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Nonfiction

Nonfiction Issue #48

To Believe or to Know

By Joanna Greenberg

 

It started like this: the second love poem I ever wrote was for you. Before I wrote it, I wrote one to my depression. I was fourteen, and the poem was a long metaphor comparing my unpredictable moods to the weather…
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Image: “William and George,” by William Fillmore, painted stoneware, 12x11x14 in., 2019

To Believe or to Know

By Joanna Greenberg

It started like this: the second love poem I ever wrote was for you. Before I wrote it, I wrote one to my depression. I was fourteen, and the poem was a long metaphor comparing my unpredictable moods to the weather. The weather in our small town fit well with my moods. The boats bobbed in the harbor, and the train whistles went off every hour while it rained, or fogged over, or snowed a shining white blanket over the trolley tracks that ran down Main Street. It was always fall or winter in that town.

The weather inside of me changes hour to hour
I never know what to expect, I am devoured  
It rains, it pours, I am lost inside the cloud
I sit in silence, but my thoughts are so loud

I was happiest in the bad weather, happy to watch the rain fall and the sky turn dark at 3 pm, happy that, while no one, not my friends, most certainly not my parents, and, in retrospect, most of all not you, saw past my face, past my long sleeves, to the sad little girl I was at my core. I was happy that at least the weather, the pure physicality of my world, was kindred to me.

*

Or, you swear it started like this: in seventh grade social studies, when we sat three seats apart, Mr. Rozmus paired us on a project. On what? You cannot remember. (I remember absolutely none of this, but I do take your word, at least, on this). You claim that you fell in love in that yellow-tiled classroom (swept away by, even at that young age, my grand intellect; there’s my narcissism), that I pushed my hair out of my eyes, or laughed, or smiled at you. You liked my hot pink hair, my bangle bracelets (I had twenty of them on at all times, hiding the Band-Aids underneath), my convincing performance of cheerfulness.

*

As for me, I have no first memory of you. One day you did not exist, and one day you did, the short girl with frizzy hair who wore bad sandals that reminded me of Jesus. Later, we both came out of the closet, and you became a convenient object of affection. We went out for coffee. I remember noticing your shoulders. I always did love your shoulders.

*

It ended like this: sixteen years after I noticed your shoulders, you tore all the photos of us off of the walls, leaving chunks of plaster missing where evidence of happiness had once been. I swept them up, threw them in the trash, and covered the holes with my photos of the cats, my friends, my favorite poems. I thought I could replace us with me. I am still trying.

*

Mr. Rozmus saved my life. Here’s the one thing I remember from that class: the owner of the Ritz Café, where (when she wasn’t busy telling me I had ruined her life) my mother and I would go for baked clams and Caesar salads, had killed himself. He had waited by the train tracks that ran through town, listened for that tell-tale whistle, and jumped in front of the evening commuter train. He was Mr. Rozmus’ best friend. Mr. Rozmus stood in front of the blackboard, his voice shaking, and told us about his grief. I could feel the cuts on my arm, pulsing like Poe’s heart under the floorboards, chafing against my long sleeves on a hot October day. 

            “He didn’t know it, but he was loved,” Mr. Rozmus said.

I didn’t believe that anyone loved me, but I decided not to kill myself, if only so Mr. Rozmus wouldn’t have to be sad again. I wanted to go up to him, slide my sleeve back, show him my hurts. Instead, I started pasting gold stars on the lunchbox I used as a purse: one for each day I didn’t cut myself.

*

The stars helped, but I hung onto the habit of carving myself open for years. It was a sort of compromise: I want to die, but instead I’ll bleed. 

*

Wanting to die is a reflex of mine, a nervous tic, a refrain that my mind can’t stop singing. I wanted to die throughout much of our early relationship and marriage. I loved our second apartment, the one just ramshackle enough to have character. I loved the big porch, the wood painted with flaking grey paint, red paint peeking out from the holes. I loved that it was a seven-minute walk from a highway overpass. I had timed the seven minutes. I took long walks to get away from myself, always towards that overpass. At night, as I tried and failed to sleep, I would think of it. I felt closer to that overpass than I did to you. I was never unfaithful, not in the traditional sense of the word, but for a year I loved that easily scalable fence, the sound of cars whooshing underneath, cars full of people with purpose travelling somewhere they were wanted, the seductive idea of an ending, more than I loved you. 

*

I’m not sure that I loved you at all.

*

No, that can’t be true. When did I love you? I loved you in the car, steering us so surely, lighting cigarette after cigarette, our dashboard permanently covered in ash. I loved you in the mornings, as we chugged our coffee, the coffee you made or bought. You let me sleep in and wake to an Iced Venti Red Eye in the fridge. I love you now, your absence indeed making my heart grow fonder. I love the scarves and socks you left behind, the ones that, for months after you moved out, I kept finding under the bed, tucked in between the couch cushions.

*

After I took my rings off, there was an indentation in my flesh. I have been measuring this phase of my life, this time post-you, against this thin white line. When it is finally gone, when my finger is just another finger, then, I believe, I will be somewhere else. Does your finger still broadcast our history? Do you avoid looking at it, cover it over with rings that are not wedding rings, and massage the skin tenderly? When you do these things, do you think of me?

*

It started like this: in my early 20s, I studied abroad in London. I never went to classes, preferring to spend my nights taking ecstasy and dancing in nightclubs. At 4 am, in my dorm, still buzzing and bored, you and I chatted online. Enough time had passed from our dramatic high school break up. I wasn’t angry anymore. I was old enough to know that my teenage angers weren’t valid, but too young to know that as a teenager, I was smarter than I thought. It bothered me that we had never had sex. I felt cheated. First love, first sex, that’s how it ought to have gone. I had a boyfriend that semester, my first time with a man (I had to leave the country to admit that I was bisexual). He took me dancing, brought me flowers, told me that I was the only thing more beautiful than my poetry. He wasn’t you. You were the one I always talked to in my head. We flirted over instant messenger. We decided to hang out when I got back to New York.

*

The first time we had sex, when I got back from London and dumped that poor boyfriend (dear Joe, it was fun, but I think I’m really gay after all), wasn’t good. Most of the following times, ten years’ worth, weren’t that good either. I take as much responsibility for this as I put on you. A lie: I take no responsibility at all. I am nothing if not enthusiastic as a lover. The better times, the memorable times, were the ones when you managed to match my enthusiasm. I wanted you to shove me against walls, tear my clothes off, moan from the sheer pleasure of touching me. Yours was a quieter kind of love. It bored me.

*

I have a lover now. He shoves me against walls, tears my clothes off, and moans from the sheer pleasure of touching me. Despite the signed divorce decree that is filed away in my closet, ten feet away from where we spend hours in my bed, I sometimes feel like I am cheating on you. I wish I could say this makes me feel guilty, but to be honest, it’s a turn on. I wish I could say I don’t think of you every time he walks out of my door, but I do.

*

Someone asked me, recently, why I married you even though we were, let’s be honest, never all that sexually compatible. Because I was already in love with her, I said. Because I was already in love with you, had fallen for you in that swimming pool, then via the love notes you folded into tiny triangles and passed to me in the hallways of our high school. My first love. Whatever comes next, whoever comes next, there will never be a sweeter origin story than the one we shared.

*

Love me or kill me. Love me or kill me. Love me or kill me. I wrote this line from the playwright, Sarah Kane, in my purple notebook dozens of times, the summer after I got back from London. I wrote it about a boy I loved who I couldn’t get to love me. We spent hours together writing poetry, listening to Bob Dylan, his broad shoulders so strong when he played his guitar. I had lied to Joe. I wasn’t gay after all. As always, as with everything, I am somewhere in the middle. Undefined. I was in love with this boy, desperate with my desire. This autumn, which doesn’t feel like autumn in my new home 3,000 miles away from our town where the leaves are surely more gold than green by now, I have begun to write it down again. Love me or kill me.

*

I lie and tell everyone that I was the one who suggested we separate. I have told the lie so many times that it stunned me recently when I remembered it wasn’t true. I had to pull my car into a parking lot, where I chain smoked and cried. I was listening to Visions of Johanna (if my depression does not kill me my vanity will), pretending that I was falling in love with my enthusiastic young lover, and then I was crying in a parking lot because you fell out of love with me. You thought I was emotionless, there, at the end. I am here to tell you that you were wrong.

*

“Do you even still love me?”

I didn’t respond. I was cleaning the litter box, trying to breathe through my mouth, when you asked me this. You were facing my back. I was facing the wall. I waited too long, then turned around. You were crying. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything, you cried, and then you called me emotionless.

“How can you sit there, and be emotionless?”

How could I sit there, and be so emotionless? I didn’t have a good answer. Yes, I still loved you. No, I didn’t love you anymore, but I loved our marriage, loved navigating life as a team. Groceries shopped for, the meals you cooked for us, rent checks mailed in, the hours you spent doing our laundry so I could write and apply to graduate schools and plan the new life that I already suspected you wouldn’t be a part of.

*

Here, in California, I don’t bother cooking for myself. I make sandwiches, eat cereal, pick up chicken teriyaki and go through the McDonald’s drive through late at night on my way home from the bar. Sometimes I go out to eat with my lover. Despite my terrible eating habits, I have lost ten pounds since I arrived here. My psychiatrist would diagnose these behaviors, the chain smoking and erratic eating and near obsession with sex. He would raise his eyebrow at me, ask me “and are you sleeping?” and write “manic” down on my chart. He would not be wrong, but he would be missing the point. I am hungry all of the time. After you left, I practiced the art of withholding. I swore off love, sex, and carbohydrates. I stayed inside all of the time, examining my insides, trying to figure out where, exactly, the I in I was. When I put the cats in their carriers and boarded the plane, I thought leaving was the answer to my questions.

*

Here, I eat and fuck and pretend I am falling in love, and wonder why I was so obsessed with the truth.

*

A friend of mine, another writer, who traded in her Chasidic upbringing to meet the world at large, told me that Jewish scholars debate which is higher, more divine: to know, or to believe. To know, I thought when she told me. Now, I think, to believe.

*

The truth is this: when you asked me to marry you, I was thrilled. Finally, I won’t have to be alone. I said “yes” before you had even finished the question. You put the ring on my finger, and nine years later, I showed up at my best friend John’s house with a duffel bag, and we called his friend the divorce attorney.

*

Later, in mediation, sitting on opposite sides of the round wood table, one of the legal interns told us a joke. You had cried in the waiting room, and I had pretended not to notice. The joke was a bad one: when gay marriage was legalized, a man, sitting in a bar, began whooping and cheering.

The bartender says: “Oh, are you gay?”

The man says: “No, I’m a divorce attorney.”

*

Something I also tell people that is a lie: part of why I felt so guilty about ending our marriage was political. The right to marry was a right I spent most of my youth fighting for. It defined what it meant to be queer for me, for you, for our generation. Calling it quits was not just a failure of our marriage, but a failure to our community.

*

How ridiculous. As if any failure could be worse than the failure to love, especially when to love would be just as easy as to withhold.

*

Withholding is a word my therapist used a lot, those hours that I sat across from her on the corner of 12thand 2nd Avenue, her calico cat stretched out on the carpet between us. I would describe how horrible I was being to you, and she would describe back to me the ways in which you were being horrible to me.

“Every time I go into my study to write, she rolls her eyes at me. I just go and do it anyway. I shut and lock the door.”

“How does it make you feel when she belittles your successes?”

“What successes?” I would ask, and she would shake her head at me, jot down, “still suffers from low self-esteem” on her legal pad.

*

After you left and tore down the walls, I took to wearing your forgotten blue scarf while I wandered around the apartment wailing, I want my wife, I want my wife. It occurs to me now, that had I done that while you were still with me, I wouldn’t be sitting here, a continent away, cooking dinner for a man who will never love me the way you did, writing to you about things you already know.

*

It ended like this: I check your Facebook profile at least once a month (another lie: once a week). Most of it is private, but every now and then you throw me a breadcrumb. Like your latest profile picture, you and your new girlfriend grinning at the camera, your arms wrapped around her waist. She’s pretty. You look pretty too, a better haircut, new glasses. You are happy. Frankly, this discovery broke me. I told no one else about it. It is my little secret: you are happy. I am, as always, somewhere between happiness and ruin.

*

The dinner I am cooking for the man who is good at sex but will be bad at loving me is a traditionally Jewish one. Brisket, Challah bread, and my only famous family recipe, which isn’t famous at all but just a packet of Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix mixed with a pint of sour cream, served with plain potato chips. I am hoping that in pointing out my Jewishness, I will somehow make myself exotic to him. My grandmother who famously made this dip died from cancer, my grandfather a year later from a broken heart. I, too, will perish from my longing.

*

I know I have lost ten pounds since I moved here because they weighed me at the student health center when I went to get birth control. I didn’t ship my scale across country; I had decided I was done with all of that withholding. It turns out, withholding is hard to give up. I withhold information now. Before I left New York, I told everyone, “In California, I can be whatever I want to be.” I have no idea what it is that I want to be. The only thing I can say with certainty is that here, I am still a liar.

“Do you smoke?” the nurse asked me.

“Only a few a day. I’m trying to quit,” I lied.

“You have to quit if you’re going to take these. We can’t even prescribe them to women over 35 who smoke.”

“But I’m only 32,” I pointed out.

“Honey, that’s getting pretty close.”

I am up to a pack and a half a day. I take my birth control in the morning, after I smoke my first three cigarettes. Love me, kill me, or both.

*

You lied and pretended you liked the dip. I lied and pretended to orgasm. You lied and laughed at my jokes for at least one full year after you stopped, in fact, finding me in any way funny. I lie, to everyone I am just getting to know here in my new life, and say that our divorce, which I refer to as my divorce, as if you weren’t there, was easy breezy, no hard feelings, what everybody wanted. It was awesome, I say, it allowed me to start a whole new life. Another woman, also recently divorced, stared at me in horror when I gave her this spiel. “My divorce was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” she said, not without a hint of judgement.

*

Our divorce was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Or, it was the best. Or, it was a minor footnote, something I will have all but forgotten in another year, two years, ten, thirty. My ring finger will be back to normal any day now, I know it. I believe it. 

*

What kind of beast would turn its life into words? What kind of atonement is this all about?

*

It started like this: our senior year of high school, after we had dated, then broken up, after you had gotten acrylic nails and started dating boys, I finally spoke to you again. You had a copy of Adrienne Rich’s poetry on your desk. 

“It’s a good book,” I said, stopping in front of you. 

“Yes,” you agreed, visibly surprised. “It is.”

Adrienne Rich, patron saint of lesbian poets, wrote these words, about being a beast, about atonement through words, in a poem, one of twenty-one poems for her lover. When you left, having packed your bags and torn down the walls, you took my copy of her collected works. Out of everything you took, this physical object pains me the post. You hated my obsession with words, with documenting every moment of my life. Do you read those poems to your new lover now? She looks nice, a simpler sort of person than the beast you chose to marry.

*

I was the most heartbroken, in high school, when you were reading lesbian poetry, but having sex with your boyfriend instead of having sex with me, over the fact that you were now “straight.” Sexuality as betrayal. I didn’t know you were faking it so your born-again mother would let you stop seeing the therapist, the one the pastor had recommended, the one who practiced the kind of “reparative” therapy that is now widely understood to be a kind of torture. She told you God had spoken to her of a husband and three children waiting for you down the road. Maybe she was confused about who her vision was of, because when my lover comes inside of me, I sometimes find myself speculating about how handsome, how tall I believe our baby would be.

*

We both had a tendency to lie, didn’t we? We lied to everyone about our beloved origin story. And then her born-again mother found out we were dating, and ripped us apart, and we couldn’t see each other anymore. Oh, the sympathy we garnered! 

The truth: you fell for Stephanie, who wasn’t as pretty as me, but wasn’t as depressed as me, as unrelentingly needy. My tears on the phone, my revived habit of tearing open my skin—it was all too much for a 15-year-old to handle. I don’t blame you for that. Your mother’s intervention happened later, after I was home licking my wounds and you were out holding hands with another girl. It was a good story, though, wasn’t it? Better than the one I am telling you now.

*

It ended at your father’s house. Thanksgiving 2015, one of the coldest ones I could remember, both of us in our winter coats. You insisted on taking yours off in the car. “It makes me feel too restricted,” you said.

Your father and I, indeed, your entire “salt-of-the-earth,” Republican voting family, had almost nothing in common, but he called me “Jo,” and so I liked him. Your step-mother asked us, “so when are you two going to have children already?”

“We’re not doing that,” you said.

“In a few more years,” I said a moment later, not hearing, or not wanting to hear, what you had said.

I don’t remember what was said next, or who changed the topic for us. I had quit smoking, but I followed you outside, not stopping for my coat, and tried to kiss you on the frozen lawn while you smoked your cigarette.

“No,” you said. “That won’t work.”

I went inside. Your sister-in-law pulled me into the green-tiled kitchen, leaned in. We were always conspiring, comparing notes. Your brother, too, had a hard time talking about his feelings. He, too, left her feeling more lonely than supported. 

“I finally found a way to get him to emotionally connect. Maybe it will work for you too,” she said.

“What’s your secret?” I asked.

“Constant sex. It worked. Unfortunately, I got too tired to keep it up.”

I perked up. I’ve always liked having a plan. I’ve always been good at sex. I won’t get tired.

*

It did work. I took photos of my breasts in the bathroom at work, texted them to you, came home and tore your clothes off. We took a trip to my beloved London, where you shoved me against the hotel wall and moaned from the sheer pleasure of touching me. I left stains on the leg of your jeans. You told me you loved me, woke me up with kisses, held me all night. We didn’t talk about children, but we did talk about moving, about me attending graduate school, about moving to Iowa or Ohio or yes, Southern California. All of our pronouns were we again.

*

I got tired.

*

I didn’t even really want a baby, except for when I did. Or, I lied and pretended to want one, because I knew it was something you refused to give or consider, and I needed to force a breaking point. Or, you lied and pretended not to want one, for the same reasons. I lied and pretended to everyone, sent long emails to friends speaking of “pangs of sharp pain when I see a baby in a stroller on the subway.”

In fact, I’ve very rarely felt any compulsion towards motherhood. I kill plants and goldfish, never know how to talk to small children, and it is a point of pride that in my thirty-two years I have not once changed a diaper. If my biological clock is ticking, it is not loud enough for me to notice. 

“It’s no one’s fault,” we both said to our friends.

“We couldn’t make each other happy.”

*

It ended like this: I found an apartment for myself. A tiny, grimy, surely roach-infested studio apartment. I put in an application, paid the deposit, planned to come home and sit with you, explain that I was leaving. My application was denied: when I am manic, I shop, and my credit report reveals this. Still, I resolved to go through with it, with telling you I was going. I knew I could find another apartment. I knew I could crash with John for as long as necessary. Had you known this before you beat me to the punch, I wouldn’t still be depositing your alimony checks every month, feeling some combination of embarrassment and vengeance with each endorsement. 

*

It started like this: I finally gave up on the boy with the guitar, and said yes when you asked me out on a date that winter. We sat at your kitchen table, and you said, “I just want to be a little old lady, sitting beside you in a rocking chair.” 

It felt like a miracle. “Me too,” I said. “I want that too.”

*

I did want that, then. I wanted it at times all throughout our decade together. I wanted a house in the country, a book deal, and for you to make me coffee every morning. I wanted a child, and I wanted to raise that child with you. I wanted us to have more sex, and for you to shower more frequently, and for me to care less about your personal hygiene. After you left, I took long, hot showers. I braced myself against the marble, the beautiful marble that you were paying for me to live with. I cried. I moved one hand off the marble, and touched myself, and replayed memories of you touching me. I came each time. It was some of the best sex we ever had.

*

Sarah Kane, after writing five plays, including the one in which a woman says, love me or kill me, killed herself at the age of twenty-eight. First, at home, she swallowed over a hundred of her anti-depressants. Later, in the hospital, she hung herself in the bathroom, finishing the job. I have not been able to find out what, exactly, she used to hang herself. A sheet? Her gown?  A blue scarf? Why does this matter to me? I want to know what it was like, there in the bathroom. Did it hurt? Was she scared? Or was it, as I have always believed, the highest possible form of relief?

*

 I brought the blue scarf here with me, packed in my boxes along with eighteen tubes of red lipstick and my Chanukah cookie cutters. I don’t wear it, don’t cry out your name anymore, but it comforts me to know it’s in my closet. It comforts me to pretend you would have any interest in hearing what it is I want to say. 

*

It ended like this:

“So, we’re going to separate, right?” you asked.

I nodded. Yes. We were going to separate. 

“You can stay here,” you said, lighting another cigarette. “I’ll keep paying the rent.”

“Thanks, that’s so generous,” I said, reaching for the pack.

“It’s the least I can do,” you said.

“You can keep the car,” I said. 

“It’s nobody’s fault,” you said.

“It’s nobody’s fault,” I agreed. 

*

What I believe: you loved me, once. I loved you, too. We loved and fucked and cried and moved together, then apart. At night when you go to bed next to your pretty, simple girl, you think of me. At night, when I go to bed alone, or next to my enthusiastic young lover, or with the cats, I think of you. We are still bound together, our shared history a wire running from New York to California. A live wire. 

What I know: the line on my finger is barely there. It is perceptible, at this point, only to me.

Joanna Greenberg
By Joanna Greenberg

Joanna Greenberg lives and writes in Southern California, where she is an MFA candidate in Nonfiction at the University of California, Riverside. Her nonfiction has been published in Hippocampus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Thread Literary. She is finishing a memoir about her experiences as an adopted child surviving childhood abuse and mental illness, and her successful adult search for her biological family via DNA testing. When she is not writing, she is teaching undergraduate creative writing and composition, drinking copious amounts of coffee, and hanging out with her brood of senior rescue animals.