I leaned over the edge of the bed feeling sick. There was silence on the line, then I heard her crying.
We arrived at the house upstate, just as her friend and his three house guests were about to sit down to dinner, just as the night took over and the surrounding woods came alive with sound.
My head ached the dull constant ache that to me was the pounding incessant emptiness of New York City as we all sat around the table on the back porch at the bottom of a wide stretch of grass, a lone candle flickering in the midst of the food and a bottle of wine. The conversation weaved its way around the unfamiliar faces as someone mentioned the Chelsea Hotel. "Oh, we were just talking about this last night," she said perking up, glancing quickly at me and then at the others. "I've slept with three people at the Chelsea Hotel," she said beaming, as though proud of herself, and I shifted uncomfortably in my chair as something withered inside of me. "Four," I injected as my ears rang and the others stared blankly ahead or looked meekly toward me. "Depending on what you consider sex," her friend said to no one in particular as she smiled into the prolonged silence that followed.
A couple of hours later I found her in the upstairs bathroom taking a bath. The house was silent except for the distant sound of crickets and someone working in the wood shop out back. It was late. I was tired. I could feel the long shadowy tentacles of New York City reluctantly letting go of their psychic grasp on me. I sat on the toilet reading Bukowski, decompressing, trying to let go of what she'd said earlier, trying to see it clearly, trying to see why it bothered me so much. I looked out the window at the night then back to her. Her opal blue eyes searched my face as she sat up in the tub, her head protruding from above the bubbles of the deep white tub. "You alright?" she asked me. "Yeah," I said, lying. "Do you want to clean off?" she asked. I nodded and put my book down on the wooden windowsill as I stood up. I slowly took off my clothes as she stepped out of the tub and picked up a folded towel that lay on the tiled floor. I watched the gentle cushioned curve of her ass as she dried herself off and I climbed into the deep warm water of the tub. I leaned back, fading into the relaxation, my mind searching for peace and calm as I watched her in my periphery as she brushed her teeth with her finger in front of the mirror, wrapped in the clean white towel. And I pictured a scene not so unlike this one with another man in the Chelsea Hotel. She had mentioned sleeping with someone at the Chelsea a couple of times before over the course of our relationship, each time seemingly pleased with herself. But it had caught me off guard the night before as we walked home together after dinner out, as it was in relation to someone who I'd never heard her mention before. I'd stopped briefly, bracing myself on the stained sidewalk in the dark asking her how many men she'd slept with at the Chelsea. Three, maybe four? One of the stories had changed. "I shouldn't be telling you this. Right?" she said, almost caustically, searching my eyes, as though if I had a problem with it, it was simply my problem. "No, it's fine," I said calmly, asking her to recount the encounters as we walked home in the gloom of the buildings, and then as we lay in bed together before drifting off to sleep, realizing that I was a masochist at heart. There was a cheapness and trashiness to it all that slightly turned me on and reminded me of the first time that we'd slept together, drunkenly, in a tarp next to a dumpster in the woods on the last night of the job that we'd met on in Texas. Now, nearly two years later, sober, after the way that she'd just so cavalierly flaunted her tacky sexual exploits in front of me - as though throwing it at me for having had the slightest reaction to it the night before - to a group of people who I didn't know, and a few who she didn't, I realized that I'd lied to myself about what I wanted in a woman. I realized that I was attracted to one thing and wanted another, and that those two disparate things were generally not found in the same person. I wanted stability. I wanted trust. But our differing values about what was okay and what was not continually left me feeling off balance and unable to emotionally have faith in her as a partner, in us as a couple. What she had said had simply left me feeling violated, feeling that what we had together was cheap and easy, nothing more. What she had said had left me feeling like she had no respect for me, or us.
I toweled off and walked into the room across the hall where she lay reading in bed, the hardwood floor creaking as I did. I slid slowly across the sheets, lay down next to her and tried to read, the fan in the corner blowing warm stale air over us. "Are you okay?" she asked me, turning from her book. I stared up at the geometric designs that had been painted on the walls and ceiling trying to decide what to say, if anything at all. I didn't want to argue anymore. I was tired of voicing my problems then continually having to defend my positions. But I couldn't hold my tongue and the way that I felt. And I realized as the heat suffocated the room that this was the draining story of our relationship: she would say or do something provocative or inflammatory, completely oblivious to its effect, which I would find upsetting and would then need clarification or understanding or an apology, which would only annoy and upset her, making her feel accused and judged, causing her to become defensive and attacking, making me feel disregarded and angry, causing us to fight, sucking the life out of us both and the relationship in the process. This was our downward spiral.
I stared up at the red of the room that was intersected by sharp white, black and yellow lines and I thought back to the first fight that we'd had in that Las Vegas hotel room a year and a half before where I'd foreseen this dynamic as being our doom, and I realized that I should have just ended it then, like I'd wanted to at the time. People don't change who they are, and we couldn't seem to change the way that we related to one another. And I realized that I'd had enough, that I was done with us, and that it was time for me to move on.
Austin, Texas - 1 month later
'Can we talk?' the text said. I'd been anticipating it for days, almost weeks, now here it was. I called immediately as I got up from the couch, heading to my bedroom for privacy, more eager to talk to her than I'd expected, images spilling across my mind of where she'd been, what she'd been doing since I’d left her in Brooklyn. Anxiety flooded me as I shut the door to my darkened room. Crossing toward the bed I heard her voice. She sounded distant and scared. Detached momentarily from myself I heard my voice shaky and unsure, "How are you?... Where are you?" I asked. "I'm in San Fransisco," she said. "I hitchhiked here from Burning Man with some guy in a beat up old truck... How are you?" "It's been rough," I said, my voice cracking, pain and regret filling me. I wanted to hold her. I wanted to take it all back. I wanted to start over. I wanted things between us to be different than what they were – broken and wrong. "I'm sorry," she said with sympathy. "I miss you." "I miss you too.” There was a pause, then, “I feel like you can trust me,” she said. I leaned over the edge of the bed feeling sick. There was silence on the line, then I heard her crying.