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I learned he was a liar in the hospital courtyard. My eyes were parched from crying. His mother placed her hand on my back. I’m sorry, she said. If you were my daughter I’d tell you to go right now.
He had lied about everything. What he did. Who he was. Later I realized that he was a thief, an alcoholic, a drug addict. There must have been more, and some of it, I’d never know.
But right then, I told his mother that I would stay. Inside the hospital, he was having his liver replaced.
I saw him in the step-down unit, hours later. His skin had the waxy sheen of a corpse. His legs splayed grotesquely in compression devices. He was plugged into plastic tubes and liquids. There were specks of dried blood around his neck. He looked at me with his face bared, a face of hatred, a face of violence. He looked at me like a nightmare, and then his face smoothed over in his usual mask: a smile, tenderness.
"Hello, darling," he said.
Joe was sick, very sick. He told me this lightly on our first date but I hadn’t known what that meant. His body attacked itself. It treated his liver as if it was a foreign intruder, an enemy to be destroyed. He had PSC (primary sclerosing cholangitis) and Crohn's Disease, and a series of minor, additional problems.
I would learn the sicknesses like I learned him, after days and nights in hospital rooms, doctor’s meetings, support groups. After I stayed up reading stark prognosis and optimistic survival rates while he was deep asleep in the throes of the illness.
I discovered that I loved him when I discovered the sickness, when I realized that it didn’t mean in bed with a cold, but the hospital. I panicked. I was in San Diego, then, far from New York, from him. We’d only known each other for a few months, but it was painful not to be at his side. I chatted to a stranger online and told him my story. I said that I couldn’t stop thinking about Joe. You love him, he said, love is wanting to be with someone even if you shouldn’t.
We met at a friend’s party. Joe attracted me instantly. He wore a white button-up and linen slacks and velvet smoking slippers, like a 50-year-old billionaire. He worked at a hedge fund, the big leagues. He had lived in London, studied at Cornell. He used to be a choir boy.
He was full of strange habits—he spoke with a strange inflection, took baths of ice cubes, added too much salt to everything. He was intelligent and eloquent (though there was always something florid in the way he wrote) and charming, so charming. He had the bluest eyes.
With him, I felt like I never had before. We stayed up all night and all morning, talking and kissing. I loved his sweet mannerisms and pet names and his imagination.
We made up an elaborate backstory for a stuffed giraffe I had named Alfie. Joe brought Alfie to life, tucking the giraffe’s hands beneath his chin, nodding his big round head, wrapping his little arms around my finger, wiping away tears. He admired my writing and my melancholy, and I loved his stories—even if, sometimes, they seemed surreal. Incredible.
It’s funny. I thought I’d never forget any of it: the tender moments, the sweet things, the love notes. The ache and dread in my heart. My conviction that I would lose him.
But the truth is I’ve forgotten a lot.
I hadn’t wanted to meet his mother. I dreaded it. She was abusive, he told me. She locked the doors of the house so that he was forced to crawl into the car and cry himself to sleep in the backseat. She made him paint a white fence all alone in the dead of winter. I pictured this, his sickly and frail form, his hands trembling red.
He said he hated his parents. He screamed it into the night air. It was one winter night at a park near my apartment and there were other people around, oblivious and happy, playing with their dogs. When he told me it was a revelation. A sign, of how much he trusted me.
Before the transplant, he signed over medical rights—his life—to me.
I talked to his mother in the courtyard with guarded reserve. She hugged me hello and I tensed. She looked so normal. Our conversation was strained. I said something innocuous, how happy I was that he had taken the semester off from work and school. How good it was for him.
"What?" she said.
He had told her an entirely different story. He had told her the names of the term papers he was writing, described the antics of his professors. Maybe, I said, he had to lie to protect himself. But already I knew that it was wrong, wrong, wrong.
At least now I’ll have something to write about, I told her, when everything unraveled, when I had unraveled, half laughing, half crying. She laughed, then, too.
This is what I remember, still:
How his body felt, one night when he had a terrible fever. I curled next to him and felt his burning back. It was painful to touch. I couldn’t sleep, feeling the heat of his skin.
The semester I studied abroad in London. I was miserable, often crying, writing to him obsessively. He was far away, often ill, responding to emails sporadically. He promised to visit, and it was all I waited for. One day I came back to the dorm and there was a bouquet of blood-red roses in the bathroom sink.
"I’m sorry," the card said. "I love you." I remember that he never came.
The nights I woke and walked into the living room and peered at the light coming from the bathroom door, frightened and anxious and how I had to call out his name to make sure it was him, that he was there, alive. The nights I waited for him alone in my room, hypersensitive to the noises outside, my heart quickening if I heard the latch and turn of the metal gate.
(And later: the nightmares I had about that gate. When I heard it my breath locked in my throat. I didn’t know what he was capable of.)
I remember San Diego, when it was near, but not quite the end. We walked along the beach in Coronado. The brilliant sun. The California sky. My heavy heart. By then I already knew that something--many things--were wrong. Our relationship was codependent, devouring. I was depressed and anxious. We fought. He threw temper tantrums exactly like a child, ran from me in the subway, apologized desperately.
I tried to explain this to him in my bedroom. He grew flustered, upset, crying. He fainted and hit his head against the wall. I slid to the floor and cradled his head on my lap. I was crying too. Joey? Joey? Are you okay. He opened his eyes slowly, his expression dazed. What happened? He said, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell him again. (Probably, he knew. Probably, he planned it.)
And I remember, after, when it was over but not truly over. I saw him in a Duane Reade on Broadway and 8 street. He lifted up his shirt and showed me the long scar from his transplant, a wide pink mark across his torso in the shape of a J. He was still charming. He told me he had been diagnosed with cancer. I muttered apologies. I wished for his recovery. I still thought we could keep in touch. I thought that he had changed. That he wasn’t lying, anymore.
More than a year later, I’d left New York and the memories of Joe behind. I was in Peru when I got a Google voicemail from a girl I didn’t know, and a few days later, another came from the New York District Attorney. It was about Joe. Of course it was. There were charges against him—forgery, money laundering, identity theft. He had taken money from me, too--cash and expensive jewelry from my room, not paying rent when we lived together, forgetting his credit card at expensive restaurants so that I picked up the check. The money, those things, paled against the devastation of my heart. But the money must have been a big part of why he did it. He could realize the lifestyle of his imagination. After me, he must have decided he could go even further.
I met Joe’s other ex, other victim, recently. It had been over three years since I’d seen Joe, and nearly two years since those unexpected phone calls. I hadn’t heard from the unknown girl or the attorney again. I joked that my sociopathic ex was either in jail or dead. But as far as she or the lawyer knew, he wasn’t. (He also, as it turned out, didn’t have cancer.) He had avoided every single court date. I laughed, hard at that. It seemed exactly the sort of thing he would do.
I wanted to know if he had told his ex the same tale, or came up with an entirely new identity. I wanted to hear the fabricated stories he told her about me. I knew nothing about her, yet already we had so much in common. She was Chinese, young, bright, funny. She was far from the suffering voice I’d heard on the voicemail, the girl who was trying to swallow her tears.
We exchanged stories and laughed over his lies. She diagnosed him as the sociopath next door. I had pegged him with narcissistic personality disorder. I’d even sent him a link detailing the disorder, after, as if he would read it and repair himself, just like that.
For a while I wondered if Joe had told the stories he did because he knew that I wanted to hear them. He could be my own, real life, tragic love story. He had read my short stories. My favorite one was about a girl who fell in love with a punk boy with AIDS at the center where she volunteered. In the version of our history Joe constructed, the two of us were from different worlds, too. His was one of money and glitz, mine was one of longing and aspiration.
I don’t want to believe that he was, entirely, a sociopath. That the deep, unguarded love I gave him was given to a shell. A friend told me, not long after the break up, that narcissists weren’t capable of love. He told me that something Joe often said--“I don’t feel guilt, I feel shame”—was a classic statement of narcissism. I obsessively read about it, trying to pinpoint the traits. Joe’s lies always built himself up. For him there was no truth, just opportunities: my easy compliance, my hopeless belief in him.
I feel nothing now: no resentment, no ill will. I suppose if anything, I feel a hint of amusement, and curious. Morbid curiosity, I said to him, after I broke it off but before I’d cut him off. He hadn’t liked that.
For a while I asked all the boys I met about their deep, dark secrets. I asked them for their tragic life stories. I asked: what’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? I’m not sure what was the answer I wanted to hear.
Maybe the question I should have asked Joe was: what is the best thing you’ve ever done? Was it the extent and the skill of his deceptions? It must be complicated, fabricating an entire life, creating the illusion of love. Perhaps Joe had put his talents to the wrong use. Perhaps, he’s the one who should be writing novels.
Once, Joe and I saw a rat trapped on the bottom of an escalator. The tail of the rat was caught, and it scrambled desperately. A crowd surrounded it, snapping photos. No one tried to help. It horrified me. Joe held me while I cried into his chest. He told his mother this story, only in his version he saved the rat and pulled it out by its tail. The crowd applauded.