Shelly Oria | Longreads | July 2018 | 11 minutes (2,799 words)
Some skirts are more promise than fabric, a whisper to yourself that one day you will have sex again. You know you own one, and you know it’s red. Dig in your closet. Dig some more. Don’t lose hope now: It’s waiting for you under a pile of jeans that need to be donated. Wear the red skirt at least once a week until otherwise stated.
Do not have sex; when the heart is in pain, the body can get you in trouble. Count the months. Feel a tremble in your stomach, in your chest, in your fingertips. It’s what happens when a woman embodies the full strength of her will: The force of it makes her shake.
If you’d like, you can brag to your friends. Do this in moderation. Sip your wine slowly before you speak. Hold the liquid in your mouth until all you feel is alcohol; close your eyes on the swallow. Say, three months, four months, five months. Say, Sex no longer holds power over me.
You will occasionally wonder if you are too old to wear the red skirt. Wear it anyway. Finger the seams. Stretch the fabric, then release. When times are rough, it’s important to wear clothes that remind your heart it’s a muscle.
Work 16-hour days. You’ll be teaching creative writing at a school infamous for underpaying instructors, so the only way to get by will be to take on way too many classes. At a party, you’ll meet a writer who will tell you he screamed at the dean of that school when he offered him a job and told him the pay. That doesn’t get me across the street, he told the dean. You’ll want to tell that writer that you’re in no position to be picky, because you’re on your own for the first time in your life. You’ll want to explain to him that you left a man who loved you with all his heart — and had a heart more pure than most — but who seemed to know you less every year, every month, every morning. You’ll want to tell him about the woman you spent the past year loving, about how the loss of your marriage hurts so much worse now that she’s gone too. Instead, you’ll nod. “Let me know if you hear of any good opportunities?” you’ll say.
There’s no point having sex with this writer. You will eventually learn that you need bed partners to be less language, more body. If you make the mistake of sleeping with him, tell no one; certain events can be undone by silence.
Working nonstop makes sleep easy, always in some corner waiting for you. Resist. Sleep only when you collapse into it, when the need has made it down to the bones of your feet. Gain a few pounds from slices of pizza eaten on the go, from your busyness that leaves no time for cooking, no time for the gym. Put your hand on your stomach, let the belt a bit loose. Think: This fat is good for my celibacy.
If you consider things logically, you will see that you are happy. This is the life you wanted: no husband, no girlfriend, the freedom to shop and think and plan as one person. Sadness, therefore, makes no sense.
If you consider things logically, you will see that you are happy. This is the life you wanted: no husband, no girlfriend, the freedom to shop and think and plan as one person. Sadness, therefore, makes no sense. Consider things in this rational manner. But consider nothing when alone, and nothing when sober.
When logic fails you, dance. Feel your body moving, see other bodies moving, hear only the drums in every song. Think: We are all alive.
Meet a married man. Touch his arm when he makes you laugh, but throw your head back, to show him your body can move away from him even as he brings you pleasure. Before you fall for him, make sure he is unavailable in ways that extend beyond his marriage. Perhaps he lives far away. Perhaps you have mutual friends. Perhaps you work with his wife. To be sure, take a deep breath; if, upon exhaling, the air in your lungs feels like it has nowhere to go, the situation is sufficiently impossible. Think: This must be true love, for it hurts. Think: I would live on the Upper East Side for him.
See, the thing is, you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t live on the Upper East Side for anyone. You wouldn’t move to another borough, another city. You would certainly not move back to Tel Aviv, where you grew up, where the sky was so low it kept touching your head. But it’s okay to think that you would. It’s okay to blame circumstances. You can repeat this several times, with several men.
Don’t fall in love with a woman. Whatever you do, do not fall in love with a woman. Falling in love with a woman is like bungee jumping: When it goes well you fly; when it doesn’t, you free-fall and crash.
Your girlfriend was a beautiful woman, an actor, and she saw you more deeply than anyone ever had. This seeing is why you were attracted to her at the end of your marriage with a force like fire: fast, uncontrollable, hypnotizing. Remember her eyes, her softness, but remember her fury, too. Remember your shock when she first stormed out and left you in some bar, and remember how soon you began to do the same. Someone was always abandoned — on a subway platform, in a bed at daybreak, outside a friend’s wedding. This kind of love was the only way you could end your marriage, the guilt of leaving your husband mitigated by the drama of these fights, by this departure from yourself. Remember that’s all behind you. Remember now is no time for abandonment.
So when some nights you open your eyes and see nothing, when your muscles feel awake though dawn is far away, write long letters to your ex-girlfriend. Think: It’s OK because I will never send this letter. Think: In all likelihood, I will not send this letter. Think: I’ll decide in the morning whether or not to send this letter. Don’t send the letter.
When you survive a faulty jump, you land in a field, a desolate place. For a while, no one can find you. You are naked, nothing covering your skin but pieces of the cord that failed to protect you.
That’s what will happen if you write to your ex-girlfriend: You’ll be back in that field again, naked again, the vastness of flat sand before you for miles and the sky hitting hard. Oh, those moments when the clouds roar and the world turns to light. You look up, squinting, smiling, the back of your head touching your spine. You spread your arms open, open, all of you open and soaked, and isn’t it romantic. Isn’t it beautiful. But the moment passes, the moments pass, always so fast. Then you’re unsafe again, in the storm, your body exposed and hurting. So don’t send her letters, and don’t respond when she writes.
If ever you make the mistake of communicating with her, stop and call your soon-to-be-ex-husband.
Because you had not turned 20 when you met, because you spent many years together teaching each other adulthood, talking to him will forever be a coming home. And when you flirt with heartache, coming home can steer you away, can bring you back to yourself. So call him. Say: “You know those old beige curtains, are they in the storage unit?” He’ll be nice sometimes and say, “Lower left corner when your back is to the door.” Thank him. Don’t ever forget to thank him. That’s what you do when someone is showing a kindness he’s under no obligation to show. If ever you forget to thank him, you’ll wake up the next morning married again.
Make new friends. Queer, straight, confused: single. You need friends without curfews.
Count your money often. Notice your heart, the trembling. Your finances are your own now; there’s no one to rely on, so be sure not to fall. Count everything: dollars spent per month on stationery, laundry, fruit. Make sure you’re saving. Don’t think: Can I go on vacation, can I buy this dress. Think instead: If I save enough, I won’t tremble when I count.
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You can call that writer if you’d like, ask for help finding a better job. When he tries to sleep with you again, tell him about the pact you’ve made with yourself to avoid other people’s bodies for as long as you can. Say I could really use a friend. You never know. He might smile at you. He might nod. ***
Break your celibacy — finally, suddenly. No big decision, no discussion with your friends. Choose someone you’ve known a while; that way you can say, “This was bound to happen at some point.” After, feel your body wanting, wonder how long you’ve been deaf to its cries. Isn’t it great to feel a man sleep-shudder next to you in the night, feel his waking muscles flex in an attempt to reach you?
This man — he’s likely married, possibly has a kid or two. Make sure the marriage is open — some form of openness is much more common than people think, so this will be easier than it sounds. It’s important that you stay ethical; deception is contagious and when it comes back it always bites hard. But men, even the ones who know the value of honesty, tend to forget. Your relationship with this man will last some time, but at first he will lie to you for a whole summer. He’ll say that his wife knows everything, when in fact he’ll be hiding from her that it’s you he’s sleeping with — you, who he worked with at a nonprofit years back; you, who she’s met. But if he’s Israeli, if this is all happening when you visit home, then the ocean will make things better. You will spend long days reading and gazing at the waves, ignoring his texts.
When he tries to say, “I love you,” put your hand on his mouth. Look at his eyes going fast. You’ll see his fear all over, but look deeper. What do you see? None of it is about you. You’re seeing the promises he dreamt for himself but never dared to make.
Don’t pretend there’s nothing in it for you. Unavailable men can want without inhibition, knowing that sooner or later reality will intervene. Unavailable men’s passion is a force that doesn’t slow down. Unavailable men love like women.
If he is in fact Israeli, if this whole relationship unfolds as a sequence of visits, at some point a war will offer you both some perspective. You’ll be home in Tel Aviv for the summer, but this time there will be no trips to the ocean; Gaza will be heavily bombed and launching missiles, the open air of the beach now a landscape of peril. Every few hours a siren will sound, and you will run downstairs to the bomb shelter to wait with your family and neighbors until you hear the explosion and know you are safe. He will be one of the first to be drafted, and you will know in your body that he will be all right, but still hurry to your phone when it beeps, stare at it when it doesn’t.
If at all possible, let him leave you at the end of that summer. Let him be a man who tells himself he does right by his family. Breaking things off with him will be good for you, as long as it doesn’t lead you to fall for some woman.
In the winter, you will leave your city to spend long weeks at an artists’ colony. In the snowy woods, days will stretch, each packing a life’s worth of writing, of love, of disappointment. Camp time, people will say to each other and shrug, explaining this phenomenon. But you grew up in another country; you never went to camp or knew anyone who did, and this reality in which time contorts is new. In the woods, you will sleep with a woman. Her body, a dancer’s body, will be darker and stronger than your ex-girlfriend’s. You will wake knowing that you are not falling in love, and your bones will feel light with relief. But a few weeks later, still in the woods, after she’s gone, you will fall in love. This new woman will remind you of the women you loved years ago, when you were married and unready — she will be married and unready — and she will be unavailable in the ways that matter most: unavailable to herself, unavailable to her beauty, a poet. You will tell yourself that none of it is real, the woods are like Vegas for artists. But it will be real, and you will take your pain back with you to your Bed-Stuy apartment and for a while, sleep will be hard. In your dreams the poet will let you take her to Venice and eat berries off her belly, but on the trip she will keep morphing, taking on the faces of all the women you’ve ever loved.
Here’s the thing: You need to walk away. For the rest of your life, occasionally, you will fall in love with a woman who will not love you back. She will always be beautiful, always lost in some fundamental way, and for a time she will depend on you, mistakenly see you as a way out of something and into something else — truth, herself. She will flirt, perhaps be as obsessed with you as you are with her, and she will go to some lengths to keep your attention. Do not mistake that for love.
The day will come when you have to travel to Israel to finalize your divorce. Whenever this happens, it will be too soon and too late. Brace yourself: Grief is a about to hit you in a whole new way.
You always want to understand; that is why you’ve spent a fortune on therapy over the years, that is why you write. You confuse knowledge with control. You believe that if you unveil the origins of a thing, that thing will not reoccur. You are wrong. This will continue to happen and there’s nothing you can do to escape. That’s why you need to walk away. Walking away is the opposite of escaping; it means you’ve stopped arguing with reality.
The day will come when you have to travel to Israel to finalize your divorce. Whenever this happens, it will be too soon and too late. Brace yourself: Grief is a about to hit you in a whole new way. That’s the thing about this kind of loss, you know — it takes on a new shape every time you do. The trick is to stop filling the new shape with new people. The trick is to be sad.
In the land some consider holy, God and law are mixed. Prepare yourself for rabbinical court. Prepare yourself for a judge who asks if the wife has cheated on the husband. After he asks, wait a beat, then remember that the wife is you. Say: No, I have not. Your husband will say: No, she has not. Do not point out their sexism. Do not educate them about bisexuality or nonmonogamy. Stay still, stay quiet. There is a piece of paper that they have and which you need. You didn’t know that you needed it, you thought you already had your freedom, but now, in this room where the light is gray and the walls smell of sweat, you will look at your husband, and his eyes, which only moments ago were laughing with you in the hall will not be laughing. In this last moment as your husband, your husband will look at you and his face will be a question. Are you sure? The pain of this will be shocking and you will jolt; you will look away. But then something strong inside you will move the back of your neck, shift your eyes back to your husband. Answer his question. Say, Yes, I’m sure. Stand still. Look at him. See the millions of unlived moments, years and years of future. Here you are at your book launch. Here you are in Rome, celebrating 40 years together. Here you are on a park bench, your bodies sloped and old. And here are the children you never had, beautiful and smiling and all grown up. Maybe they have kids of their own now.
Watch your husband as he holds the gett. Walk around the room when the rabbi tells you. Your husband will be told to repeat some words. You can listen if you wish, but you won’t hear. What you’ll hear instead is your own voice, telling you what to do and not to do, your own silly voice, forever trying to avoid this unavoidable pain.
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Shelly Oria is the author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0: Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). Most recently, she co-authored a novella, CLEAN, commissioned by WeTransfer and McSweeney’s, which received two Lovie Awards from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences.
Editor: Sari Botton