I’d like to tell you about a city where people don’t attack things they don’t understand or argue about things before they’ve found out the facts. A city where people respect people simply because they’re people and don’t take advantage of each other just because they can. But since it doesn’t exist, I’m going to tell you about Santa Fe, New Mexico, and what happened there on March 17.
I grew up in Santa Fe. But at the time I lived in Tucson. So did my ex-wife, Yselle, whom I hadn’t seen for three months when I met her in front of a notary public on March 16 to sign our divorce papers. I walked up to her slowly, and she turned around to face me.
After everything, all that pain and torment and wanting to be dead, I looked in her eyes and knew that I’d do anything she wanted me to. But she didn’t want anything, and that was the worst pain of all. I’d lost what I wanted, and I couldn’t blame it on the Republicans or the Illuminati or bad parenting. All I had to blame was myself. And if I could cheat myself out of what I wanted most, I knew, I could cheat myself out of anything.
And ten minutes later it was done. Our shared life was legally over. I drove out of the parking lot and thought about what I was going to do next. I had gone to a sweat lodge. I had hiked into the mountains to commune with my spirit. It had only been a week since I had admitted to anyone but my immediate circle of friends that Yselle and I were finished, and now my answering machine was filling up with messages from long absent but sympathetic-sounding women.
I passed the turnoff to my house, and I kept going. I found myself driving up the ramp onto the freeway. And that’s when I realized I was heading north.
I’ve been alive just long enough to know that none of it matters. The friends you think will last forever are the ones who don’t answer your e-mails 12 months after they’ve moved. The people you stay up with all night talking about who will be famous and who will be rich are the ones you’ll see in a restaurant five years later, wiping up the tables after everyone’s gone. The guy you hated, who you wanted to kill, you’ll see at a party someday, and you’ll each drink a beer and talk about the hostess’s tits. And the place you swore you’d never see again, the place you left so that you could go off and conquer the world and leave the past behind, that’s the place you’re going back to.
The last time I had been on this road, Yselle and I had still been dating, and we had been on our way to Phoenix to visit her parents right after Shawna’s party.
The party had been filled with foreign guys. They were all speaking in Spanish accents and leaning intimately toward girls they had just met. Vladimir, who was a widely acknowledged master of the “Hi there, I’m a foreign guy, chicks dig me, want to go out?” school of woman meeting, had apparently discovered that the usual routine wasn’t going to work here. He was leaning sullenly against the wall, talking to some guy with glasses.
Shawna stood in the kitchen on huge shoes, surrounded by admirers, glitter sparkling on her face, bouncing whenever she turned to greet someone new. “I love your clothes!” she told Yselle when Yselle and I entered. “They’re shmumfing. You can shmumf in them.” Like every other event in her life, Shawna had orchestrated this party in order to have something new revolve around her.
“How’s Shawna doing these days?” I had asked Rhodes when Rhodes told me about the party.
“Same as ever,” Rhodes had replied. “Large chest, small awareness that there are other people on earth.”
“Ben, I got promoted!” Shawna said. “I’m a manager now!” She pinched my arm. “Is that not grand?”
Every face within hearing distance swiveled toward me. You might not be an important person, I thought, but being with Shawna would make you think you were. “That’s great, Shawna. Congratulations.”
Ten minutes later I extricated myself from her arm across my shoulders and went to find Yselle, who had grown tired of the conversation. She was in the living room talking to one of the good-looking guys with the Spanish accents.
“Ben, this is Diego,” Yselle said.
“Hey, Diego,” I said.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Diego said, not pretending he was telling the truth.
“He likes Amelie!” Yselle said.
Everybody likes Amelie, Yselle, I thought. “That’s cool.”
“Have you ever seen Chocolat?” Diego asked Yselle.
“Of course! I loved Chocolat!”
Every girl loved Chocolat, I thought. It was about romance and chocolate. What girl doesn’t like romance and chocolate?
I might not like Diego, I admitted to myself.
“What’s your favorite movie?” Diego asked Yselle.
Here’s the problem, I thought. You think you’re with the smartest girl in the world. Someone who’s not naive enough to fall for anyone’s lines but your own. But then you see some jerk hitting on her and she totally falls for it. It ruins your faith in human nature. And of course you know what the guy’s really saying: I could kick your boyfriend’s ass, because my penis is bigger. But I wouldn’t, because I’m much more sensitive than he is.
“When I like a movie a lot, I can watch it over and over again. I see something new each time,” Yselle was saying.
“Your breasts are like melons ripening in the summer sun.”
“What about you? What’s your favorite movie?”
“Are you into threesomes? With another girl, I mean.”
“Yeah, I liked that too.”
But eventually my glares drove Diego away, and Yselle danced a bit, and I talked some more, and a couple of hours later we left. An hour out of Tucson the left front tire blew and we plunged off the road into a patch of cactus and gravel. On the other side of the road was a drop of about 400 feet.
Yselle and I sang and told jokes as I changed the tire.
“You’re so positive!” Yselle told me. “Nothing like my dad. He would have yelled at us just to have someone to blame.”
“Why would he have done that?”
“That’s just the way he is.”
She bent over to where I was kneeling with the jack and kissed me on the cheek.
It was already late in the day when I left Tucson, and I was more eager to depart than to arrive, so I spent the night at a motel along the highway. The proprietor was an Indian woman whose face was covered with acne. There was a long pause after I rang the bell at the front door. She lifted the blinds in a window set inside an inner door, saw me, dropped the blinds, opened the inner door, came out to the front door, unlocked it, and let me in. As I followed her to the counter I glanced through the half-open doorway on the right. It led to her bedroom. I wondered how hard it was to get a good night’s sleep when you knew a customer might arrive at any time.
I passed the woman
“It’s $36,” she said.
“The sign outside says $29.”
“Oh,” she said. “It’s higher on Tuesday.”
It was Saturday. But I was tired, I felt sorry for her because of her acne and because I’d woken her up, and I just wanted to go to bed. I paid with my credit card. When I got into my room I looked down at the receipt and saw that she had charged me $45.
I was too depressed to be mad. I’m only willing to commit myself to so many emotions at any one time. And then I thought of something Yselle had said once: “I think I’m an ethical person, but not in a traditional sense.” Like many of her statements, it could be either funny or infuriating, depending on your mood. Right then, at a motel near the Arizona-New Mexico border, it was funny. I laughed and took off my shirt.
I woke up once in the night and reached for her.
In my mind we had an adobe house down by the river, with big windows and hardwood floors and a kitchen that always smelled of green chile. In the mornings she’d play her piano and in the afternoons she’d be digging around in the dirt next to her tomato plants, and whatever I’d be doing, I’d stop to look at her, because I’d know that she was at the center of my world. It’s a place I daydream about sometimes, and the only thing certain about it is that you can’t get there from here.
God. Her face, it was so open, and her eyes, when she looked at me, they were sincere. Just completely sincere. It doesn’t matter how hot any other girl is, how smart she seems to be, she’s not that beautiful. Her eyes aren’t that sincere, and her face can’t ever look the way her face looked.
When I think about her, she says something, and I say it’s OK, and I touch her hand and smile, and after a moment more I kiss her. And then I always fuck it up by thinking about what really happened–how I snap at her because she’s interrupting my work, and she looks hurt, like I’ve killed just one more little part of that life between us–and I look back and think, why? And I know I wouldn’t do it again–but of course I would, because I’m the guy who did it in the first place, and I don’t know why, because right now, when she’s not here, I’d give any other thing in my life to just be the guy who didn’t make her look like that. Not even the guy who comforted her later, or who rescued her, or made her happy, even though I want to be all those things too; I want to be guy who didn’t make her feel that way, and that’s a guy that I’ll never fucking be.
The next morning I ate breakfast at a Mexican diner and a pretty waitress kept me entertained. She was exactly the kind of girl I would have fallen for back when I mistook insecurity for mystery.
I’m tired of complicated women, I thought as I paid my bill. I want to find someone who knows what she wants and has the words to say it.
From the moment I had first met her, I had been wildly attracted to Yselle–and yet on some level aware that our relationship was never going to work. But I could never quite figure out later whether our relationship had failed because I had been right or because I had made myself right. As I climbed back into the car outside the diner I remembered the time, a month into our marriage, when Yselle and I had been eating dinner with Rhodes and his girlfriend. Yselle had told Rhodes matter-of-factly, “Well, I let Ben balance the checkbook, since he doesn’t think women should be in charge of finances.”
I had been aghast. For too many reasons to count. Why had Yselle thought I didn’t want her to handle finances? Why hadn’t she told me she thought that? Why had she just told Rhodes? Why wouldn’t I want her to handle finances? Did she think I liked balancing the checkbook? What did she think I meant every day when I said, “Yselle, did you put that in the checkbook?” Was she insane?
She wasn’t insane. She just sometimes acted like I was one of her ex-boyfriends. I was the canvas on which she retraced her past. And I knew it, and I tried to talk to her about it, and I would think it was better, and then somehow it would happen again. I knew there were problems in our relationship is what I’m saying, but I tried to work through them half because I loved her and half because I wanted to put off the pain that I felt now. But pain is like a credit card bill: you can put off the big payment as long as you want but it keeps building up interest.
As long as I was thinking about all the other things that had gone wrong with our relationship, I thought about what a wreck our house was. All the time. After I’ve been sparring all day with the world I want to come home and relax. How can I do that when there’s shit all over the floor?
This is the 21st century. I’m not saying a woman’s job is to clean. I’m just saying that a woman’s job isn’t to just drop whatever she’s done with on whatever portion of the floor she’s standing over, either, or if it is, it’s also her job to pick it up later, because the guy wants to help clean too but there’s only so many years in a person’s life, so let’s not set ourselves up for the impossible. I brought this issue up gently the first few thousand times, and then I complained about it. There’s no double standard here. If I did it I’d expect to hear some complaints, too.
After we had separated, but before she had come back to get all of the rest of her stuff, I was straightening things up and came across one of her journals. If you’ve never been married, you might think, oh, she’s your wife, you lived with her, you can just look at her journal. But it’s not like that. You learn that people have to have their privacy. You have to know what’s off-limits and respect it, because that personal space is the only way people can admit to themselves their inner thoughts and figure out how they really feel. So I found her diary, and I knew it was wrong for me to open it, but I also knew she was gone, and I had to understand why. Or I thought I had to understand why. So I opened it.
There was this part that talked about how she had just come home from work and I was gone, and she wanted to clean. But she was stressed and tired and her mind wasn’t working right. So she’d keep trying to clean up the room, but she kept forgetting what she was doing, where she wanted to put stuff, things like that. And she kept getting more and more frantic, because she was worried that I was going to come home and see that things still weren’t clean and be disappointed with her, and she didn’t want to see that look in my eyes that made her feel small, that dismissed her. And the more frantic she got the more lost she felt and didn’t know where she was at in the cleaning.
I didn’t understand that. How do you not know where you’re at in cleaning? You put the clothes in the hamper. But I understood the part about me. I hadn’t seen myself through her eyes like that before. I didn’t know that’s what she saw. I didn’t know I was a monster.
I hadn’t had any expectations about Santa Fe. I had just wanted to get there. Everything I remembered about it was still the same: it was still beautiful, it was still overpriced, and there were still lots and lots of tourists.
I walked. Remembering. All my hopes and fears. It was amazing to think about how hugely those hopes and fears had loomed in my youth, and how distant they seemed now, as if they had happened to another person. I was no longer afraid of the things I had once been afraid of. I had accomplished so many of the things I had dreamt about. But for some reason, that hope and fear, for things I no longer hoped for or feared, was still present somewhere within me.
I sat down on a bench in the plaza. It was the same bench Yselle and I had sat on one year earlier when we had driven up with some friends from Albuquerque. We had been planning on seeing the Zozobra festival, and Yselle and one of our friends had convinced us to make a huge basket of fried chicken to bring with us. But the chicken had taken a longer time to prepare than Yselle had anticipated, so by the time we got there Zozobra had already burned itself out and everyone was going home. So we sat down, in the middle of all these people streaming back to their cars, and ate our chicken. And then we made the hour-long trip back to our friends’ house.
Now I looked across from me and saw a young woman sitting on another bench facing mine. She had been reading a book and laughing. She looked up at me, smiled quickly, and then nervously looked back down.
I was afraid of happiness, I realized then. I had a list of all my faults in my mind, but even though I thought I knew everything I could do wrong in a relationship and could prepare for it in advance, I also knew that I had an endless capacity to surprise myself.
No, it was more than that. I was reluctant to find happiness because I thought that by being happy with another woman, after I had created so much unhappiness with the one woman who had put so much faith in me, I would be betraying Yselle. I was certain I deserved to be alone.
That was what I found in Santa Fe. No epiphanies, no new wisdom, just the knowledge that I thought I deserved to be alone.
But I was alive today, whether I wanted to be or deserved to be or not, and so was the woman reading the book, and the sun was shining. So I stood up and walked over to where she sat.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Leslie Lammle.