A was in the bathroom, brushing his teeth with a toothbrush he’d thought to bring with him before coming over last night. I was stretched out on the bed, looking up at my green ceiling and feeling more content than I thought I ever could have felt again every time I’d broken up with some other boy who never would have remembered to bring his toothbrush to my house. I rolled off the bed and landed on my feet in one smooth motion, smiling to myself and shaking my sheet out from where it had bunched up beneath the comforter last night. A’s underwear fell onto the floor so I picked them up and took a good look at them. Gray boxer-briefs; sober, practical, and comfortable. The kind of underwear worn by the smilingly regular man on the Folger’s coffee can. Exactly the kind of underwear A would like and own. Feeling smug about my ability to capture such a man in the flowered tangle of my bed sheets, I put them up to my face and sniffed.
My shriek of horror found him poking his head out from the open bathroom door into the bedroom and I was caught with a pair of boxer-briefs that smelled like they hadn’t been washed in about three days still suspiciously close to my face. “What are you doing?!” he yelled across the room, toothbrush still in his hand. I started laughing because it was so horribly obvious what I was doing that there was nothing I could say to defend either one of us. This was maybe the second time he’d slept over, not counting high school. We were not ready for this conversation. I don’t know if anyone is ever ready for this conversation.
“I guess I was… smelling your underwear.”
“I could have told you not to do that! They smell really bad!”
“Yeah… yeah, they kind of do.”
“What made you suddenly decide to smell my underwear?” he shouted, and I bit my lower lip, trying to stop myself from laughing. A’s face was eloquently stricken, eyes hot and cold at the same time under a pair of eyebrows that still did not understand how I could do this to him. Knowing that whatever I came up with would be completely insufficient by way of explanation, I said, “I guess I thought they’d smell, you know, pleasantly like your balls? But I mean… really, I have no explanation for my behavior here. I’m sorry. I have no idea why I did that. I didn’t even think about it.”
He turned around, stomped back into the bathroom, and finished brushing his teeth. Even the splat of his toothpaste when he spit it into the sink sounded pissed off. I sat on the bed feeling awful but also still laughing a little. Didn’t he shake his dick off after he peed, or had he really just been wearing them that long? You think you know someone until you violate one of those boundaries that exist for what were turning out this morning to be very good reasons.
A came back out and stood in front of me, arms folded across his chest. “The next time you feel like sniffing my underwear, can you at least warn me so I can wear clean ones?” I nodded, looking up at him. He was in no way ready for a hug. “I need to do laundry, okay?” he said. “I was going to do it last night but then I wanted to come here and see you so I didn‘t.”
“Look, if it makes you feel any better, I’m completely embarrassed that you just caught me sniffing your underwear in the first place. It‘s kind of what I deserved if they smelled bad. I mean, I think we might be even.”
He reached down, picked the underwear up off the floor, and stepped back into them, sighing. One of the things I liked about A was the way you could see everything he was thinking on his face. Even when what he was thinking was specifically unflattering to me, I could not help but be flattered that I was allowed to see it anyway. Right now, for example, I could pretty much watch the argument unfold as the A head-voices bargained with each other about the cost versus the value of staying angry with me. When it looked like they were almost finished, I held my arms out. He ignored them and sat beside me on the bed. “It doesn’t change anything,” I said, taking his hand. That worked. A’s eyebrows smoothed out and he began to breathe normally again. I love you, I thought. He kissed me. “You want some coffee? Let’s get you some coffee.” I kissed him back.
This is the story of how I came into the creepy practice of surreptitiously sniffing my own underwear every time I thought a boy might go anywhere near them. If I was capable of random and inexplicable acts of panty-sniffing, anyone could be. I knew A loved me, but how could I be sure that whoever I ended up sleeping with after he left would love me? Precautions were in order. Usually, I did a check in the bathroom after peeing, but I wasn’t above taking my underwear off in the heat of a moment and passing them casually in front of my face before depositing them wherever they ended up. If I had any doubts, I hid them somewhere the boy would never think to look.
This is an old story, and I feel like my promise not to tell it has expired. Plus, I’m fairly certain that if A can forgive me for sniffing his dirty underwear, he will forgive me for the rest of it, too. Won’t he?
Uhhh, I just dug up my infamous “first novel.” Sorry I have to do this to you, but I really, really do. Laughing at yourself with yourself by yourself is not as satisfying as it should be.
I have sex with Sam and as far as sex goes it’s basically standard. The kissing-with-intent, the self consciously consuming passion, the first genital contact alien and formal as a UN handshake, but far from bad, it’s just not anything except sex. The usual series of sophomoric writhings, little breathless whimpers, my weak almost-an-almost-an-orgasm achieved during the dry hump phase, his premature ejaculation, the post-premature-ejaculation-apologies, noncommitally tender caresses, spooning, faux-sleep, real sleep. Sex, sex, sex, blah, blah, blah. I’ve had better times with my hand and PJ Harvey.
Oh, Sam. I’ve betrayed you at the last like you always knew I would. I think of your free espressos and shiny smiles and clean shirts and heartless manipulation and unreturned phone calls and casual sex with hippie girls and contort motionlessly in an agonized pathos between these itchy motel sheets because none of it helped, Sam, and I suspect you must be heartbroken. But I don’t really. I don’t even get that much out of it.
Sweet dreams, internet! I’ll be over here, contorting motionlessly in an agonized pathos.
Filed under: boys, Hyperbole | Tags: consumerism, feminism, Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman
Pete was my great romantic failure. To this very day. Not because, for once, I couldn’t make him love me, but because he loved me at a point in my life when I wasn’t trying to make him. He was the type who was ready to be married with babies by the time he was nineteen. We had a very sweet, perfect relationship that I was by no stretch of the imagination ready for. When I asked him what he did all day over the phone, he used to respond with a minute-by-minute laundry list. We once drove out to the International Buffet in Franklin Mills and spent a pleasant several hours watching this one family of fat people repeatedly send their fat little kids up to snake the line when the crab legs came out. He and my dad would e-mail each other about motorcycles. I have a hard time even talking about Pete because I fucked things up so badly. Not that I wish I hadn’t, because then the whole rest of my life would not have happened, but because it’s a lot more sad to fuck things up with someone who is trying to actively love you in a healthy way than it is to have other fuck-ups fuck up all over you because you’re scared of repeating the first case scenario. It was right around the time that Pete started talking about how it wasn’t that weird to get married really young that I first read The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood. It was the absolute wrong thing for me to read if I wanted to continue being more or less happy with my nice, stable boyfriend.
In The Edible Woman, the protagonist is a young, sensible, post-college woman named Marian who gets engaged to her perfect-on-paper boyfriend, Peter, only to find that she suddenly can’t eat. At first it’s just meat, eggs, obvious animal proteins, but after awhile, she can’t eat anything that she can imagine being alive. This eventually includes vegetables and rice pudding. Marian can’t eat because she relates to her food; she also feels that she is being consumed as casually as one would grab a quick snack on the weekend. While this is going on, she has a series of strange random encounters with another man, Duncan, who is the Peter antithesis: he’s broke, he’s cerebral, he’s skeletally skinny and weak and manipulative and appealing in a dangerous way and basically about nineteen kinds of nightmare. Duncan gets all the good lines in the book. He says stuff to Marian like, “I can tell you’re admiring my febrility. I know it’s appealing, I practise at it; every woman loves an invalid. I bring out the Florence Nightingale in them. But be careful… [Y]ou might do something destructive: hunger is more basic than love. Florence Nightingale was a cannibal, you know.” Marian can’t resist. She ends up in a weird extracurricular kissing-only relationship with Duncan as she begins to act more and more unhinged around Peter. The book ends with Marian baking a cake that looks like her and trying to serve it to Peter so that he understands what has really been going on between them. He thinks she’s nuts (as is only appropriate) and takes off. Then Duncan appears at her doorstep. Marian is suddenly hungry. They sit down together and eat it; it’s just a cake after all.
The Edible Woman’s unassuming brilliance lies in the way that Atwood integrates all of the near-fantastical allegory into the character’s lives with an utterly straight face. It’s not magical realism; the reader is supposed to believe that Marian literally cannot eat because of sudden, symbolic identification with food as a living entity. Marian herself is as shocked as the reader is that such a thing could and would happen to her because she does not take herself particularly seriously; in fact, in a book populated by stock types and caricatures who all represent something, she alone seems to be an amorphous nonentity that could go either or any way in life. First there’s Ainsley, her wacky roommate who deceives another mutual friend into impregnating her so that she can have a baby and raise it by herself. Then there’s Clara, a college friend who can’t seem to stop getting pregnant and spends the book drowning in young children while maintaining a rather dour outlook about whether or not this is rewarding. The Edible Woman also pokes somewhat unkindly at three women from Marian’s job, the “office virgins.” The office virgins are all single, man-hungry, and terrified by the prospect of remaining that way. Peter is a dry portrait of a confirmed bachelor who decides to get married only after his last single male friend ties the knot and conducts his engagement as though it is a business deal. Duncan is, as he puts it himself, an amoeba: drifting and seeking to integrate whatever comes along into his own need to be taken care of and then rejecting that care. Marian goes through the book relating to all of these characters in a plausible day-to-day manner, while systematically rejecting all of their symbolic choices in life for herself. This is really why she’s going hungry: like her choices in food, none of the choices in life that seem to be available to her are acceptable. It causes her a great deal of torment until the end, when she realizes that she doesn’t have to decide or do anything at all, despite life’s enormous pressure to pick something. The pressure comes from the symbols, not from the actual process of living.
While Marian sort of ends up with Duncan at the end, it is understood that ending up with Duncan isn’t anything remotely close to a solution: he’s still Duncan, meaning, unstable and impossible and incapable of most reciprocal human contact–which is his entire allure. The prospect of having Duncan fill the spot in her life left by the fully-functional Peter is ludicrous even to Marian, who spends the entirety of the book unsure of what she is supposed to do with him while unable to stop herself from doing something with him. Atwood insinuates through this relationship that it’s ultimately more self-actualizing to do things and not know why than it is to do things because they fulfill the superficial qualifications of a good reason. Beneath that is a current of painful self-actualization being more important than the crap shoot fulfillment occasionally found in conformity.
What Atwood gives us with The Edible Woman is a deft and witty rendition of your basic quarterlife crisis. While the pressure to get married is not as urgent now as it was in the late 1960s, the various choices that need to be made during the years after college are still enough to make anyone crazy. It is only those who have already decided exactly who they are and what they are going to do with their lives who do not suffer from some sort of post-collegiate mania, where the future looms in a way that manages to be simultaneously terrifying and depressing. College is where you’re supposed to get over and done with all of the cliched self-actualizing activities like finding yourself and sowing your wild oats and following your bliss and learning from your mistakes. The deal is that after graduation, you’re supposed to go out and become a functioning member of society. What no one tells you about college is that you will not find yourself or sow your wild oats or follow your bliss or learn from your mistakes in any sort of profound way until you have to do it for real, and mean it, something that is difficult when you have had the safety net of identifying your life as that of a student, doing studentish things with other students. And unless they plan on staying in school forever, like Duncan does, the sudden removal of that safety net often comes as something of a rude and unpleasant awakening. Marian is like pretty much any other post-college woman I’ve known: when she fails to find an identity at her shitty entry-level job, she looks to whatever romantic relationship is standing the closest, hoping to find it there. Of course it doesn’t work. She has much more growing to do before she will be able to have a solid relationship without feeling consumed. Duncan, without providing an easy way out, does provide the kind of half-decent, whimsical impetus that only becomes an impetus when you are desperate for one. And Atwood’s portrayal of Marian is wisely muted, with the other characters reacting with only mild surprise or amusement to her various actings-out. When Ainsley, upon seeing Marian’s cake at the end, cries out in horror, “you’re rejecting your femininity!” we are more likely to laugh at Ainsley for being ridiculous than we are at Marian. If only because if only it were that simple.
Finding yourself isn’t simple. It’s a fucking mess every time if it’s done right.
For better or worse, I broke up with Pete and adopted this as my entire modus operandi in life. It’s hard to say whether The Edible Woman tipped the scales in favor of something I was already struggling against believing or if I just reacted that strongly to the ideas it presented, but I spent the next eight years playing the same story out with a whole host of Duncans. The “why am I doing this?” relationship dynamic was one I cultivated until it lost all scent and flavor, which was sad, because it was always the scent and flavor I wanted in the first place, the very thing stable relationships seem to lack after you’ve been chewing on them for awhile. It’s strange to find myself suddenly mature, almost against my will, at a point in life where I have made most of the important decisions that took me so long to make, and pick up The Edible Woman again. Not because everything is decided now; it isn’t. But I’ve made peace with that being the constant instead of whatever guy or whatever job or whatever situation falls into my lap when I’m not paying attention. I don’t have too many more breakdowns left in me. Not because the potential isn’t out there; it always is. But because it seems I’ve lost my taste for seeking it out purposefully. I’ve learned that life is hard enough when you’re happy and stable as it is.
M is the rainy day man and he crosses my mind every time I hear a clap of thunder. When I think of him, it is to wonder if he’s remembered his raincoat. The raincoat is a blue and yellow sporty number with a hood that can be pulled tight around the face or left alone to be a sort of rubbery cave. I used to think that there was something novel about the fact that M owns a raincoat. I feel like I don’t know many people who do. Really, though, he has to. If it is raining, M is invariably outside in the middle of it. If he doesn’t have the raincoat, he just gets wet, up to three or four times a day if necessary. Sometimes I think he even likes it when he gets wet, that he gets through it by pretending it is part of some elaborate survival exercise:“There might be inclement weather where you’re going, son.”
“I welcome the challenge, sir!”
He has a spare at his house, too. He lent it to me once. No sooner had it dried than M was on his way over in another rainstorm and I felt like some sort of fairy godmother, being able to give it back to him at a time when he needed it. Another time, he ran a marathon in the rain. When he called me from the phone at the bar afterward, his teeth were chattering. I had one sweatshirt that was almost big enough. It had probably belonged to some other boyfriend or friend’s boyfriend or maybe it was so old that it belonged to a boy who had been just a friend. It felt serendipitous. However it had gotten there, it was clear to me that I had the sweatshirt solely to loan it to M the day his teeth were chattering.
When M let me borrow his spare raincoat, I was in the middle of throwing a fit about the fact that it was raining outside. Then we stopped somewhere for a coffee and I threw another fit when I realized they hadn’t put the cream cheese on my bagel. M gave me a raincoaty hug and went to work. I remember thinking about how all of this must have looked to the barista. I was wearing Jen Manfra’s Anthrax T-shirt, ripped jeans, and yesterday’s eye makeup. M looked like he gets a haircut every three weeks and inspires great confidence from his fellow man. In the end, I was sitting there pouting at an empty chair.
“It’s a good thing you’re so interesting,” M said, when I called him later and apologized for being such a crazygirl. We hadn’t known each other very long then.
Sometimes I can see us turning into really creepy old swingers together, the kind that are completely oblivious to how uncomfortable we make the other couples who come over by showing them our new sex swing or willfully misreading our cue to get naked.