* While we’re on the topic of exes…
I remember waking up somewhere unfamiliar. This was before the Villa Papyri Lounge—the morning before that night.
I was on a purple velvet couch in a small cottage. I could see a kitchen beyond the end of the couch. To the right, a bathroom threshold. The house was a specific kind of quiet. I was alone. I was thirsty and my head hurt.
On my way to the sink I noticed a pair of chunky-heeled boots—knee-high, unmistakably femme—along with what I was agonized to realize was my self-help book. Dear God I had brought my self-help book with me to this—wherever I was—somewhere that had a femme in it, or had had one.
The Art of Shprukh-Psikhish, or: The Psychological Mastery of Panic Character, block lettering announced loudly from the counter. This was embarrassing. Whoever I had spent the night with also knew about my self-improvement project.
While I was running my head under the water, the door opened. It was her, my now-ex, and this was the first time I was seeing her. Or, the first time I remembered with any clarity, as the night before was not available to me for reasons of bourbon.
In the backlight from the cracked-open door, her brown hair shone. It was late autumn and it was getting on evening, so it seemed I had slept all day. The sun was setting over the zinnias that wreathed the walkway to the house. The red sky in the threshold lit the capillaries inside my eyes, and I looked out through a scrim of beating vessels.
“Nice to see you up,” she said, coming in and closing the door. I interpreted this as a comment on the terrifying rictus of pain I have been told my expression takes on when I’m asleep. I took it to mean: It is not so nice to see you sleeping.
“I’m up,” I agreed stupidly.
I liked the skeptical way she looked at me. I liked the way the air in the house felt with her in it.
It was obvious from how I was staring that I was attracted to her, and it occurred to me that we must have had a very nice time the night before from how my groin was lighting up and also how she was half-smiling and her body was a little bit melting towards me as she came into the kitchen.
We talked all that day. She argued with almost everything I said. Half the time she would start shaking her head before I had even begun a sentence. Why did this turn me on? Her certainty about my wrongness was married with a certainty about my potential to do better. She had some kind of grasp of the future—a ferocity to make it do what she wanted. You’ll help me plant jasmine along the path in the spring, she said, alarming me equally with her belief that I had ever managed not to kill a plant and with her conviction that we’d know each other beyond just that evening. She unnerved and relaxed me in equal, excruciating measure. She used one particular word that conjured forward a being I had not until that point imagined could ever exist. She called this being—amazingly enough—“us.”
At some point, after we had gone to the Villa Papyri Lounge, and I had eaten an inconsequential chicken cutlet, and she had disabused me of my notion that I was ever going to have children and replaced it with a revolutionary fervor that was equally a fervor to fuck the shit out of her, we went to my place and she sat on my grand-mother’s desk and… you know the rest.
This is a disaster, I said, that next morning after we woke up.
We had been sent by fate or history to undo each other. If we could survive falling in love we would have everything we’d ever wanted, but it wasn’t at all clear either of us could survive this. It is a disaster. She nodded, smiled, and we fucked again. And this time it was the fuck you can never get away from.
I touched her then, and always, with devotion and gusto. I touched her everywhere and anywhere she permitted me to touch, and I did so tirelessly. This means nothing about my stamina, and everything about what she awakened. In that inimitably queer way, we found languages, words to bridge the gulf between our bodies. I described to her what I was doing to her, how I was coming inside her even when—for obvious reasons—I wasn’t exactly, well not in the way that other people mean. Every time I came, it was impossible and miraculously specific; it did not exist outside of her ability to summon it. And it could only be for her. She seemed to appreciate this approach, is all I will say, out of respect for our once-precious privacy. And it was beautiful. Our contact was an animal that came to life when we watered it with language.
Because of this language—this animal of us that exceeded us almost immediately; this animal that was cavorting and splashing at a horizon-line to which I could only aspire to catch up—she didn’t have to be as beautiful as she was. I would have loved her just as much even if she hadn’t been.
Yet she was very, very beautiful. I loved everything about the way she looked, but I loved in particular, and immediately, that little extra right by her belly button area, that extra that suggested she lived comfortably with desire. And her hair. Good god. Let us not speak of her hair. When she was feeling particularly contrary she’d threaten to shave it off, make mention of her younger years as a punk, and she didn’t see why she couldn’t pull off that look again. Which would send me into a cascade of begging her not to.
She wore the appearance of a permanent small sneer that was the result of an upper lip that was beautifully full enough to look as if it was always on the verge of turning up. She wore jeans that were tighter than anything I ever saw on the faculty at the University.
Looking at my ex was like that rare experience of taking a dodgeball hit straight to the gut. Let me just perish in this vacuum of air while looking at this woman, this astonishing beauty, I thought, that first afternoon. And never stopped thinking.
My ex was a professor at a nearby college. A better one than where I taught. She was a scholar of a much more exciting and important field of study than my own, which explained why—until our first night together, following a karaoke party for a mutual friend that I still remember very little of—I had not met her previously. She was something of an autodidact, but it was more than that. She seized things that shouldn’t go together and orchestrated intellectual car crashes with them. She created kaleidoscopic results—a flock of butterflies, a string of Christmas- colored lights floating out of a pile of wreckage—in ways that other people in her field could not do. She was much smarter than I was, and had a greater capacity for concentration. She had infinite patience for learning things; she had a hunger about this—yes, the knowledge itself, but also its eventual ruination. Every bit of knowledge she gleaned was a weapon she would use on another bit of knowledge. I was not inclined to do battle with someone of her eminence, but we were together and so battle was inevitable.
But then to tell you the truth I think I liked the battle a little. She upped my game, let’s say. My ex and I fucked a lot and argued a lot and started marking up each other’s writing a lot and then, because of the latter, fucking a lot some more. And, without getting into too much detail about this part I can barely stand to have lost, I’ll add that she was secretly very sweet, and handled my now-dead bitch of a mother in ways inimitable and frankly soothing. It warmed a cockle of my heart that I didn’t even know I had or needed. Maybe—to recall something I said earlier—she saw me in all my historicity too. Fuck.
Anyway, we were fucking and reading and writing and she was also healing this part of me I can’t discuss, and somewhere in there I forgot about my Shprukh-Psikhish—the book that was supposed to help me with my anxiety situation.
By “situation” I mean that for as long as I can recall, my daily life has been orchestrated almost entirely around the number three. As a martial-arts film buff, I would have preferred a cool wuxia-style motto. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Or, Once a promise leaves the mouth, even four horses cannot capture it again. If only.
Instead, my motto is something like: One two three (silent sound clucked against the back of the throat), three two one; one two three (silent cluck), three two one.
This unit of silent clucking and counting is repeated in sets of three, three times in a row, until whatever it was that gave rise to the need to count—vanity, aspirations towards happiness, presumptions about living to see another day, etc.—is “erased.”
The only thing—and I’m sure you could anticipate this—that made the counting go away was fucking. In an erotic situation, my breath would slow and a tremendous calm and clarity would come over me. I could command things in ways that had seemed just seconds before unimaginable. And I would stop counting.
I think I thought that if I fucked her enough I might be cured of counting for good.
Photograph of Jordy Rosenberg © Beowulf Sheehan.
Excerpted from Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg. Copyright © 2018 by Jordy Rosenberg. Excerpted by permission of One World, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.