things I could never know
by Cynthia Popper
I’m on the bus driving to the airport from Delicias and I can only think about you. For some reason the little girl sitting alone by the driver reminds me of when we first met and you randomly told me about the time when you were eight and you walked into the kitchen just as your dad hit your mom. You hardly knew me, but at the time I thought it must have meant something.
I invited you over for breakfast the next day, and thought I would somehow woo you with Irish breakfast tea and fruit salad and panettone from Stella’s. I wondered if having sex on the second date at 6am on a Wednesday would be an inauspicious start to a relationship. Your huge frame on my undersized sofa looked cartoonish. You sat, planted, slowly smearing strawberry jam on over-tanned bread, letting a pea-sized glob slide down the side of your hand as you told me, “she went into labor last night. I have a son.” I wanted to lick off the jam and ignore what you had just said, but I didn’t.
At the time I also thought it meant something when you introduced me to him when he was three months old. We had lunch at Le Central and I couldn’t stop staring. All pink, his gummy grin, all joyful and open and pure. He bah-bahed at the ceiling as you told me she was in your life and you were friends and everything would work out fine once custody was arranged and things were worked out and there’d be no grief. In the car we listened to Paul Simon, your favorite, and I remember not liking Paul Simon very much or that I was dating a man with an estranged soon- to- be- ex-wife who was now the mother of his child. I asked you how long you thought all of this would take and you said you were doing Everything You Could Do, Soon You Hoped. That day you gave me my first gift, one of many over the three years we were together: an amber-colored Pelican fountain pen with plum-colored ink. You told me if I didn’t use it at least once a week the nib would dry out and it would be ruined. So I used it fanatically for everything possible: doodles, grocery lists, post-it notes with cliché quotes, and horrible, rambling manifestos about not knowing what the hell I was doing.
Neither of us knew what the hell we were doing getting on that plane. My ticket had my maiden name and my license had my married name and I still have no idea how you managed to get me on board but you did, and we went, and in the nicest hotel room I had ever stayed in you told me how next time we’d fly private to avoid such silly hassles. I remember feeling disgusted and impressed and wondered if I could live with a man who worked so much and traveled so often and at some point during dinner that night I blurted that out. You smiled and took my hand and told me I would simply have to come along and then you told me you loved me and we cried a silent celebration over chocolate pot du crème. My divorce was final the next week. I showed you the papers and you looked at me for the longest time and I was afraid if I looked away you’d disappear.
You weren’t the most attractive man I had dated. Your head was large and round, much like the rest of you, but you had a freckle in your left eye that turned almost gold against its green iris when you looked sideways toward the sun. It was your most charming physical feature, much like the freckles on the rest of your body. I have never seen a man with so many freckles in my life, but I adored them and quested someday to count them all. I traced them with my fingers and threatened to draw constellations on your body while you slept, but you hardly ever slept and I would always fall asleep as soon as we got to the hotel.
You were so sick in Hong Kong. I heard the shower going at 4am and knew you were in pain. You always showered, sometimes for an hour, to try and make the headaches go away. Sitting in the emergency room the nurse mistook me for your wife and I timidly agreed with her. She gave me instructions in colonial English on how to take care of you when we got back, which I did to the letter. You were adrift in a morphine dream and I wondered if I really could take care of you, of both of you, as a woman not knowing what the hell she was doing. Back at the hotel I could smell your sickness on the sheets but I didn’t care. Clammy and sour and hot, the smell wrapped around me as I got in next to you and I slept through the night for the first time ever in our many trips to Asia.
I didn’t know that when you asked me to move in with you, you did it because you thought I’d leave you. I didn’t know that you let me spend my days buying Thomas the Train placemats and cinnamon Teddy Grahams and building pillow forts and having an emotional affair with a man I hardly knew because you were afraid I’d leave you. I didn’t know any of this because you never told me until the day you left me.
I must have known you were planning to leave, because you were so afraid of my leaving. I didn’t know that you were afraid to lose your son or afraid of your soon-to-be-ex-wife hating you because he would start talking soon and she still didn’t know I existed, afraid she would exact some horrible financial ruin that only expensive maniacal attorneys and jilted feminine bile can craft. All I knew was that I loved you, and I had spent so much time pretending I didn’t know how to fix what I could never admit was broken, I didn’t.
When we met for lunch two months later I cried into my scarf in the marble bathroom stall after you went back to your newly sustainably-remodeled office and freshly-acquired German assistant. I went out that night with an ex-boyfriend from years past and fucked him within an hour just to spite you, faking unnecessary and melodramatic multiple orgasms. Three days later you emailed and I still haven’t replied.
After weeks of doing little more than listening to Morphine on repeat and eating strawberry frozen yogurt, I woke up one morning and you were gone. Without fanfare or warning. Saggy pajamaed I sat on the bed-edge and attempted to muster a self-pity tearshed, but only an airless sigh emerged. During the night an emptiness had surreptitiously grown into the space where the replayed scenes from Our Life Together once lived. It was just space: not happy, not sad, not anything, and it was the not anythingness of it all that caught me by surprise. You fell off abruptly, like a leaf from a three-day-old cut-flower. Not quite dead, but clearly dead enough.
Now, two years later, I am sitting on the bus, wondering about my new love of ten weeks, how we’re going to have North Beach pizza and watch Jon Stewart when I get home. The little girl glances up at the luggage rack above her head, rattling its certain approval of the kilometers behind us. She catches my stare and looks down in a flash.