BY ERIN KHAR
This piece is part of the Relationship Issue. Read more here.
I met him on a Thursday. Or was it a Wednesday? It might have been my birthday. Maybe it was someone else’s. Those sorts of details, the ones I usually remember, are all unimportant. We met. And I knew he liked me. And I didn’t like him. That might be a lie. I might have liked him. That’s unimportant now.
If I were to tell you the truth, I would tell you that I met him in Paris, on my 21st, no 22nd birthday. But, I will tell you that I don’t remember because you don’t really want the details. You want to believe that no one existed before you. You want to believe that no one, especially not him, has known the mole just below my left breast, or watched me sleep, always on the right side of the bed, with 2 pillows please, and I can’t sleep naked, I have to wear underwear because I have an irrational fear of something crawling up inside me, up between my legs when I sleep. If I were to tell you the truth, I would tell you that he knows those things about me. And that truth would burn you and you would take the fire and throw it at me.
So, I say he didn’t matter. I don’t tell you about the snowball fight on the banks of the Seine, on a magical February night. The streetlights made the snow gold, and we slid down gilded patches of ice into each other’s arms and made confessions and declarations, as kids passing by doused us with powder, because it was Mardi Gras. Did I mention that? No, of course not.
Instead of telling you that I loved him grandly and absolutely and savagely, I tell you that he meant nothing. And then I remain silent. I imagine that this is better for me, to be loved excessively by a man I feel nothing for. I shouldn’t say that and I won’t, but I care for you, and despise you a little too, for loving me, for knowing that you will lose me, for trying to mute that sharpness left behind in the heart he shattered.
We sit across a table, a table marked by an ocean of time and other love, bolder love, but to you it is just a table. And you take my hand, to get my attention. Your hand is bigger than mine. Your hand is older than mine. Your hand loves more than mine. I focus on the table, the grain of the wood, the grooves, what made them, where the wood has traveled. Your hand over mine, I touch the table and try to recall where I am and who I’ve become. I say my lines, the words you want to hear. The words seem to come from someone else’s mouth. A waitress appears, and you are distracted, and I release my hand from yours.
You order dessert and I think about lying in bed under a heap of duvet, naked, with the man who broke me. It was far too cold to go outside, and we were starving. Starved from hours, maybe days, of learning the contours of every inch of our intertwined bodies. Chestnut cream and creme fraiche in a bowl, a big white ceramic bowl, swirled together, and a sprig of mint, and spoon feeding, and bliss. I had never been happier and I left the bowl on the floor next to the bed, which I would never do now. Now, I would take it to the kitchen and wash it. Then, go to the bathroom, turn on the light, and look at a stranger’s face staring back at me in the mirror.
You’re asking me something? It shocks me a little, forces me to come back to the table and the hand and the waitress and the dessert. What am I thinking about? I should tell you that I let him in. I should tell you I wrote him long-winded love letters, exposing all parts of me. I should tell you that I waited for him to make up his mind. Did I forget to mention that he had a girlfriend when I met him? Well, he did, and I waited, and he chose me, and I was a fool.
But, I don’t. I tell you about a story I read about bailarinas, taxi dancers, like in Sweet Charity, but in Queens. They’re mostly Dominican, paid $2 per dance. And, sometimes they get paid $40 to sit there for an hour and make small talk like they are on a date, or $500 for the night, and some of them prostitute themselves. Some of them have kids. Some of them wait for the men to leave their wives or girlfriends. And all of them are lonely.
I talk too fast and your eyes are kind and your cheekbones high and I study your golden face and I feel guilty. I tell you about Rosa, one of the women in the story, who has been a bailarina for 14 years. She’s waiting for her life to change and she doesn’t know how she got there. And, I don’t know how I got here.
I don’t tell you that I feel like Rosa. He didn’t pay me to dance. He paid for pieces of my heart. He paid for them with scraps of time and lovemaking and promises. I don’t tell you that I feel like Rosa now, that I pretend to be here, participating in a relationship. But, I am there still wandering in bliss and loss and ecstasy and devastation.
I know it’s unfair to you. I am paralyzed. I resent you.
Somewhere between the table and the dessert and the bailarinas and the check, you mention a trip to Paris. We should go to Paris together. You want to see the city through my eyes. I tell you I would love that. I tell you about The Catacombs and Place des Invalides and the many corners I unearthed in that city. This seems to please you and I’m nauseous. The years between now and then do little to protect me. I excuse myself.
There’s a line for the bathroom. A petite perky blonde woman ahead of me strikes up a conversation about how long she’s been waiting. I listen to her complaining and watch us in the mirror on the wall. She is small and light and I am tall and dark. We are both waiting. Rosa is waiting. The man at the table who loves me is waiting.
I waited for the man I loved to make up his mind. He did. He chose me and we left Paris and came to Los Angeles and he began doubting his decision. He should have told me, but he didn’t. I sensed it and the doubt worked like a knife, shaving off flakes of me. Slowly, or quickly, we unraveled from each other and I made him leave, because only having a part of him was far too painful.
The petite perky blonde has finished and it’s my turn. I lock the bathroom door behind me and weep. The wound has festered long but the tears are fresh. I don’t, I can’t allow myself to linger here too long. I remember you, at the table, waiting. I look in another mirror. I don’t know how I got here. But, I know I cannot stay.
I return to you, at the table. Your hair reminds me of wheat and I soften. You take my hand. I should tell you, but I won’t that when he left, I did too. I won’t tell you that he came back and when he came back I had already disintegrated. I was so deeply entrenched in self-destruction that I couldn’t find my way back. I wanted to love him again. I wanted to go back to the midnight walks and the breathless proclamations and all the tiny discoveries that felt so big and the submission to this wave of feeling that I could not contain. I broke his heart too, and left mine there.
I won’t tell you, but I should, that he taught me how to have a broken heart, that he taught me how to surrender, that he taught me how to be humbled by the pain of loss. I came to you broken and I don’t want to love. And, I know that when I leave you will have taught me how to love and that part of loving you is letting go, letting go of you, untethering you from my limp heart, so you can find a less broken heart who can love you back. And you might hate me for this, but I will have enough love to do it anyway.
I take your hand from across the table. I think you already know.
Erin Khar lives, loves, and writes in New York City and sometimes other cities too. She was the recipient of a 2012 Eric Hoffer Editor's Choice Prize for her story, "Last House at the End of the Street," which was published in the Best New Writing 2012 anthology. Her work has appeared many places, including Sliver of Stone, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, The Manifest-Station, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, Dr. Oz. The Good Life, and as a regular contributor for Ravishly. She is currently working on her first book, a memoir. When she’s not writing, she’s probably watching Beverly Hills, 90210.