To explain who I think my ex-girlfriend is bedding, I need to talk about a sitcom. The writing on the show was good. It was one of those sitcoms without a laugh track, so you had to figure out on your own what was funny. For a while, some people did: They figured it out and laughed, and they became what one might call “fans of the show.”
I was one of those people. I especially liked the character of the neighbor. The neighbor was a strong woman who hated her husband. She was selfish, sarcastic, and worked for the government.
Dear Shulamit, you are asking how things escalated to what you call “a point of danger.” This is what happened: One Saturday morning in bed, the topic of the sitcom came up, and when I mentioned the neighbor, my girlfriend said Oh, I know her, I used to fuck her sister. In the show, the neighbor woman had no sister, but in real life, I learned, the actor who played her did. The actor’s sister was married at the time my ex-girlfriend met her, and when her husband was away and the kids asleep, she would become a lesbian. For some time she was being a lesbian with only one woman, and that woman was my ex-girlfriend, years before we met.
So: Imagine them having their affair. Can you see it, Shulamit? There’s a winding road leading up to the house, a white Chevy always in the driveway, large windows overlooking a garden. My girlfriend is long-boned and stunning, and back then her beauty was softer—easier transitions from nose to cheeks to mouth and so forth; I’ve seen pictures. Over time she’d develop some facial harshness, but you don’t need to imagine that yet. The neighbor’s real-life sister looks something like the lovechild of a gymnast and an owl.
At the same time, imagine me in a few relationships—a couple of men, a couple of women, always leaving too early so I wouldn’t get left—and more importantly, imagine me at my piano, because that’s where I’d be most of the time, the practicing going well, my fingers getting longer. The piano has taught me that our bones stretch when there’s something we truly need to reach. ( Risoluto, my first teacher used to say.) Then imagine me walking the streets of New York with a borrowed flashlight, wandering into a roof party of people I’d never met, people unafraid of the blackout. Imagine me meeting a woman there, an accountant who used to be an actor but quit. Imagine me asking, Isn’t acting the sort of thing you can’t quit? I like interrogating people about various possibilities of leaving. Imagine her saying Anything can be quit . Imagine her reaching for me in the dark, because, of course, acting is the sort of thing one can’t quit—that sense of drama, it never leaves the body. Imagine us kissing, imagine someone bumping into us with force, imagine us laughing through the pain in our mouths. We all slept there that night, tired bodies on asphalt. In the morning, daylight making the blackout less threatening, I spent some time looking at her sleeping next to me, my heels on top of her heels, the shapes the sun was making on her face. So fast, and yet there it was, a soft beat under and between myself.
Now imagine us months later, in bed that Saturday morning, the part you already know. I mention the sitcom neighbor and my girlfriend mentions the real-life sister. Would you be scared, if you were me, picturing your girlfriend as an actor in Los Angeles, living this life in which she sneaks into married women’s beds in the night, beds of women whose sisters are famous? I didn’t want her to have lived a life so entirely somewhere else and without me.
Once you know the details of your lover’s past, what’s going to keep that past unreal? What’s going to keep you from seeing her thoughts, her fantasies, the moment a memory returns to her all soft—much softer than it felt on her skin back when it was a moment of life? What’s to keep you from dreaming up the image of a plane ticket she booked to Los Angeles, from seeing shadows of her packing bags, from forgetting where they say to pinch so you know if you’re asleep?
(I see your chin tighten, hear your voice say Try to be clear. And I am trying, Shulamit. I am trying to be clear, but you know that joke about the woman who keeps asking the bartender, “Don’t you have something stronger?” That’s how I feel whenever I try to speak. And maybe that’s why I love the piano: It is polyphonic.)
I became sensitive, after that, to any mention of the neighbor’s sister or that sitcom, and on the occasion when the neighbor’s sister contacted my girlfriend—because apparently they still occasionally spoke—I would go into my studio and play until I bled. Don’t be confused, Shulamit: It wasn’t a good thing, this practicing. If before I played to make myself feel, now I was playing to make myself numb. I replaced bells with growls. I became a hunter of low notes. I was practicing to get worse, you could say, and it was working.
If my girlfriend posted something about the MTA on her blog and the neighbor’s sister commented, I immediately needed to play, to disappear into music. My girlfriend often posted things about the MTA, which she deemed responsible for much of her suffering. See, I believed that if a train was running late, I could read a book. My girlfriend loved reading books, but not on the subway. On the subway, all she did was wait to no longer be on the subway. And so if the subway was moving and the time in which we would no longer be on the subway seemed near, she would put her head on my shoulder. We would ignore the men staring at us—there were always men staring at us if we touched in even the smallest ways—and smile to each other. I would think about what I might cook for her that night, and I would think about where we might live when we had kids. But if the train was running late or slow, and the time when we would no longer be on the train seemed far—or worse, unknown—my girlfriend would compose hate mail to the MTA in her head. Sometimes she would recite these letters to me as she composed, and I would look away so no one on the train could tell if we sat next to each other by design or by accident. Often, parts of these missives would end up on my girlfriend’s blog the next day.
I can hear you asking me: Do I wish now that I’d shown more patience when it came to things like the MTA? The answer is yes. We all have our little obsessions, don’t we, our quirks, and in love we pass those back and forth like ping-pong balls. Plick pluck, pluck plack. Now I get to be unreasonable, now you. But then sometimes out of nowhere the person you are dating reaches out under the green table and brings up a giant sack full of new balls. And see, the thing is, that was me—I did that. So it’s hard not to look back now on moments when I was impatient—because what was my girlfriend’s obsession with the MTA if not a quirk—and imagine that if I’d shown a steadier hand, she’d have felt obligated later on to reciprocate. And you might say to me: Obligated? Is obligation what you want, is obligation the same as love? And I would say to you No, no it isn’t, but it sure beats the hell out of heartbreak.
I’m learning a lot these days about the dangers of time travel; the present is our land to guard and the past is a force that tries to cross the border. You have taught me to envision a thicker fence, a taller wall, uniformed soldiers using weapons to keep me safe. And I feel safer, Shulamit, I do. I understand why you teach me to be cautious when I venture back in time, to be measured and brief and use a scalpel, and while I’m perhaps not doing so here, while this letter is admittedly going beyond the scope of what you have asked me to write, I hope you can see that in the retelling, the events are fenced: I’m looking at them from my side of the border, and they can’t touch me. I hope you can see that I’m not really “time traveling” but rather revealing myself and my past more fully to you, and that I’m doing so because I want to heal.
Since I didn’t share my girlfriend’s views on the matter of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, we often argued about whether or not the people running it must be corrupt and evil. It became a sensitive topic, a gateway to a sure fight, and it was for that reason that I took issue with the neighbor’s real-life sister responding favorably to my girlfriend’s posts. It seemed spiteful. For one thing, this woman didn’t even live in New York. What right did she have to express opinions about the MTA? And for another, she was encouraging my girlfriend’s anger; a person who encourages another person’s anger always means trouble. The way I saw it, she was either trying to win my girlfriend back, or she was trying to break us up for fun. Either way, she clearly took me for a fool, but I was no fool. I knew what to do. The next time this came up, I said to my girlfriend It’s her or me. My girlfriend was a fairly predictable woman; when she got upset you could see her jaw pushing against the inside of her cheeks and you knew what was coming. What she said in response I could have recited word for word before she opened her mouth: I was being crazy lately, imagining things, picking fights for kicks. Even though I had anticipated all these words verbatim, I played shocked. If you sleep with an actor long enough and you can’t pull off fake with ease, you must not be observing your loved one. I was observant; pretending for effect was now my second nature. I was outraged— outraged!— by my girlfriend’s use of the word “crazy.” It was prejudiced. It was offensive. It was a low blow, considering certain things she knew about my past. How could she, how could she, how could she. I got into it so bad that if I tell you I banged my head against the wall it would be inaccurate, because truly in that moment it was my head that banged itself. There’s beauty in that sort of thing, isn’t there? The body always knows how to take over.
When I stormed out of my girlfriend’s apartment, the sky was dark and cold, and because before it had been neither, this felt like an attack. My bike was nowhere, but I’d been working on my tendency to jump to conclusions, so I refused to even think about the word theft. Maybe I’m just too upset to remember where I’d parked it, I thought. Except of course this made no sense considering my upset had been a show. I walked home. An industrial area connected my girlfriend’s place and mine; the desolate streets seemed to suggest no humans had ever been awake.
Usually, when I stormed out, my girlfriend would follow me, or at the very least text. She was the kind of person who wanted to know the person she’d just fought with got home safe. Even when the person she’d just fought with had been acting out of control lately, like maybe she was having a hard time again regulating her emotions, my girlfriend would still reach out to make sure she hadn’t been murdered. And yet now here I was, walking all alone. For all she knew, I could be dead, my lifeless body cold, tossed on asphalt, enveloped in the steam rising from the trains. With each step, my phone became more silent.
When I got home, my apartment looked enormous, a boundless forest. It seemed I could walk for days and still not find my bedroom. Danger lurked in every tree. My therapist at the time had suggested a strategy for such moments: I was to sit on a chair, let my feet touch the ground, and tell myself, My feet are touching the ground. I feel strange mentioning my therapist to you, like discussing an old lover with a current one, though I suppose it’s not quite the same. The truth is it used to help, that technique; I fell asleep in my green chair that night, staring at my toes. I don’t remember calling or texting my ex-girlfriend so many times but it later turned out that I did.
My girlfriend came over the next day, carrying soup. Dear Shulamit, I know this part is important, our breakup, but I remember almost nothing at all. She heated up the soup and fed me. But then she started talking. She said things, I said things, and at some point I began to notice that the things she was saying were different from the things I was saying, and also different from the things she’d said in the past. I was starting to see what was happening, that she was leaving me, and I immediately stopped crying. It is one thing to cry in frustration when you’re fighting with a lover, and another thing altogether to cry because someone no longer wants you. I had my pride. With a dry throat, I said All right, goodbye then. But I suppose I didn’t think she’d leave. And perhaps I was still struggling to believe she truly meant her words. So when I said “All right, goodbye then” and she got up to leave, I was shocked.
Instantaneously, I stopped caring about pride so much as about getting her to stay. I may have accused her of some things. At one point, months before, she’d said unkind words about me to her mother and felt terrible about it later, so I may have dredged that up. Perhaps I cried and screamed and yelled that she never gave us a real chance. You see, in the past, guilt held a kind of power over her; it seemed to lock her in a cage, force her to see my side of things. So I reminded her I may get evicted any day now; I’d been having problems with my landlord. So you’re saying you’re fine with me being homeless? I asked. It was a genuine question. Don’t get me wrong, Shulamit—I’m not proud of how I acted that day, what little of it I remember. But one never knows how one will respond to cruelty until one is faced with it.
My girlfriend was a good person, but that day, she proved herself capable of cruelty.
I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but there’s something about you that reminds me of her—I saw that right away, my first day in Group, even if I wasn’t quite myself. It takes something out of a person, admitting you need help so bad that you’d give up your freedom to get it. So I was messed up that day, but I still knew what I saw. I remember thinking: Rubato. Do you know what that means? It’s a kind of tempo that flows freely, that isn’t held back by rhythm. Which is to say it wasn’t appearance per se, this resemblance I noticed. My girlfriend, like most actors, could look like anyone if she put her mind to it; resembling her on a superficial level is both impossible and meaningless. Your resemblance to her is more . . . molecular. For instance, when you said it was fine to call you by your first name, a name I’d never heard before, a name that sounded like a piece of music attempting to write itself— we can drop the Dr., you said, remember? I’m not a fan of formalities— I thought that maybe you had trouble setting boundaries, which is my girlfriend’s greatest challenge in life, a rubato kind of challenge. She’d tell you that herself, so this is no projection. But I’ve learned since that you sure know where and how to set lines, so never mind that. (I still maintain that taking away my phone rights because I called my ex one time was unreasonable and harsh and not conducive to my recovery.)
And perhaps you’d say Isn’t it interesting that you’ve not mentioned this “resemblance” until now—you’d say it like that, in quotes—but no, it is in fact not very interesting at all; I haven’t told you that you remind me of my ex, because it’s the sort of thing that’s hard to say to someone’s face. And until now, you’ve not asked me to write you a letter.
I acknowledge that in this letter I’m supposed to explain why my girlfriend was under the impression that I was following her around; I assure you, I’m getting to that very soon.
Sometimes I think about the word recovering , like a layer’s been peeled off and needs new paint. Like someone saying Let’s cover this all over again. And sometimes I think maybe I don’t want to do that. Maybe I like it all peeled, the insides raw and showing. And you’d say But why, you’ve been happy with your progress, I thought? You’d use your soft voice for this question. Your eyes will look at me as they would perhaps at someone they cared about outside of these walls; it’s that special mix of helplessness and despair in a patient that gets you every time, and if you thought I didn’t know that then you’ve truly been selling me short.
Yes, Shulamit, I have been “making progress,” or rather when a question uses those words and I’m supposed to pick between Yes and No, Yes has been the answer closer to the truth, which is what the instructions say to choose if you’re unsure. But the truth is one day I’m better, the next I’m worse, and on the third, I question all the ways in which the words better and worse have failed me, have failed all of us since the beginning of time. Do you know what I mean, Shulamit? Every third day, I question language, anything that isn’t pure sound.
Maybe you already know all that. I like imagining that you are very smart.
I made some gestures after our breakup, gestures I consider normal—healthy, even. They were expressions of love: a letter, a mixed CD, some gifts. On Thanksgiving, I called. This was merely me conducting myself in an honest, authentic way: Despite everything, I still felt thankful to my girlfriend, and Thanksgiving is meant for communications of gratitude. I’ll admit that I got very upset when she asked me never to contact her again. I wrote her a long letter in response and perhaps it wasn’t my best one, not entirely well-reasoned, but that’s because I had to write fast, send it fast, before the new rule took effect which would make my letter seem like some sort of breach. The bottom line of the letter was that I agreed to grant her request—what else could I do? But I also informed her that she would still remain my emergency contact with my primary physician; “I’m in no position to change that at this time,” I wrote. Notifying her seemed only fair, and the responsible thing to do for both our sakes. I had a migraine for days—just spasmed in pain in my bed and thought I might be dying—and then caught some stomach bug. My doctor insisted it wasn’t an emergency.
For a while after that, things were fine, truly fine. I stuck to my routines—day job, gym, grocery shopping on Tuesdays. I signed up for a hula hoop class. And I got back to the piano, even booked some performances. I used to hate playing concerts. One of the ways in which the piano sucks is its bigness, its heaviness. It isn’t portable, which means that in front of an audience you never play your instrument—after a brief introduction you’re supposed to perform, like a one-night stand in someone else’s body. But now that sort of thing seemed exactly what I needed. Work can be our savior.
Two months later, I saw them: Bright sharp daylight, traffic loud on both sides of 57th , my girlfriend walking down the street with the actor’s real-life sister. I looked away—which I know now was a mistake, but it was instinct—and started running. I ran through people and cars, looked for opportunities to push bodies out of my way. I didn’t think I was running home but that’s where I ended up, and I stayed there for days. People later claimed I’d missed a concert, but that seems extreme, and that part I still consider a mixup. What can I say, Shulamit? The two of them pushed some kind of button deep in me and it created some kind of chaos, like a bug I had once in my recording software that made the music start on its own until you rebooted. I’ve been searching for a way to reboot myself ever since, and failing and failing and failing.
You understand, don’t you, that this is what I’m doing here, that this is why I’m giving this letter a shot, that this is why I’ve tried my best to do everything you people have told me to do—because I don’t know how to live like this anymore. It’s like messages pop up for me to authorize this or that action, but only after the action already took place.
I know: I turned around so fast that day in the street, can I even be sure it was them? No, I cannot. And I know: I’m prone to daydreaming and can I be sure that it wasn’t my imagination playing tricks? No, I cannot. And finally, what if they did walk together in the street? What would that even prove? The neighbor’s real-life sister could have been visiting from LA. They might have gotten together for tea. What I saw doesn’t prove that they’re even dating, and certainly doesn’t prove that my girlfriend ever cheated on me with her ex, or that that’s why she left me. But a heart wanders where it wanders, doesn’t it? And mine tends to travel pretty far. Because—as I hope you appreciate by now, having read this letter—what I saw in the street, it fit the puzzle. It made things make sense: my girlfriend was cruel, her goodness a pretense; I wasn’t crazy when I forbade her to talk to her ex; she was the villain in our story and I, once you put all the facts together, her victim. And it would be awful, of course, to find out it was true, to have to imagine them together in bed, but what a relief that sort of thing holds—the sorrow we’re allowed when the worst fear comes true, the surrender and quiet that tend to follow.
I don’t know, Shulamit. You’re the shrink, you tell me—was it that calm I was after? Vindication? Or perhaps, against all odds: love? Either way, you know the rest. Though what you know, because I’ve chosen to be silent until now, is only her version—what you read in your paperwork, in the police report. I didn’t stalk her—that’s such a terrible, terrible word. To be fair, I can see why she thought that, but it’s still false. I did become obsessed, yes, with figuring out whether my ex and her ex were a couple, whether the love of my life had wronged and deceived me.
When you date someone a while, you know her daily route. You know her routines. You know where she tends to hang out to celebrate, where she drinks when she’s broke because the happy hour is cheap or the bartender generous, where she goes when she needs a good cry. And if you love her—if you truly love her—whenever you close your eyes, that information is right there: What’s her mood like today? Where is she? You just know. You feel it in the tension behind your neck, the pressure in your temples, the sweat on your back. And, yes, if at any time you’re unsure, you can turn to social media. We live in a world and a time that encourage connection. But if your love is pure then you have a magnet inside you always tugging, always wanting to show you the way.
So, yes, Shulamit, on a number of occasions I made myself available to my girlfriend by showing up somewhere. I realize what that sounds like, but it’s still the truth: That’s all I ever did. I never confronted her—never. And contrary to what she said to the police, I never followed her, either—I swear to you on my life—or not once I could tell that she’d spotted me. The goal was always only to be seen. To make myself available. I trusted with all my heart that one day, when she was ready, she’d start a conversation. And I hoped that maybe she’d see this happenstance—us running into each other—as a sign of some sort and confess to me, apologize. If she had, I think I’d have forgiven her, Shulamit. But you have to believe me: Every single time, once I could tell she saw me, I’d turn around and go home.
That last time at the Urban Outfitters on 6th—it was a misunderstanding. I stayed a few more minutes only because I couldn’t tell if she’d noticed yet. I waited, pretended to look at some denim. I know that wasn’t great, Shulamit—truly, I accept that, and if I’d been myself without some strange software running me, I assure you it would not have happened. But calling it stalking? Saying I flashed a knife? That’s absurd. In honesty, I don’t hold that lie against her; police don’t take women’s fears seriously, so she did what she believed necessary to stay safe. I’m only saying she made a fool of herself, which is a shame. Wouldn’t you agree?
At the police station, the older officer—a ridiculous mustache trying to reach his forehead and eyes with nothing smart to say—cared only about his paperwork, barely talked to me at all, and the younger one—muscles and muscles—seemed vaguely turned on. If you’ve ever dated a woman, Shulamit, then you know: There’s no mistaking that look in a man’s eyes, what he’s imagining once he learns you sleep with women. It was clear that nothing else about the situation struck them as worthy of their attention; all I had to do was play it cool and I’d be out of there in minutes. The young one gave me his card to call in three days for a copy of the report, and I nodded, smiled.
What happened next wasn’t in any of your papers, believe me. You know, when I was younger, as a teenager and in college, on occasion I would use a man’s desire to get high. I believe most women know how to do this; men’s desire is dumb, empty energy but if you manipulate it right, it’s like you’re shooting up something strong. You’ll crash later, of course—crash to pieces, crash into darkness and shame. But never mind that. Sleeping with a certain kind of man quiets everything in the whole wide world, and you only feel your power, and your beauty, and his need, and his body. He and his need take up all the space inside you, and when he tries to take more, as these men always do, you feel a sharp pain for a fast moment—the sharpest you’ve ever known. On the wave of this pain up up up you go, escaping to survive what he’s doing to you, what you’re doing to yourself, and all your memories pixelate, everything good and bad now gone, and you float above your body watching a silent film, like this means nothing to you, like you’re a cinematographer and this is your art.
But you see, Shulamit, the thing is, I’d not abandoned myself in that way in years. I’d thought I was someone else now. I’d thought I would one day marry my girlfriend. And I’d believed that marrying each other would keep us both safe in this terrible, terrible world. You already guessed, right? I called Officer Grant. I asked nothing about the report. I said Would you like to get a drink? And it turned out that he wanted to get a drink.
Do you know that feeling, Shulamit, when you wake up in the morning and you’re still drunk? It’s shocking, isn’t it, the moment when the body realizes not enough toxins were dispelled in sleep, when it faces its own failure. In that state of nausea and brain pressure and shock, I watched Officer Grant put on his uniform. Do I need to say that’s not what he wore the night before? That seems obvious. He had a black bag with him I’d paid little attention to at the bar but now could not ignore, because, of course, this meant he knew before the night even started not only where we’d end up, but also that I’d let him stay. So who had the power? Who knew how to manipulate, Shulamit? And who had abandoned herself entirely, let her body be trashed? I could see something I’d never seen before. I could see that I shouldn’t be trusted with myself.
I didn’t shower when he left. I still smelled of him when Vanessa downstairs had me sign my name on two dozen dotted lines, when she asked with concern why no one had come with me for support, when she took away my razors and my phone and my pocket knife. I spoke very softly, moved slowly. Her words sounded distorted, like her throat was using effect pedals. But in a way, I suppose I’m grateful to Officer Grant. They say we need to experience a kind of death in order to ask for help, in order to choose life; it seems that for a woman, so often a man is the quickest way to die.
Because I’m committed to getting better, I no longer wish to ignore a certain truth—one that has been on the periphery of this letter from the start: I see you. Not only as a therapist, but as a person, as a woman. Are you going to deny that spark of possibility, use boring words like transference? Maybe, but something tells me you are above that kind of nonsense. Not a fan of formalities . Something tells me that if I say “Hey, Shulamit, when I’m out, why don’t we go for drinks sometime?” you’d say “Sure, yes, why not.” Am I right?
There’s this sound—the hammers coming off of the strings after a chord has rung clear, like men stepping off a wooden platform. It is the sound of letting go of the old, stepping into something new. I think we can do that. I want us to do that.
Here I am, Shulamit. No more silence, no more lies or secrets. Now I’ve shed off every possible piece of cloth that ever covered me, and I am standing here before you with nothing on but skin and pain. I’m saying: I see you. Can you see me?
Shelly Oria will be teaching a 4-Week Online Creativity Unblocking Workshop at Catapult starting September 4th!