“It looks like a clinic,” my ex-husband says.
“I like it.”
“You might want to get some rugs. I have a rug in the basement. It’s wool; great quality. Like the one we have—had in the living room.”
He tries to insert himself into my life. He brings small gifts like some kind of a mating bird. A lamp shade, shower curtain, a shelf for Henry’s room. The shelf I accept, the rest I send him back home with. I don’t want a rug. I like bare floors. I don’t like rugs. I don’t like my ex-husband. I don’t want him in decorating apartment; I don’t want objects that will make me think of him.
Also. I miss him.
“Why is it so white? I thought you liked color.”
“Not really. I like white. I like all the space. No clutter.”
“It’s a clinic. Where they castrate men,” he smiles and quickly glances at me. Not so sure about his joke.
I don’t smile back. It’s not a great joke. But looking at him looking at me this way, waiting for some kind of approval, makes me feel sorry for him so I force myself to smile.
“Have you met anybody?” he says. His voice wavers a bit.
“No. There isn’t anybody.”
“Yes. No. You?” I say, and it gives me anxiety to ask that. Some nights I still dream of him with other women. Not just Helen, my former friend. The ex-girlfriend I used to be jealous of, other women I’ve never met. He’s got his head between their legs; they moan. I wake up all sweaty, sad or angry. Depending on the dream.
In some dreams he calls my name, he calls the strange women my name. Those are the dreams that make me sad. I’ve read about infidelity. How some people become so traumatized by it, it’s akin to PTSD—the Internet says. Nightmares, flashbacks, obsessive thinking. There’s less of that now but it still happens. I can be doing something totally trivial—shopping, cleaning the house, folding Henry’s clothes—and BAM, there he is, kissing Helen. My hands start shaking; my eyes water. I don’t even want him any more. But I want the old him, the fantasy him. The guy for whom I was the only woman in the world.
He used to introduce me to people when we’d go to all the bankers’ parties, all proud. It was possessive, cocky, the way he would do it—especially with other men—as if I was a thing that he acquired. Some kind of a rare gem or a particularly large fish he caught. The people he’d introduce me to—especially other men—would compliment him—not me—on my beauty; they would say, “You’re a lucky guy, Vic.”
I succumbed to being a thing. He never told them about things I did—writing, assisting with research on European cinema, translating—and sometimes I’d try to mention that, but eventually I started feeling like an overeager kid with a low self-esteem, trying to convince those strangers I was not just a vagina in high heels. So I stopped and just smiled and talked about whatever dress I was wearing and how uncomfortable those high heels were. The men would say: those shoes are amazing!
“I’m not dating anyone. There isn’t anyone I’m interested in,” My ex-husband says now.
I say nothing.
He says, “You?”
“I already said no.”
Henry is upstairs asleep in his room, and now, my ex-husband and I are in my bedroom. This isn’t the first time we are in my bedroom. We can still communicate this way, perfectly, and although it confuses me, the more it happens, the more at peace I am with the fact that it happens and that it’ll end. Maybe even tonight.
Since our divorce, the sex has become more intense, the way it used to be when we first dated.
Never once in our life together, we would look at each other while fucking, but now we look at each other and this is what makes it intense. I also ask for things I’ve never been able to ask before. The ideas come to me from movies and books I’m reading about reckless people, non-married people, people who are wild and not worried about what kind of bar they’re raising every time they raise the bar that shouldn’t be raised.
Once, I said, “Spit in my mouth.”
He winced but did it. It wasn’t pleasant. It was clumsy, gross. I didn’t ask him again. But it became a checkmark on my list of perverted things I’ve wanted to try.
And here’s the thing: when we have sex as a divorced couple, it is because I want it. There’s no middle-of-the-night insertions, no slapping on the bum when I’m not in the mood. I’ve become a woman he needs to impress again and although we cross new sexual boundaries, he doesn’t cross the ones where consent is something given just because we are married.
When we first slept together after the divorce, I initiated it. He came over to drop off some of Henry’s nicer things—we had to make sure he had the same kind of “standard of living,” as the lawyers called it—and after we unpacked everything, we sat in my tiny garden and drank wine.
We were suddenly strangers all over again. We were shy and respectful. I hated him for his transgressions and felt humiliated by them, but I was also aroused that he was attractive to others. I could see him with an outsider’s eyes now.
He kept saying he missed me. He was miserable without me. I could see it in the way he tried to please me— with how cautious he was when he talked to me. Even with the jokes he was careful—it was as if he had to test me all over again, to see if I would react to him in the way that would prove we were similar.
We were similar in many ways but now I didn’t want him back. I just wanted to get off. And we were good, together, in bed. We were terrible everywhere else but in bed, we weren’t.
So, sitting there in my new tiny garden, drinking, I asked him if he would fuck me and he said yes.
Now, in my bedroom, he takes off my clothes, slowly. He says I am beautiful, and I say nothing. He used to always say that, even when we would fight.
Once I’m naked he looks at me as if he’s never seen me before. He looks at me this way every time we’ve had sex after our divorce. He doesn’t say anything and I don't say anything; just watch him undress.
His body is strong, still well-defined. But I fell in love with a slender boy. This body is not the body I fell in love with. This is not the man I fell in love with. Both, the body and the man are a ghost of my desire and my love for him.
He says, “I love you.”
I don’t say, “I love you,” back even though I do love him.
I turn the lights off so he can’t see that I’m crying. I don’t know why I’m crying. I don’t know if he’s crying, but I think he is because there’s heaviness to the room as if there is some other presence here. I’m familiar with this grief—it’s not about somebody you love dying but it’s about life dying—the life we used to have, my friendship with Helen, my, what they call “blind” love (because I chose not to see, I didn’t believe what I knew)—and it’s about lack of hope. I count backwards from twenty and stop at ten, and I’m no longer crying. I don’t know if he’s crying—he isn’t; it’s just a fantasy I make up, and I grab his hand and pull him onto the bed. He follows, like a robot. We lie down side by side. We kiss and run hands over each other’s bodies. When I open my eyes, he’s looking at me.
Tonight, I ask him to hit me. I don’t know why I ask that. I’ve always wanted to try it. I’ve seen it in movies—women asking men to hit them. Helen said guys liked it. They were scared of it but they all secretly wanted to do it, she said. What a taboo that was.
I wonder if he’s going to oblige and he does.
He pins down my arms with his knees—it is painful—and hits me across the face. It’s a hard blow and I see stars. I didn’t think that actually happened in real life, seeing stars, but it happens. It hurts; there’s nothing sexual about it and things explode under my eyes—an entire Milky Way. It’s a shock to be hit even though I asked for it.
I don’t tell him to not do it again and he does it again, and the second time it’s a shock too. And the third time.
I’m in so much pain. My arms, my face. It’s awful and I want it to stop but I don’t want it to stop.
I know this is the last time we will sleep together.
He must know it too because I feel anger in his slaps. I allow it because I’m the one who left him. And I need him to hit me so I can hate him fully, so there will be no going back. We will be free of each other for good; the trust of our bodies will die in this war; we will be corpses, there will be no reviving.