Because my love life is a series of concentric circles, like Dante’s vision of hell or the spirals in the eyeballs of the recently hypnotized, I find Kick again and am immediately reinfected with lust for his attention. The more he holds back, the more I want to bite down on his leg and not let go; it worries me, how much I love to be eluded.
We go to see the new Lars von Trier movie, Nymphomaniac. When he hugs me good-bye, I cling to his neck to smell him. The smell of him is not entirely pleasant—a mash-up of man and improperly dried towels, but I love it and I stand on the corner huffing him. We meet again a few weeks later, and I am humming like a high tension wire; Nymphomaniac II this time. I am ready for a sequel. We stand outside the Cornelius Street Bakery, after another dinner we go dutch for, and I tell him: I want you. Take me home and burn me to the ground. (In the film of my life, there should be a swell of German industrial music behind me here). I have never wanted anything, or anyone, as badly as I want this man at this precise moment. My hands are on him, his hands are on me, we ride the subway like teenagers: one seat. Back at my place, I have a half dozen orgasms, the sheets and pillows fall into the widening gap between the bed and the wall. It is amazing, but when it’s over, I find myself looking at the clock and the door again. When he looks at me and proclaims, “We’re back!” I feel the panic lift in my chest like a flock of birds.
I am determined to ride this one out with the handbrake on, even after I smell the burning. I feel panicky when I wake up in the morning, not that he will be gone, but that he will still be there. But I can’t keep my hands off him, I can’t stop wanting to give him things. Even as I search for the exit, I want to tell him all my secrets; I want to give him both my kidneys.
He goes through his own shit, legal machinations he will spend hours telling me all about, his anger exploding in nine directions when he fucks me. He wraps his hands around my neck so hard it leaves stranglemarks, my back and my legs are bruised, he scratches my vocal cords shoving parts of himself down my throat. I display my battlewounds and wait for a rescue. I imagine Sketch coming in swinging.
I squint harder and call him my boyfriend, but it’s always with italics, like a foreign word. I bring him to the Astoria carnival to meet my friends, where he complains about the cost of things and is just generally weird and awkward and embarrassing. I crack jokes that Sketch would have run with, and Kick stares at me with incomprehension. If there is a title for this tableaux we frozen in, it would be What the Fuck are You Talking About? And then he comes home too depressed to fuck, and I know that this is the choice I have made, but I could leave at anytime, so I do not leave.
Meanwhile: Sketch and I have decided not to talk or text until Halloween. It is now June. Letters, we decide . We can still send letters. He has a new girl, someone named Kim. I hope she’s nice to him.
I get bed bugs, a social disease in New York City that involves hauling everything you own down the block to the Laundromat and no one wanting to let you in their house. The exterminator comes, and everything is sprayed with toxic powder. I take a picture of the powder-bestrewn entrance way and send it to my roommate with the tagline, “First you get the bugs, then you get the powder, then you get the women,” but she has never seen Scarface. I wish Sketch was around; it’s an allusion he would have appreciated. No one can live here for awhile, and so I exile myself, Elba-style, to the Upper West Side to Kick’s neighborhood.
Kick’s neighborhood is also Sketch’s neighborhood, and I haunt Sketch’s favorite restaurants like a friendly but stalkerish ghost, hoping for a glimpse of him. I don’t see him, but he sees me and Kick go traipsing past one afternoon; he is seated behind a menu board, camouflaged. Kick is pushing me on his bicycle down the sidewalk. I am wearing heels and a short skirt and I’m laughing. No one who looked at us would know that he and I would argue that night until daybreak, or that I would look at him across the dinner table as he challenged my pronunciation of the word “offal” and want to stab him right in the neck with my fish-fork. (He was right, by the way. It is pronounced the same as “awful.” This seems an unfortunate coincidence for the guys in suits trying to market organ meats to Americans. Fucking offal, dude.)
Kick lives on Central Park West, across from the North Woods. I find a spot called the Children’s Glade, where my pet rabbit can frolic in mad circles while I keep my eyes peeled for hawks and dogs. Kick steps over the fence and into the prickers to forage around for blackberries for the bunny and me; he returns bleeding, his hands purple and brimming. When he goes to put one in my mouth, he jams his finger in hard, and I laugh it off—I am developing this hey-I’m-in-on-the-joke-too laugh around him that reminds me, depressingly, of the particularly bullied seventh graders at the school where I teach.
I bring waterguns to the park the day he has to make his first, deeply-resented child-support payment, hoping to give him an outlet for his frustration, and I give him the good, battery-powered Supersoaker, keeping the pea-shooter for myself. I know it will make him feel good to beat me at something. He’s in a contentious mood; he grills me over my use of the word atavistic (context: “I have an atavistic response to cockroaches”) before conceding I may have used it correctly. I’m used to throwing my vocabulary-weight around without being questioned, and it is this as much as anything that has me smiling at him while wanting to punch him right in the teeth. He chases me down, jams his watergun down the back of my shorts and holds the trigger while I laugh, genuinely this time.
I enjoy walking into the fancy-pants lobby of his building dripping into my sneakers and carrying a sodden rabbit. Rich people with no problems breeze past. None of these people look like New Yorkers.
Despite the glamour of the lobby, inside Kick’s apartment, I am living in someone else’s despair. He is a fanatic about recycling, but with no follow-through, so cardboard toilet paper tubes stack up in the bathroom and balls of aluminum foil crouch under the sink. Broken glass is supposed to be disposed of in some special, pain-in-the-ass way, so broken chafing dishes reside on the top shelf of his cabinet. Everything is coated, panko-breadcrumbs style, in baby-oil, dust, and cat hair. His coffee table has cubbies, each cubby filled with prescriptions that expired ten years ago, remote controls with no batteries, stained envelopes scrawled with notes to himself about how much he hates his baby’s mother. The very walls of this apartment seem to slump with despair, and between them, we have our own private dildo parties until five in the morning, bruising one another with the shades drawn. My friends Lisa and Eddie have nicknamed him Mr. Fuck, and they laugh when I come limping in, my eyes wide, smiling and stunned. I lose days in this apartment, and my life is both unrecognizable and creepily familiar. It reminds me of when I lived with Domenick, before he electrocuted himself installing an air-conditioner while high and died; we spent our days shooting cocaine and we lived on top of mounds of our own garbage. There are no drugs here, except for Kick’s old psych meds, but it is Unmanageability, encapsulated in the single cat turd that’s been drying on Kick’s futon for two days.
There is only one thing I dread worse than bedbugs, and it’s having to break up with someone. I once ran away from home rather than tell the boyfriend I was living with in this weird New Orleans apartment with no furniture that it wasn’t working out. I didn’t leave a note; instead, I called him a few weeks later from New York, but by then he had figured it out. I believe this was the precise moment that I permanently and irreparably damaged my dating karma.
So when the moment arrives where I know I need to break up with someone, my mind casts desperately about for another solution, one that does not involve having an adult conversation where I have to feel guilty. I search for this alternative with the desperation that you would look for something to douse a kitchen fire, leading to squirting dish-soap on the ungraded history exams I left too close to the range. My flashes of good-ideaness include asking a friend to call him for me, pushing a note under his door like his apartment is his seventh-grade locker, and sending him a text so emoji-laced that maybe he won’t notice the dumping.
As this is a man I have dated and professed to love for six months, I know this will not fly. I keep procrastinating; one more load of bedbug laundry, and then I will text him with the good-times hashtag, #weneedtotalk.
Most things, I have discovered, actually only take about 30 seconds of actual courage. I write two sentences that say what I need to say on a piece of paper, so I can read them to him instead of extemporizing, and set the oven timer for twenty minutes. I give him nineteen minutes to berate me because I do, afterall and in my fashion, have love for him, and I am sorry to have to let him go a second time.