Upon my return to Raser City, the first order of business is to find a new apartment. The rental market is as dismal as ever, and I really don't want go back to living in the Iron Triangle, but sleeping on Sarah's couch is spurring me on to make a decision quickly.
It's actually Sarah who notices the For Rent sign on the house right around the corner from her apartment. The first time I go to knock on the door and ask about it, we round the corner to see the paramedics loading a frail, ancient Chinese man on a gurney into an ambulance, as family members mill about. We quickly beat a retreat, but two days later I try again. I'd rather risk going over too soon than lose a lead on such a promising place.
The second time I have better luck. The wife and her adult daughter are there and ready to show me around. The rental units are three small joined apartments in an L shape in the backyard behind the main house, all built in the 1940s, clearly as a money-maker for the homeowner. The empty unit is the one on the end, the largest of the three. It's by far the nicest apartment I have ever seen in Raser City, because it was built back when houses were made of actual wood, not pressboard and drywall. The living room and bedroom have hardwood floors, and the kitchen has retro black and white tile. The bathroom has white hexagon tile. It's not a basement, or a divided up house or a former garage or shanty or lean-to, but a real, solidly built house. It has a washing machine, a gas stove, and a frost-free freezer, the first I have ever had in an apartment here. It's at the high end of my price range, but I don't care. I'm in love.
The owners, who live in the main house, are an elderly Chinese Christian couple who immigrated here from Taiwan forty years ago. Their living room is crammed with jade and gold knick-knacks, with a big painting on the wall of Chinese Jesus standing in a rice paddy holding a lamb. The husband has not yet returned from the hospital and the wife barely speaks any English, but the daughter translates. I put on my sweetest smile, and once Ah Mah hears that I've just returned from Taipei, she has me sign the lease on the spot.
Best of all, it's in a nice neighborhood, literally around the corner from Sarah, only a mile from Lester State University, and two blocks away from a very upscale shopping area called Bayfront. Sarah and I celebrate this amazing find with handmade small batch gelato at Bayfront. We sit outside under the leafy green trees licking salted caramel gelato and coffee granita off tiny wooden spoons. It's good to be back in Raser City. I feel hopeful about the future. I'm going to find the partner of my dreams, finish my degree at last, and get a real adult job, in that order.
To make this dream come true, I've been spending a ton of time on internet dating sites, mostly Nerve.com and OkCupid, although I've created profiles on other sites as well, including Yahoo and LavaLife, as well as social networking sites like Friendster. A friend from the opera convinced me to join MySpace, but all I see when I log in there are poorly formatted, garish, flashing icons and a whole lot of nonsense. The friend who got me to join only seems to use it to advertise the plastic jewelry she sells online and gigs for her rockabilly band. For a while, I was on Orkut a lot, mostly in a community called Fly Girls for the Geeky Guy, but the whole site got taken over by Brazilian teenagers posting in Portuguese, so I stopped logging in.
Even while I was still in Taipei, I was messaging and chatting with guys. Doing this takes hours and hours of my time, basically my whole evening from the time I eat dinner (early) until I finally close my laptop and stagger off to bed (way too late). I justify it by reasoning that if I were in a real relationship, it would take at least this much of my time, if not more. Crafting various witty, charming emails every day to random strangers I have not yet met, and keeping track of the details of all of them, is both exhausting and somewhat empty feeling. But as Sarah says, it's the only game in town.
I go on a dinner date at a nice Thai restaurant with one guy who seems promising, but in the middle of dinner I get a crashing migraine, and all I want to do is go home. I try to reassure him that this isn't some lame excuse, but it's a bad first impression and I don't hear from him again.
A week later, I go out for a deli lunch with a Jewish hipster dude from New York. He had seemed promising online, since we have similar backgrounds and interests in geek culture like comics, but in person he's not that attractive and painfully, tediously pretentious. After lunch I let him take me back to his wretched basement apartment, where we watch the Animatrix on DVD. He repeats the PR hype from the back of the DVD box as if it's his own original thoughts, some nonsense about the Wachowskis understanding anime better than the Japanese themselves. When the DVD ends I excuse myself as fast I can and never talk to him again.
Other dates go even worse. When I try to impress the pale, skinny hipster dudes by talking about my love of comic books, they shrug say they're not really into comics. What the hell, dudes?! So many guys would love to have a girlfriend who can geek out over superheroes. I feel like my talents are wasted on these lukewarm losers. Of course mentioning opera, grad school, or my time in Asia gets even more blank stares.
This time around, Sarah isn't even going through the same thing with me. She seems to have given up on dating altogether and embraced modern spinsterhood by diving into her hobbies of knitting, chocolate making and a somewhat unhealthy obsession with calorie counting and exercise. She even has a cat now, left behind by a former roommate.
I really want a cat too but I can't get one while I'm still single. One would soon turn into two or three, then a dozen, and pretty soon I'll be avoiding people in favor of spending more time with my cats, staging them in elaborate Victorian-style tableaux. When I die alone, the cats will eat my undiscovered body long before anyone comes looking for me. So no cats until I get my life in order.
Right away, I'm back at rehearsals with the Raser City Lyric Opera. The show this time is Madame Butterfly. I'm so happy to be back with all my friends, but it's not like before I left. There are new women in the chorus, and while some seem friendly, a few are annoying already. There's this one girl Vicky who's super awkward, always bursting in on other people's conversations and going on endlessly about herself like a bratty younger sister. I try to avoid her.
It's nice to be back singing real opera with good singers, but I feel all the more my own shortcomings. That humming chorus fucking kills me; I feel like I'm being strangled trying to hum that high and still project. And I have big problems with the racist subtext of the opera. Actually it's not even subtext, it's just text. It feels especially uncomfortable dressing up in yellowface onstage after just coming back from East Asia. But when I try to talk about any of this with other people in the opera they all look at me like I'm crazy, or spoiling their fun. Even Lulu tries to reassure me that it's not really racist because the audience feels bad when Butterfly kills herself in the end. I give up trying to talk about this with anyone and resign myself to being an accomplice to Orientalism.
Suzanna is the lead again, Butterfly herself, even though she's got blue eyes and curly blonde hair. She lives near me, so we sometimes carpool to rehearsal. As we drive over the bridge to the converted warehouse at the edge of downtown, she tells me excitedly that she's gotten engaged to her tenor boyfriend, although they are still not living together yet. He's very traditional that way, she says. He gave her his grandmother's ring.
William is there too, singing the part of Butterfly's uncle. It's a small part with only one scene but it packs a wallop, when he comes out to curse Butterfly at her wedding. The first time I see him booming out "Cho-cho-san!" with his black eyes snapping I get chills. But because he has such a small part, he's hardly ever at rehearsal, and even when he is, I never get a chance to say more than a few words to him. He gives me a big hug like he's happy to see me, but it never goes further than that.
Sarah throws a birthday party for me at her apartment, and we invite all my grad school and opera friends. Lulu brings her latest dude from J-Date, a schlubby guy with thick glasses. He seems nice enough, but I predict she will get bored of his dorky niceness within a month or two. After her first drink, she's sitting by Marty and letting him rub her back in his carelessly possessive way. I start to wonder if her relationship with J-Date dude will even last the night.
William is there too, being his usual dashing, charming self, so elegantly handsome in just jeans and a black t-shirt. It's the first time I've had a chance to talk to him outside rehearsal, but of course with all the other people around I can't ask him where we stand. Even if we were alone I would probably chicken out on telling him how I really feel and asking directly if he wants to date me seriously. Here at the party he seems happy to see me and hear all about my time in Taipei. When I suggest going out to dinner sometime he says yes enthusiastically but we don't set an actual date.
I'm thirty-two years old. The party is fun but at the end of the night I go back to my empty, catless apartment. How much longer am I going to keep living like a student?
K has been in the back of my mind ever since our unexpected reconnection via OkCupid a few months ago. I still can't believe he's only three hours away, in East Bessemer. Even stranger, he's only a few minutes away from Rollerboy, although I haven't been back there since we broke up. Still, it's so weird to think that while I was with Rollerboy, K was just down the road. I could have run into him at the mall. I had no idea he was so close.
When I was dating K, I always knew our relationship would end, because he had another girlfriend. The deal was that after I graduated college, I would move away and he would marry Lydia. To make myself feel better about this crappy arrangement, I nurtured a long-running fantasy about meeting him again years later. Even after he broke my heart and I couldn't bear to talk to him, I still held onto the fantasy that after ten years we could meet up and maybe be friends again.
It hasn't quite been ten years but now that I have the opportunity to see him again, I'm not sure how to feel about it. I've finally started to realize he's maybe not the perfect one true love I thought he was. But physically he stirs up all my devvy feelings like no one else. I've been with other blind guys since, but none like him. How would I react to him face to face?
I try to imagine what it might be like. We'd meet at some tacky chain restaurant for lunch, and he's be on the arm of his fiancée, the Peach, with her kids in tow. She's a boring suburban mom, but sweet and infinitely patient and generous, not a whining smartass like me. It will be noisy and crowded, and we won't have the chance to talk in private. But I'm not really sure I even have anything to say to him anymore.
Feeling deeply conflicted, I send him an email to let him know my new address and phone number now that I'm settled in. A few weeks go by before he answers. Then out of nowhere I get this email:
Thanks for the email. I'm glad to hear you've returned safely to these shores. Your new place sounds very nice. I have good news as well. I'm delighted to announce that [Peach] and I are expecting our first child, to be born in March of next year. I assure you this child is very much wanted, and we are so excited to be starting this new journey together.
I read the email over and over, stunned. What the hell is this? Why is he insisting that the baby is wanted? Who has to assure anyone of that unless it was an accident? They're not even married yet. It must have been unplanned. I count on my fingers--July to March is nine months. What the hell? Did she just get knocked up last week? Why is he even telling me now? Don't most people wait a few months before announcing it to the world?
Of course when we were together, I thought a lot about what kind of father he might be. I even held out a fantasy that if I was still single in my thirties, I might ask him to be a sperm donor so I could have a kid on my own. I knew it was silly and unrealistic, but it felt good to have a backup plan. Now I realize just how ridiculous it all is. That will never happen. He has the marriage, kids, family that I am longing for, while I'm still alone, without even the fantasy of him for comfort.
I try to send him a friendly reply, but my jealousy gets the better of me.
Congratulations! That's great news. But it seems very early to be making an announcement. Has it been just two weeks since the blessed event?
I never hear back from him. We don't meet for the awkward lunch at a tacky restaurant. We don't become friends after all these years. I never find out what happens with his kid. Did something happen in his life that distracted him, or was he just so pissed at my reply that he decided he was done with me once and for all? I feel a little bad, but only a little. That's me, a smartass to the end. Dammit.
K is not my only ex looking to reconnect for strictly platonic friendship. The Mantis, now amicably divorced, wants to introduce me to his new girlfriend, Titania. I'm even less sure about this. We had a deal that after I left for Taipei, our relationship would be over. What does he want from me? He met Titania in the BDSM scene. She's not a devotee, just open-minded. He says they go to play parties together, but I have no desire to be a special guest in their relationship. He seems to get that, though, because he doesn't even ask. It seems like he just wants to be friends. Can we really transition from dirty little secret fuckbuddies to friends?
But before I can do that, I have to come clean, especially to Sarah since I'm spending all my time with her. Now that I'm living around the corner, almost every evening finds us sitting on her couch watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and Voyager reruns.
"Um," I start out nervously during a commercial break. "You know that paraplegic guy I met at the club who turned out to be married?"
Sarah doesn't even turn away from the TV. "You kept seeing him," she says flatly.
"Yes." I blush furiously but charge ahead anyway. "But it turned out ok! We had a contract! Strictly no strings! Now he's divorced but he has a new girlfriend..." I realize this isn't sounding like it turned out ok. "I mean, everyone's happy now. He said it was all for the best and he's so grateful to me and now he just wants to be friends."
Sarah turns slowly and regards me with glittering, furious blue eyes. "How could you lie to me about this," she hisses.
"I'm sorry!" I throw my hands up. "I knew you would judge me--there, just like that! That look you're giving me!"
"Because you knew what you were doing was wrong," she says.
I jut my chin out defensively. "It turned out ok, and I don't regret any of it. I'm going to meet him and his girlfriend next week."
Sarah turns back to the TV as the Star Trek logo flashes across the screen. "I can't believe you lied to me," she repeats.
I groan inwardly. I knew she would be mad, but not this mad. Over the next few days, she makes it clear that this was a major betrayal of our friendship, and even though she doesn't spend any less time with me (since I'm basically her only friend aside from her ex), she is not going to forgive me about this. She keeps making little digs, and reminding me not to fall for him again. Ok, I guess it's good to have someone being my conscience to keep me on the path of virtue.
Because honestly, I am a little worried about seeing him again. Logically, I know I don't want to get back together with him. But whenever I'm around a hot guy with a disability my dev desires just take over and logic goes out the window.
The Mantis still lives about two hours south of the city but he and Titania drive up to meet me for lunch at that Jewish deli not far from my new place. There he is in front of the restaurant, still the same Mantis, slightly slouched and his long skinny legs akimbo in his poorly-fitted chair. As usual, he's dressed like a mechanic from the 1960s. He really does look like an insect, with his narrow, triangular face, his spiky hair and his little wire rim glasses. He grins and waves when he sees me, and I give him a very awkward hug, bending over and sort of patting him on the shoulder.
Titania eyes me warily as she gives me a shy hello. I'm kind of floored that she is nervous to meet me. She's the girlfriend, what does she have to worry about?
We go inside and slide into a booth together, me sitting across from the two of them, Mantis leaving his chair to the side of the booth. After we order reubens and latkes, I regale them with stories about my time in Taipei, about being nearly assaulted at the BDSM club and trying unsuccessfully to pass myself off as a lesbian, and I can sense Titania quickly warming up to me.
I like her too. She's small and slight, early forties, with lots of dark curly hair, but she's got this kind of smart, no bullshit, no drama vibe that I find really appealing. She looks so cool and self-assured in her tight black jeans, boots, and black leather vest. I want to be friends with her. And just like that, my guilt and worry melts away. I can be friends with both of them together.
They tell me stories about their adventures in the Sub Rosa Society and other BDSM club events. Apparently the Mantis is still really into needle play, and has been getting more experienced tops to stick him at some of these events.
"This one domme was so scary!" he recounts, his eyes going round at the memory. "The gauge on the needles was huge! Nothing like the thin ones you used on me. And she stuck them right through my nipples in an x." He crosses two long bony fingers over his chest to illustrate.
"And then she hit you!" Titania laughs.
"Oh my god, she didn't just hit me, she hauled off and punched me right in the nip! I was like oooooo." His mouth is a tiny o of pain, his eyes screwed up as he recalls the sensation.
"Holy crap!" I would never have the guts to be that extreme, but I'm glad he's having fun.
As he tells me more stories about play parties and club events, another theme starts to emerge, one I had no idea about. He's telling some long rambling story about seeing a really big girl in leather outside Lollygag, and he's massaging his nipple as he tells it. I recognize that gesture, so slight that someone might miss it or ignore it as him just adjusting his shirt. But I know that this is his masturbation substitute.
"Wait a minute, are you a chubby chaser?"
Titania laughs even harder. "What, you didn't know?"
"No!" I'm not at all what counts as a BBW, and Titania is even smaller than I am. I feel vaguely bewildered that he had this other fetish I knew nothing about, but I guess that was the nature of our previous NSA relationship. "For real? What's that about?"
"When a girl is really big, it's like... everything is big," he says.
His eyes get kind of glassy as he intones in a low, husky voice, "Chubby pussy."
I nearly choke on a bite of latke, laughing so hard. It's oddly charming to discover this aspect of him, and it makes it even clearer to me that we are better off as friends. I'm really not his type, and unlike Titania, if we were together seriously, I would not be ok with him hitting up the big girls at the clubs.
We linger in the deli for over three hours, chatting and laughing. Outside, as we say our goodbyes, I give them each a warm hug and we promise to get together again soon. I watch the Mantis roll away, his casters lifting up repeatedly on the uneven sidewalk, spinning around. My dev mind records the look of his heavy black boots on the footplate, but I don't feel that usual rush of longing and frustration. Instead, I feel energized and somehow lighter. I can do this. We can be friends, and I don't always have to be a slave to my lowest urges.
A few days later, I check in with Mantis over the phone. "I was so nervous to meet Titania, but she was really cool," I confess.
"You were nervous?" he laughs. "Why? She's the one who was super nervous to meet you."
"What? You're kidding! Why would she be nervous to meet me?"
"Come on, you're The Mistress," he says in awed tones.
Wow, he really must have built me up in his imagination. Well, it's good that we all got to meet in person to connect as real people instead of fantasies.
I report all this back to Sarah, and she nods stiffly. She approves of me not taking up with the Mantis again, but she's still cranky and pissed at me for lying to her about him, which she expresses by picking at me. I feel guilty, so I indulge her. When she complains that my shoes bang too loudly on the stairs, or that I need to spend more time at her place, or watch whatever she wants on TV, I just go along with it and hope she'll come around soon.
Rehearsals for Madame Butterfly are getting more intense as opening night draws near. We get fitted for the ugliest costumes I have ever seen. The women are all wearing fake kimonos made out of thick, heavy canvas in pastel colors, with padded obi so they can be snapped into place without tying. We all look like sofas from the 1980s. I'm also getting increasingly uncomfortable with the yellowface aspect of all this, even though the director assures us we won't be trying to look really Asian, just a fantasy version of Japan, as if that's somehow better.
The costume designer hands Ariel a giant box of the rattiest, nastiest black wigs. In despair, Ariel organizes another wig party at her house and enlists all of us to help her comb them out and style them into something vaguely geisha-like.
As before, this is an opportunity for the women of the chorus to gossip and dish about our sex lives. Suzanna, the one lead in attendance, goes on for a while about her engagement, the grandmother's ring, etc etc, before turning to me with a leer and asking, "So, how's Wiiiiiiiiilliam?"
I shrug. For once, I have nothing to tell. "I've hardly seen him since I got back."
Suzanna is surprised. "I thought you were dating!"
"Ha! I wish!" They all laugh. "Actually..." I'm about to tell them all about the Mantis, tocome clean with them too, and hope they are not as upset about it as Sarah. But before I can continue, Vicky, the super annoying new girl, cuts in with a long boring story about a date with some random dude she went on a few weeks ago that went nowhere. The conversation kinds of fizzles out as she goes on and on, oblivious to the fact that no one wants to engage with her. I lose my nerve about telling them about the Mantis, and Vicky continues to blurt out random inane comments through the rest of the evening.
The next week we load into the theater and begin what the tech crew calls hell week--long rehearsals every night and all weekend until opening night. Now at last I am around William every day, and he has lots of time to kill backstage because his part is so small. I keep trying to talk to him, but it's like trying to pin down a shadow. It's not that he's avoiding me, exactly. He's always friendly and kind, but somehow distant, and our conversations never go anywhere. I'm starting to feel kind of pathetic and stalkerish.
Friday night we don't get released until 11:30, then rehearsals start up again Saturday morning at 9 am. I eat my breakfast in the car on the way over, feeling like I live at the theater, but it's not such a bad feeling. The director is pissed that people trickle in late, but by 9:30, almost everyone is there, everyone except William and Vicky. The director yells at us about sticking to the schedule, then starts the run through anyway because William's entrance isn't until the end of the first act.
The women's chorus also does not enter right at the start, so we all go back to the dressing room to listen over the monitors for our cue. At 10 am, Vicky dashes in, looking flushed and disheveled.
"Sorry I'm late!" she giggles, ostentatiously rearranging her hair and clothes in the dressing room mirrors. "Am I in trouble?"
"We all got yelled at because of you," Ariel says. "Where were you?"
"Oh." Vicky pauses dramatically. "William drove me home last night after rehearsal but instead we drove out to the beach, heh heh, and uh, we just got back."
"Whaaaat?" Ariel squeaks, as every head in the dressing room swivels around to stare at Vicky, who is tugging at her shirt, looking pleased with herself.
I can't believe it. Her? What the hell does dashing, brilliant, talented William see in her? Vicky is not intelligent, and conversation with her is painfully dull. She's only twenty-one, just graduated from college, one of the youngest women in the chorus, but her looks are nothing to speak of. Her hair is mousy and stringy, cut in no particular style, and her sharp features make her look twenty years older than she really is. The theatrical makeup we have to wear does her no favors. We are supposed to heavily shade and highlight so our faces can be seen from the stage, but when she shades her hollow cheeks she looks like a hag. She herself said that when she wears makeup, more than once she's been mistaken for a man in drag.
I feel queasy. I thought William and I had some kind of connection. I mean, it's obvious now he doesn't intend to have a relationship with me, but I thought at least there was something special between us. Now I feel like I was just another conquest, like he's putting the moves on all the women in the chorus one after another. And why on earth would he pick the most boring unattractive one? Just because she's the youngest and most vulnerable? It's so gross.
I know I don't have a relationship with William, but I still feel so betrayed. I fume about it all weekend, through the technical rehearsals and into the final dress rehearsal. It doesn't help that Vicky continues to giggle and simper and go on and on about how wonderful he is.
I can't take it any more. I confront William in his dressing room, where's he's lounging in sweats, a white t-shirt with the collar cut open and full kabuki makeup.
"So Vicky told everyone about your night on the beach," I inform him.
"Oh, yeah, I guess, yeah..." He looks embarrassed.
"What the hell do you think you're doing!" I burst out.
"Don't worry, I didn't do anything that would put her at risk," he assures me in an urgent whisper.
Oh right, the herpes thing, I wasn't even thinking about that.
"You better not have!" I take petty advantage where I can. "But I'm not just talking physically."
"She's just a kid! Come on! She's almost twenty years younger than you."
William turns back to his dressing table, not looking at me. "She's an adult," he says defensively.
"So what, are you sleeping your way through the women's chorus now?"
He turns around sharply and I realize I've gone too far. "What do you want?" he asks angrily.
What I want is for him to want me but that's clearly not going to happen. "Nothing. Just...just don't be an asshole, ok?"
This should be the end of it, but I can't let go of my feelings for him. It doesn't help that for the next two weeks I'm around both of them constantly as the show opens and we start performances every night, twice on weekends.
Vicky can't stop blabbing about William to all of us in the dressing room, but as far as I can tell they haven't really been spending time together outside the show.
"I don't know what he sees in her," Ariel confides in me privately. "You're a much better match for him than she is."
"Yeah, he's being a total jerk," Lulu concurs.
It's nice that my friends understand but dammit I just can't get over him. I feel like Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni. She's older and more experienced than the other women Don Giovanni seduces, and when the opera starts he's already dumped her. She knows he's not worth it but she can't help but love him anyway. In a brilliant coloratura she sings,
That ingrate has betrayed me,
Oh God! He's made me so unhappy.
He betrayed and abandoned me,
But still I forgive him.
I'm tormented by these feelings.
My heart cries out for vengeance,
But when I see his face,
He makes my heart beat faster.
He makes my heart beat faster.
It's the best aria of the whole opera. Alone at home I crank up the CD and sing along. The arpeggios at the end are meant to sound like sobbing but as I listen over and over I'm really crying.
I try unsuccessfully to think about something other than William. Sarah comes to one of the shows, with her ex as her date, because I don't have anyone else to give my two comp tickets to.
"Wow, that is some Orientalist bullshit," she sniffs at the meet and greet in the lobby after the show. I have to agree with her, but can't she at least say one nice thing?
Marty gives one of his comp tickets to Warren. I had no idea he was even in the audience that night until Lulu mentions it at the start of the meet and greet after the show, as I'm standing in between her and Marty. We're still in our costumes, Lulu and I in our 1980s pastel couch kimonos, fake geisha makeup and ratty black wigs, and Marty in a conical straw hat.
"You know Warren and Keiko are in the audience tonight," Lulu says with studied nonchalance.
"Ugh, that asshole! I never want to see him again!"
Marty mutters, "That was all just a misunderstanding."
"Misunderstanding my ass! I asked him over and over if he had a girlfriend and he said no! I can't believe he dragged me into his stupid relationship drama!" I'm all set to go into detail, but Marty just rolls his eyes. He doesn't want to hear it.
I sneak back into the dressing room early from the meet and greet so I don't have to see them.
On closing night, after the curtain goes down, the director congratulates us on a good run. "Now we just have to tour the provinces," he jokes. Next week we have another two week run at a different theater out in the suburbs. We have Monday and Tuesday off then it's back to the grind on Wednesday night.
Monday evening I'm watching TV at home when I get a call from William.
"Hey, I'd like to talk to you right now. Are you free?"
What the hell is this about? "Uh, sure, go ahead."
"Well, I'm in your neighborhood. Do you mind if I stop by?"
A few minutes later, he's sitting in my living room. This is the first time he's visited my new place. He makes the apartment feel tiny. I still only have the one small couch, more of a love seat really, so he perches awkwardly on my rolling desk chair.
"Look, I have to apologize to you," he starts out. "I feel badly for the way I've treated you. You deserve better."
I just stare at him open-mouthed.
"I knew you wanted more from me but I'm just not in the right place for a relationship with anyone. I've been avoiding you since you got back, and I'm really sorry."
"Um, thanks? What about Vicky?"
"Yeah, that was a huge mistake. I don't know what I was thinking."
I try really hard not to look too smug. But the next thing he says shocks me even more.
"I've started seeing a therapist."
"That's good, right?"
"This all made me realize that I've hit rock bottom and I've got to change. My job is making me miserable, I have an hour and a half commute each way in a car that's killing my back. I haven't paid my taxes in eight years."
"Yeah. Remember that huge stack of mail in my kitchen? That just keeps getting bigger and bigger because I never open anything. Every few months I just throw it all out without even looking."
I stare at him like he's a stranger. How could I have been so wrong about him? I thought he was working as a high-up IT genius, but really he's a miserable cubicle slave. He throws himself into opera singing and marathon running so he doesn't have to think about his life. I fell so hard for him because I thought he was a grown-up. I thought because he has a house and a good paying job and wants kids that he would be the one to marry. But now I can see that as much as he loves the idea of a family, he'll never have it because he loves being unattached more. Also because he can't even bring himself to tackle mundane tasks like buying a new car or opening his bills.
"I told my therapist about this dream I had," he continues. "I was in a building and the alarm was ringing. I was running through the stairwell trying to get out. The therapist said that in your dreams, everything is you. The building is me, and the alarm is saying PAY ATTENTION! Something has to change!" He gestures with his enormous hands, his black eyes popping with intensity.
I'm still trying to wrap my head around the gap between my fantasy of him as a mature adult, ideal future husband and father, and what he really is, an irresponsible manchild in crisis.
I make sympathetic noises, and thank him for apologizing to me. It's more than most of the assholes I have dated ever did. "Thanks for coming all the way out here to talk it over in person. I really appreciate it."
"I'm really sorry. You have every right to be angry with me."
"No, it's ok. I forgive you." I'm still kind of mourning my fantasy of him, but I don't tell him that. "It's just, I've been having kind of a hard time ever since I got back. It's not just about you. It's taking me so long to finish my degree. I'm going to be thirty-five before I ever get a real job! And I'll probably have to move to find work. When am I ever going to start a family?"
William waves his hand dismissively. "You've got plenty of time."
"Lately I just feel like I can't get along with anyone. I'm such a bitch."
He looks surprised. "No, you're not. Who said that?"
"Sarah. I can't do anything right around her! It's always, I'm walking too loudly on the stairs or eating the wrong food or not watching the right TV shows. I just don't know what to do."
"I think we've established that I don't know anything about human relationships, but even I know that's not right."
I sigh. "I know, but she's only saying those things because she's jealous and unhappy that she got kicked out of our graduate program and I didn't." Also because William went on only one date with her and three or four dates with me, but I don't mention that. "I feel bad for her. I keep thinking that if I can just do the right thing, she'll get over it."
"She's not being a good friend," he declares seriously.
It's such a relief to hear someone say this. I should have been able to see all this on my own, but somehow I kept pushing it aside and not thinking about it. I've got to talk to her and put an end to this controlling behavior. By the time William and I exchange a platonic hug and he goes home at last, I feel like I'm finally ready to move on with my life.