I hate condoms. And not just for the reasons everyone does. Any time I catch a glimpse of one, I start to twitch with old, deep-seated rage.
In almost every one of my relationships (preceding my current second marriage of 7 years), at some point a condom showed up -- or disappeared -- where it shouldn’t have. The college boyfriend who returned from spring break at Club Med with an open three-pack of condoms containing only two.
The nightlife photographer with a whole drugstore’s worth of every brand and texture stuffed into his camera bag, which I’d count and re-count when he wasn’t looking, driving myself insane trying to keep track of how many yellow, blue, red, green, purple he’d had, and which ones we’d used. The teacher I was living with who casually left one for me to find with his pile of pocket stuff on the dresser as a first nudge to get me to break up with him.
Here’s my repeated, sick response: NO RESPONSE. I never dealt with ANY of these directly. I kept quiet until I hit a breaking point, again and again.
The worst instance, when I was newly married to my first husband -- whom, I should mention, was ALSO the college boyfriend who came back from Club Med with the box of condoms, and a lot of photos of himself in a hot tub with a pretty girl in a blue bikini -- still haunts me.
Six weeks into our marriage, as my husband unpacks from a business trip, a lone Trojan slips out of the pocket of the jeans he’s just lifted from his suitcase. We both watch as the light blue square twirls through the air, seemingly in slow motion, and lands on the parquet floor. I am on the pill. Less than two months has passed since the fancy catering hall wedding his father insisted on
I am just 24, and he is 25. I do not yet have the emotional tools to navigate this in anything resembling a conscious, healthy way. There is information here I do not want to process, specifically: When you are on the pill and your husband has condoms? That means that, at the very least, he had planned to put his penis in another woman’s vagina. This is not welcome information, as far as I am concerned. It demands a response, and I don’t want to respond. I generally will do just about anything to steer clear of confrontation or an uncomfortable conversation in which a “low-maintenance” “nice” girl like me might appear needy, demanding, insecure, angry, jealous or difficult.
In the silence after the condom hits the floor, I ricochet between assuming the worst, and assuming the best. If it IS the worst, I at least get to have the satisfaction of being in the right and feeling sorry for myself. On the flip side, if Jesse has a good alibi, I won’t ever have to admit to the humiliation that has seized my vocal chords.
“Why do you have that?” I hear myself say.
Jesse is still looking down. He’s got his gaze fixed on the condom. He can’t look me in the eye. He can’t even lift his head. Finally, he speaks.
“I don’t know,” he says, nodding, kind of numbly. “I don’t know how that got there.” That’s what he says. That’s ALL he says. And then he returns his attention to unpacking.
Somehow, once again, I stay silent. I second-guess myself. I’ve gotten the impression from Jesse that I’m the one who’s done something wrong, and instead of challenging this, instead of having a fight, I shut the fuck up. I take deep breaths to try and shift my emotional state, tucking in whatever messy emotions have slipped out, and I go on.
I keep doing that over and over, because eating my feelings, living an emotional lie, is the devil I know. But over the next couple of years, something slowly shifts in me. Where I once dreaded Jesse’s business trips, I begin to enjoy the space.
One gorgeous summer evening just after our second anniversary, it’s almost time for Jesse to return from one of his many business trips and I have the ugliest thought: If his plane were to go down, if he never came home, I could start all over again, fresh, without any of the messy consequences of ever admitting “I’m not happy.” That revelation of wanting to be freed at any cost gets more stunning and uncomfortable as the night wears on, thanks to events that conspire to make me pay for that deadly little get-out-of-marriage-free card I’d dreamt up.
At 8 p.m., Jesse calls from a pay phone at LaGuardia to let me know he’ll be home a little late; his luggage has been lost. Whew, I think. My homicidal musings have been harmless. But then 8 turns into 9, turns into 10, turns into 2:30 a.m. and Jesse still hasn’t made it home to our apartment, just a half-hour ride from the airport. When I call baggage claim at 10 p.m., the clerk who answers the phone tells me Jesse was reunited with his bags at about 9:30, so I figure he’ll walk through the door before 10:30. But that doesn’t happen.
When it gets to be 11:30, panic sets in. This is 1991, before cell phones, so I can’t reach him. My mind is left to run through any number of terrible possibilities. He’s an aggressive driver, prone to speeding tickets and, sometimes, accidents. When he takes shortcuts home from the airport, he sometimes drives through rough neighborhoods.
Around 12:30, my mother, my step-father and my father-in-law all show up. They insist on waiting with me in this strange, suspended state for some kind of horrible news. At first I think I’ll be happy to have their company, but they are more frantic than I am.
“What if he picked up a crazy hitchhiker?!” my mother worries aloud. “Sari, would he pick up a crazy hitchhiker?” I can’t answer her.
“Have you heard about this new thing called car-jacking?” Jesse’s father chimes in. “They do it in LA -- they steal your car while you’re driving it! Maybe they do it here, now.”
My father, a clergyman, is waiting by his telephone in Westchester; around 1:30 a.m., I hear my mother utter the word “funeral” into the receiver when she calls him. That word makes me nearly puke.
Almost as acute as my fear is my guilt. Just hours earlier, I wished for this. With no information and filled with terror, I berate myself for whatever horror I might have willed telepathically.
Finally, at 2:30 a.m. there’s a rustling outside the apartment door. My first thought is the police. Jesse’s father had called them at midnight. But then there are keys in the lock, and a minute later Jesse comes tumbling in, drunk and fumbling.
How is this possible? For the past six hours, I’ve been assuming I’m a widow. My mother has booked my clergyman father for a grave-side service. I feel as if I am seeing a ghost. Incapable of forming words, I greet him with incomprehensible shrieks.
My body won’t let me be silent this time. It forces me to instantly beg, “WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED? WHERE WERE YOU?” Off-handedly, he tells me there was a stewardess who lost her luggage, too. They went out for a drink. A six-hour drink. He sounds annoyed.
“What’s the big deal?”
He doesn’t yet know about the collection of grieving parents in our bedroom. When he sees them he’s stunned, and later, after they leave, he’s angry at me, as if I’d brought them there to judge him.
I will never know the details of what happened between Jesse and the flight attendant for six unaccounted-for hours, and to this day, I don’t want to know. I am still so defended against any possibility that Jesse would have cheated on me. There is a part of my brain that believes there must have been explanation for the condom falling out of his pocket. (He just doesn’t REMEMBER the reason. That’s it!)
Despite my deep denial, what comes to be known as “The Flight Attendant Incident” has a profound effect on me, and is the unofficial beginning of the end of our marriage.
In a way, it’s a gift, because it tells me -- without my having to engage in an uncomfortable conversation -- that I’m not the only one who is less than satisfied in this relationship, nor mature enough to be upfront and emotionally honest. It lets me put the blame on Jesse, even though I had been casually daydreaming about his end before his cocktails with the stewardess even came to light.
But I am no different, no better than Jesse. I use the Stewardess incident as license to venture into my own tryst, an unfortunate and destructive act, but the only slightly less passive way I know at the time to explore the possibilities of leaving. A short time later, an old friend and I will find ourselves in the sleaziest of all adultery cliches, a hotel room, in which I will be wearing nothing but my wedding band, and my friend will be wearing nothing but…a fucking condom.
Later, after a shower, I tiptoe into the bed I share with Jesse at 2:30 a.m., exactly the same hour he had gotten home after his “date” with the stewardess.
The next morning, he blasts me.
“When you’re a married woman it’s not okay to stay out until 2:30 a.m. with another man!” I come right back at him. “Is it any more okay than staying out with a stewardess until 2:30 a.m., when you’re a married man?”
I never admit to Jesse that I cheated. I think there’s a chance of fixing things, and I imagine that would be impossible if he knew. Eventually, though, I really do want to have a conversation -- many of them. I ask him to go to couples counseling.
“Couples counseling ruined my parents marriage,” he insists again and again.
Then I ask for time apart -- just a month to see how things go. Jesse punches the wall, putting his hand through. He takes a deep breath and says, “You’re in our you’re out. Make a choice.”
He puts an ice pack on his hand and leaves the apartment. I pack a bag and sleep on friends’ couches for three weeks. All the while, I keep calling and trying to talk to Jesse. Now he’s the one who doesn’t want to have a conversation.
After a month of no talking, my parents make me call a lawyer. I get an apartment in the city. And I start over.
That was 20 years ago. I’m happily remarried now, for 7 years. I still battle good girl issues in areas of my life, (I’m reading "The Curse of the Good Girl" right now) but in this marriage, I feel free to be real and honest about most things.
Oh, and thanks to a hysterectomy three years ago, I no longer have a uterus. There are no guarantees, but as far as I can see, there aren’t any condoms in my future. And that’s a good thing.