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Not long after I became my professor’s research assistant, I told him that I sometimes threw up what I ate. A junior at Cornell, I had just turned twenty. X, as I’ll call him, had hired me in conjunction with the “work-study” program, which was available to students who received financial aid. He was almost a decade and a half my senior. He was also married, but his wife was teaching and living elsewhere. X himself was on leave from another élite university. It was 1990. George H. W. Bush was in the White House. And you could still smoke cigarettes anywhere you wanted to.
Sometimes, when I visited X in his office on the top floor of a Victorian building near the Arts Quad, as I began to do after class, he’d ask if he could have one of my Marlboro Lights. I had started smoking a year before as a way of dealing with the nagging questions of what to do with my hands, how to suppress my appetite, and, above all, how to give myself the appearance of someone who stood aloof from the petty squabbles of everyday life—though nothing could have been further from the truth.
I remember following up my confession with a question: “Do you think I’m pathetic?”
“Do you want me to think you’re pathetic?” In the manner of a therapist (or Socrates), X often replied to my questions with other questions.
“No.” I recall laughing to break the suddenly sombre mood—also with relief that he didn’t seem to have judged me.
After a smoke-filled pause, he told me that someone he knew was making a film about the topic.
I never found out who the filmmaker was, but the idea that an associate of his regarded the topic as worthy of further inquiry made me feel a little less ashamed.
Why, after lengthy deliberation, I’d decided to disclose such a closely held secret to someone who was neither a trusted friend nor a mental-health professional was a more complicated question. On account of his age and perceived authority, I suppose I saw X as a substitute parental figure, especially since confiding in my own parents had proved to be a fraught activity. I think I had the idea that, if I could get X to worry about me, he’d want to take care of me. Which was the fantasy that underpinned all my other fantasies, even as I lived in fear of appearing needy.
But that was only part of it. X had a slow and measured manner of speaking that put me at ease, along with a calm confidence that I lacked and found magnetic. He was also tall, with tenebrous good looks, and he laughed easily, as if the very business of life were an elaborate joke. Really, I thought I’d never met such a clever and glamorous man and I made no effort to hide the crush I had on him. I attached flirtatious notes to the piles of books he asked me to retrieve for him at the library, and sat down right next to him at the polished-wood table where he conducted his seminar.
I was also angry at my family and the pressure I felt all of them put on me to be “perfect” and impressive—or, at least, I was as angry at my family as I was at myself for not being those things—and therefore all the more drawn to X’s radical politics and irreverent attitude, which seemed to repudiate everything that my high-culture-loving parents had raised me to revere. My father was a cellist, and my mother a writer of art-related books.
Although X taught English, he seemed to dislike literature. He was equally disdainful of classical music and art. (An invitation to attend a concert performed by the university orchestra, in which I played the violin, was declined.) After a childhood of being dragged to classical-music concerts and art museums, I welcomed his perspective. Just as important, he seemed to want to know all about me, peppering me with probing questions and patiently listening to my responses with what seemed like amused attention, which I could only find flattering, even as he revealed little about himself.
If it’s possible to be two things at once, I was both pathologically insecure and intoxicated by the power that my newly discovered desirability to men seemed to have conferred on me. In high school, shy and a “late bloomer,” I’d been mostly invisible to boys. Now, just a couple of years later, I’d noticed with fascination how, when I entered a room, all eyes seemed to turn to me. In public, in one of my provocative outfits, I likely appeared self-assured. In private, I was frequently engaged in a spiral of self-recrimination in which I ate until I was overfull, vomited, then forced myself to go running the next morning to atone for my “crimes” of the previous night. “I’m a cool cat at noon, and a sick, lost soul at midnight,” I wrote in my diary. Occasionally, I’d try to integrate the two sides of myself, as I did that day in X’s office, in an attempt to get closer to others. But, for the most part, I kept them separate. Honesty was too risky a proposition.
Only a couple of months earlier, I’d been in Spain on a semester-abroad program. Still nineteen, I’d been above all keen to prove my self-sufficiency. But things hadn’t worked out the way I’d envisioned them. Not only had I detested my host family in Seville, embittered Francoists who criticized me for using too much of their toilet paper and eating too much of their marmalade; I’d been terribly homesick. I especially missed my best friend at college, J, from whom I’d been inseparable the previous six months.
In the back of my mind, I’d been hoping to have the kind of amorous adventures that I imagined both my close-in-age, older sisters had had on their foreign travels; a year earlier, one had delayed her return from Paris in order to spend more time with her French boyfriend. What’s more, a classmate at Cornell had pointed out that my first name was a near-anagram of Dulcinea, the elusive love object in “Don Quixote,” which we’d read in my Literatura del Siglo de Oro class. It had almost seemed like fate that, once in Spain, I should find my own worshipful knight-errant.
But when the opportunity finally presented itself—at the rastro Charco de la Pava one afternoon, a handsome young artisan in Chinese cloth slippers handed me a piece of paper with his address on it and asked me to come and see him (he had no phone, he said)—I hesitated. After a week spent trying and failing to garner the courage to pay him a visit, I tossed the address in the trash. Instead, I found myself in an unwanted psychodrama involving my roommate, a Mormon girl from Michigan who mistakenly believed I had sexual designs on her.
With even more incentive to stay away from the moldering villa in which we’d been housed, I took to wandering the winding streets of Seville’s Jewish quarter, past trickling fountains and beggars missing teeth or limbs, the 1985 Smiths album “Meat Is Murder” playing on my Sony Walkman—in particular, the rain-enhanced dirge “Well I Wonder,” which I rewound again and again. “I half die / Please, keep me in mind / Please, keep me in mind,” Morrissey sang.
With the widespread use of e-mail and cell phones still a few years off, keeping in touch from overseas was not the easy feat it is today. And I’d grown increasingly convinced that my friends and family back home had all forgotten about me. Seeking comfort, I’d taken to buying bags of “pasas sin pepitas de California”—seedless raisins—at the local market and found that I couldn’t stop eating them. It was in Seville that I developed bulimia.
My hunger for human connection felt equally ungovernable. One afternoon, unable to reach J or to otherwise relieve the all-consuming loneliness that had taken hold of me, I found myself in a phone booth crying so hard that I fell to my knees. A couple of days later, I packed my bags and took a train to Madrid, where I spent a week by myself in a pensión, waiting for my flight back to the U.S.
It was on a visit to the Prado one afternoon that week that I became obsessed with Francisco Goya’s black paintings, my secret new habit having found its monstrous reflection—or so it seemed to me—in his “Saturn Devouring His Son.”
Back in New Jersey, I presented my mother with the gilded hand mirror I’d purchased from my Spanish lover-who-wasn’t. She, in turn, gave me an appointment with a shrink in a neighboring town. But the whole idea of a child of hers requiring psychiatric care seemed to distress her so much that she immediately rewrote the story of my semester abroad. The real reason I had quit the program and come home early, according to her, was that I’d “gotten sick,” just as she herself so often was, with an upset stomach.
I spent most of the next two months lying in and on my trundle bed, across from my tennis trophies and Teddy bears, waiting to return to college and feeling like an unmitigated failure. “Moods sit on me like lead X-ray bibs,” I wrote, my diary having become the one place where I felt free to express my humiliation.
In Ithaca a few weeks later, snow drifts flanking the streets, J and I noticed a photograph of X in a campus newspaper and decided that he was cute. J, in jest, suggested that I do something about it. We giggled at the very idea. Intrigued, I looked up his class in the course catalogue. Although the subject didn’t particularly interest me, I registered for it the next day.
It is odd to think how easily we might never have met the people who leave an indelible mark on us.
One evening, halfway into the semester, X invited me over for a “nightcap” at his rental house, a mile from campus, and then, in the most casual of tones, asked me if I’d like to spend the actual night. My naïveté matched only by my recklessness, I agreed. Given X’s position and résumé, I don’t think it even occurred to me that he might have anything other than my best interests at heart. He’d already mentioned that his marriage was in its death throes. I assumed that he and his wife had some kind of understanding. But, really, what did I know about such things? To the extent that I was apprehensive, it was because I wasn’t sure whether I’d measure up.
But, before long, any concern on my part was lost to the surreal amazement of finding myself in X’s embrace. That someone of what I perceived as his exalted stature wanted me as his lover—and, what’s more, was prepared to risk so much for the pleasure of such—both astonished me and seemed to validate my mother’s insistence on my exceptionality. For the first time ever, I felt on par with my hyper-accomplished sisters, with whom I was always trying and—it seemed to me—failing to keep up. Plus, to have won the affections of someone who had published books and articles, who was invited to give lectures all over the country, and had travelled all over the world (and had a foreign accent, as if to prove the point) made me feel brilliant and worldly by association—all while promising to erase the last traces of my sheltered suburban upbringing. Or maybe the truth was that I was so busy worrying about whether I looked O.K. that I was hardly thinking at all.
All I know for sure is that, afterward, it seemed as if nothing so exciting had ever happened to me. There is a month-long lacuna in my diary that matches up with the first month of my affair. The next entry after that begins, simply, “WOW.”
In the nineteen-seventies, Cornell—along with Yale and Johns Hopkins—became a locus of the literary and philosophical movement, imported from Paris, known as post-structuralism. Positing reality as less a fixed thing than a product of the language that described or “constructed” it—“Il n’y a pas de hors-texte,” Jacques Derrida famously wrote, sometimes translated as “there is nothing outside the text”—the teachings it encompassed were sometimes known simply as “theory.” On my return from Spain, I’d switched majors from Spanish to comparative literature and discovered that I could take various “theory-oriented” classes that would count toward my degree, including some in what was then known as women’s studies.
In one, I was introduced to the work of the feminist deconstructionist Judith Butler. From Butler’s just-published book, “Gender Trouble,” I absorbed the compelling idea that women were always playing a part. Butler wrote—and I dutifully underlined—“As the effects of a subtle and politically enforced performativity, gender is an ‘act,’ as it were, that is open to splittings, self-parody, self-criticism, and those hyperbolic exhibitions of ‘the natural’ that, in their very exaggeration, reveal its fundamentally phantasmatic status.” Butler’s theory of gender confirmed the feeling, long embedded in my psyche, that I had to perform in order for others to like me—and, especially, to perform my femininity.
It was in my women’s-studies classes, too, that I was first exposed to a corresponding movement that came to be known as sex-positive feminism. Mirroring the Reagan era’s “me-first” ethos, it eschewed economic issues and those related to male violence in favor of a politics of personal fulfillment centered on the concept of female pleasure. (In my “French Feminisms” class, the preferred term for such was jouissance.) The rough idea was that women should be celebrated not just as desirable objects but as desiring subjects, and that, in liberating their libido and seizing the terms of their objectification, they might liberate themselves, too. It followed that even entanglements that appeared to present asymmetries of power could be justified on the ground that the participants were acting out a fantasy or engaging in role-play. Conversely, the inherently emotional aspect of sex, along with its ability to make one human feel bound to another, went unmentioned. So did the fact that, in heterosexual relations, biology rendered the female party the more physically vulnerable one.
It was thanks to this line of thinking—a line I later came to regard as casuistry—that I was able both to justify my affair and to identify myself as a feminist while conducting my personal life in a way that might suggest otherwise. That X considered himself a “male feminist” and appeared to harbor few ethical qualms about what we were doing seemed to be further evidence that nothing about our situation could possibly be wrong. And, besides, wasn’t morality “socially constructed,” too?
But, if my involvement with X began as a lark, an act of one-upmanship, even a feminist statement, it soon became something else entirely—at least to me. After a long winter, Ithaca’s gray skies and cold rains finally gave way to scintillating sun, and my own mood followed suit. By the second month, I was in a quasi-fugue state.
At first, my friends reacted to the news more with amusement and curiosity than with censure. Age-gap relationships were common in that era; women of eighteen and older were seen as full-fledged adults, and universities had few prohibitions against student-faculty dating. Though I perceived that X’s being married did raise eyebrows.
The only person I recall expressing any hesitation was P, a kind, hippie-ish friend from my semester-abroad program, in whom I’d confided. “Is this really what you want?” she wrote to me. “Or are you being dragged along by this powerful drowning wave? Your initiative or his? [And] how do you always get into these relationships with such a dominating figure? . . . Remember, you are in total control of yourself!”
But, while I appreciated P’s concern, I had no answer to allay it, if only because being subsumed by a “powerful drowning wave” was, in truth, precisely what I was hoping for. Where once I’d lived in fear of losing control—as a child, I’d been particularly frightened of carnival rides and deep water—now all I secretly wanted was to close my eyes and let someone else take charge. Also, to the extent that X seemed as besotted with me as I was with him—within forty-eight hours, he’d said that he missed me when we were apart—I could believe that the “initiative” belonged to us both. But, really, I wasn’t thinking about such things. I’d never before felt so desired and admired. For the moment, at least, and to my enormous relief, my eating disorder had vanished—and my appetite along with it. I’d regained my confidence, as well. Waking at X’s place, I felt as if, after having spent years at the “kids’ table,” I’d finally been invited to join the adult one, where wine and witty conversation flowed freely.
I soon concluded that I’d fallen in love—but also that we’d fallen in love.
Simultaneously, I rejoiced that X seemed to misread me, if self-servingly, as a happy-go-lucky, young sophisticate. Although I was never wholly comfortable in his presence, I did my best to embody his misreading. “Everyone returns us to a different sense of ourselves, for we become a little of who they think we are,” Alain de Botton writes in “On Love.”
Most of the untruths that passed between X and me were lies of omission. When my inauthenticity seemed at risk of exposure, however, I’d actively fib. I recall him asking me once if I’d ever been in “one of those sororities” and me quickly denying that I would ever have belonged to something so juvenile or politically regressive, when, in fact, I’d lived at my sorority house, albeit unhappily, for part of sophomore year.
But, to the extent that my life had become a Russian nesting doll of secrets and evasions, one encompassing the other, the entire contraption seemed at perpetual risk of coming apart, which only added to my anxiety. X kept me hidden from his friends and colleagues, and he expected me to be quiet about our involvement, too, both to preserve his own privacy and to protect his wife’s feelings. (In response to my urging him to come clean, he would say that she was not the one who had done anything wrong.) Although I’d accepted his refusal to conduct our relationship openly, I defied him by telling every friend I had, as proud of our connection as X was concerned about it becoming public knowledge, even as I feared X would find out and be furious at me.
Outside the classroom, we were two people of disparate ages delighting in each other’s company—laughing, gossiping, and bantering. When not watching trashy TV or “feminist porn,” we’d go on drives up the lake. But the power imbalance between us was never not present. When I least expected it, he’d turn stern and reprimand me—one time, for being insufficiently deferential to the waitress at the diner where we sat eating our breakfast and, by association, to the “working classes.” On occasions such as these, I’d fall silent, rather than defend myself, inclined to believe that he knew better than I did.
There was rarely any intellectual exchange between us, beyond X imparting his dark and paranoid view of the world, and me listening and offering the occasional question or quip. Sometimes, a little voice inside me would ask, Really?, with regard to some tendentious assertion he’d presented as the indubitable truth. But I mostly kept my doubts to myself.
I also remember sitting alongside X in his living room, as he read my classwork. “This was a great paper,” he wrote on the last page, before handing it back to me. “Too short, of course, to fully explore what you mean by the ‘mentality of suburban life.’ ” If I found this setup problematic in any way, I have no memory of it.
Even thornier was how the same dynamic played out in intimate spaces.
As the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of the nineteen-eighties, some left-wing intellectuals began to extoll individual acts of cultural subversion as substitutes for revolution. In my classes at Cornell, the word “subversive” was bandied about so often that I came to think of it as a synonym for “good.” The AIDS crisis and the heartless response to it from the Christian right, then America’s chief proponent of “family values,” further buttressed the belief, seemingly shared by X, that libertinism was not just compatible with feminism but an ideal worth championing. In one of my women’s-studies classes, we were even reading a novel—“Justine”—by the Marquis de Sade.
But if X believed that, in transgressing with his student slash research assistant, he was sticking it to the man, he did so without seeming to realize that he was The Man—or, at least, he was for me. As reluctant to disappoint him as I was determined to prove my mettle, I’d effectively surrendered all agency. I don’t know if I was even able to differentiate between his pleasure and mine, or mine and its opposite; they were all jumbled together in my head. Whatever X wanted, I reflexively wanted, too. At any point, of course, I could have said no. I was not under threat of punishment.
But I never said no. I longed for any and all manifestations of X’s affection. I was also scared of losing him.
More generally, the sexual revolution had made asserting boundaries the business of prudes. Wary of being saddled with such a damning label, young women like me were therefore disinclined to have any boundaries whatsoever.
Which was all to the benefit of those who felt entitled to violate them.
I was scared of losing X, but I could not see that I was already in the process of doing so. One day, as we climbed the shaded banks of one of Ithaca’s scenic falls, he told me that our relationship was “ill-fated.” I looked up the meaning of the word when I got back to my room.
Yet even when I was faced with an official definition—“destined for misfortune; doomed”—I did not absorb its implication for my own life. Instead, I recall noting that one of the synonyms given was “star-crossed,” a word I associated positively with “Romeo and Juliet” and, by extension, great passion.
Or, maybe, there was a part of me that liked the idea of being involved in something impossible and fraught. (At least it wasn’t boring, like New Jersey.) And wasn’t true love almost by definition tragic?
Or am I lying to myself? Like X, maybe I’d organized my personal life, however unconsciously, in such a way as to avoid any chance of actual intimacy. From a certain angle, conducting a “fantasy relationship” was far safer than conducting a real one.
But, of course, it wasn’t safe at all.
At the end of the spring semester, X invited me to spend the weekend at his wife’s house, in the city where she taught, while she was out of town. Once again, it did not occur to me to object. Nor, in my immaturity, could I conceive of X’s wife as another fully sentient human who, in all likelihood, would not want me in her home. My only objection was that I couldn’t afford to go; he sent me a plane ticket. (X told The New Yorker that he remembers several incidents described in this piece differently.)
I no longer recall the interiors of the different houses and apartments where X and I met up that year. What I do remember are the shampoos in the bathrooms: Aussie at his place, some kind of henna rinse at hers. In their perceived exoticness, as much as in their implied intimacy, the sight and smell of one or another plastic bottle would leave me briefly startled by my own misbegotten proximity, if not startled enough to dislodge the delusions that had taken up residence in my head.
Halfway through that summer, which I spent mostly in Ithaca, where our visits continued, I told X, for the first time, that I loved him. I had never said those words to a non-family member before. Having concluded my teens without understanding that desire, especially as it’s experienced by some men, only sometimes overlaps with deeper emotions, I assumed he’d reciprocate.
That he did not actually love me was not an idea I had entertained—until he failed to echo my declaration, claiming that, although he was flattered by my pronouncement, were he to do so, it would imply a commitment that he couldn’t make. Nevertheless, he did not express any misgivings about continuing our affair.
At first, I tried to rationalize X’s response. I appreciated that he’d been honest. It was true that he was in no position to commit to a romantic partner right now. And, in the end, weren’t they just words—which, as I’d learned in my theory classes, had no intrinsic meaning and referred only to other words?
But, over time, X’s withholding of the words I’d wanted to hear began to eat away at me like a parasite, summoning back the feelings of inadequacy and alienation for which our affair, at least initially, had been the ultimate balm. It was no longer enough for me simply to be desired. I wanted to be loved, too—and could come up with no answer as to why I was not by X, except that I wasn’t good enough to be so.
I conjectured that he kept me a secret for similar reasons. “How can I not help but think that I am unacceptable, embarrassing . . . when he won’t tell any of his friends about me—needless to say, his wife” I wrote in my diary. In growing frustration, one day I dashed off a letter to X, calling him a “piece of shit” and telling him that our affair was over. But, soon after, I must have told him that I hadn’t meant what I’d said. The next time I saw him, I recall him telling me that my letter had been “extremely hurtful” to him. Then I felt guilty and embarrassed and found myself apologizing for mistreating him.
It wasn’t just that I had placed X on an impossibly high pedestal in my mind; I’d made his feelings for me the measure of my self-worth. Rather than walking away, therefore, I was inclined to dig in. “I want him to take responsibility for the double life he’s been leading,” I wrote.
Of course, he did no such thing. Nor did I actually insist on it.
At the beginning of the fall semester, I developed a kidney infection, the result of an untreated U.T.I. and, more generally, of my failure to notice or take care of my health. I was in the hospital for six days. My parents drove four hours each way to come and see me, but, to my recollection, stayed only twenty minutes; my mother found hospitals too upsetting.
X, who had by then left Ithaca and reassumed his regular post, didn’t visit at all. But a bouquet soon arrived from him, accompanied by a card that alluded to “our song” and was signed, “Love [X].” I was surprised, touched, and even hopeful. Never mind that “our song,” a cover version of the 1983 R. & B. hit “Just Be Good to Me”—which X had, of course, picked out himself, then recorded for me on a cassette tape—was about a young woman who was so enamored of the man in her life that she didn’t mind sharing him with unnamed others. I remember endlessly rewinding the tape on my mini boombox, parsing the lyrics in search of evidence that, one day, just as the song went, We could be together, be together.
Once recovered, I began spending weekends with X in New York City, where he now lived—always, of course, at his convenience and in accordance with the dictates of his schedule. Even if he wouldn’t publicly acknowledge me or say that he loved me, I still felt special and excited to be in his company. Flea-market shopping in Chelsea with my secret, inappropriate, older “boyfriend,” or sitting across from him in a dimly lit SoHo bistro, or browsing the aisles of the St. Mark’s Bookshop in the East Village—I could almost imagine myself into one of the contemporary novels and short-story collections I read on school breaks, like Tama Janowitz’s “Slaves of New York,” Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” or Mary Gaitskill’s “Bad Behavior,” at least insofar as those books were about underemployed hipsters in downtown Manhattan, making chic messes out of their dysfunctional lives. To do so made me feel finally grown-up. Yet the feeling was constantly being thwarted by my fear that I couldn’t actually keep up with X—that I hadn’t read the “right” books or heard of the “right” people or had the “right” life experiences. It was another old anxiety, no doubt tracing back to my sisters.
When I think of that year, I see myself frantically lighting one cigarette after another, as if it were possible to disguise my shortcomings behind the smoke they generated. I didn’t understand then that a large part of my appeal for X was that I was beneath him, looking up. Or, rather, gazing worshipfully upward. Why else would a professor even pursue a relationship with an undergraduate? Maybe I wasn’t the only one who was afraid of being truly seen or known.
“Woman [is the] pivot point of consumerism, [both] as ‘consumer’ and ‘consumed,’ ” I wrote on the second page of my notebook for my favorite class, Fetishism 409, a graduate-level seminar I’d lucked into that fall. The class was taught by the feminist film theorist and filmmaker Laura Mulvey, who is famous today for having coined the phrase “the male gaze.” Thanks to Mulvey, I began to challenge the more facile assumptions of sex-positive feminism.
Yet, even as I became expert at seeing how Hollywood objectified and fetishized its female stars, reducing them to nothing but their appearance—and even as I was disgusted that this was the case—I found that I still on some level wanted to be the object of the gaze I was deriding.
A similarly contradictory set of impulses had begun to inform my thinking about my affair. What did I even see in X at this point? I suspect it was less that I saw something than that I’d grown attached and therefore determined to make him care as much as I did, even as my ever-increasing complaints, demands, and dramatic departures failed to elicit in him what I felt would be an appropriately emotional response, further wounding and frustrating me.
“We’re just giving in to our desire,” he replied fatuously when I objected to his latest plan for us to go to his wife’s house.
I had also begun to notice that, even when X was at the center of the drama, he kept himself at a distance. He sometimes referred to our relationship as a “narrative”—as if all the action were happening to a set of fictional characters, as opposed to ones made of flesh and blood. (And as if he weren’t the narrative’s chief protagonist.) And, the more he assumed the role of passive spectator, the more I found myself cast as the desperate pursuer—and the more our affair began to resemble another self-harming addiction in my life that seemed beyond my capabilities to regulate.
When X asked if I wanted any of the old clothes that his wife was getting rid of, was he simply trying to be nice because I was a student with no spending money, or did he relish the deception implicit in the image of me walking around campus dressed like her? As usual, by the time I thought to wonder, it seemed too late to ask.
I was similarly uncertain how to interpret X’s announcement that it would be “erotic” if I met him at a hotel in Massachusetts, one weekend when he was slated to attend an academic conference at Harvard. Should I feel flattered? Degraded? Increasingly, I felt out of my depth, without any clear route back to shore.
In any event, I saw the invitation as an opportunity to finally introduce X to one of my sisters, who was in Cambridge finishing her degree and whom I regarded as similarly glamorous. I suppose I hoped to impress each of them with my connection to the other.
But, over an awkward coffee at a café in Harvard Square, X seemed as uncomfortable as my sister seemed wary. And that night, when he and I met up again after dinner and drove to a Marriott on the outskirts of the city, he was cold and uncommunicative and walked two steps ahead of me on our way into the bar. Maybe he was trying to punish me for conscripting him to play a part he’d never agreed to play. Or maybe it was simply that his infatuation with me had come to an abrupt end; whatever tenderness he’d once harbored for me appeared to have evaporated.
I assume that, during the night that followed, X did not intend to hurt me physically. But nor did he show an iota of concern for my safety and well-being. Yet again, given my passivity and inexperience, and the skewed power dynamic that fed upon them, it did not occur to me that I ought to protest. (I had also drunk enough that the room spun when I closed my eyes.)
But, waking before dawn, I was as frightened as I was bewildered to find my legs trembling and both of my kneecaps grotesquely bloodied by carpet burns. Sitting on the edge of the bathtub, examining my damaged flesh, I wondered how I’d got to this point—and what any of it had to do with liberation (or love). When X woke a few hours later, he asked how “that” had happened, as if he’d had nothing to do with it, then complained that he was running late. Upon our arrival at the conference a short time later—I planned to hitch a ride back to Ithaca with a Cornell graduate student—X pretended not to know me and allowed someone to introduce us when I approached. As if it were all some kind of parlor game.
I remember standing in a crowd of strangers, dressed in my favorite vintage trenchcoat, my wounds hidden beneath my white jeans, feeling as if I were hovering outside myself. If I’d once felt beautiful around X, now I felt erased—unsure if the thing I understood to be my life was even real anymore.
He didn’t phone that night—not to see if I’d made it back to college safely, and not to make sure that I was all right. Nor did he phone the day after that. And, when I finally phoned him to report on and ask tentative questions about my injuries, which had prompted the nurse at the campus health center to express concern, he said that I’d been acting like a “slut.”
I have a dim memory of him laughing afterward. Though it seems just as possible that I made that part up, if only to convince myself that he’d been merely kidding around. In any case, I do recall trying to find the accusation flattering. Reclaiming old slurs had become a popular semantic practice.
But shock, shame, and alarm flickered in the background of my consciousness, like the changing colors of a stoplight caught in the rearview mirror. Was X revealing a latent misogyny that had infected our affair all along?
Or was he right, and was that all I amounted to?
One afternoon, my motives opaque even to myself, I waited for my favorite women’s-studies professor after class and attempted to tell her about my affair. Was I trying to impress her with my “adult credentials” so that she would want to be my friend? Did I hope to get X into trouble? Or was I seeking yet another quasi-parental figure to guide and console me? Maybe it was all three.
But she cut me off mid-sentence, a stricken look on her face, and announced, “Oh, dear, I don’t think you should be telling me this”—before apologetically sending me on my way. Afterward, I was mortified and furious at myself for the misjudgment.
Today, it is easy to imagine the same professor feeling compelled not just to listen but to report what she’d heard to the campus Title IX office, whereupon an investigation might be opened.
A couple of weeks—and another breakup attempt, this one in person—later, I discovered that X was returning to Ithaca, not to see me but to have Thanksgiving dinner with his wife and their friends. That he would soon be close by but with others devastated me. I cried as hard as I had in that phone booth in Seville.
Except this time I couldn’t stop. Still shocked by the disregard for my personal welfare that X had demonstrated during the conference, I had finally begun to understand not only that he would never take care of me but that our affair was, at best, a distant cousin of love.
Yet, without X, I no longer felt I belonged or mattered to the world. “Alone. I am alone,” I wrote in my diary. “I could call some friends maybe. But I am still alone. . . . [X] is not there for me—doesn’t love me. Why would he?”
It’s still unclear to me whether it was the demise of my affair that caused me to temporarily lose my ability to live in my body—or whether that loss was already in the works and X was merely a vehicle to which I’d hitched myself in order to advance the journey.
“Dr. G___ thinks [X] is fucking me up—making me crazy—making me puke. I don’t know anymore,” I’d noted earlier in the fall, referring to the psychiatrist I’d begun to see.
My eating disorder had come blazing back to life. I considered a day when I threw up only once to have been a success. There were fewer and fewer of those days.
If my bulimia had begun in part as a dieting strategy, it had evolved into something that had more to do with compulsion than with vanity. I didn’t fully understand it myself, though I’d located an explanation in one of the “theory” books I was reading—Julia Kristeva’s “Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.” “I am throwing up as a masochistic ritual designed to reaffirm my being (the interior) (the ‘I’ w/ boundaries) . . . even though I realize my non-space,” I wrote.
Looking back, I suspect the real explanation was that I’d internalized the anger that I didn’t know how to express to X. As I cycled between comfort and horror, shame and relief, I was maybe also trying to regain a sense of control over my life. As if my negative feelings might literally be cast out of my body.
“I throw up to feel blank—to feel dead—[to] fall asleep like a rock, too tired to feel anything, or to worry about the outside world,” I noted.
But, of course, no such thing was actually possible.
The evening I couldn’t stop crying, I had called X to tell him how hurt I felt. He expressed feelings of regret and loss, just as he had done the first time I tried to leave him. But, this time, he seemed largely resigned to it and possibly even relieved.
A few weeks later, during another phone call, he sounded even more indifferent. “Life is about survival,” he intoned.
It did not seem that way to me.
“I want to die sometimes,” I wrote a week before my twenty-first birthday, having returned home early for winter break. “Nothing looms ahead in my future that I can look forward to. I find everything too difficult, too painful; I don’t have the energy for it.”
It occurs to me in retrospect that, having spent the previous year trying to understand the literary concept of deconstruction, I’d begun to mimic a deconstructed text myself. I was reduced to a collection of “empty signifiers,” devoid of an author, and utterly destabilized.
Or maybe I was the deconstructionist, ruminating over X’s words with an eye toward identifying the “différance,” to use one of Derrida’s winking neologisms, between what he’d said and what he’d meant, yet still failing to comprehend why he wasn’t fighting to win me back.
But, while X had stopped calling, he encouraged me to keep calling him—and was still happy to spend the night with me if I showed up at his door. Perhaps that was why I kept revisiting the affair even after I’d officially ended it: somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to accept that, like words, I meant nothing in particular.
By the time I graduated from Cornell, X had separated from his wife. But he’d made it clear that he hadn’t left her for me. In one particularly cruel outburst, as I was making plans to move to New York myself, he’d announced that he would no longer be available to see me unless I promised to be “fun.” (It turned out that X did not want to hear about my problems, after all.)
Unable to entirely sever our connection, even as I found new romantic partners who genuinely cared about me, I’d occasionally reach out to X.
Maybe I was still hoping that he’d come to his senses and realize that he loved me, after all.
Our last phone call took place when I was around twenty-five.
On picking up, he sounded so uninterested in speaking to me that it broke something inside me all over again. For several minutes, I went through the motions of catching up. The strain of doing so was so acute that my teeth began to chatter.
After I hung up, I felt like a paper napkin that had been used, crumpled, and discarded. Now, it seemed, it was my job to decompose and disappear from view. As if in preparation for doing so, I curled up in a ball on the floor.
X didn’t contact me again after that—not to compliment me on something I’d written, not to see how I was. Every few years, however, we’d run into each other at parties or cultural events. X would always smile broadly, kiss me hello on both cheeks, and engage me in a few minutes of lighthearted chitchat. For reasons of pride and self-protection, I’d eagerly participate in these charades, making a great show of my sang-froid.
But, after he disappeared back into the crowd, I always felt disturbed and upset.
In late 2017, X attended a public book talk that I did in connection with my novel “Class.” We’d got back in limited touch when I was in my early forties, after I’d e-mailed him to address a dismissive comment I’d heard he made about me to an acquaintance, and X had written a surprisingly conciliatory response. In an impulsive moment, I’d added his name to my group mailing list. He was wearing a T-shirt that read “Dismantle the Patriarchy.” “[Y]et he hath ever but slenderly known himself,” Regan says of her father in “King Lear.”
But X was respectful, even complimentary, and he lingered after the event. Which I found, at first, gratifying—how many years had I waited to win his approval!—and then painful. By coincidence, or not, the media was awash in tales of male predation. For many women I knew, there was a sense of vindication and of finally being heard. Not for me. I found myself rattled by the new framing that I felt the culture superimposing on my long-ago affair. In some ways, it had been easier to blame myself for having been judged unlovable than to believe that I had been exploited.
In other ways, it had made things more difficult. Although my eating disorder belonged to the distant past—and I’d gone on to find lasting love, marry, and have children—the hurt and the confusion about what had happened to me lingered. Even so, I would sometimes play the story for laughs, brandishing it as evidence of my “wild” college years.
On other occasions, talking about it with friends, I’d become short of breath and find my hands and legs shaking.
Why do some scars fade away while others never fully heal, their sticky matters perpetually leaking out? I suspect that the unhealed wounds are those inflicted by events that not only leave our hearts feeling trampled upon but that seem to confirm our worst fears about ourselves.
In fact, it was nearly three decades later, prodded by the #MeToo movement, the eerie spectacle of Trump’s untrammelled narcissism, and the clarifying rage of perimenopause, that I finally saw that Goya’s Saturn had not been me at all. It was X. ♦