My old boyfriend did not think I had critical thinking skills.
“I don’t think you have critical thinking skills,” he said one night when we were in bed together. We had not been talking about critical thinking, or playing one of those games that people in relationships sometimes play, where you swap observations about what is wrong with the other person. We had, I remember, only been talking about The Bachelor —a topic, which, at the time, hadn’t seemed to require critical thinking skills.
I was in a compromising position, physically, because I’d crawled underneath the sheets and was lying curled at his feet. I don’t know why. It was a small bed, which meant that to surface I had to do a sort of scooting motion, butt-inch-by-butt-inch, emerging at the top of the bed like a mortified butterfly.
“I’m confused,” I said, having finally been reborn.
“About why you are dating me if you think I have no critical thinking skills.”
He paused, for a few moments, thoughtfully pulling loose tendrils of fabric from my afghan. I had asked him, so many times, to please not do that. The blanket was slowly disappearing, shrinking each night and reappearing in the mornings as soft purple and yellow snakes around the house. In the bathroom. In the coat closet, tucked behind a vacuum. One, once, at the bottom of a coffee mug in the kitchen, like a distraught clown.
“I’d still like to sleep here tonight, if that’s okay,” he said.
“I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”
So! He took his coat; he left me.
The morning after my old boyfriend left—gathering his things in the middle of the night, shivering heroically, as if his shirt was not lying fully available on the floor, arms akimbo as if a snow angel—my landlord began doing renovation in the building. I woke late (it was a Saturday) to the violent shrill of a saw, and a pounding, a heaving. The pipe of a radio, too, between the more powerful sounds— I can be your hero baby, let me be your hero, baby—and when I stumbled into my living room, I saw that a thin layer of dust, like a light snow, had covered the floor. I walked into the hall in my bathrobe.
“What’s going on?” I yelled over the staircase.
My landlord looked up from the saw he was using. In my experience he had always been a very polite man, always offering banana bread, joking about the recycling schedule, but it was as if the electric saw had emboldened a kind of rude violence in him, and he did not turn it off, barely acknowledging me over the roar.
“Renovations!” he yelled, “Over soon!”
A day went by, then several weeks. The dust was impossible to get rid of—as soon as I scrubbed the house, it reappeared, like a hysterical ghost who had dissolved into physical elements. If I mopped and then showered afterwards, or went briefly to the store to buy milk, it would lie waiting for me when I returned. When I walked up or down the stairs I saw that the two apartments below me were being completely disemboweled. The insides were like the guts of fish, and without furniture or carpet, the wooden beams seemed incapable of holding my floor up. Sometimes, when I thought of this, at night, it terrified me and my body involuntarily became bright as bone, bracing for the sure moment when the floors beneath me would cave and my bed would disappear into the dusty maw of the building.
My body was contaminated and my home, the body that my body lived in, was also contaminated. Not just by dust, but by cockroaches, which the construction had driven out of the other apartments. I keep a clean apartment. Still, they began to appear in the crevices of things—infesting the body of the microwave, and obscuring the numbers of the clock with slight body shadows, mixing up the times of day. I opened a jar of honey, once, and after carelessly taking a few aimless spoonfuls, looked down to see a cockroach crystallized in honey. I held it up to the light and saw that, enlarged by the microscope of the curved jar, it had become beautiful and defenseless as a tiny dinosaur. I fished it out with a spoon; knocked it into the trashcan and put the jar back in the cabinet. Two days later, I also threw the jar out.
Sometimes my cat could be found in the kitchen with her soft chin close to the ground, staring at the wall as if in a trance. I had heard that cats did this when they heard more than a hundred cockroaches.
When you are sick, but not fully sick, you cannot imagine what it is like to be fully well. Being sick is a great deception your body plays on you, because it does not always demand a response. Very slowly, I forgot what it was like to breathe easily, or at least, what it was like to not be mindful of breathing at all. My head carried a dull, thorough pain and when I spoke, my voice sounded miles away. I felt both less and more aware of my body. Often, almost nightly, I took my clothes off in front of the mirror so that I could study my body and index what I knew about it, apart from what my old boyfriend had known about it. I imagined him drifting up from between my legs in an exhausted film of sweat, pleased with himself, and collapsing into a skinny heap on my breasts. The whole time, I’d imagined that the answer my nerves gave—legs shaking, knees jerking up like marionettes—was the actual center of pleasure itself. How could I have known otherwise? Yet, I missed it, and also him.
There was a sick pleasure in sickness, as if it was an echo of sex, a thwarted reclamation process that hovered around the actual reclamation. Without him, it was as if my relationship to my body was the same as my relationship to my apartment—a deeply seeded fear and disgust, homesickness for something that I could not seem to recover. I knew this was wrong. But it is astonishing how easy it is to live entire weeks, years, inside the same questions—not does this person love me, but more urgently, does this person hate me? And it didn’t occur to me to move out of my apartment, to change things.
At this time in my life, I worked in a bakery. I would wake at 3:55, each morning, in order to arrive at the bakery at 4:45, open it at 5:30, and so forth. I would bundle up against the cold, knocking my mittens ineffectually against my bike’s handlebars. When I biked so early in the morning, there were only a few homeless people on the streets, a few shopkeepers, a few partygoers, stumbling dim and drunk from college parties. When I biked past, I pictured them wondering, who is she, where is she going? It is possible that they weren’t thinking that, though.
There was a certain drama to the bakery, and to my dusty apartment, and to my un-love of it, which seemed to suit my breakup. Everything was veiled in a layer of white—the flour of the bakery, the dust of the apartment, outside, the perpetual meek snow (metaphor, metaphor, metaphor!)—and so it seemed best to carry on this way, drawn by a trinity of symbiotic despairs. Though of course the most essential lonely feeling, or the most devastating, is the one when you realize that the audience you are performing your loneliness for is yourself. No stage left, only the ugly spider plant, the mirror, the ridiculous wainscoting in the bathroom.
But I needed to be needed, and as the custodian of the bakery keys, I actually was. By my boss, and by the baker, and by the man who delivered flour, and by everyone who loved carbohydrates. Though my lungs hated waking, my heart did not, and jerked up like a fat fish at the end of a line every morning, grateful to be necessary. I would unlock the gate; send it rolling up with a slow, dull zing! I would take the drawer from the safe, breaking the rolls of pennies against the counter, thumbing through the chubby quarters a little lovingly, as if they were toddlers. I would unload the cups, still steaming from the dishwasher, onto the silver shoulders of the espresso machine.
I would arrange the rows of cinnamon buns and muffins. I would greet Travis, the Italian baker whose real name almost certainly was not Travis, and he would greet me, and then he would disappear back into the world of kneading and opera—if he happened to be listening to opera—or perhaps, stand-up comedy. But I did not mind even the loud radio sex jokes, which would come in waves from the kitchen, because even they were a part of the magic. And I wondered if the most beautiful time in my life would be the underworld hour between 4:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. I know that I did love it.
At 5:30, the shop opened. The first wave of customers would arrive—the businessmen on the way to the train, clutching, and spilling their paper bags of donuts and Styrofoam coffees—and the second wave, of mothers on the way to school with their children; also clutching paper bags of donuts and Styrofoam coffees. But not spilling, because they were the mothers.
By this point, I would already have had one or two espresso shots—the first as a test to taste the bitterness or sourness of the first stream, and later, three or four more, just for the joy of it; the long brown stream and the sudden electricity that sank through my body. When I drank espresso, my body became my own again, imbued with new awareness. An hour later, having had six or seven shots, my heart would become fish-alive, this time unpleasantly, like a great big bass stuck, flapping, inside my body.
You are wondering if I ever saw my old boyfriend. Well, I did. He was impossible to un-see. I am a small woman, but isn’t it also a small town? And, my old boyfriend is a very noticeable person—he doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. My old boyfriend is a philosophy professor at a community college, a position he wears with a noble, obvious sadness, as if a great blessing has already passed over him. He has many friends in the town; in particular, a group of academics and tradesmen anarchists who would alternate between themselves in throwing potlucks once a month. I had always dreaded these potlucks because being around his friends made our relationship feel restrained and inauthentic, which was tolerable in private but unbearable in public. How were they supposed to believe that I admired their politics, had beliefs and sentences that I myself was able to compose, when I never said anything? They merely tolerated me; I know this.
How lovely their apartments were, how crammed with riot grrrl posters and tall, crooked plants! Each couple seemed to share a delicate language—always gently touching each other, arguing, angry and cold, never touching, then, in a flash, supportive, rubbing the other’s back dotingly; hammering effusively at their partner’s knots. It only fell to me to host a potluck twice, but those two nights almost did me in. My meat was undercooked, which didn’t even have a chance to matter, because the friends had recently initiated an unspoken vegetarian rule. The stewed corn was tolerable; the rhubarb pie quite nearly exceptional. But my old boyfriend never touched me, not even a conspiratorial host-hostess touch on the knee, the whole time we sat on a couch.
My old boyfriend is tall, but seems even taller because of his thinness and the pale, almost translucent pallor of his skin. He has a faint, foolish goatee and likes to wear a long, flapping gray trench coat, which, in a shy moment of passion, he whispered to me, belonged to his grandfather, a Polish spy. One time, I looked at the disintegrating label of the coat and saw that the name of the brand was Polish. I could not decide if this credited or discredited his story.
So I saw him everywhere: disappearing into buses, buying fish at the fish market (he didn’t like to eat fish, when we’d been dating, but it seems he had learned to like eating fish in order to become the kind of person who shopped at the fish market—is this fair?) reflected in the windows of a store. He went to many shops, especially genre shops. How he loved genre shops—shoemaker, leather, hat, wine, imported teashops! But, to his great credit, he never came into the bakery. Even though he loved sweets so deeply, even though there was no other equitable bakery in the town with equitable sweets, he let me have this.
The place where I worked!
I became a person I was not familiar with. I almost accidentally backed up into the tub and fell over, once. I was mean to my mother on the phone. I kept buying the wrong kind of coffee. My college friends called, then called some more, then stopped calling. My plants withdrew into themselves, plant body into plant body. I continued forgetting how to cook meat, staring blankly at the chicken breasts on my cutting board, like they were pink zeros, things I'd never seen before. I reread my favorite book, and found myself hating it. Months went by.
I remember that as a teenager, at a certain point, I’d begun to discover new things about myself on a nearly weekly basis. One lunch, after years of spitting out the salad tomatoes my mother made me eat, I’d eaten a tomato and was shocked to realize I liked it. Cautiously, I ate another and another, until I realized that I did not know as much about myself as I had believed—or alternately, perhaps more shockingly, that the self I knew so thoroughly was capable of discarding itself overnight. I bought a flimsy lace bra, after years of wearing heavily padded bras, and discovered that I felt womanlier. Did I now find a secret pleasure in doing math, in washing dishes? All we really want is to know ourselves! I’m serious!
My old boyfriend did walk into the bakery, one day, miserably pushing the door open with a wash of wind and snow. Of course, I had visualized him coming in, this way, many times—every day, really—but the moment was still disarming and I did not know what to do. What had I expected? I tried to remember the things he said in my visions; the things I’d said in my visions. We’d dated for five years; we’d depended on the future tense, on the belief that negative space did not really take up space. I had to quickly reevaluate whether or not I loved him, a question I had answered satisfactorily to myself, a long time ago. But it is different when that person is standing in front of you. The people I am most prepared to meet are usually the people I am least prepared to meet.
A few weeks after I’d first met my old boyfriend, when we weren’t yet dating, I’d rounded a corner in the rain and seen him standing, soaking, wildly gestating on a pay phone. A character in a movie, a book. I’d smiled when I saw–who even used pay phones, anymore? Yet when he looked up and smiled, I read no fiction in his face, the scene hadn’t been set up for me—as he’d told me later, he had only locked himself out of the house. This was beautiful and pure to me and from then on, it was as if this moment had established the future chiaroscuro of our relationship—a panel of unadulterated light, of genuineness, which cast every event that followed in a shadow.
“Hello,” he said to me, now. He was wearing a thin Wilco T-shirt beneath his trench coat.
“Hello,” I said. “Can I help you?”
He paused studiously. “Maybe something sweet.”
“The banana bread just came out of the oven—wait, never mind, you’re allergic to nuts. Normally Travis doesn’t make banana bread with nuts, but today he did. Perhaps I could interest you in the brioche.”
“Jenny,” he said.
“The brioche is two dollars. With tax, that’s $2.32. Annoying, I know. I keep telling my boss to just factor in the tax to bring it up to an even price. Like $2.50.”
He fished in his coat, and came only up with a dollar and an old receipt, and then began patting his jean pockets, embarrassed. “I guess I only have a dollar. Never mind.”
“This is the butt of the brioche. You can just have it. Don’t worry. I usually throw them out anyways.” I put on a glove, and grabbed one of the brioches, and slid it across the counter without a paper bag.
“Jenny,” he said, again.
“Did you want something else? I could give you coffee for free. Well, actually, I don’t want to.”
“I don’t think you lack critical thinking skills.”
I looked down. I did not say anything.
“My apartment is a wreck. My cat is ornery.”
I looked up. “Are you forgetting to change his water again?”
“No, don’t worry, I’ve gotten better about that. It’s not the water. Or the food, actually. I’ve switched to a nicer cat food. It’s you. Sigmund misses you.”
He said it in a tone of voice that was a bit too heartfelt, like it was a treat that the cat missed me; I, who had devoted hours of my life lying on the floor, dragging a single, broken costume feather across the carpet in the hopes that the cat would feel compelled to bat at it. I didn’t say anything.
“I miss you, too,” he said. He was tall and sad, disordered and a bit canine. My heart—my big, bass, slippery heart—beat against my body, asking me to comfort and be comforted. I was not wired toward resistance, I was wired to respond to the emotional presentation at hand. This is why I loved TV sitcoms: they offered you something to respond to, and you either felt happy or sad, but rarely, both at once.
I looked at the coat. I did not believe his grandfather was really a spy. I felt manipulated by that particular lie; not because he’d meant any harm by it, but because I’d wasted so many empty moments of my life—waiting for a streetlight to change, folding laundry, tying my shoes—wondering if it was true, and wanting it, so badly and inexplicably, to be true.
“Please leave,” I said, softly.
He looked surprised and hurt, and stood for a moment holding the brioche awkwardly against his chest, as if it were a cat that might jump out of his hand. He looked down at it, then back at me. “Do you want this back? I don’t have to take it.”
“I can’t put it back for sale,” I said quietly, and turned and began busying myself, applying the rag to the espresso machine. I heard the door shut, and saw that he stood outside for a moment, as if lighting a cigarette or reconsidering. For a moment, I thought he might come back in. But he walked across the street, and I watched him make his way into the snowy park: up a hill and through the few, sad scattering of trees.
An old man walked in.
“How much?” He asked, pointing to the brioche.
“I’ll take it.” He said. He slapped a quarter and two dimes onto the counter. We both stared at them for a long moment.
“I’m sorry. It’s $2.32. Do you have two more dollars?”
“Fuck you, bitch!” he said, wildly—wild, and old.
So just confused, then.
Travis, who must have heard everything that my old boyfriend who said to me, but was very good about respecting my privacy, yelled out. “Hey, man! Get out of here!”
“I’m sorry,” I said, softly, and began to cry.
“Bitch!” The old man yelled again.
He walked out, leaving the door wide open to the cold. I came around the counter to close it, and then, reconsidering, took the other end of the brioche from the shelf and ran out.
“Here!” I called, running to catch up with the bum. “I forgot. There are butts from the brioche. I forgot that I can give those away for free.”
He grabbed it and bit into it, letting a big chunk of brioche fall into the snow, where it rested on a mound. It was good bread—soft, malleable.
“A piece fell off,” I said, still standing there.
He looked at me, angrily, and backed away. I watched him walk to the corner and turn and then, with great openness, I wept.
Afterwards, months later, I do learn how to be angry—spaciously, slowly, like the sluggish theater of boiling water. Like there’s movement, like there’s plot. Such stillness before the real action! And then the water halves itself into steam, concluding an invisible arithmetic and rising in one holy mess, writhing, fading, while the other half of the water remains sturdy and physical. Tears, though, are a portion of anger that longs to evaporate, to disappear in one shrewd fist into air. Of course they remain stubby, choked in the body. They leave little to imagine. And then they, also, take slow exit of the body.