He told me he was Special Forces. I thought it was a lie; sounds so sexy, I’m Special Forces. I imagined legions of girls in soaked underwear.
Me, I didn’t care. My daughter was one year old, I moved to Manhattan to a 5th Avenue apartment believing in a Cinderella story, only to find Lelle’s car seat in front of my door one morning with a “Sorry!” note. The prince paid the $12,000 monthly rent to fulfill the lease and told me to keep the 3 carat Harry Winston engagement ring.
After the “Sorry!” note he wrote another, proper letter. It was written with cerulean ink on Smythson ivory stationary. He explained in twelve pages and flawless English that if I was willing to accept him not leaving his wife (the “Sorry!” note mentioned that he was, regrettably, married already with two children), we could “still see each other and preserve the special connection we were blessed with” and he would make sure I was “well taken care of”, including a monthly “allowance” and tuition for my daughter’ private school.
I sent him only one line back, written with a Kinko’s pen on a torn-out sheet from my daughter’s coloring book: “suck my dick.” I admit the part about paying for Lelle’s private school gave my violent hand a momentary pause above I Can Color: My First Unicorn Adventure, but I knew this was one maternal sacrifice I was not willing to make.
What is important to understand here is that my faith in men was seriously shaken by then and a Special Forces soldier didn’t seem any more removed from reality than the VP and Chief Financial Officer of a Fortune 500 Company proposing me after three months because, Francis said, “I love how I don’t have to shave before going to bed with you; you accept me as I am. I will always love you for that.” He even managed to make my failing of self-respect sound like a virtue – no wonder I fell for him.
I met Curtis, the soldier, after a night spent in bed shaking with rage. I tried to come up with a man – just one – who, at the time when I was between the age of twelve and twenty-two and on the cover of a fitness magazine in a bikini with shiny hair down to my waist and the tightest ass in Budapest – also plastered in white lacy lingerie all over the city on a Palmers billboard – had said “no” to me, because he had a wife or because I was too young or because by some miracle he failed to notice the Palmers billboard. Some “no”-s would come of course, later – they would arrive with my daughter and stretch marks and twenty pounds, with my hair falling out from elevated cortisol – but not then, not when I would have needed them. I remembered the lit professor who seduced me with his Kafka speech, walking up and down on the red Persian rug of his apartment impassioned, his arms making grand gestures as if he was a magician; my coach who raped me at fourteen while his toddler son was sleeping in the next room, and who, when I spit in his face, slapped me so hard he broke my nose. His son came out of his bedroom, eyes gluey from sweet sleep, and the coach shoved me into his bathroom as his son dropped his teddy bear at the sight of my blood-smeared face. I was to blame for traumatizing the boy, and besides, why did I show up at his door expecting him to just give me shelter without something in return? “If you had nowhere to go you should have slept on a bench. It’s summer, very nice out. And don’t you dare spit on me again.” He was darkly handsome, only forty-five, the best track and field coach in the country. I should have felt honored.
And I remembered my father – it took some courage, that – laying himself behind me with a hard-on when I was twelve, pretending to read along, as if he had cared about Tolstoy. I tried to move away, but when he felt my body tensing, he locked me into his arms, the muscles on his forearm flexed like a rope, at which point I settled for breathing, grateful – oh, how I hated myself later for that word! – grateful for him giving me an assurance, as I decided to look at it, of his affection.
So, in that mindset, nearly shattering my teeth in an effort to keep myself from crying (self-pity is dangerous for single mothers with babies), I turned to the back of my sleeping daughter and said out loud: give me one reason, just one, why I should not hate men and allow that hate to carry me to the end?
The answer would come one day – years later – after facing some very uncomfortable truths about life (it’s all a matter of luck, there is no God or even reliable causality), and myself (was there any choice I made that was not either a conditioned reaction – suck, sweetheart, suck, you’re such a good girl – , or a choice driven by compensatory, unearned ambition – I’ll go to America and become a famous director and no one will ever hurt me again – both stemming from astonishingly well-dressed, rock-bottom self-esteem?). But that night, the only consolation I got was my daughter turning towards me in her dream and whacking me with her little palm as she hugged my neck. She reached for me, even in her dream, she reached for me blindly, with absolute faith, and her faith was enough. God, and men, could all go and fuck themselves – I had Lelle to keep me alive.
It was a cold rainy day, a cloudy morning. Thin streams of water stained empty sidewalks.
I saw Curtis instantly as I entered the bar. He was sitting at a table by himself with a very straight back, his head bent, staring at a bottle of beer as if it wasn’t a source of imminent pleasure but a long-standing task to complete. Yet he didn’t touch the bottle at all; his hands were laid out on the table, ready to obey. Obey what? I thought. The angle between his neck and chin was such that he reminded me of Greek statues I had seen at the Fine Arts Museum in Budapest when I was eleven and was infatuated with art and the shape of things. But the overall impression he gave wasn’t that of gracefulness; rather, it was that of strength, contained, obstinate, somehow tragic strength that was designed for survival, not to impress. I wanted to bite his neck, a thought I instantly dismissed.
I sat next to him, ordered some water, and listened to the rain on the roof. In the course of the next month, we did that often, listen to the rain together in silence, carry on conversations underlined by silence. His hands on the table were always at a measured distance from the bottle, not too far, not too close, always the same distance. As if he wanted to see if he could resist. Which I was sure he could; he could probably do anything he wanted. How would it feel? To have his hands near my naked body as they were near that beer bottle. Waiting for his touch, waiting for him not to resist. Hoping he wouldn’t be able to resist. I imagined his hands would be slow at first; not hesitant, but slow. He would need to test himself and make certain he could confine those demons inside which I felt were always there, kept in check by will and alcohol.
Sometimes one of his hands moved on the table, a slight tremor, not a traveling of any distance. Had I ever told him how I hated the smell of beer? Hated it more than any other smell I knew, because beer-stink was my mother and lightless Communist bars I had had to visit with her before she threw me out and then died. And I wondered, too, if I could learn to love beer if Curtis needed it just as much as he needed me, and his mouth reeked of it.
The rain on the roof lasted five weeks. Then, one sunny morning, Curtis paid for his beer, stood up, got a taxi, and brought me to his apartment. I followed like a stray cat.
He didn’t touch me for a long time. He undressed and folded his clothes neatly, placing them on a chair. His broad back was leathery and full of scars. Looking at it I became overwhelmed with sadness that was part feeling lost in a foreign country and part being exiled from his past.
I can see still see him now, resting on the bed on his side, head supported by a strong arm, unmovable and mysterious as the ancient rocks I once saw on the Irish seaside. I thought of my mother then, how she always longed to see the ocean and never did.
In Curtis’s face there was such immeasurable sadness that I wanted to look away, only I couldn’t. Strange, how we think we know all about misery until we fall in love with someone who suffered more and look into his eyes. His eyes were hooded and deeply lined, making him look ancient – that word again – older than his forty-five years. They had the color of Lake Balaton in a storm. Not green, not exactly, but despite the greyish tint, the color shimmered like the finest jade. Which reminded me of his present, a roughly cut, exquisite chess board set he brought back from Afghanistan. “I bargained long for this set. I’ve no idea why. I should’ve been sleeping, I hadn’t slept for three fuckin’ nights by then. And I don’t play chess. Here, I hope you’ll like it”, he said with a laugh, embarrassed. And I did like it. The chess board, the gesture, and the fact that it was made more valuable by him bargaining for it under the relentless Afghan sun after three sleepless nights and in a language he didn’t understand. I imagined I could taste his sweat on the pieces if I licked.
We stayed in bed looking at each other for hours, and it seemed even longer than that. I stopped wondering when he was going to touch me after the first thirty minutes. At one point I wondered if he was challenging me to touch him first, but if so, I didn’t take up the challenge.
When he finally raised his hand, it was to caress my face with a motion that was gentle and purposeful. His knuckles were covered with callouses. I didn’t move away; I laid my face into his hand and closed my eyes. I felt myself falling, falling a great, infinite, irrevocable fall, and the experience of letting go was so intense that it was the intensity that frightened me into withdrawing, not the fall.
Curtis watched me curl myself up around my fear without judgment, and his silent understanding made me furious with myself. I felt like a child who had been given a chance to fulfill a dream, only to discover she wasn’t good enough. I desperately wanted to stay; my shame and anger were burning me. But fear was stronger, and I ran out of the apartment in nothing but my panties, clothes clutched tightly in suddenly tiny hands.