For a while Elizabeth was into sex, but she wanted me to be vigorous and quick. After I came violently I’d lie on top of her, trying to catch my breath. But she didn't want me to be inside her any longer than absolutely necessary. She'd immediately start grunting, and pushing, and I'd playfully pretend to snore (See? You’re right. All men is pigs!), and she'd push harder and so then I'd finally roll over to my side of the bed.
Then she'd leap up, get dressed, and light a smoke. No lingering tenderness for that ball of fire. She was wide awake, energetic, just itching to tackle some domestic project, like cutting the grass, or laying tiles in the kitchen, or building a cabinet.
Elizabeth's woodworking projects invariably were extraordinarily sloppy, the result of her impatience with details, such as making accurate measurements. The shelving unit she built for our bedroom was askew. It possessed no true horizontal or verticle lines, it was more like an abandoned barn, leaning toward collapse in an overgrown pasture. Where the boards met, she laid on a thick layer of plastic wood to disguise the fact they didn't join squarely.
Her terra cotta tile floor in the kitchen was a fiasco. When she started I suggested she use little plastic spacers to keep the squares aligned neatly, but no, she didn’t want to bother with that. So it turned out an awkward mess, an embarrassment. Especially when the real estate agent came in and looked around. “This is going to be a tough sell,” the woman said.
But despite her clumsiness and impatience I loved her, and praised every one of her projects. Always. She, on the other hand, was uncomfortable with all the time I spent upstairs at the computer. Writing dark, complex stories about my childhood, and my drunken father. And about my mother, who was tormented with guilt for having abandoned me.
Yes, Elizabeth said, these stories were very well written, no question, but everyone knows there’s no longer any paying market for this genre. Plus I was taking time away from my freelance photography business. Which wasn’t growing, but remained the same as it was when we first met. She pointed out that her ex-husband, Richard, always looked for ways to make more and more money in his freelance operation. He was temperamentally suited to relentlessly beating the bushes, finding new photo clients. I, on the other hand, was not like that. So perhaps I should give some serious thought to, uh, getting a full time job.
When she said that I wondered if she ever dared to make such a suggestion to her beloved Bob. The political activist. The union organizer. Who lived from hand to mouth, never worried about it, because in his life there always were women who would buy him a new pair of shoes, a new coat, or pay his phone and electric bills. Bob, the advocate of open relationships, who slept with an intellectual aristocrat in Paris, then came back to America to fuck Mable, Sally and Roseanne. By the way, did I tell you he was fluent in Greek and Latin? And he taught himself, too, so he could read Homer in the original. Yes, he was acutely intelligent, widely read. A truly fascinating man.
In a fit of nostalgia she described her first date with Bob. Lunch at an Italian restaurant in South Philadelphia. He showed up wearing sun glasses, and apologized and said it was because his eyes were overly sensitive to light, and it was indeed a bright sunny day. Oh, he was engaging, witty, so absolutely sure of himself, but in an understated way. The more he talked, the more intrigued she became. She was dazzled by the power and breadth of his mind. And then he paused, and took off his sunglasses, and gazed at her with the most brilliant blue eyes she’d ever seen. The azure of an antarctic glacier. Cold, and sharp, and hard. But utterly hypnotic. She was transfixed.
When she talked like that I knew she’d never feel the same way toward me. Compared to beloved Bob, I was weak tea.
Early in the marriage, when things were still good, we had a little ritual. She’d take my hand, and she’d hum a tune, and we’d dance. “Do you come here often?” she’d say. And I’d reply, “As often as I can.” And then I’d slide my knee between her legs and firmly but gently lift her right off the floor. I liked that. Maybe she did too. She’d spontaneously break into song while she was in the bathroom or in the kitchen or down in the basement. She had a great voice. I loved to hear her sing.
On one of my sneaky visits to her house while she was at work I noticed a bunch of flowers in a vase on the dining room table. I sniffed them. The sweet scent reminded me of the funerals I attended as an altar boy at St. Xavier’s. She was recovering from the trauma of dumping me very nicely, I thought. Surrounding herself with pretty things. A good sign.
A bunch of bananas filled the big bowl on the kitchen counter. Two kinds of soda in the fridge—diet Coke and decaf Pepsi. A package of chicken legs and thighs. Empty Dominoes pizza box in the trash can.
Upstairs her passport was pinned on the bulletin board. Planning a trip to Paris perhaps? I looked at her photo. A remarkably good portrait. She's smiling, attractive. Lots of cat hairs covered the setee near her chair in her bedroom. One cigarette butt in the ashtray.
And then her journal. The initials JB. Joe from Chase Manhattan? She says he shows her an assortment of condoms. Afterward, before he goes home, he goes out in the rain to WaWa and gets her cigarettes and soda. A true enabler. But:
“What a guy!”
The sex, though, was less than satisfactory because of those damned condoms. But she climaxed once. Now she wants him very much. She loves the petting, the necking, the dry humping. She's concerned about how much she ought to disclose about herself. JB saw her masters diploma from Lancaster University in England and then he realized she'd been married not once but twice, a fact she hadn't yet shared with him.
Strange, but reading about her sexual adventures does not make me crazy. I’m not threatened by this JB guy. I’m not particularly stressed by his biographical details, like what he looks like or what he does for a living, largely because it doesn't matter. If not JB, then someone else would now be in her life. He's just another in an endless series.
Join the club, suck-ah!
Guys who take up with Elizabeth don’t have a clue what they’re getting into. And JB is going to take a hard fall pretty soon. He’s an idealist, a romantic. He sent her the flowers I sniffed down in the dining room. Oh, and he told her the other day her puns and wordplays and bizarre juxtapositions showed him that she’d make an absolutely TERRIFIC writer. Honest to god. You oughta take it up seriously, you know?
Fuck JB and all the others to come. I have my memories.
Elizabeth in her white dress at the lake. She was tanned, radiant. The weather was perfect. Everything went according to plan. Flawless. It seemed all the signs were positive. I had, finally, achieved the capacity to love. I always thought I was an emotional cripple, incapable of it. But there I was, standing next to that beautiful woman.
Every aspect of that sunny day felt so natural. Preordained. All my rage and pain evaporated. True happiness in the sunshine, and in the dappled shade of the deck overlooking the lake, with the sound of a late Beethoven quartet in the background. When the judge finally pronounced the words, love suffused my consciousness, filled me completely. My head swam. I could not stop smiling.
If JB manages to stick around for more than a month or two, she’ll take him up to the lake for a little R & R. And he won’t be a happy camper when he finds out this is where Elizabeth, HIS Elizabeth, not too long ago exchanged solemn vows with another man. John. JB will be vastly uncomfortable with the sleeping arrangements since this is the bed where his Elizabeth and that John guy had wild and crazy sex, all day and all night long. Oh, JB will be squirming with jealousy. He’ll be tight with tension and anxiety, and she’ll try to reassure him, smooth things over. But if JB presses her too much she’ll just send him packing.
Will she and JB take a swim before dawn? And sit on the dock in the late evening and stare at the rising full moon, yellow in the mist, as we did the evening of our wedding? Will she speak kindly of me? Or will she instead tell JB what an asshole I was?
Poor sap JB doesn’t know it yet, but there is BIG trouble ahead. He’ll make one mistake too many, and then he’ll be back home, hangdog, forlorn, bitter, wondering what had just happened to him. And she, unconcerned, will resume her journal musings. Maybe she’ll write something like this:
“JB was number 35. Or maybe 36, who knows? And what have I learned so far? I don’t know. Maybe I ought to give whats-his-name a call. John. See what he's up to these days. Maybe he's hooked up with someone already. Maybe he's lost weight. Got rid of that belly he used to keep sucked in when he undressed over in the corner by the closet, so self-consciously shamed, so Catholic. And yet at the same time so goddamned arrogant. Shame and arrogance commingled. Yin and yang, sunshine and shadow, up one minute and down the next. Never knew what kind of mood he'd be in. Never knew what would set him off. The tyranny of the easily offended. That was one of my best lines, and I knew it hit home when I told him. He winced. Just as if I had hit him across the head with a two-by-four. Ah, well, I wonder who’s next.”
Does she think of me at least as much as I think of her? Probably not. For the time being JB holds the stage. A good way to forget the worrisome past is to keep busy. The demands of a new lover are perfectly distracting. JB wants everything, he wants it all, he wants her full attention and absolute loyalty, not like that half-assed thing she had with John, that goddamned artsy-fartsy photographer, and by the way, when are you going to get rid of those photos on the wall? I know John took them, and you know how it pisses me off that you have them still around. I mean, you're going to divorce the guy, right? So why do you hang onto that stuff? You say he means nothing to you, so why are his photos so important? Come on. Don't lie to me. I fucking hate it when you lie to me.”
Elizabeth writes little notes about what passes before her, but she’s always so passive and distant. Events capture merely her momentary casual interest, never her passion, because she’s incapable of experiencing that level of emotion.
When I entered her life she wrote:
"J. He's 45, a photographer, etc. What's not to love?”
I liked that very much. Even then I knew it could have been much, much worse!