The pain of others, even a pain so evidently similar to my own, seems so far away, a little ship out there in the distance. I wish I could touch the head of another and feel what that person feels. The world would be different then.
- He doesn’t know. This is what Nancy answered to her own question…. He couldn’t see what she had done.
- – TC Gardstein, Circuit
- Oh, my little bird
I am blind as you are blind
- – Jodie McCann, Elegy for My Little Bird
A WEEK AGO SUNDAY, Independence Day, at about two o’clock in the afternoon, I checked my email on my girlfriend Teresa Gardstein‘s computer. When I finished checking, I closed the browser and then went to close AOL, when I noticed something odd, something that made me stop what I was doing.
Teresa had left her AOL In Box open, and near the top of the list of emails, I saw what struck me as a strange and disturbing subject line.
thinking of you…
Who besides me would write such a subject line to her?
I glanced at the “From” field. The address there began jmk@.
J, I thought. Who does Teresa know whose first name begins with J? No one but her cousin in Kentucky; however her cousin’s last name begins with G, not K, and anyway her cousin wouldn’t write such a subject line.
I scanned down the list of emails. Teresa’s In Box was peppered with emails from jmk, all of which had suggestive or semi-suggestive subject lines, all of which, for better or worse, I have forgotten. The only one I remember is the first. Still, the others must have been similar enough to convince me to do what I did next, which was to click on thinking of you…
I had never done such a thing before, not to Teresa or anyone. It’s not the sort of thing I do. In this case, though, I didn’t hesitate.
Teresa was in the kitchen. I was in the living room, at her desk. You can see her desk from the kitchen, although it’s at least fifty feet away, at the other end of the apartment. Teresa computer, a laptop, faces sideways in relation to the kitchen, which means you can’t really see the computer’s display from the kitchen, or at least not much of it.
jmk’s email was brief and to the point. It read, in its entirety: …as I listen to Hooverphonic.
That may seem benign enough. One can imagine such an email being written by an old friend upon stumbling on a CD you both loved in college.
thinking of you…
…as I listen to Hooverphonic.
However, the message was not benign. Not even close. Hooverphonic has a special meaning for Teresa. Hooverphonic is sex music. Teresa likes to play it when she fucks.
I started seeing Teresa eight months ago. We met through the personals on nerve.com. Her headline read, Give me liberty or give me chocolate. In her photo she sat grinning before a luscious-looking chocolate dessert.
On our first date we ended up making out for two hours on the stoop of her former apartment in the East Village. She lost track of time and missed the last train back to Long Island, where she was temporarily living with her parents. I suspected – or perhaps hoped – that she had missed the train deliberately, as a way to get me to invite her home.
I invited her home.
Since the only place to sleep in my studio apartment is my bed, I pledged to Teresa to not take advantage of the situation. In the end I honored that pledge despite the best efforts of Teresa, who had made no such vow. It was the only time I refused her.
In the morning she did something I’ll never forget. She said she wanted to try it with me, meaning try a committed relationship, and that she didn’t want to pretend otherwise or play any games. She cried as she said this.
Later, during more difficult times, she would sometimes regret her candor that morning. “I shouldn’t have let you know so soon,” she would say. Each time she said this I winced. She won my heart by being honest and vulnerable. It was the sweetest, sexiest thing I could have imagined. I said yes and never regretted it.
I read three or four of jmk’s emails.
His name is James or Jim. Both, I suppose.
In an astonishing feat of self-protection, I have forgotten what James or Jim wrote to Teresa. All I know is that the evidence was damning but not conclusive. There remained a chance, however small, that James or Jim was merely coming on to Teresa, merely trying to woo her.
Actually there’s one thing I do remember. In one of James or Jim’s emails, he said that Teresa was going to love what he planned to do to her next time. James or Jim did not say what he planned to do, but even if he had, it would not have proven that Teresa wanted him to do it, or worse, that she had permitted him to do such things in the recent past. This is despite James or Jim’s use of the words next time.
James or Jim had written at least a half dozen more emails, but I stopped after three or four. I’m not sure why I did this. The way I remember it, I was afraid of being caught. However it’s possible that I’m remembering wrongly, or more likely that I’m remembering rightly only this wasn’t the real reason I stopped.
When I closed the third or fourth email, I saw that there were checks next to the emails I had just read and that these emails were the only ones with checks.
I know a lot about email programs, but in this moment I panicked, imagining that the checks were permanent and that Teresa would see them and realize I had read her emails. I scanned the screen for a solution, but there was none to be found. I didn’t know what to do, so I kept looking. And then, mercifully, I saw it – the “Mark As Unread” button. I clicked this once for each email I had read, closed Teresa’s In Box, closed AOL, flipped down the computer screen, and sat there trying to think.
After some time, perhaps as much as five minutes, I got up and walked to the kitchen.
I’m a good actor. Acting is a kind of storytelling, and I have a gift for stories. The role I played this day, one of my most challenging, was The Man Who Doesn’t Know Anything.
In the kitchen Teresa was making tuna fish sandwiches. She wasn’t the same Teresa she’d been just a short time before. She will never be that Teresa again. It was my job to act as though I didn’t see this.
We had plans to spend the afternoon in Fort Greene Park, so I asked Teresa when she thought she’d be ready, and she said soon.
I had a plan in mind, of a sort. It was to talk with her in the park, after we ate our sandwiches. I would start by asking her about our relationship, about how she felt it was going. I wouldn’t mention the emails.
This was my entire plan. Looking back I don’t know what the point of it was. Mainly I think I was in shock.
The last time Teresa and I had discussed our relationship was six weeks prior, in late May, the night before she was to leave for a week-long Caribbean vacation. We were walking along Henry Street on our way to the promenade, and had just crossed Atlantic. I don’t remember what she said to set me off, but whatever it was, her words were more than I could bear. Turning to her I shouted, “Enough! I’ve had enough! You have no fucking idea how selfish you are!”
I tried to leave, to walk away (something I’d never done before), but Teresa grabbed my arm and pleaded with me not to go. I’d never seen a look like that on her face. She was terrified of losing me.
We talked for hours that night, wandering the streets of Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill. I told her two very hard things, things I had previously confided to just a few close friends. In a sense these two things are the same. In a sense I’ve only ever had one thing to say to her, and I’m still saying it. I said that I felt she didn’t care about me, or that if she did, she had no idea how to express it. I said that nearly all our time was focused on what she was thinking or feeling or on doing what she wanted to do.
There’s a price you pay for saying such things, just as there’s a price for feeling them. I don’t think I fully realized either price at the time. Actually I know I didn’t.
Her cab to the airport was due at five in the morning. We stayed up that night, talking quietly. At one point Teresa apologized for how she had treated me, but soon her apology devolved into a series of excuses. It was, I knew, the best she could offer, and it was in this spirit that I heard it and accepted it.
When we had sex I kept thinking that everything felt like tears. Afterwards she wanted to know why I loved her, the reasons. I listed everything I could think of, but what I wanted to say is that I loved her because I loved her, not because of any reasons. The reasons hardly mattered.
Fort Greene Park is about a mile from Teresa’s apartment. We zigzagged through Boerum Hill, turning at every corner. Teresa gabbed the entire way. Fortunately for me, she didn’t require more than an occasional acknowledgement that I was following what she was saying. Not I was actually following it. I couldn’t. I was also having difficulty speaking. I mean in the physical sense: I couldn’t get my mouth to work right. For this reason I limited my comments to just a word or two at a time.
As we walked a strange thing began to happen. I began to forget about the emails.
When I think back I remember having difficulty speaking as we passed a playground on Pacific. Then, in my next memory, I’m in a bodega by Fort Greene Park and I’m suggesting that Teresa buy a coke in a plastic bottle rather than a can because the bottle, which has a twist-off lid, will last longer. Looking back it doesn’t appear that the man in the bodega knows about the emails.
We laid out our towels on the far side of the main hill. It was a splendid day. Fourth of July in the park. Bright sun, cool breeze.
I ate my sandwich and waited for Teresa to finish hers. When she did, I discovered again that I couldn’t speak. It wasn’t a physical problem this time; it was fear. I’m not exactly sure what I was afraid of. Was it of losing her? If that’s what it was, it was an odd fear because deep down I had to know she was already gone.
When I finally found the courage to say what I planned to say, Teresa thanked me for bringing up the subject and confessed to having trouble taking the initiative. We talked for three hours. It was the best conversation we ever had about our relationship. I understand now why this was, but at the time I found it disorienting. I kept waiting for her to be unreasonable or defensive, but she wasn’t. She said – and I think I’ll always remember this – that she felt she couldn’t commune with me. Here she meant commune in contrast to communicate, which struck me as a beautiful and sadly accurate distinction. I said I felt the same way and then I wondered aloud why we couldn’t commune. The answer, we decided, had to do with trust, or the lack thereof. I asked if there was a way to build trust, and she said she didn’t know. Then she told me a secret.
“I feel totally isolated and alone,” she said, crying. “I feel alone by myself and I feel alone with you.”
Moved, I thanked her for telling me this. “It gives me hope,” I said.
“Ah, but there’s so much more you don’t know.”
This may be hard to believe, but when she said this I had no idea what she meant. It was as though I had slipped into another world, a world with no James or Jim, a world with no emails about anyone’s plans for next time, a world with no references to Hooverphonic. I believe I spent much of the afternoon in this other world. However there were a few moments when I would slip back to the world of knowing. One such moment occurred near the beginning of the conversation. I brought up the subject of sex, saying that she didn’t seem as interested lately. I did not say, because it did not need to be said, that her relative disinterest was unprecedented. From the start, sex was at the core of our connection. It was the one place, to use her language, we could always commune. I said – and when I said this, I knew perfectly well what I was saying – that I had begun to wonder if there was someone else.
“There’s no one else,” she said.
She said this softly, and I watched her face as she said it. I didn’t see anything there.
Sometime in January I celebrated a friend’s birthday at a restaurant in Teresa’s neighborhood. After dinner I decided to walk to Teresa’s apartment and surprise her. It was a spontaneous thing. Previously we had only seen each other at arranged times. I considered calling first – I wasn’t sure if she’d be home – but then thought it would be more romantic if I took a chance and showed up at her door.
As I walked down Smith Street a terrible vision came to me, a kind of negative fantasy. I would open her door and hear the sound of her having sex with another man. Only I wouldn’t know what the sound was at first, so I would go inside to investigate.
There’s a scene like this in Kieslowski’s Decalogue. I remember being horrified by it. A man follows his wife to the apartment of another man, where he climbs onto the man’s ledge to look inside. We see him inching toward the bedroom window, all the while clutching some part of the wall to keep from falling to his death. When the camera finally pans into the room, we see his wife in ecstasy, gleefully fucking the other man.
In my vision I didn’t actually witness Teresa fuck anyone. The scene ended, mercifully, as I reached Teresa’s living room and realized what those sounds were. Still, despite being spared the worst of it, I felt sick and bewildered. I’ve never been the jealous type, I’ve never been the kind of man who tortures himself with visions of his lover cheating on him. On this night though something possessed me. I stopped a block from Teresa’s apartment and called her on my cellphone. She sounded normal – not at all like she’d just been having sex with another man. I said I was in the neighborhood and asked if I could come by, and she happily agreed. Of course the reason I called was to her give her time to get the other man out of her apartment. I knew I was being ridiculous, I knew there was no other man, but I couldn’t bear the thought of experiencing my nightmare in real life.
Later I told Teresa what had happened. She was touched. It was as though I’d given her a bouquet of roses.
“I didn’t think you got jealous,” she said.
“I don’t,” I said. “Or at least I didn’t use to.”
Although such visions never returned, there were other things.
Teresa writes stories, most of which involve sex – often casual sex or sex with multiple partners. These stories aren’t pornography; they’re serious works of fiction. It’s just that sex is usually central.
Many of the stories are based on Teresa’s own experiences. She’s always been open about this and I’ve always been supportive of her writing. After all I write stories as well – somewhat explicit stories, at times – and these too are often based on my own experiences.
Still, whenever Teresa read one of her stories to me, I would find myself becoming increasingly upset and even distraught. I tried to hide this from her, feeling that it was wrong – and not just wrong but embarrassing. But no matter how I tried I couldn’t control it. As Teresa read, my breathing would become shallow and I’d begin to feel as though my face were burning.
It didn’t occur to me until today that the many of these stories, including Teresa’s first novel, feature a protagonist, invariably an attractive and intelligent young woman, who is cheating on her boyfriend.
Leaving Fort Greene Park, Teresa and I walked south on DeKalb. At Flatbush we came to Junior’s, a landmark Brooklyn restaurant famous for its cheesecake. Since Teresa had never been there I suggested we give it a try.
Nothing of note happened during dinner. We had a nice time. I believe I spent the entire meal in the world of not knowing.
When we stepped outside again, it was dark. Our plan was to watch the fireworks from Teresa’s rooftop. We heard them begin as we hurried back.
Teresa’s roof is connected to a series of roofs that run the length of her block. We moved to the corner roof to get the best view, and there Teresa lit up a joint.
It had been my idea to watch the fireworks from Teresa’s roof. Teresa hadn’t known she had access, nor that the fireworks could be seen from this distance. Now, standing close to her, I could feel her happiness.
The pot was strong. As it took effect I felt the need to sit, so we moved to the front ledge of the roof. The ledge was about a foot high. We sat side by side with my arm wrapped around her.
Sitting there made me uneasy. Three rooftops over, a small group of people were watching the fireworks. What if one of them, for god knows what reason, decided to run over and give us a push? Or what if we simply lost our balance in reaction to the fireworks? We would fall to our deaths. I wondered what that would be like, to fall together. Would I keep my arm wrapped around her?
I said nothing of this to Teresa. Instead I asked if we could stand again, which we did.
The fireworks, doubtless augmented by the pot, were stunning. I found myself sighing in the way I sigh during sex with Teresa. And it was like sex, in a sense, each burst a small explosion of flowering pleasure. Teresa began to respond with her sighs of her own. And then it truly was like sex, with each of us finding deeper pleasure in the pleasure of the other.
When the fireworks were over, we started to kiss, and soon Teresa indicated the desire to fuck on the roof.
We’d never done anything like that before – nor even strayed from having sex in bed – but the way I looked at it was, if your incredibly sexy girlfriend wants to fuck on the roof, you fuck on the roof, end of story. Naturally we might be seen up there – people were standing on rooftops all over Teresa’s neighborhood – but that was part of the point. In fact while we were looking for an appropriate spot, Teresa said she hoped that others would see us and get ideas.
“I want to start a chain reaction of fucking that will spread over the entire planet,” she said.
Unfortunately there was nowhere even remotely comfortable to do it. In the end I sat on the pebbly rooftop surface with my back against a chimney and my shorts down just far enough to expose my cock. Perhaps because Teresa was stoned, she didn’t bother to remove her panties but only lowered them to her ankles. This made it difficult for her to straddle me. We gave up after a friendly but fruitless struggle. I’m not sure if I ever made it inside her.
Leaving the roof, we took the fire escape down and climbed through her kitchen window. I don’t know what Teresa did next, but I went into the living room to look for a CD to play.
I felt good. I knew that Teresa was happy and that we were going to have sex and that it would feel as intense as always and bring us closer.
Teresa’s CDs are in a tall stand arranged alphabetically. I started at the top, at the A‘s, and made my way down. Because Teresa has so many Beatles CDs, I was almost a third of the way from the bottom when I finally reached Hooverphonic.
I believe I passed from one world to the other at that moment. Or perhaps I straddled the border, one foot on each side.
When Teresa walked into the living room, I held up the CD for her see.
“Is it okay if I play this?”
As I said these words, I looked directly into her face, watching.
She flinched. It was a small flinch but I caught it.
“Sure,” she said.
I put on the CD and went over to the couch. After one song Teresa asked if she could play something different.
At this point I must have drifted back to the other world, because the next thing I remember is being in bed with her and having sex. Near the end, as she was about to come, she asked me to come with her. As I did, just before it happened, I felt the compulsion to thank her. Naturally I resisted doing this, for she would have found it bizarre and possibly disturbing, but afterwards I told her about it.
“I’m glad you didn’t say anything,” she said, chuckling.
“But I felt it,” I said. “I wanted you to know.”
A bit later she mentioned being thirsty so I suggested the lemonade in the refrigerator. Earlier this day she had showed me a special type of lemonade she had bought. She picked it because of the bottle, which was tall and sleek and had the kind of complicated metal lid contraption used on old-fashioned milk bottles.
We stood naked at her kitchen counter and tried, both at once, to remove the lid. It wouldn’t budge. Finally I asked her to let me do it alone, and after much confused fiddling I realized where to push. The lid slid off with a resounding champagne-like bang. We drank a glass each, then a second. Granted I was stoned, but it was also really good lemonade. Between gulps I came up with a sexy tagline for it: The after-fuck refresh-me-up. Teresa loved this, and we took turns saying it like actors on television commercials.
When we returned to bed I told her that I wanted to write about what had happened with the lemonade, and I asked her to help me remember the tagline. She said she would. This is the last thing I remember her saying. Then I fell asleep.
I woke the next morning at eight-twenty. I know the exact time because I got up and walked around the bed to get my glasses which were resting on Teresa’s nightstand. After putting them on I glanced at the clock.
We had gone to sleep at about one. Most likely Teresa, a late sleeper, would remain in bed until at least ten. I had hoped to sleep late myself but for some reason woke early.
I stood gazing at Teresa. The sheet, wrapped around her and tucked under her body, made her look like a woman-sized candy in a blue wrapper. I studied her face. It was puffy with sleep but no less dear for that.
I walked to the living room, sat at Teresa’s computer, clicked on the Start menu, opened the control panel, and turned off the computer’s sound. The reason for the latter should be clear: I didn’t want the sound of the modem to wake Teresa.
Then I started AOL and opened Teresa’s In Box.
What’s interesting to me now is that I didn’t consciously plan any of this. I didn’t even think to do it until I woke. However the moment I woke I knew exactly what to do and went about it in calculated fashion.
I had one rule and that rule had a name: court of law. I would read Teresa’s emails to the point at which I found evidence sufficient to convict her in a court of law, were transgressions such as these considered criminal.
I started at the top of the list, at the emails I had read the previous afternoon, and worked my way down. There were several moments when I stopped to asked myself if this or that thing was sufficient, and each time I made myself continue. Court of law, I kept saying in my head. Court of law.
It turns out that Teresa was betraying me with more than one man. I don’t know the exact number; I just know that at a certain point I switched from reading James or Jim’s emails to reading Greg’s. I picked Greg because he had sent a lot of emails. Greg was also the one who gave me my evidence, and for this I am grateful to him. Lord knows how many more emails I would have had to read if Greg hadn’t come through.
The clinching email was about plans. Here Greg sent Teresa a short list of nights he was available to see her. This wouldn’t have convinced anyone of anything, but at the bottom of Greg’s email I found what I had come for. It was the email that Teresa had sent to Greg, the one in which she had asked when he could see her, the one to which Greg had replied with a list of available nights.
Teresa has a characteristic way of signing her emails. This is what I noticed first. She had taken her name and appended something playful to it, so that it read something like Teresychedelic. Only it didn’t read Teresychedelic, because that’s one of the names she used with me. The one she used with Greg I don’t remember anymore – not that it matters. What matters is that it was proof, if proof indeed was needed, that Teresa had written the words above the signature.
Among those words, near the bottom of the email, just before her signature, Teresa wrote this: “I can’t wait to have your cock inside me again.”
Or maybe she wrote, “I still remember having your cock inside me.”
Or maybe she wrote something similar but different. The only thing I know for certain – and this, sadly, I would swear to on my life – is that she definitely wrote the phrase “your cock inside me.” You don’t read a phrase like that, in a context like that, and ever forget it.
I closed the email, closed Teresa’s In Box, closed AOL, and closed the computer. Unfortunately these things were far more difficult to do than usual given how much my hands were shaking.
As I had done the previous afternoon, I sat at Teresa’s desk and tried to decide what to do. It was a surprisingly easy this time, considering.
Question: Do I break up with her?
Answer: Yes. What she’s done is unforgivable.
Question: Do I wake her to tell her?
Answer: No, that could get ugly.
Moving quietly I crossed the room and got my clothes which were draped over the arm of her couch. To reduce the chance of being heard as I dressed, I carried my clothes to the kitchen. Once dressed I grabbed Teresa’s collection of handbags – she has three – and brought them into the hall outside her apartment. There I searched each bag for her keys, without success. I carried the bags back into the kitchen, and as I walked in I noticed her keys in a little dish by the front door. My keys, the ones to my apartment, the ones I had given her only two weeks after meeting her, were on a separate key ring that looped through Teresa’s larger key ring. I removed my keys and placed them in my bag. Then I slipped out of the apartment and walked with my bag to the ground floor of Teresa’s building. There I took out a notepad and pen and sat down on the stairs.
I’m a careful writer. I try hard to say what I mean. However saying what you mean means knowing what you mean, and knowing what you mean takes time, and in this case I didn’t have much time.
As corny as this sounds, I found myself thinking of the letter as a kind of spiritual test. The words I would write would be inscribed on the gravestone of our relationship. Could I find it my heart to remember her heart and to leaven the letter with kindness?
The words came slowly. When I finished a draft, I read it through from the beginning, made a few edits, and re-wrote the letter on a clean sheet. Then I walked up the stairs to Teresa’s door where I stopped for a moment and listened for sounds from inside. There were none.
I took a breath, laid my set of Teresa’s keys on her mat, and slipped the letter face-up under her door.
I arrived home at nine-fifteen. Teresa called an hour later. I didn’t answer. Instead I dialed my voicemail and deleted the message she had left. I didn’t listen to it.
Five days later I received a letter from her. This I returned unopened. I also signed up with a spam filtering service, in part so I could put Teresa’s email address on my “bad sender” list.
These were extreme measures, and there was, I confess, an element of revenge to them.
That’s the ugly side of things. The other side, also ugly in its way, is about fear. I’m afraid that if I allow her to speak, she will begin by apologizing but then manage to whittle down her apology, bit by bit, until nothing remains. I have good reason to fear this, knowing Teresa as I do, and I will not allow it.
Over the past six days, as I wrote this account, I thought a lot about forgiveness and healing. I’ve come to believe that healing is a kind of forgetting. We never really heal; we just move further from the moment we were hurt. Still I imagine that I will forgive Teresa in time. However I will never allow her to hurt me again; I will never give her the opportunity to make excuses for what she did.
Assuming I remember what she did.
Here is what is inscribed on the gravestone:
Our relationship is over and I will never see you again. You have lied to me and betrayed me in a way that is not forgivable.
As I write these words you are asleep in your bed. I looked at you one last time before leaving the room. I wanted to kiss you but was afraid that you would wake.
I would like to leave you, and to remember you, with kindness. I care for you and I want you to find happiness.
I ask that you not contact me. I do not mean this harshly but you should know that I will ignore any message you try to send.
Do you remember the words that came to me last night just as I was about to come? I say those words again, Teresa. Thank you for all you gave me.
p.s. I have taken my apartment keys. Yours are outside your door.