blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



My Things

I don't know why I keep coming back. I think it's because it's my nature to be suspicious of happiness. And besides, there is the longing, which I enjoy, and the space his absence seems to create, and the perfect quiet that fills the room when he leaves. I think I belong here.

I always feel closer to Glenn when I am not with him, when I am not there to see his hands move while he talks—at length, usually, about some conflict or compromise that has nothing whatsoever to do with me. When we are apart pieces of conversation float through my mind and soothe me. I don't have to pay attention to those fragments of his, and then I like him better. When I am with him, his hands startle me, the way he moves his gray hair from his face, or the way he strokes his beard, or the way he touches my thigh or arm if we are sitting on my couch and he is facing me. He stresses some point, some vaguely significant point, and there is something buried in his comments. It is implied—I'm not sure how—that if I can only listen, not just to his voice and his endless description but to his hands and the sounds they must make, I will see him clearly. Then I'll be able to understand the weight of his life, the essence of a long marriage and parenthood and every other emotional consequence I have so carefully avoided in my own life.

I don't quite get it, on this Sunday afternoon, in the sunroom off my kitchen. I am noticing the lilac bush in my backyard and thinking about weeding a section in the northeast corner where the tulips are so red that they appear nearly black and the iris are so white that they seem to disappear into the white pickets of the fence. The fence needs painting. As usual, this tirade is about Isabelle, his twenty-year-old daughter, who is resisting returning to college and is having some financial problems, I guess.

"I mean all she had to do was take the deposit to the goddamn bank. I wrote the check: I even filled out the goddamn deposit slip. All she had to do was hand it to the teller. And she couldn't even do that. And now I have to clean up the mess and pay $480 in overdraft charges to keep her account in order," he says.

"Oh," I say. "Maybe she forgot."

I'm thinking about the teller reference and about how long it's been since I've actually gone inside a bank. My parents still go into the bank or use the drive thru and speak to a teller. They don't use ATMs. They don't understand the idea of debit cards. They think a debit card is a credit card and should not be used routinely. But they are in their late 60s. Twenty-year-old college students don't go inside of banks. They use ATMs. Maybe that's what threw Isabelle off. There has to be an explanation. But because I have never had a child, I don't comprehend how complicated it gets, how endlessly tedious and mysterious it is to be a parent. At least that's what Glenn says.


My own life is sparer. At forty-five, I have never been married for longer than four years. I have in fact avoided emotional complications the way I have avoided coloring my hair, believing it might alter my roots, might make me despise myself, might even cause cancer. It helps that I have my father's hair, pale blond with red tones, and he had no gray to speak of until his late fifties. Maybe I will hold up as well. I can only hope.


When it began with Glenn, Isabelle was five and learning to ride a two wheel bike. I don't quite understand how fifteen years are absorbed into your life, like water into a sponge.

It is true that I have grown tired of his voice, which is odd since I loved it so in the beginning. I loved his lectures. He was teaching me to print photographs in an evening class. This was a long time ago, before printing became passé, before PhotoShop made it all unnecessary. Only really good photographers still print—Glenn does, of course, though he uses computers with some of his larger images. But that summer it was grueling for me to learn the technique, to wrap the film and place it in the cylinders and use the developer and learn the pace of the printing process. He looked like Jerry Garcia, but he had a serious intellectual edge. He showed slides of photographs he had made and he used a pointer to explain how the lighting focused the eye and he quoted Hemingway. And I was intrigued. I noticed the tiny Nike shoebox he kept his supplies in, and I figured there was a child in his life, a child he bought shoes for, a child who belonged to him. He didn't wear a ring, but I knew he was married, because he was serious and single men are never serious. I remember the way he examined my camera, the way he removed the lens, the way he declared it good. I liked the way he framed his sentences and the directions he gave me about what sort of film to buy and what kind of paper I should print with. I took his direction, which is unusual for me. I loved his diction, his intonation, his hands and the way he moved them, and I loved his wild gray hair.

It wasn't like he seduced a teenager. I was nearly thirty, and I could tell that he saw me as older and able to take care of myself. He liked my comments, liked the fact that I was articulate and had been a few places and knew a little about art. But still, I had never been with a married man. I had watched my father and mother struggle with his infidelity when I was thirteen. It never really occurred to me that Glenn and I might know each other outside those rooms. Sure, I flirted a little. Maybe I touched him when he was helping me print or wind film in the darkroom, but I would never have seduced him. In my mind it was like all those silly thoughts I have when I'm doing something mindless, like Xeroxing or driving. I would remember things he said. I would think about his scent—Perry Ellis, maybe. But it wasn't anything of consequence.

Now I have gone over this with multiple therapists, and they swear it was deliberate, not consciously deliberate, but deliberate nonetheless. But I will deny this until the day I die. I did not intentionally leave my handbag in his classroom. I didn't even notice that I had left my bag until he called.

"Are you missing something," he asked.

I knew it was him. I recognized his voice, but I couldn't imagine why he was calling, what his question meant.

I said, "Excuse me?"

"This is Glenn Simpson, your teacher."

"Oh, hi," I said.

"Did you leave a bag?"

"Uh. I don't think . . . I must have." I thanked him for calling and told him I would pick up the bag in the morning if he would leave it in the department office.

"Where do you live?" he asked.

"Excuse me?"

"Where do you live?" he repeated.

"Oh, near the King Bridge."

"I drive by there on my way home. I could drop it off."

I gave him my address and promised him a beer for his trouble. I didn't change clothes. I didn't brush my teeth. I was not planning on anything happening. After all, I wasn't sure, but I had a very strong sense that he was married.

He came and said he'd have that beer I had promised. He talked about his work, about teaching, about light again, about his daughter who was five and already troubled, about his son who was three and perfect. He didn't mention his wife, but she was implied. Unnamed but implied.

I remember getting up to get another beer. I remember that as I handed it to him, he leaned forward and kissed my mouth. I remember he surprised me. It was a sweet kiss, not a groping one. His mouth was soft. It was a nice kiss. Later, I walked him to his car.

"Do you think you could ever love a married man?" he asked.

"Don't you mean to say could I ever sleep with a married man?"

"No, that's not what I meant," he said.

I said I would think about it.


But I didn't need to think. I already knew. I knew he was smart. I've always been a sucker for smart. I waited. He called quickly and for a while, daily. He wanted something. He started picking me up, driving me to class in his Volvo station wagon. I felt like a child when he drove me places. I preferred to meet him, but he insisted. Because he was fifteen years older than me, I usually assumed he knew better.

I was assigned a self-portrait and I took my photograph in my living room, in the apartment he loved because it was so sparse. It was mostly empty because I had given nearly all of the furniture to my first husband as a way of apologizing for being such a disappointment, such a fickle.

In the photograph, I wore a long red sweater that buttoned all the way down the front and no shoes. We showed our self-portrait slides to the class, and when my image flashed on the screen, he startled me by pointing out the drape of the sweater, the angle of the hips, the shape of the legs, the bareness of the feet. In a room full of people, he marked my body. I didn't mind it.

There was just one thing troubling me. I had told him everything about my failed marriage, about how confined I felt. But he refused to tell me how long he had been married. I wasn't sure why. So I made a demand. I told him I wouldn't have sex with him until he told me. I imagined he'd been married ten or twelve years. After all, he'd gone to college and graduate school and he'd lived in London for two years. Surely he didn't do all that with a wife.

"I've been married since you were six years old," he said suddenly.

"That's impossible," I said.

"Do the math," he said. "I've been married for twenty-three years."

Clearly, he took her to England. Clearly he was married during graduate school. He had never, it suddenly seemed, not been married.

"Forty-four is older than I thought," I said. "What took you so long to have kids?"

"I didn't want them. Jane did. She said if we didn't, she'd divorce me. There was only supposed to be one."

"Her name is Jane?" I asked.

"My wife's name is Jane."

"I didn't want to know that."


I slept with him. It felt better than anyone else I'd been with since my divorce. He took to calling me his girlfriend, if you can believe that. On Saturday mornings while his daughter had her ballet lessons, he'd let himself into my apartment and walk to the doorway of my bedroom. He'd say my name aloud. Ann. I had asked him to call out my name when I had given him the key. I knew it would startle me if he touched me while I was sleeping. Sometimes, just hearing my name would startle me.


He wanted me to meet his children. He wanted me to bump into them somewhere—at the movies or in a department store. He wanted to introduce me as his student. I had a flashback to dinner in a restaurant with my father while my mother was on Nantucket when I was in eighth grade. I remember my father introducing my sister and me to a blonde woman in a black dress. I remember how sick I felt when I found out later that my father was sleeping with her. Caroline always called the lady in the black dress Daddy's girlfriend. I never called her anything.

"Absolutely not," I said to Glenn. I told him I didn't want to meet anybody's kids.

"Why not?"

"Because it's fucked up. You know it's fucked up. Kids are smarter than you think. They have intuition too, you know."

I was appalled that he would suggest something so thoughtless. I was furious, actually, but I never tell him when I'm angry. Usually, I just change the subject.

"Anyway, I'm not into your kids. It's you I'm interested in. I want to pretend that this is your real life."

"This is my real life," he said.


My real life has very little to do with him. I teach high school French. I spend time with my parents. I travel when I can. One summer Glenn and I were able to go to Madrid for two weeks. I couldn't believe he was able to pull that off. Mostly, I travel alone. I used to travel quite a bit with my sister. I have friends. Most of my close friends know about Glenn; a few have met him. I garden in the spring and summer. I worry about money, about my niece in Philadelphia who is bulimic, about my grandmother who lives in a condo in Sarasota. This is my real life.

I remember about a year into the relationship. He had suddenly stopped talking about leaving Jane. I asked him if he ever thought about divorce anymore. He said the most amazing thing. It would be a legal and financial nightmare. I remember feeling a bit nauseous, but I just smiled and did something equally outrageous. I think I made him lunch and then I think I put my mouth on him. I like doing that. It disarms men, and makes me feel pretty powerful. Men think it's so important, such a generous thing. When it's really nothing. It's one of those mindless skills most women master quite easily, like polishing silver or cleaning closets.


Into the second year, Glenn tired of the effort and wondered if we could be more flexible. His plan was quite elegant really. He meant by flexible that he would call me once or twice a month and, if it was mutually agreeable, we'd see each other and maybe have sex. He would always whisper into my ear afterwards that he missed me, as he rushed out the door on the way to pick up his children from the sitter.


Into the fifth year, I moved. He no longer had my key but he might as well. Sometimes I liked the clarity of the situation, but other times I was enraged. When Caroline died in a car accident, I made the mistake of calling him. He was so sorry and he tried for five or ten minutes to console me. Then he apologized when he told me that he was prepping for an important show, and he regretted that he couldn't let himself be distracted. I'm not a jerk. He sounded like Nixon. It's just too intense, Ann.

By then I was seeing the limitations. Still, I liked the fact of it, the lack of expectation. I still liked the way he said my name. I liked the way he turned down the music when we had sex because he wanted to hear the sounds I made. I liked the way he surprised me still. The softness of his mouth—I loved that. And I liked it when he called me His secret. His love. His treasure.

And so I kept him. Even during a brief three-year second marriage. I still found time to arrange it, when my husband was away on business trips. Not often, just five or six times a year. After I would have sex with Glenn, I'd always change the sheets. I never really had to lie out loud. My husband never even suspected. When I asked for a divorce, he thought I was kidding. He thought I was afraid of something. He thought my grief over my sister was pulling me away. He wanted us to go into counseling. I opted out of counseling. I didn't want to lie. In the end, it was obvious that he was just too nice a person to be with someone like me.

My parents were thrown by the second divorce. They worried something was really wrong. They asked me if there was something I needed to tell them. They asked if they had harmed me in some way. I wonder sometimes if they think I'm a lesbian.


When I called Glenn to tell him that I had ended my second marriage, he was positively gleeful.

"Didn't I tell you it would be a mistake? Didn't I? You have no idea what a wonderful life you have. Remember I warned you? You're the kind of girl who wasn't meant to be tied down."

All true, I'm sure. Except that I'm not a girl anymore. I changed the subject and made plans with him. I imagined how good it would be to have my house back. I love that monastic look after my divorces when only my things are left. In that moment, before it falls apart, I love this secret life, this privacy I long for, these quiet unreliable seconds that seem so clean, so hopeless, so imperfect and true.  

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