I was no longer lonely but I was. I had Dominic, my sister’s diabetic foxhound, who followed me from room to room, lumbering onto my lap, unaware of his bulk. I liked the smell of his meaty breath, which he didn’t know was rancid. I liked the warmth of his fat belly, the primal way he crouched when he took a shit. It felt so intimate scooping his gigantic shits, the big hot bags of them. I thought, This is the proper use of my love, this is the man for me, this is the way.
The beach house was a contemporary glass fortress, sparse enough to remind me nothing of my life back home. I could disappear in a good way: as if never having existed, unlike the way I felt I was disappearing all fall, winter, and spring in my hot, cluttered apartment in Phoenix, surrounded by reminders of myself and Jamie, suffocating in what was mine. There are good and bad ways of vanishing. I wanted no more belongings.
On the second-story deck of the beach house I escaped the hell of my own smelly bathrobe, wearing one of the silk kimonos my sister had left behind. I fell asleep out there every night, tipsy on white wine, under the Venice stars, with my feet tucked under Dominic’s gut, belonging to nothing familiar. I felt no pressure to fall asleep, and so, after nine months of insomnia, I was finally able to drift off easily every night. Then at three a.m. I would wake gently and traipse to the bed with the Egyptian cotton sheets, kicking my legs all over them in celebration, rolling around and touching my own skin as though I were a stranger touching someone foreign, or cradling the big back of the dog to my front to die to the world for another eight hours. I might have even been happy.
And yet, walking on Abbot Kinney Boulevard one night at the end of my first week there, passing the windows of the yuppie shops—each their own white cube gallery—I saw two people, a man and a woman, early twenties maybe, definitely on a first or second date, and I knew I still wasn’t okay. They were discussing intently where they should go to eat and drink, as though it really mattered. He had an accent, German, I think, and was handsome and fuckable: hair close-cropped and boyish, strong arms, an Adam’s apple that protruded and made me think of sucking on it.
The woman was, as the undergrads at the Arizona university where I worked as a librarian might say, a butterface.
For nine years I had been at Southwest State in the dual lit and classics PhD program. Somehow, miraculously, despite having not yet turned in my thesis, they hadn’t withdrawn my funding. In exchange for thirty hours of work per week in the library, I was housed in a below-market-rent apartment off-campus and received a yearly stipend of $33,000. I was supposed to be working on a book-length project entitled “The Accentual Gap: Sappho’s Spaces as Essence.” This year, as a result of my tardiness, I’d been appointed a new advisory committee, comprised of both the classics and English department chairpersons, and I was no longer flying under the radar.
In March, I had met with them at a Panera Bread, where they delivered the news over paninis—Napa almond chicken salad for the English chair in her coffee-stained Easter sweater and tuna salad for the classics chair, his nose swollen with rosacea—that I was to have a full draft completed by the fall semester or my funding would be pulled and I would be out. So far, this had not made me hustle any faster.
It wasn’t that I no longer felt impassioned by Sappho. I did, or sort of did, as much as you can feel impassioned by anyone you have lived with for nine years. But it had dawned on me around year six that the thesis of my thesis, its whole raison d’être, was faulty. In fact, it was not just faulty. It was total bullshit. But I didn’t know how to fix it. So I’d just been riding it out.
The book operated under the notion that scholars always assumed a first-person speaker when reading Sappho’s poetry. Scholars were kind of assholes and they actually hated mystery—they detested any inability to fill in the blanks. They were victims, like the rest of us, of the way their brains worked: trying to compartmentalize every fragment of information into a pattern. They wanted the world to make sense. Who didn’t? So when reading Sappho’s work, they took details that they already knew, or thought they knew, of Sappho’s life, and used them to fill in the blanks. But they did so erroneously, like a psychologist who, after learning three extraneous things about a person’s childhood, believes they know the whole person.
My book presented the argument that one should read the vast number of erasures in Sappho’s work as intentional. True, Sappho had not included these herself. They were created by the passage of time and dirt since 600 BCE. Most of her work was actually missing, with only 650 lines of 10,000 surviving. But I argued that to reimagine these blanks as created by Sappho herself was far less of a co-option than filling in the gaps with what little we know of her life, creating our own meanings for them out of a desire to make history our own, and above all, projecting a first-person speaker upon them. I felt that the only way we would cease projecting was if the blanks were read as intentional text themselves. Forget whether she was a lesbian, preferred younger men, was hypersexual, bisexual, or had multiple male lovers. If we were going to ascribe meaning, let’s do it with what was there rather than what was not there.
Unfortunately this was a total garbage proposition. I, myself, had a very complicated relationship with emptiness, blankness, nothingness. Sometimes I wanted only to fill it, frightened that if I didn’t it would eat me alive or kill me. But sometimes I longed for total annihilation in it—a beautiful, silent erasure. A desire to be vanished. And so I was most guilty of all in projecting an agenda. I knew it, which was why I had not really pressed ahead. I wasn’t sure if my advisory committee knew it. But I was about to be cut off and I figured that a shitty book was probably better than no book at all.
So I continued to trudge, not wanting to quit and get a “real” job, not really knowing what I could do anyway. Most of my time in public was spent in the library, amidst the undergrads, and that was where I had heard them use the words butterface and brown bagger. They used these words to describe women of attractive body and unattractive face, and this woman on Abbot Kinney was, in my opinion, definitely one. I moved quickly behind her to observe her further.
Her visage, when she turned her head to talk to the man, was hard and pronounced, with a jutting nose and chin, but she had good hair and a hot body to save her. She wore a pair of tiny navy silk shorts from which the very bottom of her ass cheeks protruded ever so slightly. You almost felt compelled to touch them. Everything she said was filtered through her own awareness of how good her ass looked, the words she spoke merely an afterthought compared to the glory at the bottom of those shorts. She was almost like a vehicle for shorts and an ass. She sort of danced a little down the sidewalk and flicked her hair.
He was no better. He asked stupid questions—“So how long have you lived here?” and “Do you like it?”—but every question was a chance to put his own hotness into action. Why were they even bothering to speak? Who had time for all of this? Why weren’t they just fucking, right there, out in the open? The entire performance was merely a vessel for something else. It was nothingness.
Sure, compared to the greater nothingness—the void, the lack of explicit meaning in life, the fact that none of us knows what is going on here—it was at least something. Their engagement in this dance of elevating a stupid restaurant to high levels of importance, discussing kombucha, making the fleeting matter, the shorts: all of these were a fuck-you to emptiness. Or perhaps these details were symptomatic of their ignorance of nothingness. Was nothingness so imperceptible to them that these things could matter?
Could anyone be totally ignorant of the void? Didn’t all of us have an awareness of it, a brush with it—perhaps only once or twice, like at a funeral for someone very close to you, when you walked out of the funeral home and it stopped making sense for just a blip that you existed. Or perhaps a bad mushroom trip where one’s fellow trippers looked like plastic. Could there be people on this Earth who never stopped for a moment, not once, to say: What is everything?
Whether these were those people or not, I knew that in this moment neither of them was asking that question. If they had tasted the nausea of not knowing why we are here or who we are, or if they had not, now they were willfully and successfully ignoring it. Or maybe they were just stupid. Oh, the sweet gift of stupidity. I envied them.
But really, I knew that everything came down to her shorts. All of the answers were in that ass line—the reduction of all fear, all unknown, all nothingness, eclipsed by the ass line. It was holding its own in all of this. It was just existing as though living was easy. The ass line didn’t really have to do anything, but it was running the whole show. All dialogue began and ended at that ass line. The direction of their evening, their dialogue, and in a way, the universe ended there. I hated them.
I hated their ease with everything. I hated their lack of loneliness, their sense of time stretching out languidly like something to be toyed with, as though it were never going to get too late tonight or in their lives. I didn’t know who I resented more: the man or the woman.
I have always felt that it would be good to be a man. Not only have I always wanted to have my own dick—just to walk around feeling that weight between my legs, that power—but I have longed to escape the time pressures that my body has put on me. I hated the German man on Abbot Kinney for having that, no time pressure. I hated the woman too, for being so young, for having so much time left to be hot and maybe someday have a baby.
I had never wanted a baby. I never felt the desire so many women describe that suddenly hits them. Having just turned thirty-eight, I had been waiting and waiting for that desire to overtake me, but it didn’t. So I always looked on it casually, like something mildly distasteful: a piece of onion I would prefer not to put on my plate.
But I loved having the option of having a baby if I still wanted one. I liked having the future ahead of me. People say that youth is wasted on the young and I agree in so many respects that it was wasted on me, but in one way I had appreciated it. I always had a sense of my privilege with time. Part of my casualness with the question of having children was that I sensed how lucky I was that I could one day have the choice if I wanted. I liked that that day was very far off. The distance felt luxurious.
I had secretly judged women who regretted never having children and were now no longer of the age at which they could have them. I judged them, perhaps, because I feared becoming them. But now at thirty-eight, my time was beginning to run out. I still didn’t want a child. I didn’t know what I would do with a child if I had one. But I missed having that open space before me in which to decide. And if that ass-cheeks woman had been paying attention to me, I knew she would have judged me as I had judged others my age.
She might have also judged me for being unmarried. When Jamie and I first met, I told him that marriage was an archaic declaration of ownership and it wasn’t for me. He said “good,” because it wasn’t his thing either. But four years into the relationship I wanted desperately for Jamie to ask me to marry him, if only because he wouldn’t. I’d never been a jewelry person, but something inside me longed for that ring. Outwardly I shit-talked blood diamonds, while quietly I studied other women’s rings, learning the names of the various diamond cuts: cushion, emerald, princess. I swore that married women used their left hands more than their right when they spoke, gestured, or wiped a stray hair out of their eyes, just to rub it in. They seemed to be saying, Look, someone wants me this much. I have safely made it to the other shore.
But what would I have even done as a married person? What would I have done with Jamie in my space or me in his? Choosing Jamie to love for so many years was perhaps more of a symbol of my own fear of intimacy than it was of his. He was intoxicating when we first met: a geologist, 6’2”, handsome in an L.L.Bean travel vest sort of way, golden brown and unshaven with sandy-brown hair, ten years my senior. He made me feel like a special little pea. Through his work in the desert with the university, he had received a grant from the American Geological Fund to make documentaries on the national parks. He always directed and edited the docs himself, and the grant gave him the power to travel, be free, and always be producing. Even though the documentaries aired at two a.m. on limited cable channels, he could never be accused of failing. “I’m more with the scientists than the artists,” he said. But he had the allure of an artist.
In our earlier years together I traveled to see him on location often. I spent my holiday breaks in an Airstream at Acadia National Park, Glacier, Yosemite. He would go on shoots all day and I would go out exploring, bringing back little souvenirs. He loved hearing what I had seen, correcting my landscape terminology. My favorites were the lakes and oceans, the rivers and waterfalls, like nothing we had in the desert. The rushing water, and traveling in general, made me feel like my life was moving forward, in spite of my flagging thesis. I identified myself with his work. It felt adventurous.
Copyright © 2018 by Melissa Broder. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.