Fiction

The Way We Weren’t

If I had known, I probably would have told you—politely, of course—that I was perfectly content to share my table with only my quinoa salad and my earbuds, Ira Glass’s youthful voice filtering in as if he were standing right there, speaking with that maddening earnestness. But how could I have known? Your parents raised you not to talk about your feelings, you said later, and I smiled and nodded as if I could even begin to fathom what that was like, having grown up in a family where my mother had weekly therapy sessions instead of manicures and the Xanax was kept on the kitchen table right next to the Shabbos candles. You, on the other hand, were uncomplicated, and beautifully so; nothing about you suggested that you’d suffered anything worse than second-place in a regatta. If you did have skeletons in your closet, they were wearing pastel polo shirts. So, out of boredom more than anything—the podcast was another rerun, anyway—I shrugged and scooted my lunch closer to me, freeing the other half of the table. But when the sun glinted off the gold spine of that book you were clutching (who had the ingenious idea to so adorn a book about the deceptive power of beauty?) I lost my cool: “This Side of Paradise is my favorite novel of all time!”

A week later we were having what my eleventh grade English teacher, who wore long denim dresses and spoke in hushed tones about Crazy Horse, used to call “sexual congress.” I always pictured John Boehner trying to seduce Nancy Pelosi and couldn’t take seriously our discussion of Newland Archer’s scandalous weekend with the countess. I mentioned this to you once and you kissed my nose affectionately: “My little daydreamer.” (My teacher, on the other hand: “Oh, what are you smirking about this time?” Restraint was never my strong suit, and facial expressions were no exception.) Once I found out—I should have guessed, when you laughed a little too loudly at the mildly amusing fact that my father had The Essays of Warren Buffet on his bedside table—which side of the aisle had your allegiance, there were no more conversations about politics, and there was nothing congressional about our interactions.

A month later I met your sister at some gastropub in SoHo, and a month after that your parents, at their house in Greenwich. I smiled when your mother offered me the plate of bacon-wrapped asparagus: no, I didn’t keep kosher, and no, I wasn’t a vegetarian; I just didn’t eat pork and never had. That weekend there was lovely, though, and I left with a little more warmth inside me, having learned things about you that not just anyone could discern simply by looking: you used to have awful buckteeth, you had been attached to a stuffed Winnie the Pooh until almost the end of high school, the flying saucers on your childhood bedspread betrayed early dreams of being an astronaut. During the nights we spent under that bedspread, me enveloped in you, caressing each other for hours, you became the first person ever to bring me to an orgasm that didn’t feel like a favor. I finally understood the phrase “lovemaking.”

I looked at you with amusement when, a few weeks later, we stood in front of a Matisse at the Met and you told me that I could write a better exhibit label than that, and maybe it would be the perfect job for my love of both art and writing. I made a joke: “Yeah, the people trying to tell the average museumgoer how the Impressionists used color to show the effects of light and weather really rake in the cash.” But you were serious. In your eyes, apparently, I was passionate and brilliant and vital.

One night, when we were basking in the so-called afterglow, I insisted on bringing Kerouac and Fitzgerald into bed with us, begging you to let me share with you my two favorite pages in American literature. You were the only person in the world who I could ever share this level of physical passion with, so it was only fitting that we would share these texts too. You told me a few weeks later that this was the moment you decided I was special. And from then on, you told me so all the time.

Like the day I mentioned I was thinking of applying for a job at The Strand: “Come on,” you scoffed, “anyone can work at a bookstore. You don’t need an English degree from a top college to do that. Don’t waste your talents—you’re special.”

When I admitted that getting my nose pierced when I graduated from high school had been an act of defiance, you thought you knew what I was defying: “Yeah, I agree, nose piercings aren’t just for small button noses. It looks great. Why let the world tell you something is wrong with your nose? It makes you special.”

In my bed one night: “I don’t know any other woman who actually enjoys giving blowjobs. You’re special, you know that?”

“You’re so special. I love you.”

You were confident, and you inspired me to be confident. So, little by little, I bit back the self-deprecating sarcasm I had learned from Grandpa Bernie and Woody Allen and Larry David, and I started to listen to you.

Nothing else mattered compared to that confidence or the joy I felt in your arms. Not Nana clutching her left forearm almost unconsciously when you drove up in your Mercedes, not my father’s face darkening when you told him you were the sixth generation in your family to go to Princeton, where his grandfather had been denied in 1925, when they had too many dark-haired boys from Brooklyn applying. My passion for you transcended these objections belonging to foregone generations for whom “Jewish” was the first and foremost identifier, yet was always said in a defensive tone or else in a whisper, because it had to be.

I recalled a song we sang during the Passover seders of my childhood, a song almost overshadowed in my memory by the spectacle of my mother throwing plastic frogs (frogs!) and insects of varying sizes and constitutions (lice! locusts!) at us and turning on the ceiling fan that had been strategically laden with—no, not kosher—marshmallows (hail!), which I would inevitably pick off the floor and snack on when I grew tired of eating the bitterness of slavery, the tears of the Israelites, and the mortar of the Temple. Marshmallows, you see—even stale and covered with dust—were significantly more delectable than traditional Seder foods. (Meanwhile, you were doubtless eating all the pastel-colored, bunny-shaped marshmallows you could handle before nausea set in and skipping around happily collecting chocolate eggs: this disparity in spring holiday traditions—not the memory of slavery or the eating of the bread of affliction—was the real perennial Jewish suffering as far as I was concerned.)

Dayenu, Grandpa Bernie would sing in his lilting, trembling Ashkenazi tenor: No matter which divine miracle it was, it would have been enough. For me, when it came to my father’s and Nana’s grievances, it was the opposite: Lo dayenu. None of it was enough to convince me that you were too different to love.

 

But after we’d been together for about a year, a different junior analyst got the position you had set your sights on, and you threw my copy of Goodbye, Columbus across the room. And later that night, when I told you I was too tired to entertain the erection you handed me, you punched Winnie the Pooh so hard that his yellow plush muzzle went all lopsided. I slept on the couch.

I woke up the next morning with an ache in that muscle between the neck and shoulder. (I’m sure you knew exactly what it was called from your rowing days. I wasn’t about to ask you.)

I had apparently slept in the wrong contortion.

I missed the warmth of your body in the morning.

I was chewing my lip when you sauntered in from your bedroom. You cocked an eyebrow at me, demanding an answer to a question you either could not or would not ask in words. When I gave you nothing, you seemed to grow bored, and your eyes slipped downward. I didn’t have to follow your gaze. I stopped chewing my lip and snatched my tank top up over my cleavage. You exhaled. “Oh.”

“Yes,” I managed. “We need to talk.”

“It’s all good,” you said. “You know I love you no matter what. It’s okay that you didn’t want to last night. Hey, it’s fine, I jerked off like a minute after you left.”

For once, I was speechless.

After that, I couldn’t draw breath without feeling like there was a knot behind my sternum. Yet still I fought to keep you, to keep us, to keep our wonderful trips to art museums, our penchant for choosing the same kind of sushi, those orgasms we had had together.

On the last weekend, when I felt us slipping away from each other, I suggested we get out of Manhattan and into the mountains. At an orchard near my alma mater, we wandered the narrow spaces delineated by neat rows of bushes, in search of ripe-looking raspberries. Bob Dylan’s harmonica melodies floated through the air from inside the country store, reminding me of drives through this landscape with my father eight years earlier, when my stress had dissipated to “Mr. Tambourine Man” and I effortlessly pictured myself reading literary criticism under the maples of every bucolic liberal arts college we visited. I had watched purple mountains rising in the distance over a verdant valley dappled with heartbreaking sunlight, promising me an education in yearning.

You, on the other hand, had never learned to yearn for anything.

 

After an embarrassing amount of time in bed eating raspberry pie with a spoon, I mailed you the cashmere sweater that, you loved to remind me, your biceps had outgrown when you started rowing (I didn’t tell you I kept wearing it through the raspberry pie days or that I hadn’t washed it). It was time for another trip. I visited my sister in Boston, hoping that the combination of her no-nonsense perspective and passion fruit margaritas from our favorite taquería in Somerville would somehow add up to clarity.

After two margaritas, she didn’t sugarcoat it: “Come on, stop moping around and go start fucking whatever dweeby Columbia Ph.D. student you know you’ll end up with. I’m sure Sam Goldbergstein is just waiting for you to waltz into his life. Did you really think this would ever work out? Please. I mean, you’re always talking about that old movie—what’s it called?”

I knew exactly what she was referring to: The Way We Were.

“And didn’t you once send me some thing about star-crossed lovers you wrote for your creative writing class in college? The nice progressive Jewish girl and the entitled, WASP guy? It didn’t work out in the story and it didn’t work out for you. Big surprise.”

She was right, as far as it went: the same way Nana was right about the Mercedes. But she had only just begun to grasp, in that final indictment, the full extent of my transgression: I was not naïve but complicit. I knew how this story ended, because I had written it. I knew its ending and still let myself get involved in a real-life version of it.

But it wasn’t only a matter of cognitive dissonance: I had gotten carried away, had gone way beyond performing that story. I had not simply been complicit rather than naïve; I had been complicit in performing my own naiveté.

And I had even hoped that that instant I forsook Ira Glass for you would provide me a writer’s toolkit, something I could use to revise myself into a more sophisticated narrator with a more nuanced perspective.

For the sins I have committed… Al chet shechatanu…

I plead guilty to every single one of her crimes.

I let myself fall in love with you.

dayenu.

At least that’s how Grandpa Bernie would want me to end it.

 

– Miranda Cooper, class of 2016.5