Forgetting to Remember Extinct Relationships
An unscientific poll of American males, which I administered by calling my friends, indicates that the way I've handled dead relationships is quite typical. Every time I broke up with a woman, whether I dumped, was dumped or whatever it was that we once had fizzled out without anyone noticing and we finally got around to putting it out of our mutual misery, I hit my internal mental delete key. That one-nighter or fling or girlfriend thing was over for good. Failing to expunge every last vestige of that failed romance would be absolutely essential for my emotional recovery and, more importantly, to prepare for the next girl.Everyone has a friend so devastated by a break-up with some person long since gone that they're no longer of use to anyone. These pathetic, shell-shocked survivors of doomed romance can't move on to the next thing. Obsessed by the very fact that a liaison has ended testifies to its failure, they remain trapped in the past. These losers just can't get back in the game. Sure, they may have sex, date and even get married someday, but they'll never be the same again. The only way to avoid that grim fate is to erase every last psychic smear of those old boyfriends or girlfriends.The trouble is, as any computer geek can explain, you can erase all the files you like, but they leave behind a residual imprint. A good technician can get into your computer and recover every word you've ever deleted; the data's gone--but not really. Similarly, a good hypnotist can tell you what flavor of baby food you had the day you turned nine months old. Delete all you like, but it's all there, stored somewhere in the twists and turns of your mental pathways. The best you can do is cover it up. Like old cobblestone streets paved over with asphalt, the past eventually resurfaces.For instance, it should have been easy for me to forget Adrienne. Separated by two time zones, we knew that our late-summer fling would be just that from the second we smiled at one another across the aisle of the M4 bus. We had barely a month together before she returned to vet school in northern Colorado. I thought it would be entertaining, if nothing else. I certainly wasn't going to chuck Manhattan to move to Fort Collins, and I'm sure she agreed.As it turned out, I've rarely felt as comfortable with anyone as I did with Adrienne. Normally her quirks (derived, I suspect, from her hippie parents) would have driven me insane, but the chemistry between us overcame those difficulties. She insisted on sleeping with a radio blasting all night long, but nonetheless I slept like a rock with her. The first time she brought me home to her parents, she announced glibly after dinner: "Ted and I are going to bed now. See you guys tomorrow!" It was embarrassing as shit, but I liked her all the more for it.That August she told me grisly stories of animal medicine, about the birth of two-headed calves and exactly what happens when horses are gelded. We became inseparable. I loved her.Then, of course, she was gone.I tried as hard as I could to forget the Adrienne episode, both how happy I had been with her and the mental block that prevented me from making the effort to stay in touch with her just because she lived where conifers grow. It was impossible to get her out of my mind, though. For months, I called her every day, but over time the calls became less frequent until I met someone else and so did she and we had less and less to talk about and that was it.A few years ago, I received a wedding invitation from Adrienne's hippie parents. Inside was my ex-late-summer-fling's letter. She said she was marrying a Protestant minister who installed gutters for a living. She said she was happy. I never replied, but I still miss her. I learned most of what I know about animals through her. Occasionally I even fall asleep with the radio on. Before I met Adrienne, that would have been completely impossible. You can erase your memories, but their shadows remain.I've always hated tennis, particularly as a spectator sport. Although it arguably offers certain benefits as a form of exercise, as a spectator sport it's boring, repetitive and pretentious. Dating Sandra Ferman, despite the fact that she was the captain of the women's tennis team, did nothing but confirm this opinion.Everything about my college girlfriend jibed nicely with traditional cliches about the world of tennis. Sandra was a short mousy dynamic woman who considered Fila the height of fashion both on and off the court. The product of an Upper East Side prep school, she was too unaware of the underclass to despise them. "If people are poor," she liked to say, "it's because they don't feel like holding jobs." She, of course, had never worked.Our political differences yawned like the Grand Canyon. I scoured the school library for obscure Marxist texts; she voted for Reagan's reelection "because he's strong." We lived in the same dorm, but our lives were not similar. I scrounged up my tuition with three jobs and a scholarship; Sandra called her parents and asked them to bring her cash whenever she was a bit short. I screamed for the Clash when they opened for the Who at Shea Stadium while Sandra was at the concession stand, marking time until Pete Townsend appeared. We had absolutely nothing in common, but somehow we managed for lack of anything better to do.Actually, I was crazy in love with her.It was one of those obsessive 19-year-old things. For three years during the early Eighties, I bought her hundreds of dollars in roses (she preferred long-stem), happily skipped classes, midterms and finals to spend time with her and, worst of all, passed up several chances to go out with far more compatible women. If I'd met her five years later, I would have acted differently. I would have been cool, laid back, hard to read. I would have avoided her like a musical revival.My greatest expression of love for Sandra was my quiet consent to being dragged off to the US Open in Queens. Every year her parents parlayed their rag-trade contacts into a set of four prime seats for the top matches, so there I'd sit, watching John McEnroe shudder with rage every time a 747 passed overhead on its final approach to LaGuardia. For three consecutive Augusts I was bored out of my fucking mind, but I happily suffered through hell and grating Long Island accents for the woman I planned to marry, have children with and die next to. Back and forth, up and down, the white people's heads bobbed inanely, all to maintain eye contact with a little yellow ball.It wasn't easy. I hate all spectator sports. They're the great intoxicator--forget all about your lousy job and your crummy boss and catch the playoffs instead! But by the third year, a strange thing happened: I actually started to kind of somewhat look forward to the annual late-summer trek on the Flushing line. I still hated tennis, but once you were there you had might as well pay attention to what was going on. Despite myself, I learned the rankings, the players' styles, who was up-and-coming and who was on the way out. Sandra liked to say that the worst male player could beat the best female. I began noting subtle differences in strategy. Some players employed a muscular style by going for a quick score with brutal serves; others waged a war of attrition, waiting for just the right moment to put the ball out of reach.My last trip to the Open took place in 1985. That summer Sandra and I had broken up and reunited countless times over everything and nothing. A month later we were history. She cheated, I cheated back and no one could remember who had started what. All we could agree on was that we hated each other. That last August I threw myself into the drama of the Open, attending every match I could to distract myself from this impossible woman with whom I was inexplicably involved. She may have been the only reason I was there, but I wanted something out of the experience for myself.While we were still together, Sandra and I promised each other that, should we ever break up, we would remain friends--or at least civil acquaintances. "I couldn't stand it if we couldn't talk anymore," she'd tell me as we lay in bed together after another afternoon of skipping class. "Promise me that our last words to each other will be nice ones."The last time I saw Sandra, her face was disappearing behind a slamming door. The last thing I said to her was "bitch!" The last thing I heard from her was "asshole!" It pretty much summed up what we had learned during the previous three years.Looking back on it now, I still can't imagine what we were thinking. Sandra and I were never meant to share the same elevator, much less true love. We were atrocious to each other, and I've tried to expunge the memory of the way she made me feel and, more importantly, how I acted ever since. Nonetheless, while channel-surfing I often find myself pausing on tennis for a few minutes. I caught Michael Chang playing brilliantly a few months ago; I remembered that Sandra had mentioned him as a teen prodigy who played at her tennis club. I smile inside when I think of John McEnroe; whether you applauded or booed him indicated whether you were a rebel or a stuffed-shirt. Then I think of Sandra, her gummy smile and crystalline green eyes, and it still hurts, until I remember that that's all in the past.I met Marjorie two weeks before Sandra and I finally split up for good. I picked her up at the Pizzatown on 112th Street on one of those beautiful warm August evenings wealthy New Yorkers don't know about because they're all vacationing in the Hamptons. I'd just been expelled from Columbia and was living with two other guys in a palatial sublet with a bust of Lenin in the library. Sandra wasn't returning my calls. Looking back now, I wouldn't have returned my whiny, weepy calls either.Exceptionally, both of my roommates were out for the night. Amazed at my good fortune, I escorted Marjorie to my lair, where we drank one roommate's wine and made use of the other's clean sheets. We spent the whole night boning away while listening to the B side of the first Simple Minds LP. This was Marjorie's idea. The turntable was the kind that kept playing the same disc over and over. When I woke up the next morning, Jim Kerr and his mates were crooning "Chelsea Girl" for the 20th time. We had sex again and I walked her back to the freshman dorm.Marjorie was a sweet young 18 to my worn-out 21, and I remember thinking she was incredible. On our second date we ended up in Riverside Park at midnight, doing it under the stars while barges floated by on the Hudson. Everything was right--there was a cool breeze off the water and sparkling lights from the condos in New Jersey. Then an enormous dog bounded up to us and jumped on my back, clearly unaware of the classic inter-species limitations of reproduction. Sandra would have screamed at the top of her lungs while I was beating the beast away with my bare feet, but Marjorie started laughing uncontrollably. We both went home twitchy and unfulfilled, but I figured that any woman with such a great sense of humor was well worth pursuing.We went out a few more times. I liked her more and more, and once I made the mistake of bringing her over to my apartment. The next day, I sat down next to Dan, who was screaming at the Red Sox over some since-forgotten bad play."So...what'd you think of Marjorie?" I asked."She's nice," Dan replied, never losing eye contact with the screen, "but she has the face of a pig."The next night, Marjorie and I did the dinner-movie-drinks-sex thing. Maybe it was the drinks, but while we were whispering to each other how good we both felt I kept hearing Dan's voice like an overdub in a bad film-noir: "She has the face of a pig...the face of a pig...of a pig...a pig...pig..pig..pigpigpigpigpig..." I focused on Marjorie's nose, and thought that it did in fact look a bit like a snout. Her eyes, it was true, were a little beady, like Wilbur's. And her skin was smooth, soft--too smooth and soft, really. I had never touched a pig, but I was certain that her skin's texture could not be significantly different than a pig's. The more I tried to put the thought out of my mind, the more I heard Dan's mocking voice--"pig...pig...pig..."Marjorie and I lasted a few more weeks. I would love to say that something came up that indicated we weren't fit to someday have kids together, but the truth is that I never got that pig thing out of my mind. It didn't help that she was the ultimate bullshit detector. One of the last things she said to me was: "Why don't you like to have sex with the lights on anymore? Is it something about my face?" So I stopped returning her calls. I know that I was stupid and shallow; fuck, I knew that at the time. But even now, whenever I hear that Simple Minds album, I flash back to that first great night in the sublet. I remember the way the curls in her brown hair felt when I touched them, and how she looked at me with an exotic blend of innocence and experience. I've tried to set aside those few weeks of my life, during which I acted like a total asshole.No doubt Marjorie forgot all about me years ago. But I can still see her disgust when I ran into her on College Walk, trying to ignore her, like it was yesterday. It was the devastating look of someone who knows that you're devoid of integrity or properly-calibrated priorities. Still, for me the soundtrack to Marjorie remains Dan's pig comment. I think of her whenever someone questions my choice of friends, as if somehow they're entitled to a vote on my associations. Marjorie's gone, but she lives inside me as a sort of integrity cop. In a way, she still teaches me to never, ever ask a friend to validate my taste in friends or love interests.I'm pretty good about forgiving and forgetting; often people will express regret about some slight that I'd completely forgotten about. I'm proud of this low-grade Gen X Alzheimer's; it keeps me sane and makes me look like a nicer guy than I really am.In the same spirit, every time a woman left my life, I've done everything possible to forget the circumstances that led to the breakup. When I got dumped, I didn't like feeling resentful. When I did the dumping, I wanted to forget my guilt. After all, I've almost always dumped women for the most shallow of reasons (like the pig thing). Logically, expunging the split means erasing the relationship.I sat next to Jessica Wallace during a 16-hour bus ride from my hometown of Dayton to New York; she'd been riding for three days since Phoenix. She was bright, voluptuous, Italian-American, 21, and celebrating her divorce after six months of marriage. We talked the whole time, but being 19 I wasn't sure if she was just being friendly or what. We dragged our stuff out to the taxi stand in front of the bus terminal; then she turned to me and said, "This will be your first kiss in New York" and followed through.She was almost too good to be true--the ultimate combination of sexuality, intelligence and guts. One night on our fourth or fifth date the subway that we were on struck a man who had been shoved off the platform. His blood splattered the windows like a bucket of red paint tossed across the graffiti. Jessica yanked the emergency brake in a fraction of a second. We leapt off the train between cars. The guy's body had fallen and become wedged between the platform and the train, whirling like a pencil between two hands. Incredibly, he was still lucid and talking. Pieces of skin were matted with the blood further down the side of the first car. I was petrified, too horrified to think, much less act. I was useless, which is the worst thing you can be in a crisis."Keep him talking," she told me. I held his hand and lied to him that he was going to be OK. "Give me your shirt," she said. She reached under the platform and made a tourniquet while asking for another shirt from another commuter. As she finished the second tourniquet, lying on her stomach, oblivious to the gore covering her white print dress, I realized that both of his legs had been severed. I knew that I didn't love her yet, but it was only a matter of time.It took a half-hour for the MTA to bring a special rescue train to the middle track. They hooked the top of the train to pull it up, and Jessica and two transit cops yanked the victim out. Then he passed out. The hospital was directly upstairs, so maybe that's why they didn't bother to send an ambulance. The cops had to maneuver him through an "iron maiden"-style exit-only gate. In any event, the guy made it. We went to see him a month later at the hospital, where the doctors told us he'd survived thanks to her.We both liked the same music and films. But she was mysterious. She claimed to have no formal education, but had read all of the same philosophy books as I had. Her clothes were tight and sexy, but she never responded to catcalls. We saw each other a few months, during which she refused to discuss her ex-husband. She didn't have normal ID like a driver's license; to get into clubs she used a crumpled oversized birth certificate. She couldn't decide if she'd been to high school in Queens or Los Angeles, or maybe Phoenix. But my petty concerns about identity and personal history vaporized whenever we walked down the street. Guys would stop in their tracks to stare at this bombshell who had opted to spend the day with a geeky engineering student with bad skin.Everything went great until one night when we went downtown to Danceteria. Feeling playful, I snatched Jessica's birth certificate from the bouncer and gave it the once-over. It turned out that Jessica was really 28.She spent the rest of the evening crying, explaining that she was worried that I wouldn't go out with her because of the age difference. I told her that I understood--which was true. I could easily put myself in her position. And it really didn't bother me. But if she could lie about such a basic vital statistic, what else was she lying about?Then she invited me to meet her mother. Like me, her parents were divorced and she rarely heard from her dad. Her mom lived in one of those high-rises in Rego Park, Queens that look like projects, but aren't. When Jessica went to the bathroom, her mother pulled me aside and whispered to me: "Thank God. You're the first decent guy she's ever brought home. You shoulda seen the scum she usually runs around with!"The gravity of the comment and the portent with which it was delivered caused me to imagine the child-molesting psychopaths who had enjoyed Jessica's sensuous pleasures. I considered the weird ID situation, the age difference and now, apparently, there was a class difference to contend with. I was, after all, a Columbia man, an Ivy Leaguer, someone with a bright future in the American aristocracy, and Jessica was, well, not. She was white trash, a woman who lied about her age, who dressed like a slut, who dated felons, who had no past at all, whose mother didn't even have the decency to live in Manhattan. This explained everything; she saw me as some kind of retro gravy train to escape her desperate and sordid past. She was too good in bed, too--the hallmark of the professional, right? Her mom didn't know it at the time, but our breakup was inevitable from the moment that she uttered that remark.In standard form, I stopped returning Jessica's calls. By the time I realized how dumb I'd been, it was six months later. To my credit, I called her and left an apologetic message on her answering machine; to her credit, she didn't call me back. Women who look and act like that don't end up alone for long.Remembering the Jessica Wallace episode has always made me squeamish, but I've kept a lot of her inside me. I'm much less prone to viewing myself as better than working-class people (getting expelled two years later helped too). I understand that everyone has a story to tell, the more of a story the longer they're around. But most importantly, I've since found myself in a position to help people in trouble--and like Jessica, I'm always one of the first people to get involved. If I can be half as cool as she was in the subway, I'll be happy.At age 33 I've only been interested in sex during half of my life. I fully expect my attitudes towards romance to change as long as I continue avoiding airplane bombs and gun-toting teenagers. But, at this point, I've accepted that every relationship, even a one-night stand, leaves you with something of that person that changes you forever. I used to think that you started from scratch every time you met someone new, but nothing could be further from the truth. Even if you only open yourself up for a few drunken hours, you've communed with another human being as much as possible, and neither of you will ever be exactly the same again.Now my high school sweetheart Shannon is married with three kids. She dumped me for some dumb jock, but I'll always remember how her calm demeanor put me at ease when we were parked in front of my house. She gave me my first kiss as my mom peeked through the living-room window. It takes work to make others relax, but I try. I hope I succeed sometimes.I think of Ann, a militantly organized traffic engineer for the City of New York, whenever I walk through Sheridan Square in the West Village; I was dating her while she redesigned the one-ways there. When I'm stuck in traffic caused by poorly-synchronized signals, I know Ann would have some simple solution. I admired her linear thinking (if not her habit of dating several guys at once) and find myself applying Ann's Machiavellian methods whenever cold-blooded judgments are called for.I loathed it at the time we went out, but Amy prompted me to read about postmodernism and poststructuralism in architecture. Linda never convinced me that heavy metal was worthwhile, but because of her my contempt mellowed to a mild dislike--without her I'd hate Nirvana because of the metal influence.Two years ago, I shocked my friends by conning Judy, a fantastically beautiful and intelligent woman I've known since college, to marry me. I know marriage is a work in progress, but I'd like to think that my wife has benefited enormously from the things I've picked up from old girlfriends I wanted nothing more than to disremember. I can share Judy's obsession with nature shows partly because of my experience with Adrienne. Sometimes Judy forgets to tell me something I needed to know, but I can forgive her--after all, now I'd let Jessica off the hook for that little lie about her age. There is a flip side to the old relationships that won't go away. Judy suffers from character traits I've picked up from women who wouldn't recognize me if I broke into their houses. Judy looks at me quizzically when I pause on televised tennis or call a midtown building "postmodern" or suggest having sex in the park. It's weird, but in a way she's married to all of the girls I forgot to remember to forget.Now it's her turn.