For Christmas we got ourselves a king-sized bed. I bought the mattress with my honorarium from the Macbeth seminar. He built the frame in his studio out of salvaged poplar and ash. For two years we’ve slept, or not slept, on a double. I’m small enough, but he’s 6’4″, and we’re both inclined to throw a knee and an elbow. Most nights one of us ended up on the couch in the living room, the other creeping out in the morning, “Sorry, babe. The bed’s all yours now. No, no, you take it. I’m up for good. You sleep. I’ll shower and get the coffee going.”
Our new bed is so big we can sleep without touching. And in the weeks since the holiday that’s what we’ve done. He’s home late from the studio. I’m out the door early, walking to campus, or catching the train north. Crossing paths in the kitchen, he kisses my forehead, asks if we’ve got any cereal left. ”No. I haven’t had a chance to go to the store. We’re out of greens too, and low on toilet paper.” ”I’ll do the shopping. You’ve been doing all the housework.” ”No, I’ll do it . . . ” I’m fingering the waistband of his jeans. He swats at me, smiling, “Hey! Stop that.” But when I insist, he becomes serious. Uncurling my crabbed fingers, he says, “Come on, babe. Not now.”
Not now, not ever. And he’s right: I have been doing all the housework.
“Let’s go out dancing like we used to do! They’re spinning vinyl at that little club on Dickens: You know you want to . . . ” I’m standing over him, swinging my hips. He reaches up to me, “Sweetheart, you’re smokin’. But I’m tired. Let’s watch a movie or something.” I let my disappointment show. He sighs deeply, turns over. ”You can go, Cat. See if Daniel or Scott want to join you. I’m in for the night.” I rage.
I rage. He shuts down. We make stiff peace over small favors. ”Will you drop this off at the library while you’re on campus today?” ”Yeah, and I’ve been meaning to ask: Can I take your truck Tuesday?” ”Sure. What for?” ”The department is getting rid of some bookshelves. I thought they’d fit well in that spot in the entry.” ”Okay, but let me come with you. You’ll need help with the lifting. Tuesday, you said?” ”Mmhm. Thanks.”
We’re good friends. He makes me laugh. I slip my hand in his back pocket. He asks, “What are you, the Artful Dodger?” and pretends to pull a handkerchief from my ear. I let myself smile. But when I rise on my tiptoes to slip him some tongue and he makes a face, I’m furious.
We talk. Of course we talk. I feel rejected. He feels misunderstood. I say things like, “This is a really important part of our relationship to me: intimacy, tenderness–” He finishes my sentence, “–sex.” ”Yes, sex! And I don’t see why I should be made to feel bad about that. We are young and beautiful and in love . . . ” ”Yes, we are all those things, Cat, but I can’t be responsible for making you feel like it.” ”What do you mean ‘responsible’? I’m asking you to partner me.” I’m turning hysterical, “You make me sound like some gaping pit of need.” He’s crossing his arms, uncrossing them, bringing his hands up to his face, running his fingers through his hair. I go on, “I am not a monster! I am not preying on you! These are reasonable things to want! He looks utterly defeated. Still I don’t stop, “Other people want these things! I know because everywhere I go, people advertise their desire. The world is open to me the way I’m open to you, but you, you’re closed.” He rolls his eyes and throws up his hands, “Fine, Cat. Other people want you. What do you want me to say to that? I won’t be bullied by you. You’ll either stay because you want to, or you’ll go and I’ll be devastated. But I’m not going to play this game.” I can barely hear him. ”What game?“
Our friends throw parties, host dinners, invite us out. ”Were you planning on coming to Amy and Mary’s tonight?” ”What’s going on there?” ”Their joint birthday party, remember? They sent out that email. You and I talked about it last week.” ”You know, babe, I just don’t think I’m up to it tonight.” That’s fine. I figured. Coat, keys, hat, and gloves. ”Love you.” ”Love you, too. Have fun.”
The party is packed. Daniel and Scott are both there. I like the way Daniel touches my arm as he leans in for a kiss, “Nice to see you.” I notice the cut of Scott’s trousers–where they tug and bunch. All the boys look ruddy and ready. The girls look rosy and ready too. In the too-hot hallway I run into Heather. Heather is a prodigy: several years ahead of me in the PhD, but a handful of years younger than me, staggeringly verbal, pretty in a wholesome way, evangelical, gay, and never been kissed. She tends to text me throughout the day: shorthand epistles about the ups and downs of her inner life–feelings of loneliness, feelings of belonging. I tend not to respond, or to respond only minimally, “Boo. Sounds rough. So sorry, Heather,” or “Yay! Happy day!,” that kind of thing. She doesn’t seem to mind my reticence, and I only sometimes resent being thrown into a big-sister-meets-surrogate-girlfriend role. ”How are you?” she asks a little too meaningfully, cocking her head, and resting her hand heavily on my shoulder.” I have no idea what to say. I make a decision: I am going to tell the truth, and to Heather of all people, in this sweltering hallway. ”Not good . . . ” I tell her about the spats, the selfishness, my deepening skepticism about my capacities to love.
Heather takes a deep breath, nods knowingly. ”It’s just like me and Julia,” she says, eyes intense and unblinking. I blink for us both. Julia is a young woman Heather sometimes sees across campus, a distant crush of some tragic depth, the Dulcinea of her texted epistles. I’m trying to think how exactly S and I are just like her and Julia, but Heather’s already explaining: ”I know that I’m called to love Julia, whether or not she loves me back. I’ve been charged by God to care for her and her happiness, to do everything in my power to bring her comfort and joy. Even if she were in a relationship with someone else, even if I were in a relationship with someone else, I would love her. For as long I’m living, she’s mine in that way.” Heather’s voice breaks. Tears mount her lashes. I’m still struggling to see the connection. ”Cat, you know better than anyone how down I get when I’m thinking of Julia in terms of a reciprocal economy. I mean I love her so much, and its clear she so much as knows who I am. I want her to receive my love, and I want to receive her love in return. But you know, this is the meaning of our baptismal promise: That we’re already receiving the infinite bounty of God’s love. We don’t have to worry about being given in kind. We can give and give and never go dry.”
For once I’m not drinking, which means there’s no wine to blame for the dumb clarity her speech brings. I have to go. Coat, keys, hat and gloves. I drive slow for the ice. He’s already asleep when I crawl into bed. I sidle over to him, wedge my hand under his hip. ”Hey babe,” he murmurs. I kiss his shoulder. He kisses the air. I resolve to be better.
I am better. Kind of. Two nights in a row, I have a hot meal ready for him when he comes home . He’s surprised and grateful and promises to do the dishes. I end up doing them. But I sing while I do them: loudly. I imagine I’m singing all that would-be anger right out of me.
A few days later, grocery bags in hand, I crack. I say that I can’t do this, that we need to work out some kind of alternative model. ”What does that mean?” I don’t know. I hear myself say, “Open relationship.” He doesn’t believe in open relationships. Neither do I and he knows it. He thrusts his hands in his pockets, shakes his head, leaves the room. I put away the groceries before going to find him. He’s in the bedroom, perched on the edge of the bed. ”Hey. Sorry. Want to talk?” I ask. ”Yes,” he says quietly. Something’s wrong. ”Want to talk in the living room?” ”No, I’d rather talk here.” I hear the sea in my ears. For a second I think he’s going to tell me her name (“Her name is . . . “), but no, that’s not it.
He says that he hasn’t told me, because it’s gross and embarrassing, and because he thought he could deal with it, or get it dealt with, but then it kept getting worse, and now it’s real bad. I’m confused. What are we talking about? He reddens at the word, ”Hemorrhoids. It’s an old person thing. Young people almost never get them. But I’ve got them.” He looks up at me, “Do you even know what they are, Cat?” ”Um . . . I think so.” I’m still confused. I sink to my knees, searching his face. He stares at his hands. ”You know my insurance doesn’t cover this stuff, and I was trying to get in at this clinic for a long time, but when I finally got in, the doctor told me to do all the same over-the-counter stuff I’ve already been doing. And what I really need is to see a specialist, but the clinic people won’t give me a referral til two months have gone by, and of course it’s been almost six months of this. And I don’t know how I’m going to afford the specialist, or the surgery if that’s what it comes to.” He shakes his head, “This stuff doesn’t matter.” ”Of course it matters! Let’s get you on my insurance. We can go to the courthouse tomorrow.” ”No. Stop. You were just saying that you wanted an open relationship. We’re not getting married tomorrow.” I am an idiot. He continues, ”Look, what matters for us is just that I’m in a lot of pain. And I know I should have told you. I should have told you right away, but it became this stupid shameful thing for me.” My heart drops: I made it a stupid, shameful thing for him. ”It’s my fault.” ”It’s not your fault.” ”It is.” He’s stern, “No, it’s not. It’s just that it hurts to stand and especially to lift and I’m lifting all day at the studio . . . ” I cut in, “And it hurts to make love.” ”Yeah. It hurts to make love, babe.” I’m relieved to hear myself say, “That’s easy, babe: We won’t make love.” I’m relieved also to find that I mean it. He looks at me hard, “But it’s important to you . . . ” I make a dopey face at him, “If we’re in it for the long haul, this is just the beginning. You and I are going to be administering one another’s suppositories, and God help us, making something fun and kinky out of it.” I’m laughing, but he’s not. Too close to home. I pull back. ”Have you thought about what you want for dinner?”
Over the phone Kase asks how “grown-up” love is going. I tell her it’s going, unglamorously, but going. She and J are getting married this July. They’re waiting to have sex until after the wedding. Sometimes she talks about her virginity like it’s a big-ticket item, something to be purchased through due diligence and devotion. I worry that that’s to make a jeweler’s ad out of her nuptials. I try to explain the intuition: “Self-respect has got to mean something more than a high starting-bid, sis. We’ve got to let go of commodifying ourselves, our bodies, our pleasures, our virtues, our gifts. This whole idea of demanding a fair market price for what we have to offer: that’s to prostitute ourselves and our love.” She gets it, kind of. But really, who am I to try to teach her these things? ”Grown-up love is going. I miss that teenage feeling.” I can hear Kase smile into the phone. For a moment she breaks into song. We laugh.