A few nights ago while I slept beside my partner, I almost went to bed with a woman who was not my partner. I don’t know who she was; she was no one. Too young for me, milk skin, long dark hair, wearing a short black dress. I had conjured her.
We sat at a two-top, this woman and I, in a fancy cocktail lounge — the sort of place I generally don’t go in real life, even when I can afford it. I had the vague sense that I was not in the city where I live and was traveling for some reason, maybe a conference. As in: I was relatively anonymous and free to misbehave.
The woman seemed to know this, too. As I looked at her pretty face, she asked me questions. I said things about myself in what I assume was incomprehensible dreamspeak and she was clearly impressed by all of it. She smiled a lot.
As I looked at her pretty face, she asked me questions.
Even as we talked, I knew our conversation could lead to sex, was in fact designed to lead to sex. I didn’t allow it to lead to sex. I thought of Maggie and decided no. Part of me wanted to, of course, but another more convincing part of me didn’t want to — or didn’t want to deal with the consequences. You know you’re very boring, or committed, or both, when you can’t even cheat on your partner in your dreams.
Maggie spends most days asking people not to touch irreplaceable art; oils in skin can degrade paint and even stone. Once a woman kissed a Rembrandt. I teach and write and often feel I’m failing on both counts. Between us we have two master’s degrees in the arts, a car (leased), semi-affordable rent, a roommate, no pets. Our lives are stable, in a month-to-month, lower-middle-class way. We’re a white, straight couple in a liberal city. There’s only so much that can go wrong.
Back when I worked at a bakery, one of my very young coworkers — she was eighteen, doing a gap year before college — said she’d heard that when you turn thirty, your body stops regenerating and starts to decompose. By then I was already thirty, and she knew this, so I’m not sure how I was expected to respond.
I laughed. I said, “That makes sense.” We were rolling cold pucks of pie dough into thin pancakes, dusting the table with clouds of flour. The bakery had no air conditioning, and in the summer it was always a race to roll the circles and slide them on trays into the fridge before the butter in the dough melted, changing its consistency, dooming the final baked product — a tart, a quiche — to be less flaky and perfect.
After my coworker introduced her theory, I made jokes about it. Don’t mind me, I’m just rotting from the inside out. It was easy to be okay with decomposing because I didn’t feel like I was decomposing. I was used to standing for eight hours a day and lifting industrial mixing bowls and fifty-pound sacks of flour. I felt strong.
It was easy to be okay with decomposing because I didn’t feel like I was decomposing.
I still appreciate the notion of a hard reversal, a turning point clearly marked on life’s timeline. A metabolic switch flipped, with plenty of notice. Cut and dried. But lately it does feel like my body is breaking down, muscle softening to jello, cells wilting, so the idea is less charming than it used to be.
Maggie and I were walking back to the car. This was three years ago, maybe four, when we were leaner and less tired and her sister hadn’t yet died. Those things all seem related to me now, though I’m not sure that they are, or if they are, how. The cancer was open for reevaluation until it wasn’t. Grief is another kind of reversal, another kind of breakdown.
We’d gone for iced coffees at a café in a crowded square. It was summer then too, bodies everywhere, exposed skin and tattoos and sweat.
I must have seemed frustrated, or quiet, and so Maggie asked me why. I said, “Because it’s summer and I want to fuck everything.” Not the kind of thing I would normally say, but as I said it, I imagined her laughing in response. I really did.
She did not laugh. She made a face like she’d smelled something awful, and said, “I don’t like that.”
Of course she didn’t like it, any more than I liked hearing about her past sexual partners, people she didn’t really care to discuss but who I’d press her to talk about sometimes out of masochistic curiosity. Like the guy who said dirty things in bed that I could never say, even if I wanted to, even if she wanted me to (did she want me to?), and who figured heavily in an argument during which I put my fist into the kitchen wall (another thing I don’t normally do, that I hadn’t done before and haven’t done since, but there it is). One of Maggie’s paintings fell when I did it, which made me feel worse, though the canvas was fine. The wall is pale green and the dent is still there, like a spoon mark pressed into the meat of an avocado.
When I made my dumb comment about fucking it was still early in our relationship, but we’d grown more honest and bold with each other and I thought we might have been past that phase: past being hurt by ghosts, past punching walls.
Had I been less flustered that day, I might have said: What if we acknowledge we will always want more? What about taking that big, formless desire and channeling it toward one specific and real person who is there for you in real ways, who makes your life better and whose life, hopefully, you make better? What about the difficulty being the point?
I think I was able to communicate something to that effect, eventually. I realize none of what’s above is especially romantic.
Love might be a catgut string always on the verge of snapping.
For a long time I resisted emojis. I put them in the same category as, say, never employing capital letters in your correspondence. At best, a lazy shortcut; at worst, in poor taste. I’m not a very outward person. I suspect that had more to do with it than anything.
Over the years it’s been a slow, inevitable cave. A smiley face here, a thumbs up there, until it became reflexive. At first, I was embarrassed by the digital silliness. I would shield my phone screen from people on the bus, swiping quickly back to important-seeming things like email and articles about politics. Then I stopped remembering to be embarrassed.
Now, in those green and blue text bubbles, I emote like hell. Maggie gets most of the action. I end messages to her with a red heart, or a green heart, or a yellow winking face blowing a kiss that is also a heart. I send her the stylized sun, I send her the wide-eyed blushing face, I send her the four-leaf clover, I send her the smiling poop. I type On my way! and insert a blue car that looks a lot like our car, adding a few puffs of wind behind it to suggest my speed. I type Going to make like a baby and head out and include an image of a baby’s head with a curlicue lock of hair. You know what I mean. It’s fun.
Now, in those green and blue text bubbles, I emote like hell.
In other words: It’s not always difficult, between us. Much of the time it’s weirdly easy.
Another thing I like about the idea of decomposing after thirty is the narrative suggestion it carries, at least for me: If we spend our first three decades composing — writing a certain story, with its own plotlines and themes and a protagonist who is us — then to de-compose could mean to unwrite that same story. Roll the reel backward. Wipe the slate clean. Unlearn what others have taught us, rightly or wrongly. Shed the sense of self we have grown around us, like the husk of a cicada, a kind of armor that’s both us and not us.
If you spin it right, it becomes a process of unburdening. Maybe after a certain point, our mistakes begin to decompose too. Even the mistakes we could make but don’t. We find them clinging to the bark of trees, dozens of them, crisp and brown and empty, and pluck them down, rolling them in our fingers with childlike wonder. We watch them rot and we learn.
This week we visited Maggie’s parents in rural New Hampshire. They are still dealing with unimaginable grief but their lives, viewed from the outside, are beautiful. They take daily swims in a nearby lake. They work hard, but not too much. At the house, they play Scrabble and pull vegetables from the ground. Hummingbirds drink from a feeder, then go shooting toward the sky on invisible zip lines.
On summer days it’s tempting to leap ahead, to envision a similar life. I can see us, decades hence, bending over tomato and bean plants, their leaves fanning to catch sun. There is a small house with old clapboards, a roaming cat, a stand of pine and birch trees at the end of the yard. Inside there are books and half-painted canvases and dirty dishes. We talk and laugh and argue. We hurt each other and apologize. The catgut string sings and moans.
It is a dream in my head but also an image of what, maybe, could happen. As if we might be tending toward a place that’s green and good. As if, while our bodies very slowly fall, we are sowing something beneath them.