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Beth’s not crazy. She knows that never works, too pleading. But she’s not. When the bipolar diagnosis came raining down from Dr. Philip Kleinman, perched high atop his psychiatric Mayan throne, waving lithium and lexapro like a psychotropic scepter, she told him the same thing. And she doesn’t mean to sound so angry at Dr. Phillip (who nobody could call Dr. Phil per the syndicated Dr. Phil), nor does she mean to borrow Mayan imagery in case that’s offensive to anybody. But she’s not crazy, and she doesn’t have bipolar disorder, and she’s not saying that people who have bipolar disorder are crazy. You’re not crazy, and if you are crazy, it’s probably something unrelated to the bipolar disorder. That’s how she thinks about all of this now, you know, she’s sane like everybody’s sane, mostly and then not at all. It’s been three years since she’s on seroquel and guess what? Nothing. She sleeps like a baby, all pink and sprawled out, blissfully dreaming about maternal collarbone. Does she get fast? Yeah, she gets fast, but who doesn’t get fast? People want to get fast, you know at least in America, where everybody drinks coffee to go. They say in Europe, everybody siestas and you drink cappuccino with your multilingual lover for hours and it’s uncouth for waiters to bring checks early. Beth’s not European, you know, so maybe her manic depression is a culturally shared manic depression. All she’s saying is there’s a million ways to look at this thing, and she resents the one people land on requiring medication.
When she told Mark this, he just stared at her. He stared down at her from his 6-foot-3 roost and she looked up from her 5-foot-4 divet, and he just said, “Beth, not at all.” He looked at her in that moment almost exactly the way he looked at her after undoing her bra. All wide-eyed and slack-mouthed, his whole face a beehive of honeycomb “O”s, dumbfounded at the heights and depths of her humanity. With Mark, the heights used to be the things she’d say when they were curled up in bed, both soft and ductile from whatever it is sex does to bodies. The lows were the things she’d say in the long weeks when she was the fastest, every word wrangled feral from sleep deprivation. It didn’t matter that she was saying the same things in both places, or that she’s always said the same things.
Mark broke up with Beth soon after that conversation. He was weary, she was weary, but he was more weary. That’s how he got the breakup upper hand. She was still slightly more content in their splintered routine, two weeks shy of reaching the state of urgency that instigates the slow, surgical splicing of someone out of your life. He was there though, already bleeding at the triage counter as she limped a half-month behind. One night, when she returned home in her work-shirt and work-shorts with her hair up in a tightly wound work-ponytail, Mark had made an entire three-course Italian meal. They had bread and bolognese and tiramisu. It was the kind of thing he had done all the time a year prior when they had first started dating. Beth thinks breakups are always harbingered by a sharp return to whatever early-dating behavior ignited the relationship. It’s not a Hail Mary, too late for a Hail Mary. She dated a man named Noah before Mark and they fucked so much at the beginning, that kind of porous, shared-sweat, angry fucking that you do for hours, that becomes its own schedule with time to eat and work decided around it. At the end, they fucked a lot too. In the middle, they made love and she thinks that was probably the issue.
At the table, Mark’s there, lighting candles on the table and smiling up at Beth like he’s Lucille Ball. “Hey babe,” he kisses her on the cheek. “Hey baby,” she answers back. Beth never ascertained why she was babe and Mark was baby, or how these specific intricacies to terms of endearment take root. Growing up, her Mother called her Bunny and her Father called her Cheeseball and her Stepfather called her Beth. Affection is of a complicated etymology.
She knows what Mark’s doing. He’s making her a nice dinner so he can break her heart over rotini. Beth wants a last supper together and she wants that tiramisu to be an explicit part of their last supper. But Beth rejects the image of Mark standing over his sautéed bell peppers, made with some barely-googled New York Times recipe, speculating over the how and when of his directive. She wants to yell at him that she’s unhappy too and that this isn’t working and that his voice became grating as of last Tuesday. All these true things that will sound like false, desperate swings at salvaging fractile pride after he says them first. She supposes this kind of mutual, machinating smoke-screen would not be un-similar to how it would feel if he was going to propose. Is he going to do it? When is he going to do it? How will I tell my mother? But Mark isn’t going to propose because she told him she doesn’t believe in marriage so he never proposes and she never has to rethink her position.
He starts laying out the food on that canary-yellow tablecloth his Aunt Vivienne sent him. Vivienne says she sewed it, Beth says no way, Mark abstains. All the women in Mark’s family send him things twinged with domesticity, little monogrammed gunshots of their projected reverse-Oedipal desires in the form of slow cookers and little silver spoons. Their Mark is tall and handsome and steadily employed, forging the cast-iron home none of their husbands could. Like St. Francis, they drag ideological stones to their wasted church, or like Kevin Costner, they drag rubber bases to their dreamscape baseball diamond. But look, Beth doesn’t mean to sound so angry at them. They’re very nice women and they’ve always welcomed her, even his mother. Once Beth called Mark unweaned and he said she can’t stand seeing people want things.
“No one likes seeing want,” Beth shot back, “it hurts to see people lack.”
“That’s not what it is and you know that,” he said, in the rumbling, low-pitched voice he saves for when he’s soapbox certain, “you don’t care if people lack, you just care they ask for more.”
“Baby, this looks delicious,” she says, because it does. It’s a cornucopia, a Rockwell print of American bounty if he ever painted unmarried couples moments before estrangement.
“Well, I thought you might be hungry.”
She pours two glasses of water and two glasses of red wine. They move to opposite sides of the small, round Formica table, which happens every night even though circles don’t have sides. They sit on the same practiced beat.
When they finish eating, Beth pirate- swills the rest of her wine.
“How was your day?” she asks.
“Good, good. Uneventful.”
“You never say that.”
“I always say that.”
Mark is 29. Beth is 23. He is an anesthesiologist. She is a waitress.
“How was your day?”
“It was nice, lunch was busy.”
“And how are you?”
When he asks, Beth can tell it’s not chit-chat, his question is a thermometer pricking incautiously into his perceptions of intemperate moods. It’s spoken softly and firmly, uncompromising in care and condescension.
“I’m fine.” She answers adolescently. She adds a daddy in her head.
Beth is furious. See Beth furious. She wants to scream at him and flip the yellow table and take a mallet to the eggshells he’s standing on, half an inch higher than her. But how can she give so satisfying an answer to “Really?”
Instead she says evenly, “We should break up.”