Banging the Ex
(First published in Redbook)
So it evolved. After 18 months of yearning for the ex -- of being on a writing junket in Beijing and coming in from a banquet at 11 p.m. and seeing the clock in the hotel lobby tell me that back in Providence it was 11 a.m. and my ex was taking her morning exercise class, of coming home from Rio or Cairo or Capetown only to get hit with a whiff of her perfume when my boys ran down her driveway to hug me -- we tried a little experiment. We hopped in the sack.
18 months. You'd think that would be long enough. And in a sense it was. I was almost OK by then. I no longer felt sorry for myself when I took the boys to the zoo and noted how all the monkeys acted like a family. I'd stopped yelling "I'll get it" when the phone rang. I'd learned the number of the pizza delivery by heart. I was no longer timid on blind dates. On medical forms, I automatically named my sister instead of my ex as next of kin. I'd even forgotten how to spell her hometown of Tuscaloosa.
Now that the grisly court proceedings were behind me, I'd also learned how to hook up with a hundred press trips that took me far from the scene of the debacle we called our marriage, and thereby to fuck everything in sight. Gallivanting thusly was a defensive move, however; the notion that my ex was suddenly available to any man who happened to tickle her fancy but me was so terrifying that I had to neutralize its power by making myself even more available to women than she was to men. Only in that manner could I get any rest, and find a strange forgiveness.
Nevertheless, all of my fucking around barely covered my dark secret: Deep down, I was a one-woman man. Whatever promiscuity may have meant to her -- defiance, joie de vivre, whatever -- it wasn't that way for me. Promiscuity for me was a form of mourning. I was grieving with my cock. I figured it this way: The world had taken away my wife and in compensation had made all women my wives. For a while it felt as if all I had to do was reach out and there one or two would be, beauty queens from remote Fijian islands, eager to help me mourn. It was as though I was hopping from honeymoon to honeymoon, when all I really wanted was my wife in our Sunday morning bed with our boys on either side. But it was never her, my Southern belle who'd gone savage. She whom I wanted most had chosen military rhetoric over family life, turning into a kind of Apache sado-squaw, a member of some tribe of warrior women who thought that the answer to an unhappiness they couldn't name was to scalp the men they loved. Which of course only made me more desperate to have her.
The short-range solution, I found, was to inform her on a regular basis that I hoped she rotted in hell.
But I was, as I say, almost OK; my scalp had nearly healed, leaving behind a tender blue scar that other women seemed attracted to. Mesmerized, they breathed on it; a few even kissed it. They were respectful of its power, but not unduly so -- as though they had encountered such wounds before and recognized that it had been made by one of their own.
I was almost OK, then, even though I still counted my divorce in terms of months, like a new parent counting how long it had been since the child was born. The children themselves were doing well. The six-year-old was chattering up a storm, storing away a million questions to ask me when we were together. The baby was beginning to sound out a few words and it was questionable how much he understood about the way things used to be. Women I dated were crazy about them both -- the custom we had of kissing the meat loaf we all three constructed before we put it in the oven, and how adorable they looked trudging in front of us on our winter walks. When I'd ask if we were on the right path for home they'd shrug all bundled up, their shoulders rising in their little snowsuits.
It was they who kept me on track. Throughout my wild heroic desperate promiscuity, while I was dancing out there by myself amid all those women, isolated as only a divorced person is and fucking up a storm, linking and breaking, linking and breaking, my boys were my only constant. All those nights driving home in a fog so thick I couldn't see a thing but the stuffing of gray porous cardboard beyond my headlights, there they were, my center, somewhere out in the fog, twin lighthouse beams to guide me home.
As for my ex, from the get go she never admitted that she was anything less than OK. Whatever hurt or confusion she felt she kept hidden beneath an attitude of blithe and impenetrable cheeriness. It reminded me of the term in 19th century medical literature for the bemused unconcern some people use to deny psychological pain -- "la belle indifference." "What's the big deal?" she would ask, genially, when I tried to talk to her. "People move out on people all the time. Why are you getting so hot and bothered?"
Grinning a great big scared grin, and not troubling to explain what she was doing except to mouth the party line that she owed it to herself to be free, she had gone out and bought a mansion from which the boys' voices, over the phone, always echoed. Even though she had filled it up with new toys for them, gourmet foods, nannies coming, housekeepers going, decorators reupholstering chairs, and designers paint- speckling floors, still it managed to echo with emptiness. The boys lived with her on weekdays, and when I wasn't off screwing the planet, I had them weekends. The rest of the time I lived alone, with enough evidence of them -- an alarm clock in the ice bucket, rubber snakes in my sneakers -- to remind me that I didn't really live alone.
But although my ex never really saw me anymore -- she had turned me into a ghost as I had turned her into a witch -- still there remained a presumption of intimacy between us that sputtered and threw sparks. I noticed, for instance, that when she sat beside me at a piano recital for our older son, she clapped in time with me. Unconsciously, she was still involved in my rhythms. She even stopped clapping the instant I did, as though taking her cues from me in a way she never did when we were married. Was this a kind of flirting?
Clearly what was about to transpire was in a sense unavoidable. But then again, a woman once told me that if I were an Apache, myself, my name would be "Plays With Fire." In that sense, then, anything dangerous was unavoidable.
So this night. I got home from a date at 11:30 to find a message on my answering machine from my ex asking me to call her. I did, and found her in a state of high anxiety: She suspected the baby's nanny had been stealing from her. It was an awful situation, she said, because this latest nanny was so good with the baby and he loved her -- but what could she do if the woman was stealing?
"She's a klepto, really. You ought to see what she's got stashed in her room from God knows where."
"Is she there now?"
"It's her night off. She'll be back first thing in the morning. It's so scary, to be living with someone you think you know ..."
I bit my tongue.
"Could you come have a look?"
I was flattered enough to be needed -- didn't she employ someone who could fill this job detail? -- that I agreed. I put some snapshots of the boys that I'd been meaning to give her in my wallet and I drove fast over to her house, half eager to get there and half hoping to crash on the wet leaves. In a few minutes I had parked my car around the corner and was walking to her door. The lights of the city were on, and all those stars, doing what they do. It was autumn suddenly! I took a sip from my flask, ran my hand over my hairline, and rang the bell.
"I'm very upset," said my ex with a scared grin, swinging open the heavy oak door. She was wearing a flannel nightgown with the neck buttons misaligned.
The house was gigantic and mysterious to me, almost Kremlin-like in its off-limitedness. There were few places in the world as off-limits to me as the interior of this fortress, which always smelled like burnt sugar, like something delicious that had been ruined or like something that tasted great but was bad for you.
Though it was nearly midnight, our older son hadpadded out of her bedroom in his footsie pajamas and was leaning over the balustrade upstairs, as frolicsome as if it were noon. "Hey Dad, can you teach me how to tie a tie?"
"Go back to sleep, lover boy."
"But Dad, do you make root beer out of roots? Why do people always faint backwards? Come see my new puppy!"
For sure enough, he was accompanied by a Dalmatian puppy as frolicsome as he was, scrabbling its nails on the shiny parquet floor but not getting enough traction and falling on its chin and scrabbling some more.
"He's very nice but don't wake your little brother. It would be confusing to see me here."
"It's not confusing, it's nice!" he said, smiling to me as he and the dog went slipping and sliding back into his room.
I must say, it was nice. The idea of being here all together, as natural as a family of monkeys, was so nice it hurt. It made me wince to think how great it would be to be able to bounce a basketball on my ex's driveway with my sons on a school night.
"You have any salad?" I asked her.
"Are you hungry?"
"I don't know what I am," I said.
With a ferret gleam in her eye, my ex led me up the stairs to the nanny's quarters on the third floor to show me what a klepto the woman was: the 120 boxes of Magic Markers, the closet full of soup cans, the stacks of neatly packaged watchbands. Standing boldly close with a nervous little smile flickering on her lips, she asked in a voice both helpless and coquettish: "What should I do?"
"But not till I have a replacement, certainly."
I had nothing to say to this. Replacements were a tricky subject, given all the lovers each of us had had since our breakup.
"It's so frightening," she said. "When someone you trust betrays you, you think the world is going crazy."
I felt forlorn, standing there with her in such a familiar yet foreign way. I avoided looking at her because it pained me to see what I'd lost up close. She had such an aura of cool beauty, of unreachable ex-ness, that it made my heart sting. I longed for her, ten inches away. She was everything I could never have in my life: cheerleaders who wanted to date only the football team, a Lionel train set I'd yearned for when I was a kid, penny stocks that had skyrocketed in value after I'd sold them, everything in the world I had ever lost or that had been taken from me.
I mumbled something to myself.
"What?" she said.
"Nothing," I said.
"But you said something. What was that, a Pink Floyd lyric?"
"It's a poem by Swinburne," I said. "She hath wasted the something of something."
"Well, are you going to recite it?"
"That's all I remember."
Smiling, she led the way across the hall to her study and pointed out how nice it would be when the new sconces were in. The house was full of colorful paint chips taped to the walls, drapery swatches, carpet samples -- so much enthusiasm. Her eyes still had that ferret gleam, and maybe mine did by now, too, for I could see that her blood had regained the capacity of be roused by me. She wore a flush high on her cheeks as she stood studying the muscles in my neck. I could tell she was remembering what it was like to sleep with me, and was calculating what it would cost to do so again. We were excited, but we were also scared and suspicious to be standing there like this. It felt illegal. It felt like the teachers were gone and we could do whatever we wanted. I was something that had blown in from the night and wasn't supposed to be there: a train robber, maybe. Or an alien, horny and sad.
Wanting nothing more than to fix those nightgown buttons of hers, I said: "I'm sorry I told you I hope you rot in hell. Actually that's the last thing I want, but I don't know what to do with all the feelings I have toward you."
Keeping her gaze from my face, she let her head drop to my shoulder in a gesture of semisurrender and said with peculiar wistfulness, "Oh what are we going to do?"
It was as though we'd had a long fight, as though she'd been hitting me and was exhausted and I'd been hitting her and was exhausted, and just as we were about ready to hit each other again, I took her chin in my hand and kissed her instead.
"I really loved you," I said softly. "I guess that's all I'm trying to say."
"I never loved anyone but you," she said.
Hearing this was so startling that I let a moan slide from my throat. "I dreamed --" I said, but she found my eyes, then, and for the first time in 18 months she saw me, and she was kissing my mouth, and then kissing my hair, and we were crying in each other's hair, trying not to let the other know we were crying....
And when I opened my arms she fit right in. We hugged for a long time. We went to her bedroom, which smelled like the source of burnt sugar, forbidden and raw. Sitting on her bed I took out my flask and gave us both a belt of Scotch. Then it was my turn to grin, as I moved forward.
(I remember these nipples ... you spoiled me rotten in bed ... did we used to do it this way ... oh why did we ever stop ...)
And there was the aroma again that you wouldn't think would come out of all those fancy soaps and expensive linens and designer clothes and deb balls. When we were first married I used to think of her smell as the smell of Southern pond water, piney and pure, and so clear that if you skipped a pebble in the morning, you could swim out that afternoon and still find it lying at the bottom. "Fresh as a prep school girl," I used to say. But toward the end her smell had gotten more interesting. It had some grit to it, a smell out of the Alabama River mud -- gambling on the river, flash of an oil spill, tang of an orange peel, a water rat darting past, and fish so frightened they were mean. It made me want to fuck her more.
(I miss this ... it's all coming back to me ... I never thought we'd ... oh do that again ...)
18 months, and it happened because I was almost OK. It couldn't have happened when I was not at all OK, and it wouldn't have happened when I was entirely OK. As for her, did this mean she was truly OK or more damaged than I even suspected?
She was seeing me, and all the things I could never have again were encompassed in the armful that was her: cheerleaders and penny stocks and Lionel trains, and all that intercontinental yearning was mine again, too, to put to rest in triumph -- that lusting from lifeless hotel lobbies in China filled with orange dust that had blown in from the Gobi Desert, from a ferry at the bottom of New Zealand, from a hippie hotel off the beach in Goa. Here it all was again and I made the most of it as she made the most of me, clapping our hands in time ...
We solved each other's yearnings. It was curative to have that moment again, her legs up, her toes pointed -- in that hanging instant when she was about to come any second, poised there on the roof of the world with the wind suddenly dropped, trembling, drippy, breathless, the bells far off -- like lying by railroad tracks as they begin to tremble, feeling a freight train approach from five miles away.
And when it was over, there was closure. It was not confusing. What had been confusing was that she ever stopped loving me in the first place.
But later, in my sleep, it was very confusing. We were two human beings who had sicced mad-dog lawyers on each other, after all. We had deposed each other under oath. What visions are loosed when one sleeps in the arms of a woman who keeps most of your scalp in her jewelry box? All night, dreams spun like dirty plates in my mind.
I was living alone in my childhood home with all the furniture gone ... falling out of an airplane ... drinking from a dog's water bowl ... wriggling in the white satin of a coffin so I wouldn't have to spend eternity on a seam ...
Dreaming these dreams, I felt so deeply wronged it was as if my blood cells were infused with venom and I didn't know how to keep the venom from blackening my teeth one by one ...
And then in my sleep the poem came back to me, as fresh as the day Swinburne wrote it:
The fair limbs of the Loves, the fair faces
Of gods that were goodly and glad.
She slays, and her hands are not bloody;
She moves as a moon in the wane,
White-robed, and thy raiment is ruddy,
Our lady of Pain.
In the morning we woke on opposite sides of the bed. With one look we could both tell. I was a ghost. She was a witch. Worst of all, la belle indifference was back, coated in rhetoric.
"You took advantage of me when I was weak."
I rubbed my eyes. "What are you talking about?"
"Last night. You couldn't stand my being independent. You misjudged my needing your help for needing you. You never understood me."
"See, that proves you don't take me seriously."
"Oh, I take you seriously all right, I just think you're insane."
And then the phone rang; it was her accountant. She wrapped her nightgown around her tightly and gave me a little preoccupied wave good-bye.
"In that case I'm going to Bangkok tomorrow," I announced, and I wasn't even angry because how can you be angry at a savage? I was just sadder than hell because I was wasting my life suffering for her when there were women out there who were lovely and deep and maybe even true.
And then she shot me an irritated little look like, "What, still here?"
In a nightmare rush I took the snapshots out of my wallet and threw them at her face.
"Get the fuck out of here!" she gasped.
I shoved her out of bed and she hurled the phone at me and it landed on the little Dalmatian pup which had just clambered into the room with our son who was carrying one sock and crying, "I can't find the other one." The pup was yelping and the accountant was making little squawking noises from the floor and as I rushed out our son was sending me a look I'd never seen before, his eyes spiraling with fear and hate. I went to get my car, and in a moment I was driving past the house and there was the baby high on the porch in the arms of his nanny. I slowed down and saw him blinking in confusion back and forth from her to me, sounding out the word Car? as he tried to understand what I was doing there. And as I was coasting away I thought, Oh my God, this is going to be his first memory: I was two years old, I was in a huge empty house, my dad was driving away in a white car, he had sunglasses on and the wind was blowing leaves down everywhere, I was in the grip of some nanny and she was waving my arm bye-bye, bye-bye, bye-bye