Be Like the Woman

By

Step 1. Be like the baby. Make the bottle. Clean the bottle. Wipe the mouth. Wipe the butt. Put on a new diaper. Throw out the wipes. Tickle the baby. Hug the baby. Wash the baby. I do the park things. The swing things. The mommy-baby time things. I hold the baby when he cries. We sleep with the baby. I am still married. He pees in our bed. He cries on me. He screams in my ear. He hugs me. He laughs and talks to worms. He wails when I go away. He has a tantrum. I’m supposed to sit with him on the stairs. He kicks me. I set the timer again. I spend so much of my weekends with him. In this time-out. In the tantrum parade. And then he starts to hold it inside. But not always.

He grieves for his mom in China, a stranger to us all. He was left at an orphanage at less than three weeks old. Now he is too old to think blowing kisses will reach her.

He is thirteen the summer of 2017. Skinny dirt teen baby climbing roofs for kicks. He makes me laugh, but sometimes he yells. Don’t make me do chores now. I said I will. Why are you so mean? And sometimes I yell at him. You have to come home right now! It’s 2 a.m.! And he gets mad. But we were about to meet up with girls! Then we apologize. We have no one else here in Portland, Oregon. His dad left us.

Last week the teen baby stays in his bed for forty-eight hours. Is he ill, or is he ill like his absent dad, who’s living in China? Does he have that mental illness that pins a person to synthetic fibers and the buoyancy of a factory product?

I know I am not well. My friend says “unwell” means dope sick, in her old days, but unwell for me is biting my t-shirt all day. I don’t put laundry away or care that the tulips I’d planted are coming up. (I care a little, but it means I should weed, which means I should fix up the house to sell… I really can’t afford it now, can I? After the divorce?) I take the dishes upstairs to feed the teen baby in his room, and he sets the plates outside the door when he’s done. I take the dishes to the kitchen and notice all the ants.

The ill man, the very ill man, my former husband, had stayed on the couch for a year and a half after telling me he was in love with another student artist. He became top-ranked nationally in the phone game Bejeweled. He would not move out. He didn’t love me anymore, we didn’t even like each other, but he was enraged when I filed for divorce the summer of 2016. He threw his Converse sneaker against the wall. He yelled, I was trying!

The divorce news crushed the teen baby. He texted me from a room away: You murdered me in my brain. He threw mementos into my bedroom that represented our family, and some, like a hard blue hippo, were aimed at my head. The dad hid in the basement. How is it to tell an adopted child that his family is breaking up? It destroys a big chunk of precious. The teen baby with the dark brown eyes. The teen baby with the stinky feet whose back I itched every night until he started eighth grade. In sleep his face turns back to the baby who slept hot in our bed, who wiped his snot on me, who craved his dad to read to him, to hoist him on his shoulders, to be the kind man.

During the divorce parade of 2016, when the attorneys and even the State of Oregon got intimately involved with the dissolution of our family and our financial disasters, the ill man left me and his son, the teen baby. After Trump’s election, he flew away. I’d begged him to not abandon me. I washed his dirty laundry and packed his empty prescription bottles in boxes with the rest of our half a lifetime together. He left for a minimum wage job: teaching art to children in China.

In the summer of 2017 the ill man visits from China for two weeks: one week with his family in California, who used to be my family, and one week here in Portland, where he does the ill man things, in the home that is not his home anymore. He plays guitar on the couch. He pets the cat but does not go with me to the vet when the cat gets injured in a fight and needs medicine. He does not smile when he opens the door for me, bearing lattes. His lips are tight and dry. He returns to the couch and watches Game of Thrones. I write a note and put it on the fridge: How are you feeling? What can I do to help?

I get sick when the ill man is in my home. I can’t hear. The ill man and the teen baby refuse to leave the house, so I do. At community acupuncture I lie flat on a sheet in an air-conditioned room. The woman is Caucasian and she has a kind voice. She takes my Chinese pulse and finds my Chinese nerves. She asks, Is your stress high? I say yes, and I shake the white bed with the shivering needles.

This is like.

And this is like.

And this is all like. The cloud is going around me.

I am not completely well.

I fake it for my son.

The teen baby looks on Craigslist for jobs for his dad. He looks for modern apartments close to our home, so he can skateboard between us.

The ill man hasn’t worked in our city for ten years. I tell the teen baby, It’s not your responsibility to find a job for your dad. No one likes being told what to do.

He says, Dad can’t divorce me.

Summer of 2017. I see Nick Cave writhing.

His pointed toes by the lip of the stage.

I am high on tequila and pot and beer.

He shakes my hand once. I caress his leg twice.

We give ourselves over in ecstasy in the form of a dancing monster alien.

He doesn’t seem all the way human.

His son fell off a cliff by the sea and the gate by the beach was locked. It was an accident.

The ambulance drivers couldn’t reach him.

The watery depth of blue, the blue that will break your back and kill you. The ill man, my ex, it soothes him to fantasize the jump—he won’t say where. That is the blue.

In December of 2017, I reconnect with a man across the country. He is in an open marriage and does not want to be in a relationship with me. He will never love me, but he desires me. He’s been pursuing me online for weeks. We first met at eighteen in 1983 in music classes. We are crushed. For now. He stirred cereal in the UC-Berkeley dorm cafeteria. He had a combed-over mohawk, this tall, handsome, brown-eyed teen. I drew close. Over the bridge to North Beach. Flipper. Hardcore. We were there, separately, vibrating memories of red velvet wallpaper, Alameda kids vomiting down the stairs, rats under shirts, strangers dry-humping in the theater seats, men and their Docs with coded laces in the pit. The neon tits of Carol Doda, “pioneer of topless entertainment,” up the street. We hold this vague punk crush for decades, but the center rots. He is raw sex. I call him Damage. He says I’m dangerous. I say I knit. He puts his hand in my mouth when we kiss. He presses me against a brick wall to feel my body, broken, and covers the tattoo of my son’s Chinese orphanage name when we join, briefly, for sex, before I fly away.

 

Step 2. Be like the man. Don’t call. Don’t email. Don’t text. Call when he wants me to call. Fail often. Be sexy. Talk about sex. Make jokes. Make jokes about sex. Say, I have a photo to take. Say, I won’t take it now. He has fifty-two in his folder, the same number as our age. I know he downloaded some from Facebook; he told me. What does that mean? Does he like me? I will visit in February.

My ex has been in China for a year and three months, and yes, I’m counting. And I don’t cry often, but when I do it can be like a drip, or it can be many drips, and my face is red and ugly, and I hide the tears from my teen baby.

The new man is happy to hear from me. I lean on a concrete wall outside a bookstore and talk about sex long-distance. Sure he is happy. He has a topless Polaroid photo of me in his wallet. I have to be like the man. I have cried about him. He’s come on so strong, saying how rare I am, this first man since my marriage ended. I have to be like the man. Focused. Disciplined.

He is vague about this February visit, this visit that he is paying for, this visit that almost never happened, maybe shouldn’t happen. He says, You should see friends while you’re here. Does that mean he doesn’t want to see me? I send one “woman” email. I say, Be very clear. If you want to see me only certain days? Say that. Don’t say, “Thanks for the ten emails, but I can’t keep up with them.” Say, “Don’t email for a week.” You want time away from me? I will lick a subway pole. He likes it that I am intensely into sex. I send him photos that turn me on. He is in a “therapeutic separation” from his wife; she has her own dark pursuits in another state.

He loves my body only: the abstract skin set apart from me but still me. The fat and curves and lean parts and liquids and smells. He says being with me makes him feel alive in ways he needs. I’m smart and weird and bored easily by many men, but not by him. He puts his hands on me. I put my hands on him. He brings me coffee in bed and makes sure I’m warm enough. I’m blind to how shallow it is.

Women check him out at bars, and I wait. My skin is yellow and full. He puts a drumstick up my shirt. He holds my hand. He puts his hand on my leg, like he does with his wife, in their wedding photo. Snow falls on our hair and our eyelashes. His emotional slip-ups, like when I step on that wine glass. I have to see if there are shards in the skin, and how deep. He wants me to feel beautiful all the way; he says I’m this thing, this beauty, and I want to show him my ugliness as if to say, You still want?

I brush my teeth at the sink, cozy in the new man’s plaid bathrobe, and look in the mirror where his wife applies her fairy makeup. She is tiny. I am wide. We are all unwell.

Teen baby says, We have millions of little sperm. How could the sex feel good for a woman with all that sperm in her? It just dies inside.

The fact of my body. Walking around nude. The fact of darkness. The fact of marital wounds. The new man wants a fix.

He will say, once the wife returns and they close it down, that he will not abandon me as a friend unless I flirt and transgress his “real adult boundaries.” Then he promises he’ll get the fuck out of my life.

The man will lose me, and maybe stay lonely, but have fewer distractions in his in-box. Or on his phone. Or on Facebook Messenger.

The man has loved no one but his wife.

My teeth bite the collar of my t-shirt and it is wet with spit.

This man makes me wet.

In February I’m supposed to fly across the country, get naked, and be what the man wants.

I arc over a continent. I go again in March. I fly one last time, for my April birthday. We hold hands and caress, skin on skin. Body weight: I missed it so. I play him Schoenberg in his dusted apartment. I fall so hard.

 

Step 3. Be like the woman. I am the bacteria that got confused in a strange man’s bed, by the foods I swallowed, the dead lamb parts on Coney Island. I am hunger. I am caught by the unkind tongue: cortisol, adrenaline, dopamine, pet names, generosity, coldness. Serotonin. The drippy oxytocin machine. He feels joy with me. Is he a monster? He says he doesn’t want it to stop. No one can make me stay away, not even the new man. He knows how shallow he is.

Teen baby says, Sex is like holding someone’s sweaty hand.

I am the lover of someone else’s husband. I am the mother of someone else’s child. The teen baby wondering: Why didn’t she tell me my real name? Why didn’t she take me with her? The baby with the brown skin lying on the white body. Playing the triangle without holding the suspended string is dull. You can’t get a tone. The human kills the metal.

In April the new man plays me “Happy Birthday” on his marimba in Brooklyn. He says he’s memorized my body. When it ends, he says how good it was we could use each other.

The last day I will ever see him, I have just turned fifty-three. I call my friend, crying. My friend says, Get out and don’t look back.

I will never see the trees through his lace curtains bud and flower. Biological chemtrails will flatten me all summer. I dream I have sex with him. I wake with fingerprints on my stomach. I dream his cock turns into a stick of butter and melts between my legs.

My subconscious is not punk; it’s goth and unrelenting.

Do what the baby wants.

Do what the man wants.

The baby will turn into the man.

The man says he doesn’t think about me all day and all night.

He used to. Now he doesn’t.

The baby thinks of me. The baby thinks about what I will do for him and what I am preventing him from doing.

***

Rumpus original art by Lauren Friedlander.


Alex Behr is a contributor to The Rumpus. She is the author of Planet Grim: Stories (7.13 Press) and her work has appeared in Tin House, Salon, Bitch, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere. More from this author →