Zack called me and canceled our date for tonight. Then he canceled our affair.
"So who are you sleeping with?" I asked.
"I'm not sleeping with her yet. We should just be friends."
"You and me?" I asked. "Or you and her? Don’t bother answering. I’m hanging up.”
So how do I feel? I ask myself.
Angry, I answer.
It's true that I'm relieved. I'm glad to have myself back I was such an insistent giver. He was such a dedicated taker. It was such a typical affair.
Cheer up, I tell myself. You can't lose something you never had. But you can. You can lose hope, you can lose fantasy.
Here’s my favorite fantasy. Zack would have some terrible injury. He would fall when he was out running and become temporarily blind. For a week his eyes would be bandaged while I'd take care of him. I'd bring him with me to my studio. I'd sketch him. We'd talk about art. I'd help him eat. I'd read him poetry. When he took off the bandages, he'd realize how much he loved me.
I didn't need Dr. Mutter, my therapist, to ask why Zack's eyes were bandaged. I asked myself. Was it my age, because at fifty, I was ten years older than he was, and afraid he would look at me too closely? Was I saying I wanted him to fall in love with the essential me, the soul? Did I realize he might as well be blind, since like Narcissus, all Zack could see was himself? I was the one who was blind.
In the beginning, Zack and I were friends. Now I think we should have stayed that way, the way I did in my studio on our first date, on opposite ends of the couch, with me piling things between us — the Sunday Times, The MoMA Catalogue.
From his end of the sofa, Zack told me I was beautiful. "You're so voluptuous. You look so good in that color. I'd like to paint you just that way, in that dress."
He borrowed my belt so he could match the exact shade.
You're an artist, you'll use the pain, I told myself. At first, this was not a comfort. Then I took out my sketchpad and did Zack in Picasso's African Cubist style, half front, half back, half white, half black. I call it "Ambivalent Zack."
That takes care of him, I told myself.
If I were really cured, I’d paint myself.
When I first met him, Zack mentioned several women he was dating. None of them was serious. I was much more interesting, he said. And once he slept with them, they bored him.
“I don’t accept monogamy,” he said.
"You make it sound like a religion. It's not like accepting Christ,” I told him.
"That's exactly what it is, a religion," he grinned. I'm an atheist."
I played therapist. "You're an Irish Catholic. You're all messed up. It's the classic Madonna/whore complex. You can't love the women you sleep with. You can't sleep with the women you love."
"Who's talking love? And you're not messed up?"
"Not from religion."
"You're messed up with me."
Dr. Mutter would have said his analysis was better than mine.
"Oh, mom, I hate that bastard. He should drop dead," my daughter Rebecca says, when I tell her Zack and I are through. You can’t feel absolutely dreadful about life with a daughter like that.
I do feel dreadful, but everyone has troubles, and most people think theirs are worst.
Dr. Mutter tells me I’m reexperiencing Ted’s death. Ted’s death was worse.
"Don't come down to my loft." Zack called me on the phone to tell met that, the day we first made love. "I'm trying to resist you."
He told me he was already in one relationship that wasn't working. He didn't want to get involved.
"Please repeat that," I asked. "You're in a relationship that doesn't work. And you don't want to get into one that does?"
"You're so linear,” he said. "My relationships with women never work."
How could I resist thinking ours would.
Zack's almost bald on the top of his head and when I met him, what hair he had was gray. I could see from an old California driver's license that he wore it long in the sixties. Now it's short. Last Christmas he became a blonde.
"Are you trying to fool Santa Claus? I asked when I saw his new color. "Are you going to do your nails?"
"If you can dye your hair, why shouldn't I dye mine?"
I knew then that he had met another woman and she was younger than me.
Sometimes Zack/s hair stood straight on end. It was as though he gave off electricity while he paced around his large studio in his paint stained khaki shorts and T-shirt, talking non-stop about art.
At first I thought, is this guy nuts?
His corner loft, with two walls of over sized windows was full of light, but unlike most painters I know, light was irrelevant to Zack. He often painted at night. “Like Goya,” he said, “without candles on my head.”
Zack’s work was more about color.
I hate him but I still think his painting has power. It explodes. With heat, with energy.
"It's Dionysian," was how he described it. "Like me,"
"You mean you like to fuck," I said.
Zack's literary heroes are Oscar Wilde, Mishima, and Genet, because they lived on the edge. Zack was drawn to edges. Literally. He once climbed out his fifth floor window and walked along the outside ledge, daring me to watch.
I'm terrified of heights. I sat in his big bare studio, trying to concentrate on how neat it was, the black floor scrubbed down, the large paintings leaned against the walls, the rope and weight-lifting bench smack in the middle, surrounded by a jungle of plants.
Just when I thought he was gone for good, he made a grand reentry through another window. "Art is about taking risks," he said, jumping to the floor.
"You're a flake," I told him, relieved he was back. "Walking ledges may be risky, but it isn't art."
“Art is pushing yourself beyond ordinary boundaries," he says.
Knowing him pushed me far enough.
I dream of gardens. Walking through waist-high nasturtium, purple and yellow. Crawling among tomato plants, breathing their rank smell. I miss lying in bed with Zack, wrapping my legs around his body. I miss the way he stroked my arm, touched my breast.
There may be a scientific explanation or a psychological one, but I've never heard anything that makes it clear why you want to touch one person and not another. With animals, it's smell. "Le peaux," is what the French call it.
"Hey, I miss you. Let's have dinner. Let's be friends."
This is Zack's message on my answering machine tonight, a month after we broke up. I'm furious.
His tape answers when I call him back. He's got new music. Last month it was something funky by The Five Blind Boys. Now it's Vivaldi. "Fall" from "The Seasons." A rare tape with original instruments.
"Screw you," I tell his machine. "I gave you that tape. Give it back. Give back the button that says, "Nixon Cares," and the yellow plastic solar fan you clip on your lapel. Give back the medal of St. Sebastian pierced by 100 arrows, the one you did a painting of. Give back the humidifier I hoped would seem like me blowing in your ear at night." I am working myself up into a fine rage. Vivaldi's "Fall" is over, and so is Zack's tape. I hang up.
Eventually, Dr. Mutter says, you have to deal with the memories. I remember snow, the walk from the subway to Zack's studio last winter after the blizzard. Coming to meet me, he appeared in the distance against a slate gray sky, his blue wool cap pulled down over his ears, his hands stuck in his jacket pocket. A fogged up demon lover.
I go to my studio and spread drawing paper over the floor. Then I sit down on it and outline the lower half of my body. I lie down, and as best I can, reaching and squirming, outline the rest of me. From my collection of studio junk, whatever I can find, I fill in my paper self. I glue old beads and jewelry on the arms and legs, adding layers of paint, and paper scraps. An old bird's nest I found last year becomes my heart. I add a bit of cracked eggshell.
I spend the day building myself up with paper and paint, leaves and feathers. Finally, I sprinkle gold and silver sequins on my crotch. I title my variegated self. APHRODITE FROM OLD PATCHES.
On certain winter days, the light is like early summer evenings just before sunset. In summer, at dusk, Ted and I sat outside under the trees, drinking wine, listening to the birds. He always wanted to know where they go at night, where they sleep. I said they sleep in trees, where else would birds sleep.
Think of trees, the way they possess the earth, the way they were here before us and will be here after. Rebecca says there's something in chlorophyll that's like a compound in the blood. So it's not just poetic fancy to think we're the same stuff as trees. Since Ted died, I know that all good-byes have mortal overtones. Since Zack left, I know that endings are beginnings. I remember a pond I saw once, just this time of year, from a train window. The pond was half thawed, half frozen. One bird was walking along on the ice. Another was already swimming.