The Man Raft

By Jessica Barksdale


Before I left my marriage I imagined I’d have no trouble finding someone to be with. Sure, I’d read it was statistically more likely that I’d be killed in a plane accident than find another man, but I had faith, hope, and a good wardrobe. Unlike so many single women I’d read about in magazines articles and short stories, I was independent, secure, and solvent, wanting but not needy.

It was with that sense of optimism that I clicked through dozens of personal ads on Match.com and then set out on a string of coffee dates. I thought of them as interviews. At various Starbucks, I laughed, I drank lattes, I answered questions, but no one man really caught my attention. Worse, there was always something distracting about each: a brown tooth, an obvious toupee, orange shoes, four roommates. Slowly, I began to realize that a plane accident might be in my future. Then Dave wrote to me.

Even now, I can still see him at our first meeting. He walked toward me as I stood by the railing next to the Oakland Estuary, Scott's Seafood restaurant to my left. I heard my name, turned, and there he was. He smiled, walking a little bit faster, his body compact, neat, strong. He had come from work directly, and his suit was dark, stylish, tailored perfectly for his broad shoulders. He smelled like a breath mint and some amber colored men's cologne, the smell light and full of spice.

"There you are," he said, reaching out to touch my elbow, guiding me away from the water. "Finally."

Over the previous month we exchanged back and forth emails; we started to get to know each other as much as any two people can online. Then on our first few dates, Dave seemed to really like me and enjoy my company, asking me questions about my life, wanting to know my story, telling me his. He was a trained engineer and knew much about something I knew nothing about, and I found his conversation interesting, deep, and educated. He also didn't seem to want to get in bed right away, which to me was comforting. Here was a man I could go out with, make out with, and not worry about the complications that sex always seems to bring. We could laugh, go to Chinese food, go to a movie, and then he would drop me off at home. He would ask me about my hopes and dreams, making me feel liked, likeable, a woman that a man would want to date.

But after a few weeks, I realized that Dave was holding back physically. Worse, he was holding back emotionally. He didn't seem to want to fall into us, sex being one of those things. After three weeks of dating and over a month of correspondence before that, I finally asked him, "Are we ever going to have sex?"

We were walking in his neighborhood, the sun setting gently into the autumn horizon, the sycamore leaves falling all around us.

"It always comes down to this," he said, shaking his head.

"We are adults, Dave. It's not like we are going to get caught and grounded for our crime."

I wanted to say, I could have stayed married for this.

I wanted to say, It's not like we haven't done it before. It's not as though we don't know how. But I didn't.

He sighed, saying only, "One, four, thirty."

"What?" I felt as though I were in an Indiana Jones movie and just given the key to the lost vault of Demoticus and the treasures there entombed

"That's when we can have sex," Dave said. He took my hand, and we continued walking down the street

During the time Dave and I were dating, a friend of mine gave me the gift of a telephone session with her psychic. Because I was frustrated with the stagnation of our relationship, any information seemed useful, even if it came from the great beyond, below, or above. But none of the revelations the psychic gave me was good or hopeful. First, she saw a love child in his past, which was at least proof he'd had sex at some point. Second, she felt he wasn't really interested in a long-term relationship with me. Finally, she sensed a deep, dark secret, probably something about his sexuality. Just before we hung up, she told me she couldn't shake an image, a man swathing himself in a black cape and turning away from her gaze.

I pondered the psychic's cosmic warning. Meanwhile, it took me a week to realize that "one, four, thirty" meant it would be one month or four weeks or thirty days before we could have sex. By then it was a month, and we weren't having sex or the kind of sex I'd always thought of as sex. We had a range of physical intimacy, prompted by slightly pornographic scenarios Dave liked to narrate. It was a peculiar teacher-student fantasy, which ended in some touching and occasional penetration. Mostly, though, we just hung out with each other at his house because he didn't want to be at my house, something I took without question, even though it meant sometimes leaving my son by himself at home at night,

Why didn't I say no and stay home with my eighteen-year-old son who lived with me half the week? Why wasn't having Nicholas at home with me enough? What empty space inside me was I trying to fill with a man who wouldn't, quite literally, fill me? Why was I hanging out with a man who spoke in riddles and wouldn't even follow through once I guessed the answer? Instead, I was racing home from work to make Nicholas dinner, rushing off to Dave's for the evening, racing back to wake up Nicholas for school and make him coffee and breakfast. I was never in one place where I felt I should be, my heart pounding too fast and hard for months, I felt as though I were under attack.

As I drove home alone after those dates before? Dave, I saw how I missed living with another human being intimately. The clink of a dish in the sink, the warm arm slung over me at night, the rumble of someone else pulling the trash cans to the curb on Tuesday nights. I missed the person to turn to when the phone rang in the middle of the night, the bills came in, the roof leaked. I missed the late night conversations in bed, the shared surprise at weird news on the television, the smell of shampoo coming from a shower not mine.

My husband and I had married young because I was pregnant with my older son and we thought we should. We were good friends for most of those years and friendly, working together as best we could, sharing a life that wasn't that bad. The summer I decided to leave, I thought I wanted to leave everything. Now I knew I had left what I didn't want as well as everything I did. In that moment of realization, I didn't know how I was going to be able to continue without that connection. I didn't know how I would be able to survive at all.

But then I met Dave for our date at Scott's, a quick glass of wine and a bowl of pasta. From the start, I liked him, and unlike the other men I'd met, he resembled his Match.com ad. He was funny, smart, nice, had a job, a house, his own washer and dryer, and liked dogs. He enjoyed taking walks, long car rides down the coast, kayaking, and going to basketball games. He was short but attractive and pleasant to look at. He had all his teeth. He had deep brown eyes. He asked me what I thought about politics, child rearing, and the over-fishing of the oceans. I jumped aboard, holding tight.

 

 

Three months into our relationship, Dave and I had enjoyed the kind of day we often had together: one involving a drive in his car and a meal. This long day with him had beat back my anxiety, made me feel comfortable, okay, even. Now, happy, exhausted by our journey, we sat on his couch watching television, and something quick, jerking motion caught my attention. Glancing over, I stilled, horrified. Dave was pulling out his hair, one tiny stumpy hair at a time. Was I seeing what I was seeing? Was he really pulling out his hair?

I pretended to watch the television, but with my peripheral vision, I watched him. First his hand would smooth across his closely shorn head, moving around his scalp. Then it seemed his fingers would find a particular hair, and he would yank it out fast, bringing in the hair for a close look. He would actually adjust his glasses to get a clear view. After looking closely at the hair for a while (ascertaining what? Proper length, texture, color?), he licked the end of it and stuck the hair on the light bulb of the table lamp. Every third hair or so, he ate.

For a while, he seemed satisfied, calmed, laughing at something on the show or making small talk. But then his hand would start moving over his scalp. By the end of the evening, there were about 10 individual hairs stuck on the light bulb. I know because I checked, counting when he went downstairs to lock the front door. I had just enough time to notice that all of the hairs were gray, not brown, the color he was turning gray from.

What did it mean? I thought, as I followed him into the bedroom where he would proceed to not have sex with me for the 90th night in a row.

Later, I did a little research. Hair pulling is called trichotillomania. Eating the pulled hair is called trichophagia. Clearly, Dave suffered from both.

As I researched, I remembered a little neighbor girl from years back who had pulled a nice round circle of hair from the top of her head. After a discussion with a pediatrician, her mother stopped putting her in daycare, and the pulling stopped. Trichotillomania is related to obsessive-compulsive disorder, a form of anxiety. Anxiety I understood, panic being my almost constant friend in those days. I didn't judge Dave, but I wondered when he would say something to me. I wondered if he'd given into his compulsion to alert me to his problems, to force me to ask him what it meant. I wanted to ask him why he wanted to be with me. He wasn't getting any sex, and he didn't want to move closer, deeper, further. Was I there to make noises in the kitchen, perfume the house with flowery shampoo smells, keep the bed warm at night when he got up to go to the bathroom?

What were we both hiding from? What were we both hiding?

I didn't ask these questions. I kept quiet, mostly taking field notes. For days after my discovery of his disorder, I watched him, noticing that he'd managed to pull the hair in a smart male pattern baldness configuration. There was a nice bare patch of scalp on the top of his head—two spots creeping in from his forehead. Looked real enough. He could pass off his baldness as age or genetics, but I knew what he was up to. As the days went by, I checked all the light bulbs in all the lamps, looking for hair storage sites. I wondered what to say.

But like so many things in our relationship, I didn't say much. How to broach this topic without having him say something like one, twelve, 365? What if he stood up and showed me to the door? With all his baggage, you'd think I'd be running down the steps, closing the door behind me with a whoop, but he was a nice enough man. More to the point, he was a man. A life raft. A life raft man, a man raft, a place I could cling to in this river of separation I'd thrown myself to. I'd wanted to leave my husband, and then I did. That's when I started to drown. Along comes Mr. Trichotillomania and I jump on, trying to catch my breath. I was so busy breathing, I didn't have to see anything. If I had a man, I didn't have to complete the process of truly being separated. I wouldn't have to be alone. I wouldn't have to feel I was unworthy of love. I was the stupid person who'd left her husband, a man who loved her and wanted her back. As my husband always asked me, "What are you thinking? What are you doing?"

With Dave, I didn't have to answer those questions, and I could rest. Catch my breath. I needed more air.

 

 

"So," Dave said one day, "I have this problem."

We were at my little cottage, sitting at my dining room table. For once, we were actually going to stay at my house, and Dave had brought over some food and his puppy. The next day, he was going to leave on a five day ski vacation he'd planned with a college friend, leaving me at home dog-sitting his dog. The conversation over our meal had turned to what was wrong with me, some things he'd mentioned before, especially when we were in bed. As he spooned potatoes on my plate, he again mentioned that I needed to eat more--I was too skinny. Moreover, my body had been marked by time, stretch marks from babies not his. He reminded me I was the oldest woman he'd ever dated. The last person he'd dated for many years was 42 now. I was 44. And he didn't like the way I dressed. He'd actually asked me to have one of my stylish business-oriented friends to shop for me.

He ate in silence for a while, as I stared at my potatoes. Then he mentioned his problem.

"Which one?" I now wish I'd said.

But "Oh" was all I could manage.

"So, this is the problem," he said again. He was looking down, his shoulders slumped.

"Well," he said, taking in a deep breath. "I have this thing. It's not great. I pull out my hair."

For a moment, he looked at me, and in his gaze, I saw all that was wrong with our relationship. Neither of us could tell the other that it wasn't working, but here Dave was trying to explain his worst secret. And he wasn't doing it to bring me closer but rather to push me away.

"I know," I said. "I noticed."

He stared at me, wanting me to be aghast, my mouth to fall open in surprise, my body to recoil at his words.

"You know?" he said, and then he looked away, his shoulders slumping even more.

I'm not sure what he wanted me to say besides, "Get out of my house." I could have offered sympathy, understanding, and advice I'd read on the internet, but I was tired. I didn't want to go into how I knew so much about him and his condition and stayed with him anyway. I couldn't even explain it to myself. He wasn't going to leave me, not yet. He'd asked me to dog-sit his puppy while he was gone, and I think the only reason I'd said yes to dog-sitting was because that meant he'd have to come back to get her.

"Okay," he said, and that was that.

Three weeks later, Dave back from his vacation, his puppy back home, we broke up. After returning from watching a movie at a friend's house, we argued about how our relationship was going to proceed, and it was finally clear we wanted very different things. He wanted less of me or nothing, and I wanted more of everything, but a more that did not include him.

I wasn't ready for it, for the open voice of the months that would follow. In those months, maybe years, I could see the person I would have to become, and it was going to be difficult and lonely, even with my son with me every other week until he went away to college. Then it would be me, week after week, pulling the trash can to the curb. My shampoo in the shower mist. My warmth in the bed. My single bowl, single spoon in the sink.

It would be a great end of this story to tell you I felt freed as I drove home from Dave's house that day we broke up. It would be even better if I told you I didn't pine for him, the very next day hoping that he would call and we could patch things up. But I did pine and I did hope. I created a little game for myself called sticks. Every time I thought about Dave, I kept tally, a stick for each thought not acted on.

Didn't call Dave. Stick.

Didn't drive over to his house. Stick.

Didn't email. Stick.

Some days, there would be twenty penciled sticks on the post-it pad by my computer. Then fifteen. Then seven. And then, finally, none.

The pining hadn't been for Dave but for the time when I wouldn't feel so strung out from being alone. I pined for a comfortable place in my body, a sure, safe center from which to live.

Stick, stick, stick.

I counted and penciled until I didn't need to any more. I made big dinners from complicated recipes, went on walks, and cleaned my apartment. Nicholas and I went to movies and sat on my new red velvet couch and watched HBO. Eventually, I started answering emails from Match.com men, going out for coffee but not much else.

The weeks turned into months, and finally, I felt myself roll ever so quietly off the raft. I sputtered, treaded water.

I hated it, but then I started swimming.

 

Jessica Barksdale is the author of twelve novels (some under Jessica Inclan), including Her Daughter's Eyes, The Matter of Grace, and When You Believe.  She is a professor of English at Diablo Valley College and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension.

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