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My memory is of Rolly under me, marveling “we just want to please each other,” while I peered down at my pressed white breasts rocking against his damp chest. The furnished apartment on West 26th Street, which he’d rented when his wife kicked him out, was a luxurious little place by most standards, with wide wooden floorboards, a transparent kitchen table set, and an unused garden. But he hated it. He loathed being alone and under the intrusive gaze of his neurotic landlady, whose allergy to perfume required us to use a glycerin soap I found drying.
“Take your time, Elizabeth,” he’d whisper, holding my hips in his hands, “I plan to be fucking you for hours.” I gripped the headboard and looked at the tidy paintings behind it. To relax and concentrate, I would banish other images from my mind and focus only on him. Rolly had a heart-shaped face, heavy glasses, short-cropped graying black hair, and the most intelligent hands I have ever seen – “safecracker fingers,” he’d giggled. He stood five feet four inches tall, and when strewn atop him thus as if large myself, my mind’s eye might picture someone female there beneath me, like my tennis partner, Kitty McNulty, a cheerful tow-headed woman with large breasts and an aggressive net game. I wasn’t inclined to kiss women, not since I was nine and played Hooker and John with my best friend Gale, an unpopular bedwetter with dark red pigtails high on either side of her head.
“Whom do you belong to, Elizabeth?” Rolly would demand, jutting his pelvis up with a jerk, his eyebrows stern. I’d smell his densely shaven cheeks and get a thrill. “You, Rolly, I belong to you.”
It astonished me that at the age of fifty-one, when my friends’ husbands were suddenly leaving them, possibly for gay lovers, and certainly for mentally unstable women in their twenties who might wear a dirndl in an online photo, I was having my heyday. It does not escape me, I cannot overlook the sad cliché that this bright thing came by way of Rolly’s harmful antipathy for his wife, and that my giddy excitement would turn into despair.
At the time however, I delighted in his close attention, how he studied of all my movements, noticing any slight changes in my voice that indicated a shift in mood, or the unladylike way I would jab the end of a sandwich into my mouth with one finger; it was as if what I said or did were important. And unlike my husband, a dolt of a man – for there was this unfortunate fact also–Rolly was famous. Not famous to you, perhaps – not a celebrity like Marlon Brando, say, or Martin Scorsese, or Leander Paes, or whomever. But to my mind, he might as well have been. “It’s not whether he’s actually great that we’re talking about,” said Toryn, who’d been to Arizona for co-dependency rehab, “but rather the fact that you think he’s great that counts.”
“You like it when I possess you,” Rolly whispered. I could hear the landlady shuffling around upstairs. “I know you so well,” he said, tugging the duvet out from where it had bulked up and hindered me. When his glasses were off, I could examine his face lovingly. His nose was a puzzle. Seen in profile, it looked straight and refined, yet from the front, the effect was utterly different, clownish, bad. I kissed him. “You delight me,” he said. “So obedient, how you like to please me.” Here my undulations finally began. Deep sounds came out of my mouth. There was a faint smell of cabbage I found exciting, like a dark hallway in my childhood. “That’s what I need to hear,” Rolly cried, his cheeks ruddy, his elbows perching him up. “I plan to hear you for decades, Elizabeth.” The sex made him high, he would say anything. “And now I will flip you over and put a baby in your belly.”
Just before the big thing started, my physical appearance had made a dramatic turn for the better. For years it seemed I had tried to emulate my outdoorsy stepmother, Pam, a Roosevelt from the provinces who, though plain, had stolen my father from our family when I was eight. My clothing choices still followed her “style” – shapeless, putty-colored fleece tops, pale, too-short “Connecticut” pants, flat, mouse-colored hair, and glasses – a look that was sometimes reflected back at me with a measure of derision, as if people were annoyed by how I narrowed and minimized myself. Indeed, my resemblance to my stepmother was embedded in the way I behaved, never rocking the boat, continually volunteering as if this were important, and denying my artistic underpinnings, my desire to destroy things loudly or build them by tinkering here and there.
Now I had become newly trim and muscular, following a two-year immersion in my local tennis circuit (another of my stepmother’s avocations, along with ceramics,) and I had cut my hair and highlighted it, and somehow the whole thing came together.
“What baby, Rolly? I am past reproducing.” I puffed, worn out. There was a plastic cube of new sheets unopened on the floor, to replace ones I had already bloodied, as my body was undergoing a sloughing and a predicament I hadn’t yet taken in. “Is my fantasy too close to the bone?” he asked. “You’re the main event, Elizabeth. A baby would just be somewhere else to put my love for you.” Afterwards, we ate bonbons and potato chips in bed. An array of colorful dry cleaning overflowed from the closet and hung about the room. “Don’t google me,” Rolly said suddenly. “I will become vain inside the relationship.”
To say that I was in awe of Rolly’s fame does not diminish the claim this love makes. I was not the type to want something for nothing. I had never dated anyone particularly eloquent or special, not in recent memory. And yet, it was as if to be lifted from obscurity and unhappiness, sitting by his side, while the keynote speaker inevitably wound around to making Rolly the focal point of a whole speech ostensibly about something else. Through the scrum of fans, he’d wiggle his fingers behind his back to demand my hand, and my heart would bang open. I loved Rolly so much that, later when it ended, I had to ask god’s help to clear my thinking of morbid curiosity and longing. For a difficult period, the ache lodged itself in my sternum like a chestnut, until eventually I managed to feel something else.
I hadn’t spoken to my father for a couple of years. That was just how it was, nothing un-benign, nothing bizarre about it. When I’d borne my son, Anup, who was by this point a gloomy teenager, my father had not wanted us to come see him. “Not necessary,” he said, so we didn’t. My husband’s family moved in anyway, making for more than enough relations. To claim my space, I might breastfeed without much coverage. Who could know their strange formalities?
“This is your life, Elizabeth,” Rolly said, passing me a bag of handmade Tibetan flowers and organic room spray from a junket. I wore a mink coat belonging to my friend’s mother, who had recently died. My life was also elsewhere, bound to haphazard dinners with my husband, whom I was afraid of, though he periodically produced Best Buy gifts in a cycle my D.V. social worker called “the honeymoon phase”.
In the ’70s, I had gone to watch Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors play at the US Open with Dad and Pam. Our seats were in the sun and it was very hot. My father had soft hair and wore brown lace shoes with fascinating perforated patches on the toe and heel. I was feeling lazy and my stepmother had scolded me for having rummaged through her purse looking for gum or candy. Dad asked me something technical about the match and I felt my eyes hood over. I lived in the city with my mother and sister, we didn’t play sports, so I didn’t know.
“That’s all you got?” taunted Mo, the pro, when I hit the ball with all my might. I jerked awake in my sleep, swinging at balls. I liked to play against the men and hear their self-excoriating shouts ring through the dome like trees crashing down in a hurricane. I had an excess of angry energy I couldn’t really use. Sometimes, if I became too adamant, my body would start emitting a tinny smell, and I’d be losing. “So, you want to be the big hero?” Mo would ask. “Take a battery out of it. When you be all out there you lose focus. Stay within yourself.”
It was easy for Rolly to remember ordinary details I told him, how, when Anup put his fingers in a glass of water and pressed them to his forehead I could tell he had a headache, or how my daughter Usha asked, “Do you think everyone has at least one mole?” He remembered who became animated gossiping about graft at the Forest Hills Tennis Center; that it was Heidi whose Alsatian put its beaky snout in every passing crotch; that my uncle Birdie had been too inebriated to wake when his bed caught fire from a discarded cigarette; that Usha had shouted “Shazam, I’m doing it!” when a bedraggled Captain McNulty ran behind with a broomstick through the back of her bike and let go; that Anup was evidently “burning through his candy money” at camp; that I had married my husband because I thought he would look up to me and I could use him.
“How will we keep Usha from becoming vulgar?” Rolly asked, as if we were parenting together, or he had seen firsthand the vanity creeping in at her age, how she had begun to flip her long hair and pick out short shorts. “Should we plan on keeping alcohol out of the house, considering Anup’s predisposition to addiction?” These protective words filled me with hope.
“If you give someone your number,” Toryn said later, matter-of-factly, “they will keep dialing it.”
One day, just before we were due to take a trip to Kyoto together, Rolly handed me my clothes in a paper bag on a street corner and announced he had decided to reconcile with his wife. There was garbage blowing past our feet. He wouldn’t see me again. He would have to block my number. I sat down on a stoop and watched him walk away, a pant leg stuck in his sock from behind. I tried to show his love letters to Toryn, as proof of what had been between us. “It’s his circus,” she said emotionlessly, pushing them aside, “are you buying a ticket?”
I met Jude on Tinder in another city. He was tall, subdued, shaven headed, elegant enough. There were many times a day when I needed him. Sometimes I would call and ratchet things up. “I wish I could stroke your head right now. You must be missing me, I can tell by the way you answered.” Jude lived in a stone house in Bellport, with square bushes like tidy topiary and a Jacobite rose out in back. He liked to cluck at a crow on the stone wall, and have it caw back in response.
“Are you nervous, getting to know me? Because I am still nervous,” I’d confess. Jude seemed reawakened by this sort of conversation. Yet, he sensed that something might be awry, that I might flip flop at any moment. “Am I your rebound guy?” he asked, because he was “cautious” and “a scientist”. It was easy to love this traditional man. I would remember the details he told me, how he hated to waste food, how he’d made profilometers for the Taiwanese government; how he was happy it would be monohulls in the America’s Cup in 2021. “I feel possessive of you suddenly. Soon I’ll be pouncing on top of your big brown hairy chest, and you’ll be jabbing me with your penis.” I praised him like a molested person, crafty and harmed.
Sometimes, if I were feeling fragile, our phone call might go clumsily, and Jude might say something off-putting. “Are you dirty? Do you need me to clean you up?” Such frankness reminded of the time in the limo when Rolly reasoned aloud that I was “underpriced” (or was it “undervalued”?). Thinking of it made me morose.
“It’s rather urgent you tell me about the spandex, Jude,” I whispered. He sailed in neoprene pants on cold days. By then, he’d relaxed. “I understand the urgency,” he replied, “because I know what intrigues you, and I love you.”
I became preoccupied with seeing Rolly again, perhaps by chance, on the subway or in a shop. There were many scenarios. I would tell him, “My nice bald boyfriend is six feet tall. He bangs me vigorously because he’s a scientist.” Then again, it was also possible I’d have desultorily thrown a fanny pack across my waist or be eating something on the fly. I wanted to force deep repentance from him. I pictured my funeral, Rolly despondent and wretched. These maudlin imaginings put me in a frame of mind to Skype Jude. “We are like two lizards,” I’d say, peering vainly into the camera, “staring at each other on a hot rock.” As if it were a hoax, the images had been spoken before. (I was still clinging, I could not let go.) “Drinking each other in,” Jude added, from his sofa, in his round eyeglasses, and because he still had his kind innocence, though mine had disappeared.
Just when trying to recreate the relationship I had had was starting to make me feel bad, Jude wanted me and my children to come live with him in Bellport. Inescapably and without explanation, I withdrew from our romantic project altogether. The conversation was more disagreeable than I had expected. Surely, I could have molded myself. Although Anup hated sailing, he never would have gone. There was time I might have sought a life in the provinces. Now I just needed to break things loudly or build them by tinkering here and there.