You’ll Do That, But Not With Me
by Eleanor Kriseman
I meet him in the winter of my twenty-second year and fall in love with him that summer. He is married, and the same age as my father, younger by two months. “You should kiss me,” I say, and he does. Were it always that simple to be so bold.
In a hotel bar across from Central Park, he pays for my glass of wine. The stools are tall and my feet dangle, unable to reach the ground. Later, in the park, we hold hands and ignore the mosquitoes hovering around our ankles. He buys me an ice cream cone from a street vendor for my subway ride home.
At the Museum of Natural History, in the dark of the Hall of Ocean Life, he presses me against the glass of the sea lion diorama and kisses me hard. Later in the café, he says that we should probably discuss the inevitable. I do not want to discuss the inevitable. He talks about the color of my eyes instead. By the bike rack, he calls me ‘love’ and runs his finger down my neck, drawing a line all the way to my stomach. It feels as if a feather has grazed me, or maybe a knife.
He picks me up at South Station and we drive back to the city together. The rain blurs the windshield but he still steers with one hand, the other resting on my thigh. “What if I just kept driving west?” he asks. I say, “Okay,” and mean it, but perhaps he does not take me seriously because of how quietly I say it. He drops me off on 125th and St. Nicholas Boulevard by the train.
The sensible, responsible part of me is glad I made it to work on time, but a small part of my heart wonders how far west we would have gone.
A friend of mine says she is dating an older man. “How old?” I ask, more caustically than I mean to. “Thirty-five? Thirty-five is old to you?” I calculate age differences obsessively, searching for couples whose gap eclipses ours. After seeing Funny Face at Film Forum, I look up Fred Astaire’s birthday, then Audrey’s. Thirty years. Not enough. I keep searching.
I accompany him to La Guardia to pick up a rental car. We wait for the M60 at 125th. Everyone around us is carrying bags and lugging suitcases. We turn to each other and say in unison, “I wish we were going somewhere.” The symbolism in this is not lost on either of us. In the Budget parking lot, we watch the sunset from inside the rental car. “You should be dating someone your own age,” he says. “I don’t want you to. But there’s no future for you with me.” He drives me back to 96th and drops me off in front of the train. When he returns, he brings me shells and sea glass.
“I love you so much,” he says. “I don’t want to.”
“Does your mother know?” the woman sitting across from the two of us at the bar asks. I’m wearing black silk, cut low. I’ve straightened my hair and put on mascara, and my bangs are long. I think I look like Penelope Tree, at least a little bit. Later, this illusion will be shattered when I look in the bathroom mirror. “No,” I say, and feel stupid. I cannot even lie to a stranger.
There is the night we spend in a windowless motel room two miles from his brother’s hospital room, and how, sensing his sadness and knowing I cannot fix it and how far away from him that makes me feel, I whisper Come inside me and if it had been any other night he’d never have been that careless but instead he kisses me harder and grips me so tightly that little purple bruises speckle my arms for the rest of the week.
He says, “Part of me hoped you were pregnant.”
He says, “We shouldn’t talk about this over gchat.”
He has to drive north. I have to work in the early afternoon. We compromise, and spend two hours in his car together, get coffee at a diner off the interstate. Then I am at the train station in Greenwich, Connecticut, waiting for the 10:39am MetroNorth to Grand Central, learning how many worlds you can fit into a morning.
He says, “When I was in New Jersey yesterday, I visualized us living in every house I saw. Victorian, weird, framed, with gardens, curtains, strollers, peeling paint, or nice porches – every one of them with you and me in there.” When I don’t respond, he adds, “You’ll do that, but not with me.”
A dream: his wife invites me to their apartment for dinner. She says it’s the least I can do, after everything. I accept, and when I arrive she tells me he’s not home yet. She gives me a cup of tea, and while it cools in my hands she lists all of my imperfections and flaws one after another. I run out just as he arrives, and he stands on the stairs calling out to me, “There’s nothing I can do,” until his wife pulls him inside.
Joy Williams called the act of crying “the stillness in her house as it flowed into her eyes” but sometimes it feels like the opposite of stillness—something straining at the gate to be let free. Like at the diner, when he says, “I don’t think you listen to me sometimes.” There, it feels very much like the opposite of stillness.
“Some of the best coffee in the world comes from Indonesia,” he says, “but they only had packets of Nescafe when I was there.”
“When were you in Indonesia?” I say.
“In 2000, I think,” he says. “You were ten.”
We both want it to be funny, but it is like pressing on a bruise.
My little brother died at one, he tells me in a text message. I never met his brother. He knew for years that he would outlive his brother. I will almost certainly outlive him by years, maybe decades. We will almost certainly not know each other anymore.
His parents are both long gone. He has no other siblings. Sixteen years ago, his infant son died in the hospital a month after his birth. He told me once that he thinks about him every day. He hasn’t spoken of him since.
I wish I could absorb some of his sadness. Sometimes I think sex can conquer his sadness. To be more accurate sometimes I think my youth can conquer his sadness, but I only think that while we are having sex. I am aware of how my body looks to him, what it stands for.
His wife thinks he’s with his writing group. Instead he comes to my apartment. It’s been a month since we’ve seen each other last. “You’ve lost weight,” he says. I want to say, “I know,” but instead I say, “You think so?” He runs his fingers over my ribs. “Be careful,” he says. I know what he means. He knows I know. We make up for lost time. It isn’t enough. It will never be enough. He showers, rinsing off any trace of me, and I run a lint roller over his jacket to remove any long blonde hairs that might give him away.
It is not enough to tell you… I write. You cannot know how much… I write. I tell him how I feel by saying I cannot say it.
My psychiatrist asks me if it is hard for me to be with someone who is so unavailable. I tell him that from the beginning, I’d said to myself that if the sadness ever outweighed the happiness then I’d stop. He seems somewhat satisfied with that answer, but he keeps asking questions. Does it bother you that you will never have a conventional future, or any type of future, with this man? How long do you want to be emotionally invested in a relationship like this one? Do you want to have children? They are all valid questions. All of them are hard for me to answer, except the one about children—yes, I say, I definitely want children.
I meet him for an hour at a café in the West Village. It’s drizzling and the café is loud and cramped and neither one of us is hungry or thirsty but we order anyway. The man at the table next to us is alone, and thumbing through Grindr on his phone, restless.
He will never leave his wife. He will never leave his children, or even spend time with me when there is a possibility of spending time with them instead. I knew this from the beginning.
How do you end something because it’s not enough? How do you say, “I can’t see you anymore, because I need to see you so much more”? How do you give up something truly wonderful because you know you’ll never get enough of it, you will never be satisfied?
We leave the café and try to find a somewhat private place to kiss goodbye. We end up on a stretch of Waverly Place, where it briefly splits into two Waverly Places, heading in different directions before one of them dead-ends. Underneath scaffolding, I weep into his scarf. Then we walk in opposite directions to our separate trains, looking back at each other every so often until we cannot see each other anymore.
He says, in an email sent at 4:30 am, “I absolutely understand and believe how corrosive what you’ve been feeling must be. I promise, if we can spend a few hours together this weekend, that I will not ask for an extension.” He comes over on a Sunday and we have a day of lasts. A farewell tour. “Can I just take a picture of you?” he says, while the light drains from the sky outside my window. “Just the curve of your shoulder. From my perspective. That’s what I want to remember.”
We say goodbye for the last time in the doorway of my apartment building. “So you’re sure about this,” he says. I nod. He ducks his head, and walks down the stairs and into the night.
In the bathtub later that evening, I start reading By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, by Elizabeth Smart. (Not that Elizabeth Smart.) This one was a Canadian secretary, born in 1913, who fell in love with a poet (George Barker) after she happened upon a collection of his poems in a bookstore in London. She began a correspondence with him, and eventually ended up bearing him four children, and having an eighteen-year-long affair with him that consumed her for the rest of her life. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is a thin novel, more of a prose poem, really, loosely based on their relationship. He promised to leave his wife for her, repeatedly. Who knows if she ever stopped believing him?
She died alone, of a heart attack, at seventy-two.
‘But if you do me the wrong of thinking I am beautiful,’ she writes, ‘that I have a million rescuers from despair, and therefore I can take calamity better than anyone else, remember, truly, it is only you who bestow even these gifts upon me.’
A dream: I am backstage at a show in a grand auditorium, working as a stagehand. His wife’s sister comes up to me, pulls me to a secluded spot deep in the wings where it is dark. Her sister, his wife, has sent her to meet me. The sister tells me that I am too young to know what I am doing. She is kind. She says she understands what it feels like to be in love like that, but that I will ruin her sister’s family. “My sister wanted to know what you were like but didn’t think she could face you herself,” she says. “Well, I’ll let you get back to work.” She hugs me and leaves.
These are the memories that stick—his brother’s apartment, early fall, wedged onto the fire escape, the sky a blue so bright and clear it was almost painful. His elbows on the bar, infinitely multiplied in the mirrors. His face across the table, watching me clutch my coffee mug as if it were a talisman that could keep me safe.
Eleanor Kriseman is a Florida native who now lives in Brooklyn and works as an editorial assistant. Before that, she worked for years as a bookseller at an independent bookstore, where she met a lot of really great dogs and humans. She has been published in West 10th, NYU’s undergraduate literary magazine, and has work forthcoming in both the Journal of Microliterature and Bennington’s online journal Plain China.