The less she saw and heard and felt, the more numb and deaf and blind she became, the lesser the pain. But sometimes it was impossible to ignore all the new ways he found to hurt her. In those moments, she was almost ready to cut the perverse umbilical cord that bound her to Michael in a mixture of pleasure and pain that kept her constantly hovering on the edge of despair.
Just when she thought she had enough and could take no more, Michael would back off temporarily. He’d take her out to a fancy restaurant, or make love to her tenderly again, or tell her in that sweet melodious voice of his that he loved her more than ever and that those sluts meant nothing to him. Sometimes he’d promise her that he’d join her soon in Phoenix. There they’d live out her dream of a happy life together, which had originally been his dream, if she recalled. That’s when the unbearable would become bearable again. Until the next time she discovered traces of another woman in his in his life, in his house, in their bed. Then the whole cycle of pleasure in pain would start anew.
“You’re the one who wants to come visit me here all the time,” Michael retorted when Karen objected to his out of control cheating. But she was only sticking to their initial agreement, of coming to visit him every other weekend, since she found herself unable to weather the distance between them and he almost never visited her in Phoenix anymore. Given that Arizona was Michael’s idea of heaven on Earth, she knew exactly what was keeping him so busy in Michigan. Short of begging him to come see her, which she knew in advance wouldn’t work anyway, Karen learned to become more creative about earning the right to see him regularly.
Each time she was obliged to invent a new excuse for why she needed to return to Michigan, which she presented from his perspective, having understood long ago that her desirability to him was measured in terms of utility rather than pleasure. “Your house needs painting,” was the comment that had bought her one weekend with him. “It looks like you have a termite problem. I can take care of it,” had gotten her another weekend together. When she ran out of things to do for him, she had to resort to more neutral and generally less effective justifications, to the effect of “I’ll drop by since I’m visiting my mother anyway.” But in her heart of hearts, it greatly pained her that Michael didn’t want to see her just for herself, without expecting her to offer additional inducements. She was no longer welcome in his house. It was no longer their home. It was his alone and she was only a reluctantly accepted guest.
Whenever Karen complained about their current arrangement, Michael would kindly remind her that she was the one who had proposed it in the first place. “You gave me no choice,” she’d try to defend her largely involuntary decision. “What could I do? I found myself between a rock and a hard place. It was either Ana or other women. I chose the lesser of two evils. You didn’t really give me the option of an exclusive relationship.”
“You never asked for it,” Michael countered.
Karen felt that was sheer sophistry on his part. He knew full well that was exactly what she wanted. A simple, normal, exclusive relationship with him where she’d be once again the center of his life, like during the days when he had courted her so romantically in the beginning. She wanted the whole shebang. Commitment. Trust. Marriage. Maybe even children. Everything that still seemed possible until that woman came along and destroyed everything between us, Karen thought with bitterness. “Ana’s husband chose Ana and so did you,” she reminded Michael a few days after the break-up with his girlfriend.
“I said I was sorry. She seduced me. How long will you harp on this? It’s over,” he replied with an air of impatience.
“You’re not really sorry. You’re just offering excuses.”
“Excuses? Hell no!”
By now enough time had elapsed since the end of the affair. It was time. Was he ready? “How much more time do you need to get over that woman?” Karen would ask him periodically. She avoided using Ana’s name, not wishing to personalize her memory.
Michael’s answer was usually vague, non-committal: “I don’t know,” or “I can’t predict the future,” which was his way of avoiding dealing with the whole gangrenous issue.
Why do I still want him so much? Karen wondered, perplexed by her own tenacity. As she beat the pavement walking around for hours to keep her body toned and trim, there was not a single day when she didn’t ask herself this very question. Because I love him, was the only answer she could offer. Then she turned the question around, putting the onus on him. Why does this man hurt me constantly? The obvious answer boomeranged back to her. Because I let him. I love him more than anything in the world, she kept repeating, as if this basic truth could somehow justify all her pain.
Each day she hoped it couldn’t get much worse, yet it always did and she got used to the new mistreatment. What she had found appalling only a week earlier, she eventually came to accept. She began to see Michael’s compulsive womanizing as a sign of his immense desirability. In a weird twist that reversed the poles of pleasure and pain in her brain, his philandering made her feel that being with a man that so many other women wanted was a reward, not a punishment.
Karen recalled the anger she felt on the day she found Ana’s lingerie in his drawers. Now, barely a month later, she witnessed Michael luring other women into their house without even batting an eyelid, as if that were normal behavior. How did this happen? Karen tried to recall the downward spiral which made her head spin with a disorienting mixture of hope and shame. She recalled the withering remark which made her fear that he’d throw her out for good if she objected too much, “You’re always free to leave, you know,” he said coolly. “Nobody’s tying you down here.”
But in point of fact, Michael did, on a couple of occasions, since he was always exploring new fetishes when the old ones began to bore him. They had already gone through all the “non-negotiable” positions he had practiced with Ana. They had made love in every room of their house and even up on the roof. They made out in parking lots, behind trash dumpsters, in the changing rooms of stores, at the cinema and in men’s restrooms. He had already penetrated every orifice except maybe for her ears. Karen passively submitted to everything, hoping that if she pleased him he wouldn’t need all those other women.
Michael’s appetite for sex was insatiable. Each time they crossed a new boundary, he’d get this flicker of a smile, a moment of triumphant glee. She’d feel encouraged by the sign of approval, as if this time was it, he loved and wanted her the way he had wanted his girlfriend, if not more so, since he’d have to be blind not to see that she loved him far more than Ana ever did. If only she did everything he asked her, however painful or humiliating, then she’d eventually get the prize he constantly dangled before her eyes and that prize was his love. But after they had engaged in a certain activity a couple of times, Michael would become dissatisfied again.
He’d look at Karen’s naked body as if it were nothing more than a sack of potatoes and tell her in a dispassionate tone that he wasn’t in the mood anymore and that, at any rate, he had a few “errands” to run later on that evening. She knew exactly what he meant since his code was crudely transparent. Once she even insisted that she join him on a so-called “errand,” just to observe his reaction. He wasn’t phased at all. “I thought you weren’t into threesomes,” he taunted her.
“Why aren’t I enough for you, Michael? I’ve done everything you’ve asked me.”
“It’s not about what you do. It’s about who you are,” was his devastating reply.
At night, Karen silently prayed she could become younger and prettier at the snap of a finger. She wished she could magically change the color of her hair and eyes, to become a different shade of woman every day. She longed to have the plasticity of a gymnast, the grace of a ballerina and the poise of a ballroom dancer. Maybe then Michael would love her again. But each time she tried harder to please him, he only raised the bar higher, or simply changed the rules of the game, and never in her favor.
All I’m asking for is that the man I love love me back, she’d tell herself when they were lying in bed together the night before she was supposed to return to Phoenix, missing him already. As Michael turned his tight little body into hers, Karen marveled that he could sleep so well at night, with the oblivious innocence of a child, in spite of the constant upheavals he created in their lives.