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The Cumulative Shrinking Effect of Explanation

“Yo, Shakespeare,” said my friend Angela. “Write about unrequited love, false promises, fake IDs, blown head gaskets, radio late at night, sex with the same man after twenty-five years… you know.”

1. Unrequited Love

All of my loves have been unrequited, for I consistently fall in love with men who are less excited about loving me than I am about loving them. Of course, the accuracy of this claim depends on how one defines love—a word that, in my case, has perpetually adolescent overtones and that, when mixed with graying hair and housework, creates a kind of melancholy oldies-station uproar—those oldies that I can’t believe are old, those songs with the embarrassing end rhymes and predictable guitar sobs that I know I ought to despise but that keep making my eyes prickle and my throat swell shut.

But in the old teenage days, I wasn’t standing on the outside looking in: I wasn’t examining myself for the familiar, glorious signs of chaotic despair. I was just chaotically, gloriously, in tears. As Ray likes to inform me, over the phone, but kindly, “You always did like melodrama,” even though he himself has been drunk and five hundred miles away from me for most of the twenty-odd years of our friendship.

You could say that Ray is one of my unrequited loves, also the instigator of other unrequited loves, also the person who most enjoys picking the scabs off the unrequited loves that I’ve mistakenly assumed were healing up. Oh, the idiotic conversations we’ve had: the hand holding, the beer, the up-all-night-with-Tammy-Wynette epiphanies. But here I pause a moment to note that I’ve shifted into the we persona, that hopeful signal light for the unrequitedour lantern in the belfry, our torch in the corridor: as if a pronoun, a sturdy two-letter innocent, can, by grammatical sleight-of-hand, transform distraction into union, aloofness into a gift.

It doesn’t, which is why, I suppose, unrequited comes into its own in middle age—partly because there’s more time to notice that we is a less lonely way of saying I. When I was twenty years old and infatuated with the various boys who lolled around on old couches drinking beer, smoking pot, and listening to the Ramones, I did think, I really did think, that I would become transformed into we; that just possibly one of them might love me—by which I meant light up joyously whenever I walked into a room; by which I meant overlook my ugly clothes, delight in my body, coddle my fears; by which I meant adore me.

In fact, a few of these utopian vanities did manifest themselves, briefly, and erratically, and often at the wrong moment. During orchestra rehearsal, a nasal and prematurely balding flute player was the one who lit up when I walked into the room, whereas a gay man on acid ended up being the person who happily stayed up all night coddling my fears. But delight in my body always seemed to be entangled with anxiety about my body, a distress that I tried to assuage by way of guilty trysts with people who weren’t my boyfriend. And meanwhile, the boyfriend, who I’d been sure was the man of my dreams, turned out to be a permanent exasperation. Everything grated: I was bored by his Moby-Dick mania and terrified of his habit of changing lanes on the Jersey Turnpike while making fervent eye contact with passengers in the backseat. He, in turn, didn’t like my overwrought parents or my baby-white legs. For a while, we did enjoy the histrionics of fighting and reuniting; but he, too, was prone to guilty trysts—and so eventually, amid tears and recriminations, our unrequited hysteria dissolved into misery into relief into occasional dreams into the memory of this boy I used to love so much that I thought my life would end if he left me. But it didn’t, and I married one of the other boys on the couch. As Ray likes to inform me, over the phone, but kindly, “You always did like melodrama.”


2. Broken Promises

The aforementioned boyfriend, at one fraught moment, made me swear that, if we ever broke up, I would not go out with any of his friends. If I did, he would never forgive me.

Considering that he himself not only fooled around with numbers of my friends but also propositioned my sister, I still don’t feel too guilty about marrying his roommate. But I do hope that, wherever he is, he’s seen fit to stop hating me. We could be friends again. We could even love each other, and write charming letters about the past, like maybe about the time we were at Arby’s in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, and an old guy who looked like Howling Wolf swaggered up to us, sitting there at our plastic table. I was probably eating French fries, and you must have been eating one of those giant-sized roast-beef sandwiches with the barbecue sauce soaking through the squashy bun and dripping onto a wad of napkins. You had both hands clamped to that sandwich, your wide mouth wide open and ready to bite, and then Howling Wolf hauled over to our table and he looked at you, with that sloppy sandwich, and he looked at me, and he looked back at you. And he then he poked a big finger straight into your face and he said, loud enough so that anyone else at Arby’s who might have cared to listen in wouldn’t have had any trouble at all: he growled, “DON’T YOU NEVER HIT A WOMAN.”

I have to say, under such alarming circumstances, you did behave very well. You set your sandwich down on the napkin wad and meekly replied, “No, sir, I never will.” You might have had some barbecue sauce on your face while you were talking, but it didn’t matter, not in the least.

Which reminds me: you might be interested in learning that I once took a poetry workshop from a man with barbecue sauce on his face, and it didn’t matter then either. If you and I were writing letters to each other, I could tell you about that workshop—how this poet was like a ten-year-old boy trapped in a sixty-year-old’s body; how each morning he would carefully park a toy car on every student’s chair so we would have something to play with during class. If you didn’t still hate me, we could talk about toy cars, and then about how you used to eat corned-beef hash out of a can, and how the only thing you liked about my mother was her homemade sauerkraut, but you really liked it: your eyes would light up at the sight of kraut on your plate, and she, who on any ordinary day would have been happy to see you being dragged away by federal marshals, would sweeten up and smile.

But if you’re going to waste all this time being mad, just because I’ve been cooking dinner for your ex-roommate for twenty-five years, not to mention pinning his ragged Carhartt pants onto the clothesline and ferrying his sons to baseball games and piano lessons and whatnot. . . . I mean, come on! In retrospect, I can see you might have had fun with my sister. Imagine if you had married her. Year in and year out, I would have seen you with barbecue sauce on your face. Think of it!—think of how good it would feel to remember we’d broken that ridiculous promise, how the four of us could all be shivering outside on lawn chairs, right at this very second, watching somebody-or-other’s kid flub an at-bat while the swallows begin their circle-and-dive above our heads and the tree frogs shrill by the river.


3. Fake IDs

I have never owned a fake ID. I’m not actually certain I’ve ever even seen a fake ID, though once I did have fun watching my son and his friends construct fake ride bracelets for the Harmony Fair. The project involved hours of careful scanning and gluing; but then, at the last minute, they chickened out and refused to wear them. Since the rides at the Harmony Fair are notoriously lame, I think the only reason they labored over the bracelets at all was for the joy of proving they could do it, which is more or less the same reason I agreed to fake my neighbor’s application for a marriage annulment. I was sitting at a picnic table slapping mosquitoes and watching my kids splash in a lake when his wife tossed the papers at me and said, “Want to fill these out? He can’t be bothered.” One could hardly blame her husband, seeing as he wasn’t Catholic and had divorced his first wife so long ago that he had forgotten what she looked like. But my friend, his second wife, wanted to keep everything tidy with the Church, so I sat there at the picnic table and had a good time filling out the form. Today I can’t remember a single question it asked, let alone any of my fraudulent answers. I do recall deciding that all-capital-letters would make my handwriting look more manly. Anyway, the Church fell for it.


4. Blown Head Gaskets

Blown head gasket is metaphorical shorthand for despair. When I’m standing at the garage counter waiting for Terry the mechanic to get off the phone and I hear him mutter, “Blown head gasket,” I know he might as well be saying “Potato blight” or “Heart failure.” His mustache droops. His eyes turn bleak. No hope is what he means.

Though, of course, automotive misery is nothing like death by famine.

What’s scary about metaphor is how it works as seduction. “Mom, you exaggerate everything” is how my sons put it.

Words jump into the pulpit: they wave their arms around; they invent a character and claim she’s me. In real life, I don’t even know what a blown head gasket is.

According to Ray, he doesn’t answer my emails because I spend too much time honing my sentences, and it makes him self-conscious. Quite possibly he’s lying and is just too lazy to answer. But on the other hand, he’s right: this morning I spent half an hour polishing a one-line Facebook update.

“I like you,” says my friend Donna, “because you’re the kind of person who doesn’t notice she’s just said anon.”


5. Radio Late at Night

is what my sons listen to when they’re sleeping. First, it’s a long, repetitive, crackly debate about whether the Red Sox should trade ailing Mike Lowell to the Rangers; now it’s a talk show with Dee Snider, ex-frontman of Twisted Sister, who snarls, “If it ain’t metal, it’s crap”; and me—I’ve been upstairs asleep for hours, wishing for sex in my dreams, when suddenly I’m wide awake and it’s two o’clock in the morning, and outside a barred owl is complaining about his meal, and my ex-boyfriend’s ex-roommate is beside me snoring, and these guys downstairs on the radio are arguing about NASCAR in their tinny little voices, and I feel like I’ve woken up from a two-year coma only to discover I’m on the lam, waiting for the snipers, holed up somewhere in a weather-beaten motel at the end of the world.

I really hate radio late at night.


6. Sex with the Same Man after Twenty-five Years


As you know.


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