Cross-legged at the kitchen table, embroidering a fixed-gear bike in mint thread on the end of a navy-blue scarf, I sat, while at the counter, my mother creamed a pound each of butter and sugar, and grilled me.
“Well is he a Christian at least?”
The man in question, Adam*, was a PhD candidate at the University of Rochester. He got hot for imaginary numbers, but as for the rest of the unseen world, he was explicitly not convinced.
“If he’s not a Christian, then it’s doomed. That’s the glue that holds it all together.”
“I’m going to marry this guy, Ma,” I said. She hissed. “We’re going to hold it together through hard work and will.”
What else was there to say? The bowl thumped against the counter, the fork shrilled against the glass sides, as my mom ruthlessly worked the shortbread dough.
I met Adam when I was 19 and he was 26. We got to know each other going to protests: an anti-Nazi rally in Buffalo, a picket at the border patrol on Lake Ontario, a few house parties hosted by the International Socialist Organization.
One day very early in our friendship, I got a call from Adam. He sounded far away and scatterbrained.
“Are you downtown?”
“Yeah. What are you up to?”
“Do you have a car?”
“Yeah, is everything OK?”
“I crashed my bike. Can you come get me?”
He was on East Ave, just a minute’s drive from me. He looked washed out and small, lit by a bus shelter and the reflection of slate gray sky in tall buildings. He sat on the wet sidewalk with his elbows on his knees and his bike on its side, the rain slowing down like it had gotten what it came for. He got up OK, and we took the front wheel off the Bianchi and put the whole thing in the back of the Volvo.
In the ER, I sat very close to Adam and wanted very much to lean my head on his shoulder. I was flooded with love and generosity; it did not occur to me that I was likely the only person he knew with a car. He barely knew me and he chose me to rely on, to be vulnerable with. He had a dislocated shoulder and some road rash.
I took him home and saw his apartment for the first time. We sat in his closet and watched a Bergman movie on a laptop, and I touched his hurt shoulder gingerly and vowed to myself always to be the one with the Volvo in a pinch.
I let myself be vulnerable with him, too. I told him about my first year of college, how no one believed that I had been sexually assaulted by the handsome, popular life-of-the-party. But Adam believed me. With him, I felt like a real person again, and it was as a complete and whole person that I had sex with a man for the first time, feeling neither that I was losing something or giving something away.
A few months later, we decided to get married. Because what could be funnier than a couple of queer, ethically nonmonogamous, Marxist atheists redefining traditional marriage in a small ceremony in a Quaker meetinghouse? The answer is nothing. Except that I loved the living hell out of him and definitely wanted to bear his math-prodigy, prematurely balding, little Lenin look-alikes. And I believed that for him, I was the one so impossible not to love that he thought about marriage like it wasn’t a social construct designed to replicate the modes of production.
I wanted to be his family. He had never had much of a family because his parents were distant and cold, and he was an only child. I picture his childhood passing in a slightly damp room where he sat studying or playing computer games while his parents screamed at each other in another room.
In his adulthood, he hadn’t heard from his dad in years, but his mom called once every couple months or so. To me, it seemed like they were useless. It might be hard for me to give him the uninvolved distance he was used to, but my presence came with a servant’s heart.
Flash-forward to my mother’s house in Indiana, Christmas morning 2006: I woke up early and went down to the basement to wake Adam, who was sleeping on the couch. My sister and her fiancé, Travis, used to get the sleeping separation, but after they announced they were engaged, that stopped. But not for me.
He said he wasn’t ready to get up. Upstairs we listened to Mariah Carey sing “All I Want for Christmas is You.” We waited for Adam for about an hour and then decided to dive in.
Everyone in my family had gotten Adam presents. We put them in a pile for him, but he never ascended the stairs. Eventually, my family asked me for the satisfaction of watching me open his presents. My father had gotten Adam a Leatherman multi-tool. My sister had made him a card. My mother got him a set of flannel pajamas and sturdy socks. Of course, I had embroidered for him a matching scarf and sweater.
Throughout this, I maintained a smile, but my heart was breaking for Adam. I imagined he must be alienated, thinking of all the Christmases his parents were barely present for him. So what if holidays didn’t matter in his family? It still must have been pretty isolating lurking like an orphan at the window, just outside the glow of old stop-motion TV specials, just outside the periphery of America’s multicolored string lights.
My extended family began to arrive around 2 p.m., in all of their finery, wearing all of their new presents, dripping in costume jewelry, made up like we were all at a wedding. I might have been embarrassed about all the bourgeois aspirations and what my austere boyfriend would think of this materialism, except that he had not come to the party. He had slipped upstairs to my room, unnoticed, while my sister and I crooned, “Sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters,” at each other in front of a roaring fire.
My cousins asked where my fiancé was. My aunt asked, “So, what is a Quaker wedding like?” I made up a plate of vegetarian side dishes and brought it to him.
He was lying on my teenage bed, with no lights on even though it was after four. Was it abundance that was weird for him? All these people parading in with deviled eggs and derby pie, squealing at first sight and wrapping each other in kisses.
I relayed all the hilariously offensive things my arch-conservative uncle said in praise of George W. I described the desserts to follow the vegetarian side dishes. My great-grandma’s million-dollar fudge was only the beginning.
“Do you think you’ll want to come down soon? What if we just take a walk, get out of the house for a while?”
I grabbed my cousin Emily and a joint, and we all went for a walk through the suburbs. He was normal. He was warm and loving. We held hands and looked at reindeer made of lights.
When we got back in the house, we were corralled into the formal living room. My cousin, the trapeze artist, was standing in front of her boyfriend, the acrobat, who was on one knee. He gave her a ring. We all cried and laughed and toasted true love.
I continued to drink, toasting true love, or just trying to not see what a shit my boyfriend was turning into. As folks started to leave the party, my sister munched leftover ham with apricot glaze and Adam leaned over and said, “Isn’t dead animal flesh just the best? I love the texture of fast-twitch muscle tissue.”
“Yeah, it’s delicious,” she said unironically.
Emily and I were basically in a race to see who could drink the most egg nog. There was also rum, the gold Patron my father gives my stepfather every year, Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet. A few hours later, I was speaking exclusively in French. I ended up puking in Emily’s parka, and then I blacked out. Adam stayed up as if he were jet-lagged rather than amped from a day in bed, trying to engage my sister in some pretentious conversation while she kept an eye on me and made sure I didn’t choke on my own vomit.
My family loved me by loving Adam. I see now that this was willfulness on their part, that this was work.
The next day, I was so hung over, I got into a full tub and just stayed there for six hours, emptying the tub when it got cold. Puking while the water refilled. Adam came in and sat beside the tub. He stroked my torso but I felt like a mannequin under his touch. He didn’t stay.
I lost a full day to my hangover. In the morning, I woke up and crawled in Adam’s bed, excited, cuddly, happy. “I missed you,” I said.
“I’m flying to Rochester in an hour and a half,” he said. “And we need to talk.”
He walked me back to my room where we sat on my bed.
“Remember when I said it would be impossible not to love you?”
“Yes,” I said, pleased.
“That’s still true. I find it impossible not to love you, and that’s why I don’t want to see you anymore. Because I don’t want to be in love. I want to be alone.”
It was unbelievable to me, because I was doing all the work. I’d made love like it was a choice, you just keep saying yes to love. I was doing all that needed to be done to accommodate him and he was saying both that it was working, that he loved me back, and also that it was for that reason that he never wanted to see me again.
I was shattered. He had stopped believing in me, in our love. Our marriage was a revolution yet-to-be imagined, and he was no longer convinced.
I pulled on some black leggings and a black turtleneck with three-quarter-length sleeves. I wore a kelly-green, velvet skirt.
He said, “You look pretty. Did you get those for Christmas?”
“Yes," I said, “which you would have known if you had been there. Help me fasten my necklace.” I demanded, as if black pearls and ready-made clothes were the armor of the middle-class, and as if I could be untouchable if I were pretty enough. I sobbed uncontrollably, but still took him downstairs so that he would feel comfortable and entitled to be in the kitchen, even though doubtless my family was going to turn on him for doing this to me.
He made himself a fried egg. He used a good quarter of a stick of butter and I said, “You don’t need that much,” because two days earlier he had asked me to fry him one of my perfect eggs.
He turned on me then, “No, you don’t need that much. I ride a bike. I need way more calories, and I’ll pick up protein and fat wherever I can,” as if this were at the heart of why our relationship was ending, this fundamental misunderstanding of his metabolism, this attempt on my part to care too much about how his eggs would turn out.
My mother would not let me get in the car and drive to the airport with them. I was worried about it being awkward for him, but it probably would have been worse with me sitting there sobbing the whole time.
Later, my sister told me that once at the airport, he asked Travis and Amber what gate they were flying out of. Did they want to get a drink together at the airport bar? Amber said she almost broke his face at that moment.
“You know, Jocelyn, right before you blacked out, I asked Adam to ask you to stop drinking because I thought you would listen, coming from him," she told me. "He told me you were fine and that you could take care of yourself.”
Adam told me I was impossible not to love, but what does love mean without being willing to work? I made a decision then that I would force myself to make again and again for years in order to let him go. I made a decision not to live in a world where you could love someone and not even hold back their hair while they puked into someone’s parka.