A Beast Like You
Somewhere she’s studying for the MCAT and you, Jonty, are in basketball shorts googling traits of a sociopath. Your lives used to be similar, before the giant divorce, that late night, when you couldn’t deny your programming. You told her you were messed up. You gave her a line about your parents, you told her that your childhood made you take women for granted. She stops you. You have no one but yourself to blame.
So you give her some lines out of The Captain’s Verses, you even throw in a little Spanish, something she used to like to hear. You even quote Percy Shelley because you’re desperate. “Can spring be far behind?” You tell her it can still work out. But you know it won’t. You’ve kicked over the lantern, and you’re stealing someone else’s means of putting it out.
She calls you
— A liar
— A dick
— The devil
You remember the days when she’d roll over and tell you that she’d rather help humans than animals, that veterinary work felt beneath her. You remember when she called you beb, like some tiny act of intercourse between English and French, like you and the word were both hers. You remember the way she’d hold your neck while you drive, almost like a mother with a teenage driver, and the warmth it added to your car rides. You remember the way she spoke of the future, like it was all in front of you, like the world had spread itself open just for the two of you, and it was music to your ears, music that put mountains on your skin. But none of these things have hit you yet as she holds you in her arms and tells you to fall asleep. The nightmare will come in the morning. And for now, Jonty, you can sleep.
You remember these things now because they only reveal themselves in their own absence, like the silhouette of your soul. So you go out. You see that cowgirl that wears the tight jeans and tells you back rubs are the key to a man’s heart. Cowgirl’s from the deep south, rugged and vulnerable at the same time. She could break a horse, but she’s never met a beast like you. She grew up without a daddy and flinches when a man touches her back; mommy’s boyfriends were rough like that you find out. You tell her you find comfort with her, a connection that doesn’t come around often. But you don’t feel a thing. You’ve been practicing a “take-me-back” speech in the mirror for Her for months. You still have the promise ring in case the speech goes the right way, the one you bought when you were chest-deep in your covers til 1 p.m. every day. You don’t tell cowgirl how you spend your late nights, why she can’t read the growing stack of notebooks on your desk. She picks you up from classes and tries to introduce you to her friends. But you give them nothing, and leave before they ask too much. The next time her friends see you, they’ll be hissing your name along with some other words that would make your conventional mother grab the soap. Eventually she asks if she’s wasting her time with you, and you say yes (over a text). And she sings a familiar tune, one that slashes you every time you hear it, but somehow not enough to provoke any real change.
And so you move on quickly, trying to plug the ever-expanding hole. You start seeing the short girl from your gender classes, the one that smokes weed and has a topless profile picture with a sign in her hands that reads, “Why are you so obsessed with my uterus?” You tell her she’s the opposite of every girl you’ve ever known, and that fascinates you. She’s a hope to you because she’s so independent, maybe she won’t ask for much. Her hands are on your thigh when you tell her this. And then she wakes you up to tell you that she’s afraid to grow up, that she’s not ready for adulthood to force its way into the tight velvet of her life. And you realize you don’t feel anything towards her. You walk home because Lord knows she’s not driving you after what you just said. In the biting cold of that forty-minute walk home you realize she didn’t exhaust you, you’ve exhausted yourself. So you come home to your dirty apartment, with that promise ring lost in the months of hollow bullshit. It doesn’t matter though; the speech was long forgotten.
The price of gas goes up and you only notice because She used to work at the mini mart by your father’s shop. The one where She could steal condoms for your midnight trysts. The alcohol stops making you think of her, the kind of self-abuse your unpalatable mind used to enjoy. And so you fill more notebooks, and you stay up even later. You swear off women, and you buy a bike like you’ve always wanted to. Then you find you’re only twenty years early for a mid-life crisis.
But your eyes right now are fixed on WebMD, and those bullet points are setting off the fire alarm in your head like when you had a stomach bug and they told you it was ass cancer. And so you close the laptop, and you make room. Room for a few more notebooks, room for more Lorrie Moore and Wendell Berry. Room for the lightning rod that is Her name to retire into the alcoves of your memory.