. He played with his hands. "I'm not wearing my ring because it bothers me, not for any other reason."
I hadn't noticed he hadn't been wearing it. I thought about how much time I'd spent picking the metal, thinking about his hands, thinking about the weight of a ring and how that may impede the way his hands fly over a keyboard, whether at work or at play. I thought about how I'd guessed his ring size on the spot and how the jeweler had warned that titanium can't be resized.
"Are you quite sure?" he'd asked again and again.
I'd smiled every time and told him I was more certain about it than anything else in life. Somehow I'd known, just looking at my own hand. I thought about how I'd proposed that night, naked in bed. I thought about how surprised he had seemed, how he'd said yes with what might have been tears in his eyes, how the ring had fit so perfectly, how sure we were that nothing would be able to stand between us and what we had chosen.
But those were different times, though it was only a year and a half ago. Strife was high and we're nothing if not warriors.
We simply never accounted for peace.