Joanne Solomon | Longreads | June 2017 | 10 minutes (2,527 words)
My ESL student had his first dream in English the same night I dreamt about Matias. I dream in ex-boyfriends. So the morning I left Ben’s apartment and jumped on my bike, I was already thrown. I headed down Myrtle Avenue, fast, trying to escape my own skin. I wasn’t wearing a helmet.
My courtship with Ben was filled with long bike rides: sunset trips to Red Hook, routes that wrapped around rivers and crossed boroughs. When our bikes were stolen, locked together outside a café in plain daylight, Ben gave me his mom’s sturdy Dutch road cruiser that she didn’t use anymore. It was an upgrade, with a bell and a basket and newly tightened brakes.
I had sobbed into Ben’s arms the night before about my impending breakup. I’d been having an affair with Ben on and off for months. My boyfriend, Matias, lived in Mexico City. We had loosely discussed seeing other people on the heels of a fight that ended with him screaming, “If you feel like I am wasting your time, then you should go out and meet someone who won’t!” Still, we’d never had an explicit talk about actually going through with it.
I’d met Matias while teaching English. After seeing him the first day, I rewrote the handout I gave to my beginning English students so that they could interview each other in class, making it into somewhat of a dating questionnaire.
1. Where are you from? Argentina but I live in Mexico City.
2. How old are you? I have 35 years.
3. Are you in a relationship, married or single? Single.
We dated for three months while he was in New York, then arranged to meet for Christmas on an island called Holbox in the Yucatán, the first of our long-distance relationship meetup spots. The journey included the subway, the railroad, the airtran, the flight, a taxi, a chicken bus, a boat, and a golf-cart. Somehow, I got there early, quickly showered, put on a flowy dress and some “natural” looking makeup, and then sat on the beach pretending I’d just woken up that way. When Matias arrived hours later, I was disheveled, sweaty, and sporting “natural” looking raccoon eyes, having fallen asleep in the sun.
I fell in love with his accent first. His soft J’s and S’s. ”Shoanne,” “pishamas.” In his “James Bond” English he’d learned from Cambridge classes, he’d offer me “watah “or hold the door for me with an affected, posh “Shall we?” He added “no?” to the end of every question. “That concert was beautiful, no?” “Let’s try to build something together, no?”
When I got to the Manhattan Bridge, the bike lane on the left was blocked off and signs pointed bikers to the pedestrian walkway on the right. I was alone on the bridge. In my cream vintage dress I pedaled harder, up the never-ending incline, the sun bouncing off the iridescent paint of the divider line. I had the sensation I could get washed out completely if the glare got just a touch more intense. It wasn’t until the sound of my breath snapped me out of my liminal haze that I realized how fast the pedals were spinning under my feet.
Matias and I were together from ages 35 to 40, important years, biologically for me anyway. In the beginning, when Mexicana Airlines was still up and running, we took turns traveling back and forth between Mexico City and New York at least once a month. In between visits, we’d fall asleep with Skype on. We stole time whenever and wherever we could get it. MEX JFK MEX BOS MEX CUN JFK. If I made up the hours by taking my students to a show on Wednesday, I could leave on Thursday at 4 pm. If he took the redeye, returning Monday was fine. My brother’s wedding. His sister’s graduation. Our birthdays.
I pedaled harder, up the never-ending incline, the sun bouncing off the iridescent paint of the divider line. It wasn’t until the sound of my breath snapped me out of my liminal haze that I realized how fast the pedals were spinning under my feet.
The airport in Mexico City smelled of tropical rain and sulfur. Matias would wait for me, in his brown suit with his lavender shirt. No one had ever spent that much time getting clean for me. He was stunning with his salt and pepper hair, and thick eyebrows, and those lashes. He smelled like hair gel and chicle (gum) and as he gave me mimos (loving caresses) on the back of my neck, he’d whisper, “Hola Punk” and then bite my ear with an acknowledging giggle. We’d spend hours strolling through the streets of Coyoacán or Condesa, eating watermelon with salt and lime, chatting in hushed tones about politics in Latin America. My visits over the years were a wash of street markets, whistles, dried cow’s ears, Oaxaca cheese, and uneven cobblestone streets. After getting home and showering we’d crawl into bed and spoon. Matias would call the position “Cucharita left!” (Little spoon, left side), as if we were at a yoga class. And as we settled into our favorite sleeping position, Matias would say “Oh boy,” relieved that we’d found each other again. It all felt so worth it.
He was a tourist, trying to get a better picture of Lady Liberty, so he jumped into the newly designated bike lane. I still don’t know how I didn’t see him. Was it the glare? Was the sweat in my eyes from that steaming, muggy day, clouding my vision? Prior to my teaching career, I’d been an actor. More specifically I’d been an aerialist in a show that required I maintain a hyper alert body awareness, the use of my peripheral vision, and a heightened sensitivity to movement around me. How could I have not seen something so big, blocking my path? I screamed for him to get out of the way, but I was moving way too fast. So, I jammed the hand brakes, which ultimately worked too well, and I went flying.
My instinct had always been to hold on tighter. It seemed preposterous when we started to unravel that we’d put in all that time, long distance, only for it to end. The baby conversation was no longer a lighthearted one about our imaginary, future, bilingual daughter. He needed more levity, I needed grounding. When his soccer team, River Plate, was relegated to the second division, it sent him into another one of his mood swings. He didn’t return my calls for two weeks. I never really learned Spanish. A permanent hum was always looming in the background, playing on repeat, in ever-increasing volume, “A baby, a Baby, WHAT about a baby!” A BABY! A BABY! WHAT ABOUT A BABY!”
Matias and I were together from ages 35 to 40, important years, biologically for me anyway. We took turns traveling back and forth between Mexico City and New York at least once a month. In between visits, we’d fall asleep with Skype on. We stole time whenever and wherever we could get it.
It wasn’t that Matias didn’t want a baby, but he wanted to fix things in our couple first. I felt the problems within our couple were a direct result of not getting an assurance that we would have a baby soon. Every month that passed felt like a pressure cooker. We tried to fix things on a romantic trip to Paris but fought our way through more Arrondissements than I could count. We both went back to our respective countries exhausted from fighting and relieved to be away from each other.
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A few weeks after our trip, Ben invited me over for potato latkes, a food I mentioned I hadn’t had since my mother’s death in my early twenties. In Matias’s words it was a “vulture” move, but one that tipped the scales. I never felt lonely in Ben’s presence because he liked the part of me that was always “too much” for Matias. Ben’s go-to reaction in a stressful situation was always laughter, the complete opposite of Matias, whose anxiety about anything going wrong manifested itself in lots of angry, silent, car rides and everyone having to tiptoe around him.
I knew my mother would have loved Ben, but more importantly she would have loved the person I became in Ben’s presence. I was funny again and felt like my own person. I didn’t feel as if I always had to take care of Ben, like I did Matias in social situations. It wasn’t the language, I always enjoyed that part, translating or explaining the cultural reference of a joke. It was that Ben really enjoyed hanging out with my friends and searched out new experiences for us. And one night early on, I sat there nodding, nonchalantly, in an East Village soju bar as Ben explained that he and his girlfriend had essentially broken up because she didn’t want to have kids and he did. Now, not someday.
It wasn’t that Matias didn’t want a baby, but he wanted to fix things in our couple first. I felt the problems within our couple were a direct result of not getting an assurance that we would have a baby soon.
Of course, just as I started to let go, Matias called to tell me he was finally ready to move to New York. I had waited five years for this news and felt that even with all its problems, I really wanted to give the relationship a shot. I broke things off with Ben, for good, and while I felt a profound sense of loss, I felt an enormous sense of relief not having to live a corrosive double life. I focused all my energy on my fortieth birthday party, which I planned to throw on a friend’s rooftop.
The evening of, the party I was anxious and dripping with sweat from hauling watermelons up and down many flights of stairs, transferring them from one apartment to another. It didn’t help that it was pouring. My big fortieth blow out, where I’d asked everyone to wear white, felt more like a wet t-shirt contest and less like a milestone. Matias showed up with his luggage in tow, and overwhelmed by the party and exhausted from his flight, went back to my house early. While I was trying to keep up the pretense of the “I still got it” 40-year-old, in a damp white teddy, I blew out candles on a cake that read “Happy birthday Joe!” — the boy version like Joe the plumber and not Jo, short for Joanne, the sultry woman.
Everything felt off. I spent the wee hours of the morning alone, shivering as I collected knocked over watermelon bits in plastic cups. The rest of the weekend I spent with Matias and although he didn’t tell me, in the same way I had kept a monumental truth from him, I felt the one he was keeping from me. It was following us around. I think perhaps this kind of truth is the harshest truth to bear, the kind that, in the absence of its bearer putting words to it, you feel forced to try and name it on your own. The coward’s way out, which I had known all too well. Matias assured me I was wrong, that he’d be returning in a few weeks, but at the end of the weekend as he pried my fingers from his suitcase and got in the elevator, we both knew he wasn’t coming back.
I was flying in slow motion when I came crashing down on my arm and then my shoulder. My head hit the pavement, then my face was dragged along with it. I tried to make the double vision stop, my cheekbone protruding, my shoulder radiating waves of intense pain. I tried not to pass out. The paramedics asked me if there was someone they should call. I couldn’t give an answer. I was broken in half.
In the end, my brother-in-law came and sat with me as the doctor explained that I’d fractured my face in two places, and had torn one and snapped the two remaining ligaments in my left shoulder. I held it together, emotionally that is, as I took in all the information, my left eye wincing. But when the doctor told me I would probably never be able to sleep on my left side again, I burst into tears.
It wasn’t a surprise when Matias didn’t book a flight to New York, or that Ben was at my brother’s house within hours of the accident with dumplings and flowers and chocolate. If I had to give a one-sentence synopsis of the year I turned forty, it would be this: I had a boyfriend, I broke my face, I woke up with a new boyfriend. It was so fast I didn’t have time to update my status on Facebook. For weeks I looked as if I’d been hit by a train but I felt oddly relieved that everyone could see how much pain I was in — that I’d been given the opportunity to exhibit pain and all that accumulated, shameful anguish under the guise of being only physically injured.
I knew my mother would have loved Ben, but more importantly she would have loved the person I became in Ben’s presence. I was funny again and felt like my own person. I didn’t feel as if I always had to take care of Ben, like I did Matias in social situations.
Ben’s generous offer to take care of me with “no strings attached” was somewhat loaded with, well, strings. I couldn’t grieve without feeling shame and I couldn’t fall in love without feeling guilt. I missed Matias, or maybe it was the “foreign-mess “of the relationship that I’d missed, but then again, I always missed him. Long distance relationships happen in a vacuum, the new reality not much different than the old. It just felt like a time between visits. I was having to constantly remind myself that the relationship was over, not just on hold. In an ideal world I would have waited until I was whole again before starting a new relationship. But in that hypothetical world, the math wasn’t adding up. So even though I was terribly conflicted, I went with it, and hoped I hadn’t made a deal with the devil.
That first official year with Ben was layered and complicated. I longed for my old relationship. I felt like I was stripped of my worldliness, the Spanish that came with it, an identity attached to the idea of dating out. Dating someone different. At the same time, in this new dynamic, fear and uncertainty were replaced with stability and constancy. Ben’s ever-present kindness and warmth were slowly dissolving the lumpy and uneven scar tissue. I’d wake up each day not sure which part of me would heal and which part would hurt. I was both extremely grateful and irrationally resentful. Ben would cook me a beautiful dinner and I’d cry. He’d write me a sentimental note and I’d laugh. It was so confusing. I was learning a new language.
I was forty-two when Griffin was born. It felt quick and I had to force my overlapping heart to keep up. But I know, I mean I really know, how lucky I am. That window is so small and I came so close to missing it. I think I was operating on a cellular level, my hormones so ratcheted up, the pull of the desperation guiding me to make decisions that were questionable at best. Sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, when I’m nursing, and staring down at this little baby with his funny expressive eyebrows and full perfect heart-shaped lips, the record skips and I think to myself, “How did we get here? What happened? Which version of myself am I now?”
Awake at twilight, I feel as if I have all the time in the world. So I replay that day over and over again in my head. I am in middle of the bridge, above myself, suspended, watching as I hurtle into space, float for a moment, and then crash down in slow motion. It felt like years and seconds in the same instant. If I’m honest with myself, it’s the only way I could have landed.
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Joanne Solomon is a writer and performer living in New York. She is a member of the Stoned Crow Press and performs with The Moth and 5th Wall Productions. She is currently writing a memoir about her years as an aerialist in the off-Broadway show “De La Guarda.”
Editor: Sari Botton