My boyfriend told me he won’t hold his breath for me. Like that’s a surprise. He’s in Chicago, I’m here in New York. It wasn’t always this way. I said, “Oh, yeah, okay. That’s fine. That makes sense.” I hung up the phone and just stared at it. This doesn’t have to be so serious. It doesn’t have to be a big deal.
I actually told him I wanted to marry him. Don’t ask me what I was thinking. I heard about girls doing that, on the third date spilling their guts about how their time’s running out and how they want a family and how they want a house and that they think this is love and how they never felt this way before and how you sir, you are the one, you are the love story they’ve been waiting for all these years.
I’ve never once blamed a guy for bolting. But not my boy, not two months into it, with me whispering into his ear in the middle of a dark movie theater, me saying this shit while his face is turned to the screen, watching him smile. Not Ben, who took my hand and held it, making me feel like it was more than okay, neither one of us really watching the movie.
He tells me things I’ve been waiting to hear since birth. He says all that stuff girls live for. At night, when the long distance rates drop, I call Ben. He says, “Crazy, crazy girl. Took my heart and ran. What’s wrong with you? Here I am, howling at the moon.” And then he howls at the moon.
It sounds retarded, but this kind of thing, I die for it. I kick back and put my hands behind my head, I hold the receiver between my chin and neck. I let Ben say this stuff for hours over long-distance. I see dollar signs in my head every hour, but I’ve been in this one-room apartment in New York for two months already and I haven’t received a bill. I tell myself that I won’t have to pay for this. I tell myself, “This will never hurt.”
I’ve got this contest running with my best friend June. Best Break-up Ever. She’s got me beat with plain, dumb meanness. June, she’s got this thing with bugs. Junebug, everybody calls her when they want to get her goat.
I learned this first hand when we were roommates in college, catching some coffee in between classes at this dirty coffee bar on Michigan Avenue and roaches started coming out of the cracks in the wall and running across the table. June scuttled right up and stood on her chair. Yips like hiccups came from her nose and her hands did this wavy, palsied thing at her sides.
That was before June moved to Cleveland for a hotel management job. Now we talk long distance.
So this story, June’s only in high school. She’s dating Leather Boy who peddles dope at her school. She knows it’s stupid, but she thinks he’s dangerous because he wears a black leather jacket. Two weeks into it, June feels like she’s known Leather Boy for a millennium and if she has to hear one more story that starts, “Dude, we were so wasted…” she’ll start screaming and pulling him by the hair. It’s just about this time that Leather Boy stops by her house where she’s sitting up on the front porch.
“He starts ambling up to me, you know,” June says, long distance. “So slow and sexy, my Mr. Cool. We’re sitting there chatting and Leather Boy picks a lady bug off my blouse. Now a bug’s a bug, babe. So I go, naturally, ‘Get that thing away from me.’ And he says, ‘Okay’ and flicks his wrist.
“Then Leather Boy gets this stupid smile and puts a hand to his lower lip, like he’s thinking. Like he can,” June starts to giggle and I know what she looks like when she’s telling this story. I can just see her shoulders start shaking, her magenta bob swaying at her chin. “So he gives me this really nice long kiss. He steps back to look at me and I feel this dirt, this speck in my mouth. I put my tongue out and sure enough, that asshole, that creepy bastard put a fucking bug in my mouth.” We laugh so hard there’s big spaces of dead air eating up the long distance. It’s really our favorite game.
Bad boyfriends run in my blood. Losers, all of them. So I can beat her with sheer volume. Me, I get dumped every time. These boys I date, they break up with me at the beach, in their cars, in my bed. Neal, who I saw for a week told me after he kissed me, “I don’t think this can work. You know, I prefer blonds. Or boys, sometimes.” I was eighteen at the time, Neal was thirty with that-almost-beard-thing happening. Adam told me he’d dated girls like me before, girls that do nothing for him. Normally, he’d give it a shot, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it, that we should nip it in the bud. That’s all he said after we’d been dating a year. Brett, who said he loved me, dumped me because I was twenty minutes late picking him up for a party. He said, “Can’t you do anything right?” Then he said, “Look, do you mind? Dropping me off at the party?” I get points for this stuff. I score big.
For once in my life, I stopped racking up points. “Watch your step,” June said when I called her up and told her about Ben. She said, “No matter what you think, it’s always the same old story.”
I put The Contest on hold for a few months. Instead of calling June and talking about our favorite kind of natural disasters, I called Ben and got him to pick me up in his old shockless Buick Riviera almost every night. I saved hundreds on my long distance bill.
In the beginning, I thought he was just some guy. A friend of a friend. He had all this crazy, curly hair to his collar. And this weird, galloping way of walking. When I’d get into his car, he’d say, laughing, “Hot stuff, coming through.”
We went to bars in Bucktown and sat at tables with long, skinny legs. We drank cocktails our bartender set on fire. We talked till they told us to leave. “Get a room,” the bartender would say.
Ben. What can I say? His hands were always dirty, lead pencils from his drawings under his fingers. He wanted to be an artist, a painter, a famous, rich guy. I thought I never wanted something like that ever. I didn’t even think he was handsome until it was too late. He told me from the get go, “I’ve got this thing bad. You can take it or leave it. Anytime you want. I’ll probably be here.”
I said, “Not now. I don’t think ever. I don’t like boys like you. I like boys who break my heart.” Still he kept calling. Still he picked me up in his big old terror of a car. These things, they can swell a girl’s head, they can get you before you even know what’s happening.
I called June and told her I did this. I started it. I told her I couldn’t help it. I told her, “Off the record, I think I’m out of the game for good. Call it a sport-related injury.”
In August, my first month in New York, June called and told me about her date with a short, heavy-set stockbroker who had no neck. “Just head and shoulders, honey,” she giggled. “Nothing in between.” It was a blind date, a set-up. She met him at a bar, in downtown Cleveland. “He said he had to ‘tinkle,’ he used that word,” June spit the words. “He was gone twenty minutes. I went to call a cab and there’s No Neck in the corner with the waitress, his hands all over her fishnets.”
Five points for June. Me, zero.
“So,” she barked into the phone, “how’s New York? ”
“So far it’s just quiet. I go to work. I come home and sleep.”
In August, I wasn’t saying things June didn’t want to hear. She was thrilled I got promoted at work. I listened close when she said, “You have to take this. Move to New York. Think of your career. Don’t stay in Chicago for any reason other than yourself.”
So I let my boss ship me out to New York. Ben, he came with me. For one week only. Limited engagement. I told him I couldn’t lose him. I told him it was only temporary. That we’d breeze in, get the job done in six months, be back for New Year’s if not Christmas. I was lying and he knew it.
Still, he said, “I can wait. I’ll hate it, but I can wait. We’ve got days in our future,” he said while he touched my hair. “I’m going to see you when you’re seventy. I’ll know you when you’re a wrinkled mess. My old biddy prune. We’ve got so much time, don’t worry.”
To some people, maybe this doesn’t sound like much. But I’m twenty-four and listening to Ben talk, it’s like learning a new language. It’s like going to Paris and watching people eat brains. You can’t help but say, “I heard about people doing this, but I never thought I’d see it.”
Ben carried my boxes into my new apartment. He put together my furniture. He stayed for one week and we ate out every night, like we were celebrating. Like these were good times.
I drove him to JFK and cried like somebody was dying. This old lady saw us boo-hooing for an hour and smiled at us. Like it was love, like she wished she had it. I wanted to knock her down and take her purse. I let Ben go at the terminal. Put my hand across my face all the way out of the airport. I don’t remember anything but watching my feet walking. These big, black, ugly, expensive shoes.
The day after you’ve been kissed by a boy for the first time, you always feel a little thin at the edges. Kind of like part of your skin’s been rubbed off, like maybe there’s less of you there. I always walk around my apartment with my hand to my face. Stepping very quietly. I wait a little while till I can call him up and ask him to come over and kiss me again.
The day after you’ve been kissed by a boy who’s not your boyfriend, you try not to think really, really hard. By the time you sleep with the boy who’s not your boyfriend, you’ve got this stone in your mouth and you’re not speaking. You let your pebble hold down your tongue and you stop asking yourself questions you can’t answer. You find the trick is to keep very, very busy. Keep moving, keep walking, keep going in and out of doors all day long till the night comes out. Till you can go and get in the boy who’s not your boyfriend’s bed. Hold your stone and don’t say a word.
June says I’m falling drastically behind on The Contest. She says, “I know you’ve got your Mr. Right and everything is perfect. But doesn’t he do one thing wrong? Don’t you have one thing you can tell me to get you back up on the board?”
“Don’t you get sick of talking to me long-distance?” I ask her. “Don’t you sometimes wish we could just meet each other at a bar and have a beer? How long have we been doing this? Five years?” I twirl the cord with my fingers. “Five years since freshman year of sitting home in our dirty p-j’s, racking up the phone bill like we’re made of money, giggling cross-country instead of sitting down and having a good time?” I listen to June breathing.
“I’m twenty-five years old. You’re twenty-four,” she says real slow, like maybe I’m hard of hearing or just plain stupid. “I haven’t made one girlfriend like you since I left school. I go to work and have lunch with the ladies. We get along real nice and ask each other about our days. But if I’m feeling lonely and like there’s nobody on the planet who speaks my language, I don’t call them up late nights. I call you. I call you and we talk and we make each other feel decent for a while. At this point, hon, I take all the good things I can get. I don’t wish for things I can’t have.”
“My long-distance bill came today,” I tell her. “Do you know how much it is?” I pick it up off the table and hold it out. Like I can give it to her, like I can show her something. “Four hundred dollars, June. Four hundred dollars could buy me a lot of nights out at a bar, laughing and talking and having a good time; instead of sitting here at home yakking on the phone all the time.”
“Please,” June exhales. “Bring it down a notch, sister.”
“I told Ben I want to see other people.”
“What did he say?”
“‘I won’t hold my breath for you.’ That’s what he said.”
“I just want one local call, June. Just one.”
I dial long distance after 8 p.m., after the rates drop low. Ben answers and asks me what I’m going to do. I tell him I don’t know. I skirt around the issue as long as I can. I even ask him about the weather.
“Do you know anything about trains?” he asks me. “Do you know what happens when the engineer sees a suicide, just a crazy fucking guy, lying across the tracks? Do you know what that engineer has to do? He has to speed up. He speeds up the train. Because that’s all he can do.”
So I tell Ben I don’t love him. I tell him he’s lousy in bed. I tell him he’s a whiner and a loser and there’s no way in hell I’m putting that noose around my neck for the rest of my life. I tell him I lied during that whole time in Chicago, that I was lonely and my bed was cold. That he was the easiest one to fill it. I tell him he does nothing for me, that he never did. I just didn’t want to hurt his feelings. I tell him I needed help moving all my boxes and that’s why I didn’t cut him loose sooner. I tell him I’m seeing somebody new, have been for weeks. That my new man is five times the man Ben will ever be. I pull out every single low-down, nasty, god-awful thing any guy has ever said to me before. I pull them all out and some of my own. I knock my love out at the knees.
When I’m done Ben says, “Well.”
I call up June and tell her I can beat her bug story.
Originally published as “LDR” (acronym for “long-distance relationship”) in the anthology Dictionary of Failed Relationships.