How to Break Your Lover's Heart
First, tell her you can never be together. Explain you've promised your partner you'll be faithful to her. Tell her the most you can be is friends. Then hold her tightly, turning your face away when she tries to kiss you. The Chicago night envelops you both. Feel her stroke your hair, whispering, "Are you sure this is what you want?" She is crying, not loud, just quiet tears rolling down her cheeks. Release her, your heart wringing, and watch her walk towards her car, stopping once to look back at you. Go home to your partner of seven years -- Maggie, a good person, compliant and thoughtful. You do care for her, passionless as your relationship is. You play Joan Armatrading's "The Weakness in Me" over and over on the stereo.
Call her, punching in the numbers from memory. Your heart is pounding. She answers the phone. You hang up quickly.
A year later, a week before her birthday in June, sit in your basement studio, a blank sheet of paper on the table near your palette. You are supposed to be painting -- you've stretched and gessoed a canvas. Maggie is upstairs in the kitchen doing dishes. You can hear her feet clomping on the tiles, the spigot turning on, the clatter of knives and forks on plates. You want to paint her face, her eyes, those deep brown eyes you wanted to fall into a year ago, teetering on her eyelids, arms circling for balance, grabbing for her lashes. But Maggie would hate a painting of the woman with whom you almost cheated, yessiree. Lately, Maggie's been talking about the two of you going house-hunting, now that she has a good job too. You are both sick of apartment living. And housing is cheaper in this little town in Ohio. In Chicago the rents had been outrageous.
You find yourself writing, "Happy birthday. I just wanted you to know I've been thinking of you." Your fingers stop moving. You feel as ineffectual as a soggy paper towel. What a stupid, selfish idea this is. She's gotten over you by now. Why make her dredge you up? Maggie will also be furious if you give her your address. That would put her through hell all over again. You know, however, that, in addition to Maggie, you hurt her, leading her on with your ambiguity, finally chickening out when it was clear it was love she felt, ringing out as strong as the tones of a crystal bell.
You want her to know you really did care, that it wasn't just a flirtation.
You scrawl, "Sorry to write you out of the blue like this, with no address. I know it's not fair. But there you are."
Tomorrow, you will mail the note to her with no return address. You feel vulnerable, like Fay Wray in the fist of King Kong.
She finds you. You don't know how she does it, but at the summer's end, she calls you one day from work.
Her voice is uncertain. "Is this okay?"
Of course it's okay. It turns out she and a girlfriend broke up months ago; she is enjoying independence and celibacy for a change. "It's good for me," she tells you. You catch each other up on your lives. You offer to mail her some photos of your most recent paintings. This time you put a return address on the envelope.
And so begins a correspondence, each letter drips with a subtext both romantic and tragic. "I can't hurt Maggie," you write. "You can't live out your life in a loveless relationship," she answers. "I gave her my word," you counter. You're determined to do what's moral. You're reminded of The Brontes or Jane Austen.
Your mother is dying. They have caught the cancer too late and it has metastasized. How like your stubborn mom, to not tell anyone she was feeling sick and to put off seeing the doctor until she was shitting bloody stools. You've flown home and spend each day by her bedside at the Medical College of Virginia, holding her hand, reading to her, watching her sleep.
On the phone, Maggie is as awkward as a giraffe. "Are you looking forward to our vacation?" she asks, when what you want is to face your mother's death head on, screaming at God for taking the life of a 61 year-old woman. "The kitties say to tell you they miss you." It's a stupid conversation. You hang up, feeling the chasm between you so wide that only Keanu Reeves in The Matrix could jump over it.
You think how your mother has wasted her life. She and your father grew to tolerate each other, going to bed separately, one retreating into his work, the other into prime time television. They barely spoke except on weekends when Mom yelled about things that needed doing around the house. Why did they stay together?
You think of Maggie, whom you have never loved in the way she loves you.
You pick up the phone and call her. Unlike Maggie, she knows just what to say, talking about how she felt when her father died, reading your feelings like one of those ladies in the Psychic Friends Network commercials. Or the Voodoo Lady with her tarot cards. You ask if she'll fly to Virginia to be with you. You don't have to ask her twice.
At last -- alone together in the Sheraton. Her hands are practiced. She is stroking your breasts, leaning forward to cup and kiss them. You are feeling shy for the first time in years, some kind of giddy virgin. Your heart thuds. She touches you in ways Maggie would never dare. She parts your lips with her tongue and you lie still, almost afraid to breathe, as she explores the roof of your mouth, your tongue, your teeth. Her hands slide down your body and stop between your legs. You arch your back; your body floats above the mattress. You go senseless.
Two weeks after your mother dies, you break up with Maggie and get your own apartment, closer to where you work. Maggie wants to know if that bitch who interfered before had anything to do with it, and you haltingly admit yes. Maggie stares at you, her face turning the same ghastly bluish white it turned that time she became anemic. For a second you imagine her wasting away from grief and her dying without you ever knowing it. Her eyes well with tears. She turns abruptly, goes to the 'fridge, then disappears onto the patio with a six-pack of Bud. You start packing boxes. You hate it that you've hurt her, but it's long past time to end this charade. You can't help it that you've fallen in love.
Six months later, you and she stand before the goddess and everybody in a commitment ceremony at the Metropolitan Community Church. Neither of you is particularly religious, but neither of you has ever felt this way about anyone. When you spend time together, every now and then she looks up from whatever she's doing, her face breaking into a smile. She says, "You're the one." Instead of this making you feel trapped, her certainty holds you in thrall.
The MCC is a tiny church with two rows of wooden pews and an aisle between them. Your and her friends fill the first three rows on either side. She is nervous, her hair damp, half moons of perspiration staining her blouse under each armpit. You feel annoyed because she had, you suspect, one too many mimosas at the wedding brunch.
Yet you are getting a commitment from her. She's wilder, more impulsive than Maggie. Her eyes snap with intelligence. The long distance thing didn't work out -- you missed each other too much. Not to mention expensive. Both of you had monthly phone bills exceeding two hundred dollars. Your friends joked about buying stock in AT&T.
She was willing to quit her job and move three hundred miles to be with you in a two-bedroom apartment. Your office/studio takes up one of the bedrooms. Fortunately, she doesn't have much in the way of furniture.
She turns out to be an incredible cook.
Funny how being in a long-term relationship dampens your sex drive. Oh, you think, the ole' fire still smolders, roaring into flames every now and again, but you feel nothing like you did a year ago, when you felt you could devour her. Still, life is comfortable. You are content.
One day you ask, "Do you like kids?"
She smiles, showing dimples. "I love kids."
At your urging, she begins researching possibilities. She buys The Lesbian and Gay Parenting Handbook. You both join Momazons. You discuss finances. You settle on artificial insemination with an unknown donor. This way there will be no potential custody battles with a father who might later change his mind and want his child. The sperm bank in California assures you all sperm donors and samples are screened for HIV and other transmittable diseases. You both peruse a list of donors and choose according to what information is provided -- hair and eye color, nationality, height and weight, profession. You pick the medical student. He probably has brains and donated due to accessibility and the goodness of his heart, not because he needed the money.
Cycling every 28 days, you are as regular as your mother used to be with her Metamucil. On the expected day, the ClearPlan Easy strip shows you are ovulating. The next morning you and she wait at the clinic for the doctor. Your feet are in the stirrups and your ass is hanging in the breeze. She reaches for your hand and holds it, squeezing it gently.
The doctor comes into the room carrying a vial. He reads the number off it - 634 -- to ensure it's the donor you and she have chosen. Then you lie quiet as he warms, then inserts, the speculum.
He chatters as he peers into your vagina. "Mucous looks good," he says. He unwraps something that looks like a plastic dental instrument with a long, soft, wobbly tip. "Now we'll deposit this right onto the cervix."
It's over. She squeezes your hand again. The procedure has taken all of ten seconds. After the doctor has gone, she says, "Did you know the average heterosexual sex act, including foreplay, takes ten minutes?"
You wonder where in heaven's name she gets her facts.
Fast forward to a year and a half later. She is upstairs with little Richie in her arms, sitting and bouncing on the edge of the bed, singing "The Twelve Days of Christmas" to him, even though it's April. She is the only person able to get him to sleep, this way, at nights.
She is also the one who makes up his bottles -- breastfeeding didn't work, and, besides, with bottles, she can share his nighttime feedings. She's the one who changed his Pampers for the first two weeks, until you got brave enough to try it. She's the one who notices his fevers first, when he pulls at his ear, and she is the one who can coax him into swallowing a dropperful of Baby Tylenol. She comes back downstairs, grinning. "Zonked."
You are picking up his toys: a knotty blue teething ring, a Mickey Mouse rattle, a picture book with soft pages. You move his Exersaucer from the middle of the room to the corner.
She switches on the baby monitor so you can both listen for his cry in case he wakes.
You have three hours until Richie gets up for his ten o'clock feeding. Tonight you will sleep from then until four or five, whenever he wakes up hungry. Somewhere in there he'll get another feeding, but she's taking that one. You hope you can get back to sleep after four. Sometimes you lie in bed, watching the numbers on the clock glowing an eerie red like some kind of timer on a Twilight Zone Quiz Show. You are so exhausted you can't sleep. Your desperation mounts as the tumblers on the clock roll over to five and you have only one more hour before the alarm goes off.
Meanwhile, she snoozes next to you, a lumpy St. Bernard under the covers. She hasn't asked for sex recently, rolling over and kissing the back of your neck or stroking your shoulders. You always tense up, so she stops. You're just too tired nowadays. Sex has come to seem dirty sometimes, making you feel exposed. The two of you never seem to talk the way you used to. She defers, always wanting you to make the decisions. She says she simply doesn't care as much as you, but it makes you feel like the boss. At least you can be grateful she's stopped pushing for sex. And that she's a supportive mom. One of these days you'll make it up to her.
But right now, as Richie sleeps above in his crib, the sounds of his breathing and squeals and sighs coming through the monitor, you have three whole delicious hours for yourself.
You cross the room, pausing at the entrance to the hallway in this house you've purchased together. "I'm going downstairs to paint," you say.
She looks up at you from the couch and nods. "Okay."
She is reaching for a book as you turn to go. You do not see her open it, stare at a page for a moment, then throw the book down on the couch in frustration.
"You look so sad," the counselor says to you. Sad is not the half of it. You've been tromped on and ridiculed. She sits across his office with her hands in her lap, looking like Sylvester caught with his paws around Tweety. She has cheated on you.
"Why did you act out in this way?" the therapist asks her. He is overweight, with a long beard; he is Jewish--his parents were in the Holocaust -- and he is intense, sitting in a desk chair with wheels, rolling a few inches towards people as he addresses them.
"She won't -- " she stumbles here and swallows. Her cheeks flush. The afternoon light slants through the window, catching her hair and making it look on fire. "She won't make love with me. I can count on two hands the number of times we've made love in the past three years."
You think of your ex, Maggie. Once a year was enough for her. Then again, she was inhibited, ashamed of her body.
The counselor rolls toward you, his chair wheels making a horrible scraping sound on the floorboards. "And what's up with that? Don't you know she needs to feel loved and wanted and attractive?"
He is a prying asshole. All she would say, after the last session, is that his Gestalt therapy is maybe a bit confrontational. You thrust out your jaw. "She could've told me she felt that way."
She shakes her head. "I did!"
The counselor rolls back in her direction. "What did you tell her?"
She looks helpless. "I don't know how many times I told her I was unhappy and that I wanted us to be intimate more often."
He rolls back towards you. "That should've been enough to get the message across."
Now he's blocking your view of her. Why is he taking her side? You're the one who's been betrayed. She's the one who broke her vows. But of course, you think. He's a man. Sex is such a be-all and end-all to them.
You hear her voice. Little stops and starts. She is struggling to say what she means. "It's like I tell her stuff and she doesn't want to believe it. So to her it's as if I never said it."
This is crap, you think. "How can I be intimate with you?" you ask her, even though the counselor's bulk separates you. "I need to feel close to you first."
He rolls to one side and watches the volley.
"One way to break the ice is to be physical, not even necessarily sexual," she says. "Just affectionate."
"Well, I don't work that way," you say.
She opens her mouth, then clamps it shut, the muscles in her jaw tensing. The therapist rolls in her direction. "Uh-uh," he says. He puts a hand out and taps her knee. "You have to say what's on your mind."
She looks embarrassed. "I feel ashamed and stupid," she says. "To be jealous of... of a two year-old child."
She has never said this to you. How could she spring something like this on you, out of nowhere and in front of someone else?
She covers her face with her hands for a moment, then drops them.
"She always has this list of stuff that needs to be taken care of first," she says. "Her work, her painting, her journaling, Richie, even housecleaning -- all of these things come before me." She looks pitiful, her face wracking all of a sudden, and you wonder for a second if maybe he hasn't accidentally rolled over her toe. "I can understand needing to be last on the priority list sometimes. Even most times, with a baby in the house. But not every single time."
The counselor looks at you. "Seems reasonable to me."
There he goes, taking her side again. "I can't be close to her," you say, "unless I feel right within myself. I need to know that certain things are done in order to feel at ease. There's only so much time in a day." Your voice raises. "I'm doing the best I can. We keep talking about her needs. What about mine?"
She says, "But don't you need me? If I really mattered to you, I would be one of those things on your priority list -- something you need to help you achieve..."
This conversation sounds like babble.
The counselor says to you, "You look angry." He's in front of the window now, so it's his hair that looks on fire.
"No," you say flatly. "I'm not."
He says, "You are angry, and powerfully so."
"She's always angry," she mutters under her breath, but loud enough to hear. "You should have seen her the time she threw a drawer out of the filing cabinet at me."
What a manipulator! "Oh yeah," you say sarcastically. "Only you forget to mention it didn't come even close to hitting you, and I threw it because I was fed up with your drinking."
She howls like some creature in pain, putting her hands over her ears. "I drink -- because I can't stand my life!"
And this is how it goes for three sessions. Nothing but a tangle of accusations. After each session, driving home, you both argue in the car. Once home, you're silent and hostile. When she tries to act like things might get better -- she's always been such a Pollyanna -- you shut her off. You've told her several times the therapy is hurting more than it's helping. Your opinion is that a man cannot help two lesbians. After the third session she quietly agrees. "We'll just work it out on our own somehow," she says.
She looks defeated. You finally feel a spark of hope.
Your friend Jinny approaches you one day a year later. "Hey," she says. "I bumped into your significant other yesterday." Jinny's voice takes on concern. "She's gained a lot of weight. Is she doing okay?"
You're surprised at the question. You can't remember the last time she's complained about a thing. She's even taken on some extra projects at work, bringing stuff home and keeping her mind occupied.
"She's fine," you say. "She's just been experimenting lately in the kitchen with a lot of rich dishes." You pat your tummy. You don't say anything about the beer.
It's shortly after your sixth anniversary when she tells you she's attracted to someone else and wants to pursue the attraction, no cheating this time. She offers alternatives to breaking up--an open relationship, for instance. "No way," you say, stunned. And hurt.
She suggests counseling. You think, not this again. You've had enough of her being fickle. Is she going to do this shit to you every two years? "I don't have a problem," you say. "I am content. You're the one with the problem." You grit your teeth. "You go see the therapist."
You figure she is just bluffing.
But she goes to see a therapist, and, a week later, she tells you she's leaving. She might be back. For now, however, you will be separating. She will be moving away and taking a temporary leave of absence from work. She needs to figure out what she wants.
You cannot believe she is abandoning you and little Richie. Richie, who is only four.
She's leaving in a week. You watch her break Richie in to the idea. She opens an atlas and picks up a toy plane. "Look, Richie," she says. "Here's where we live. I'm moving to here -- " and she flies the airplane across the country. "Just like your aunt lives in Virginia. She comes to see you every now and then. She calls you on the phone. I'll be doing that, too."
He seems okay with this idea, you think, but of course he doesn't fully understand.
Three months after leaving, she calls to tell you she's sorted things out. She won't be back. For the past three months, your life has hovered in the air like three juggling balls in slow motion. All of her phone calls have led to arguments between you. Afterwards, she talks to Richie, telling him stories and promising to take him to the zoo when she comes back to visit.
Now that she's made up her mind, you don't have the stomach for that anymore. She's made her choice. It's time to move on. You tell yourself this at least means Richie will grow up in a normal household.
She asks to speak to him.
"No," you say. "I know it's not fair. But there you are."
And after all this, after all of this, she still ignores you. Three years later, every month she sends Richie a card, assuring him she loves and misses him. There are no sweet words for you. She actually expects you to settle Richie onto the sofa next to you, saying, "Look! A card from your other mother," and read with him what she's written. Does she think that wouldn't tear your guts out? You throw her cards in the trash. What a coward she is, unable to just leave him be. But then the only feelings she's ever considered have been her own. She is un-self-examined, shallow, and immature. You're glad you're the biological mom and that she has no legal rights to Richie, no, not even visitation.
She is someone dangerous, cutting huge swaths of pain across people's lives. You will never forgive her.
And I... I sit here bewildered, turning it all over and over in my head.