“After you have folded, then comes the conquest.”
You sit at a bar waiting for your daughter’s boyfriend to come break up with you. Tale as old as time. You woke up yesterday to a text from him: We should talk. You tried to quietly ignore it but he was unrelenting. So, you make the two-hour drive to campus and sit at a bar two blocks over from his dorm. You bounce your knee, hands folded neatly in front of you after polishing off your third Mai Tai. You got here early because you figured if you were here first it would seem more like a casual run in between friends rather than an arranged get-together between a boy and his one-time lover / girlfriend’s mother.
You sit at a bar and feel your heart, steady and quiet, a hiccup, a stutter. It is the same bar you and David met in. May 6th, 1981, 9:47 PM. You remember the time because you kept looking at the clock, every second wanting to ask if he liked you less or more than the one before.
You sit at a bar and you see David’s eyes from a corner across the room, murky and low, taking in everything but you. You murmur to Veronica next to you that you think he’s cute. Oh, David? She says casually. He works for the same law firm as James. Do you know if James is coming?
Now that same corner is taken up for a second by sweet, 19-year-old Luke’s shadow as it glides toward you. His walk is softer than David’s, more repressed. Same eyes, though. Same careless, brooding glance. You watch him slowly sit down next to you, his angular profile refusing to turn and make eye contact. You nudge him.
Hey, you croon. Hey, come on.
He turns. Licks his lip. Orders a beer. Here it comes.
This is really fucked up, he says. You nod.
You stare at your hands. Then at the corner. Brown wallpaper dotted with ships and anchors. You see David’s outline. Hear his demanding laughter.
You are too small and too afraid to go up and make conversation with him so, once James makes an appearance, you stay behind and watch as Veronica stumbles over to their table. David greets her with his eyes, canvases her body as though he is looking for something buried deep beneath her skin. You watch the way his eyes devour her and you sit combing your hands through your hair. One sip of your drink. Two. Six. Naturally, he meanders over to you after it is clear Veronica is a lost cause.
Hi there, he says. How’s it going?
Your pupils meet his. Words are suddenly very difficult to string together. You feel like you are buffering.
Good, you say. Your voice sounds scared. You wipe your hands on your dress. A mark is left where your sweaty palm meets the fabric.
You look back at Luke. His ginger hair is scrappily combed to the side, stubble clings to him. He takes a sip of his drink and gulps loudly.
I’m really sorry, you say. And the line sounds rehearsed because it is. Luke closes his eyes. Opens them.
Yeah, he says. Me too.
And then his head is in his hands and you cannot help but look at them and think they’d look much nicer on your hips. You scold yourself. Stop. That is not what you want. You want David. You want your daughter. You want the life that was given to you. You are not someone who tries to fuck with fate. You are not someone who breaks the rules. You make sense. Your edges fit a mold.
You look down ashamed and see David’s right hand slide against the glossy wood of the bar. Slowly, precisely, it finds itself on your thigh and you giggle. You can feel his hand, dry and calloused, chubby fingers digging into your skin, squeezing and unsqueezing as though he is testing your ripeness.
Should we tell her? Luke’s eyes snap up at you.
What—you start to say, then remember that he is better than you. To him, being honest is implied.
No. It’ll only make her hate us. And I can deal with her hating you, but she can’t hate me.
That’s a fucked up thing to say.
Luke, I raised her. I watched her grow into a whole, complete person. I am her mother. You really want to mess that up?
But it’s okay to mess with our relationship?
How is not telling her something going to mess with your relationship?
Do you really expect me to just move on from this and be fine and normal with her?
It was one time, Luke. Jesus.
What the fuck is wrong with you?
You sit on the question for a minute. It’s a fair question. What is wrong with you? You recite the words again and again and one more time and then you hear them louder and in David’s familiar tone. But when he asks you that question, he already knows the answer. You are fat, you are slow, you are too quiet, too boring. With him, it is easy to decide what to not like about yourself. For that, you offer him a silent thank you. He has always given you a simple diagnosis. Nothing to pick apart.
Early on, you come to realize men are temporary. They are the most temporary thing in this world, more than rain or time. They refuse to be what you are most: got. Won. Claimed. They make themselves unavailable. Lose interest the minute their tongue meets the inside of your cheek.
Truly, you think David must have lost interest even before then.
Still, before you know it, he is taking you to cocktail parties where you stand on his right and he makes the room laugh. And you feel important. And of course it’s not perfect and you are anxious a lot of the time, maybe most of the time, and he will too easily say things that bind you to your seat, your arms rigid, hands damp. But you feel wanted. You feel really, actually wanted for the first time in your life and, goddamn it, if you aren’t going to preserve that.
Yes, you preserve it and you fold over once, twice, three times to make room for him. Not all at once, not in one sitting. First, you are comfortable with it because folding over once for a man is implied, it is manners, it is courtesy. It comes natural as breathing. Then, it is twice and you are still okay with it because you’ve grown to think the amount of space he asks for is the amount of space he needs because it must be because no one asks for that much space without having a plan. Then, it is three times and there is no you left to look to for reference, so when he asks for more it doesn’t feel like a decision, but rather an obligation, a duty, a quiet death.
After you have folded, then comes the conquest. He wants to be a part of you, wants his hands to leave track marks up and down your body, there for the world to see. He wants you to feel his. And you do. You feel more his than anything else.
You are told the two of you look good together. Sound good together. Exist good together. So you begin to weave a broken language out of you and him. You attach meaning to his words cleanly and he doesn’t fight it.
And you are okay, because why wouldn’t you be? He takes care of you, holds you and you know that even though some of the time he loses his temper and brands your skin with his scalding words and you start to think there must be nothing but hate behind those familiar black eyes, there are times when he will reach for your hand during car rides and kiss your palm. Times when he’ll remember to pick up your prescription, without you even having to ask, and on these days you’ll think his prickly beard has a charm to it. Times when he will wake up in the middle of the night and kiss your neck the way you like and do just that and nothing else.
And, besides, he’s never hit you. Not once. You are proud of him for this. Not a bruise on your body can be traced back to his hands. So long as that is out of the picture, you can make sense of it. And those moments, those small, sweet moments, make up for all the rest because then it is good and of course you’re going to stay when its good and because when its bad you have to make sure it gets good again because you can’t have him straying and then it is good again and of course you’re going to stay when it’s—
Emma, Luke says suddenly. Emma’s going to be so fucking pissed.
Luke, we can’t tell her, your voice is pleading. She’s everything, Luke. Please. Please don’t take that away from me.
You think of your Emma. Your sweet angel Emma. Emma who is the first to call on your birthday, Emma who does not mind your acne scars or your stutter, Emma who is, in every respect, forced to love you.
Emma who you’re betraying. A wave of nausea comes over you. Panic. Everything you put off thinking about hits you at once. This is your fault. Why? Why now, why at all? You don’t know.
All you know is when you watch your mouth on your daughter’s face kiss Luke’s cheek, something shifts. Something felt all across the world, a heavy, slow weight. You watch them together and think, That is yours. It is meant for you. Somehow, you had ended up playing this silly game in which you are scared and angry and decaying. But there, right in front you, is everything you want, everything you have ever wanted. You see yourself in Emma. In the way her hands conduct her words when she’s talking and in her small, breathy laugh and in her size six feet. She is you, but young and beautiful and with potential. She is you, but she has Luke and you have a man who hasn’t looked you in the eye the last six times he has spoken to you. You deserve something, don’t you? You plead with yourself. And still you don’t, and then you don’t again, and again, but then you are drunk and he is laughing at a joke you made and you are young and beautiful and have potential.
She cannot know. To her, you are pure. Wholesome. You are embedded somewhere deep inside her, out of reach from anything bad in this world. She is the only person who you’ve never had to ask to want you.
You breathe in and out and in and out. She cannot know. She will not know.
Luke, please, you say. He has been staring at the same drop of condensation on his beer for the past four minutes. You wonder what he’s thinking. Panicking, probably. He mentioned something about Catholic school.
You’re sick. Fuck. How are you this okay with lying to her? Blatantly? That’s not how you treat people you love. And what about your husband?
What about my husband? You do not know the first thing about me, Luke.
I mean I’d say I know you pretty damn well, he says.
You glare at him and he shrinks into his seat. Then swallows. Shakes his head.
No, you know what? Fuck that. This is so messed up. How could I do that? How could you do that?
His breathing is heavier now, blinking rapidly.
Doesn’t your husband fuck you?
You inhale. Your spine straightens. You close your eyes. You see David’s pale hands spreading like an infection across your skin. You feel him pulling you into him, digging his nails into your ass. Doesn’t your husband fuck you. Doesn’t your husband fuck you. Doesn’t your husband fuck you.
Yes, you say. Yes, he does.
It is quiet. You can feel Luke’s eyes on you.
You are not lying. He does fuck you. Sometimes it is fast, hard, your body a racetrack, a scavenger hunt, and other times it is slow as melting butter, a dense heavy thing weighing on the room with every pulse. But all the time, it is methodical, your mind racing about what he wants you to do next, about how you are ranking. You don’t just compete with his ex-girlfriends, you compete with yourself ten years ago, six months ago, one week ago. You want him to be proud. You want him to want you, keep wanting you.
Sorry, he says suddenly. I guess I’m just kind of scared. You know, that I’m like a bad person.
Well, I think everyone is.
No, but, like how could I do that? I didn’t even think twice about it.
That’s exactly why, you laugh a little. You didn’t let yourself. Because when men are presented with sex, or anything close, an alarm goes off in their heads and shuts off their brains.
I mean I’d like to think I have some depth. I do also like you.
Your pupils dart. You zero in on every part of his face. First his nose, then his right ear, then his lips.
Please, you say.
I do! I remember Emma told me this story, before I even met you, about how much she loved Easter and how she’d always cry after the egg hunt was over. So, this one year you hid Easter eggs around the house for a whole month. And you’d wake her up early and be like, Guess what, Em? The Easter Bunny came again. And, I remember thinking, Wow that must be one incredible lady.
Stop, stop it.
No, come on, I swear. I like talking to you. I like being around you.
You are down to the brim of flesh of your thumbnail. You stay silent.
Do you not believe me?
I don’t know, you say. I don’t know if this is going to make sense to you, but I feel like I’m too old. Too old for you to think those things.
Are you serious? You’re gorgeous. Your hair’s such a pretty color in the sun, and you’ve got that whole soft tan glow thing. Plus, you’re like a good presence. Does that make sense? Fuck. I guess, just like, no one would ever pick a room without you in it versus a room with you in it. You know?
You blush. Smile in a small way. A beat of silence. You open your mouth to speak, but
Can I ask you something?
No, you think. Sure, you say.
Do you love your husband?
That is not the question you were expecting.
Well, yes. I mean, of course I do.
You both shift slightly in your seats.
I guess I mostly love that he loves me, you say quietly. Some of the time.
Luke looks confused. You should explain, but you don’t. It is a thing, a cold, black heap of thing that has sat inside you too long to be dissected. A complex that maybe you can try to trace back to your father’s coldness or your mother’s bipolar disorder, but it wouldn’t make a difference.
Maybe you cling to David because of a co-dependence you’ve felt for so long it has probably fossilized inside you by now. Maybe you cannot bear the thought of him being with anyone else and maybe you tell yourself this means you love him like you’re supposed to love a husband. Maybe you know that even if you are the one to leave, it will still feel like being left.
That seems kind of selfish, he says finally.
Yeah, you say.
There is punctuation on your breath. You both end the conversation with prideful dismissiveness.
Luke walks you to your car and kisses you on the cheek and you grip his arm. You savor this moment because you think that it’s the last time. You say a silent goodbye to him and file his smell into your memory. Linen and wet firewood and pot. You tell yourself you will be fine because you will be. And, besides, this is for the better. You get to stow away all the ugly parts of you again. You get to pretend.
You savor this moment because you don’t know that the next day he will break up with Emma and say he needs time to himself and Emma will call you in tears and you will listen and remind her of her worth and go through his pictures again and again and again and in a week you will call him and two weeks later he will call you and four days later you will find yourself pressed against him in a Target parking lot, twisting and pulling and sucking, and one month later, it will repeat and one week later and one day later and always the twisting and pulling and sucking and always your empty, cold body in the backseat of his car and always the No, never again and always the guilty sense of accomplishment and always OK, one last time and always the long drive over and always the twisting and pulling and sucking and never, never, never the truth.
Image: “Lovers with Cat” by Oskar Kokoschka, 1917.