In any relationship, only one person gets to be Batman. There is only one alpha dog and, with Sketch, I am not it. It’s just easier to cede territory; I have never been a confrontational person, and my favorite rhetorical strategy for winning an argument is to never speak to you again. In this round with Sketch, I am lowering my chin and retreating into that familiar silence. From this, I hope he will deduce that he is being mean when he gets mad at me for canceling dinner plans. His horrible cat joins in the nocturnal bullying, pushing at my headphones with a paw while I am trying to listen to ambient noise (my favorite track is the dishwasher, with clothes dryer a close second. I’m not sure what it says about my personality that I prefer the sound of large domestic appliances to an ocean or a campfire or some shit).
Now I am waiting for him to get over it, a patient monk-like expression on my face. The problem is I want to check in every fifteen seconds. Are you still mad? How about now? How about NOW? This must be more infuriating than the original infraction, but I can not help myself.
Complicating things a bit is my love of punishment: the sound of Sketch pulling his belt through the loops of his pants undoes some latch deep inside me. Does the meaning of the recreational ass-beating change when he is pissed because I’m unable to keep dinner plans with some of his friends at fucking Pio Pio Rio on Sunday? I can’t figure it out. All I know is that when his hands are on me I fucking dig it, and I am completely into this man, and this is the one time when I feel completely and utterly in the moment.
But afterwards, he is still mad at me. The cartoon me would have a frown and two big question marks overhead. Deduction: amazing sex does not buy me out of trouble. I want to say something, but my jaw feels painted shut. In the night, his horrible cat pops a single claw like a hypodermic needle through the soft, vulnerable underside of my foot, and he is irritated when my yelp startles him awake. Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a say in this relationship, which is probably why I need to get up in the morning, after a night of not sleeping in the smoke and in the cats, to lay the words down for my side with a purr of animal relief.
I try to just keep moving. When I am walking around New York, I sometimes put my foot into invisible holes; one minute, upright, and the next on the sidewalk. My relationship has these hazards too. I don’t understand what I’ve done this week, but I seem to be in time-out. Vaguely disappointed in me about something, Sketch is showing some work this week at his studio, and I somehow get uninvited from the opening. I wonder if it’s because I look weird. My face is still bearing a hard left, a result of a recent bout with Bell’s Palsy that leaves me smirkier than usual. I ask him what he is upset about, but it seems he doesn’t want to give me a talking-to while my range of facial expressions is so limited. I find I am smiling less, and that this is not a bad thing—I only smile when I really want to, for a change.
The newly paralyzed side of my face is curiously unlined; it would look like pretty badass Botox if only both sides matched. I wear my hair over one half, like a burn victim, and peep out from behind the curtain. My friend Dawn tells me that the people who say it is not noticeable are fucking lying to me, and I appreciate the candor, rethinking my plans to go to some party where that boxing match is being shown. I decide to go anyway, and sit next to a neurologist from Cornell who serves as the fight doctor when they happen here in New York. He tells me about the correlation between yoga and brain injuries, and I feed bits of cracker into the working side of my mouth, wondering if this is something else I’ve done to myself.
I watch men onscreen punishing each other, their faces wet and glove-burned. One man has his shorts up higher than the other; after a certain point, you may as well cut eyeholes in the waistband and call them all low-blows. I have no idea what I am watching, and go sit down next to an attractive curly-haired man who explains things to me. When I lean forward for my seltzer, he puts his hand briefly on the bare place where my shirt rides up my rib-cage, and I feel that Vegas thrill in the part of my brain that needs attention, that needs to be touched. I settle in closer to him, and we watch the fight and trade bits of snark, his hand on my leg. Tom Brady is sitting ringside, and his head looks three times larger than anyone else’s. Some people just have punchable faces.
I’m not supposed to be doing any of this; I know I’m just upset because Sketch is being distant, and that the fantasy of new sex feels better than the reality of handling the problems with the one I’ve got. My face hurts when I talk about this relationship, I want to tell him. I can’t just smile my way through it; all I’m packing is this half-smirk.
All Sketch and I do this week is pummel one another, and all I want to do is wrap my legs around this curly-haired stranger. I am tired of Being Good. I am tired of keeping score. I just want to throw a chair at somebody, grab for down low.
But you can’t escape who you are. I fold myself in close to the curly-haired man when I hug him goodbye, but leave on my own. I will lay awake in bed when I get home, feeling my bruises; I had acupuncture today, although I am coming to suspect that integrative medicine is bullshit. Fix me, I yell to the East and to the West. East and West retreat to their corners, leaving me in the middle making promises to myself that I will learn to swing, wondering what the over/under is on saving what’s left of my face.