Nonfiction by Kayla Tanenbaum
You wear that black shirt that’s just sheer enough. He picked the place. You usually pick the places, but you want to seem agreeable, down for anything, low maintenance. When you Google the bar he chose, you realize it’s number two in “Top Ten Best Date Spots on the Upper West Side.”
This makes you smile.
He’s nervous. He’s trying. You’re nervous and you’re trying, too. That’s why you wore the shirt.
You don’t like the bar. It’s famous for its cocktails. You don’t drink cocktails because you don’t want the extra calories. You order a whiskey and a Diet Coke. You’re early and he’s on time. He asks you what you’re having and you smile and tell him you’ve never been much of a cocktail drinker, they’re too sweet. He admits he doesn’t like them either. You say we might as well order one. He picked the place so you pick the cocktail. You go for the one with the haughtiest name and the most ingredients. You both hate it and leave for a dive bar. You like dive bars as much as you like cocktails but you go because low maintenance girls like dive bars and you want to stay out with him.
My building has a roof, you tell him. It’s windy on the roof and you’re freezing, and he sits in front of you to block the wind and you lean into him. This feels like most of your first dates. On most first dates, you get to be the most charming version of yourself without the weight of your flaws. But it also feels like the best one. Like he’s the best one. He tells you he won the Middle School Geography Bee and you laugh and ask him if he knows the capital of Estonia. He thinks the capital of Estonia is Tallinn. You Google it together. The capital of Estonia is Tallinn. You’re the smartest guy I’ve ever met, you tell him. He tells you if all it takes is European capital cities, he’s a lucky guy.
You kiss and then you’re texting every day and then you see each other again and he invites you to the beach to meet his friends. That night you tell him you were nervous to meet his friends. They loved you, he says. You tell him you don’t want to date anyone else. He tells you the idea hadn’t crossed his mind. You need to hear it, that you’re his girlfriend. I want you to be my girlfriend, assures you. You’re pretty sure it’s the best weekend of your life.
You go to all the parks: Central, Prospect, Washington Square. You bring baguettes. You walk your dog. You bike. You have your routes, your songs, your coded language.
You join his family in Cape Cod. You lie on the front of the canoe while he paddles. During a blizzard, you stay in and alternate between having sex and reading each other passages from your respective books. A decidedly female, lyrical memoir for you, an investigative account of racist housing policies for him. He braves the snow to buy pasta at the one open bodega. He cooks for you. You hold hands in public. He knows that one spot your neck always hurts. He massages it frequently, even absent mindedly. You spend enough time with his friends that you build independent relationships with them. He loves this about you. You tell him about your parents, about how they love you to the point of suffocation. You tell him you fear that you’ll never separate from them, that you’ll never be your own person, that you’ll never grow up. He tells you that you already are your own person. He writes your mom birthday cards in which he always thanks her for raising such a special daughter. Your dad jokingly asks when the wedding is. You tell your dad to stop, but in secret, you ask the same question. You talk about raising children. He believes in public school. He doesn’t want sheltered children. You don’t want your children to miss the opportunity for the best education. You figure you can compromise. You talk about when you’ll live together, not if. He holds your face in his giant hands and kisses you on the forehead. He does this almost every day.
Every day, you can’t believe how lucky you are.
You’ve been dating for two years. You’re comfortable in a way you never expected but always imagined: you pee with the door open, you ask him if your zit is visible, you forget to shave your legs. You can be petty, prissy, pushy. This is love, this is real love.
You have sex though you have no desire to. He comes over after twelve hours days at the office. You had just started graduate school when you met him, a Masters of Education to work in the public school system after having been sheltered from it yourself. He admired your dedication, your idealism.He’s a public servant, too-- criminal justice -- but he’s still doing it. You’ve been at home all day because you left graduate school, left teaching. You miss your students, but you hate having to show up at an office more.. You’re in bed, reading, when you hear the door open. You don’t greet him there. He climbs into bed and talks about his day: the drudgery of bureaucracy, the deluge of emails, the proposal that’s due in three days. He stops suddenly and kisses you.
He tongues you without passion. You barely reciprocate but he doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. He keeps kissing you until you give him what he’s looking for: you move closer, push your body into his, open your legs. He never really knew how to touch you but you loved his brain, his humor, his glasses. You think you’ll be together forever, and sex probably stops around 40 anyway. You think 25 is too young to be bored of sex but you know you’ve landed a good one, maybe the best one.
Let it be quick, you think.
His hand is inside you and you’re thinking about your book. Page 101, don’t forget. His hand is doing nothing so you pull him on top of you. “I want you,” you whisper. You don’t. You said that so he would stop kissing you and do what he wanted to do, the reason he started kissing you to begin with, the reason he ignored or didn’t notice how unresponsive you were. You don’t want him to think that you’re frigid. He’s inside you, and your mind is at the grocery store. Before too long, it’s over. He kisses you on the cheek, chastely, almost. “Love you,” he says. He rolls over and falls asleep. He came, but you didn’t and you never do, but you’ve been faking it for months and it’s way too late to say anything now.
You could hum along to his snores, you know them so well. You pick your book off the floor. You have nowhere to be tomorrow. You could read all night. When you wake up, he’s already left for work.
After you quit graduate school, you apply to another graduate school in another discipline. You sense his judgement. You know he thinks you apply to so many schools so you can avoid getting a job. He knows you don’t need a job because your parents help you. He doesn’t say this but you know he thinks it because his silences give voice to his judgements. . The point he never utters, you agree with it. How many months did you spend tutoring one hour per day? How long did you spend dog-walking? You’re a quitter. He doesn’t need to say this to you because you say it to yourself. Then again, isn’t it okay to feel aimless in your twenties? Isn’t he the anomaly? You judge how fickle you are. He judges how fickle you are. But you also judge how limited he is. How goddamn sure of himself. Silently, he articulates your doubts and you’re furious and you know he’s right. But he is supportive, if only out loud, and you are grateful. You resent how lucky he is and how unaware he is of it―knowing what he wants to do.
He makes you feel awful and he’s the most supportive person in your life. You love him so much and you think of the many other lives you could have if you weren’t trapped in too-early domesticity.
You begin to seek novelty, sneak it. When an editor emails and asks you if you want to get together to talk about your upcoming article, you flutter. You’ve only emailed so far. The emails are a mix of innocent questions and less innocent banter. You suggest a coffee shop. Only if they serve beer there, he answers. A ripple passes through you. He has no idea you have a boyfriend and you don’t volunteer the information. Beer it is, you tell him. He picks the place and you’re early and when he arrives you’re drinking a whiskey and Diet Coke. Not much of a beer girl, you say. You talk about your assignments, you talk about how you both ended up in this graduate program, and towards the end of the night you tell him you have a boyfriend, and he asks how it is and you pause. You say monogamy is hard sometimes. You think this an acceptable way to hint that you are open to straying from monogamy. You haven’t broken any rules. Implication isn’t action, after all.
You think it’s the best night you’ve had in months. He’s smart enough, funny enough, handsome enough. He makes you feel the possibility of reinvention, of shedding the dead skin of monotony that’s waiting for you at home. With him, your body feels foreign, your wit ignited. Your old stories are new. He has no idea you quit teaching. He has no idea your parents pay your rent. With him, you’re the shiny version of yourself. It’s you that you like. He could be anyone.
You leave, and he texts you and asks you about how your article is coming along, and you answer, and he texts you again, not about an article, and you answer and this goes on for days. You know what you would be giving up if you saw him again. You wouldn’t cheat, you’re not the kind of person who cheats because you couldn’t live with the guilt. If you wouldn’t feel guilty, you would do it. But you would feel guilty so you don’t do it.
Some months later, you kiss a musician in Colombia. You went by yourself because your boyfriend only gets two weeks of vacation. Most of your time is vacation.
You vomit all night from the tequila or from the kiss. You tell the Colombian you feel trapped in your life, that monogamy is hard, and the whole thing has an air of melodrama. When you get home, you want to sob every time you see him. You’re not sure if you’re sobbing because you feel guilty or because you preferred the adventure of the Colombian.
You vow to never do it again.
Some months later, you kiss a scuba instructor in Panama. There wasn’t melodrama with this one even though you tried to instigate some.
You never tell him.
You have no doubt he’s kissed anyone else. He would never. If he would, he can’t because he’s always at the office. You return from Panama and celebrate your anniversary. He says you look miserable and you tell him you are. You want to leave New York. You think this the only reason you want to leave, but you know that leaving New York would be leaving him.
Maybe this is the reason you want to leave.
You need to leave New York, you tell him. He agrees. You’re horrified. He should have begged you to stay. You wonder how obvious your misery is. You vow to be more positive, or at least appear so. You never leave New York.
It’s New Year’s and he calls you when he lands at the airport. You were supposed have been on the trip together, but you didn’t go because you’re in the midst of a depressive episode and are spending winter break with your parents. You told your parents you didn’t trust yourself to be alone in your apartment. You’ve been experiencing suicidal ideation. They insisted you come home.
When you told him you wouldn’t come on the trip he asked if it was because you were too depressed or because you didn’t want to go with him. Both, you told him. You were sick of fearing he would break up with you. He promised he would learn about depression. He promised he would stop telling you to take a run, to take a shower, to push yourself. You tell him you don’t want to be a burden anymore and he tells you you’re not a burden. He thinks you’re a burden.
He’s not wrong.
He returns December 30th from the trip you were supposed to be on. You ask him what he’s doing and he says he’s going to a friend’s for a New Year’s Party and you say you might meet him there. He doesn’t want you to meet him there and you don’t want to meet him there. You’re sick of pretending you’re not depressed for his sake and he doesn’t want you to bring the mood down.
You agree to meet tomorrow, New Year’s Day. You call your best friend and say you’re finally going to do it. You need a pep talk and she gives you one. You haven’t been happy for months. Are you unhappy because of him or because you're unhappy? Everyone tells you not to make big changes when you’re depressed. You’ve been depressed for weeks, she says, and unhappy for months, she reminds you. Besides, he should be the one you talk to about these things. You agree. You think you should be vulnerable and ugly and unsexy and unhappy. He’s there to help you, not to judge you.
You leave your parents’ house for the first time in three weeks to go to your apartment to meet him. He walks in. You greet him at the door. The second you see him you sob. You’re breaking up with me, he says. You sob again.
He tells you he’d been thinking about it too but was waiting until your depression lifted. You laugh. That’s the kind of person he is. The kind of person who didn’t resent you for demanding he go to therapy to understand mental illness, to gain some insight into his judgement, to learn to be a boyfriend to a woman who functions less than. The kind of person who did everything you asked and didn’t get mad that you broke up with him anyway. That’s the kind of person you’re breaking up with because you want to kiss editors and Colombians and Panamanians. Because you’re tired of feeling pathetic when he begrudgingly comes over after drinks with his friends which was after the gym which was after a day at the office. You’re tired of feeling guilty that your parents fight with each other and fight with you and pay your rent while he and his parents and his younger brother go camping. You don’t have any siblings. You need him more than he needs you. You hate being needy.
You’ve broken up but you stay together in your dining room. He shows you photos from the trip you could have been on. You sit on his knee. You’ve always been so small compared to him. You take one bite all of the chocolates he brought back. You only like one of them, the milk chocolate. The other chocolates sit in the box, rough edged and mangly from where you abandoned them. You laugh at the funny photos and he tells you about catching up with his friends from Oxford. It’s so normal, so comfortable. His shirt is soaked from your tears and he’s not crying but he’s comforting you the way he always has. You remind yourself what you planned to remind yourself: goodness isn’t enough.
There’s not much more to say. You ask him if he wants to get his stuff from of the closet. He returns with his gym shorts and his spare work shirts. It’s too much for him to carry but you realize you’ve had one of his suitcases for months and he puts his clothes in there and that’s that. You call your parents because they’re worried. You feel great, you tell them.
A week later— which seems too soon to everyone but this is why you broke up with him in the first place—you download the same dating app you met him on. You love dating and you remember how fun it is to go out and be the lighter version of yourself, the one that’s you without the depression and the guilt and the dysfunctional family. You are thoroughly enchanting.
You feared you would miss him. You don’t miss him.
You go on three dates per week for two months. You’re constantly tired. You’re used to being tired from depression not from socializing. When these new men kiss you, it’s not rote. You sleep with all of them and it’s not rote.
Some you like and some you don’t. You’re thrilled about all of it until they stop texting and even though never quite cared, you are devastated. You replace them with new ones and you do the same thing again. You can’t stop thinking about him and you tell your friends you are an idiot to break up with someone because you wanted to sleep around. You tell your friends you are an idiot to make such a change when you were depressed. He was willing to learn about depression; you weren’t willing to let him.
No one agrees. But maybe you should slow down, they tell you. You don’t slow down because if you’re not going to be loved, you’re going to be distracted.
You schedule date after date. There are so many men and their desire is palpable, potent. They would pay attention if you didn’t come, you think.
You’re on your second date of the week. You’re at another bar. Since the breakup, you’ve moved to Brooklyn. You achieved the newness you had been craving. This new man picked the bar. You tell the perfect anecdote, just self-deprecating enough to combat how sexy the anecdote makes you seem. You can’t remember if you told him the same one. You wear a black top. It’s just sheer enough.
Kayla Tanenbaum is studying creative nonfiction at Sarah Lawrence. She lives in Brooklyn.