Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to email@example.com.)
“Read this,” said the note clipped to a paperback that a friend had mailed me. “You’re the evil girlfriend — and it’s juicy!”
I looked at it in disbelief. The novel by Carl, my ex from 30 years ago. Our romance had blossomed in Chicago, wilted in Europe and India, and dried up and died in Brooklyn. Of all the times for him to pop back up, this was a particularly shitty one: I was going through the menopause from hell, constantly ravaged by volcanic hot flashes, anxiety, and exhaustion. Whenever I looked in the mirror, I saw my elderly mother. My body was giving me enough problems; I was in no mood to have my past rise up against me, too.
I tossed the book into recycling — and an hour later plucked it back out, poured myself a whiskey, and told my husband David I’d be grading student papers in the bedroom. I had to know how Carl had portrayed me.
Within minutes of cracking it open, my eye fell upon a description of a character he’d named Sophie Wagner. “A genuine tight-wrapped blonde mill-foreman’s daughter,” he wrote. “She had an ego that hunted like a tentacle.”
Well. If I was going to be in this dang book, at least that gave me license to pick it apart. I snickered at the skewed grammar — was the foreman blonde, or the daughter? — and rolled my eyes at Carl’s middle-class depiction of my working-class upbringing. And that tentacle thing. The narrator, named Frank, had just met Sophie at a gallery opening, it seemed, and they hadn’t even spoken. How did he know what her ego acted like? I could already see where this was headed: A 64-year-old man turning an insecure 25-year-old woman into an emasculating shrew, her sole goal being to suck his life energy. And this was only page 17.
A few pages later, Frank walks Sophie home after the gallery opening. It’s raining, and Sophie has skin that glows “white and wet like apple meat.”
“’Apple meat’?” I guffawed aloud. “Is that even a thing?” But then my mood shifted — down, fast — at the opening of the next chapter: “I should’ve known the direction this relationship would take when our first date ended up being a visit to St. John of God Church.”
In real life, back in the ’80s, I’d taken Carl to my childhood parish church to see a Virgin Mary statue that supposedly cried real tears. If I remembered correctly, he appreciated the weirdness, and we laughed about it in the days that followed. But now he was using our “date” to build a case against Sophie/me.
Then came a truly unkind cut. Sophie/Sharon isn’t a writer, but Carl/Frank digs into her literary aspirations: She’s a “pale, lost thing wandering the wide world, a victim of Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Patti Smith.”
I slammed the book shut.
I’d first laid eyes on Carl was I was 19, at a poetry reading he gave in Chicago in 1980. He’d shambled furtively up to the microphone like he’d robbed a liquor store, stolen a car, and driven all night to make the reading. His edgy verses about treacherous affairs in sleazy hotels in foreign countries convinced me he was a real writer, way more committed and inspiring than my college peers.
Afterward, a crowd of fans gathered around him. I wanted to talk to him, but was intimidated. He was older and more mature — at least 25. What if he laughed at me? I left without saying so much as hello.
Five years later, at another reading, I finally approached him. This time, I came prepared with poems to show, about lovers I’d never left in exotic places I’d never visited.
“Who’s your favorite author?” I asked him, emboldened by beer.
“I guess Lautréamont,” he mumbled.
“Maldoror is great,” I slurred. “I have a crush on you.”
We ended up at his apartment: One narrow room with sheets tacked over the windows, a sleeping back in place of the sheets, a corroded hot plate in the “kitchen,” and manuscript pages carpeting the floor. The place smelled like dirty soup and the El roared by outside.
It was perfect.
I could tell that loving him would be an exile from comfort. But I was okay with trading comfort for experience, knowledge.
I showed him the poems. He shrugged and said they were good.
“We’re like Patti Smith and Sam Shepard,” I drunkenly enthused. I figured he wasn’t paying attention.
That was my second mistake.
A knock on the door ended my reminiscing. David poked his head in.
“Want some dinner?” he asked. Then he spied the book. “I thought you were grading papers.”
“I’m actually reading a novel by Carl,” I confessed. “Guess what? I’m the evil girlfriend.”
He laughed. “I want to read it, too,” he said. As he closed the door, he added, “Supper’ll be ready whenever you are.”
I wasn’t ready just yet. I opened the book again, and picked the story back up when Carl/Frank and Sophie/Sharon take off for India. I knew this would be an exegesis of our three horrible months there, and I braced myself as his version of me crossed the subcontinent.
Earlier, Sophie/Sharon had been a ghostly presence, more idea than woman. In India, though, she comes into her own, and Carl/Frank’s criticisms now sounded like compliments: “She had a liquid wit, often witheringly acidic. Men were hopelessly attracted.” Sophie/Sharon mocked fake holy men, argued Gnostic philosophy on the banks of the Ganges with druggie Western ex-pats, and deftly debated any topic, even ones she knew nothing about, until her flummoxed opponents gave up.
“What fascinated me most was her mind,” Carl/Frank observed. “It could traverse whole fields of ideas.”
Suddenly, like a “Magic Eye” picture, Sophie/Sharon’s image shifted. She was sharp, charismatic, magnetic, the bad-ass I wished I’d been. Or, maybe, the one I had been. Everything from earlier in the novel was forgiven, I decided; I loved her.
But the pride I felt at seeing myself reflected in this woman was also tinged with a little sadness. Obviously, Sophie/Sharon had been important to Carl/Frank — his muse, even. Why was she always so mean? And Carl — he hadn’t been so bad. Why did I dump him?
Then I remembered: He dumped me.
How had I forgotten? After India we schlepped around Chicago, then moved to Brooklyn, when I started grad school. A year later, he went to L.A. for a week to “do some readings,” then broke up with me right after he got back. He said the relationship wasn’t working for him anymore. Oh, and he’d hooked up with someone in California.
The day he moved out, I cried myself nauseous while rampaging through the apartment. Finally, I collapsed on the couch, exhausted by anger. I vowed that rather than be consumed by rage, I’d move on to spite him. Wasn’t living well the best revenge?
After a year of fitful dating following the breakup, I went to a Gertrude Stein play a friend was directing. At a party afterward, the tall, handsome set designer, named David, introduced himself. He was an aspiring cartoonist and I felt confident confessing that I loved Betty Boop. I’d never told Carl that — it wasn’t cerebral enough.
“There’s a Betty Boop marathon next — ” David started to say.
“Let’s go!” I blurted.
On our first date, David treated me to lunch, asked about my life, and made me laugh. For our second date, he made dinner at his place. He cooked like a chef and had nice-smelling sheets on the bed instead of the windows. This time, being in love wasn’t an exile from comfort. He moved in with me two years later. We got married in 2003.
When I was finally done, I closed the book, went out to the kitchen, and handed it to David. It made sense that he should read it.
The next night, when he walked in after work, I was sitting on the bed doing breathing exercises to ease my hot flashes, feeling very un-Sophie — like in real life, the Sharon of yore had scaled slippery ravines in second-hand Keds while trekking in the Himalayas.
“So?” I asked. “Did you read it?”
“Carl must’ve been totally intimidated,” David said, laughing.
“Maybe,” I shrugged. “But I’m a different person now.”
He sat down next to me on the bed.
“Oh, you’re still that girl,” he said.
I smiled. Had Carl inadvertently gifted her back to me, right when I felt like I needed her most?
“You’re the best thing about that story,” he added.
I put my arms around him and kissed his neck.