“Please don’t hold me. I had more of that than I could handle with Ray. He was the first man to ever treat me as anything more than a good bed partner. Here’s something I remember: I am a little depressed and so I’m very sensitive about being intimate. Ray sets me down gently, gives me more pleasure than anyone is entitled to, brushes my hair back behind my ears, licks tears away, and holds me until I sob myself to sleep.
“So don’t hold me, okay? We can have all the basic pleasures: I’m open to anything that doesn’t actually hurt me physically. I mean, hasn’t this been fun? Haven’t we sated each other enough so that we can just lie back here and wallow in the calm for a while? Here, here’s the rest of your rum. Enjoy. I’m going to have a nice leisurely cigarette.”
Ray has trouble being alone now. His latest compulsion is writing angry poems on toilet paper in the bathroom. On those nights when he can’t produce, he surrenders to the TV and munches corn chips until the last batter is out or the credits start rolling under the sonorous voice announcing that the news is coming up. More often he’ll wake up on the couch at about 2 a.m., his back sore, his glasses lying on the carpet, pieces of corn chips dotting his T-shirt like confetti.
“If you feel you have to talk to me, please don’t ask me too many questions. I’m not callous enough to make you lie there silent like a damn fool, or make you get up and just leave, but I don’t want you prying too much either. I don’t plan on asking you much and I expect the same courtesy.
“I mean, I had enough of that kind of probing with Ray. Did I mention Ray? I wasn’t used to real talking and listening till I met him. He used to say that conversation, genuine conversation, is like shared red wine: it gets to the bottom of things. You ask, they tell, you ask more, they tell more, you pick up on things, you ask again, you probe deeper and deeper.
“But I’m done with that now. It’s over. We parted on the best of terms. We’ve agreed not to call or write. It’s better that way. Get on with our lives and all that.
“I like you. You are a good person, a great lover. I hope I haven’t been babbling too much. I hope you understand what I’m saying. I’m not pining for him or anything. I’m just trying to explain why I can’t get too involved right now. I think this has been a great evening. Indian food, Smithwick’s, lovemaking. Most people never even have it this good.”
Ray feels himself starting to go blind. He turns his head quickly and experiences a blur before his eyes start to focus again. He doesn’t understand it. He looks at some students coming out of the library. Stares at them. Tries to keep the top floor of the building from disappearing. It is not so much a blur now as it is a blind spot, a hole in his perception.
Ray’s friend Marty teases him.
“If you’d leave the damn thing alone for a day or two, you wouldn’t be going blind.”
“‘Let me tell you something about yourself.’ God, how many times did Ray say that to me. I was carrying on in my regular fashion — drinking way too much scotch, spending too much money—and I would arrive at his place quietly drunk at like two in the morning, and Ray—well, Ray would never get mad. Definitely not his style. But, Jesus Christ, he could sober me up. Not in any stupid head-game way, and not by arguing like a jackass, but just by sitting me down with an espresso and starting off with: ‘Let me tell you something about yourself.’
“He told me I was out of control, that I wasn’t slowing down or allowing myself to be conscious enough to appreciate what was valuable in my life. He asked me to just stop and think who it was who was always there the next day to rub my head when I was so hungover I wished I was dead. Who cleared your balcony, Sandra, he would say. Who cleaned up your apartment because you were so drunk that you didn’t realize you were walking on gum in your kitchen, didn’t realize you had a week’s worth of garbage under your sink, or that you had scum in your bathtub that went very nicely with the black and white tiles.
“He cursed now and then, or got a little sarcastic, only to shake me up. He wasn’t harsh about it. He was just trying to make me pay attention to how much hurt I was doing to myself.
“Oh, Jesus, I’m babbling again. I’m sorry. Did you say something? I’m so sorry. Here, pour me another one, and when we’re nice and loaded again, when even talking about Afghanistan is just too damn funny for words, then we’ll have some nice stiff sex again.”
Ray is starting to get angry and confused over names. He keeps thinking Sandra, Sandra, Sandra, when he knows he shouldn’t. Everything from “sand” to “sangria,” and even what she used to call stupid Jane Austen words such as “sanguine” — everything reminds him of her, everything comes back to her. Tonight he decides to do something to free his mind from her trap.
The bar is no different from the scores of other ones he could have chosen. The bartender has on one of those white cotton aprons, thin, tied at the back, and stretched tight over an established belly. The sight comforts Ray. The decor is functionally minimalist. Springsteen pounds out something on the jukebox, something about cars, something about love gone bad, something about longing. Ray can’t help smiling when he sees her. Smoking, of course, and alone. Her drink looks just slightly out of the ordinary, Tanqueray maybe, with something fizzy in it. She sees Ray smiling, looks him straight in the eye for an uncomfortable length of time, and then looks down at the ashtray as she taps her cigarette.
He sits on the stool next to her, offers to buy her a drink, and holds out a lighter as she puts a fresh cigarette in her mouth. She nods, stares, inhales, and taps nothing from the end of it.
The sex later is functional, minimalist.
“I’m sorry. Yes, it’s Jim, right? Oh my God, this is so awful. I know you’re not Ray. I’m just a little mixed up and distracted these days. Please let me explain, Jim. No. Please, no. Please don’t go. I went out with him for years. We were supposed to get married last month. We broke up, it’s over, but you just can’t forget that kind of thing just like that. Please stay, Jim. I like you. Please …”
Ray has taken down from his fridge the schedule of movies playing at the repertory cinema, and now keeps an up-to-date list of the things he would like to do before he dies:
1. Have sex with an inflatable doll. (Ray imagines buying her all flattened out in some kind of K-Mart shrink-wrap package. Flattened out like that clown punching bag he had as a kid. Punch, down, up, punch, down, up.)
2. Read more philosophy. (Marty has suggested some intriguing titles by Kierkegaard he’d like to peruse: Fear and Trembling, or perhaps The Sickness Unto Death. He wants to be wandering like some demented Wordsworth with book in hand, admiring the look of the countryside, pausing a while to pick a flower or two, when he performs his first (and last) acte gratuit: jumps off a cliff, maybe, or does a one-and-a-half gainer into a blissful pond even though he can’t swim a stroke.)
3. Be a guest on Oprah. (He loves the format: theme, dumb audience, host with more fat cells than brain cells, panel of dough-headed losers, and The Expert. Ray plans on disruption. When he explains that there was absolutely no reason for Sandra to leave him, that he would have done anything for her, and The Expert comes out with some gem like “No one person can satisfy all our emotional needs”—well, then Ray wants to start throwing chairs, or recommending the Pillsbury Dough Boy as a nice partner for Oprah, or raving about how oversexed the maids are in the hotel they’ve put him up in.)
4. Scare her. (Ray wants to re-create the past and change it. When she says to him, “Ray, I’m leaving you because I’m in love with another woman,” he doesn’t want to be polite about it this time. He wants to take her by the hand to the alley behind the restaurant, gently, soothingly as always. Take her there, put his forearm at her throat, push so that she can breathe but can’t talk. Take out a pocketknife and pick his teeth with it, remove a bit of lemongrass remaining from the soup, and then, just after he has brought the knife much too close to her angelic forehead, simply spit a piece of noodle into her eye. Drop the knife. Ease back. Smile but don’t cry. Turn around and go home, alone.)
“Please don’t get up and go right away. Stay a while, can’t you? I’ll be all right in a few minutes. Hey, you can tell your buddies that you brought tears to my eyes in bed. Right. Sorry, sorry: not funny. I’m sorry. Come back to bed. Please don’t go. Hold me.”
5. Publish an essay. (Ray has brooded on the topic almost continuously for the past month: the fine line there is between being middle-classed civilized — making distinctions between forks, being disdainful of unthrifty behavior, keeping the garage immaculate—between that and being murderously violent—killing yourself with carbon monoxide in that garage with the cross-country skis looking on dispassionately from the rafters, spending a wad on a .44, taking one of those forks, perhaps the small one intended for the romaine, and jamming it in someone’s eye.)
6. Do stand-up comedy. (“You know, I think one of the things I learned from my childhood is that there are advantages to everything. Even getting dumped by the woman you love. I mean, I lost my appetite totally, and haven’t looked this great in years.”)
7. Construct the most personally hurtful list of ways a woman could break up with you, and submit them to Letterman as a Top 10 List. (The spicy Thai noodles are followed with that excellent iced coffee. The bill arrives and is placed discreetly mid-way between the two of you. You take it only because it is your turn. She dabs a bit of nothing from the left-hand corner of her lips, puts down the napkin, and after you have given the pen and merchant’s copy back to the waiter on the black plastic tray, she tells you she’s in love with another woman. LETTERMAN: Number 2, Say she’s cleaned out your savings account as an acting fee for faking all those orgasms … And, the Number 1 Most Hurtful Way a Woman Can Break Up With You … Say “I’m in love with another woman” only after the check is paid. Laughter. Thunderous applause. Close-up on Dave announcing the first guest. Go to commercial.)
“Okay, here’s what happened. We met, fell in love, got engaged. I got way too drunk one night and slept with Monica. It carried on for a few weeks and I genuinely thought I was in love with her. I told Ray, broke up with him. The next week Monica moved in with her accountant. I called her and she told me to wise up and get a life.
“I started drinking in a serious way then. Dated a few guys. I was so happy when you came up to me. I noticed you earlier because you do look a bit like Ray. You are such a good lover. You give me so much pleasure. I am starting to feel a bit guilty. Please … tell me what you would like.
“I’m grateful for what you’ve done for me, but all I want is to have him with me again. Have you ever had to make a conscious effort to get something, someone, out of your mind. Have you ever wallowed nervously in dread that you’d never see him again. Have you ever thrown away what you love most?
“No, don’t. Please: I need to be alone now. Please understand. I’m sorry. No, I can’t, I’m sorry. If you want to help me, please just leave. No, please don’t. I can’t. Please. Please don’t hold me.”