It was May in Casper, Wyoming, and my old college buddy Steve Pachella had stopped by for a visit on his way from New York to Salt Lake City. I hadn’t seen him since the summer of 1993, when we’d both worked as waiters at a Pizza Hut. After an awkward bear hug he darted downstairs to use the bathroom in my basement, then reemerged holding two crisp twenties.
“Dude, I broke your toilet seat,” he said.
No big deal, I told him. My house was kind of a mess anyway. There was laundry everywhere and a half-packed bag of clothes and toiletries by the door, in case Shaye called and wanted me to come see her in Jackson Hole. Shaye was my girlfriend of sorts, an art-gallery owner, workout enthusiast, and diehard nutritionist who never ate processed foods. Compared to Shaye, I looked like an abandoned oil rig. As soon as I met her, I began a diet of protein shakes and egg whites.
All that winter and into spring I’d regularly driven five and a half hours one way across the state to see her, along the snowy roads and over icy bridges, worried the whole way about hitting an elk or a moose. I’d stop at a gas station in Dubois and take a deep breath before driving over Togwotee Pass. On the other side I’d see the Tetons rising blackly from the sage, and Shaye would take me to the dog park so my dog, Henry, and her cattle dog could romp in the snow. She would thrust her hands into my jacket pockets and thank me for making the long drive.
Recently, though, she’d grown distant, saying that our “frequencies” were off. Now she hadn’t called in a week. My chest hurt just thinking about her.
“Give her a call, baby,” said Pachella.
“Naw,” I said. “She’s not the kind you chase.”
Pachella and I went hiking on Casper Mountain. He had grown an inch since college and put on thirty pounds of solid muscle. He told me he’d quit drinking in 1997 after a long run of failed classes, lost jobs, estrangement, and divorce. Since then, he’d become a better version of himself. Now in the care of a Buddhist therapist named Dharma Josh, Pachella had embraced the theory that most of our psychological wounds occur within the first five years of life.
On our hike Pachella snapped selfies with the ponderosa pines in the background.
“I’ll post these to my Bumble account,” he said.
Bumble is an online matchmaking site where the woman makes the first move. He was dating again, he said, having suffered a humiliating rejection a year earlier from a woman named Jess. “The connection I thought I was feeling was really the trauma that had happened to me as a child,” he told me as some hikers stepped off the trail so we could pass. “She lit me up, dude.”
“That’s good, right?” I asked.
Pachella shook his head and lectured me for an hour about childhood trauma and how to recognize it. This is what some guys in their fifties do these days: we talk about the health of our aging parents; we reveal the deepest secrets of our past; we exchange recipes for protein shakes; we discuss sleep apnea and how to treat it.
Dying to talk about my own romantic failure with Shaye, I told Pachella about our fiery romance, from the first date, where we’d shot pool and kissed in public, to her gradual retreat, which had left me dumbfounded and deeply hurt. All winter, on my trips to Jackson, we’d skied and hiked the snowy forest roads. At home in Casper, I’d awakened every day with a text from her: smiley faces, heart emojis, and increasingly revealing photos of herself. She enrolled in an online class to study writing, so that she might understand me better. But she also told me about her failed relationships and wondered out loud if she was ready to try again. She frequently said she didn’t want the responsibility of a full-blown love affair. In April the phone calls and texts had stopped for a week. Then we were back on again, as if nothing had happened. We planned a vacation to Los Barriles, Mexico, but could never settle on the dates. Now she’d gone silent once more.
“That’s called distancing behavior,” Pachella said. “Let me guess — the best sex ever?”
I nodded and tried to smile, but I was on the edge of tears. Hikers at a waterfall were having the time of their lives. Ravens grokked their song of springtime, feathers oily blue in sunlight. The sex wasn’t just the best; it was also confusing. I wanted to explain, but would he understand?
“Brother, those types know how to fuck you up,” Pachella said.
He told me online dating sites were full of women like Shaye. And here my heart perked up: I foolishly thought maybe I could find another one just like her. But Pachella said people like her should be avoided at all costs.
I told him it didn’t seem right for a woman like Shaye to be alone.
“I hate to tell you this,” Pachella said, “but she’s probably already with someone else.” He put his hammy fist on my shoulder and went on about “toxic love” and how I needed to find a person who understood true connection. He said I didn’t have enough money to pay for the therapy I would need if I stayed with her.
Before I go any further, I want to apologize on behalf of all of us vain middle-aged people who don’t know when to throw in the towel. Perhaps you’ve seen us, graying couples touching feet under the table at a coffee shop or requesting a Van Morrison song from the troubadour at the outdoor patio bar. Think kindly of our meager attempts to conquer loneliness, of the late-in-life dalliances we hope will distract us as our minds slip. We want only to watch the leaves change, to sip wine in new restaurants, to see our naked bodies reflected in strategically placed mirrors just a few more times. We’re trying, you see, to make it last. So have some compassion as we drag ourselves to the gym and work on our sagging physiques. Please don’t judge us. As they used to say in Newport News, Virginia, where I was born and raised: Don’t hate; appreciate.
I should have seen the breakup coming. After just a few months with Shaye I was frightened by her inability to make concrete plans for the future. She was like an iceberg: pretty from far off, but scary the closer you got. She told me it was a good thing I hadn’t met her ten years earlier, when she was thoroughly “bonkers.” She once tried to show me a photo album of her life, but many pictures were missing and torn out. “One of my exes got to this, I guess,” she said. There were scabs of dried glue on every page.
She’d grown up in Connecticut, and while I was drinking warm beer in the woods around my hometown, she was sneaking into nightclubs in Manhattan. Cocaine and group sex were common in her high school. After a stint at the Rhode Island School of Design, she studied art in Italy, then moved in with an older man who collected vintage sports cars. Before coming to Wyoming, she’d sold imported cars in Florida. Older men were her best customers. She ran with a gang of salesmen who lived solely off commissions and made a killing. Then she moved to Jackson Hole only to be disappointed that the men there couldn’t keep up with her. She’d dated wildlife photographers who proposed marriage after a few dates, cross-country skiers who preached minimalism and a leave-no-trace ethos. She was attracted mostly to the loners, the damaged guys who pushed into the backcountry and lived among the bears and ravens. She spent time there herself, taking long solo hikes with her dog, carrying a healthy supply of weed, photographing the odd shapes the snowpack made when it overwhelmed small trees and boulders. When I asked why she had never been married, she told me her artist grandmother had advised her not to rely on anyone.
“But there are so many fit, interesting dudes passing through Wyoming,” I said.
“I don’t pet the tourists,” she said.
I figured there was some damage deep down inside her, and I asked her about it frequently.
“I’ve lived a choice life,” she insisted.
I didn’t quite buy it and went on waiting for her to come clean and tell me what kept her on the run. But she never did.
Despite these hints of hurt in her past, a notable effusiveness radiated from her. She said she was interested in becoming a better person and “radiating love out to the world.” She cooked incredible homemade meals, dancing in her tidy kitchen. She listened to old-school hip-hop — Grandmaster Flash, LL Cool J, MC Shan — and knew all the words. Her garage was full of exercise gear, snowboards, skis, trail bikes, and fly rods. We turned on the heater and worked out there in the mornings.
“The only good thing about my breakups is how I usually inherit some gym equipment,” she said, pointing to the bench, the kettlebells, the rowing machine.
I played some Jackson Browne on the boom box. She quickly replaced it with Wu-Tang Clan.
When her cell phone buzzed, she ran to turn it off. She would shut her drapes because she had the feeling a guy she used to date was spying on us. She told me about her compulsive masturbation and how once, while driving the canyon road to Alpine, she’d had an orgasm so intense she’d almost wrecked her truck. She told me that her last lover had smuggled drugs for her on an international flight by putting them in a balloon and thrusting the whole shebang into his anus. “If that ain’t love, I don’t know what is,” she said.
One evening, after we’d had vigorous sex, Shaye asked if I’d be interested in an open relationship.
“Fuck no!” I squeaked. “I’m crazy about you.”
She seemed pleased by the minor distress her question had caused. Later we went to one of her hangouts, an off-the-beaten-path joint where the local tradesmen swilled Pabst on bar stools facing the Tetons. She pointed out a plumber who had offered her free work in exchange for “companionship.” A handsome guy came through the door, and the other men made room for him at the bar.
“Mike O’Connor,” whispered Shaye. “He’s married. Otherwise he’d be with me. We have a crazy connection.”
Another thing we used to say in Newport News, when words escaped us, was “Fuck me running.” Shaye made fuck me running the theme of my life. As soon as I arrived in Jackson Hole to see her, after long hours driving the hazardous wintry two-lane roads, she would drag me to the couch or into her dark basement. I hated to leave when the visit was over. As I drove back across the state, the sage and the rust-colored land streaking by, I felt a desperate urge to turn around. When I was away from her, I checked my phone obsessively for texts, which could come at any time. She video-called me while riding her fat-tire bike down snowy avenues, wearing Carhartt bib overalls. She found a mule-deer antler and held it up to the phone for me to see. She dialed me from the top of a ski run just as she was about to drop into Rendezvous Bowl: “What’s up, Dave Zoby? This may kick my ass, but I’m doing it anyway.” She sent me darling childhood photos of herself riding her bike as a toddler or with her first pony, Champ. I recognized the green eyes and the shy smile. She raised her shirt to photograph her six-pack abs in a mirror and sent the image to me with a burnished border that read: “Wisdom is realizing you’re riding down the wrong trail.” We video-chatted while she brushed her teeth and hair. Inevitably she would ask me to show her my penis.
“I’m too shy,” I’d reply.
“C’mon, motherfucker. It’s not like you’re running for governor.”
Frequently Shaye left Wyoming to resupply her gallery. She never told me when these trips were coming or when she’d be back. Sometimes we were in constant contact while she traveled; other times she dropped off the radar for days. Naked images of her swam onto my phone in the wee hours. At first nothing thrilled me more than to receive the gift of an intimate photo. I imagined the nanoseconds it took these images to journey from her home in Jackson Hole, up through her roof, across the Gros Ventre Range, the Wind River Reservation, and the moonlit sage steppes outside of Casper to arrive specifically at my phone. They were artful. She posed before the mirror by her bed, let her hair go wild, lifted one knee. She jackknifed her body in a twist of beige bedsheets. She stood with wet hair and stared into the camera with no sense of irony. But now, as she fell away, these images only made me sad. I had the awful feeling that they weren’t just for me; they were too artful, too enigmatic. She was in Denver. She was in Houston. She sat naked on the edge of the bed in a swanky hotel in Kansas City. The texts were mementos of our time together: artifacts, leftovers. I began leaving my phone turned off in a sock drawer.
I want to set the record straight. I wasn’t doing much when Shaye came into my life. I was unhappy in my teaching career and lacked energy. She warned me often, “I’m not who you think I am.” But who did I think she was? The evidence pointed in every direction. Once, I saw her hustle one of Casper’s pool sharks. When it appeared that he might win, she turned on her savage charm, and he began to miss shots even I might have made. Later she and I shared a rib-eye steak as the waiters made last call.
“I had a full-size pool table in my house when I lived in New Jersey,” she explained.
“I feel bad for that guy,” I said. “Pool is everything to him.”
She thrust a piece of rare steak in her mouth and chewed. I loved her jawline, her classic beauty, her insouciance.
Back at my house after the hike with Pachella, I put a pan of elk enchiladas into the oven, and he helped me revise my online dating profile so I could find the right woman. He advised me to delete the three photos of me holding trout.
Through intense therapy with Dharma Josh, Pachella had learned to spot toxic people fairly quickly. He warned me to avoid extreme narcissists: they have no empathy. The initial thrill of meeting such a person often fools us into making bad decisions. He told me about a guy who’d met such a woman online and a week later had sold his house in New York and gone to live with her in Georgia.
“Brother, that guy is no longer with us.” Pachella let that sink in.
I didn’t tell him that he had a lot in common with Shaye: They both listened to self-help books and neo-spirituality podcasts. Both did hot yoga and meditated, though he couldn’t quite get into it, whereas Shaye had perfected her practice to the degree that her fitness watch mistook her two-hour sessions for deep sleep. While most of us middle-aged people accept the slow, sweet decline of our physical health, Shaye is on a constant upward trajectory.
The next morning, after Pachella and I drank coffee at the Bourgeois Pig with my ombudsman, Kate O’Hara, he headed off for Salt Lake City, and I drove to Sutherlands to buy a new toilet seat. I kept my windows down and the sunroof open. The winter had been ugly and unrelenting, and May had arrived with a string of rain clouds that had drifted off the hip of Casper Mountain. Now the dandelions bloomed, and I saw my fellow citizens driving with their windows down, too. Perhaps, like me, they wanted to feel the spring air rush over their bare skin. It might have been the only thing I had in common with the inhabitants of this strange village of diesel trucks and ranch hands. Honk if You Love Trump, read the handwritten sign on the back of a rusted Chevy.
I parked and walked through the enormous building to the plumbing section. Small birds flitted in the uppermost beams of the warehouse. I wondered if they’d ever find their way back to sunlight.
Toilet seats ranged from seventeen dollars for plastic up to eighty for walnut and chrome. I reached for the cheapest, then remembered how Shaye had once accused me of harboring a “pauper mentality.” I’d defended myself by saying that I hailed from a shipbuilding town and would always be in tune with working-class people. And then I got the bartender’s attention and ordered a glass of the Chablis that Shaye liked.
Even if I never saw her again, I didn’t want her to be right about me, so I eschewed the cheapest seat and selected one for twenty-seven bucks. It pained me to be pocketing thirteen dollars of Pachella’s money, but there was no way to give him the change. By now he was approaching Rawlins at eighty miles per hour, listening to his neo-spirituality podcast. So I carried the toilet seat to the register and paid. The woman at the checkout, whose name tag read Josie, had abundant strawberry-blond hair that reminded me of Shaye’s.
Back at my house, I checked my cell phone and was thrilled to see a text from Shaye. I forgot all about the toilet seat. Henry crashed into my legs as I opened the text.
Are you ever really happy? Shaye had written.
That was it. No photo. No smiley face. No spray of red hearts. I didn’t know where she was or who she was with. The last time we’d talked on the phone, she’d been attending an art auction in Des Moines, Iowa. She’d said the works were not what she’d expected, but she had gone shopping and found a passel of vintage jeans in exactly her size, which is a miracle as she has a tiny waist but the thighs of an Olympic hurdler.
This most recent text was part of a mysterious chain of brief communications in which she questioned not only my happiness but my fitness for the world. I was “dour,” “heavy,” and not meeting my “true potential.” I wondered if I should reply. Kate always says that an unanswered text is the ultimate dis, but I wanted to know where Shaye was and if she was coming my way. I thought of smashing my cell phone and buying a one-way ticket to Ecuador. But first I had to fix the toilet seat. I’m not a barbarian.
Maybe I was perpetually unhappy. I suddenly felt the weight of the last year. The pandemic had me teaching college classes wearing a mask. My composition students wrote essays about the usual topics — killing grizzly bears, removing wolves, supporting GMOs, imprisoning wild horses, building a wall along the Mexico border to keep migrants out — but they also made disquieting overtures to fake science and embraced anecdotal sources more than usual. I had students in the nursing program who were convinced that the coronavirus was a hoax or a biological weapon created by the Chinese. I remembered telling Shaye about this as we lay in bed one morning, the snow falling gently over the ski town.
“I don’t do politics,” she said. “It’s negative energy.” Then she asked if I had ever been in a threesome.
The replacement toilet seat didn’t fit, not even close. It was round like a doughnut, whereas my porcelain bowl was more oval. How had I not known my toilet was an oblong model? I’m supposed to be a writer who makes his living off details.
I went to the gym to do bench presses. (Shaye said men over fifty must lift heavy weights to maintain their muscle mass and testosterone.) Afterward I had tea with Kate and asked her if I was too dour, if I had a decent face — you know, for my age.
“I’m afraid I’ll become obsolete,” I said.
“Embrace obsolescence,” she replied. “You’re already there.”
I gave Kate a detailed account of my romantic situation and even showed her a few photos of Shaye in bed first thing in the morning: her dry lips, her eyes not quite open, her hair a mass of tangles. I found this ugly/pretty version of her especially intoxicating. Kate had to admit that she looked powerful, and perhaps dangerous.
“I used to be like that,” she said. “I used to really fuck guys up. It’s not as difficult as you might think.”
“Maybe I should go on Bumble and find someone else,” I said.
“Dude, you need to flip things around. Ignore her.” She pointed out that I had been miserable ever since I’d met Shaye.
“I think a lot of this is because of my own anxiety,” I said, always quick to defend Shaye.
In fact, I had confessed my anxiety to Shaye while she and I walked the snowy trails in Jackson Hole with our dogs. I told her then how often I feared I’d never see her again; that I’d been brought up to believe everything can suddenly be taken from you, to question anything that seemed too good to be true. She put her hands in my jacket pockets and hugged me. Then she told me my anxiety was freaking her out and I should start taking zinc and valerian root.
“I was hoping you’d be more confident,” she said.
The next morning I brought her Ethiopian coffee in bed. I swirled a heap of Reddi-wip on top and sprinkled it with cinnamon. The ski patrol was setting off explosions to preemptively trigger avalanches, and her dog whimpered and shivered in her closet every time we felt the distant thuds. We read the news to each other: A sow grizzly, a problem bear from previous seasons, had emerged early from hibernation and was terrifying people at a local lodge, flipping over the garbage cans and pressing her huge paws against the windows; there was serious talk of capturing her and shipping her to the Bitterroots. A man from Ohio had skied into a tree and suffered a head injury. There was a housing crisis; some restaurants had to close because they couldn’t find workers.
“I could go back to bartending,” said Shaye. “Just for a night or two.”
She read our horoscopes. Her outlook always seemed more fun than mine.
Henry dozed on the floor. Shaye played a podcast by Deepak Chopra, something about how to conquer stress. He said you could spot people with anxiety — could see it in their faces. He offered five steps to alleviate it.
“Have you ever thought maybe this guy is full of shit?” I said.
She thrust her legs straight up into the air and wiggled her toes. Years of yoga had enabled her to bend to extreme angles.
“Do you like my nail polish?” she asked. “It’s Bordeaux Lust.” We both stared up at her perfect feet.
Before she went to work, we walked the dogs along Cache Creek. Shaye broke from the trail and began to climb in the knee-high snow. I tried to follow, but it was exhausting and seemed so unnecessary. Henry, too, was having a hard time. I watched her ascend effortlessly, making it to a line of fir trees and then pressing upward. I called out something about meeting her later at the house. “Suit yourself,” she said, as she and her cattle dog continued up the ridgeline.
In the afternoons she’d go to work at her art gallery, and I’d flop at her house or walk to the local coffee shop. At night we ate marijuana candies and watched nature shows with the sound turned down low. The calming voice of Sir David Attenborough put her to sleep. She lay on my chest like a giant rhesus monkey, snoring and drooling and jerking awake, ugly/pretty in the television’s glow. I’m not a cuddler, so I knew something was terribly amiss when I held her and dozed off with her draped over me. As I fell asleep, I imagined the future without her. Bond with me, motherfucker, I thought. Why don’t you love me back?
But we all know valerian root can’t save you from loving someone you shouldn’t. It was becoming clear that Shaye wanted someone else — or, at least, a version of me that I couldn’t drum up. That confident, unencumbered self had been in steady retreat ever since college. I worried the inevitable breakup would crush me. To remedy the impending disaster of losing this green-eyed seraphim, I decided to hedge my bets. I went online and began covertly interviewing candidates to replace Shaye, once she finally dumped me.
The insecurity I felt with Shaye was like a roommate who leaves aggressive notes reminding you it’s your turn to buy the milk. She said she couldn’t wait to take me to the Jackson Hole Farmer’s Market in the summer, but I knew we’d never make it through May. She said we should go to Florida to visit some of her friends from the car dealership. We could stay in her parents’ condo on Sanibel Island, go marlin fishing and snorkeling on a private, clothing- optional beach. But I know when someone is bullshitting, just talking to fill space.
By late April, as the weather was warming and the river ice was breaking up, I felt her slipping away. I offered to take her fly fishing on the North Platte, but she said she was too busy at the gallery.
A day later she disinvited me from her birthday dinner. She said she had a “friend visiting from New York”; she said she needed some space; she said she wished we lived closer. Still, I was trying to hold on. If only we could have some experience together that would help us bond — survive a near drowning or something. But all we did was shoot pool and walk the dogs. My friend Bill Mixer, a retired professor, was back from Arizona and hanging around Casper with nothing to do. He owed me a favor. I thought maybe he could don a black ski mask and pretend to mug Shaye and me the next time she came to visit. But Shaye is street-smart. She might disarm him, and I’d have to jump in to save his life.
Back at Sutherlands, Josie the cashier looked me straight in the eye and asked if I had tried to fit the seat on the bowl.
“No,” I lied.
I could see Josie’s doubt. She inspected the seat, the screws and bolts and what-have-yous. “Are you sure?” she said.
In the toilet section there were three elongated models, thirty-three dollars and up. I examined the cheapest version. It looked right, but who knew? If I got this wrong again, it would be a blow to the theory that I could manage adult life. “Easy Installation,” read the packaging. I wanted things to be easy. I carried this model back to Josie.
“Will this do it for you?” she asked.
“Nothing does it for me,” I replied.
She glared and shuffled the various receipts and paperwork required to make an exchange. Staples were involved. After several signatures I was set free.
I went home with the elongated toilet seat and opened the box. Before going any further, I checked my cell phone: nothing but a text from a colleague asking if I could give him a ride to the graduation ceremony. I had forgotten it was that night.
The oval toilet seat fit perfectly. I fastened the bolt on one side, but where was the second bolt? I ripped through the packaging. Nothing. I phoned Sutherlands, but the call went to a service center in Nebraska. I had no choice but to solve the problem later.
Held in the university’s aging events center, the graduation ceremony was heavy on military appreciation and athletics. The college president stood on stage and posed for a photo with each graduate. He did whatever they wanted: made gang signs; dabbed; pouted. When a woman was rolled onto the stage in her life-supporting wheelchair, he draped himself over her. A cowgirl pretended to lasso him, and he did a great impression of a man tied up. People went wild for it. The parents of graduates fiddled with their phones, then jolted alert and erupted in applause when their son’s or daughter’s name was called.
At home I hung my graduation cap and gown in the closet and went to bed early. In the middle of the night I heard my phone buzz: Shaye.
The wee-hours photo was magnificent as always. There were no words, just the image, as if to remind me of what I was missing. Her eyes — I tried to intuit if there was some great pain hidden there, anything I could help remedy. Perhaps I could fix something in her that needed fixing. But the whole idea of men rescuing women turned her off. It turned me off, too. Better just to release her back into the wild.
The next day I returned the toilet seat.
“You again,” said Josie, smiling.
I told her about the missing hardware and tried to convince her I wasn’t an idiot. She made the transaction as painless as possible.
And guess what: the third time’s the charm, as they say, not just in Newport News but everywhere. I replaced the toilet seat in a few minutes. It was seventy-five degrees outside. Bill Mixer had called to say the rainbow trout were taking mayflies, but I didn’t feel like going fishing. I sat on the seat and thought about Shaye. She was gone for good; I could feel it. That final image of her naked body was a farewell, a kiss-off, a shrug. Or maybe it was just her doing something she felt like doing at the moment. Whatever the inspiration, it would be the last message she sent.
When do you admit that you are too old to fall in love — or to fall in love correctly, in a way that isn’t humiliating? I’ll never know why some women pull me in so completely then crush me. I know only that I don’t get any say in the matter. Pachella sent me a meme about true love involving security and equal investment. It sounded like a rental agreement.
I tried to remember the exact moment when I knew I was doomed with Shaye: It was a Sunday night in mid-February, and she was sleeping on me. I had to leave early the following morning to teach composition classes. We were watching television, a nature show about how some algae need certain fish to thrive, and some bats need certain fruits, and so on. Then Attenborough was talking about the threat of climate change. Huge bull walruses were seen climbing steep cliffs on a rocky island off the coast of Alaska. Attenborough said the lack of sea ice had forced the animals onto this rocky outpost. The walruses climbed and climbed. One by one they lost their grip and fell thousands of feet, hitting the rock face, dying in the surf below. Shaye woke for a second and saw the walruses tumbling through the sky, their rubbery bodies smashed upon the bloody rocks, an obscene wreck of blubber and bone. The surf rolled ashore with bloody foam.
“What the fuck?” she said. Confused and frightened, she looked to me.
“It’s OK,” I said. “Go back to sleep.”
And she did.