I was sitting on the couch in the living room like a normal person and that’s when my girlfriend says she’s leaving me. At first I was confused because it sounded like she really meant it. I mean, we fought from time to time, mostly about little things and nothing ever escalated. But she was telling the truth when she stood up and said the only reason why we never fought was because there was nothing at stake. Like the salad thing, she said. Then she left.
I knew what she meant. I’m the kind of guy that sees salad as a side dish. But there was a whole week of that, then the juice cleanse, and for a while all we did was drink water squirted with a little bit of honey and served with a slice of lime and some chili powder. I admit I should have drawn a line right there, because really when you think about it, she was starving us both to death. I kept getting skinnier and skinnier and my girlfriend, well she looked the same, that is, she had an average body that wasn’t going anywhere. Maybe that was part of it, to see the effects that you wanted for yourself on someone else. I get that feeling. Once I started playing the trombone and my older brother picked it up and within two weeks he was better than I ever was. So I gave it up. My brother, he’s a famous trombone player now, and it would be a lie to say I am completely happy for him because I will bring it up anytime someone mentions the trombone, especially if it’s a woman: that I was the first one, the one that got him started. It was me, I tell them, I was the original. So I wasn’t that surprised when my girlfriend stood up and said that being around me was taking an effect on her psychologically. She said it was frustrating. There was nothing she could do about it; she just needed to get away from me for a while, maybe for good.
I told myself not to get upset because I’ve dated a lot of girls, so I know what this means. And honestly, I take what I can get. Most of the time, these girls are also seeing someone else, and with the other guy, it’s more serious or she wants it to be. While they’re with me, I don’t pressure them to find careers or to be happy, I’m just there while they figure these things out on their own. I am a bit like a loyal dog in that I don’t pretend to solve their problems, and like a dog they don’t expect me to be around forever and watch them grow old.
I read a story once about a woman that was pretty unhappy in her marriage and decided to do something about it. So she seduced some teenage boy. Maybe he was nineteen or something. I think her name was Walburga, which is a pretty sexy name if you ask me. Somehow after they banged a couple of times, she convinced this kid to live in her attic. They had this affair for something like twenty years, the whole time, this guy living in the attic, her husband downstairs. A lot of people are horrified when they hear this story, but I get it, that could be me. I wouldn’t mind living upstairs, minding my own business. When I told that story to my mother, she said that boy was like a housewife. What she meant was, someone who stayed at home, cleaned up and had sex whenever the other person wanted to. Walburga even gave him an allowance. He sometimes did the dishes. My mother, she’s a feminist, so of course she had to see it that way, and she’s right. No one cares if they hear about a woman who stays at home with nothing to do. But I bet he cracked, my mother reminds me. Which is accurate because, I had left out the part when he shoots the husband one night. Not because he lost it or because he was squeezed up in this attic for the past two decades and was losing it mentally, but because he worried that the husband was getting too violent towards Walburga. They never found the murder weapon though; she dropped it into the La Brea Tar Pits in LA, that place where they discovered the wooly mammoth, saber tooth tiger and about four hundred dog skulls.
My girlfriend is a cool girl, which makes her a lot like all the other girls I’ve dated. A little down and not sure what she wants, but independent about it. Not to mention, I’ve been burned a few times, but that was when I was younger and used to take things personally. No matter what anybody else thinks, I really believe them when they say it’s not you. Except for Cynthia, she never said any of that before she left. You see, I’m like the salad here, I had said trying to make a joke out of it. I’m just something on the side, there to give you confidence. It’s not like that at all, Cynthia said. There’s only you. And afterwards, just to prove her point, she didn’t start seeing anyone else; with me she wasn’t waiting to get her self-esteem back before dating bankers and doctors. Cynthia is different, my brother told me afterwards. You were clearly punching above your own weight. She hadn’t been gone for more than an hour and I was still sitting on the couch when he said this. She’s the only girl my brother’s met so I thought it would be a good idea to call and tell him things were finished; but he just wouldn’t let it go.
I thought Cynthia was happy, I said, and I would have gone on thinking this until we were sitting there in the living room and she said she wasn’t. What changed? I had asked. What did I do differently? Maybe that’s the problem, she said, which was a pretty confusing statement to throw out there like that, I said to my brother. I wanted him to say that it wasn’t my fault—that it was something else—like my job or the fact I had no money. But part of me knew turning in my dissertation wouldn’t make me a happier person, and with the way the market is in academia, it wouldn’t make me more successful. I like my job, adjuncting. I know how to keep a low overhead, how to set a timer and grade in batches. When I met Cynthia she was relieved I didn’t have a nest egg, that I didn’t see her body as a necessary link to a series of domestic events.
But my brother tells me he gets girls that stick around the whole time, at least until the album is over and then its the traveling that gets in the way or the fact that girls hit on musicians all the time, and in that industry he doesn’t feel his options are running out anytime soon. I mean, why should he try? He’s in front of a room full of chicks with a guarantee that when one comes up to him afterwards she knows that the next move is on her. All right, all right, I say, I get it. Thanks to me and my trombone, you’re swamped. Women love you. Maybe I was getting a little defensive.
Look, Cynthia wasn’t seeing anybody else, my brother reminds me. There isn’t an upgrade for her, nothing that’s on the verge of working out. And you know what else? She’s going to go about her business fine without you, without anybody. This is about you. And that, my friend, is a whole new psychological experience you’ve never dealt with before.
My brother’s right. The women who usually date me say that I’m just like them, young and unsure about the future, but with a completely different attitude about it. They see that I’m happy and maybe they can learn something about inner confidence, living in the moment, presence in the present, or whatever else you want to call it. They don’t need that kind of pressure, they say, in a relationship. What they mean is, they don’t need it from a dude. They date me because they want to learn to sit with this reflection of themselves for a little bit, but I know that if you look in the mirror long enough, you start seeing things you don’t like.
There’s a lot of pressure put on women to look a certain way, Cynthia liked to reminds me. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like pregnant with an extra forty pounds on her hips and back, and the delivery itself. I could die, she told me that day on the couch, Don’t men ever think about that? Why should I? I had said. You never mentioned it, and I don’t naturally think about that sort of stuff. She looked at me annoyed and I realized I’d made a mistake. She didn’t say anything for a while. She just closed her eyes and took some deep breaths. Finally she said, I don’t know if I want to go through any of this if you don’t get it. Then she looked at me, and when I didn’t say anything, she started to cry. I wanted to say we could just do what we had been doing, but I could tell that’s not what she wanted to hear, and to tell you the truth, I didn’t know what to say. I had never been in this situation before—I had never talked about a future that involved just the two of us. Like the salad thing, she said. Then she left.
After the breakup, when I was no longer shell-shocked, I passed a kidney stone. I had woken up in the night after the pain and the darkness became inseparable. There was no space left to concentrate. I had been lying in bed, thinking about Walburga, and how maybe I just needed to meet someone like that. I saw a picture of her once, and she had an amused expression on her face. She wore a large coat that gave the appearance that she was wrapped in a blanket and on her head a round bowl-shaped hat. Her hair fell around her face in large curls. Her eyes were unnaturally big and round. She had other lovers too, I learned, but we only know of the one that came forward.
In the end I wasn’t willing to give up something that hurt this bad to get rid of. So I stuck my hand in the toilet and fished it out. The water was warm; the stone was tiny, hard like a jewel. I felt it at the bottom and pressed it into my finger so that it made a little indention. Then I pulled it out.
I called my brother, who was still awake because he lived on the west coast. He had just finished a gig and laughed, saying that after a while the body knows it's time to reject certain things. That’s what I was thinking when I pressed it between my thumb and forefinger as my hand left the water. I liked the idea of it. In the dark I rolled it between my fingers, lying in bed. My brother said it reminded him of a magazine article he once read about the survivors of the Kenyan embassy bombing who continued to produce shards of glass and metal fifteen years after the explosion. He said there was a whole exhibit in a museum devoted to these rarities. I fell asleep after that, still holding the stone.
The next night I passed another stone, or at least that’s what I thought until I leaned forward and fished it out of the toilet. But what came out of the water wasn’t anything like a large grain of sand. It was my girlfriend’s house key. I recognized it immediately because she had painted the top part purple with some nail polish. I worried for a little bit about my dick, but it didn’t seem to affect it at all. I mean, it hurt like hell while it was passing through, but not anymore than it had the previous night. I put the key next to my bed with the kidney stone. And it happened again the next night. I started a whole collection of them: a couple of dresses, a pair of shoes that came out like twins, a rolled up photograph from our first date. I didn’t want to bring other girls over because they’d come in and see all this stuff that was my girlfriend’s. Are you living with someone? they would ask, and be out the door before I denied it. All this stuff, it was making me miss her more and more. I kept her earrings by the bedside lamp, her favorite cereal in the cupboard. I even started setting her place at the table after I passed her bowl and spoon. My apartment began to look like a rummage sale, but I didn’t want to get rid of the stuff either. I didn’t want to load it all into a U-Haul and take it down to the Goodwill and never see any of it again. I didn’t know what I wanted, though I was starting to think that we could have figured it out together.
When I passed an entire couch, I started looking for clues, trying to see past all the things to what I might have missed. We had made out on that couch the first night at her parent’s house. I felt the soft cushions and saw that it even had a wine stain on the armrest. I thought I was dreaming, but in the morning, I found myself passed out on top of it, facing the bed. I found a piece of paper and wrote this down. Next, under a pair of pink straws, I wrote, Cynthia October 3rd, followed by an explanation of the day we had. Center City, Philadelphia. SEPTA late again, went into Chinatown and ordered the Volcano. The cocktail arrived in a large plastic bowl. It was unbearably sweet, with pieces of pineapple and watermelon bobbing up and down in the ice. We spent all night drinking it, and before we left Cynthia slipped the two straws into her purse.
Of course she was pissed to find herself in the toilet. I tried to explain why my apartment was full of her stuff. Look I said, getting Cynthia a towel, please just sit down, sit down and listen. I have some things to tell you. But she didn’t want to listen. She rolled her hair up like a turban and began walking around, looking at all her things, picking them up, and setting them back down. Her face softened as she began to read the small hand-written explanations I had placed underneath.
Outside, it was quiet. In the dark, I put my arms around her; her body was solid, whole, and real. This is like a museum she whispered, amazed. Who knows what I will piss out next, I said. Cynthia laughed. A house or a ring, she said, smiling. Maybe, if we’re lucky, a couple of kids.
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