In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Clara, neither the first nor the most loved, was the one who showed me that I could withstand the pain.
Clara was a production assistant. She wore heavy muslin shifts like a disciple of Jesus. She grew honeysuckle vines along the fence of her rented house, and every week, I imagined, she would squeeze the blossoms’ juices to make perfumes. She kept the extract in a tiny glass vial, and in the afternoons she would reapply some of that honeysuckle scent. Do you get the picture? Clara was the kind of girl who always had three roommates and better musical taste than you.
Clara had broad shoulders and strong legs and good but not great hair, and her lips were very pink, though she didn’t smile much. She was like a character in an indie film: pouty but not greedy, and full of remarkable strangeness.
She didn’t prance around like a young sexpot or sit seductively on the office couch, her legs spilling out from under those thick layers of muslin. She ate sandwiches, big turkey heroes with shredded lettuce from a place in the Hollywood Hills. She would drive out of her way for a good sandwich, but she never came in late from her lunch break. She drank beer and was working on a screenplay. Or so I was told.
And what was she like in bed? Most likely she didn’t initiate the foreplay, though she probably opened her mouth wide when he kissed her. Perhaps her large breasts heaved at his touch. I am sure she was capable of reliable, if quiet, orgasms. It is hard to imagine that he ever had hot, frantic sex with Clara in a car. That he could sleep with this person at all was fascinating.
Every day I practiced splitting up with him, because I knew it was what I had to do.
Bree, who followed Clara with a bang, was blond and cruel and ripped my heart out.
She starred in his first film as the hot young woman, and in real life she was also the hot young woman. She acted like she had a magic vagina, which from the beginning was a problem, even though those of us who worked on set pretended it was not a problem. We all acted like sex was not a part of everything we thought and did, and that intellectual matters were more important. Back then I still believed in God, and I still believed my husband.
She’d come from Indiana, where they grew crops of girls like her, tall and wheaty. Girls from Indiana — have you met any? They are ridiculously sexy and blond, and they have milk coming out of their pores. They grow up poor reading Vogue, and they have the right bodies but the wrong parents and houses and clothes and boyfriends, and they know it. They deserve credit for knowing it. Picture them riding the supermarket ponies, their broke-ass dads having only enough quarters for one ride, and after the ride is over, the Indiana girls sit there all sun-tanned and waiting for Tom Petty or John Cougar Mellencamp to write a song about them.
Bree wore flowers in her lion’s-mane hair. She ate the grapes off the food-services table, lingering beside it and transforming the area into a meeting place where everybody would congregate as though there were a keg. She made sleeping around seem like the hottest thing, and no one would dream of calling her a whore — except for me.
The first night he spent with Bree, she left her scent all over him, on purpose, so that I would smell it. He smelled like freesias, and I immediately sprouted a series of stress pimples along my forehead. I scratched the pimples off one by one. They littered the counter like chia seeds. I talked to the Vitamix blender about my troubles. I said, V., do you know what a woman like this is? She’s poison.
I practiced my breakup speech once and for all. For a year I’d been breaking up with him twice a day, but now I was focused and unstoppable.
The cruelest thing about Bree was that she was all about her career. It wasn’t even that she wanted to sleep with a director because she was attracted to his fame; she was just consciously making her next move. She would have stolen a sunny day from a kid with polio. She wore her purpose like a Game of Thrones character. She wanted the relationship for the publicity, and indeed she showed up across all the rags for a full three weeks, which was the exact amount of attention you would want. There were pictures of her with him in the Porsche with the top down, the sun shining in her triumphant hair and her hands reaching for the tall blue sky. The Enquirer had seamy captions and blurry pictures, but People and Us Weekly had full-color spreads. They described the relationship almost tenderly. Honestly I can say she deserved the fame it gave her. She worked hard for it.
Jaclyn was another actress, young and foreign, from Tel Aviv. His second movie. I was in the beach house in Malibu, making a shake for breakfast in our big, beautiful, sun-drenched kitchen. The Pacific Ocean was serene. I was starting a new day as I had so many: determined to take a stand. Jaclyn’s head shot was on the granite counter. Her hair was dark and silky and long, and I imagined weaving my fingers through it and combing down to the ends. I imagined the tips of her dark nipples, how they would exult at a tongue. I imagined, too, the other men she’d been with, how they’d pumped across her body, how they’d spit in her holes. I grabbed a hunk of lacinato kale and whacked off the stems with my sharp knife.
That first week of Jaclyn I’d been eating lots of burgers. One night I devoured a cheeseburger in the car parked by the airport and thought about flying somewhere, but then I’d be seen looking fat and greasy at the airport, where you’re supposed to look sleepy and thin.
When I put the kale in the belly of the Vitamix, the machine grunted at me. Or it laughed. Or both. I jumped back, and Jaclyn’s head fell like a snowflake to the floor.
I watched you eat hamburgers all week, said the Vitamix.
What? I said.
Grow some fuckin’ balls, the Vitamix said. Cut the cord, you sissy.
I ran out of the kitchen and down the steps to the beach with the rocks and the water and all the beauty that you can buy. In LA I had everything I’d thought I could never have. I had already ascended several levels above my wildest dreams. But I was filled with a vast loneliness.
Jaclyn talked a lot about Italy and about the wines of the Alto Adige and how the night air cooled the grapes. She visited London frequently and went to the best clubs. I pictured her dancing on tables and sucking on a stalk of sugar cane.
By the time I headed back inside, it was night, and everything was the same but felt different. Jaclyn’s unsmiling face looked up at me from the floor.
Genevieve was the ingénue. Everyone said she was barely twenty, not because she had just turned twenty but because they wanted to remember that she had recently been a teenager. Women wanted men to remember this, so that they knew it was wrong to want to fuck her. And men wanted to think about how wrong it was to want to fuck her. The more women make something seem taboo, the more men are like, Yeah, that’s right, too young to fuck.
What is it about young women? I’ll tell you. It’s not so much their smooth thighs and high breasts. It’s not that their butts are cleaner because they have pooped less. It’s the lush interior, like a South American rain forest mushy with water. They are happy and hopeful and have no baggage. They have no fear and need you less than anybody has needed you lately.
Genevieve was from up north, Point Reyes. Land of oysters and dreamy poetesses. On Instagram she lounged on the sand and wore white dresses with deep V-necks in a way that wasn’t slutty but incandescent.
Unlike Bree and Jaclyn, she didn’t pursue. She had to be pursued. She wasn’t a whore, or even half a whore. She had huge lips. She was the kind of girl you serviced more than she serviced you. Too pretty and too young to be kneeling down or even fucked from behind, though I’m sure it happened: on the balcony of the Malibu house, looking out at the ocean while it roiled vindictively.
One morning during Genevieve the espresso maker fizzed loudly when I was steaming the milk, and as I leaned in to investigate, it shot a vile load across my cheek, which swelled up. I lay on the couch and felt sorry for myself.
It was two months with the ingénue, just two months, but she made me feel so old that it seemed like two years.
It was Kate who destroyed me.
Kate was not an actress. She was a brilliant documentary producer from New York, which out here means you are 20 percent more impressive. She had terrific breasts, long, dark hair, and reptilian green eyes.
Kate was the only one who was truly a woman, both in age and demeanor. She owned a house up in Beverly Glen with a manicured garden of cactuses and pink azaleas. It was built into a small cliff with a patio that descended three levels, and she hosted exclusive parties. Just being in her house made you feel safer and more intelligent than anywhere else in god-fucked LA. She occasionally had a boyfriend, some British or Australian actor with a great body and a possibly long career ahead of him. I thought of her saying, Don’t ever stop, while he ate her out in that pretty house and how in the morning they would sit around the breakfast table with her yellow Lab underfoot and eat chocolate granola with goji berries.
I became obsessed with Kate. I was obsessed with all of them, of course, but with Kate it was extreme. I stalked her via the computer, like we all do. I gulped down her online presence like she was a bottle of wine. I snorted cocaine in dribs and drabs and stayed up till 3 AM while his third movie was being cut, and I looked at all her photos and investigated her tweets: where had she been on what day and with whom.
What a woman like Kate had was that unforgivable ability to be in the right spot at the right moment: Manhattan in the spring, Amalfi in July, Cape Cod in late August, Telluride in December, Anguilla in February. Her timing was impeccable. Everywhere she went, people talked about her for days — just as they used to talk about me. About him and me. About us.
During Kate, all throughout Kate, I became convinced that I was surrounded by demons. I pulled out our old video camera, which we’d bought before we came to LA. It was from our RV days, when we would lie in the lumpy, cozy bed of the camper and watch artsy movies in the middle of nowhere, maybe Colorado or Nebraska, and he would talk about making films, and I would assure him that he would make at least three — and at least one would be good — and he would believe me.
Every single night of Kate, I played the first movies he ever made, of the two of us. Documentaries, you might call them. One showed the word pregnant on a pregnancy test; then there was one showing a sonogram of a baby. He also filmed me fainting at the doctor’s office, but he didn’t film the night I bled for seven hours, because he was sleeping. Here is what else he filmed: the roads in Iowa; the wagging golden retriever we bought in Rhode Island from a couple of breeders who fed the dogs doughnuts; me slurping coffee; me on mushrooms; the two of us dancing and saying I love you into each other’s wet, slobbery faces. He filmed himself saying to me, as a birthday present, forever caught on camera, that I was the only woman he would ever love, and he said it straight into the camera with his happy brown eyes and his mountainous beard. He said: I live to make you happy and safe. I have loved all of you wholly from the moment I saw you, and I will love you even after we have both disintegrated and exist only on some other plane.
He filmed our wedding reception, and it was a magical event, and our guests said to the camera, This is the best wedding I have ever been to.
We were in the right place at the right time all the time.
And he filmed the honeymoon, my lips blown up like twin cocktail wieners from an allergy to the cashew plum of the Caribbean. He filmed his penis going into my vagina and said on camera, forever caught, how large my labia were, and I wrote a message home to his mother about how she had created the perfect man.
I confronted him of course, and of course he lied. He lied about Clara because even he knew she wasn’t worth it. And he lied about Bree because he knew she didn’t love him and he felt ashamed and dumb. And he lied about Genevieve because she was too young to fuck. And he lied about the girl from Tel Aviv whose name I sometimes forget because she was just a head shot to me, and I guess she was to him, too.
And he lied about Kate, but not well. He lied like someone who didn’t mind being caught lying. He lied like someone who’d forgotten that it’s the same glorious feeling every time you’re with somebody new who is perfect and loves the gap in your teeth. He said I was crazy.
Later I showed my evidence. I had text messages of course; everyone always has text messages. The text message is now the lipstick on the collar, and the worst thing is that, much like the lipstick, it only hints at what really is going on. I had created rosy narratives of his love affairs, full of moments when he tenderly gazed into eyes that were not mine and moments when he was garishly excited, like a little boy, by a woman who was not me. I told him the stories I had conjured, and I could see by his face that half were true and half were not. And the half that were not, I could almost see him wishing they were.
He sat open-mouthed, and all I could do was picture that mouth on the wet parts of those women. The fucking whore from Indiana, I said. The fucking Hebrew slut. The fucking white-trash child.
He drank his beer. His throat was still sexy to me. All of him was still sexy to me. He said that none of it mattered, not even Kate. She was nothing. She was not me. He said that nobody was me.
He took my hands into his. His hands, so large and right. There were so many things about him I feared never finding again. That’s what got me every time. Who would butter the bread so well? Who would slice the blueberries?
He cried, and we held each other in the ruins of our past until finally I said that it was OK. I told him some of the fault was mine: For seeking along with him to be in the right places at the right times. For growing fortyish. For not taking better care.
Shh, he said, brushing my knuckles with his thumbs. I felt his breath on my lips, like the heat coming on in a car. I looked down at our hands. What he was doing reminded me of every time he had done this before. Probably it was a touch he had mastered across all of us.
Listen, he said, I’ll never do it again.
I believe he believed it. And for a moment I did, too.