Thursday, August 30, 2007

Imperfect Strangers

For some reason, I feel it necessary to elaborate slightly on my relationship with the woman -- initially, young girl -- I mentioned in last week's extended column (Into the Maelstrom/8.24.07). My relationship with Abby indeed began in a moment of insane passion, and lasted quite awhile after that -- longer than anyone might've expected in fact. Over time though, me being the person I was in my early to mid-20s, I hurt her and destroyed the relationship. Both of our lives went on and we attempted to remain friends, or at the very least acknowledge and respect the bond we had once forged. After 9/11, while I was in New York to cover the attack and its aftermath, I looked her up. The following is an excerpt from the full manuscript I've written (last week's wasn't), and has been posted on the memoir page for quite some time. After last week's entry, I feel like this story -- which involves Abby and I seeing each other for the first time since bumping into one another briefly at a party a year previously -- takes on new life, as it's now been given some perspective. Immediately before 9/11, I spent a month in rehab for a massive heroin addiction (Welcome to the Monkey House/6.4.07.); I had gotten out only ten days before the attacks (Five Years On: 9/11 in Two Parts/9.18.06). During my hospital stay, my wife at the time left me. I also lost 20 pounds. (Incidentally, don't read too much into my decision to write about these parts of my past; they're decent stories -- that's it.)

"God, you look like shit."

"Thanks, I thought I looked pretty good all things considered."

"You're too fucking thin," Abby says.

She kisses me on the cheek and invites me into her apartment. It's my first actual experience with what New Yorkers have the low-expectations to consider a living space. The entire place is no bigger than a walk-in closet. I make a quick sweep with my eyes, which doesn't take longer than a second or two. It's technically a studio, but somewhere along the line some architectural genius decided to throw in a piece of drywall that only comes about three-quarters of the way across the room, creating a partition which sections off a "bedroom" on the other side. The kitchen is simply a small refrigerator and a mini-stove at one end of the main space, next to the entrance. In the corner is a tiny room holding what I can see is the toilet, but there doesn't appear to be anything else in there.

"What, do you bathe in the sink?" I ask.

Abby's wrapped in a towel, her hair wet -- an affecting sight which I'm trying to ignore -- so I know she cleans herself somehow in this place. She walks back behind the partition into her pretend bedroom.

"The shower's in the closet."

"The shower's in the closet?"

"Don't start with me."

My eyes dart past a window which features a view of what I assume is the building next-door -- a brick facade that can't be more than a few feet away. So much for natural light. Besides her books and some old photographs on the precious little wall-space, there's not much in this small room that I immediately recognize from our time together. Our roller-coaster ride of a relationship.

I glance past the wall with the books and the pictures and into the bedroom, just in time to see Abby drop her towel and bend over to slide into her underwear. Most of her body is hidden by the wall, the edge of which seems to split her in half from top to bottom. I watch the curve of her side; her back and her hips; her naked ass and legs. I look away and try to put it out of my mind. Still, from an aesthetic standpoint, there's no denying that she's the only worthwhile thing to look at in this place. Abby was always all-curves, with an adorably cherubic face and curly auburn hair. This still holds true. The fact that she's never been very modest around me is something I can 't decide if I'm thankful for right now.

It dawns on me that it's been an especially overwhelming day for memories.

I want to believe that it's unintentional on my part, but I catch a glimpse of her hooking her bra behind her back as I move my eyes across the room again and onto the TV. A rerun of the X-Files is on; a show which, in addition to cigarettes, is one of Abby's avowed addictions. She emerges from the bedroom a moment later, wearing jeans and pulling a cream-colored sweater over her head. She shakes her damp hair out and bends over, patting it dry with the towel that was wrapped around her just a moment ago.

"You really think I'm too thin?" I say with a smirk.

She and I have talked on the phone a few times since my arrival in New York. She knows what led me here -- the unedited version. We've debated getting together, but this is the first time we've been face-to-face in close to a year.

"Yeah, you don't look much better than you did the last time I saw you."

"I was on drugs then," I say, remembering my last days as skinny and sick addict, before transitioning into bloated and utterly repulsive addict.

"Yes, I know. I knew then."

"No you didn't," I say incredulously.

She stands up straight -- throwing her hair back.

"Yes," she says. "I did."

She brushes past me, which in this place means a tight squeeze past a tiny bistro table that's cluttered with take-out bags. She picks up a hair-dryer perched on the edge of the stove, turns it on and begins running it across her hair.

"You did not," I mumble under my breath as I begin to explore the shoebox Abby calls home.

"I heard that -- and yes I did," I hear her say, over the steady white noise of the dryer.

This is the way it's always been with Abby: her insisting that she knows me better than I know myself -- me arguing that she doesn't, knowing full-well that she's probably right.

I scan her rickety black bookshelves. In the background, Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are discussing how it is that a character played by Peter Boyle can know so much about a series of murders unless he actually committed them. I run my finger across the dust on one shelf; Abby never was much for keeping things spotless. I read off the titles to myself; they're mostly sci-fi paperbacks, with a smattering of Koontz and one or two books on Judaism. After our break-up, Abby jumped neck-deep into her faith in a way she never had before. Seeing the concrete proof of that now just makes me shake my head at the comically obvious implication.

Un-fucking-believable. I drive women to religion.

As I come to the end of the bookshelf, I spot a small picture of the two of us. I recognize it immediately; it was taken years ago on a quiet beach in the middle of nowhere.

There we were. Young. In love. Smiles bright against freshly-tanned skin. A glowing orange sky, kissing the blue ocean horizon in the distance behind us. I instinctively close my eyes and try to remember more of it -- almost willing myself to disappear there, if for no other reason than the fact that at that time I didn't have a care in the world.

The hair-dryer goes quiet and there's just the sound from the TV now.

"It was great to be stupid and innocent, wasn't it?" I hear Abby say.

I don't even bother to turn around with the picture in my hand -- an expression of surprise on my face. Of course she knew what I was looking at. I just smile.

"Yes it was."

I hear the hardwood floor creak under her feet as she takes the few steps needed to cross the room. When I turn around, she's right in front of me. She looks up at me, almost begrudgingly, and places her hand on the side of my face, running it down my cheek.

"Are you okay Chester?" Her pet name for me.

I exhale.

"Yeah. I am."

I close my eyes and swallow a headful of longing. I'd just about forgotten the overwhelming tenderness of a touch like this. She gives me a smile that perfectly encompasses a thousand emotions at once. This is the way it's always been with Abby.

"Come on -- let's go eat," she says.

The chill of fall has settled over the city. The leaves from the trees that line East 80th Street cascade gently down around Abby and me as we walk toward busy 2nd Avenue. I put my hands in the pockets of my long black coat, one of the recent purchases I made at the direct request of the President of the United States. It's a Friday night, and Manhattan is just beginning to come to life. The pall that's blanketed everything since the attack is starting to lift -- slowly. It's almost as if the massive hole torn in the fuselage of the city -- the one that sucked out so many lives and so much air in seconds -- is finally being filled. People are breathing again, but those breaths are still short and shallow.

Abby's eyes light up like a little girl's as the waitress puts a big plate of colorful raw fish in front of us. Her mouth opens in an adorable, wide smile. She breaks her chopsticks apart and digs in, stopping only to take a sip of sake.

"So what did the queen bitch say to you on the phone this morning that got you so riled up?" She says, her mouth half-full.

"I thought you didn't want to hear about this."

"I spent three years with you -- I'm obviously a sucker for punishment."



"She says I owe her somewhere in the neighborhood of three grand." I pause for a moment. "No wait, I take that back. I say it's somewhere in the neighborhood of three grand because I can't remember the exact figure right now. She of course knows how much it is, down to the penny." I take a swig of my Asahi. "Sent me an itemized list and everything."

"And your take on it?"

I shrug, rolling my eyes upward. Abby smiles and takes another sip of her sake. I continue.

"My take is that I'm still hoping our marriage can be salvaged. She on the other hand is handing me the tab like a waitress who wants to go the hell home."

"Sucks, chief."

Abby's lapse into what anyone else would consider wholly unladylike vernacular makes me chuckle.

"No shit," I say, taking a bite of my sashimi. I'm still not eating much these days.

In talk in between chewing. "The fucked-up thing is that she has all of our worldly possessions." I swallow hard. "I mean, she took all the furniture, all the wedding gifts, and of course my heart," I say, only half-jokingly.

"Yeah, well that's worthless."

I don't take the bait, choosing instead to zero-in on the literal meaning of Abby's words.

"Actually, you may have just hit it on the head," I say, drifting off in my own thoughts as I begin to put things together. "Love. Passion. Emotion. It's all insignificant because you can't put a price tag on it. Something's only worthwhile if you can assign a tangible value to it."

"She's that much of a hard-ass?"

"She doesn't see it that way. She sees it as being practical," I say, looking not at Abby, but through her -- to someplace very far away. "She was always more interested in the nice house than in who was living in it with her."

"You ever think that maybe she wanted both? I mean, you're easy to love but not exactly a breeze to live with."

"I always thought that was such a cop-out, the whole 'I love you but I can't live with you' thing. Maybe I was wrong."

Abby puts down her chopsticks and looks right at me. "You've been wrong about a lot of things lately," she says -- scolding.

Under the table, I brush my leg lightly against hers.

Her eyes widen. "And you're definitely wrong about that. You're not getting laid."

I smile, feigning shock.

"Oh come on. I just touched your leg for Christ's sake. I didn't mean anything by it."

"I know you."

"You know nothing," I say, still smiling -- focusing my attention on another piece of sashimi.

"I know that you'd better start coming to terms with this."

"And what's this?"

"You're heading for divorce court."

"You say that like you're glad."

She suddenly looks up at me, all humor gone from her face. "I'm sorry you're hurting Chez, but I won't lie -- of course part of me thinks you deserve this."

"I'd never have the nerve to hold that against you."

"That's because you can't."

"You're right." I nod.

Abby glances down, looking at what's left on the plate. The sudden silence between us is deafening. It seems to go on for several minutes.

"Let's just finish this up and get out of here," she finally says. "I think I want to go home."

In the time since our break-up, we've kept a tenuous friendship -- fraught with the knowledge that moments like this are always lurking just beneath the surface of any interaction. Abby loves me more than any woman ever has, and at least as much as any other human being on the planet. She also has the ability to hold a grudge longer than just about anyone.

"Come on," I say. "Please -- let's change the subject."

She pauses -- years of hurt still registering on her face. She then sits up straight, breathes in deeply, and -- as if through sheer force of will -- seems to visibly exhale the pain and anger. Her auburn curls bounce gently as she does this.

"Okay, fine."

She gathers herself and downs what's left of her sake -- a damn good amount -- in one giant gulp. She practically slams the empty bottle down on the table and wipes her mouth with her napkin.

"I changed my mind," she says. "You are getting laid. Let's get out of here -- I want to fuck."

This is the way it's always been with Abby.


PhredKid said...

Damn, man. Sounds like a conversation that could happen between Renton and Diane from Trainspotting a year or so after the film's conclusion. Great story!

Anonymous said...

Sorry chief. Sounds like you're missing her. Bad.

Lorenzo said...

An incredible read, as usual. So when's this getting published? I need to buy your book.

BTW - why can't I ever go to lunch with a beautiful woman and have it end like that?

A2racers said...

Get the editor who did "Snow Crash", and keep typing. Then habitually harass (him or her - never know, eh?) for not doing edits on the Baroque Cycle Trilogy.

Love the column, keep it up!


rayray said...

I'm amazed that you could even stay friends. Believe me, I've tried every which way I know possible to remain friends with my ex, but he still hates/loves me. I'm actually jealous of you, that you could see her and talk to her. I mean, where do those years go that you spent with someone if you never speak to them or see them again?

Al said...

You bought a coat because of that asshole?

Sorry, I was entirely engrossed in the story and that just tossed me right over the bars. If that weasel had suggest I buy a coat I would have responded with the idea that perhaps he should stop by Starbucks and pick up a Venti half-caf of STFU with a side of DIAF.

Great writing as always man. Shame that sex with exes always seems to tease of things that might have been...even when you know they didn't come to pass for all the right reasons. What ifs suck.

Chez said...

"Anonymous" --

Hmm, "chief" eh? Interesting.

Regardless of who you might be -- or who you'd like me to think you are -- I knew I'd face a comment like this. I also know that there's no way to properly deny such a claim: if I say nothing, then you'll assume you're right; if I argue too defensively, I'll get that protesting-too-much crap.

I'll just put it like this -- I'm happier and more fulfilled now in a relationship than at any other point in my life. I love Jayne so damn much it hurts sometimes; it's the kind of thing that often has me wondering how I got so lucky. It also puts my millions of past mistakes into perspective because all of them somehow led me here -- to her. When looked at that way, they no longer seem like mistakes. That's pretty amazing when someone can not only make you feel good about where you are now, but also make the memories of the time before she came into your life suddenly shine that much brighter (particularly when a lot of them weren't great to begin with).

My time with Abby was full of ups and downs, and I've made no excuses about the fact that the entire time period of which she was such a major part now seems bittersweet only because I was young and discovering a lot of things for the first time. These days, she has her life -- I have mine -- and as far as I know we're both pretty damn happy.

I wouldn't want it any other way.

QueBarbara said...

You say that Jayne is amazing, and she really must be. I confess that under no circumstances do I want to hear about my husband's past girlfriends, sexual escapades or relationships - and we were married when he was 39, so you can bet there are more than few.

Re-reading this, it sounds like a veiled dig towards Jayne, but it's not. I want some of her self esteem, and the security she must feel with you and your relationship.

Chez said...

Jayne is understanding -- wonderfully so. But she also knows that she doesn't have a thing to worry about.

She promised me when I first started writing that she'd never censor me, and although I appreciate that sentiment -- I don't want to ever take it for granted or abuse it. I've written quite a bit about my past, and might continue to (hell, I've written an entire memoir). I'm always aware of how some of the things I say will affect her -- but once again, she knows that she has nothing to worry about. Not in the least.

richard said...

Does Abby know you worked at Taco Bell?

Anonymous said...

For the sake of the record I would like to say I am Abby...
I would also like to say that I am unbelievably proud of Chester for publishing his book. *though I do remember a few facts not mentioned..
Having said that I couldn't agree more with his statements above.
We had some great times -- and we had some serious shit ones! But we were young, stupid, and crazy.
I am so happy he has found someone to love -- and maybe for the first time in his life understand what that really means.
I know I am now with the man I was always meant to be with and I couldn't be happier.
While Chester and I no longer speak I care for him a great deal and wish him nothing but happiness, as I always have.

All my love, and congrats on the book...