The house in which we live has three wings. The west wing is where the Husband and I live. The east wing is where the children and their attending au pairs live. And lastly, the largest but ugliest wing, extending behind the house like a gnarled, broken arm, is where my 100 ex-boyfriends live. We live in LA.
Our house has the nicest view in the Hills. From our Spanish-tiled kitchen, I can see where I used to live down the hill, a coral stucco motel converted into an apartment complex. The burned-out sign says El Paraiso. Another girl lives in my old one-bedroom now. In T-shirt and slip, she drinks a glass of juice, stands hunched over the sink of the kitchen that I painted seafoam green. It is three in the morning, it is three in the afternoon.
She is there, I am here, and all my ex-boyfriends who used to date me there are also here. Aaron. Adam. Akihiko. Alejandro. Anders. Andrew. Those are just the As.
My 100 ex-boyfriends and I hang out every day. We get into the Porsche 911 Turbo S, bunching into it as if it were a clown car, and drive down roads and boulevards, hills and canyons, palm frond-strewn avenues and parking garages of shopping malls. Geoff drives. The city sprawls out endlessly. Bougainvillea the color of bruises grow across people’s fences. Sometimes, a bamboo grove. Sometimes, a cemetery. Sometimes, a free clinic devoted to the removal of burst capillaries. The sun hits our faces, our eyes squint in the light, our hair billows in the wind.
On the Husband’s credit card account: 101 burgers at Umami Burger, 101 admission tickets to the Getty, 101 Golden Milks at Moon Juice. We go shopping. We go to Barneys. We go to Koreatown. We go to Urth Café to do some light reading.
Can I get an extra wheatgrass shot? Benoît says.
Does this hoodie make me look fat? Fred says.
It’s almost time for us to go home, Chang says.
And Aaron, he doesn’t say anything. Neither does Adam.
It is almost evening by the time we return to our gated community, the sky a layer cake of pinks and oranges. At the security booth, a black iron gate lifts for us, heavy with its own weight.
After we’ve disembarked, the Husband comes home from the investment firm. He comes in quietly, through our noiseless garage door. I know it’s him when I hear the sound of ice clinking against glass, then bourbon pouring, glugging as it leaves the bottle. He lets it sit for a bit.
Hi honey, I say. How was your day?
$$$$, $$$ $$ $$$$, he says. $$$$$$$$$$ $ $$$.
Well, did it go up or down?
$$$ $$$$$ $$.
Does that mean you’re working this weekend?
The Husband is a resting place. He is a chair. Sometimes I drape myself over him and I get the physical comfort of not being alone. I can feel it any time I want; mostly Saturday nights, mostly Sunday mornings. But the times when I need it most are the early evenings when I feel like I am dissolving. During this time, my ex-boyfriends scatter, and the Husband and I go somewhere for dinner.
I put on my plane coat, and we take the time-share jet up to Marin County. By eight, we descend in Sausalito, where Danielle Steele lives, where moody conifers grow on steep hills, and the expanse of the deep bay laps at rocks along the shore. It’s a pretty here, but the only place to shop is Bennetton.
At the slow-food restaurant on the harbor, an older couple at the next table beam our way. It takes a moment to see that we look like a younger version of them, sans their matching sweater vests and silvered hair. Between our tables, a span of thirty years. I return their smiles and look away.
The Husband orders a red wine and I order a Diet Coke. Plates are laid out: tuna carpaccio encrusted with toasted sesame seeds, pea shoot tendrils tenderly clasping veal medallions in abstracted herb sauce, zucchini slivers dressed with mint-dill reduction.
The Husband sips his wine, eats his veal while I tell him about the things my ex-boyfriends and I did all day, the art we saw, the items we bought. Dessert arrives, a vanilla torte with raspberry coulis and mascarpone cream.
I try to enjoy it, but I can’t seem to escape the gaze of the couple at the next table. The wife, she can’t help herself. She leans over, puts her hand on my wrist, says, You will produce beautiful children.
That’s been done, I tell her, taking my hand away.
I have one son and one daughter, one gang-bangingly after the other. One is six and the other seven. They look and act so much like the Husband. They chew with their mouths closed, they know the correct fork to use. At night, they crawl into my lap, full of easily disclosed secrets, light as folding chairs.
At home, when the daughter spills raspberry juice on the carpet, the son chides, This is why we can’t have nice things.
No, that’s not true, I tell them, looking at the daughter. You can have everything.
Really? she asks.
There is nothing you ever have to give up, I say, pretty sure this is the wrong thing to say to a six-year-old but saying it anyway. You can have your cake and eat it too.
I can have my juice and spill it too?
Sure. Good use of analogy.
My ex-boyfriends take turns teaching the kids new things. They practice piano, solve math exercises, demonstrate logic and rhetoric.
Find middle C, Philippe says.
Solve for X, Aikiko says.
If A, then B, Hans says.
But Aaron, he doesn’t say anything. Neither does Adam.
There are 100 ex-boyfriends, but two that really matter. Their names are similar: Aaron and Adam. Adam and Aaron. Aaron because I was in love, Adam because he beat me. I met Adam first, then Aaron. The wound, then the salve. Maybe you don’t know that you’re wounded until you receive the salve. The salve that makes everything come back. After you get beaten, you don’t go out. Your face swells into a snout. You don’t buy Tylenol or groceries because you’d look like an animal loosened onto the streets. Animal Control would mistake you for something else. Instead, I stayed indoors. I washed the blood off the walls and the sheets. The splattered pillow I kept as evidence, not for anyone else, just myself. I listened to music. Cat Power, The Covers Record. I caught up on my reading. From Primer to Abuse: Practiced abusers don’t hit a woman in the face. The novice abuser is only pushed to it by extreme, uncontrollable conditions. I read it again. Not ‘conditions’, emotions. I brushed up on philosophy: To live is to exist within time. To remember is to negate time.
All of my remembering begins late in the afternoon and lasts late into the night. How do I know, Adam once asked before he struck me, if what you feel is real? And not something that you felt for everyone else that came before? And everyone that will come after?
After dinner, the Husband and I take the timeshare back to LA. It is dark as we sweep across the wingspan of California. Below us, the lights go on, city by city, time passing. LA is so beautiful at night from afar, a constellation of stars. It sprawls out and around, not so much a city as a series of urban planning decisions made without foresight. Frank Lloyd Wright mansions give way to Corbusier-style churches, mid-century bungalows cohabit with Mediterranean villas, pleasure palaces rub up against ascetic lifestyle centers. There is no pattern, there is no meaning.
Beneath the plane blanket, the Husband’s hand finds mine.
$$ $$$$$ $$ $$$$$? he asks.
How can I not be? I answer, and squeeze his hand.
When we return to the house, the kids are both asleep. The Husband retreats to our bedroom, and I to the guest cottage, where I spend most nights. We used to rent it, but it’s empty now. A winding stone path leads me there through the sprawling backyard, through thickets of bougainvillea bushes sneezing with pollinic blooms. The cottage is furnished with pieces that previous tenants left behind: a chair, a bed, a treadmill. I open up the windows and walk on the treadmill while reading old fashion magazines.
Someone knocks on the door.
Come in, I say.
The door swings opens. It’s Aaron.
I thought you weren’t talking to me, I say.
I need a ride. Will you drive me?
Get Geoff. He’s probably awake.
No, just you, please. What are you doing?
He clears his throat. I’m leaving.
Leaving here. I’m moving out.
My breath catches.
You can’t say that you didn’t expect this, Aaron says. Everyone’s overstayed.
They’re welcome to overstay.
C’mon. He gestures for me to follow, and I follow. The Porsche idles in the driveway. He opens the driver’s door for me and I get in. The keys are already in the ignition. The dashboard clock indicates it’s just after midnight.
Where are your bags? I ask.
In the trunk.
There’s not much more I can say. Wordlessly, we drive downhill, past other people’s estates. At the base of the hill, I swipe my ID card and the black iron gates open triumphantly, a bird preparing for flight.
Where are we going? I ask.
Turn right when we get to the freeway. I’ll give you directions as we go.
Underneath the flickering streetlights, my ex-boyfriend’s face looks blankly serene. I never noticed the lines, the crow’s feet. On his left arm, I glimpse the cheap tattoo-removal scar that still spells out my maiden name.
Take this exit, he says.
We go down back roads. We speed through the boulevards. It is late and the streets are mostly empty. When my hands shake and I begin to veer, he puts his hand on the wheel and I straighten out.
Go slow, he says.
We go past the familiar places. We go past the Lucky’s where we used to buy eggs and cheese, where we used to play on the blood pressure machine in the back next to the pharmacy. Nearby was his old apartment, where he kept tropical birds. Later, he was evicted and they wouldn’t let him go back in to get them. When I asked him to move into the Husband’s house, he said, That doesn’t solve anything. But he came anyway.
We pass the now-closed taqueria where we first met. We were both late to meet mutual friends, and they had left before us to catch a movie. We sat down anyway. We had fish tacos. I had a pineapple Jarritos and he had a tamarind Jarritos. I had never tasted tamarind before.
After we finished, we stood outside, not knowing where to go.
Your shoes are untied, he said.
I was wearing beat-up old Nikes. He knelt down and tied my laces in elaborate knots.
When he was finished, he drew himself up to his full height awkwardly, as if drawing from some far-off reserve of bravado. He said, Do you want to go someplace strange?
It was a strip mall, twenty minutes down on Hollywood Boulevard.
You brought me to a strip mall, I said.
It’s a strip mall mosque.
A what? I looked around. It was a strip mall that had been built at the site of a former mosque. Everything of the mosque had been torn down, except two thin white minarets that once rang out calls to prayer. They stood next to a Patron tequila billboard that read Everyone Else Brought Wine. In the mall itself was a coin laundry, a bridal boutique, and a fluorescently lit Mexican bakery where we ate lard-based pastries and cookies.
Oh my god, I lard you so much, he said from across the table, through a mouthful of cookies.
Lol, I said.
Between that time years ago to this time now, they tore down the strip mall too. It has become an empty lot behind a metal fence, and that is the lot we pass in our quiet vehicle now, on our way. I realize as he directs me in a circuitous route, to LAX airport where he will fly somewhere, I don’t know where. The minarets still preside over the space, silent.
How do I know, he once asked, if what you feel is real?
It’s real, I said.
Yeah, but how do I know?
It’s really real! I cracked, but he didn’t say anything. I don’t know, I finally said.
That was the depressingly hot summer when we were cooped up in his apartment for too long, because it cost too much to go anywhere with real AC. A biscotti costs a dollar, I said. I couldn’t escape fast enough. We couldn’t turn on the ceiling fan because he let his birds fly around, jaundiced and bitey. What if I dissected my feelings, pulled them apart and brutalized them so that he would know they were true? Is this enough? I’d ask. How about this? They would explode and drip over everything like bodily fluids and finally he’d be forced to look away.
If that is possible, if this is something that is possible to do, can I do it now and apply it retroactively?
Now pull up, Aaron says. Right here. Delta. That’s my gate.
The sign said International Departures. I pop the trunk and he lifts out his bags. We stand at the curb, not knowing what to say. We’ve been broken up for seven years.
Goodbye, I say, hands at my sides.
Oh, come on. He leans in and hugs me. Goodbye. I lard you.
There are 99 ex-boyfriends. Then 59. Then 29. Then 9. They move out. They get jobs. They get married. Their Christmas cards fill our mailbox, along with Hanukkah and Kwanzaa cards, featuring photographs of families in matching sweater vests on Alpine ski slopes or in front of blue-screen fireplaces. Even the cards eventually taper off. The remaining ex-boyfriends still linger, but sheepishly, as if they’re not supposed to be there. The ones who stay, they don’t really want to be found. They linger in the marginalia of the house; morning movies booming in the theatre room, weed smoke unfurling from an unused closet.
With each and every passing year, the back wing shrinks and shrivels up, an old man’s balls gradually retracting into his body.
Caleb. Charles. Chang. Chris. Cornelius. I want you all.
When I finally open up the back wing, it smells like a mildewed church basement. The AC is still running at full blast, has been running for years. I turn it off. I walk around, coughing on the dust clouds, opening windows, flipping wall switches. The light bulbs have burned out, save for a flickering kitchen ceiling light. In the living room, I empty ashtrays overflowing with years of debris; cigarette butts, a bus pass, a casino chip. I dust the empty bookshelves. In the hall closet, I find an old vacuum, and begin vacuuming the bedrooms, opening up the doors one by one as I go along.
It takes five minutes to vacuum a room, but there are 100 rooms. I am on door three when, through the din of the vacuum roar, I hear a sound, faint and shaky, like the tinkling of change in a pocket. ¢ ¢¢¢¢ ¢¢¢.
I turn the vacuum off. It’s so faint, I strain to hear it.
¢¢ ¢¢¢ ¢¢¢¢¢.
I walk around, opening up rows of doors to reveal empty rooms, trying to follow the sound. Hello? I call out. I open up doors four, five, and six. Nothing. I keep going. Seven, eight, nine. It’s not until door forty-nine that I find him: the Husband, sitting in an old armchair. It’s been awhile. Even with his hands covering his face, I can see that he has aged, with a lightning-bolt streak of silver in his hair. He wears a sweater vest; he crosses his legs. When he looks up, I see that his face is wet, is pained. ¢¢ ¢¢¢ ¢. It is the sound of delicate, fawn-like tears streaming down his craggy mountain of a face, strewn with white whiskers.
Head lowered, I kneel in front of him, take his moist hands in mine.
I was calling you. Why didn’t you answer? I try again. What’s wrong?
Finally, he opens his mouth. $$$.
Well, it’s obviously not nothing.
$$ $$$ $ $$ $$$.
Of course I know your name.
$ $ $$ $$. $ $$$$$ $$ $$.
Of course I remember.
I first met the Husband on LoweredExpectations.com. He was the first guy I met after creating a profile. Under Favorite Foods I put: tacos. Under Favorite Music I put: Cat Power. I put down all the taste qualifiers that were supposed to bridge the gap between myself and someone else. Under What I’m Looking For I put: I want to know someone for longer than a few years. I want to know what that feels like. I also want not to flee. By that I mean I want constancy. I want to be constant.
On our first date, I wore suede Ferragamo pumps, several inches high, the same pair I had worn to college graduation. They were the nicest pair of anything I owned.
In his darkened, curtained apartment, he asked me to take them off. He said, Let’s see how tall you really are.
You want me to take my shoes off? I asked.
It was three in the afternoon. He lived in one of the top floors of a downtown high rise. The air was stale, as if the place had been uninhabited for long periods of time.
He held my hands as I stepped out of the Ferragamos, and I revealed myself to be very small.
$$$ $ $$, the Husband says now.
I oblige and look at him.
$$$$$$$$$ $$ $$$ $$$$$$$$$ $ $$$$$$$. $$$$$$ $$ $ $$$ $ $$$$$ $$$$$$$$ $$$$$$ $$$$$$$$ $ $$$$$$$ $$$$$$$$$$$$ $$ $$$$ $$$$$ $ $$$$$$$$ $ $$$$$$ $$$$$ $$$$$$$ $$$ $$$$$$ $ $$$$$ $$$$ $$$$ $$$$$$$$$ $$$$$$ $$$$$ $$$$$ $$$$$$$$ $ $$$$$$$$$. He speaks quickly, with the conviction of righteousness. The truth, when it finally hits you, sounds a lot like a slot machine hitting jackpot.
$$$$$$! The Husband insists, grabbing my wrists. $$$$ $$$$ $$$$$ $$??!!
The doorbell rings.
Is it okay if I ask you to wait? I ask him. For just a bit longer?
The doorbell rings again. I run out through the back wing to the front door.
It opens to reveal two police officers, one tall and one short.
Ma’am, we’re with the LAPD, the tall officer says. He pauses. How are you this evening?
Fine. Can I help you?
We’re looking for a suspect who’s wanted in a domestic assault case, actually in a string of domestic assault cases. We have reason to believe the suspect is on these premises. The shorter officer takes out a picture and shows it to me.
Yeah, that’s Adam. He lives here, or he used to.
So, are you saying that you’re housing Adam Anderson? Short looks at me carefully. So what is your relation to him?
He’s my ex-boyfriend. He lived here for awhile. I’m not sure if he still does.
Tall pauses, licks his lips. Did he ever hit you?
Yes, I say, finally.
When did this happen?
At this point . . . I do the math, count the years. Well, at least ten years ago.
Tall and Short look at each other before finally, Short speaks up. That exceeds the statute of limitations.
Then why did you make me tell you? I snap. An image flashes through my mind: a bloodied pillow, entombed in a suitcase, on the top shelf of the closet in my bedroom.
Ma’am, the officer says. He has priors. It’s not just the cases of domestic assault, but also unlawful possession of a handgun.
I didn’t know about any of this, I say, taken aback. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have let him live here.
The Husband comes to the door, peeping his head out. And the children too, clad in pajamas.
What are you guys doing still up? I ask the kids. It’s getting late.
The daughter rolls her eyes. Mom. It’s past ten. How old do you think we are?
These cops are looking for Adam. Have you seen him?
Yeah, I just saw him, the son says, like, just a few seconds ago. He said he was going somewhere.
I’ll take care of this, I say.
Ma’am, Tall says, stepping forward. You’re just going to have to let us find him.
But he’s my ex-boyfriend.
Can you let us in? he asks, his foot already past the door frame. We don’t want to get a search warrant.
I hesitate. You can come in, but I’m going to find him.
The kids start running towards the back door.
Wait! I shout, jogging after them. I didn’t mean you guys.
But I know where Adam is! the son yells back. He was just here!
Ma’am! Short yells.
The kids lead the way. They’re fast, champions of varsity track. They trundle through the house, gleefully jumping over sofas, ottomans, armchairs, knocking over credenzas and floor lamps.
Kids! I yell.
They punch through the door that leads to the back wing, with me following right behind. They run down the shriveled length of its hallway, opening up the remaining doors. Distantly, I hear familiar, ragged breathing. Then, a door slams.
He went outside! the daughter yells.
Outside, I pause for a second, scanning the voluminous acres of hill, most of which we own, ripe with unregulated flora and fauna. The hill bottoms out onto a freeway below us. It’s cold. Our breath comes out in fogs.
There is a full moon. Their blond hair fans behind them, encircling their heads like halos.
Kids! I yell again. I can hear other footfalls behind us. I don’t know who is running after whom. The kids are running after him. I am running after them. The Husband is running after me. The LAPD are running after we. We are running after he.
He went over there! the son yells, veering left.
The kids go off in one direction and, despite my protests, they keep going, with the Husband, Tall and Short not far behind. I go off in the opposite direction, intuiting something, a shape, a movement, a memory. On this side of the hill things are much harder to see. The ground is uneven, dinged with rocks and twigs and brushweed. Thorny shrubs scratch my skin. My shirt snags on a pine tree. Pebbles get caught in my sandals and cut the soles of my feet.
I think I can hear the sound of his ragged breath, but I can’t be sure it isn’t my own. I keep running and running. I run until I can’t breathe, and I can’t keep going. Fuuuuuuuuuuuck! I scream. My vision blurs. I clutch the stitch in my side. When I blink and my vision clarifies, I see, in the distance, a single windowpane of light with a girl inside. She’s standing in her kitchen in El Paraiso, barefoot in a summer dress. It’s Friday night. She is going out. She is putting on her shoes, her jacket. She gazes out the window, and for a brief, implausible moment, I could swear that she is looking at me. Then she switches off the lights.
This is when I see him, standing behind a tree a few yards away. I see his body, not as big and tall as anyone would expect, but not lanky either. I see his face, still unshed of its slight baby fat. The light eyes, the dark hair. The mouth always ready to curdle into a smile, always eager to say that everything’s going to be okay, always quick to promise that it’ll never happen again. We are frozen, studying one another. He breathes in steady, cautious intervals. His fingers unfurl uneasily against the bark. I know his breath as if it were my own. I know his hands, with their worn knuckles, as if they were my own.
As he steps out from behind the tree, his face passing through shadow, it is almost as if he’s about to greet me, the way an old friend would after years of separation. Maybe he’s going to ask me to coffee, and we’ll settle all this at Starbucks. He takes one step but comes no further, just to show that he can, and it’s not until then that I realize how vulnerable I am. I am alone.
Stop! I yell.
His face changes. He starts running again and that says everything. I charge after him, sprinting at the fastest speed I can muster, accelerating at a rate beyond comprehension. I don’t know what I will do if I actually catch him. I can’t hold him down. I can’t arrest him. But I am close enough that I can see the goosebumps on the backs of his arms, and it isn’t until I am this close that I realize how much I want to catch him. I really, really want to catch him. I want to masticate him with my teeth. I want to barf on him and coat him in my stinging acids. I want to unleash a million babies inside of him and burden him with their upbringings.
I chase him downhill, towards the freeway, the traffic lights, cars honking, radios playing a mash of songs about heartbreak and ruin, heartbreak and memory, heartbreak and hatred, how it’s the deeper intimacy.
I reach out and almost touch his shirt. I can feel the warmth of his skin, I can smell the sourness of his sweat. He jumps beyond my reach.
But I am close. I am so, so close.
Photograph © Carsten