My ex-wife lives upstairs in the bedroom with en suite plumbing. When she dresses for work in the morning I hear her water go down the drain. My children sleep in various rooms around the house. They are budding musicians and when they aren’t on their instruments or piano or drums they play their tape decks. My girlfriend lives across town.When I am with her I am happy again, and when I am away from her I am anxious. I bathe regularly after work to dissolve the bunched knot in my shoulders. I lie awake for hours at night. I worry. I cry, sometimes, softly, a vague mist in my eyes, and all over nothing.
Once a month, I consult my psychiatrist. This has been going on for two years. Three times in the course of a seventeen-year marriage, I snuck into other women’s beds. And I mean snuck. I felt the appropriate guilt and love. When she kicked me out I lived in agony. When she took me back we screwed like rabbits. Then, at her request, I built a room downstairs and slept there. I figured something was up. When she told me about her friend and we separated I felt ambivalent. I was glad it was over. I wished her luck. I dreamed about her body. Then I met my girlfriend and the dream went out like a blown candle.
Presently, however, I am impotent. I keep a list of reasons in my wallet. In consultation with my psychiatrist, I revise the list. My guilt over my ex-wife is rapidly moving down. My desire to live with my girlfriend is rapidly moving up. My psychiatrist keeps trying to push it down. He says I am insecure. I have been pushed out of one nest and only want into another. I have known my girlfriend for only a short while and already I want to live with her, to marry her. That is why I sweat in her bed. That is why I am numb from the waist down. It is better to be self-confident. It is better to be free. That is the source of potency.
I guess I’m not the confident type.I need somebody. When my girlfriend asked me for a date, I couldn’t believe my luck. I was nervous. I felt like phoning my mother. I bought a corsage. I almost got beat up in the bar. I was watching the door too closely. The guy sitting beside the door gave me the finger. I asked what was bothering him. He said I was staring at him. I said if I was going to stare at someone it sure as hell wouldn’t be him. This was temper more than courage. The guy was young and big. If it came to a fight I would probably have my glasses wrapped around my face or shoved down my throat. I was lucky. His friend held him back.
When she came into the bar looking for me her eyes were large in the dark. She kissed me. I felt like jumping for joy. She sat down and took her coat off. She asked me if I had herpes or anything. She said maybe we should sleep together, get it over with. She said she had to send her little boy to Vancouver to visit his father. Would he give him back? She wanted to get a custody order because they never did get married. She asked me how you do that but I didn’t know. We walked over to another bar where a friend of mine sat down and talked to us. He is into politics. She sat smiling at me while he told us his concerns. When the bar closed, we walked to the park. Two weeks before, a woman was raped and killed there, in the willows along the river. The mist was waist high. We stopped by the indian graveyard and kissed. The moon came up and filled the sky. “Just like it’s supposed to,” she said.
A few weeks later, when I lay helpless on her, she said nothing, but slid down beneath me, took me between her fingers and slipped me into her mouth and I came finally over and over into her and then she held me very hard until morning. After two years of stumbling through the bush. After two years alone in a basement room, waiting for something to happen, doing my job, watching TV with the kids, going to bed at ten o’clock. I knew I was there.
Two weeks later, I went to my doctor. I thought, if this interferes between me and her, I’ll slit my fucking throat. I wanted to make a commitment. I wasn’t going to take it lying down. I went up to his office. I told him my concerns. He looked at me gravely. He is a religious man, and every five years he does volunteer work in India. There are pictures of him in the local paper with sick Indian kids. “What do you expect?” he said. “You’re getting used to somebody new. You’re anxious. It’ll take awhile. Anxiety pushes your blood pressure up, makes it harder to perform. We never recommend intercourse for heart patients, for example, unless it is with a spouse or long-term partner. In that case, it is highly recommended. Otherwise, the risk is very high. You’d be amazed at how many middle-aged men die in the arms of prostitutes or casual lovers.”
I started getting an erection. He told me how erections can be artificially maintained if the base of the shaft is manually constricted so the blood is trapped in the penis. He told me to change my habits of arousal. “You’ve probably been masturbating too fast,” he said, “perhaps in a state of self-disgust. Slow down. If the erection dies, wait it out. Limit your fantasies to your girlfriend. If you really love her, then she’s the one you want.” I thought, how wise he is. Maybe it’s memorized out of a textbook. If so, how wise we are. If only I could die in her arms, in the distant future of course.
My friend Harvey tells me it will be very hard to wake up again. There will be a lot of emotional ups and downs. “Get used to it,” he says. “It’s good for you.” He is just up from Nanaimo, to work in the bush for a few weeks. His logging boots are pinching his feet. He shaved his head on a dare just before he left Nanaimo and now he regrets it, wears a fedora everywhere. He scared himself in the mirror. He thinks he must be close to the edge. Who would shave his head? he wonders. What’s happening in there? Besides, it’s colder up here than it is in Nanaimo. He asks me about my girlfriend. I tell him we are taking up skiing. “New love, new life,” he says.
As I understand it, in every relationship you get to a point where you live together. She says we can just do our jobs and (hopefully) fuck but there are times when her eyes are lonely and times when I cry alone and times when our kids drive us crazy and times when the bills are too high and one or both of our vehicles is or are broken down. Still, we are afraid of too much intimacy. She says it’s a matter of body chemistry. Sometimes it can be forestalled by having separate bedrooms. Once bodies are in contact they will adjust and become very similar. Once that happens, she says, it is game over for the relationship.
Right now, there’s not much chance of that happening. I live in the basement like a skunk. My kids patrol the house with loaded Sanyos. My ex-wife is upstairs with her own friends. My bed is narrow. I do have a fireplace. The Italian I bought the place from loved cement. The house looks like a gun battery but there are fireplaces in the basement and living room. I write poems and stories but I don’t know if that’s a plus. I have a steady job but it bores me. I have no money. I have to send the kids to university. I have grey hair at the temples and wear the sweaters my mother sends me and the socks and shirts I get from the kids for Christmas and birthday presents.
My girlfriend has a nice suite and a little boy and dozens of old friends who love her maybe as much as I do. I meet them and wonder where they have been all my life. She has taste. It has been built into her. Everything she wears is beautiful. An old friend built the bed that she sleeps in. She likes to dance but doesn’t drink much. She craves a smoke and one cigarette makes her sick. She craves a coffee and can’t drink it all. Sometimes she eats a deluxe mushroom burger with chips and feels sick for an hour. She likes to sit and neck in the car with our pants pulled down to our knees and the police cars patrolling up and down the boulevard. We stay there for hours. Her eyes shine. “What comfort,” she says.
She goes regularly to group therapy. There is a great anger in her and she doesn’t know why. It seems obvious to me. It is the big question. People are selfish and sicken in their pride while love and innocence go begging through the world. Even if people are mad from boredom or disappointment they should have grace. They should try not to harass other people or infect them with cynicism. When she is put down by her social worker she swears. When her lawyer is drunk she hangs up on him. When the neighbours are cruel to their children she goes and hammers on their doors and yells at them. When her friends freak out on drugs or get drunk or mean she breaks phones and dishes on the floor and smashes the glass tops of coffee tables.
She tells me about this when we are in bed together. Sometimes we are at her place and her kid is asleep in the next room. Sometimes we are at my place and the stairs are busy and the fridge door opens and closes until the early hours of the morning. She says, “Fuck, this is bizarre.” But we kiss and hold one another and come separately into one another’s mouth and hands and when I awaken later the light from the fire is flickering on the ceiling and she is breathing easily and her face is smooth as lake water.
She’s a lucky lady. Her little boy is happy. One day I took him to the park. My girlfriend had to get some work done. He was shy with me and sucked his thumb and rubbed his eyes. But he liked the swings. I pushed him on the swings and the airplane. I pushed him up and down on the teeter-totter. I followed him up the steps of the slide and then caught him at the bottom. He heard a sound and said “train?” so we walked down to the river to watch it go by. He said “carry” so I picked him up and he put his arm around my neck and by the time we got back to the car he was almost asleep on my shoulder, one hand in his mouth and the other tangled in my hair.
I think I will fall in love with him soon too. Then how deep in will I be. How fast to get there and how far to fall. But I’ve fallen before. Maybe my girlfriend will get tired of me or I’ll get tired of her. What defeats us is the repetition, says the poet. Maybe I’ve acquired a taste for it. I’ve acquired a taste for children. I follow mine around now that they are older and come home only to eat and maybe sleep. I go to the after-school soccer game to watch them take on the fuckfaces from the school across town and when the game is over they wave at me from across the field and pile into cars and go off to celebrate or commiserate and I go home. I attend concerts where they perform on flute, clarinet or trumpet and when it is over I go out the side doors and wonder why I never listened to that music before.
She asks me if I really need to start that all over again. “Christ,” she says. “Sometimes I feel so hassled, like the little bugger is eating me alive.” She points out that I’ve never been alone. I left my parents and married and had kids and now my kids are almost gone and I’m grey and carrying a little boy through the park. How do I know I don’t want to be alone when I’ve never tried it? I imagine myself driving home from work to a bachelor apartment, reading Tolstoy for a project, carrying a corsage to a new girl every spring, writing letters to my children and visiting them for a week in the summer. What would I learn?
My psychiatrist thinks I should be alone. He wants me to get out right now. He thinks that’s part of my problem. He thinks I am doing more harm than good by staying at home. “What about your girlfriend?” he says. “How could she go there?” “It must be hard on the kids,” he says. He says they need to see the break, the change, otherwise it is like everything is going on as before and maybe those feelings are as before but they aren’t or are they? “Do you still love your ex-wife? Of course you do but then she is going down her own road and your concern and care are out of place there. Even if it is convenient to live in the same house it may not be the best thing. Maybe you should be alone for a while.”
It will be hard to leave my kids. Maybe they will have to leave me. That’s their right. Besides, real estate is down and houses aren’t selling and it takes both of us just to make payments. The kids think it’s weird alright, but they all say so what? My girlfriend can come over any time. They will stay out of the basement. Maybe they will babysit the kid. I tell them that I will have to get my own place. When winter is over I will move out. Maybe I will go back to the farm where we used to live and fix the place up and their old rooms will be waiting whenever they want to come out and I will come around as usual to take them out for supper and drive them places.
It’s not that easy. There is fear in their eyes that I will slip away too soon, too fast, into my girlfriend’s life or some other girlfriend’s life and I will be sitting in some other kitchen with a redheaded little boy on my lap, feeding him as I fed them. There is fear in me for them and their lives and my ex-wife and my girlfriend and her baby boy when they are out there away from me, the killers lurking in the willows. I’m not a man. I don’t know where to go. I’m frightened. For me, sitting in the bar waiting for my girl. For the girls who show their legs and the boys with shirts unbuttoned who desire them. For the children who do their best to do what we say. For the men and women awake in their beds or out on the street. For everyone looking for love, crying over nothing, jumping for joy.
[Ed. note: Dooney’s is posting some stories from John Harris’ Small Rain, mainly because not enough people have read them yet.]