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Smart Girl's Love Affair

By V. Kann


I loved Charles—at least in part—for his vocabulary.  

At first he was just a nerdy-looking guy in glasses and a button-down shirt who sat next to me in my graduate class, The Gifted Learner.  I wasn't especially attracted to him, but I instantly noticed his verbal prowess, which both amused and thrilled me.  The variety of his vocabulary was outstanding.  Transient.  Ephemeral.  Cosmic.  Bureaucratically.   It wasn't long before I was keeping, in the margin of my notebook, a running list of the stunners Charles would weave seamlessly into his comments.

June 28
anti-intellectualism
analogous
epiphenomenal
curmudgeon
symposium


At the end of that list, I had drawn a smiley face with a huge grin.  Yes.  I was falling in love.

I met Charles at a time when I was embracing my inner nerd.  He took me to the Shakespeare Theater for our first date, and afterward, we went back to my place and spent the whole night on my love seat, kissing and sighing and mooning over each other—with the dictionary close by, in case we had to clarify the meaning or etymology of a word.  

Charles absolutely had to be The One.  He had to.  If he asked me to marry him, I would gleefully say "yes" and take the first step toward the rest of my perfect life.  I was delighted just to be with him.  We'd go to trivia night at the local bar and watch Dr. Who on VHS and cuddle on the couch all day, so mesmerized by each other we'd forget to eat.  Whenever we realized we were hungry, we'd go out to the kitchen long enough to get some cottage cheese or a bowl of SpaghettiOs—which I never minded, considering he lived in a bachelor house.  It was just he, his dad, and a geriatric cat named Sporkie, his mother having died a few years earlier of a brain tumor.

His mother's struggle with cancer may have helped bring us together.  When we met, my own mother had just been diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer.  Her prognosis was good, but it was the first time I had contemplated losing her, and I empathized with Charles's pain.  Charles was sympathetic about my mother's condition, even helpful in his own way.  One day as I was ready to leave his house, he asked me to wait at the door while he disappeared into the basement.  When he ascended the stairs, he was carrying one of those Styrofoam heads with a woman's wig on it.  As soon as I saw the wig, I froze.  

"We had this downstairs," he said, handing me the head, its hideous locks standing out in all directions.  "It was my mom's.  Obviously she doesn't need it anymore."  He added the last part with forced lightness.  "So, uh…maybe your mom can use it."

I gulped.  I imagined handing the wig to my mother, who had never met Charles, and trying to explain where it came from.  I understood the kindness behind his gesture—but I also understood the obvious truth that no cancer patient wants a dead person's wig.  What was I supposed to say?  "Here's a wig you can use while you go through chemo.  The last person to wear it died a slow, agonizing death"?  The thing reeked of despair.  So before I left, I gently laid the head, with its wig, in the trunk of my car, and willed myself to forget about it.  

That's how I handle red flags in a relationship.

I didn't have the heart to mention the wig to my mother, and I didn't dare mention it to Ray.  He was going through a breakup at the time, and I knew his criticisms would be even more vitriolic than usual, which I couldn't take.  I was too happy to subject myself to the possibility that something might be amiss on Planet Charles.

"How's Chuck?"  Ray asked one night on the phone.  "Did you see his penis yet?"

I scowled.  "No," I answered.  "And you know his name isn't 'Chuck.'  No one calls him that."

"I do," replied Ray.  "Have you touched it?"

I sighed.  "Oh, God, Ray."

"How big is it?"  

"Ray, I am not discussing this with you."

"So, I guess that means you haven't had sex yet."

"I said I'm not discussing this with you."

He paused.  "Are you not telling me because it's really small?"

The truth was, Charles didn't want to have sex yet.  He said he was terrified of getting me pregnant.  It didn't make sense to me.  I pointed out the effectiveness of modern contraceptives, but he argued that even the most effective birth control could fail.

Ray sniffed.  "Heh.  So much for Chuck No-Fuck."    

Then, the army sent Chuck No-Fuck off to Arizona for six months of intelligence training, during which I got regular mailings from him—usually an envelope containing a 3.5-inch floppy disk on which could be found an excruciatingly detailed account of the previous month.  Monday, September 29.  I burned the roof of my mouth on a very hot bagel this morning.  It was kind of charming, I suppose.  He continued the parade of delectable words like obstreperous and picayune, and whenever I asked him something, if he couldn't answer right away, he said he would "cogitate" on it.

But there was a dark, brooding side to his letters.  With each letter he revealed more and more of his depression and his family problems, not to mention his reservations about us.  He said we'd never be together long-term because we were too different.   For one thing, he thought having sex outside of marriage was irresponsible.  I'd call my mother, crying. 

"Why does he have to analyze everything?" she asked, irritated.  "Why can't he just have the freakin' relationship?  Tell him to stop picking it like a damn carcass."

Ray's assessment of the situation was frank as usual.  "He's a wack job," he told me.  "You need to write him off."  

Autumn came and went, and Ray and I were cool to each other for a few months.  Everywhere I drove, whenever I turned a corner, I could hear the Styrofoam head in my trunk, clunking from one side to the other.  I began to loathe its presence.  I imagined the head as the head of Charles' dead mother, Medusa-like, with angry red flashing eyes and hissing serpents for hair, rolling back and forth in misery.  I was weirdly paralyzed; the head had been occupying my trunk for so long that I thought to remove it would disturb some kind of tenuously preserved order.

One winter afternoon before Charles came home for good, Ray was helping me lift thrift store donations out of my trunk, and he spotted it.  "What the hell," he intoned, pausing for effect, "is that."

"It's a wig."

"I see that.  Where did you get it?"

I'm a terrible liar.  What would have been the point in lying, anyway?  Ray already thought Chuck No-Fuck was a wack job and was convinced our relationship was doomed.  So I spilled the wig story.  I had already forgiven Charles for this breach of social convention, just as I had forgiven him for many things Ray wouldn't have, such as having a fascination for historical maps, and playing the bagpipes.

We both stared at the terrifying oblivion of the white, blank face, and the wig, half leaping off.

"I guess we should take it in," I offered.

Ray nodded decisively.  "I concur."  He was being unusually gentle.  Without a word, he scooped up the head, straightened its lopsided hair, and carried it dutifully inside the Goodwill.


*

During Charles' holiday visit home, we skirted around our differences.  It seemed wrong to spoil our short time together by arguing.  We cuddled and kissed as we had during the days before he left, and a few times I had myself convinced that we could make it together after all.  I confided in my journal: His depressive episodes and schizophrenic ramblings aside, this is the healthiest relationship I've ever had.

Charles came home for good shortly before Valentine's Day, which he neglected to acknowledge, and in April, we were still hanging on for my birthday, which he also neglected to acknowledge.  The tension between us was escalating.  Besides, now that he was home, he and Ray eventually would have to cross paths.  The mere thought of such an event made me panic.  For a gay guy, Ray could prance with the best of them, but he could also be ruthless enough to send Chuck No-Fuck running from the room crying.

As it happened, by the time Charles and Ray actually met, I had stopped worrying about the outcome. Our relationship wasn't going anywhere, so why should I care if the two of them didn't get along?   Still, before our group of friends gathered at my place to go to the Double T Diner, I gave Ray explicit instructions to behave himself.  Charles and I were going to break up eventually—maybe even imminently—but there was no need to subject him to undue emotional stress.  

The tension between the two of them was obvious from the outset.  Ray seemed to be offended by Charles' very presence.  After exasperating the waitress by making her repeatedly swear that his milkshake would not have anything chunky in it, he turned his sights on Chuck No-Fuck and watched him chewing the ice cubes from his Coke.  "Chewing ice," he proclaimed, "is a sign of sexual frustration, you know."

I gave him The Look of Death.  At that point, I hoped he would be brought the chunkiest milkshake ever.  I also wanted to kill him.   

"Really?" Charles asked stiffly.  "I have never heard such a thing."

"Yes," Ray confirmed.  "That's exactly what it means.  My mother used to do it.  She was sexually repressed.  She refused to give my dad blow jobs."

"So, Val," Elena quickly jumped in, "did you have a nice birthday?"

"Yes, thank you," I replied unnaturally loudly.  "By the way, thank you for that very nice body wash you got me!  It smells wonderful!"

"I just got some new cologne, if anyone wants to smell me," Ray put in.  "Oh, God, you know what I wish?  I wish they could bottle sweat off men when they work out at the gym.  I loooooove the smell of sweaty men."

Before Ray's sentence was finished, Charles was pushing against me in the booth. 

"Excuse me," he croaked.  "I need to visit the lavatory."

The evening went downhill quickly, but strangely, it wasn't because of Ray's antics.  By the time we were back at my apartment with a game of Trivial Pursuit spread out on the living room floor, Charles was downright annoying me.  I began to see him through my friends' eyes, and I was embarrassed by how seriously he was taking the game.  He was killing all of us.  He knew the answer to almost every question, and he didn't hesitate to speak up the instant someone answered incorrectly.

"OK Elena," Ray said.  "The capital of Malaysia."

Elena rolled her eyes.  "I'm not gonna get this."

"It's obvious, really.  I definitely know this one," Charles put in.

Everyone sat quietly.  Her turn ticked away.  

Charles spoke up again.  "Anybody would know this."

This was the remark that made Elena explode.  "Oh.  I'm sorry if I have more important things to do with my time than study maps!"

Charles was taken aback.  He replied, half-seriously, "Like what?  What could be more important than maps?"

That night, I watched with distaste as he sat smugly with all six of his pie pieces, about to take the final step.  Go ahead, buddy, I thought.  If you sail on into that center ring, you may as well consider it the realm of the dumped.  

We broke up the next day.  Ray informed me that I would have to go through the breaking-up process many more times, because, as he put it, I was "higher up on the hierarchy."  

"What are you talking about?" I said.  His observation suggested some kind of relationship food chain, which I found disconcerting.  

He sighed and explained.  "Val, you're a quality person.  Your standards must be high.  Therefore, you will have to do the breaking up more often."

"Oh," I replied.  

I'm still, to use a Charles word, "cogitating" on this idea.

 

V. Kann is working on a collection of creative nonfiction pieces called Smart Girl: Essays from the Fringe

Photo: TYP_DG courtesy of Daniel Wildman, Stoke On Trent, Staffordshire, United Kingdom.

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