On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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Paul goes away for business a lot, and I try not to think about how OK I am with it. I’m OK, you’re OK. We’re OK, I tell people.
I neatly fold that thought up and put it in a drawer, along with the single hair on my chin and the TV show they just canceled that I was heavily relying on to get me through the next few years maybe. But I’m OK. If the place I order takeout from most nights ever closes, I’ll confront all these feelings in one drunken argument that will end with me telling Paul I like it better on my own anyway. But for now we’re OK. What we are is what that little word, OK, is for.
Friends think it must be exciting when he comes back from a trip. They mean the sex. They’re projecting their fantasies onto us, and we mostly let them. We’ve always been that couple: The writer and the computer guy. Living the dream, if the dream is having separate lives and being OK with it. In reality, when Paul comes back from a trip, I’m usually asleep on the couch with my laptop open to whatever I’m supposed to be writing, food spilled on my lap, a cat from the neighborhood that climbed in the window eating the food from my lap and making me have weird almost-sex dreams, which Paul interrupts. Maybe I left some kitchen appliance on, so there’s a burning smell. This is how we live, in this Ikea-induced fugue. But it’s OK.
Friends picture him coming home to New York like a soldier in uniform, even though his uniform is hoodies and obscure foreign sneakers he’s not cool enough to wear. He wishes he could ride a skateboard to work, because that’s the closest thing to his childhood hoverboard fantasy. I know the boy who lives inside him, you see. I chose that boy from all the boys. I chose this life. They picture him bursting in and carrying me off to bed, like he’s been away at war or at sea, when really he’s just been hanging out in Japan under the guise of business. Business, business, business — say it enough and it might mean something.
Paul was in high spirits when he left. He was going to Japan, motherfuckers, which is how I imagine his boss gave him the news. As he packed, he told me what he’d be doing while he was away, like not recognizing anything he ate and barely bathing, which pretty much described what I do all the time. I was busy trying to write an e-mail to a grumpy editor about some changes he had made that I did not think needed to be made, so I was only half listening, one foot in, one foot out of our life, always somewhere else but never sure quite where.
He tried to tickle me at one point, and I shouted, I’m trying to do important business! and he thought that was hilarious because he knew how I felt about business.
From what he can make out, my business is lying horizontally in different places around the apartment, not writing, mostly watching cooking shows or reading what other people have written and thinking, Well, I don’t need to write that now. To me his business is just standing vertically in different exotic locations, looking at the latest video games. The biggest misconception about his job is that he sits around and plays video games all day. It’s all virtual reality now, so he actually stands a lot, golfing, skiing, boxing, killing zombies, or whatever people do virtually that they could do quite as easily — or more easily, even — in the real world. He always tries to get me to go to those 3-D movies that are almost theme-park rides, the ones that have surround sound and smells and wind, and I just roll my eyes and say, Or we could go outside. I made him go to a park once, and a pigeon shat on him, and I said, See, you don’t get that at the movies. I told him it was a sign of good luck as he frantically dabbed at his shirt.
You write articles online, he said, to remind me I’m just as far gone from reality as he is. He doesn’t know all the secret ways I try to write off-line, keep one foot in the world still. Like at Whole Foods there’s a suggestion book where you can leave a comment, and some days I write things in it like Where’s the black garlic? or How do I make bread? or Thank you for existing. I always write in different handwriting so they don’t think I’m crazy. I’d love to just be crazy.
Paul doesn’t know who I am when he’s away, and I don’t know who he is when he’s away, but when we’re together, we’re Paul and Julia again. We are who we’re supposed to be, and the rest isn’t real. I assume it’s like that for everyone.
When he said he was going away this time, I immediately thought of it as an opportunity to sleep more and wash less, but after he left, I felt like I should get up and bathe, and I ended up making a bigger effort than usual, and then I felt obliged to go out and take advantage of not looking like a teenage boy for once. There are some impeccably groomed and dressed writers, but I avoid them at all costs. When Paul called to say he’d gotten there safely, I had to pretend I was on the couch in my pajamas and not in a bar day-drinking. It was confusing. He wanted me out there in the world, but I felt I was supposed to pretend I was a little sad he was gone — at least, for the first few days. I told him I missed him, because I did. I’m not a complete monster.
Once, when he was away, I told him I had sniffed his shirt, because I’d seen someone do that in a movie. I don’t think people really do that though, or I hope they don’t. But then, people are gross, so they might.
I was trying not to think about how much I liked having my own space, though it was technically our space, and day-drinking helped me forget. Paul was doing what he needed to do, and I was doing what I needed to do, which just happened to be day-drinking and then going home and eating family-size bags of chips and watching all the TV. I was listening to my body. That’s what we’re supposed to do now, right?
I’m also supposed to be writing, always. Even when I’m on the toilet, I feel like I could be writing, so I sit there a long time and read something on my phone about how we’re not doing so great at controlling the climate, because we aren’t wizards. It’s all writing, I tell anyone who asks, which no one does.
Paul brings me back weird snacks you can’t get here, and this might be the only reason I let him go. Go forth and procure weird foreign snacks for me, my liege, I said to him once at the airport, and after that, he felt it was his duty. We all need more purpose in our lives. Most of the snacks taste like dirt or death, but they look cool, and not knowing what they are is half the fun.
While Paul’s away, my sister says, You can come here, you know, if you want, which means, Why would you want to? She asks where he is now, and I say, Japan, and she asks what he’s doing, and I say, Getting me snacks.
When we met, he said, I’m going to be away a lot, and I said, That works, because I’m going to be lying on the couch a lot, not writing the next great American novel.
He calls, and I ask if he’s seen the Japanese vending machine that sells panties, and he says no, but he’ll tell me if he does, and I worry that if he actually does see it, something will change between us forever. I accuse him of not really looking for it — or, worse, lying about not having seen it — but he assures me he is looking and not lying; it’s just there’s a lot to see, too much really, and I know then he’s not lying.
When he comes home, he brings me back one of those furry robot companion pets — a baby seal. They give them to old people and sick people in Japan. You’re supposed to pet it, and it’s supposed to make you feel less alone. I don’t think it works.
Thanks, I say, looking uncomfortably at the seal. I check it for batteries, but it uses a charger. I don’t hug it or pet it. I don’t feel any better.
I ask why he didn’t bring me a sex doll, and he says he doesn’t think they have them for women, and I think about whether I’ve ever seen a male sex doll, and I haven’t.
Women are more complex, he says.
Smarter, I say, but we both know I mean less creepy.
It’s cute, though, right? he says, picking the seal up and smooshing it in my face. We saw it on TV? Remember?
We’ve watched so much TV; I have forgotten all of it.
Thanks, I say. Now give me my chips, and he gives me what I want.
He wants to call the robot seal Celia — get it? He thinks this is hilarious. I want to call it Celine Dion, because I’m funnier. I think the seal might be a trap to get my biological clock ticking again. I’ve told Paul enough times: no babies. And he’s told me that people change and that I once said, No dairy, which lasted about a week. Giving up dairy was a mistake, I tell him.
I ask if anyone else brought their spouse back a seal, and he says no, but one of his colleagues brought back one of those sex toys that is just a butt, so I’m thankful for the seal.
He doesn’t ask what I did while he was gone, because one time he did ask, and I shouted at him, Nothing, I did nothing! because I had done nothing, really. I’d written some words, but it never seemed like enough. I’d only just started freelancing and hadn’t found my rhythm. Now he doesn’t ask, in case I’ve lost that rhythm, in case we’ve lost our rhythm.
I want to tell him I went to dinner on my own, to this new place I’ve been meaning to try for months. I ordered too much but didn’t feel self-conscious, and I took a photo of my meal just for me. I didn’t share the photo, or the food. I went to a reading at a bookstore. I didn’t ask any questions, but I smiled at the writer and bought two books and felt like a goddamn rock star walking home on my own, not caring if I got mugged, almost hoping I would so I could beat my attacker with my books, and then those books would be twice as valuable to me. I joined a bunch of kids who were feeding ducks in the park. I’d always wanted to feed them but worried people would think I was a pedophile. This time I decided to let them think that. You don’t hear enough about bad women.
I did lots of small things that together felt like a big thing, but to say them out loud would feel stupid compared to someone who just went to Japan on important business. He is living in the future, and I am coming to terms with my present.
Paul has been back a week when he says they want him to go away again, to Hong Kong this time. He says, If it’s too soon, I can just tell them no. They have families, too. He looks around our apartment at the Ikea furniture and the dead plants. Our family.
No, you should go, I say. I’ll be fine. He wants me to tell him not to go, but I won’t play those games.
Something changes in me while he’s in Hong Kong. I don’t feel like pretending to write anymore, and I don’t feel like waiting for Paul to come home. I used to. God, how I waited — out of love mostly, because I like being in the world with him. I do. Life is about shared experiences. But then I see those Instagram posts of couples watching sunsets, and I think, What if it’s also about private experiences, ones you do just for yourself? I’ve always hated those couples who do everything together. It’s so old-fashioned. They seem to have a different love than ours, which makes me wonder what I have with Paul, who I love most when he’s gone.
While he’s in Hong Kong doing Hong Kong things, I go to a movie and run for the first time in years. Nothing big, but it feels essential. I make a frittata, and it’s delicious. The pleasure I get from cooking it, then eating it, is so basic it makes me sad. It wouldn’t be the same if Paul was here, but when he calls, I say I miss him, because that’s what you do. Maybe tomorrow I will make a whole lasagna and eat it all, just because I can. It sounds ridiculous, a grown woman getting excited about making herself a lasagna. Maybe someone will drop by, and I can say, Stay for dinner, like people do in movies, whereas in real life you have to book people ages in advance because everyone is so busy. A friend of mine who wrote a book of essays has now left her job to write a second book of essays, so maybe she will want to eat lasagna with me. Most women I know want lasagna. Paul would correct me and say, Most people, but I don’t know about most people.
A week after he gets back from Hong Kong, he comes home from work and says they have asked him to go to Tokyo again, and he got really mad and told them he’d only just unpacked, and what if we had a kid? And I say, We don’t, and he says, But we might one day, and I say, But we don’t.
It’s too soon, he says, and I don’t know if he’s talking about the trip or our imaginary child.
It’s fine, I say. Seriously, I have deadlines. And he asks if I’m having an affair, and I say, Don’t be silly, but when I think about it, I am, only it’s an affair with myself, which sounds like a sex thing, but this is the opposite of sex.
Don’t you love me anymore? he says, and I say, Of course I love you, making sure I don’t shout, because that never sounds like love. I’m just enjoying time on my own, I say, but I can’t look him in the eye when I say it, nor do I ask if that’s OK, because it doesn’t matter.
He understands. He says he wanted to tell me how much he likes staying in hotels, but he didn’t want to upset me. He says he likes being someone else, or no one at all, and I say I understand, and I remember why I love him. I don’t know what any of this means for us, but it’s nothing like when we first started seeing each other and told each other we never wanted to be apart.
We don’t have sex that night, like we usually would before he goes away. Instead we lie next to each other like two people who don’t hate each other, because it’s all we can manage.
Two weeks after he returns from Tokyo, he leaves again, to London this time, promising to bring me back all manner of snacks too fancy for us to have here. We say our goodbyes, and he says we should probably sell that seal on eBay, and I say, And that panini press, which I bought when Paul was away even though I had no intention of suddenly making my own paninis.
Well, have fun, he says, which he’s never said before, because what’s fun about being home alone, not pining exactly, or even waiting, just watching TV and not writing?
You, too, I say, and I mean it. I want him to have fun. Not too much, though. The minimum amount.
The first night he’s gone, I feel a little deflated and go to bed early.
The second day I actually write something and send it off into the world, and it feels like such a huge thing when really it was just a few taps on a keyboard.
On the third day I hear a knock at the door, and I open it, and a woman is standing there. Her name is Haruka, and she says she worked with Paul in Tokyo. She is very beautiful and very apologetic, and I assume she’s come to tell me she’s having an affair with Paul, or that he’s dead, but it’s neither.
I ask her in and make her tea, because that’s what you do, and she tells me I am too kind, which makes me sad for her. She says that Paul told her I was on my own a lot and that I worked from home. Writing? she says, like a question. No children, she says, like a statement.
She asks me about the companion seal, which is destined for eBay, but I don’t tell her that. We sit in silence and drink our tea.
I ask what she’s doing while she is in the U.S., and she says, The usual, and I ask if she’d like me to show her the unusual, and she says, Very much.
I spend the next few days taking her to all the places you don’t read about in guidebooks because New Yorkers don’t want tourists to know about them. I like her. She is cheerful and easy to talk to. She thinks I’m funny. If Paul was having an affair with her, I’d understand.
Paul comes home early from England. He says he wanted to surprise me, but I think he got rained out of the country.
He finds Haruka and me asleep on the couch. We walked miles for ice cream and then decided to take a nap before walking miles to get burgers. Walking and eating are the only ways to really get to know a city, and a person.
So you’re having an affair with a woman I work with in Japan, he says, scratching his head, and I say, Don’t be stupid. Why does everyone think everyone is cheating on them?
TV, he says. Movies.
The only person I’m having an affair with is myself, I say, and it still sounds like a sex thing.
Why can’t you have an affair with your phone like a normal person? he says, and I say, Because I’m not normal, and neither are you, so stop pretending, which hurts him, because he tries to be.
And we’re not eBaying the seal, I say. Haruka is taking it home with her.
Haruka waves at Paul. He waves back.
We all sit on the couch together and talk about how robots are going to take over the world and how we are rooting for the robot seals. I think maybe we’ll be a thrupple now, a three-person couple, only we’re not that cool. Then I remember I like it best on my own, and I feel old.
I tell Paul that Haruka has invited me to Tokyo and that I’m going, and he says I will love it.
Two weeks later Haruka meets me at LaGuardia for our flight.
Did you bring the seal? she asks.
No, I forgot, I say, because I did. I remembered the correct amount of underwear but not the seal.
Oh, dear, she says. She looks worried.
What? I say.
Nothing, she says, helping me with my bags. It will probably be OK.
It’s just that I’ve heard the seal robots catch fire while charging. They’re recalling them. She looks less worried now that she’s told me, like she’s done her job and any deaths that follow will be on me.
Oh, I say, stopping. Paul.
Paul? Haruka says.
I may have left the seal on the charger, I tell her. I try to call Paul, but he doesn’t answer. I think I have to go home, I tell Haruka.
She doesn’t seem to mind. Another time, she says.
She waves goodbye.
When I get home, the apartment is dark, and I find Paul in the bath and the bathroom full of lit candles.
Paul! I say, happy he’s alive and just thankful there’s no Enya playing.
You came back! he says, clambering out of the bath, reaching for a towel, almost knocking a candle over.
The seal might catch fire apparently, I say, sitting on the toilet.
You came back to save me! he says, grinning.
Yes, Paul, I say. Women can do that now. We can save ourselves and stupid men.
Thank God, he says, and I kiss him before he can kiss me, because I want to be the one doing the kissing. I could also do the leaving if I wanted to, but I don’t want to.