Searching for My Ex-Girlfriends Noseby Michael Bahler
Ever since hearing Susan had moved back to New York City, I’d been searching for her nose. Susan had a thin bridge and nostrils like the rouge end piece of a doctor’s reflex hammer. Whenever I walked past a woman with sandy hair, I’d check the nose to see if it was Susan. It was usually easy, but if it rained, I’d have to peek under umbrellas and the new fad that winter was for women to wrap scarves around their faces like Jesse James. Sometimes I spotted sandy hair up the block or across the street or in the store or on the bus. I wasn’t crazy. I never hopped a bus. But I once followed a woman into the ER at St. Luke’s Hospital. My nose search was shameful and I hated myself for doing it.
I virtually had no friends. So I not only had to ask myself—did I miss her or did I miss having a girlfriend? But also: did I miss her or did I miss having a friend in the world? I did have some friends, but they were high school friends, or college friends, or a law school friend, and I didn’t particularly like them anymore. After I’d met Susan and we clicked, I’d given up on my “buddies” and spent all my time with her.
When she rode out of town ten months ago—right after my dad’s fifty-fifth birthday party—I should have gone back to the old gang and groveled for them to take me back. Or I should have gone out and made new friends (if that was even possible). Instead, I bought a stationary bike and pedaled almost nonstop when I came home from work in the evenings. I shed twenty pounds in a month. I realized how hypocritical I’d been to ask Susan to lose weight—when I was the one with a gut. I lost another ten pounds. I became legitimately sickly.
I always knew I loved Susan. I didn’t realize how much I loved her, until she ditched me.
Far down the street, I spotted sandy hair with a profile resembling a doctor’s reflex hammer. I caught up to the woman and stole a better look. Not Susan. The woman grimaced as if I’d broken into her bathroom stall. I spun around, but now I was going in the opposite direction from the sandwich shop where I was headed to pick up lunch. I would grab a burrito instead.
The guy who’d blabbed that she was back in the city had refused to give away any more details.
“Then why did you even tell me she was in New York?” I asked.
“Because I want you to be prepared,” he said, “in case you bump into her.”
When Susan left, and temporarily moved back in with her parents in Minnesota, she’d changed her cell phone number, instructed her parents and friends to shun me and refused to answer my email. She didn’t even tell me why she was going. All she said was that she hated New York and had only been sticking around because of me.
The telephone operator acknowledged that Susan was back in the city but said the number was unlisted, and I couldn’t sweet-talk her into giving it to me. I didn’t know where Susan worked. I didn’t know what neighborhood she lived in. I didn’t even know the borough.
Had Susan lied when she’d told me she hated New York? I had felt oddly uplifted when she said that she’d stayed in the city because of me. Was she dating someone who’d recently been transferred to New York? Was she making the same sacrifice for him that she’d once made for me?
My heart jumped at the sight of another sandy-haired woman due north. She wore a black coat identical to the one I’d bought Susan for Valentine’s Day a year ago. But was that how I wanted to meet up with her—running her down like I was a street cop? She was the one who’d left. She should be running me down.
I chased after the woman.
I wrote Susan an email saying that I was bowled over that she was back in New York and that I’d like to sit down with her for coffee. I added that I understood she likely was dating someone new. I didn’t know for sure if she even checked that email account anymore. The following day, I received:
Dear Mark, I truly hope you find a way to move past this. —S
I felt like I’d been in a car crash and didn’t know yet whether I was injured. I reread the email.
I doubted that Susan had returned to New York for me. The email was proof she’d moved back in spite of me. Maybe she had done it to prove to herself that she was completely over me.
On my dad’s—uncelebrated—fifty-sixth birthday, I sat on a bench outside the 51st Street subway station. It was five o’clock. I watched the steady stream of commuters board the escalator and disappear down toward the train. I knew I should leave the bench and join an online dating service. Given Susan’s email, she obviously wouldn’t be happy to see me.
Had she left because of another guy? But she’d always been so loyal.
I once gave her so much grief about holding onto things that referenced ex-boyfriends that she tossed two of her college journals into the East River. Was that it? But then she made me throw out my “Virginia is for Lovers” t-shirt because it was from an ex.
I’d probably never know why Susan really left. Even if she were to send me an “and the Oscar goes to” envelope, the answer on the card inside still might not be right. She might not know herself.
We weren’t getting back together.
I should leave the bench.
I watched more noses go down the escalator.
In January, the women on the street—while not being Susan—started looking more like her. It felt like progress. I was getting close. But by the end of the month, the noses started going the other way, and looking less and less like reflex hammers. The weather was brutally cold.
I started noticing happy couples. In the summer everyone was a happy couple and I could dismiss them as conformists but in the dead of winter—on a creepy, Jack-the-Ripper night—two winter jackets skipping down Lexington Avenue glove in glove felt like a victory celebration for the opposing team. What made me destined to be alone? It was Susan’s curse. Maybe finding her would cure me.
“I’m sorry,” I said to the ski jacket with sandy hair. “I thought you were someone else.”
I spotted more sandy hair and sprinted after her on the icy sidewalk.
It wasn’t lost on me that I’d taken the most colorful city in the world and turned it into a series of noses. I should at least have been learning something. The headline should read: Man Searches for Ex-Girlfriend’s Nose, Winds up Opening Nasal Museum. But sadly I only knew two noses: Susan’s and not Susan’s.
“I’m sorry,” I said, out of breath. “I thought you were someone else.”
I waited for the walk signal. Had she gotten a nose job?
My dad turned fifty-seven. We celebrated with cold cuts and a single candle stuck in a low-fat blueberry muffin. I sat on the couch in my parents’ living room and thought back to my dad’s fifty-fifth.
“Are you doing okay?” my sister asked, walking in from the kitchen munching on a slice of tongue.
Why couldn’t Susan have left on her dad’s fifty-fifth birthday?
I was probably over her. It had been two years. I still looked at noses on the street, but I often felt like I was just going through the motions. My heart, though, still jumped at anything even resembling a reflex hammer. I knew sometimes people held onto the status quo, even when the status quo was pure misery. Maybe I wasn’t completely over her.
Susan emailed me later that month:
Mark, do you want to meet? —S It was like a giant water bug had scurried into my office. I typed back “of course. how are you?” My stomach felt queasy as if I had eaten too much grease. I erased the “how are you?” because she might think it sarcastic. I flirted with not writing back—Susan deserved a dose of her own medicine. I changed the “of course” to “yes.” I glimpsed the torture ahead of me, counting the hours until our eventual meeting. I hit send.
Had some injury befallen her and she needed my help? Had someone died and she wanted my comfort? Had some guy proposed to her and she wanted to see me one last time before saying yes to him? Was she ready to forgive me? Was she finally going to tell me what I had done wrong? Was she going to take me back?
Susan had picked the place. It was a crowded Irish pub in Brooklyn Heights serving Saturday brunch. Did she live in Brooklyn? Or did she not live in Brooklyn?—did she want to throw me off the track? The buffet included fresh fruit, pancakes, cereal and hash browns. A black chef cooked up omelets to order on a portable burner—his frying pans tempted the pub with the aroma of bubbling cheese. The muted televisions were tuned to college basketball. A kid in a green uniform got off a shot against the purple team.
I was five minutes early. I caught my reflection in the glass of a framed yellowing newspaper cover celebrating a John Lindsey mayoral victory. I was scared to death that I had turned ugly over the last two years and I moved my thinning hair around. I liked that I looked gaunt. My cheekbones stuck out like road dividers.
I tapped my jeans pocket to make sure the engagement ring box hadn’t slipped out. I was most likely not going to propose—she might be engaged to someone else—but I’d brought the ring, which I’d inherited from my grandmother, just in case. Susan had once said to me: “Please propose already.”
“Mark.” Susan smiled and walked toward me.
My heart surprisingly stayed in my chest. I was disappointed I didn’t feel an overwhelming closeness to her.
Susan wore a black pants outfit that seemed a little formal for the bar. Her sandy hair hung just below her shoulders, the same length as when we were together. Her nose hadn’t morphed into a tongue depressor or a stethoscope. There was the reflex hammer. She wore three gaudy silver rings—one on her left ring finger—but there were no diamonds.
I recalled how much I’d suffered since we broke up.
She hugged me casually as if we’d just seen each other last week.
“You look good,” she said.
“You look good.”
“I’m worried that I look older,” she said.
“You were pretty before,” I said, “and you’re pretty now.” She did look beautiful, and unchanged.
Susan batted her eyelashes.
I smelled cigarettes on her breath. Had she started smoking again? I had gotten her to quit.
A forty-something waitress with dyed blond hair and blue eyeliner sat us in the corner, right under a TV. We both chose the buffet. It was surreal waiting in the omelet line watching Susan five feet away scoop strawberries onto her plate.
Our table pinned me against the wall like a steering wheel.
Susan ate a kiwi slice. “This is the third oldest pub in Brooklyn,” she said. “The bar over there, it’s still the original wood. Walt Whitman took his lunches here when he was a beat reporter for The Brooklyn Eagle.”
“So this isn’t a random place?”
“You were always better at picking places,” I said. “You have a talent.”
“No, I’m just not lazy.”
I felt the table against my ribs.
She lifted her fork and ate a piece of melon off her plate. Her jawbone made TMJ cracking noises as she chewed. We used to joke that we were destined for each other because we both had TMJ. “Are you still working for Robinson?” she asked.
She could have easily found out from the firm website that I was still there. “It’s easier to stay than go,” I said. “Where do you work?”
She chewed a strawberry. “Helen Bay, a PR firm on Seventeenth Street.”
She was still doing PR. I tapped my hand against my pocket to make sure the ring box was still there. I looked down at my untouched omelet. “I just want to say that—when you left—I was blown away. You really torpedoed my life.”
“I wasn’t looking to torpedo your life, Mark.”
“That’s not what I mean.” I was unable to look her in the eye. I looked at her nose. “I lost a hell of a lot. You were basically my whole life.”
“I also want to say that I was such a big hypocrite about weight. There was nothing wrong with you—and I was fat.”
She laughed. “I’m glad you said it.”
“I was a fat fuck.”
I had only been maybe ten pounds overweight. Plus I had now lost it all—and an additional twenty pounds. Why didn’t she acknowledge that?
I motioned my hands towards her.
“It’s strange for me, too,” Susan said.
“I feel like I’m sitting across from Elvis—or Gandhi.”
“Non-violence, my child. Thank you very much.”
“I’m serious,” I said, irritated.
She leaned over the table and examined my face like I were an old picture discovered in the bottom of a drawer. “I don’t remember your eyes being muddy,” she said.
“Muddy?” Was that bad? My eyes were muddy? “Does it look like I have cataracts?”
She shook her head and laughed. “So are you dating anyone?” she asked as if it were just gossip.
There was silence and she returned to her plate. She spooned up blueberries.
It was my turn to question her but I didn’t know where to start. “So how’s Jefferson?” I finally asked. Jefferson was the first teddy bear I had bought her. “Is he okay?”
“I didn’t kill him if that’s what you mean.”
“How’s Mount Holyoke?” I asked.
“I assume it’s still there.”
“You didn’t go back this year for homecoming?”
“Aren’t you going to eat something?”
I cut off a piece of my omelet and stuck the food in my mouth. I chewed slowly, accentuating the TMJ cracking noises. I was angry at myself for not asking the important questions. Why did she leave? Could she ever forgive me? Where did she live? Was she dating anyone? Would she marry me? I was worried that I wouldn’t have time to get to them all. “How are your migraines?” I asked.
“My dad died,” she said.
I felt a syrupy coldness in my chest as if I had just drunk vodka.
“It’s just me and my mom,” she said. “How long do you give us two before nuclear war?”
“Sue, I’m sorry.” I reached out and touched her hand. I hadn’t felt her skin in over two years.
“There’s no traffic light by the mall and he was pulling out of the parking lot and a van was flying down Killebrew Drive.”
I had once registered all the scenarios in which Susan would come back to me. I figured a major tragedy might do it, and I knew her dad was a heavy smoker and had heart problems. But I never wished anything bad on him. I was just desperate. Susan’s dad owned every Hitchcock movie and the few times I was in Minnesota, I stayed up late with him and drank Summit beer and watched North by Northwest and Dial M for Murder and Lifeboat. Her dad had grown up on a farm in North Dakota. I remembered him saying that he used to play fetch with one cow like it were a dog. He had the original reflex hammer.
“When did he?” I asked, unable to complete the sentence.
“What day is it today?”
“It’s Saturday. It’s the sixteenth. He died on the fourth. It’s been twelve days.”
“God, Sue. How’s your mom?”
“She’s the worst. She’s suing Governor Ventura. She went to a lawyer in St. Paul yesterday. Gilchrist v. Ventura.”
“I’m not familiar with Minnesota law, but I’ll talk to your mom if you want.”
Susan drank from her glass of water. “He was only fifty three. And he was wearing his seatbelt. Unfortunately, he’s not indestructible. You know why he was at the mall? To buy me a DVD player.”
“You can’t think like that.”
“Why couldn’t he have been buying my mom a DVD player?”
“Sue.” I offered her the napkin from my lap.
“No.” She brushed back my hand. “After my dad’s funeral, everyone came over to our house. I’m surrounded by Minnesotans. They won’t even acknowledge that Dad died. They just want to talk about the intersection at the mall—how the town is to blame. How Minnesota is to blame. How—the Mall of America is to blame. It was exactly like a Garrison Keillor skit. I don’t want to be like that. So I ran upstairs and wrote you from my dad’s computer.”
“You were in Minnesota when you wrote me?”
She swallowed. “Yes. I did such a good job of not thinking about you. I would go weeks. I once went two months without thinking about you.”
“But you know what, I was like the people at my dad’s funeral who only wanted to talk about the intersection at the mall. Mark, I forgive you for everything that happened. I’m serious.”
I knew it was my fault.
Susan crumpled up her napkin and laid it atop her plate, as if hoping the waitress would notice and bring the check.
I tapped against the table. “I don’t know how to bring this up now,” I said. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Maybe we should go.”
“I liked your dad. I feel like I can’t say anything now.” I tapped against my plate. “But this is it—I might never see you again. Sue, can I ask you something?”
Did I ask her what exactly I did wrong? Did I ask her to marry me? Should I just shut up and let it go?—her dad just died. “I love you,” I said.
“Look, Mark. This is hard enough. Can we try to avoid conflict?”
“I said I love you. How’s that conflict?”
“With us it is.” The waitress appeared. “You both buffet?” she asked. “Have we filled you up?”
“We’re done,” Susan said.
The waitress pulled out the checks from her apron. She jotted a few things on one then patted it down on the table. She began clearing our plates. “You can pay over there when you’re ready,” she said and walked away.
Susan unzipped her purse and removed her wallet.
“I know I wasn’t the best boyfriend,” I said, awkwardly. “I’ve been searching for you. I’ve looked everywhere. And I haven’t seen you once since you’ve been back—so maybe it’s not fated that I ever get a second chance.”
“I saw you.”
“You saw me. When? Where?”
“On the street,” she said. “Once you were standing right next to me on a corner waiting for the walk signal. You were wearing your glasses.”
“And you didn’t say anything?” I asked, annoyed, but also shocked.
“I stood there,” she said. “And the light turned green and you walked off. Another time—”
“You were walking ahead of me—and I just knew it was you.”
“I’ve been looking for you this whole time,” I said. “And you see me. That’s fate, right? That’s irony.”
Susan opened her wallet.
“No, let me pay,” I said. Should I propose now? I couldn’t believe she’d seen me—twice. Maybe even more than twice. “I feel awful about your dad,” I said dropping a twenty on the table.
Susan rose up and drifted out of the pub.
I waited a full minute, then pushed back the table and stood up. It felt good that I hadn’t chased after her. I sat back down. I wondered if the street would look completely different to me when I walked out.
Michael Bahler has published fiction in Glimmer Train, nerve, Eclectica, and Spoiled Ink.