An Oral History of Love in Contemporary America: Selections from Us #1

By

Brigitte Aiton, Age 44
New York, New York

“How do you deal with the fact that the person you’re with might hate you?”

It was the first summer we were together. We were twenty-three years old. I felt like I met the most amazing person and the path of my life was completely changing, going in some completely uncharted direction. Everything was this amazing adventure. Everything became creative and fun. We could go off and do things in a way that would defy convention and defy the things that make life tedious and difficult.

Once we started dating, we were inseparable. We probably spent every night together. It felt really comfortable to be with each other—incredibly comfortable. We were like two peas in a pod. From the beginning. Very calm, very comfortable. It was
really nice. You know that sense of being invincible and insular? I remember walking through the East Village, holding hands, and we’d stop at every corner where we hit a light and kiss. The rest of the world didn’t matter; there was this new life that I was stepping into.

We had the same childish sense of fun. We really enjoyed the same kind of silly things. Like, “Oh, let’s go drop acid and go to Coney Island and go on the roller coaster over and over and over.” (laughs) It was just that kind of really silly feeling—totally lost in the moment, totally protected by your own bubble of happiness.

I don’t think I was ever that happy with anybody else.

He was so talented. It was a given that he would be successful. I really admired that he seemed so willing to be different from other people, to take the contrary point of view, to be very confrontational with the world, and yet be incredibly sweet and kind to me. He was able to talk baby talk in this sort of shamelessly unadulterated way.

And really, what sort of happened was that at a certain point (laughs) I didn’t want to keep dropping acid and going on roller coasters. The good times and the things that were interesting in the beginning… I grew up a little. And he continued using drugs continuously and constantly. The bong was the first thing to hit his lips in the morning and the last thing at night. Quite a few times during the day, he would duck outside to get stoned. He was high continuously.

Sex was a problem from the beginning. Because he was a pothead, his interest was much lower than mine. If I didn’t push the issue, he could easily have gone a month without sex. When we did it, it was great, but in general, he wasn’t that interested. Also, looking back, he definitely had a porn addiction that got worse over time. Me being naked wasn’t necessarily a turn- on for him. There was a lot of aesthetics that had to accompany it.

I think that he had this kind of adolescent vision of himself in the world. I’ve never met anyone who wanted to be famous as much as him. He had this idea of himself, sort of, “I am somehow this person of enormous insight that will inform the world of something.” If you have no desire to become famous, it’s a weird thing to be around.

He had this band that he rehearsed with four nights a week and Fridays and Saturdays. And it meant that we didn’t have that much time together. When we did, it was really fun. But he just wasn’t around.

Rehearsing so much would have been fine if the band had improved. But they were a shitty band. Basically they centered on smoking pot and thinking they were sort of brilliant. You know, when you smoke a lot of pot, you’re like, “Oh, this ninety- minute jam is really interesting!” (laughs) It’s just not!

It was excruciating at times to watch him do things that were completely misguided, to watch somebody just slowly messing up. And there’s nothing you can say to them—because they know better.

I was always very encouraging when I thought things were good and had promise. But when things weren’t, I would be honest, which he couldn’t take. He felt that as his partner, my support should be unconditional. I mean, children get unconditional
love and unconditional support. I don’t think adults in their thirties still get that.

In large part, I didn’t agree with his aesthetic. He was very aggressive toward the audience in ways that just weren’t productive. It’s hard being with someone who’s performing and what they’re doing is so antagonistic and confrontational and unpleasant. His band would start out with a room of thirty people, then end up with three. “Didn’t you notice that people were, like, leaving?” I said this as tactfully as I could, and his interpretation was that I was mocking his entire artistic career.

It goes back to being a heavy drug user from his teens and having parents who just adored him and let him do anything he wanted and were always like, “You’re brilliant and wonderful.” I found it very annoying because he had such a childhood of privilege. His grandparents were self- made millionaires.

The worst thing that ever happened to him was when his father had a job transfer and they moved to another city. And meanwhile, I was like, you know, my father was killed violently when I was a kid, and our whole family was disrupted. My mother struggled raising four kids by herself and I had all these orthopedic devices. So I wasn’t that sympathetic to him on some levels. He had all the resources to do so much more in the world, for other people, for himself.

The world got really small, like in terms of things that we could do. He wasn’t one of those people who would make small talk—he would have absolutely no interest and was completely unapologetic about never asking anybody how they were. And I can’t tell you the number of plays we went to that we left during the intermission because he didn’t like them. He had such contempt at a certain point for so much stuff. And he was so unhappy about how unrealized he was in his life.

I was trying to be loving and accepting. When I met him, I thought he was an exceptional person, and even in the later stages, I felt the essence of somebody who had exceptional promise and capability, that I knew was really kind and really fragile and really insecure. And so, you know, there was part of me that was very protective because… I loved him.

I resigned myself to the idea that if I left, he would be in terrible, terrible shape. I resigned myself to the fact that life was getting smaller and smaller, because everything was governed by his depression and complete disdain of things.

***

I think a couple of factors allowed me to remain in a situation that was progressively getting worse. The household where I grew up was pretty erratic and volatile, and you just get used to constantly figuring out how you can adapt and fix things. I think I spent a long time with Andrew just trying to fix things, not necessarily noticing how badly things were going.

I remember, a friend of ours, he was like, “Brigitte, the guy’s jealous of you.” I was like, “What are you talking about? That’s not possible.” I couldn’t accept it. And I started to run through these memories of me talking and him looking at me with, like, total contempt, and I could clearly see him thinking, “Shut the fuck up,” you know, and realized, “Oh, my God. It’s true.” I think he really did resent me on a lot of levels.

At one point, this guy I was designing an album cover with, he got a crush on me. He told me I was just wonderful, the sun, the moon, the earth. All these things that I hadn’t heard for a really long time. It made me realize how unhappy and how lonely I had been. I’d felt like a pair of old shoes. Your classic starving person who suddenly finds an oasis. I told him, “I can’t do this. I’m married. I’m trying to figure this out.” I didn’t even like him that much. But it was so amazing to have somebody be like, “You’re interesting and sexy and you’re beautiful.”

I moved out, to my sister’s apartment. I told Andrew that we had to get to couples counseling. And I made Andrew pick the counselor. We went for about two months. You know, it seemed wrong to have the relationship end without trying. But our therapist was really annoying. And I think that that sort of brought Andrew and I together against her.

We got back together.

I was still completely committed. But I think some of us are just loyal in a way that’s sick. You know? How do you deal with the fact that the person you’re with might hate you? (laughs) It’s really hard to look at. You start qualifying it in these ways, like, “Yes, I’m kind of annoying.”

I thought, “This is what I accepted. This is the situation, and I’m in this for the long haul.” I was very happy with my work and my friends and so I think it was more of this resignation: This is what it is and I will keep working to try and make things better. I think it’s really cliché, the whole living a life of quiet desperation thing, but I think that’s really true for a lot of people. But what are you going to do? You just keep moving forward.

I think it’s also an aspect beyond love: You’ve shared this history with them that they alone know. You don’t want to just get rid of it, if that makes sense. Also, I just didn’t want to be seen as the bad guy with his family.

***

The fall of 2000, that’s when things started to get really bad. We went on a trip to Las Vegas for my thirty- sixth birthday. I had arranged it. And within thirty minutes of our arrival, I got super sick and was, like, throwing up every thirty minutes for twenty-four hours. He got the same thing, twelve hours after me, so obviously we got something on the airplane. The weekend was terrible. We had tickets to see Penn & Teller and we didn’t go. It was basically three days of continuous vomiting and diarrhea.

Months later I was watching Bravo and they had one of these Cribs- like shows on about this house of Penn’s that he designed called the Slammer that’s built to look like a penitentiary. So I said to Andrew, “Why don’t you come watch it?” And he was
like, “I can’t. I’m really upset. I really needed that vacation.” It was all about what an incredible loss he suffered, you know, from not having this relaxing trip.

He wasn’t blaming it on me, but it was just like he had suffered this incredible loss—worse than I had. He just saw himself so deeply as the center of things.

And this is where life gets really complicated, because you can be like, “This person is completely self- involved—oh, but they make me a cup of coffee every morning even though they don’t drink it.” Probably up until, like, a week before we broke up, he did this. No one is just so completely bad all of the time. If they were, then you’d be an absolute idiot to stay with them, right?

He was coming home from work really late. I had a feeling he was having an affair with his assistant, Courtney. I asked him about it and he said no.

Once I found them sitting on a park bench near the house. She had just found her natural father and I remember thinking, “I’m sure the newness of her natural father is so much more interesting than twelve years of hearing about my dead father.” I just knew that something was happening between them.

It was October 11, a month after September 11. He confessed that he’d been going to therapy for the last several months and hadn’t told me about it.

And then he said he was unclear whether or not he should have ever been married to me.

I felt like I had just been hit by a bus. I was like, what just happened? (laughs)

The next day he was so hostile that I had to leave. I walked out to Ground Zero. I had to go somewhere that was worse than my own house. I had to go experience somewhere else’s badness. (laughs)

When I came home he had taken down all the pictures of us. The walls were full of empty picture hooks. I said, “Do you not love me anymore?” And he said, “I don’t think that I ever loved you enough to do any of this.”

He told me he decided in therapy that he should end the marriage.

And I was like, “Your therapist feels it’s okay to end a twelve- year relationship without having any kind of deeper conversation?

And he said, “Yes.”

I said, “Does your therapist know how much pot you smoke?”

And he said, “No, we haven’t gotten to that yet.”

So I realized he had been lying to his therapist completely. And he still insisted that there wasn’t anybody else, even though two years later, one of his assistant’s friends confirmed for me that he’d left me for her.

He refused to see me in person. He said he felt too badly to see me. He sent me some really, really mean e- mails about how he never should have married me, and how this was the reason why he wasn’t artistic, and he had sacrificed his dreams.

I never saw him again.

We got divorced entirely through e- mail.

***

There’s all this space in your brain that’s filled with information about this other person. You know, like what they like to eat, and just their little habits. And then all that information is totally useless.

I remember the first time I went to the drugstore and didn’t have to pick up his products. I’m in the Rite Aid, crying because I’m not picking up Tucks Medicated Pads for Andrew’s hemorrhoids. And I’m like, “I’m crying over this?” (laughs)

***

Excerpted from US: Americans Talk About Love edited by John Bowe, published in February by Faber & Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2010 by John Bowe. All rights reserved. Click here to purchase.


John Bowe has contributed to the New Yorker, the New York Times Sunday Magazine, GQ, The American Prospect, PRI’s This American Life, and McSweeney’s. He was co-editor of Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs, the co-screenwriter of the film Basquiat, and the author of the book Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. More from this author →