Advice Wednesdays: December 5, 1991

DEAR ABBY: A while back, you had a letter in your column about a girl who got an engagement ring that looked like a big diamond, but it was an imitation (cubic zirconia) which she was proudly showing around to all her friends and relatives, thinking it was real.

I guess she fooled some of the people some of the time, but it could have caused her a lot of embarrassment.

I have a different problem concerning my diamond engagement ring. My boyfriend told me that his father got it at a very good price because it was “hot” — stolen.

I love my fiance very much, but I do not feel comfortable wearing this ring, knowing its history. I do not want to appear ungrateful, and I don’t want to insult my boyfriend — or his father — but every time someone compliments me on my ring, I want to crawl into a hole and hide.

What should I do? — ASHAMED IN BUFFALO

Do you remember that series of books from a few years ago that promised that whatever you thought about, could come true? You could even make, like, posterboards about your most fervent desire and tack things to it, like it was some kind of science fair project, except the experiment was your own self-actualization. The money attraction one said you could even tack on cash, which I never really got, because that was money you were not spending or saving, and someone would probably just steal it off your board anyway.

I always thought it was more useful to just think about things. I guess I learned about the Power of Thinking Really, Really Hard (PoTRRH) when I broke up with my last boyfriend. He was on what seemed like his twelfth part-time “gig” after graduating. (Lesson: do not date someone who calls work “gigs” if you are committed to the PoTRRH Way.) He had just cracked into my last package of those little Swedish gingerbread cookies that I had been saving since Christmastime, which was the last time my sister was able to give me a ride down to IKEA. It is important to buy at least six and then they only get to come out once a month for a special occasion, like a series finale or your friend gets an overdraft notice text when they’re at your house.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I think being fired counts as one of those times.” He always ate like a starving wolverine and a constellation of crumbs appeared in his beard.

“But it’s my thing,” I protested. “And I don’t think you can be depressed if the job you were fired from was five hours a week and on a volunteer basis.”

I went into our bathroom and thought about it really, really hard, and realized the best way to get rid of someone was to pretend to be very crazy. It has all the perks of being actually crazy, except you could shut it off again. I might be on to something, I thought to myself as I used three fingers to scoop all of the expensive shaving cream out of its heavy glass jar. I was excited when he became interested expressing himself in a testicularly-artisanal fashion but then it took at least 45 minutes to shave when I took him out. He hadn’t touched it in months after he went Movember and never came back.

Globs of richly-scented shaving cream rolled off my fingertips and into the toilet, scenting the air with sandalwood and ylang-ylang. I aimed them at his antidepressants, which were now floating in the toilet as well. I worried for a moment about invoking the landlord by backing up the toilet, but “causing plumbing problems” was probably a plus-one in the crazy column. Points removed for making ocean fish sterile with the pill run-off, though. It was a wash. Literally!

“You sunk my Lexipro ship,” I said, watching the pills get taken down by the cream and flushing. I washed my hands and hid all of the evidence in the trash.

“What are you doing in there?” he asked, though another mouthful of my ginger cookies.

“Kegels,” I said, opening the door and walking past him.

I went into the bedroom to turn one of his prized vintage Lacoste shirts (“coral,” 1983) into a string of obscene paper dolls. I will admit to you I stole the idea from my Crafting for Cunts classes, which spent a lot of time re-appropriating traditional feminine arts into statements about the patriarchy.

(That’s right, the bowl you ate that nut mix out of is resting on a doily patterned with erect penises that I tatted myself. The group was all going swimmingly until it was overrun by polyamorous Burners. UGH.)

I find that breakups are a good opportunity for change. I would do things differently going forward. I started thinking really, really hard about what I wanted from life and more specifically, a relationship. I even created a board, like the book said.

I couldn’t remember what the book said to put on the board, but I decided interpretation of memory was the key here. Besides, I owed too much at the library to check anything out. Did you know they will send you to collections over twelve dollars? Consider yourself warned. I went way back into time, listened to my dreams, and delved deeply into my psyche. Who was the perfect man for me?

I tacked a flattened Amazon box up on the wall where my boyfriend’s dresser used to be for my board. All that I had so far was a picture of Jason Priestley from a Tigerbeat scan that I had secretly printed at work. I decided that represented “dreamy eyes.”

My Power of Thinking Really, Really Hard board was next to my mirror. I spent a lot of time looking into the mirror, into my own eyes, questioning, seeking. Then I realized one night when I was trying to sleep, what I wanted was someone who would take care of me how I took care of other people. More than one friend had commented on what a perfect girlfriend I was. I made every birthday special, and it didn’t just look that way on Instagram. Sometimes things I did for him didn’t even end up getting posted.

“That’s what I want,” I said. “Myself.”

The moon shone into my window and hit me while I lay in bed, which is rare enough, because it seems like it’s always cloudy here when the moon is full. The cat was restless and walked around on my legs. I enjoyed watching the moonlight in her fur. Suddenly I felt hot and pulled off the blankets. My skin started to tingle and felt tight, which I assumed had to do with all the bourbon I drank earlier, or the new lotion that came in a beauty sub box I found on my neighbor’s doorstep. The last thing I remember was my cat meowing loudly and then everything was dark!

I woke up cold, and the ceiling was lit like it was midmorning. Saturday, I thought. I tried to move, but felt like I was tied down. I turned and somehow I had moved the mirror in the night…I looked into my eyes—but no.

“Hello,” I said to myself, lying next to me. I thought maybe my double looked younger, but then she hadn’t been trying to quit smoking for the past…seven years.

The split was incomplete and we were still partly connected by fleshy fibers that reminded me of gum, but it was gum made out of flesh. Gross. Other than that, the bed was surprisingly clean. I expected gore or glop like health class childbirth films.

“What can we do about this?” I asked my double.

“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of this,” she said.

And she did. How I had longed to hear those words for so long. She moved her hands along our side and unzipped us somehow. We were two.

We alternated between periods of speaking and not-speaking. I knew what she was going to say, usually, and she knew what I was going to say. Of course she didn’t know what happened to me when I went to work, or out with friends, so she was eager to have me fill her in.

“What did you do all day?” I asked her.

“Well. Today I went to the farmer’s market and bought raw milk and I made butter. I didn’t really have time to do anything else, so we’re pretty much having French bread and butter for dinner.”

“Sounds good,” I said. “Thanks.” Every day was an adventure now with her there.

“I’ve always wanted learn how to do that,” she said.

“I remember.”

I was concerned that someone I knew would run into her and find out I was at work at the same time. We decided we would cut and dye her hair and call her “Jane.” That was not an easy talk but I tried to spin it like we were wacky spies or something.

“I like our hair the way it is,” she said, but relented. I did a great job, I think. I had been cutting this hair for years, after all. I made her into a dark brunette, a look I knew was good on me, but I thought was too boring to stick with. If she ran into my friends and they called her by my name, she was to pretend she didn’t know them or who I was.

I began to call her Jane around the apartment as well, just to have something to call her, like if I was in the bathtub and my tablet died. I couldn’t call her by my name, after all. The first few times I saw her face fall a little, or her body turn inward with a small cringe, but she got used to it.

Overall I think she was having a fulfilling life. I was sure jealous of her! Jane even began to bring in some money selling crafts online, since she had my work ethic and could not be a lady of leisure forever. It helped offset the costs of her little hobbies. She was an excellent tatter as well, but preferred abstract shapes or leaf patterns to cocks. I took her out for walks in the evenings I wasn’t seeing my friends.

“What are we doing tonight?” she asked. “Doctor Who?”

I shook my head and chuckled. Oh, the delights of being able to watch the doctor all the way through for the first time. I knew she’d love it.

“You know I have my book group tonight,” I said. I hooked my bra and began to pull it over each shoulder.

“Hold still,” she said, and turned my back to the light.

I could see her face behind me, in the mirror, concentrating on a small spot on my back. She went to work on the zit, which I hadn’t even noticed and quickly had it lanced. “You’re so busy lately,” she said. I felt the sting as she prodded the sore spot. “I hope that wasn’t too painful.” She looked into my eyes in the mirror, which were watering. I realized she was beautiful. She reached for a tissue to dab at the blood. I waved her off and threw my shirt on. It was a dark color.

It’s such a cliche, but yes, we barely talk about the book of the month at our club.

“You’re looking good,” Katie said, refilling my wineglass in the kitchen of her small open apartment. We were so grown up, with our book club and our casual chit-chat. She was a roommate in college for a couple of years. “Are you seeing someone?” I felt three other curious heads swivel and focus on me, abandoning whatever they had been huddling over on Facebook.

“Sort of,” I said. “I’m not ready to talk about it yet.”

“Really?” Katie said. In the past she was used to me giving the blow-by-blow of every late night text, every email, every conversation. How could I talk about my current situation? I decided it was basically like talking about myself so I would just frame it that way.

“I’ve decided to just be single for a while. To take care of myself.”

My friends—well, they’re not really my friends, they’re more like Katie’s friends that I’ve kind of gotten absorbed into—their heads all nodded in unison. I knew they all had their struggles, but in that moment I felt like I had won, transcended somehow. It was one thing to nod along with what Oprah’s army was churning out for waiting room consumption, and quite another to be living it.

My eyes landed on Katie’s face and I saw that instead of nodding her head was slightly tilted. I saw it in her eyes, a flicker that said she didn’t quite believe me.

“I’m sorry,” I said, setting down my nearly full glass of wine, “but I’ve got an early morning and I should pack it in.”

I insisted on letting myself out, to get out into the cool air of the street as quickly as possible. I heard the conversation dip for a moment and I felt my ears prick.

“Pregnant,” was all I was able to pick out. Was that MacKayla? I closed the door behind me with as little noise as possible. As far as they were concerned, I was already gone.

When I came home, Jane was already in bed, asleep with the lamp lit on my side, just as I’d left it. Nothing was moved or touched. It almost looked like she’d gotten straight into bed as soon as I’d left. She stirred when I came in.

“I thought this was your movie night,” I said to her back.

“Didn’t feel like it,” she said. She sounded more than just sleepy.

I felt my words coming out stilted. “Are you okay? Is winter bothering you? They can be brutal here.” She shrugged.

This was not how I expected things to be with my other half, or my double, or whatever. I was pretty sure I had given her everything I’d needed–freedom, space, privacy. When I was honest with myself I knew she was living the life that I wanted, and I tried not to be resentful about it. The silences, which had seemed so cozy at first, now seemed ominous and heavy. “Can I do something for you?”

“Just come to bed,” Jane said.

I turned off the lamp and slid out of my clothes, which I remembered was a lot easier when I wasn’t drunk. My brain was very clear. Before I lived alone, I often didn’t get undressed at all, or I would wake up completely dressed from the waist up, dried semen on my thighs to let me know that no matter how much I hated my ex at the end, at least he couldn’t say I wasn’t putting out.

I wrapped my arm around Jane, curled my city-cold body against her back. She sighed and I smelled my—our—good bourbon. Her body felt different to me lately. She was no longer my exact double. She felt fleshier. I watched her dress in the morning, and I recognized that body, it was the one I’d gotten after my second abortion, the one with the guy I actually liked, but who wanted to go study in Germany and then did. I hated the flesh on my own body, but I liked it on her.

Jane moved her hand away from her stomach. I hadn’t realized I’d been stroking the soft skin of her belly that now pooched out and oriented itself down toward the mattress now. I knew her breasts were larger as well and I felt my hands roam of their own accord. She sighed again and laid back, legs spread slightly, submitting. I wondered if she would remember it if I got her off. I decided against it and lay back, and sleep came quickly.

Then, suddenly, it was spring. I had some idea that maybe I was ready to start dating. Maybe I was over what happened last summer—I had even unblocked him on Instagram. I knew I didn’t want him, but maybe it was time for me to make a new board and start thinking really hard about bringing love into my life from the outside. I probably had time to add one more class—I had every other Tuesday free, and Sunday afternoons, like today.

“Fuck!” I stepped on something embedded in the rug. I turned my foot over and saw that a piece of wire was stuck in my foot. I pulled it out, watching a drop of blood well up where the wire was. Maybe I would start to think really, really hard about attracting someone who had a social security number and could work a job that didn’t involve making terrible wire jewelry incorporating women’s discarded IUDs and dental retainers. I was pretty sure I was over the whole feminist thing.

Jane came out of the bedroom, where she had been working on some kind of new drawer organization scheme she’d read about on Apartment Therapy. She bent over my foot and gave me a look (apologetic?), though she said nothing.
“When did you cut your hair?” I asked. She had short, crooked bangs that made our face look even rounder than it usually did. It was far worse with the extra weight she was carrying.

She shrugged. “I don’t know, a few days ago.”

“That explains the headbands,” I said. “I could have told you not to cut bangs. When I was nineteen I went through this Bettie Page phase…”

Jane reddened and looked down and away. I know that look and I knew to drop it. I realized then she seemed less like my double and more like a series of snapshots. She was my past, I could see that now. A reminder of all the mistakes I’d made and all the bad things I’d done. I had to get out of there.

“Listen, it’s a nice day,” I said. Sun lit the apartment, illuminating how dingy it had gotten under cover of the dim winter light. I wanted to go for a walk on the street near our house that was full of blooming plum trees. I would buy her a small present when we were out, admire her new jewelry designs, then coax her into dusting later. Maybe she could clean the windows as well. I could do the vacuuming, which I find relaxing.

Tears spilled out of Jane’s eyes and she bit her lip and closed her eyes, shaking her head. I couldn’t even suggest a walk to her anymore. She looked ugly when she cried, and she cried a lot. I’d been with a couple of guys who were criers and I always acted like I thought it was great they were that sensitive, but the reality is that I hate it when anyone cries around me. Living with a woman was like entering the varsity level of the crying championships.

I realized maybe if I really loved her I would think she was beautiful when she cried or something. If I thought about this really hard could I fix it?

“Jane,” I said. I recalled words that had been used on me in the past. “I don’t think this is working out for us. You don’t seem happy. I just think we’re in two different places.”

She stopped crying then, sniffed, and looked into my eyes. I always expect her to be shorter than me, smaller than me, because she’s so much weaker than I am. Occasionally she would stop slouching and pull herself up to her full height and stare at me like she used to at first. I saw my collarbones, softened, lost in flesh. I took in the dark circles under her eyes, under the redness of her face from crying. I saw the light roots of my hair coming in under the dark brunette, which I realized now just made her look washed out. I knew there was a reason I had stopped dyeing my hair that color.

She went into the bathroom. I realized that the hole the wire made in my foot was now dripping blood onto the rug.
“Are you getting me a tissue?” I asked. “Or a bandage?” She slammed the door in response.

I took in the blossoms, but had quickly gotten bored alone, and went down the street to knock back a couple of drinks. When I came back to my apartment later, all was dark except for the light streaming out from under the bathroom door. I felt contrite, ready to give things another chance. I knocked softly on the bathroom door.

“What are you doing in there?” I asked. I heard sniffling. Still crying.

“Nothing,” Jane said. Her voice sounded hollow, airy, like it was being piped in from somewhere else and she was far away, in some other bathroom.

I tried the knob and it admitted me. When I cracked the door, a wave of tropical air hit my face. I thought she’d taken a shower, or had been bathing. A smell followed, dank and primal, almost like sex, or animal guts. I paused on the carpet outside the door, letting me eyes adjust to the light. I took a deep breath and pushed the door open.

“It’s cold,” Jane said. She was in the tub. She was wet, or sweating, but the tap didn’t appear to have been turned on, since it drips for hours after anyone takes a shower. Her eyes, my eyes, were the same as when I had pneumonia and I was admitted to the hospital. I forgot where I was and ripped out my IV out and walked to a mirror and opened my eyes there. They were glassy, sunken. Her skin looked transparent. I knelt by her on the floor next to the tub, on her abandoned pile of clothes.

“Are you alright?” I asked, stupidly.

“I’m sorry about the mess.”

I saw her relax some then, the strain leaving her face. Was this what I would look like when I die? I hoped it would be some time from now and I would look much older at least. I hoped I would be surrounded by my grandchildren, or at least some fans. Not alone in a bathtub—melting?

Jane’s skin began to slip a little then, and the liquid parts ran out and toward the drain. Her eyes closed and she looked peaceful. I turned on the tap then, and the water hit her feet, which foamed and began to melt away like soap. Some parts took longer than others. I considered pulling her teeth out, but it seemed disrespectful somehow to hurry the process along by throwing the more stubborn parts of her away. Finally her hair caught in the drain and dissolved away as well.

I turned off the tap and sat back against the tub. The apartment was dark and empty and smelled of cold air, coming rain.

Sometimes I still find a short brunette hair around the apartment and it always stops me. I can’t help it—I always have to put it in my mouth and swallow it. It all has to go back where it came from. Every last bit.

5 thoughts on “Advice Wednesdays: December 5, 1991

  1. Dude, that rocked! Maybe it is too late and that is why I was confused for such a long time, but I was confused for a good part of it, and I thought it worked pretty well.

    I particularly enjoyed the bit with the vivid details.

  2. Thanks! No, I really should. I’ve read almost everything else she’s written. She is an idol of mine.

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