“This has been one of the great experiences of my life,” I said, letting tears crest in the corners of my eyes, photogenic in style. “And you need someone who doesn’t need you.”
That landed so great. I did not say,
“You need another workaholic asshole with intimacy issues just like you. Who can crowd you out with her kids and friends and busy business phone appended to her ear like an organ, absorbing more important voices while you’re sitting, simmering, stewing, sitting there looking at her.” No, I did not. I simply said,
“And if I love you more, I’m going to want to be with you more than you’d want to be with me and that wouldn’t be good for me.”
I took a stand, kept my dignity. No groveling, sniffling snottily, trashing him or me. Maybe he’ll be back someday because of the way it ended.
STOP. Let him go.
Let him miss me amidst his busy weekends. It’ll be an endurance test, the waiting.
Maybe I won’t wait. No. I won’t. Maybe I will just move on. He’d want me to be happy, right? Without him.
So maybe I just needed to learn the lesson—no more “separated” men. Separated men aren’t looking to purchase. Separated men are just looking for replacement parts, rentals they can return with no big investment, no big outlay, no balloon payment on a wedding day. Got it.
Maybe we were just a pandemic thing. We seemed perfect in the absence of other contaminated people, safe, dependable, available, ports in a storm, stranded on an island. Perhaps post pandemic got him busier with work, not neglectful, or aware of other possibilities. STOP.
I’ll sleep like a baby tonight in a warm bath of self-love and contentment, spreading out all over the bed, pillows and quilts all to myself. Alone. Alone. A cool spot in the sheets in the other half of the bed to turn to sometimes, refreshing, surprising, to give my sleep variety, instead of a warm leg to break up the monotony of me, me, the morbidity of me. STOP.
I intend to feel good about myself and I’m going to force focus on his good qualities, too. He’s a success. He loves his kids. How could you not love a guy who loves his kids. He didn’t mean to hurt me, backburner me, forget me. He just didn’t understand, he’s not a psychologist. He’s just a normal cut off, blocked, screwed up, hey. Hey. STOP.
You restrained yourself. Instead of an avalanche of rage laden words on him, you reached for the love, and you’ll continue to do that right now, no matter what.
That made me a little nauseous. Something hot’s rising up my esophagus. Easy, easy. Breathe, breathe. Ohmmm. Peace, love, love.
The love. What to do with all the leftover love. No kids, no dogs, no cats allowed. No one to love in here. No close family. No baggage in this apartment, which is its own sort of baggage. Hard to take a stand in a relationship with no baggage to fall back on, to cushion the fall, take the fire. Just loneliness lives here in a New York City single with a cubicle kitchen for a person who works in a cubicle at the office when she isn’t working in her cubicle from home with the broken fax phone and piles of bills.
Face it. I’m a cubicle person. Easily boxed, totally contained, closed circuit, portable, removable, no ancillary attachments. My parents gone, my friends moved away with their offspring to the suburbs, envying my single life. Lucky you. You can make your life anyway you want, they say. You are free to do whatever you want with your time, they say. My sister happily married and beached with her brood in the Hamptons, telling me there are lots of fish in the sea, but I’ve been out to sea for an awfully long time, and you could drown out here.
I feel like I’m going to throw up. Throw up what? I haven’t eaten. I’m going to throw up words. What do I do with all the leftover words? The why me, why not, if not now then when’s? The “my life is so over, empty, what’s the point, what’s the purpose? What’s my purpose if not to love?” I am Velcro, he is Teflon for love. He’ll move on so fast he’ll make my head spin. I’ll see the new him at the club with the imaginary nightmare her. She’ll be smart, she’ll have a degree in poli sci and pole dancing. Younger, unscathed, unscarred, laughing, laughing at all his stupid fucking jokes.
STOP. That’s not going to happen. He won’t move on that fast. He’s sad, too. He’s a nice guy, don’t make a monster out of him. And me? I’ve had therapy, I’ve read books, I’ve meditated, I’ve medicated. I can forgive, I can let go. I simply won’t walk down his street ever again. To the restaurant where we met, our subway stop, our bench in the park. I won’t sit in that chair in the dinette, touch this left breast, the breast he called his personal breast ever again.
STOP. My body again, my breasts, both. Don’t go there. Do not. I’m in the grace period. This is a time to stay clear, to sustain the clear. Ahh.
Wait. Did somebody say “Ring?” My kitchen wall phone, my only landline emergency number that only my sister and my guy know? That blocks all marketing calls? Is ringing? That is a rarity. Not spam. A number it knows. It’s ten thirty at night. Private time. Him and me time. The half hour during sex before sleep four nights a week time. He’s calling, wants me back, oh yes, he’s going to fight for me, he wants to try.
I knew he’d call. He’s going to get counseling, something that will convince him to stop shutting me out, stop pushing me away. Thank you, God, or Great Placebo, or whomever listens to rants like this. See? I let go and I got him back.
Wait, let it ring one more time. Don’t want to seem anxious, eager, pushy. Just warm, welcoming, totally together, an autonomous woman with a busy full life. Practice a little first—hell-o, this is Maddy. Silly, he knows my name. Throat clear, lips moist. Here we go.
No one speaks. I hold back my hunger, my strobing needs, my breath. My ear is practically sucking sound out of the phone. It’s a static laden line—a cell? A cell phone on speakerphone mode line? Or a landline? Shh. Listen to the stillness. Breathe. Be patient, in the moment. But it doesn’t sound like his static, the static that preceded and followed his occasional calls on this phone. An inhalation, a voice is about to…
“Is Lillian there?”
No. Not him. It’s an older woman’s voice. Hope mutates into a glut of disappointment, a stinking in my stomach. Amazing the changes a body goes through in moments. The adrenal secretions, chemical excretions, toxic dumping as the glands ooze poisons in reaction to emotions. I’m like a petri dish in a chem class.
I’ve heard this voice before. This wrong number before. This quivery quaver, this old lady’s voice, losing control of her numbers. To grow old is a scary thought right now, with no milestones ahead and no kids to have them for me. I’m suffocating. A whole shitload of horrible thoughts are piling into my mind right now. Pandora’s box is taking a dump on the crown chakra of my head. Feels like the ceiling is pressuring my cranium.
STOP! Stop thinking of yourself for just a minute. Think of this poor, frail person on the phone needing something. Be humane, kind, gentle, soft.
“I’m sorry, you have the wrong num…”
“Is your headache better?”
“I have an ice pack to put on your head.”
“What number are you calling? This is….”
Goddamn it. Why can’t she figure out the number already?
Come on. Calm down. She made a mistake. I make mistakes. She’s old, fragile. Missing her daughter or friend. She couldn’t hear me. Don’t be mad. That could be me someday. Old with no energy, no dreams, no possibilities, no lips, no ass, no sex—old and alone in New York City someplace with a couple phone calls the highlight of her day. Old with no kids, friends dead, fewer people on the whole planet every day to hold her, love her, care about her, remember her birthday, her phone number, her worth, her peaks, her valleys, the meaning of her life.
The meaning of my life? I forget. Wasn’t it to love and learn and uplift others? But no one needs to get uplifted by me lately. I have a snowball’s chance in hell of uplifting, couldn’t uplift anyone right now if I tried. My cheery words hollow, my good spirits tainted, fake, forced, funny really. Me, uplifting. Hah. What a joke. I’m only uplifting when I feel loved myself; valued, cared for, relevant, as told by others, as dictated by the outer world. I’m not self-generating love and optimism right now. I feel cold, hard, haggard, hopeless.
STOP. Don’t let him take my hope away. Don’t let him ruin all other men on the earth for me.
I loved a good man healthfully once. Yes, I did. An available man. And he loved me. My college sweetheart. I’m proud of the way we parted, too. We knew it couldn’t work in the long run, we were infertile in every respect, and we moved tenderly apart. It took three years to become buddies. Buddies who still can drive each other nuts at times, but who now live apart so it’s all just fine, all tolerable. Unconditional love at a distance. Safe. Our live-in relationship gave me relationship cred, legitimacy. I can do intimacy, it declared. I can love deeply, fully, lengthy, and I can let go.
Since him, I made three attempts. The first, all physical. The second all mental. Then, the third, courtship, so romantic with the aphrodisiac of Nine Eleven when the world seemed to be coming to an end and differences seemed petty. Ends of the world are very romantic. Got close, got attached, then somehow my fear, his fear, my need, something, some split-second decision got made when it turned out the world didn’t end. We were saying yes to a shared reality all night and woke up one morning in a shock of different realities and said no and it vaporized—over a minor detail that we made major to get out of it. And the flimsy scaffolding of filaments of feeling, shy trust, his things at my place, my things at his place, romantic snapshots, teensy gifts, jokes, attunements, hope for a future toppled like a house of cards.
I tried to go back to my college sweetheart then, my dear friend. Nutty. Out of nowhere, decided he’s the love of my life. Ten years later. He developed a sudden fiancée. He told me carefully, like one tells a live grenade not to spontaneous combust. I felt abandoned by the end of the end of the world. Like musical chairs, left standing alone with no music to prop me up.
STOP. Don’t go there, either. Breathe. Relax. Focus.
“It’s easier to email,” he said yesterday, “Than to call you sometimes,” when I told him how I hungered for his voice the nights he had his kids. I guess my voice coming back to him in a conversation on the phone would be far too jarring to a guy who has people in his face all day long and kids many nights. A manager. A corner office guy, loved by a little cubicle woman.
Is that my inner voice speaking or some impersonator? What a crummy inner voice I’ve got. I need an inner voice transplant, that’s clear. My true inner voice wouldn’t terrorize me like Hezbollah on a bad day. My true inner voice loves myself.
Love myself? Who? I feel vacant, vaporized, empty protoplasm doing its biological basics. Respiring. Air in. Air out. Keep breathing. Focus on functioning. Simple. Simple. Water in, water out. Lots of chocolate in—tomorrow, I hope, out.
Maybe it’s not possible to love again at this stage—everybody projecting past pain on present moments. No, everybody’s got excuses for not loving—paying alimony, supporting kids, driving or cabbing them to and fro—Satur-daddies, Monday mom-days. All those first marriages and kids burned out my perfectly possible men. No more separated men.
“Can we still be friends?” he said.
Friends? With what? How? Would you have time for me if we were just friends? With the kids, the job, the sports? With all the other women you’ll be dating and dining? Would you remember my birthday if we were just friends? You think by saying ‘just friends’ my needs go away? You wouldn’t be responsible for my feelings anymore? Home free? Where my hurt couldn’t hurt you because you’re absolved of caring, of trading your parsed affections for my approval and my body and my heart racked with love for you too big to express because you might flee? Just because you said, “can we be friends?”
I yawn, big, my jaw nearly unhinged like a snake with the size of the inhalation. The pill is working. Sleep. Come on. I thought I’d just stay in the grace period tonight. I did the right thing. It couldn’t work, not for me. Pull off the band aid. Cut the losses. He didn’t want to make me unhappy. Unavailable. Who needs that? I’d always be in a one down position: unconfident, longing, yearning. I’m a yearning addict, a blues junkie—anguish is my leitmotif, my riff, my background band, my movie score, my context. Why would I want to do that? Sleep. Sleepy, thank goodness. I have this nice big bed, I…can…just…slip into a teensy-weensy slot between thoughts, where loss can’t reach me…
Light? Mmm. Wow. I slept. Pretty well, too. Dreamless, seamless, healing sleep. And lying here in my big, cool, cozy bed, I feel at peace. Nothing seems that dramatic when I’m horizontal, flat out, eased semi dozing in my nice cool bed. Sweetly smoggy, groggy. Fuzzy-brained, filled with well-being. Right with the world. Saturday. No plans. No need for make up or shampooing or conditioning or blow drying and styling. Clean the apartment. Good. I can just relax, sleep more, be peaceful, dream a little more.
What? Alarm? No, the phone again. And no one but an intimate calls at eight a.m. on a Saturday. He never sleeps late, he’s with his kids today. It’s him. Wanting to share the lethargy of an early morning, hear me sleepy in our bed while he’s driving the kids to hockey or soccer or… See? Nothing’s over till the fat lady fattens. Be welcoming, warm,
“Is this Lillian?”
Goddamn it. Her again.
Who the hell does she think I am? Her kid? Her friend? Her dementia doctor or something?
STOP. Easy, be civilized, kind.
“Nope, what number are you calling?”
“Lillian, come get some angel food cake. I just made it.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, you keep calling this number, but…”
Shit. Stay calm. Just lie back down and close your eyes and go back to sleep. Breathe. Meditate. Beauty sleep till noon. Stock up on beauty for the man of the future. But now I have to pee. I wish I had a bed pan. Like in a hospital. Like that old lady would have, so I don’t have to get up. That old lady who doesn’t even think about men anymore. What would she do with some old man anyway.
She makes angel food cake. I remember angel food cake. When Mom made her angel food cakes, I’d butter the pan and pour in the batter and boy were they good. Smelling the cinnamon and burning sugar, Mom and I bonding over the angel food cake. I haven’t had a mom or an angel food cake in years.
Gotta pee. Gotta get up. Groggy. I’ll just teeter up, keep my eyes closed, not think a thought, head for the head and let go of a very clamped sphincter of denial and,
Wham! Vertical it hits me. Right in the womb. I’m. Alone. Again. No, I gasp. I panic, losing it. I’m disconnected from the planet, floating loose in space, umbilical tube cut from my space suit, tumbling from earth beyond the moon, in the dark, out of view, out of earshot, screaming but no one can hear, no one knows I’m missing, no one remembers because I’m not important to anyone. I’m an afterthought, an add on, a leftover, a spare, an added seat at the Thanksgiving table, a token gift under the Christmas tree, reheated dessert with my sister and her husband. He’s gone. He’s not coming back. Breathe, easy.
Too easy for him to say goodbye after I said my bit. “I don’t want to make you unhappy,” he said…kind, tender, making things so much worse. Then, he left. I can still see the slightly balding back of his head and the back of his calf and the heel of his shoe exiting the door. Now his absence is an oppressive presence.
Maybe he already has someone lined up. Could I have been a Methadone woman? Maybe he doesn’t date—he sedates, with fresh horses free of prior hurt and projection. Fillies with no previous scar tissue. He’ll recover fast. Is there someone else? No, there’s everyone else, enhancing themselves with hormones, placentas, steroids, artifice. Why fight for me when there are so many choices ready to strip and lap dance, spout Shakespeare and Proust.
So much for being a natural girl. So much for accepting myself exactly as I am. Maybe he didn’t fall into it that deep with me to begin with. It was a plague thing, a quarantine fling, and he found me a wise choice, isolated, working from home, no other life, ever ready.
His boy and girl give him all the unconditional love he’d need. He can bury himself in their love. They’re safe. They won’t leave him, can’t leave him. They are entitled to depend on him. My neon needs, with furtive dreams of mothering his kids, maybe making one with him. Long-legged like him, brown-haired like me, the perfect child. The late-in-life child with me at forty-four. The just-under-the-wire, in the nick-of-time child. Call him Nick. Call her Nicole.
If I could’ve just kept my mouth shut, my gaping baby bird big mouth wanting to suck nutrition out of a man with no extra worms, maybe I’d have gotten a baby bird of my own. I sublimated the entire time. With food, fantasies, buying new undies. Picturing him picturing me, discovering me in my sexy new undies. Would this lacy pink and gray assembly make him marry me? Or this tomboy jock number? Or does the crux, the crotch of the matter have nothing at all to do with underwear? It’s not in the underwear, ladies.
He said goodbye brave, with such integrity. “I care about you too much to keep hurting you.” That made me love him even more. Those were like lines in a movie with a sad ending for me alone.
I remember my ex being sad back in our twenties. We cried together, had a very mature separation. We didn’t burn bridges. Didn’t make it crazy. Still—awful anguish for months, fraught and phlegmy and the finality made my womb hurt. Interstitially in every cell of my body, every thought had been connected to him for a several years. Do all women do that cellular thing with men? Or do some keep their cells clear of such attachment? Are they cooler or more athletic, from a polygamous culture?
I bleed, suffer, mourn, grieve.
If only we who hurt could love through a trash bag, prophylactically, to contain our oxytocin until we legally wed and then perforate the bag to let flow free those chemicals deep into our souls and his. No suicide by cells smothered in love till married and mothering. But if you break the engagement, if you don’t marry, if it doesn’t work out, you’d have this disposable trash bag of extraneous detritus to simply toss away, no muss no fuss.
Pee. Ah. Feels good. Simple pleasures. Focus. A lot of liquids have now come out the top and bottom, eyes, and underside of me. Recycle, rehydrate, drink a big glass of water.
I can’t sleep through this leftover weekend day. Leftover lady with leftover days, joining the single girl minions, eating alone at places with counters—sushi bars, coffee shops, so as not to face the table for two with the empty chair, the empty place mat, the busboy removing the extra silverware.
Do they need that silverware so badly that they can’t just leave it there for the duration of my meal?! Do they think I’m so desperate I’ll steal it? That I’ll pawn the stemware it to make up for the lack of a table mate? I don’t have a partner, but, oh sure, I’ve got a hundred pieces of silverware stolen from anti-feminist dining establishments.
“Watch that lady on table 8, she’s gonna go for the shrimp forks.”
Godammit. Wait. Maybe it’s my sister. Who else do I know who’d call this early on a Saturday morning. Nobody. It’s my own fault, I guess. They all know I like to sleep in…with him. But today he’s gone. Whoever’s calling must know it’s over. Who did I tell?
No, let it ring one more time. Enjoy the conjecture, the silly hopes the optimistic anticipation. Maybe it’s him with one more thing to tell me. The service always picks up on four. I heard two.
What happened to three—due a split second ago? No three, no four? Disappointed, I should have answered. It might have been my new life calling. Yes, that’s it. It awaited a vacuum. It’s been on hold during the last few months of a very long mistake, waiting for a space to enter. Darn. Missed it. I hope it rings again someday. I won’t resent the phone ringing ever again, I promise. Who am I promising? Me? Hah. Get off the potty. Shower, sanitize, scrub down.
Usually, I just wash my moist, private places with soap and a washcloth. This morning I loofah this entire chassis, scraping the skin, shedding, scrubbing my way between the cells he touched, stroked, tendered with what felt so much like love, not “friendship.” What the fuck does friendship mean to a man anyhow? We’re going to just hang out like I’m one of the guys now?
Friends when we had so much passion? See each other without wanting to touch each other? The only way to be friends is if we were old, fat, years married to other people with no chance of distraction, no openings—if I were committed, contained, all needs met by a man whose love surrounds me and my whorish little cells well.
I’m rubbing what’s left of him off with a scratchy towel and dressing in the softest things I can find. Cuddly, cozy sweats and socks. I’ll clean the kitchen, get a manicure. I need a purpose. Forget life purpose. Just a purpose for the next hours of my long life ahead. Inertia is pulls me toward the bed. I’ll just lie down for a few minutes, a few days.
Of course. 2nd try. Damn. It’s probably just that woman. The shaky dialer or speed dialer with an attachment to this one erroneous key. Let it ring. Let the service get it. Then she’ll get the idea. It was probably her hanging up on the service all last week, and just now—not him. My heart plummets with a malfunctioning parachute of possibility from that little thought.
Now it’s going to ring four times before the pick-up. And it might disorient her. Scare her. She could have a stroke, for God’s sake. I pick up.
“Is Lillian there?”
“Hey. Listen, I’m…”
“Do you have a cold, dear?”
“Listen, I’m not your Lillian,”
“I was worried when you didn’t answer before.”
“I’m sorry, but you’ve got the wrong…”
She hung up on me. Even old lady wrong numbers don’t respect me. STOP. Don’t go there. Don’t have a tantrum. What the hell good would that do? That could be you someday.
Now tears come. And bellows of deep antique grief. That one thought put me over the edge—victor to victim. From discriminating buyer to rejected product, the power shifts. Funny how fast feelings can transmute from a change in self-inflicted words. I cry, I infantilize, and the bed loads up with bunched up tissue turds. I’m losing so much moisture from thoughts of this man, this beautiful man, this funny, hard-working, gentle man still making me wet only now at the eyes, and now I have nothing, I’m dried out, I’m spent, I’m still.
“Is that you, Lillian?”
“Yes. Yes. Hello. This is Lillian…”
About the Author:
Melanie Chartoff is a stage, screen, voice actor, new author (“Odd Woman Out”), new wife and stepmom living in Los Angeles, CA. She’s been published in McSweeney’s, the New York Times, Borrowed Solace, Avalon Literary Review, Defenestration, Funny Times, the Jewish Journal, The Literate Ape, Entropy, Five on the Fifth, and five editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul.
*Featured art by Walt Ward