by Maryann Aita
This morning, my freelance boyfriend told me he found a full-time girlfriend.
He wrote me a Facebook message. It was the same way our relationship had begun. Our casual arrangement unfolded into a two-year span of roughly once-a-month dates, varying from dinner and a movie to museum visits to the Philharmonic in Central Park.
It occurs to me that this was the most serious relationship I’ve ever had.
As I read this message, I am downloading Phil Collins songs and playing them on repeat. I hate Phil Collins. I hate Phil Collins, but he seems to be articulating something I cannot: why I feel like all the blood, air, and water has been sucked from my body.
When I saw Neil six weeks ago, I told him, “I’ve been calling you my ‘freelance boyfriend.’”
“I like that,” he said.
“It’s good, right? We’re not exclusive, but kind of consistent. We have no, um, ‘contractual’ obligation to each other, but if I needed you for, say, a wedding, I feel like I could call you.”
“Yeah. I even have a tux. Let’s do it!”
“You know,” I admitted, “I’d been wondering if I should stop seeing you.” Neil had told me he didn’t want a girlfriend, and I wasn’t the woman to change his mind. “But,” I continued, “I listed all the pros and cons, and I’d either be sad now or sad later. So, I decided to stop worrying about it and just enjoy what we are. Whatever that is.”
“You should understand: no matter how much I like you and I like spending time with you and no matter how much I may even love you, I’m…I’m looking for something perfect. I’m looking…” he fumbled for an example, “for the…Taj Mahal.”
I wish I’d pointed out that the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum.
I also wish I’d said something about the “may even love you” comment, but I worried he’d meant it hypothetically. As a kid, I liked answers, even bad ones. I curated an acute pessimism, always assuming the worst outcome, as if to get a head start on disappointment. I was unwilling to exist in possibility or ambivalence—but I had never been faced with an “I love you,” even a “may even love you.” So, I chose to live in the possibility that he did love me—that we could continue endlessly like this.
In my silence he said, more to himself than to me, “I’ve had it twice before and that might be all I get. I’m just not sure it’s even out there.”
He was looking for the kind of love that he wasn’t sure existed—the kind of love I am almost certain doesn’t exist for me.
“You make me happy,” I said.
“You make me happy, too.”
With him, my insecurity and anxiety evaporated, condensing into an easy vulnerability. In his absence, I felt something new—an exquisite longing, a desire without urgency or anguish—I missed him. Together we were happy. Apart, we were human.
Our conversation that night shifted to a book about U.S. history, which ignited both our libidos, and as we moved to his bedroom, he told me he hadn’t jerked off to anyone other than me in months. I said the same went for me, but, you know, with him.
“Well, except Chris Pratt, occasionally,” I said. He laughed.
“Oh yeah, me too,” he said. I laughed as he kissed my neck.
The next afternoon, he left for a two-week trip to Italy; I left letting myself be comfortable with the unknown. After all, he had a tux waiting for me.
We made plans to go to the ballet a few weeks after he returned. His birthday passed in that time, and he hinted at wanting nude pictures, a recurrent conversation of ours. When a man tells you he’s masturbated to you exclusively for months, well…you know. I sent a pastiche of photos including one where I put birthday bows on my breasts.
He cancelled our ballet plans because he was going out of town but told me he wanted to reschedule. We texted winky faces and slightly dirty things, and I thought we were going to see each other soon…
But a week later, I’m reading a Facebook message informing me he has a girlfriend.
As soon as I’d chosen to embrace ambivalence, I got a finite answer. Like the sudden shift from Halloween to Christmas-all-the-time that happens every year—that I know happens every year—yet am never ready for. I wake up each November 1 surprised by the bomb of holiday joy and love that has exploded all over New York City. It is Christmas, and I knew it was coming, but holy shit it was Halloween yesterday, and now it’s Christmas. What happened to Thanksgiving? What happened to November? It’s not even that Halloween means so much, but it’s gone now, and I don’t have time to mourn it. I am assailed by Santa heads and cranberry garlands and Salvation Army bell-ringers, and I am alone again, completely.
I have lost a person that meant something to me. I have lost possibly the first person that I wanted to mean something to me.
I am not ready for this. But I am supposed to be ready for this.
Perhaps years of vigilant pessimism have exhausted my defense mechanisms. When you grow up as the youngest of four children, two of them sick with physical and mental illness, you are the bottom of the family triage. You learn to pull yourself together, to improvise in solitude, because there won’t be time to grieve.
A key rule of improvisational theater is to always say, “Yes, and…” This is how my mother catered to my siblings. Her days were spent running between nutritionist appointments for my anorexic sister, Valerie, and chemotherapy for my 19-year-old brother, Vick. In improv, if your scene partner puts you on a sinking ship, you go with it while the audience laughs. My fourth-grade self was a willing and silent observer of my brother’s and sister’s impending disasters. Behind the scenes, though, I crafted my own theatrics, inventing personalities, relationships, and unscripted lives for my Barbies. Through them, I tried to understand what love might be like if it was allowed to run wild, unchained by meal plans and chemo sessions. I played director to inanimate objects, testing scenarios like an emotional algorithm.
INT. UPSTAIRS PLAY AREA – DAY
SISTER’S BARBIE (played by VALERIE, age 13), wears a floor-length glittery blue evening gown, looks at herself in an invisible mirror in an invisible house.
MARYANN’S BARBIE (played by MARYANN, age 6), dressed in something boring, bounces over to Sister’s Barbie with imaginary cookies.
I just baked cookies.
Do you want some?
No thanks, I’m on a diet.
Maryann’s Barbie lies down.
“What’s a diet?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s where you eat just good stuff, like a lot of vegetables.”
“Oh,” I considered this and dismissed the concept as being irrelevant to me. “Can my Barbie wear the blue dress now?”
“No. My Barbie has to go to a party,” Valerie said.
“Can my Barbie come to the party?”
“I guess,” my sister shrugged.
We set our Barbies aside to save the effort of scripting the party and watch TV instead.
Playing Barbies became a solitary activity after that, myself the omniscient narrator of my own curiosities. When Valerie got sick and stopped playing with me entirely a year or two later, I exerted supreme control over Barbiewood.
My inventory included dozens of Barbies but only two Kens: Blond Ken and Brunette Ken. Blond Ken was the real catch, though. Each came packaged with a bathing suit, but my sister’s hand-me-down toys included one faded tuxedo that didn’t fit either plastic man.
INT. 10-YEAR-OLD MARYANN’S BEDROOM FLOOR – DAY
BARBIE wears a silver evening gown and ponytail. She greets THERESA (Hispanic Barbie) — wearing the glittery blue dress — SKIPPER, STACY, and BRUNETTE KEN. All sit at a table made from an upside-down shoebox.
Stacy, how was school today?
Great! I got As on all my tests
and I’m going to do some extra
Congratulations! *Made-up Spanish
And I got into Harvard!
INT. NEXT TO SHOEBOX – LATER
BARBIE and BRUNETTE KEN stand millimeters away from each other, gaze into each other’s giant cartoon eyes.
You’re so beautiful.
I know. Tell me more things about
how great I am.
You are as pretty as the stars and
smarter than Einstein.
Barbie smiles, tilts her head.
Ken lifts his arm up into the air to hold Barbie. He smashes his face into hers.
They rub genitals together and fall asleep.
INT. MARYANN’S BEDROOM FLOOR – DAY
Barbie and Brunette Ken come home from work.
I’m in love with Theresa.
Maryann smashes Brunette Ken with Barbie.
Barbie calls BLOND KEN.
My dialogue may have improved over the years, but the story arc was generally the same. Improvised from my assumptions of my siblings’ eventual absence, these play sessions always resulted in the same script: one in which love was impermanent.
When my friends came over and wanted to play with Barbie, Skipper, and the gang, I’d steer them away from these storylines and try to impress them with sexual absurdism instead. I’d incite my friends’ laughter as we posited sex positions that no adults could possibly perform. We made Barbie have sex with one of her horses; we made the horses have sex with other; we made Barbie have sex with Barbie; and Barbie with Barbie with Ken. Once, I slammed together Barbie and Ken into the adventurous 69, unaware that it was an actual sexual position. It was repulsive and fascinating and resulted in giggle fits tapered by our mutual embarrassment. When I tried this with Neil a decade and a half later, my reaction wasn’t much different, although I grasped the logic behind it. He was my Blond Ken. We spent our time together being naked—shedding our clothes, our inhibitions, our outer layers—and giving equally of ourselves. Most of the time.
I inherited objects from my sister and used them as agents of my fantasies, a way to fulfill my desires without drawing attention from the more pressing concerns of my family. I could hide in the walls of Barbie’s dream house, which were constructed from my brothers’ series of thin hardcover books about dinosaurs. I tented each volume, aligning them to build bedroom walls so Barbie could cry, or write novels, or have sex with Blond Ken. Sometimes, I would sit in her house with her, crying in front of extinct creatures. There, in front of Archaeopteryx, we had some privacy. I was alone, free to command love by making it up as I went along. As I aged, and my siblings still had not passed away, I lay to rest my dolls. My interest in animate people, however, also waned, leaving me with the only great constant in my life: myself.
In psychoanalysis, it’s a common exercise to think of people as objects and what those things represent in your life. My inner circle has been repeatedly recycled, like my childhood dolls. I’ve never met anyone outside of my immediate family whom I thought I would know more than two or three years. Even my siblings, parents, and I are spread across five states and two coasts, connected by infrequent phone calls and even rarer visits. My parents once remodeled a portion of their house in the time that passed between conversations. I try not to be seen as an object. But I compare people to toys.
I thought Neil would be no different; I assumed I would grow bored of him in the way I grow bored of everyone—but he knew how to draft my play scripts along with me.
INT. NEIL’S LIVING ROOM – 2:30 A.M.
NEIL and MARYANN face each other on the couch, their faces two inches apart.
Is it weird that I’m really turned
on by intellectual discussions
Neil leans closer to Maryann.
No! Actually, it’s kind of a relief
to hear you say that because I’ve
thought exactly the same thing.
When we tried to watch Star Trek
that one time, you paused it to talk
about split infinitives, and I thought
you were so sexy I just started
making out with you.
Neil smiles. They smash faces together.
I spent my life awaiting disappointment—waiting for my brothers to rip my dolls’ heads off; waiting for the news that my sister was back in the hospital; waiting for my brother’s cancer to return—but I thought I’d have the chance to have more conversations with Neil, to hear him talk about constellations and how he used to know the capitals of every country.
Instead of absorbing the moments I had with my brother and sister, I loved my siblings because I was told to. I withheld from myself all the joy that loving another person might include. My memories of Vick and Valerie were collected at the end of each day, passing through short-term memory in the prefrontal cortex, stopping briefly in the frontal lobe—where emotions are processed—and perhaps skimming the fear and aggression center in the amygdala on their way to be filed in the hippocampus; from there, these memories could be recalled as fragmented fact. I only knew how to love as I loved the toys I would eventually dispose of, the artifacts of my childhood. We can admire and value artifacts—enjoy and cherish them even—but we cannot love them.
I cannot be loved because I do not know how to give it.
Encoded as memory, love existed for me to be reviewed and applied in case of the unfamiliar. It was purely logical; I could preempt death and tragedy. I prepared for loss as I would a hurricane: sandbags, food stores, and a feeling of superiority. That, or evacuation. Though no amount of preparedness can prevent a natural disaster. We collectively bawled at the end of Titanic, knowing the ship sank before the trailers played. I know that Romeo and Juliet die, but does that make Baz Luhrmann’s version any less tragic when Leo drinks the poison? I’ve watched Leonardo DiCaprio die dozens of times; by this point, I’ve come to expect it, but am I any less distraught every time it happens? I hate Phil Collins but am still unburdening every tear in my body at the sentiments in his numerous pop hits.
All my insecurities and anxieties have returned in a waterfall of despair—the waterfall that started yesterday when I was trapped in a dress that shrunk in the wash, but I was determined to squeeze into anyway. I had the zipper halfway up, but then it wouldn’t move. I struggled for ten minutes, thinking it would suffocate me in the process. Because I loved that dress. I will always love that dress. Even though it almost killed me.
If only I had died. If only it had killed me, and I had never seen that message. He would have wondered what happened to me. Maybe he’d post one of those creepy messages that people leave on dead people’s Facebook walls. Or maybe he wouldn’t have said anything.
INT. NEIL’S LIVING ROOM – 3:14 A.M.
Maryann sits on Neil’s lap on the couch.
When I was, like, three, I would
beg my mom to bring home the Kevin
Costner version of Robin Hood
from my dad’s video store. And
she let me watch it every day.
Ooh, should I play the song?
Maryann shifts; Neil leaps to the keyboard in his living room. He plays something, but stops.
That’s not right.
I watched it when I was a teenager
and I was like “Mom, why would
you let me watch this?” She asked
if I remembered any of it, which I
Neil plays Everything I Do. Both smile.
I know I’m going to be really sad
when this ends… But I’m glad I’m
here right now.
You don’t have to be sad.
I smiled and kissed him, even though he was wrong, because I didn’t know how to say what I really wanted to say.
Although, I’m beginning to believe I can learn.
Maryann Aita is a writer and educator in Brooklyn, N.Y. She writes creative nonfiction, poetry, screenplays, and hybrid forms. In addition to Exposition Review, her work is forthcoming in Big Muddy. Her teleplay, The Matchbreaker, won the Best Original Comedy Pilot at the 12th Annual Broad Humor Film Festival. Although she never believed in soulmates, she thinks she might have had something close to one in her cat, Marzipan, who unexpectedly passed away shortly before this publication.