The End of Romance
A parking lot is where it all ends.
He should be sitting at his desk. Eating lunch. Taking a coffee break. Playing Free Cell instead of doing actual work. Instead, he’s lounging on a bench. Next to her. Their proximity suggests inappropriate intimacy. It’s not friendly. It’s not neighborly. It’s not professional. Professionals don’t touch. Not like this. Kneecap brushes kneecap and knuckle brushes knuckle.
I knew it before I even stumbled across this scene. I knew it. This is the end of it all.
“What are you thinking about?”
It’s our first date. He’s beautiful. Bordering on ethereal. His hair gleams and his smile intoxicates. I sit on my hands lest I give in to the temptation to run my fingers through his silky waves.
Out of my league. Too pretty for me.
His eyes are blue. Perhaps grey. I can’t tell. The restaurant is too dark, and I’m too preoccupied with the private admission that I will sleep with him tonight if he makes his move. Already I’ve lost the ability to say no to him, and I haven’t yet asked him his middle name. Not sure I can remember his last, even though he’s told me three times since we met.
He reclines back in his seat and carefully considers my question. “I’m wondering if you’re a white cotton panty or a Victoria’s Secret thong kind of girl.” The corner of his mouth quirks up as I debate whether I should throw a glass of wine in his face or clamor into his lap. It’s not a lengthy internal debate and in a matter of hours, he discovers the answer to his query.
“I don’t want kids. Why would I want kids? I’m still a kid myself.”
“You’re forty ... ish. How old are you again?”
He scowls at me and pulls open the refrigerator door, cold yellow light spilling out onto the floor while he frantically searches for a beer. “I’m too old to have kids.”
In the living room, I cross my arms and slump down in place on the couch. Open floor plans are conducive for never-ending arguments. “I never said I wanted one with you.”
He stands up straighter. My penchant for passive-aggressive commentary has always done wonders for his posture. “Who else would you have one with?”
“Someone my age. Someone who wants the same things out of life.” He’s ten years older than me and I take immense pleasure out of reminding him of the age gap.
A clink of glass on counter top and a sharp hiss announce he’s located his poison. He walks into the living room, head tilted back, drink pouring down his throat at an impressive rate of speed. With a sigh of appreciation, he lowers his bottle and eyes me carefully. “Nobody else would give you pretty babies.”
“Ryan is a pansy. He’d give you babies pre-programmed for male-pattern baldness and beer guts.”
I flick my gaze up to his head, but hold my thoughts regarding his slightly receding hairline. “You’re not as pretty as you think you are.”
“I’m a beautiful man. I’m Adonis in button-fly jeans.”
I stick my nose in the air and struggle to become the living embodiment of disdain. “I can do better.” I can’t. He’s the pinnacle of what I can achieve in terms of beautiful men.
“You wish.” Suddenly he’s next to me, so close his breath rustles my hair. “If anybody is going to give you a baby it’ll be me.”
His territoriality pleases me, but I can’t cave. Not yet. “You don’t want one.”
He shakes his head and lounges back against the couch cushions. “Maybe if you want this bad enough, I’ll want it, too. Do you? Do you really want to be a mother?”
I frown and try to find a perfect level of conviction within me, to no avail. “Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I’m not sure I’d be very good at it. I’d like to make the attempt, though.”
He holds up the now nearly empty bottle of beer, gazing intently at the amber glass. “I think,” he says slowly. “I think you should be a mother. You’d be pretty good at it.”
“You think so?”
“Without a doubt.” His gaze wanders until he locks eyes with me. “If you want it, I want it. Let’s do this.”
I move toward them. She’s younger, thinner, prettier. The Holy Trinity of Every Woman’s Worst Fears Come True. The questions arise as my pace slows. What does she possess that makes the deceit worthwhile? Did he betray me for superficial reasons? She has a flatter belly? She doesn’t yet have to rely on Oil of Olay like it’s the Elixir of Life? Is it ego?
They cheat. Eventually they cheat. They always cheat. God, men are pigs.
His shirt is mussed and his tie hangs loose around his neck. His hair is slightly askew. He looked like that just two days ago when I pounced on him the moment he walked through the door. Together, we defiled the kitchen linoleum. He never even took his shoes off. Even the lopsided grin he wore that day is the same. I pick up the pace, determined to confront him as the rage courses through my veins.
This is his I-Just-Got-Fucked face. I thought it was just for me, but apparently not. He’s an equal opportunity Fuck-Face.
I wish I weren’t a nail-biter. Nails are necessary to claw out the eyes of the betrayer. The best I can hope to do is give him a good eye-gouge. Unfortunately, he has good reflexes and I’d never hit my target.
I hate him. I want him dead. I want to rip out her throat. I want a gun. I want the conscience of a murderer-for-hire.
His eyes are drawn to me as I stalk toward them. I want him to show fear. I want panic. I want him to jump to his feet, ready to fight. He doesn’t even flinch. He whispers something to her and she glances at me. Wiser than I gave her credit for, she makes herself scarce, scampering away like a scared rabbit.
His eyes are back on me, and I falter. As much as I hate him, the expression on his face makes me want to rush to his side. To hold his hand and tell him everything will be just fine.
Hate, I remind myself as I sit next to him. Hate him. You must hate him or you won’t survive this.
“Things have been going well,” he says, not tearing his eyes from the open newspaper in his hands. It’s Sunday morning. He’s rumpled and rested. His face suggests the afterglow of sex when, in actuality, it’s the flush of another exhilarating episode of Meet The Press. He’s a whore for Tim Russert. I think he’d reconsider his sexual preferences if he had a chance with old Tim. “I think we’re doing a good job with this relationship thing this time around.”
It’s our third attempt at this thing called love. Fourth? We’re the epitome of on-again, off-again. The second off-again resulted in his marriage to a woman with a severe aversion to penises and an impressive lust for voluptuous redheads. The last off-again ended after my father died. A bottle of Cutty Sark and a shoulder to cry on destroyed my resolve, and once more I let him into my bed and into my life.
Now here we are, the vomit-inducing picture of domestic bliss. He’s reading the paper, and I’m making pancakes. All I need is a lace-trimmed apron. All he needs is a hand-carved pipe and a ribbon of blue smoke curling merrily around his head.
I smile, despite the fact he’s jinxed everything with that one simple statement.
“Yes,” I say. “We’re getting to be old pros at this.”
He stops me as I drop three pancakes onto his plate. He pulls me close for a kiss. I skillfully avoid burning him with the skillet.
“Why?” I finally ask, tired of the silent void that separates us. The breeze blows, stirring my hair. A pigeon stops at our feet, debating his chances at a scrap of bread or maybe a piece of popcorn. His final verdict is we are of no use to him and he flies off.
He’s staring at his shoes. A small victory is claimed in his inability to look me in the eyes. I’ve got the high ground. I win. A winner in a losing battle.
“I don’t know.” Finally he lifts his eyes to meet mine. They’re bloodshot, as if he’d been drinking all day. “I don’t know.”
My heart sinks because he’s being honest. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t even have an excuse.
Don’t I deserve a why?
His breathing is shallow, but steady. When he sleeps, I catch glimpses of the boy he used to be. When he sleeps, I ignore the voice of insecurity within, whispering to me that it’s the only time peace reigns on his face.
He’s driven. He’s a caretaker. A fixer. He spends so much time making life easier for everyone around him that he never takes a moment for himself. He’s giving. He’ll give so much of himself he might fade away.
The stress never eases. His mother is a basket-case. His girlfriend is a head-case. His co-workers are inept. His 401K statements give him heartburn. No matter how fast or how long he runs, he can’t escape the slight paunch Mother Nature gifted him with at some point in his thirty-eighth year.
In his sleep, he’s transparent. The relief he craves is trapped in REM sleep cycles. No nagging. No deadlines. No reminders of the brutal truths of middle-age. No stupid fights about whose turn it is to make dinner.
The tiny creases between his eyebrows aren’t so deep. The crinkles at the corners of his eyes are barely visible. His jaw is relaxed.
I tell myself it’s something to treasure, those moments when he is at his most serene, his most unaffected. I am lost in the beauty of his too-long lashes resting on his cheeks. I memorize the profile of a nose broken by an errant foul ball once upon a time in his youth. I marvel at the job the doctors did at resetting it. If he’s deep enough asleep, I can run my finger over the contours of his lips, eliciting a brief smile.
But I often wonder why he’s never so contented when he’s awake … with me.
“Aliens are taking over the world. Who has the better chance of saving us? Superman or Spiderman?”
“Superman. Definitely Superman.”
“He can fly. He can turn back time and change history if the mean aliens kill us.”
“But what’s in it for him?”
“He did it for Lois.”
“He loved Lois.”
“I’m sure he has a respectable amount of affection for the rest of us.”
He shifts in place, water sloshing over the edge of the bathtub. Warm, bubbly sanctuary is found in his arms. He doesn’t even fret over the knowledge he will emerge from our shared soak smelling like a field of lilies-of-the-valley. Not many men will tolerate such indignity.
The demands of his work are becoming more intrusive and finding time for one another is becoming more and more of a chore. Big projects with important deadlines arise too often, but I realize I’m lucky. This is a man who will drop by just to share a bubble before he must go home and work some more.
He wraps his arms around me and begins to do things to my body that have nothing to do with personal hygiene. “You’re my Lois,” he whispers in my ear as his hands dip lower. “I’ll let the aliens eat me first. Maybe then they’ll be too full to eat you.”
“That’s the best you can do?”
“I’m not Superman. But if I ever learn how to fly, I’ll turn back the hands of time just so I can save you.”
He sits in the darkened corner, distorted shadows doing their best to deny the blood dripping from the gashes in his arms.
I should be afraid, but I’m too preoccupied with the blood, the way his hands shake though his voice is a steady as I’ve ever heard it. “Look,” he says, reaching to wipe away tears I don’t realize are falling. “I cut myself, and you bleed.”
“I love you,” I whisper as I take the knife from his hand and slide it out of reach. “Even when I hate you, I still love you.”
“You should go. You’re not obligated to me now. We’re not us anymore. There is no us.” He sighs and leans his head against the back of the chair. I stare at the way the blood splatters when the droplets hit the floor.
I should go. I’m an expert player in this game. He hurts himself to hurt me. It’s manipulative. It’s pathetic. It works.
“Why do we always end up here?” I ask. I reach for his discarded shirt and press the crumpled cotton to his arm, ignoring the coppery smell of blood I loathe so much. “Why do we put so much energy into tearing each other to shreds?”
“It’s what we do. It’s what we are.” The answer comes too easily for him, too fast. “Oil and water? That’s too amateur for us. We're kerosene and wood. We douse everything we love and watch it burn because we can’t figure out a better way. It’s just what we do. Love is hurt and hurt is love. Our wires are crossed. We don’t know how to make love work.”
He’s right. We aren’t able to fight the inevitability of our own destruction. We can only light the pyre and marvel at the flames as they consume every ounce of our souls.
Sunlight glints off the diamond. The ring is foreign on my finger. My ears were pierced when I was twelve. The holes had grown completely shut by the time I was thirteen. I’m not a jewelry person.
The ring was his mother’s. It matters to him. It matters to me because he wants me to wear it.
I’ll learn to be a jewelry person.
“What do we do now?” I ask, still staring at the ring. It’s tight. Too small. It’ll have to be re-sized. I wish it was like Cinderella’s slipper – a perfect fit. I have tiny hands, but fat fingers. His mother didn’t suffer from chubby knuckle syndrome.
“Beats me.” He shrugs and kisses my forehead. “We pick out china patterns. Figure out where we go for the honeymoon. Buy a new couch.”
“I want a red couch,” I blurt out.
He wrinkles his nose. “Red? Are you serious?”
“I always wanted a red couch.”
“You’re not bold.”
My lower lip comes out. “I can be bold.”
“Where will we put a red couch?”
“In our living room.”
“Not my living room.”
“Ours,” I say, bristling. “Not just yours.”
“Not just yours, either.” He pulls away slightly, and the vein in his forehead that signals he thinks I’m being a pain in his ass comes out of hibernation.
Engaged for roughly four minutes, and already a war is brewing.
“Do you love her?” I ask.
“God, no.” His vehemence should be comforting. It’s not. Now, I not only feel sorry for myself, I feel sorry for her. I wonder if she’s aware of how insignificant she is to him.
“Do you love me?”
“You know I do.” The lie is whispered, and he winces at the weakness of his retort.
“You show it so well.”
He’s hunkered down on the asphalt, reminding me of stereotype-riddled Western films of the fifties and sixties. He’s the native warrior, ear pressed to the ground, listening for some sign of the approaching Calvary.
In reality, he’s wallowing in a garbage strewn gutter, one arm thrust down through a grime-coated grate, futilely grasping for the diamond engagement ring I’d wrenched off and hurled through the air just moments before.
Satisfaction blooms within when I note his oil-coated knees, and the French fry stuck to his elbow.
He hazards a glance over his shoulder at yet another co-worker who’d found reason to wander outside under the pretense of a smoke, a breath of fresh air, a retrieval mission to the car. One by one they appear, trying hard not to stare at the spectacle of a relationship going up in flames.
“I’ll probably lose my job for this,” he mutters. Worried eyes catch the appearance of his supervisor, who glares at us with disgust.
I glance at my watch and sigh. “I’ll start caring after I get over the humiliation of telling my doctor I need to be tested for STDs.”
“Touché.” He returns focus to his search and recovery mission and I resist the urge to kick him in his unprotected face.
“Get out, get out, get out!” I cry, dancing a jig in front of the bathroom door. He’s been locked in for fifteen minutes. I’m struggling with the throb of a full bladder, and trying to comprehend the pregnancy test instructions.
“I’m out, already.” He emerges from the bathroom, disheveled and growling. Not a morning person, this man. Not awake enough to understand the desperation of a woman who must pee and must know if she’s finally carrying his baby.
He zeroes in on the box lying on the foot of the bed and bleary eyes become bright and focused. He nearly shoves me into the bathroom and presses an ear to the door, ignoring my pleas for privacy. I suffer from a shy bladder. It doesn’t care if a potential father-to-be is eager for an answer.
Within minutes, he’s enveloping me in his arms as I sob over the negative result. Only three months into the attempt and I’m already convinced it won’t happen.
My fertility doesn’t concern me. Time is my worry. Time for things to go wrong. Time for him to change his mind. Time for me to realize I’ve no right to inflict myself on an innocent child.
I need a positive result. I need the ties that bind. I need the point of no turning back.
But it’s not happening.
I’m going to lose him.
“Where do we go from here?” he asks.
I stare at him, flummoxed. “We? There is no we. You’ll go back into work. Deal with the fallout over a sex romp with the steno pool masquerading as a lunch break. I’m not sure what I’ll do, but I can’t stay here.”
He takes a step forward. The first signs of panic take flight across his features. “We can work this out.”
Tears spring into my eyes, but they don’t fall. Instead, I laugh. At length. I can’t say why his words strike me as funny, but I can’t curb the hysterics.
He doesn’t join in.
“Work out what?” I draw myself up to full height, something that doesn’t work for a 5’3” woman. The words I’ve never been strong enough to say finally come to me, and they are finally spoken. “I’m done. We’re done. Enough is enough.”
He loves me, he loves me not. He loves me, he loves me not.
The debate is endless. Every day, I wonder. The ceiling fan overhead relentlessly spins and my mind keeps the rhythm.
He’ll cheat on me again, he’ll never cheat on me again.
He’s asleep beside me. I’m unable to find the same level of relaxation.
Four months into our relationship he came to me, confessing an affair with a woman he hated. He found her insipid, but he found his way into her bed anyway. I forgave him.
I let him blame me because I blamed myself. Couldn’t show my feelings. Couldn’t open my heart. Couldn’t make him see he meant the world to me. Expected him to assume all of the above.
I paid the consequences for my emotional ineptitude.
He wants to be with me, he wants to be with me because nobody else is available.
We talked. We cried. We talked some more. He begged for forgiveness. He fell to his knees. He made love to me.
He loves me, he loves me not.
I forgive him. But next time I won’t be so forgiving.
History has proven there will always be a next time.
“I love you.”
His eyes shine. Then he registers the pause. Clear blue eyes cloud with the perceived slight.
“I love you, too.”
Defeated, he rises to his feet and turns his back on me. “Will you ever be able to say that without thinking it through first?”
I don’t reply because I don’t think he’ll like the answer.
Home is where the heart is. Until it’s been torn out of your chest and tossed aside. Then home is another reminder of the gaping hole he’s left behind.
I sit on the couch, chin to knees, arms embracing shins. I stare at a blank television set because I can’t think of anything better to do.
The banging on the door has finally ceased. The muffled pleas and demands are no more. The departing roar of his car’s engine should elicit a sigh of relief, but I’m too busy trying to force myself not to run after him, begging him to come back.
Home doesn’t feel like home without him. Home has been reduced to four walls. An empty shell providing shelter for an empty shell of a person. An empty shell of a person who almost believed love conquered all. Almost.
Never could completely buy into the lie. I tried. I failed.
The tears no longer fall. Nobody around to scream at. Nobody to welcome into my arms. There is only me. There is no home here anymore.
We had a moment.
I remember it. A moment of bliss. Contentment. Happiness. Love. Adoration. Completion.
An autumn day on an empty beach. A blood-red sun setting over the bay. Ribbons of pinks, purples, and golds marred only by the silhouette of a pelican drifting aimlessly overhead. Salty breezes, crisp and energizing.
The sand was cold. We wrapped ourselves in sweaters and blankets, reveling in our shared body heat.
His lips were cold when they brushed my temple, but I didn’t mind. The chill of the evening sea air dissipated as he tightened his arms around me.
A moment of perfection. A moment when I didn’t doubt his love. A moment when he was at peace at my side.
There was a moment. No matter how fleeting it was, we still had our moment.
If this were a romance novel, we’d get our happily ever after, I muse as I poke my head out from under my comforter and unwillingly greet the start of a new day. Alone.
If this were a romance novel, it would all be a misunderstanding. I check my muted cell-phone and delete the missed calls and unplayed voicemails.
If this were a romance novel, we’d find a way back to one another. We’d find healing. Renewed commitment. Love would overcome all else.
But this isn’t a romance novel. There is no hero to save the day. No gallant knight on a white steed to sweep me off my feet and make me forget my pain.
There is only him.
There is only me.
And all that remains is the broken shards of two hearts never meant to beat as one.