AS 2007 CAME to a close, sub-prime lending troubles descended, expanded outward. My businessman’s twelve-hour workdays turned into fourteen. There was no time. One week our only date was to go into twin sensory deprivation tanks at a spa for a half hour, I got groped in the front seat of his Alfa Romeo for five minutes, and promptly he had to take off for a business dinner. On a Saturday. He text-messaged me direly from meetings, referencing various wars and coups, or made fiery death jokes. He had to fire twenty-seven people in one day, and one of them reached across the desk and tried to strangle him. His Porsche blew up. My more citified friends suspected foul play on his part or that of someone he’d done wrong, but he told me–and the insurance adjustors–it was probably just that he hadn’t driven it for so long, a squirrel built a nest in the engine and it caught fire when he started her up. He left it idling while he went back inside to get something, he said, and looked out the window and saw the hood and the doors blow right off and arc into the sky. That night, he asked to come over, and he was muttering and sweating in his sleep.
He didn’t want to make decisions anymore, once he left work. “I defer to her,” he said to the stripper and the bouncer when they asked did we want a hotel, did we want another girl, another bottle of champagne. “Whatever Lisa wants. Whatever she decides.” He pawed me lazily.
“Hey chief,” the bouncer warned. “No contact in the private lounge.”
“It’s okay,” he slurred with confidence, “I’m going to marry her. She takes care of me.”
I was taking care of him–picking up his dry-cleaning, making his travel arrangements, keeping some things from him to safeguard his peace of mind. When he’d forget things he’d said or done, I didn’t say, “Hey, you’re having blackouts.” I didn’t even think it. I simply would recount for him what had happened, who said what to whom, so he could get the night straight in his mind. I was holding memories for him.
That wasn’t me. That was what my grandmother did for my grandfather, and all those ’50s wives. And like those ’50s husbands, he didn’t look like he was falling apart. He was still so clean, so capable. All his shirts double-starched, all his manners intact. No matter how bad off he got, he never left a door un-held for a lady. He was a self-created bionic man. I couldn’t see his stubbornness as in any way incapacitating or isolating. I admired him for choosing to ignore the fact that we are living in an existential age, to only laugh and imbibe and work longer and harder and pretend his terror did not exist. I liked him that way. When he couldn’t do it anymore, I’d take over. I’d stop drinking or whatever it was he had us doing that night at one and let him go on till three. I drove us home.
Power flows. It can’t be held onto. People who feel the need to control everything, they’re constantly aware of it slipping away. Even in his dreams, he was anticipating disaster, figuring out escape routes. A recurring one was all the wiring started dripping acid, and no one knew what was happening, and he found the one safe spot, but everyone who wasn’t dead yet rushed him, shoving. He didn’t want to sleep anymore. He called one midnight in a panic. He’d been cleaning and found an earring. He made me describe all my earrings to find out if it was mine. Like they make you do at lost and found before they pass over the misplaced item. As if I would lie and say it was mine when it wasn’t. When I got it “right,” I heard him collapse onto the couch and start breathing okay again. Lately he’d been losing track of time, even while not on anything. He was afraid, with the discovery of the earring, that he’d had an affair and didn’t remember it. (I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was cheating on me constantly. I didn’t recognize the signs because it had never happened to me before. To trick somebody about what you want seemed pointless to me. Previous to him, I’d only been with musicians, who just tell you if they want to have sex with somebody, or if they accidentally did.) He wanted me to stay on the phone till he calmed down enough to sleep. We talked about work, the CPA hounding him. He needed to figure out how Enron-like he was willing to go. Should he let the company go down, or risk drowning only himself, or could he find at the last moment some hidden way to make the problem go away? He was thinking, thinking. He’d been putting off this moment, and this particular CPA, for over a year, but the dynamic had changed, and no one had faith in his eventually making it right anymore, so tomorrow was the day. I was so far away. Not just the thirty miles, but it was like an earthquake was happening and our future was cracked into two pieces sliding apart with a widening chasm between them. Our frustration turned into phone sex. I didn’t want to discuss fantasies; I needed to be there. The next day he showed me the PDA-edge-shaped welts across his penis and thighs, what he’d done so I could hear it.
The negative pressure relief activities/bonding experiences intensified among the upper echelon financial guys. At End Of Month, a few of them would end up with a disorderly conduct charge, and then get bailed out and let their fleet of lawyers (he retained three) do this or that to get the charges dropped or at least put off. They bought merchandise on the black market even though they could afford it in stores. The bought and sold pills they could have gotten through their doctors. They frequented prostitutes even though they could have, and did, get plenty of sex legally. They were thieves, dealers, johns to calm their nerves through not getting caught (or getting caught and not getting punished) for these little things as talismans against getting caught for the big things. I suppose, too, they goaded each other into taking part in worsening crimes, legally and morally, so they would all “have” plenty on each other, so should one want to tell, he could be destroyed in turn by any or all of them. That was the closest these guys got to safe.
I keep saying “these guys.” It’s because they all were. Female coworkers were left out of their gross initiation and team building recreation, and were not appointed positions of authority. Moreover, they thought of women as sex workers. It didn’t fit in their system to share doing real business with them. Sometimes a wife would get a nominal position in order to receive a salary for nothing. Alimony was brought up in conversation frequently as an extension of women’s sex-work nature: a weapon. “What’s this rape culture liberals are whining about? Men get raped every day, in our wallet.” “O. J. Simpson had his reasons.” Alimony was what kept them from leaving their wives, until a mistress got pregnant or too alluring or blackmailing or something. Some of the wives were ex-strippers. Some of the girlfriends were current strippers. And then there were the just plain strippers. Out of town business connections were regularly brought to strip clubs. Some girlfriends were too beautiful to need to strip; they popped Percocets. I think when little girls are abused, they learn that their value is making men feel catered to, and when little boys are abused, they learn that their value is making men feel catered to. They grow up and the women go to work at a strip joint and the men take other men to the strip joint.
My man was misogynistic the same way he golfed: he wasn’t really interested in it, so he never got good at it, but he could put on a decent show of it when need be. The cliche of looking for a partner in crime was literal for him, but the woman would always be a silent partner, who would never own any stock. He joined together the idea of us getting married with this venture he’d done many times with his ex-wife. He would run up a million dollars in unsecured credit: cash advances, store cards, high tech gear still in the boxes to be resold, and just lifestyle, then in the aftermath, sue the collectors who went off script for an additional hundred thousand or so. (Unsecured credit relies on your signature and fear of a bad credit rating to get you to repay. They can’t seize your property or bank account or throw you in jail or even sue you over unpaid personal lines of credit. In fact, if they even threaten those things, they can be sued–and he did, over and over, and won every time.) He never even had to file bankruptcy. After five or six years, the unpaid debts got wiped off his records, and there was no way to find out it had even happened. During those years, his former wife would use her good credit for any purchases that needed credit. Then he would start to build up his credit again, through car and home and other purchases promptly paid each month, and his former wife would begin blowing up her unsecured credit. (I don’t think she knew– overtly–what she was taking part in. She was one of these “men manage the money, women manage the home” wives.) This scheme only works if you have someone to take turns with, because otherwise you’re without means to get more or different houses/cars for years at a time, and he always needed more. He’d been talking this plan up to me practically since we met, but only theoretically, casually. A good grifter lays the seeds and then waits for his mark to put it together and suggest the con as if it were her idea. I remember the taste of the Indian food in my mouth, which tasted as intense as his eyes looked, when he described what we could afford, working together with his know- how. Always traveling, always with the latest technology, private school for my kids. He could build a gym for me in our home, I could donate to my causes. But none of it worked; all those things were nice, but my word is the only thing that’s always been mine and no one could take from me. A swipe of my credit card is an assumed promise to pay. There was no way he could turn me into a person who breaks her promise. My recalcitrance confused and frustrated him. I always wanted to please him, so why did I resist doing this one thing? Using my greed to bend my resolve (including my greed to be coconspirators, and to be married to him) didn’t work, so he tried appealing to my social idealism instead. Credit is a business, he argued. Creditors are not honorable, so you’re not playing with a full deck if you treat them that way. And they need debtors, they want debt. Users increasing the amount borrowed increases their worth (stock, ability to take out bigger business loans to expand). They get a tax write-off on debt and then they sell the debt to collectors, which is a whole industry. So if everyone paid their debts, it would put hundreds of thousands of people out of work, which means less taxes paid that fund safety nets such as Medicaid and food stamps. Still I said no. My word meant more to me than he did; my word meant more to me than saving all the poor people, too. It may be a corrupt system, but it’s the system you’re in, he said. No I’m not, I said.
Of course in the moment I didn’t understand exactly what he was trying to get me into all explicit the way I just laid it out. I don’t think he understood, either, what I was capable of resisting. Maybe no one had ever said a real “no” to him before. Not one that stayed a no. He was an alchemist. You didn’t realize what was happening against your will, because he got in there and seduced you into changing your will, your convictions. It had all been too easy for him in this country, in this climate. Everybody wanted a shortcut. Everybody wanted, period. He was energized by my resistance. He had a brain that was always doing twelve things at once. It gets exhausting. For a while there, his scattered attention came together and focused on me, the challenge of me. I was the same about him. We were confident, each of us, that we were skilled enough and adored enough that the other would give up who they were for us in the end. Each of us was sure we would destroy the other’s core first.
And, I mean, this is years later that I’m writing this. I’ve been clean and sober and calm for a while now–I suppose I sound rational. I wasn’t any of those things at the time, at least not in my relationship with him, or else I wouldn’t have put up with any of it. I would have lost his number after he stood me up on our second date (at York’s Wild Animal Kingdom, an hour’s drive away) because he was in jail. Or on our tenth date when he threatened to drive both of us through the guardrails into the river. In my reptilian brain stem, I was thrilled to find someone with whom I could act out my deepest childhood kill-or-be-killed fears and desires. One time he called, drunk, threatening to call a buddy of his at the police department on me if I didn’t give him back his engagement ring. I hung up on him and called the police myself and said, “He said he’d be calling, he said he has a connection there, so I want to make a preemptive report of that threat.” Then I called him back and told him what I’d done, and I said I would cut off my own arm and set myself on fire before I’d let anyone else force me to do anything. He said, “You’re so hot.” These little scenes gave him the chance to talk back to his mother and me to my father the way it had been burning inside us to do all these long years we’d had to act like we were competent and whole adults. Which we weren’t. But I think I was healing up faster than him, and he could feel it, and it felt to him like I was leaving.
On one of his coke-fueled all-nighters, he thought he recognized me in a porno, and showed it to me. There was a series of girls, and he thought I was every one of them, even the Hispanic teenager with moles. He figured I’d altered my appearance for that one with spray-on tan, dark contact lenses, and prosthetic moles. His paranoia had been growing slowly enough for me to keep getting used to it incrementally, and it always went away after a while, so I didn’t worry too much about it, and I was able to find it funny or even a little touching that he would think I was every woman, as if there were no room in his heart or the world of porn for any other. And that he would think that, at thirty- eight, I could carry the whole movie. So I just laughed and said, “Yeah, and I’m sure the director would agree to that. Because lord knows people who buy porn don’t want unblemished flesh and bright blue eyes, so he’d be willing to pay a makeup artist an extra $500 to get rid of those for me with dark lenses and prosthetic moles.” Then we had sex and breakfast and talked about love and I went home.
Do you know what he did then? He took the porno, phone messages from me, and photos of me–from when we went to a freaking wedding–to some AV guys to do “point to point” voice and face analysis. Here’s a man 6’2″, well-built, sleepless and wild-eyed, flashing a wad of hundreds. What would you have said, if you were those guys? “Dude, it’s obviously her,” they said. That’s what he quoted to me. That was his “irrefutable proof” of my “hypocrisy and betrayal.” In order to bring back together our continental drift, to align our lives so that we could exist together in one, he had to either become honest or make me into a liar. In his world, everything was what it looked like, and what men with the most expensive equipment said it was. When I insisted that not only his own eyes, but the AV guys’ scientific and mechanical analysis, were wrong, he said I was trying to make him think he’s crazy. In a way he was right… I wanted to explode his worldview ruled by facts and numbers. He said trying to make someone not see what they see is the ultimate manipulation, I was gaslighting him, and he would never be with me again. Until two days later when he needed to be with me again. And I let him. And it was good. And then he did it again– stayed up all night going over a new batch of research porn he’d purchased until he found not only me again, but this time all my friends too, and my house, my laughter. I blocked his emails, calls, MySpace. I locked my doors.
It was so shocking to go from… the closest I can compare the way I got about him to is to when my daughter was a baby. If she started crying, I had to pick her up, hold her, nurse her, touch her. Even if she wasn’t crying. If I just saw her. I had to touch her. If someone had held me back, tried to stop me, I would have kicked and clawed; I had to get to her. To go from that with him to just nothing, it was like someone took a pick axe to my stomach and gouged all my stomach out and now I had nothing there, just air and some strings of blood.
It wasn’t the sex–I’d had plenty of good sex before. It wasn’t the money–I didn’t accept most of the things he tried to buy me: a Louis Vuitton purse, a moped, a jeep. LV is ugly, and why would I want three vehicles? That’s just more insurance, registration… where would I park them? It wasn’t the status, either. It took about two days to figure out his coworkers were all sleazeballs who spent their time in strip joints and casinos, lying to their wives and their investors–both of whom were lying right back to them. What was giving me this desperate feeling was… well, I felt the need to protect him–because lord knows no one else was, certainly not himself. Partly it was the need to be back inside what was the same between us: this half-frozen language or system of advance and retreat that smart little kids all bent up by circumstances develop and never can quite get out of. We understood each other’s senseless behavior; it did not bother. Too, I needed what was different between us. He was the key to an uninhabitable world. The fact that I ended up not really liking the world didn’t matter. Just slipping in did, the espionage feel to it, and how everything in my world looked new with him commenting so oddly on it.
No one made me question my liberalism before; I didn’t even know I was a cliche. This supposedly shallow fellow made me rethink my every trusted belief, more than all my philosophy major, underground musician, prankster exes combined.
A poor man is simply a rich man who hasn’t been tested. There’s nothing to brag about in having never lived a certain lifestyle, no matter what you think of the lifestyle.
I used to believe (vainly) that this Nietzsche quote applied to me: “Independence is for the very few, [for those] not only strong, but also daring to the point of recklessness. He enters into a labyrinth, no one can see how and where he loses his way, becomes lonely, and is torn piecemeal. And he cannot go back.” But I was never really lost before. I was never lonely. I had my gang of misfits, and my gang of ideas. They evaporated in the hot light of his cynicism. I couldn’t call him anymore, and my friends didn’t want to hear about him or what he thought–in the end they dismissed him as too cocky, proprietary, didn’t recycle. Our love affair was a thrilling voyage into hostile territory, and now that I’d returned home–to what I believed, to what I knew–it didn’t feel like home anymore. I couldn’t make it in his world–couldn’t afford it for one thing, didn’t like it for another; but I didn’t want any longer to be in mine. Now, having fallen into a void, now I was lost. Now I was lonely. Now I was free.
*Porsche photo courtesy of Jay H, Pelican Parts.