Portrait of My X
May 1, 2001
He wants me, I suppose, to get over it
by Adrian Blevins
met him nearly twenty years ago in an early morning college yard and in all this time he has changed very little. Nothing about being alive exasperates me more than his inability to evolve, unless it's the double-sized tan-and-burgundy comforter I bought at Goodwill under which he and his girlfriends sleep and copulate. In The Western Canon, Harold Bloom says that 'literature is not merely language; it is also the will to figuration, the motive for metaphor that Nietzsche once defined as the desire to be different, the desire to be elsewhere.' Each time I read this passage I am struck by my own personality 'like a blow,' as F. Scott Fitzgerald says somewhere, 'to the head.' But my X has never wished to be elsewhere. He moves throughout the days and weeks and months and years and decadesand therefore, to some extent, throughout my lifewith the speed and fortitude of seaweed caught in barbed wire. Thus he fills me with a terrible, terrible grief. Thus this penny-colored wound in my wrist-bones.
Sometimes he still flings the same light-green army bag with the strap attached by a safety pin across his right shoulder blade, but I don't know anymore what he keeps in it. He used to keep marijuana and hair ties in it; he used to keep a journal in it, and whatever book he was reading, and maybe my name written three or four times on a scrap of yellow paper. He still wears his hair long and tied back, and junk-punks from the inner city still ask himby putting their thumbs and index fingers to their puckered little mouthsif he'd like to smoke or buy a joint. He's still rejecting what he snidely calls 'society,' by which he means anything at all that might cost him some money. He used to live in a three-room apartment that made me think of Russia, though I have never been to Russia. Now he lives in a house I have never seen. He prefers cash to checks and paid his child support on time until he met his present girlfriend, who is now pregnant with his third child. He's still wearing t-shirts I bought him ten years ago, and they make him look like he's shucking his own skin. In college he read Notes from the Underground perched up in a tall, old maple tree. Not too long after that he read The Baron in the Trees and has had hundreds of dreams about being a bird. He sat in that maple for a week and you could watch him reading if you leaned out of the windows of the men's dorm. When you did, your hair would blow all around your face and you could tell yourself in that moment that you were not Cinderella or one of the sleeping beauties, but Rapunzel in her tower.
I first laid eyes on him during a weekend creative arts workshop. I watched a girl with herpes try to seduce him and pondered at great length her lack of success. I think he was in those days very indifferent to anything as mundane as sex. There was something of the virgin always lingering about him and often he smelled like pine needles. During that workshop, because he didn't have any money, he wouldn't eat even though a group of us had already made the meal and asked him more than once if he'd like some. It not only mystified, but shamed me that he would not eat, and I didn't even know him yet. Later on in the marriage at the houses and picnics of strangers he wouldn't eat either, and at these times I almost wished he would get washed away in a thunderstorm. That night of the workshop he sat quietly in a chair like a wooden Indian while I threw the leftovers of our meal out to some large brown dogs.
He first fell in love with my father, who was an art professor at our college, because my father seemed to him at the time the embodiment of Beauty in Art, and risqué and funny and good with a guitar in his hands. He then fell in love with me, and now it seems almost by default. This is not to say that he didn't love me, for I'm sure he did. I have spent the past two days reading his old love letters just to make sure, and they fill me with dread. It's as if I had killed the writer of those letters by not being someone else, or by being too demanding, or by letting childbirth make me want a house. It's as if I tossed the writer of those letters into a black winter ocean.
He was my second father and taught me how to drive a stick shift. He was my only big brother, and he drove me home weeping to my mother once during my freshman year in college, and picked up my sister at the bus station, and slept on the floor when my baby brother came to visit because he was afraid of ghosts and liked to sleep in bed with me. He was maybe even my second mother. He cooked better than I did and a lot more cheerfully: he was especially good with fish and other forms of seafood, and my own mother did not eat fish unless in restaurants. For many years of my adult life I trusted no person alive but him. When we lived in the cabin in the country he bought me a chamber pot for Christmas. After we moved back into the city he bought me the Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner, and in Kentucky he bought me a maternity bra and curtain rods and an awful color of paint I thought I wanted for even worse furniture that, for all I know, we'd gotten out of a dump truck. Throughout the years in other places he bought bookshelves and shirts, earrings, necklaces, dishes, printers, plants, pants, hairbrushes, cast iron skillets, ovens, dishwashers, hair barrettes, panties, candle holders, sheets, strollers, high chairs, bumper stickers, albums, and pens and saucers and tents and forks and rugs and so on and so on and so on. With each item what he was buying was the minute wish that I would open up the closed fist of my body to him, and that was the one thing I never knew how to do. Not too long before he left he bought me the novel Mating, but I have never read it.
He does not speak well enough to please me, though he doesn't know this about himself. He fumbles around with words like he's a thirteen-year-old boy trying to unsnap a bra. He's got a kind of loose rhetoric stuck in his throat, and talks and talks and talks until he makes the shape of the face of the moon. Because he's Southern, he feels obligated to be polite and never hurt anyone's feelings, but he takes this virtue to an extreme absurdity. He constantly contradicts himself. Millions of times I've heard him say 'yes, but not really,' or 'maybe, but maybe not,' in response to any number of questions or statements, and millions of times I've responded furiously to this horrid lack of logic. When you argue with him and give him indisputable evidence that proves your case, he says, 'That's your opinion,' and thereby ends the discussion. Often I've wished to have him arrested. For many years I just wanted him to get older, and now that he's older, he's just the same as he always was, only more fortunate sexually. Because he's dating a much younger woman after his sons have made me feel so old and haggard, I sometimes have this dream in which he's left me in the woods for dead.
I married him out of cowardice anyway, so I'm sure I deserve this sorrow that I brought upon myself. I married him for fear of what I'd do with myself during the long afternoon hours, or for fear of what too much time would make me feel about my relations, and thus would have to write. I married him in an attempt to quell my own loneliness, or because his father had made some lame complaint about us living in sin. I married him because I wanted at least one hot summer to be outstanding, or because I was poor and bored and badly educated. I married him because he was not mean, like other boyfriends had beenbecause he was not selfish and for some reason loved me and had artistic ambitions and suited my father just fine and would listen to my poems and fetch my cigarettes and iced tea.
Or: I married him because he didn't have bad teeth and didn't drive a Thunderbird. Because he didn't turn away from the small boy I babysat, but went down on his knees and tossed the boy's blond hair with his hands, which were the largest I'd ever seen. I married him because by eighteen I was already tired of dating. I was tired of leaning against the sticky walls of sticky bars, of batting my eyelashes, of the dismay that would so often lower itself down on me like a breathy haunt once I heard the aunt's and the spitfires that the Southern boys spokethe niggers that they spokethe honeys and the darlings that rolled off their tongues alongside the tobacco juice and the beer. Even later, after the divorce was final and I began to look around for suitable companions, dating was too much like hunting to cause anything but extreme anxiety, and by then, to make matters worse, there were the two boys watching me from the insides of their pajamastheir all-knowing and all-saying eyes saying No, no, don't Mama, don't.
Camille Paglia says quite famously that women don't seek freedom because they know there isn't any. But I think girls with body knowledge know much quicker than others do how very little freedom there really is. You think you love him. You love him for a time. Or, you marry him (you're young, you're dumb, you don't know anything) and then come to love certain things about him, and so might as well have a baby or two, might as well lay down in the bushes and let nature have her way with you: push and blow and pant and bleed in the tall reed grasses while he stands by looking powerful and amazed, and weeps or faints at the sightwhile the earth spins on her axis and the chipmunks laugh at your equal inability to stave off the body's requisitions. Oh, you might as well. Oh, why not.
Or: I married him in rebellion against my poetry teacher, who was leaving me for another college for reasons of his own that took no note at all of my need for him to stay. Or because I didn't like my parents bossing me around or because he had a car and I didn't or because my sisters liked him or because you could tell he was going to be a great photographer or because he let me have my way and granted my every wish and tolerated my tantrums and, as I say, would in time become a good cook as well, and make a motherly kind of father and thereby mother me too.
When we first got together we could not make love because I was on my period that night and too embarrassed to tell him. Then we could not make love because he was too nervous to get an erection. I'd seduced him by singing Southern ballads in the halls of the college buildings, and I don't have a good singing voice. I'd seduced him by inviting him to dinner, and after two weeks he was living in my house with me and my dad, in my bedroom, and only once in our thirteen years together did we ever wake up making love. I suppose our bodies, like us, knew almost nothing. For our first six months we slept like plates in a dish-rack, side by side in my baby-girl twin bed.
I was born to live lonely inside myself. I have always been in this way melancholic and defective. He wants me to be otherwise, I suppose, to get over it, as he says on the phoneto swallow my past with him like we were extra-small seedless grapes on an extra-thin arid vine. I've told him I can't and I've told him I won't, but I hope in this case I'm lying my head off to spite him or to punish him for all this forgetting of his that is the worst treachery among all the immeasurable treacheries between us.
I'm writing this now because I want to confess to responding viciously to some of his girlfriends. I only seem to mind the ones he really likes. For some time after the divorce he went through girls like they were little white packets of sugar cane. They get younger each time and to my eyes more beautiful. This new one who is pregnant now is a wood nympha curly-headed little elf who looks like she'd like living in trees, too. She looks young enough to still need breastfeeding. I think I could tuck her up under my shirt and rock her to sleep with a lullaby. The day he brought her to my house for an introduction she refused to say a single word to me and walked downstairs to the basement instead, to take a look at our new kittens. I remember that I shook her hand with too much force. I remember wanting to break it into thousands of tiny elf-girl pieces. He carried her from my house on his back. I recognized at once what he liked about her, and it was mainly that she was nothing like me. It was that she would never be too demanding and would admire even his poverty, or justify it by way of a certain wrong-headed Bohemian philosophy, and live in a trailer with him if he wanted her to and who cares about houses she would tell him under the dim kitchen lightswho cares about health insurance and dental care and isn't she just so materialistic and aren't we in contrast so very, very hip? Fifteen years ago, before our sons were born, I may have been like her, but having them changed me in a way that having them did not change him.
I want to walk with this new girl in a sacred wood and talk with her of eggs and hair and human spitbecause it seems to me that he and I will always be heartbroken for failing ourselves and each other and that no woman of his will ever understand our sadness, as neither will my own husband understand it. Even as I write this my husband is cooking dinner for X's sons and wiping their brows with a blue cloth and doing sixth-grade geometric equations on college-ruled notebook paper, while X is perhaps sitting in a fern bar with his new girlfriend and wiping her brow, which, despite what I just said, has suddenly become furrowed with longing for everything, everything, everything.
The day we were married the leftover doves from his days of being a magician hummed little love songs in the attic, and white cats sat on fold-out chairs, and the child of our hippie friends licked the icing off the wilting wedding cake. We could not make love that night either because there were people lying all about our cabin like drugged muskrats. The day we were married it did not rain and the lower field near the cabin was filled with cars and trucks and campers. The day we were married I didn't eat a thing at all and held a child's plastic blue boat down by my side while his deaf friend Nick took a black and white photograph of us leaning against the cabin, and I am certain we were both astonished to be there and together and alive and now married and just-turned-twenty.
We vowed a lot of things that I do try to forget. Every time he falls in love with another girl, I think of the day we got married. I don't know what he thinks of when I fall in love. I would be willing to ask him, but he wouldn't tell me because he wouldn't know. I would like to sit with him uninterrupted for a while in a dark cave because I want to heal this wound that opens up with a wail each time he leaves my house with a new girl on his back. The day he left the first time in his little white Ford I did kill him and myself, and all these years later I'm alive but ashamed, as he is ashamed for sleeping with that first girl not four days out of our marriage house, and for leaving in the first place and letting the murder take placefor turning his back against us like we were a field of soggy wheat and it was the harvest and the farmers had their sickles sharpened and drawn. It's the innocent, early heart that I'm lamenting the loss ofthe salmon-colored baby heart that X and Ioh be forewarned!could not safeguard from ruin and wreck.
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