(Oh, also, I warned you that my male characters are terrible people. So.)
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, this Sartrean nausea was not supposed to overtake him quite so soon. The good person inside Dan was horrified at the real person in him, the voice that could not be denied, the one that said, “Yuck.” The folds of fat when he pushed her legs up, the way the thigh and the stomach met in a vast, sweaty crease. Ugh. He had gotten past the newness of her tightly coiled pubic hair, the color of her vulva; now it just seemed as banal as paleness and freckles and moles. He didn’t want to be fucking, and he knew it, and his erection nearly faltered, especially when she opened her mouth and crooned to him – Stop it, he wanted to say; shut up.
He managed to finish, after her big show of coming and clinging to him and praising him to the skies. She turned to him, her cow eyes moony and wet. He felt angry and disgusted, mostly with her, a little with himself. There must be something really wrong with him, he admitted, but worse than that, there was something really wrong with her. If she couldn’t tell he was faking it, if she couldn’t read his disgust and dismay, then she was an insensitive clod, a dolt, a moron, a selfish pig. She stroked his neck softly, irritating, like a mosquito, and he shuddered.
What’s wrong, she asked.
Ticklish, he said. She wanted to smile and exult and squeeze him and murmur. He wanted to get up and yank the sheets so she would be tossed from the bed. He wanted her to disappear, not only from the bed, but from his life. Look at the way she looked at him, the expectation, nay the demand implicit in her expression. Say something loving and beautiful, it said; make me feel good.
Is everything okay, she asked.
Of course, he said, annoyed. Everything is great. An edge of sarcasm, a suppressed sigh.
Really? It seems like you’re upset.
I’m not. I’m just…exhausted. This whole thing has been exhausting.
She considered this, turned so she was on her back, staring at the ceiling as he was, looking for the same thing he was looking for, an answer in the overhead light fixture. He would not look at her, for fear he would see the one thing that would enrage him irreparably, a tear running down her cheek.
I’m sorry, he said, hating himself for saying it, and she melted. It’s not you. I feel guilty for asking so much of you. I…I don’t know if I’m worthy of you.
Disgusting, his hypocrisy; he didn’t worry that he wasn’t worthy, he knew for a fact that she wasn’t. And the grateful way she seized on his excuse only proved that further. She was no Abigail; Abigail had been sharp, she had been able to see through him and stand up to him. Imani was a lump, a fat dull lump in his bed, a responsibility and a chore and an obligation.
I know, it’s been so crazy. She nestled into his side, nuzzling. Her salty sweat wet against his ribs, the shrimpy smell of her all over the bedroom. It was suffocating, he felt his chest contract. I’ve never done anything like this. I’m usually the good girl.
He let her talk for a while, keeping his arm around her, his face to the ceiling, pretending it was all okay. She hadn’t known how unhappy she’d been, she was so grateful to him for seeing it and rescuing her from her sleepwalking; when she realizes she could have gone on like that forever, it’s like a bad dream. Mmm hmm. She feels so much more alive, so excited, and here she presses her damp mound against his thigh and he really might throw up, he thought, at the idea that she expected him to do it again, when all he wanted to do was humor her long enough to get her out the door calmly, so he could think.
But what needed to be thought about? His body was telling him everything he needed to know. He didn’t want this, he felt trapped. He’d had this feeling sometimes with Abigail, but she’d always managed to sense something and then say something cutting, something that brought him back to wanting and needing her. If only Imani could do the same. If only she were still with Benji, if only she had to run home so he didn’t suspect. He wanted to be the other man, or no man at all.
He kept up the pretense of listening, every word she said dooming her further, as the critic in him tore her apart. It was important that she not know how he was really feeling, because that would cause a scene, because he couldn’t explain it yet and until he could explain it, justify it, he couldn’t say anything. He was not going to be made into the bad guy just for wanting what he wanted. He was not the bad guy. She was not the bad guy either. Nobody was the bad guy. Why did women always have to have a bad guy? The way she talked about Benji now – he didn’t want to hear it. Not that she was explicit, just talking about her unhappiness, dancing around it, like if she said his name aloud then Dan would be jealous. Not jealous, just annoyed – rule one: don’t say another man’s name in bed. It’s unseemly. He kept his breathing regular, even as his chest began to physically ache with the strain of expanding. She reached down to toy with his penis, and he flinched.
Sensitive, she said.
Yes, he said, and forced himself to kiss the top of her head. Are you hungry?
I’m starving! And she rolled off of him, thank god. His rib cage sank and relaxed. She went to the bathroom, singing something he could hear through the not quite closed door. It was meant for him, it was supposed to enchant him, this singing. She was so happy, and he was so miserable.
She strode naked from the bathroom to the fridge, his fridge. Make yourself at home, he called, and she laughed.
There’s nothing in here! You’re such a bachelor. He could hear the indulgence in her voice, how she planned to change him for the better. Jesus. Everything she did and said had the exact opposite effect of what she wanted.
Let’s go out, he suggested. That would end this – they would leave the apartment and then she wouldn’t come back. She would go home to her apartment, and he would come back here alone, where he could sit down at his computer and jerk off, or watch a movie, some violent Korean film about revenge.
Let’s order in, she said. I don’t feel like going anywhere. Where are your menus? Started opening drawers in the kitchen, poking around. He jumped out of bed. She was unstoppable. It was obvious that she felt great, energized and liberated and reckless. A new life. And for him it was the same old life. Why could he not experience what she was experiencing? It’s what he had hoped for, he’d hoped that being with her would change him the way it was changing her. He’d hoped to feel endorphins and electricity. He located his stash of take out menus and pushed them across the counter at her.
Here, he said.
Are you sure you’re okay? She stopped now. Are you feeling guilty? Is this weird?
Why should I feel guilty?, he wondered. It would be convenient to let her think that he was such a moral man that being with a woman so recently entangled with someone else was upsetting to him. That his loyalty to a member of the male sex was so great that he could not reconcile his incredible desire for her with his principles. And yet he could not pretend that this was the case; it was insulting for her to imply that he had done anything with regards to her or to her ex that would compromise him ethically.
Do you feel guilty?, he asked. Implying that she shouldn’t, that maybe the reason she was acting so strangely (by quizzing him, for instance) was because of her own guilt.
No, she said. Not entirely true. She had expected to feel worse, she felt bad about not feeling bad enough. But she felt great. Except that Dan was acting strangely. Then again he was a strange duck. How was she going to explain him to her friends, to her mother? He had to be kept from Jasmine for a while, until he could be coached as to how to act – no, it would never work. He had to be kept from Jasmine, period, until such a time as they were ready to move in together – here, or in her apartment? She liked hers better, but she would understand if he didn’t want to live with the ghost of Benji. This place was okay; not really what she would want, but she could almost see it working. Or maybe they could get a new place together. She didn’t want him to see her ambivalence about his apartment, her fears about introducing him to her world; she didn’t want to be critical or make him feel weird. He would be okay; she could make him okay.
They ordered food, and despite the intensity and velocity of their interior monologues, they managed to converse in a seemingly normal fashion. Now that they were out of bed and physically separate, he could breathe better, he could humor her in what she was saying. He put on sweatpants and combed his hair with his fingers, nodding at her unceasing string of chatter. The buzzer rang, the delivery guy was dealt with, and to stop her from further encroachment on his kitchen, he pulled out a stool at the counter for her and said, allow me, then set the places for them. She loved it, batting those lashes, giggling. Jesus, was she thirteen?
They tucked into their food, her poking her chopsticks into his plate. The liberties! Abigail was fastidious, as was he, but not Imani. There was a piece of rice in the corner of her mouth, and rather than say anything, he just prayed for it to fall. It must have been stuck with glue. Finally it dropped. She was oblivious, that was her problem. Oblivious. And it seemed to him that this level of obliviousness was a form of selfishness.
Now she was talking about the Gentle Readers, of course she would call them that, about how grateful she was for the group, not just because it had brought them together, but because it had opened up her writing. When she thinks that she almost passed by Vic's flyer, she feels a sort of retroactive fear, a fear for the past, for the Imani who hadn’t made the right choice, and she shudders. Fortunately, she had just read The Artist’s Way, and that had opened her up to the idea of a creative support group.
The Artist’s Way, he scoffed. That book is responsible for more bad art…
Have you read it?
I’ve read about it.
But have you read it?
No, and I never will.
It’s a great book. It may seem ooshy-gooshy, but it’s really good. It’s right. It’s like a science. It says things that can be qualitatively proven. It’s not bullshit.
Not everybody is an artist. Not everybody is meant to be a writer. Do you think Eleanor is meant to be a writer?
Who wants to read that shit?
I do. And it doesn’t matter. It’s important to her to write, it’s changing her life.
And it’s changing mine, for the worse, because I have to read that crap.
You don’t really mean that.
I do, don’t tell me what I really mean and what I don’t.
Our first fight, she says, trying to make it cute, trying to make it a bonding experience.
This is perfect, this is great. This is his out, The fact that she believes in this new age shit, and he doesn’t, this points to a basic philosophic difference between them that can not and should not be reconciled. He doesn’t want her to change her mind, he says; he thinks she is wonderful the way she is. Nor does he want to change his mind. Why should he change? He is very happy the way he is.
You don’t look like a happy person. You look like an uptight prick.
Well then obviously you don’t want to be with me.
I do want to be with you! How can you say that? I ended a six year relationship so I could be with you, there’s a guy sleeping on his friend’s sofa right now because I wanted to be with you so much! I don’t even know how I’m going to pay my rent next month, but I don’t care, because that’s how much I want to be with you! Stop eating!
You’re becoming hysterical.
No I’m not!
Stop making me wrong! I’m not wrong!
How did this all go so badly? Why is he smiling? There’s just a hint of it around the corners of his mouth. Is this what turns him on, conflict? She wants to go to him, to have him embrace her and tell her that everything is going to be okay, but it is beginning to dawn on her that it is not okay, that this is not a fluke or opening night jitters, that this is him, and that he does not want to keep her, he wants her to go. She starts to pull on her tights, her shirt, her fingers so fat with pounding blood that she can barely button. She waits for him to say stop, I’m sorry, let’s talk about it, and he doesn’t, he just watches her, as though he is curious. He is a monster, she hates him. She can’t believe this. It’s like he just ripped off his human mask and she’s staring at his alien face, rows of shiny teeth, slavering silver spit.
Call me when you figure out what you want. She has been reduced to stealing lines from Benji.
Imani, don’t… His patronizing tone, his weariness, his frustration. It is a token protestation, but she will take it. She stops and waits for the I’m sorry that will put this back together, but it doesn’t come.
Don’t be like that, he says, as though she could be any other way than how she is. As though any of us can.