I remember saying to the Monster when I found the cottage:
We can walk to the Chateau.
A few weeks before my birthday we walk to the Chateau Marmont. He notes the lack of sidewalks, the suicidal traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. I don’t know how to be myself anymore: whether to enjoy him while I have him, to meet his frenzy for me with nonchalance, or to scream at him to respect me, a respect I’m afraid I can only earn by never seeing him again.
I keep my eyes down as the maître d’ seats us and recall another night, when he and the servers were background extras in the great romance of my life. The Monster shook his hand, introduced us. We invited him into the conversation. That thrilled me, the public proof of us as an us, even if our public was always strangers. That night I had offered the maître d’ a taste from our bottle of wine. Tonight, I realize he doesn’t recognize us, even as I try to order the same bottle. My wine knowledge annoys the Monster. He believes it all tastes the same, sometimes orders Malbec to annoy me. Tonight, I know there is something vulgar about how careless he is with pleasure. So certain that someone else will pay attention for him.
The food isn’t good, besides the French fries. The food’s never been good, he says.
I don’t know. I see, in the distance, my heartbreak blinking, promising a prompt arrival. I remember it being good.
We stayed at the Chateau early in the affair, when I was still living in New York. I flew in. I told none of my West Coast friends, or my aunt, that I was coming. Drifting into the city of my birth anonymously elated me and if I’m honest, that’s when it started, the splinter of a thought: I could live here again.
That time we didn’t sleep. You’re a miracle, he said when he touched me. We couldn’t breathe calmly. We touched each other and lost hours. Can you believe it? Is this real? Omelets came to the door. He loved to feed me wet foods—eggs, salads, fruit—with his fingers. We laughed at the idea of sitting on opposite ends of the couch from each other, of being able to watch television in each other’s presence. This isn’t real.
Touching lips, Is this real?
We said, We’ll take this slowly. I wanted to be careful. I was always urging him to rethink things, trying to protect him. My biggest fear, in those days, was that he would leave his marriage impulsively before we knew if this was solid. Then I’d disappoint him. We would become real: I’d nag him about how he washed dishes, or I’d be too tired for sex, or we’d be buying toilet paper together and I’d look at him to discuss what ply paper to buy and he’d be checked out. Worse, I worried that I’d leave him like I did everyone else. I said, We should wait.
Tonight, we eat at the discreet tables at the edge of the dining room, invisible. There is a lot of sighing.
We are still waiting. We are junkies who can’t increase our dose. Every meeting we’re trying to reclaim that brief minute we believed love weighed more than timing, geography, or the limits of each other’s character. The same sharp intervals of time, the same inane text messaging, the same replaying and rewriting what we’ve done, regurgitating excuses for how much pain we’ve caused, then, the same someday, soon maybe. I have never wanted to die more consistently than when I sat through evenings like this, loving him down to his eyelashes and teeth, bludgeoned by that love, while knowing we were rotten.
It is not our playacting a couple to strangers, but in our silence that we can prove any of this was real. That it wasn’t lust, or boredom, or pure self-destructiveness, but something spiritual that hushed all other noise. For a moment at least. When the other dies—I pray it’s decades from now—will we hold our breath, maybe sigh a remorseful sigh, then rage at someone else who loves us? Will I delete all the unsent letters, accept that I was always talking to no one? Which visit to the Chateau will come back to me?
Sometimes I think, if I had to do this again, I would go to his house after our walk on the Golden Gate Bridge and stand in his doorway while he grabbed one change of clothes. I would take his hand and say, We are going. Now.
Touching the nape of my neck, the ridges of my ears, which he notices have perforated edges, Can you believe it?
Weeks later he comes back. He wanted to be with me at midnight. The first person to wish me a happy birthday. This doesn’t land on me as “loving.” On this night I single-mindedly resent the space the Monster takes up in my life. He’s become a colonizer, someone who declares ownership without concrete investment in the country. He’s defined the language, laws, borders. Those borders make the shape of his absence.
I know it’s the last time we will ever have sex. He doesn’t believe that, but this is—mercifully—one thing he isn’t in charge of. It’s over.
I don’t care, anymore, about the flight he took. The hints, promise-like, but loose enough to slip out of. The false flags of progress he plants as we loop through Fryman Canyon, saccharine light on cattails, another fucking sunset. We sit for a bit on a rock and he is calm, he has everything under control, while I am far away, voiceless, small, but protected from him. This is it, I keep thinking. He carries me part of the way on his back, sweat slicking the front of me. I lick it off his neck. We sit in my garden. The Love Interest has installed a fountain, but the Monster doesn’t ask where the fountain came from, maybe he doesn’t even notice how it obscures the noise of traffic, and we watch the hummingbirds. He looks around when the hills glow and says that he’s proud of me. For what, exactly?
Last night the sex was wilder than normal. That was my fault. We’ve turned out to be pitilessly cerebral in bed. Neither of us would call it “fun.” No one laughs, there is no sunshine or indolence. Our bodies ask questions of each other, we tunnel into strange white spaces, time pauses. Once we finish, we’re disappointed that we failed to come up with an answer. That rainy afternoon in Brooklyn, when he hoped he would get snowed in but the rain never solidified, he said, I don’t know what I’m trying to get out of you, but fucking is a poor way to achieve it.
Will you stay? I ask.
He is quiet while thinking about it. Nobody would miss him if he slept over, but I know he’s going to say that his coworkers will know if he doesn’t come back to the hotel, they’ll know and mention something to their wives about how he missed breakfast and their wives will say something to his wife at the next holiday party or whatever simulacrum of bonding his people do, and so he has to be careful. In the next second, he says that almost exactly.
How many times have I told him it was over? A hundred? Told him that I hated him? That he was a coward? A solid handful. Most recently I told him if he contacted me again I would destroy his life. Send the texting transcripts, the hundreds of letters, the pornographic photos, to everyone. The fact that he continued to contact me shows—not that he’s fearless—but how little my words mean to him.
I have the urge to tell him that it is real this time. That barging into Los Angeles with gifts and flowers to “celebrate” my birthday and then making me sleep alone is—really, honestly, truly—the death blow to us. But I say nothing about that. He wonders at the fact that I have no curtains.
Aren’t you afraid?
I turn to him. Please. I am begging you to stay.
He doesn’t. I sleep like I have a fever, my skin at first itching, then too raw for the sheets. My earlobes are hot and swollen, I can’t bear my head on the pillow. When I scratch my thighs, the hair follicles throb.
In the morning I wake up and sit in front of the mirror we fucked in front of eight hours earlier. It comes as no surprise that I see the Monster in the reflection. It was always me.
Excerpted from STRAY: A Memoir by Stephanie Danler. Published May 19, 2020 by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Stephanie Danler.
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