Invasion of privacy can often demand a heavy price.
He's done it before: left me alone in his apartment. But I haven't done this — until now.
It's not as if these boxes haven't always been filled with photographs; it's not as if these leather notebooks weren't always filled with his handwriting; it's not as if the evidence hasn't been lying around, out in the open, just begging for a little attention. But today the itch to explore is a little too itchy, and I guess our love is a little too, uh, lovely — so I'm not even waiting for him to leave.
Soon, my heart is racing.
I can feel my neck pulsing, blood rushing to my face. I'm frozen, but not numb. I try to forget what I just saw and what I now know. But I'm shaking, and my limbs feel stiff and weighted. My feet are glued to the floor, my body to the chair. The secrets I've unleashed knock against my insides.
It's a familiar feeling: I know I've found the goods, but I don't have time to examine them as carefully as I want to, because their owner is either asleep in bed next to me, or, in this case, in the next room, playing the piano.
It helps when he's occupied with something that makes a distinctive noise. When it stops, I can jump away from the scene of the crime. A trained eye such as mine needs only an instant to detect the words worth holding onto, the words I'll trade for eating and sleeping. I may look at them for only a nanosecond, but I'll never forget them.
They can be nouns, verbs, adjectives; even conjunctions can be very telling. But they're usually words like love, f*cked, with, lie, sad, serious, hot, beautiful, forever, girl, or — in this particular instance — names like Tina, Meredith, Nicole, Betsy, Jennifer, Marguerite, Katarina.
Of course, my name appears, too, as TB, the cryptic initials of a nickname my parents gave me when I was a toddler.
An experienced jump-reader can piece together sentences, thereby discovering sentiments within the patterns of what I call Big Words. These words aren't big in the intellectual sense. But they're concrete — and that's what makes them big. There's no denying the significance in a sentence that jump-reads, "Dear Jennifer… This is a love letter…"
Most of the Big Words that follow my initials are fine, even flattering: words like sex, amazing, gorgeous, The One? But then I spot some Bad Big Words. Words that hurt more than anything linked with proper nouns from his past.
Though we've been together only four months, I'd been pretty certain that this was it. But now I can barely get out of his desk chair. I'm shaking, and I'm feeling dizzy.
I glance up as he enters the room—in slow motion, each step toward me more suspicious than the last. He takes one look at my face and sees everything.
Somehow, we end up in the kitchen. He's standing above me, bouncing expectantly. "You're really something," he says. He says this a lot, so it calms me for a second, makes me feel more sane, like maybe I do know him, after all.
"Oh, yeah? Well, you're an asshole." This is what I always say in response. I'm saying this out of habit because I know I can't say what's really flashing through my mind.
"You're really something," he repeats. "You're really something!" He's wandering around the kitchen, shaking his head, pulling his hair.
"Why am I 'something'?" I manage to ask. I'm baiting him — I want him to yank it out of me.
"Reading my old letters?! My journals?!" He's pacing around like he's really had it, but I know I'm hurting more.
"You're really an asshole."
"Oh? I'm an asshole?" He's furious. "No, you're not an asshole—you're the asshole." This is about as far as the humor goes. From now on, it's serious drama, with weakness in my stomach and bowels.
I'm scared—so scared of what I know, what I don't know, what I thought I knew so well, what I guess I never trusted to begin with.
"I don't even know what you've read." He sits down, scornful of my crime, as if he can't begin to imagine forgiving me.
"It's not just the countless girls you'll 'always be waiting for' — to come back from wherever they've gone, or to decide that they love you too. It's the stuff about me," I say. Weak-dizzy-weaker. "You have no respect for me, or—"
"Or your privacy?" Now comes the salted tongue. "Oh, let me apologize for disrespecting your privacy!"
Look how little certain words become when there are Big Words nearby. Words like disrespect and privacy are about as meaningful as wilted lettuce on a sandwich: You know it must be there for a reason, but the sandwich would surely be better without it.
F*ck his privacy. Where's my privacy? I don't see any f*cking privacy. Isn't that the point? Not to have privacy? Not to have secrets? I think about how many things are really between us—not just the eight-year age difference, or the ghosts of our pasts.
Now even the three feet of air between our bodies feels like a canyon that only a superhero could cross. And I'm certainly not leaping first.
"I mean, if I found something you wrote, I wouldn't even dream of reading it," he says. "Even if I wanted to, I'd restrain myself."
I stare at his shoulders and try to find a new meaning for the dandruff on his shirt — something worse than just dead skin. I search desperately for anything to help me hate him. Even the shirt itself has the potential to become hateful, I tell myself. I just need to find that something that's really gonna do it for me, that'll make it easy to get up out of this chair and leave.
"Writing — and especially writing in a journal — is about, it's about ... experimenting with language and feelings. It's about, well, it's not about writing for a reader."
OK, so he's handing me the hateful thing on a silver platter. Like I don't know what writing is. Then I notice a spot of throbbing flesh on his neck. Nervous pulse? Guilty conscience? Fear?
I tell myself I'm looking for the hateful thing, but the loving thing is really what I seek.
I can't decide which of the Big Words is the most upsetting. I don't know if it's that he f*cked this girl or that girl, or that he actually used that word to describe it. Or if it's simply that he was with a girl named Tina. I know it's not that he thinks I'm lazy. I know I'm lazy: that's no secret. It might be the sentence about his not believing I have what it takes to be a successful writer—a real artist like, oh, I don't know, him.
It might be something else that he doesn't believe: "She says he... but I blame her… " It was hard enough to tell him What Happened; hard enough to hope for a response as loving and compassionate as the one I thought he gave me. But the page tells me what he really thinks: "She asked for it."
Is it the words themselves that hurt so much? Or is it the way he's so carelessly bracketed them around me and my secrets? Is it that I regret having exposed those parts of me to begin with?
I do know that all of this makes me wonder what he's really doing when I'm not around — or what he's really thinking when his mouth is closed and he's sitting, alone with his thoughts, writing.
"This is so unfair." He looks at me and reaches for my hand. "I don't really blame you. I feel totally misrepresented." But there's nothing he can say. I know that's how he feels. He wrote it for himself, so why on earth wouldn't it be what he feels?
"It's not like I'm really thinking when I'm writing." And that's what hurts the most: the uncensored, unbridled truth.
In the end, after all this talking and staring and shaking and crying, I still don't have the courage to get up and leave. I still love him, and I know he loves me. He's got to. How could he not?
The phone rings. "You should answer your phone," I say. He doesn't move — like he's trying to prove to me that he doesn't need to answer the phone, like I'm more important. It rings again. "You should answer your phone," I repeat, only this time I say it more like an order. On the third ring, he answers it. He retreats to his room, but doesn't close the door.
He makes calls, gets calls, arranges lunches, brunches, golf games, and dinner parties, booster-seating his way up to the table of whatever his idea of success is. Oh, I believe in him. And how! And while he's proving so earnestly that he’s someone to believe in, I've found substantial evidence that he doesn't believe in me.
I'm too nauseated and jittery to sit up straight, so I lie down on his couch. I can hear him in the other room, still making his calls. I know that people are asking about me, because I can hear him say that he'll "tell her," or that "she's one."
The apartment holds in the cold from the night before, so I huddle under a green-and-white Mexican blanket that he probably bought on the side of the road on one of his romantic trips with one of the many loves of his life.
After an hour or so, he comes to my side and touches my face. "Are you hungry?" he asks.
"No," I say.
"I'm not either." He looks away and rubs my back. "We should go for a walk or something. Get some fresh air."
He turns back to me: "Come on."
He lifts me off the couch.
Usually, I wait for him to collect all his stuff — keys, cell phone, old newspapers, bottles—but today I walk aimlessly out the door and, step by step, drift downstairs. I pass other tenants climbing in the opposite direction. I manage to smile at them.
Normally, I wouldn't feel safe standing in the street in this neighborhood, but today I walk out of the building and even down the block a little.
It's warm out — too warm for my wool sweater — but I delight in my physical discomfort, marking the beginning of what I've dubbed "instant weight-loss": no appetite, the heat, my racing heart. The pounds start dropping by the minute.
I imagine he's trailing behind, head hung, brow lifted, anticipating forgiveness. But when I turn around, I see he still hasn't left the building. I stare at a chicken bone, sucked dry, lying on the sidewalk.
When he finally arrives at my side, we begin walking, side by side, around Williamsburg in the heated September afternoon, not talking, not even looking at one another. I'm imagining which girl he was with on that trip to Mexico when he got that stupid blanket. Was it Nancy or Nina? JK or LJ? "I love you" or "Te quiero"?
Two days later — after not talking and talking in circles and crying and restaurants and beds and sleeping and not sleeping and drinks and showers and baths and so many minutes and dollars wasted — I decide I'm going to drop it.
After all, what I read wasn't anything that really proves he doesn't love me, doesn’t believe in me. And all those letters are from before my time. And, if I really stop to think about it, I’m no angel myself.
But I'm still waiting for him to do something — something of such magnitude that I'll know…
The phone rings. "Maybe I could come by your place, and we could go for a walk in the park or something?" he suggests.
"Yeah?" I look outside, and the sun is shining like pure happiness.
"I'll just finish making a few more calls, and then I'll come by before my basketball game."
I stay silent, waiting for more.
"Does that sound good?" he asks tentatively.
It sounds better than nothing.
"Yeah," I mutter. I haven't been talking much, so I'm wary of my voice. I decide to zip it: radio silence.
I'm hoping he'll know what to do with this stillness, that he'll cross it to come get me, bearing that make-up-for-everything something.
"What are you doing for dinner?"
Could this be it?
"I don't know."
"Well, do you want to have dinner with me?"
Silence on both ends.
"I don't have to go to basketball."
OK, there's a sacrifice. But he's resentful? The nerve.
"Well, don't do anything on account of me!" The zipper has split open, and I'm furious. I can practically see the estrogen in my body rising to unnatural levels.
"Oh, don't worry," he says nastily. "I really want to have dinner with you. What with you being so sweet and all."
I look over at his picture on my bedside table and, miraculously, remember that I was going to drop it. He loves me. "He loves you," I can hear friends and family chanting, pleading for me to believe.
"Where do you want to go?" I ask gently.
"Somewhere cheap," he says definitely — not out of anger, but out of pure honesty. I eventually decide on a place that's neither cheap nor delicious but potentially romantic, due to its choice of lighting and music. He suggests meeting there, but after another silence, offers to meet me at my place.
I decide to wear the dress I haven't worn since I bought it two years ago. It's perfect for my newly svelte figure. I agonize over the earrings, the necklace, which way to part my hair. I layer on enough makeup to restore the glow I've lost.
He arrives half an hour late, with white flowers that must be in the dandelion family: a last-minute, four-dollar bundle of weeds. He's wearing sneakers and an ugly green shirt, reminiscent of a putt-putt course. He moans when he sees me.
"You look great," he says. I put the weeds in water and grab my bag. We walk to the restaurant, and he tells me about his lunch with his father. He's glad he had lunch with his father; he wants to do that more often, before it's too late. I ask him what they talked about.
"I told him what was going on with you." He has his arm around me, but suddenly it doesn't feel right. My heart stops. "He said it looks like this isn't going away."
"What isn’t going away?" I shift out from under his arm.
"Well," he begins, "I also told him about the other incident." He's referring to the incident, not so long ago, that involved my sneaking through his cell phone to find another secret he'd been hiding.
"Great!" I say, brightly. I wish he would put his arm back around my shoulders. I wish that, throughout all this I-told-X-about-you-and-what-you-did, the bundle of weeds, the cheap-dinner comments, he'd keep his arm around me and hold me tightly.
I wish that he would peer into my heart and see how much his opinion matters to me, how much more I want to be the person he wants me to be than he does. Maybe then he’d share himself with me. Then, maybe then, I wouldn't have to play detective all the time.
Or he could just stop walking and talking, pin me up against the side of a building or tuck me into a doorway, hold me by both of my cheeks and pull me forward so my face would dampen from his breath.
He could pant and shake and shiver, and I could watch fearfully as a vein would fill with blood in the middle of his forehead. He wouldn't have to say much, just that he's crazy about me and that he's sorry.
Then he could kiss me, and it wouldn't matter where we ate dinner, because my appetite would suddenly return and I'd be able to eat anything.
But at the neither cheap nor delicious Italian restaurant, I don't eat a thing. I sit across from him, watching him eat everything. I drink several glasses of wine.
I talk about trust and feelings, and he pushes pieces of focaccia in front of me. I go to the bathroom. I play around with my hair and wash my hands with soap. On the way back to the table, I notice I'm not walking in such a straight line.
"Where'd you get that ugly Mexican blanket?" I ask him clumsily.
"In Texas. Why do you ask?" He's honestly curious now.
"Who were you with?" I ask. The pain behind my voice is enormous. He smiles and kind of laughs, but he doesn't answer. We get up to leave the restaurant. He puts his arm around me.
Outside, he kisses me — not like with the drama and the sweat and the vein, but just like always. He kisses me, and I kiss him back. He rubs his hands down the front of me, and I open my eyes to see what his eyes are doing. My grandmother once told me never to trust a man who kisses with his eyes open. His are closed.
"I got that blanket with Tom, on our road trip after college," he says as we walk back to my apartment. That gives me a little something — a lifesaver — to float on for a while.
At home, I light candles. Little by little, I start to feel beautiful again. I lie on the bed, waiting for him to come and kiss me everywhere. I wait for him to worship me like a precious piece of lace, fingering all the details of the one and only design of my body.
But there may as well be a director and his crew standing in the corner: This is what we're supposed to do, this is how you make up. Turns out, I'm the only capable actor—he's trying, but he can't stay in character. He lifts his arm around me and slides into sleep, leaving me to wonder what more I could have done.
In the morning, he leaves. Last night doesn't mean anything, I tell myself. One too many, is all. But if he calls before 11, he really loves me.
If he calls before 11, if he calls before 11. And then it happens: 10:52 a.m., and that’s all I needed.
"I'm sorry," I say into the phone.
"I know," he says, "I know." We're both crying — so soft and distant, yet only three stops apart on the express train. He's calling from his cell, and I hear Chinatown noises in the background: the negotiating of street vendors, the shuffling of feet and traffic. I can almost smell the raw fish.
No talking between us. No touching. No fury. Just sniffles and breathing and love.
This moment is so full of understanding that I grip the phone tightly, careful not to lose the connection. I look at the flowers on the bedside table, and I realize how perfect they look next to my bed—how simple and beautiful they really are. I can finally stop shaking, and I can finally put this one to rest. At least, until the next time I'm alone.