The train platform looked right out of a movie – a romance set in the 1940’s, maybe, where women with hairsprayed curls and tailored suits fling themselves into the arms of tall, handsome men with crew cuts.
The train was late, but last it chugged up, and its honk was the exact same bullhorn whine that I remembered from the Long Island Railroad and the Metro North, the sound of commuter dads arriving in Croton-on-Harmon on a summer evening. I forced myself not to run to the platform.
He was one of the last to get off the train, and he looked just as I’d imagined, in his red sweatshirt, blue jeans and baseball cap, lugging a bag over his shoulder. Our eyes met and I waved, and when he reached me I wrapped my arms around him and he picked me up.
“Dean,” I said. I hadn’t seen him in two weeks. I’d missed the smell of his neck. He kissed me, and then he kissed me again.
I was attending a writing program at a college some hours’ drive from New York. Dean and I had parted in Las Vegas after the 4th of July weekend, which we’d spent sneaking into hotel swimming pools and wandering through air conditioned lobbies. Dean had played poker in tournaments and cash games, while I’d visited the hotel gym, read novels, and won a cool $45 at blackjack.
I don’t think we had been apart this long since we started dating. In fact, we’d be dating a year this weekend.
We checked into the bed and breakfast decorated in Early English Tchotcke, and then I drove us into town, where we had a few drinks at the lavish old hotel on the main street. The college was in a Victorian spa town, and it was heavy on the charm, with gingerbread houses and expensive antique stores.
After a late dinner I drove back to the B and B. I undressed and I climbed into the queen-sized bed with its many, many throw pillows.
Dean slid on top of me and it was such a relief to have his body against mine, the long, lean length of it. I buried my face in his shoulder.
Often when he kisses me he mashes his mouth against mine, but this time he kissed me softly, teasing me, and I was grateful as well as excited. He bent over me and instead of plunging his tongue inside me, his nose just brushed against my clit. I gasped, and wriggled up against him. Thank God Dean has such a long, aquiline nose. “I love you, Lily,” he said in hoarse, tender voice he gets when we’re having sex.
“I love you, too,” I whispered. He held my hands down as I shook beneath him. I missed you, I thought, but I didn’t say it. After all, he hadn’t.
On Saturday morning I rubbed my head against his shoulder, like a cat. We lay facing one another, blinking at the sun slanting through the too-thin curtains. He slid inside me.
“Can I put my finger in your ass?” he whispered.
I nodded. “Go slow.” He did and we lay with our legs entwined, fucking. “You like to penetrate me?”
“Uh huh!” When he came I felt a little cheated. Huh!
“Let me get on top,” I said, and we rolled over. I pushed myself against him. “Lick my nipples,” I ordered, thrusting my tits at him.
He started to buck beneath me. “No,” I said. “You already came. Now it’s my turn.” I rocked back and forth, measuring my breath. “That’s right, suck them. Like that.” I came almost immediately, and we lay clasped together in the bed, my face clamped against his chest.
In the afternoon we went to a nearby county fair. I beat him at the whack-a-mole and we spent close to $20 on an addictive arcade game in which you insert quarters, which are supposed to then push previously inserted money over the edge of a metal ledge and into your hot little hands. We found this game terrifically compelling. We were the only adults on the bumper cars, and a foray into a partially-closed house of mirrors ended after just a minute when we easily picked our way through the maze. We stood outside the fun house, dazed at how easy it had been. “As a metaphor,” I said, mindful of all the short stories whereby couples get lost in the fun house, “That sucked.”
We got on the ferris wheel, and I was reminded of our first trip to Atlantic City, soon after we met last summer. We’d held hands on the boardwalk, which I’d found disconcerting, though I’d liked it, and I’d gone on my first ferris wheel. We kissed in the pastel-colored car as it gently swung back and forth. We kissed on this ferris wheel, too, and I looked out at the green fields below.
In the evening we drove back into town and ended up at the same Victorian hotel we’d had drinks at the first night. We headed out to the back garden, seated ourselves in Adirondack chairs, and ordered drinks. Dean studied the paper while I read one of my classmate’s short stories.
On my second planter’s punch I took the plunge, figuring I’d rather bring this up when drunk. “Dean, I have to talk to you about something,” I said. It was a beautiful evening, dusk just falling, the air mild and clear.
“I know,” said Dean. “You’re afraid I’ll give you advice about your writing at the reading on Sunday.” Writing students had been invited take part in a reading the following afternoon. In a fit of boldness, I’d signed up. And I’ve been very wary of having Dean read my writing. He can be a harsh critic—I’ve seen the notes he’s written on other people’s work, and I’m not anxious to submit myself to his tutoring, however good or well-meaning it is. My feeling is that as my boyfriend, he should keep to a cheerleading role. As in: “Lily, your writing is great!” rather than “No, sweetie, this doesn’t make any sense.” That’s what editors and instructors and writing classes are for. Honeys are for unmitigated moral support. In my opinion, anyway.
“No, no,” I said. “It’s not that.” I swallowed.
“Do you want to talk about it back at the B and B?”
As I was drunk and feared my nerve would not withstand the onslaught of sobriety, no. “Let’s talk about it now,” I slurred. He put down The New York Times.
I gulped more of my drink. Dean’s face blurred. “You know,” I dipped my head, meeting Dean’s eyes and then looking away, “We’ve been dating for almost a year now…”
Oh, God, I was actually saying it. “I love you, and I’m really happy with you, but, I want. I want,” I paused. “I want to have children.” Lest he get the wrong impression, I rushed on: “I mean, not now. I’m not ready now, but in, like, five years, and I want to know…”
Dean took my hands. “I know,” he said. “I know you’ve been thinking about it. I’ve been thinking about it too, and I’ve wanted to bring it up, too.”
Seriously, he had thought about it? Had he discussed it with his therapist? I’d had the distinct impression that I did not come up much during the course of Dean’s four-times-a-week therapy sessions.
On one hand, this galled me. I talk about Dean all the time with my sainted therapist, Caroline. On the other hand, Dean had a lot of stuff to work on, in part because he’d apparently spent the first 35 years of his life avoiding therapy. I figured I was a source of happiness for him, and he wasn’t bringing me up with his shrink because our relationship didn’t need the help of a licensed psychotherapist. I mean, Dean does have serious issues to deal with. Like his mother, who, in my wholly unscientific opinion, suffers from one or more Cluster B (dramatic, emotional, or erratic) personality disorders, as per the DSM-IV. Like his father, whom Dean resents. Like his older brother, who is successful and not very interested in Dean, and whom Dean really, really resents. (I suspect his brother dominates a good portion of Dean’s sessions). Like the sister with a lot of problems. Like his stalled career. Like his poker strategy, the discussion of which also allows him the opportunity for personal reflection. For instance, if Dean loses money at poker, does it mean he’s sabotaging himself because he doesn’t have enough self confidence? Does his future lie in tournaments or cash games? And other interesting questions.
“I mean, I’m not ready for kids now,” I reiterated, in case he hadn’t got that part, “But I want to be in a relationship with someone with whom that can happen…”
“Lily,” said Dean. “I love you, too, and I want you to be happy.” And then I realized what was happening. “I’m not going to be ready to have kids in five years. And maybe not at all.”
Our heads were bent close together, and our hands were clasped. I was close to tears. “Dean,” I said.
“Sweetie,” he said, and his face kind of collapsed. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” Then I covered my mouth with my hand, as though this would keep me from talking, or crying. “I know you love me, but I’m not a priority for you.” He nodded. “I want to be a priority.” Dean’s current priorities include trying to become a professional poker player and dealing with his mother. I wanted our relationship to be more than a pleasant distraction to him.
“Don’t cry,” I said, and then I started to cry, too. This had not been how I planned this discussion, not how I planned it at all. Then I changed my mind: “Thank you for crying,” I wept. “I didn’t think you’d have any tears for me.”
“I’m ambivalent,” Dean wiped his eyes. “And you deserve to be with someone who’s not ambivalent.”
“Oh, Dean.” I clung to him, and the garden swam in front of my eyes.
Thus our breakup.
We left the hotel and walked along the main street. It was dark but warm, and people were everywhere. I felt raw and stiff, like my chest was sandwiched between two pieces of plywood. I was afraid if I breathed too deeply, or moved too much, I would start to cry again. I gripped Dean’s hand, and he gripped back. We swam among the crowds. “What’s that noise?”
A crowd had gathered outside of a Borders, where a young boy stood in the lamplight. I squinted; he was playing the guitar. “Layla,” he cried in a heartfelt, off-key tenor, “You’ve got me on my knees!”
Dean and I looked at each other. The crowd appeared impressed, not by his singing, which was atrocious, but by the very fact of a kid not more than 14 crooning Eric Clapton’s heartbreak classic with technique-less abandon, and playing with some skill. “He’s got a terrible voice,” said Dean, with some admiration.
“But he’s a good player.” And, indeed, if he wasn’t just playing Guitar Hero but was instead really strumming, he was a talented guitarist. After a moment, we started walking again. It occurred to me that there were lots of literary metaphors here, after all.
We were seated at an outdoor café, where I promptly started to weep again. “Sweetie,” Dean began, then bent over, wiped his eyes, and blew his nose into a paper napkin. I was relieved not to be the only one crying. I didn’t know how I was going to make it through the meal without breaking down every five minutes, but I only cried intermittently, which was something.
Afterwards Dean drove us back to the B and B. I took a shower, letting my tears mingle with the cool water, and then I climbed into bed, naked. Dean showered. I thought we’d have break up sex. In fact I was looking forward to Dean being inside of me one last time, of him whispering, “I love you, Lily,” while I tearfully clung to him, but instead I lay chaste and sad underneath the chenille bedspread. I thought I might go to sleep early. I turned off the light, while Dean stared at his laptop.
I turned onto my side but tears leaked out of my eyes. “Sweetie, don’t cry,” murmured my ex-boyfriend.
“I wish,” I sniffled, turning on the light, “I wasn’t quite so in touch with my emotions.” I started to cry in earnest once again.
“Lily,” said Dean. “Lily.” He wrapped his arms around me. His voice cracked. “You know we’re going to have a lifelong friendship.”
That sounded very, very unappealing, as well as weirdly formal. “I don’t want to be your friend,” I wept. “I love you.” I wanted him to be jealous of other men I dated. I didn’t want us to be companionable.
“I love you, too.” He stroked my hair.
“I guess I think that if you loved me more, you’d want to try.” And that, to me, was the crux of the matter. He hadn’t even had to think about it when I brought it up. I hadn’t gotten a chance to say the rest of my spiel, which was, This isn’t something you have to decide now. Think about it, and let’s talk in a few weeks. And what that meant was: I love you. I don’t want to break up. But as soon as I brought up the idea of the future, he jumped right to the break up, like he was relieved. He’d already made up his mind. He’d sooner break up with me than even consider the possibility of us getting married and having a family. That hurt.
“It’s because I love you that I don’t want you to miss the boat on this. Having a family.”
“I know.” And that’s true. But. “It wouldn’t be so bad if I weren’t convinced you’re going to get married and have kids.” Because I am. I think he’ll do just as his brother did: meet a woman 15 or so years his junior when he’s close to 50 and grown up enough. And because she’ll be so smart and beautiful and accomplished and he’ll be so aware of how lucky he is, when she says, “I want to have children,” he’ll realize he’s onto a good thing and ought to land her quick. So they’ll get married and have children. And I swear to God, if he does this before I do, I won’t be responsible for my behavior.
He shook his head. But I think that’s what’ll happen. “I wish I could have made you happy,” I said in a small voice.
“Don’t say that,” he said, almost harshly, and then he started to cry again. “Don’t say that. You’ve made me really happy.”
What I meant was: I wish that you’d loved me enough to be unwilling to let me go. I wish having children with me didn’t seem like too high a cost for keeping me by your side. I wish keeping us together was your priority.
Here’s a story. I work with this woman named Lara. She’s 42. She met her now-husband a few years ago. She told me that after they’d been dating for six months, she asked him, “Where are we going?” He’s ten years her senior, childless, and divorced. He said to her: “I don’t love you, I don’t want to marry you, and I don’t want any kids.” (How incredibly harsh!) So Lara said, “Well, you’re giving me nothing to work with. I guess we’re breaking up.”
Two days later he showed up on her doorstep, red-eyed, and begged her to take him back. “So he got some therapy,” concluded Lara—the optimistic ending to most healthy modern romances, it appears. They wed a year ago, and last month she had a baby.
The point isn’t that she got her way, or even that what Lara wanted wasn’t too high a price for Jim who, despite not seeming to want anything that Lara did, eventually agreed to everything Lara desired. The point is that Jim seems really happy now. She had to convince him, but he seems pleased with how things turned out.
“I’ve just broken up with two women who made me happy,” Dean continued. “Lily, I’m fucked up.” Well, I knew that already, and plus, I wanted to say, This isn’t about you! This isn’t about your issues! And anyway, how could his ex have made him really happy? She wouldn’t sleep with him! Of course, she is younger and prettier than I. And I think she went to Harvard. But anyway, what was the point? Maybe, for Dean, this was just another anecdote on his journey to adulthood. Maybe this would be a stick he could beat himself with in therapy. Maybe, for Dean, the real point was why, as a fortysomething with a degree from an Ivy League college and no serious drug problem, he lives the life of an independent teenager.
The next morning we checked out of the bed and breakfast. “Did you have a good stay?” asked one half of the polite, mustached male couple who ran the place.
“We had a great time,” Dean said.
“Except for the breaking up part,” I whispered as we edged out of the chintzy living room towards the door.
Outside, it was overcast. I was glad; I didn’t want to see the sun today. We walked to the car and once more, tears welled up in my eyes. “Sweetie,” Dean said helplessly. “Sweetheart.”
I blinked. He’s called me Sweetie since the night we met. He won’t call me sweetie anymore, I realized. Or if he does, it will only make me want to cry.
When I pulled up in front of the train station it was raining lightly, and I followed him to the entrance to the station house. He put his hands on my shoulders, and I burst into tears for what felt like the twentieth time in less than 24 hours. “Sweetie, sweetie,” Dean said again, earnestly, and I could see my tears might get a little wearing. “I love you. You’ll be fine. I’ll call you in a week or two,” he said firmly, kissing me, and I knew I’d be waiting for his call.
He went into the station and I went back to the car but I didn’t drive away. I sat there, watching the rain beat on the windshield. What if his train was really delayed, like it had been on Thursday night? Maybe I should offer to drive him back to the B and B. Only now I was no longer his girlfriend, and there was no rationale for me to think like that, to take his comfort and convenience into consideration. Eventually I turned the engine on and drove around to the parking lot, where I watched the train pull up.
Dean was easy to spot – he was undoubtedly the tallest person there; he is probably the tallest person wherever he goes. I watched him climb on board, and then there was nothing else to do, nothing else to wait for. I turned on the engine on again and edged the car towards the exit. And it occurred to me that for weeks I’d hear his laugh from stranger’s mouths. Then I drove off into the rain, waiting until I started to cry again.