Saying Stay Ch. 07

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You know those times when you tell yourself you have to do something as soon as possible, and then you mentally keep shifting “as possible” back and back, so that you can procrastinate while staying resolute in your own mind? Maybe that’s just me. I know that I played the same mental tricks on myself when trying to ask out Cathy Chu in high school (I never did ask her out in the end), and on several college papers (most of which were just barely completed on time).

My current situation was a lot odder. I had to tell my girlfriend that I had been fucking three other women and one man (with two other people in peripheral roles) during the whole time we had been dating. Actually, when I put it that way, it makes me sound like a scumbag.

A scumbag was, in fact, what Nina was waving in front of my face right now. “Can you believe the looks a girl gets when she buys a box of these? I mean, it’s the twenty-first century. Get over it.” She raised one of her thin eyebrows at me and chuckled at her own story. It was, improbably, not the most blatant come-on I had received recently.

But really, when do you bring this type of thing up? It’s not like what we had inside the house was an orthodox arrangement that any potential partner would know to ask about. When Nina and I were just hanging out on the first few quasi-dates, sipping ice drinks while she tried to explain the rules of baseball to me, it seemed foolishly premature to bring up such a big obstacle. And at any point afterwards, it was too late. My reticence had turned into infidelity.

Of course, I could have just stopped fucking Dawn and Julia and never started fucking Simon and Ellie. That would have been the honourable thing to do. And I’ve never thought of myself as a person who listens to his dick more than his brain. But I guess life among the hedonists had changed my ways. Monogamy seemed downright quaint, like a horse-drawn carriage or a VHS tape.

Nina’s home was quaint in its way as well. She shared a duplex with two boys who were even bigger sports fan than herself. They had bonded over their love of an obscure German soccer team, whose symbol hung on a big flag on their wall behind a mismatched home entertainment system. Nina’s room was a bit more homey, with crafts and other projects spilled across the floor and to-do lists taped to the slanted wall.

Apparently seeing me nonplussed by her condom announcement, Nina sat on my lap. It wasn’t a lap dance – more like the way goofy high school friends sit on overcrowded buses. Then again, there was undeniably something sexual about her pert little ass settled right over my crotch. Nina pressed her head back against my body and looked up at me. “You seem distracted. What, are you bored?”

“I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

“Well, try to forget about it.” Nina gave me a flirtatious flutter of her eyelashes. “Here, let me help you.” And she kissed me.

There was some kind of weird gravitational quality to her lithe body inside the hollow of my bulkier one. When I kissed her, my tongue was thrusting down, and it felt like I could fall forever. She swung around, relieving her neck and allowing her to look at me face to face. We kissed for many quiet minutes, her body rocking ever so slightly across my crotch.

I put my hand on Nina’s waist to steady her. She grabbed it and moved it up under her shirt. Nina had that mischievous grin of a kid caught stealing cookies who just offered to share with you. I found her perky breasts, and discovered that Nina wasn’t wearing a bra. Her pebbled nipples and the soft weight of those tits felt almost nostalgic to me. Where had I felt this before?

They were too small to be Ellie’s or Dawn’s, and too big to remind me of Julia’s. Maybe… Sadie? There was another name to add to my list of transgressions. And here this girl was, making out with me in total ignorance that I was comparing her breasts to the other women I had been with.

I broke away from Nina’s kiss, and pulled my hand out of her shirt. “I need to tell you something.”

She looked up at me, curious. “Is this when you tell me you’re gay?”

“No! Well, I think I might be bi, but that’s not the point.” I wasn’t sure how to begin. But Nina seemed as though she was already weirded out. So I took a deep breath and the whole story of that lust-addled summer came tumbling out.

My last words – something like “just wanted to tell you” – hung in the air for an eternity. Nina had her hands folded in her lap, pensive. Then, when she did speak, it was with a strained and torn voice.

“I think you should leave.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. Despite my trepidation, for some reason I had been expecting forgiveness. “Look, Nina, I like you a lot. What I have going on in the house doesn’t change that at all – I just want you to be part of it.”

Nina looked up, her reddening face tight. “So what, you want me to be girl number four? Fuck you, Mike.”

“It wouldn’t be like-“

“And fuck you for thinking that you’re some kind of visionary progressive erzincan escort for cheating on me. Because let me tell you, you weren’t the first asshole to do that, but you’re sure as hell going to be the last.”

I felt panic rising to the surface. Why was she yelling at me like I was the bad guy? Was I the bad guy? I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t an asshole, because I knew I wasn’t, but somehow I couldn’t think of anything to prove that. Should I even try to prove something? My brain was in a scramble.

“I’m sorry. You never said you wanted to be exclusive.” I knew it was lame even before I said it.

Nina turned on me with tears in her eyes. “Get the fuck out. Or I’m gonna get Dan and Rick to throw you out.”

What could I say to that? I muttered a few more weak apologies, and then left. The cool night air, the first sign of the long descent to winter, was a shock to my body. I felt my hands quivering, and couldn’t get them to stop. What had I just done? And really, why hadn’t I expected it to turn out this way?

Dawn and Josh were cuddling on the couch when I came home. Josh waved at me. “What’s going on, man? Nina just cussed me out over voice mail.”

Of course, every humiliation has its echoes. Staring at the floorboards, I said “I explained our arrangement to her. She didn’t take it that well.”

“Yeah, she’s mad at me for not telling her,” Josh said. He flipped his phone shut and shrugged. “I mean, whatever. You live here for a little while you forget that people outside try to make everything complicated. I mean, why can’t we all just fuck?”

“Truer words,” Dawn said, nibbling at his neck.

I guess I should have been reassured, but I still felt guilt clawing at my ankles. It wasn’t like Josh and Dawn were exactly moral compasses. “Nah, I should have told her earlier. I mean… she couldn’t have known.’

“Don’t worry about it,” Dawn said. “She wasn’t that hot anyways. Threesome to make you feel better?”

I shook my head. “Not tonight. I think I’m just going to go to bed.”

I did go to bed, chaste for the night. It was not a good night’s sleep. One of those endless nights filled with hot and arduous dreams that make you feel exhausted when you wake up. I half woke at one point to hear heavy thumping next door and Ellie’s breathy cries of passion. I dug my fingers into my sheets and willed the next day to come.

I must have fallen back asleep at some point, as when I woke up Padma was sitting on the edge of my bed. She was dressed oddly formal – a silk shirt and dress pants. With her hair cut short, she was the image of androgynous chic. The whole image was so strange that, in my hazy state of mind, I thought it was a dream.

“Good morning,” Padma said.

I sat up and tried to rub the sleep out of my eyes. There had been a lot of strange morning-afters, but Padma was probably the housemate I would least expect to wake up in my bed. “What’s going on?”

Padma kicked her heels up idly. “Well, I’m headed out for the interview this morning – that publishing position I was telling you about – and I heard about the shitstorm you were in last night. Thought I would make sure you were still in one piece.”

“It wasn’t really that bad,” I said. “Well, I mean, it was bad, but it was mostly my fault.”

Padma had nothing to say to that. “Do you want to have a normal relationship? I mean, not just monogamy, but dates at the bowling alley, holding hands in the park, vaguely thinking about marriage… Is that why you went out with her?”

“I dunno,” I said. Padma was asking me to do an awful lot of soul-searching for 7 AM. “I mean, I guess I wanted that – but I want what I have here too.”

“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” Padma had a wistful smile. “You can’t have everything you want at once. And when you try to get it, you become a selfish jerk.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. I pulled myself out of bed and began searching the room for pants. Thankfully, I didn’t have morning wood – that would have just made things more awkward.

“I think I’m going to move out,” Padma said.

I turned around while pulling a shirt over my head, coming perilously close to choking myself. “Really? Why? Did something happen?”

“Nothing happened,” Padma said. “But I don’t think this is a good environment. With Dawn and Julia both around… it’s just sex all the time. Which is great, but sometimes I want to spend an evening watching a bad movie on the couch or going out to a nice restaurant – you know, dating things. And those two are always rushing on to the next fling. Meanwhile, I’m stuck here listening to two guys fuck next door.”

I tried not to blush. “Is that all? Padma, I can go to the movies with you. Any time I’m not working, we can go do whatever you want. If you need to pull me out of somebody, go ahead and do it. I know you don’t like guys, but we’re friends, right?”

Padma turned away from me. “It’s not really that. I mean… I just feel like I’m standing in erzurum escort place. Like this is some kind of vacation house away from reality. Maybe it’s time for me to grow up.”

It was the opposite of what Ellie had told me, but seemed no less true. “Look, think this over. You’re not going to find many other places like this.”

“Places where empty sex is always available? Mike, have you ever been to a club?”

Now that sounded strange to me. When I thought of all I had experienced since coming here – Dawn gleefully jumping me that first night, Julia with her head tilted back in onanic bliss, Josh’s endearing denseness, Simon leading me to appreciate the other half of the human race, Ellie bringing me into her world and her ass – I felt as though I had grown years in the past summer. Even if I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, it didn’t seem like I was moving away from being a grown-up. But maybe that was different for Padma.

“What are you going to do?” I said.

“I want my own place,” said Padma. “If I get this job, I can afford it. And then, I don’t know, maybe get a nice girlfriend.”

“Whatever happened to being queer and destroying society’s norms?” I said. “Next thing you’ll be telling me you want to get married.”

Padma laughed. “I don’t think so. But, I mean… there’s a difference between your politics and your emotional desires.” This, especially, didn’t sound like Padma.

“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “I have the day off. Why don’t we smoke weed and talk up a bunch of intellectual bullshit like we used to do?”

Padma gave me a slight, sad smile. “I told you, I have a job interview to get to. Maybe tonight.”

“It’s a date,” I said. “You better not bail. That bullshit isn’t going to talk itself.”

Padma laughed. She got up off the bed and dusted herself off. “Thanks for listening, Mike. Whatever happens… we should still be friends.”

Now that’s the kind of thing that gets me worried.

Dinner that evening was not comfortable. For one thing, Josh was cooking his patented “steak and fries”, which meant cheap cuts of meat barely cooked (Josh believed that real men have their meat rare, and he was not about to change his techniques for any of us non-real-men.) The fries had been left in the stove too long and were half burnt. Julia had thrown the meal away in vegan rage and had microwaved some tofu chicken nuggets that honestly looked more appealing than the bloody and tough meat on my plate.

But mostly it was uncomfortable because, one way or another, everyone had heard about Padma’s inclination to leave. And if it had been an inclination in the morning, by the evening it had become a full-on decision.

“You of all people,” Julia said. “I can’t believe that you want to run away into some homonormative white-picket fence world.”

“Is homonormative a word now?” Dawn said, idly chewing her hip steak. “Learn something new every day.”

Padma, still dressed up for her job interview, glowered at the table. “Everyone’s always with you or they’re part of the machine, eh Julia?”

“If you don’t want to be with us any more, that’s fine,” said Julia, crossing her arms in a way that let everyone know that it was distinctly not fine. “But I thought you believed in what we were doing here.”

“For fuck’s sake,” said Padma. “Who you fuck is not a fucking political project. If you want to change the world, go dig a well in Guatemala or something.”

Julia’s face was scrunched up and she was obviously trying not to yell. It was the same look I had seen on Nina last night. “How could you say that to me? After all we’ve done together? Was it all a sham to you?”

“No,” Padma said. “But maybe I’ve outgrown this place.”

“Excuse me?” Ellie said. She had looked miserably confused all evening.

Simon put a hand on Julia’s shoulder. “Maybe we should all calm down. This can’t be easy for Padma to say to us, you know.”

“Yeah, Judas did some pretty hard work too,” said Julia.

Padma bit her lip, then shot up. “I don’t have to sit here and listen to this. I was hoping you guys would be decent enough to support my choices, but I guess not.”

I should have said something as Padma stormed out. At the time, it didn’t even occur to me. It was like I was watching a TV show, not aware that I was part of the scene.

“What crawled up her ass?” Dawn said.

“I don’t know,” Julia said, with a sigh. “I always knew we would lose people. I mean, living opposed to society’s norms wears on you. But I always thought Padma understood the stakes of what we were doing here.”

“I think she understands fine,” I said. Everyone looked at me in surprise, as if they had forgot I was there. That was becoming disturbingly common. “I mean… would it be so bad for her to step away for a while?”

“She can do whatever she wants,” Julia said. It was one of those statements that meant the exact opposite.

Dawn clapped her hands together. “I know what we should eskişehir escort do! Let’s throw Padma a going-away orgy!”

“That’s either the best idea or the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” Julia said.

“I know, right!”

And somehow, this actually became a plan.

Toronto is a big city. Big enough to carve out your own little piece of space, populated by about a dozen people who matter at all, and ignore the other millions leading their own lives far away from your own mind. But in other ways it can seem very small – a frigid corner of the Earth with cosmopolitan pretensions where you keep running into people you’d rather avoid. And so it was with me and Nina.

The first time it was on the subway. She turned away from me, put her headphones on, and resolutely stared at the darkness speeding by. I made eye contact with her only as she got off. Then it was in line at a local Caribbean place we both frequented. I tried to say something to her, but she ducked under me like a boxer weaving away from a punch and made her way out. And then it was just brief glimpses, a face in the crowd at Yonge and Dudas square, a flash of brown hair on a passing streetcar. I was sure I was imagining half of it. I couldn’t help but feel haunted.

I had drawn grocery duties for this week, which was mostly the task of whittling everyone’s ill-conceived suggestions into an actual shopping list and then finding a grocery store who carried both Dawn’s favourite flavour of ice cream and Josh’s obscure energy drinks. Sadly, it would be the last week that Padma would scribble “curry mix – not the white people kind!” on the ticket.

I was looking down at the list and trying to remember what aisle they stocked the Pop Tarts in when I felt my cart collide with another coming around the corner. I backed up and began automatically apologizing, as did Nina. It was only then that I realized

“Jesus Christ,” Nina said, more to herself than anyone else. “You and I must be cursed. Or maybe just me.”

“Okay, I deserve that,” I said. “But hey, we should talk. I know I wasn’t very honest with you, but… well, we can still be friends.” I couldn’t believe that I had actually said that last part.

Nina shook her head. She seemed a lot less burdened than she had the last time I saw her – as if she had finally passed out of a bad dream. “No, it’s okay. I talked to Dawn and I did some reading and… well, I guess you just have a different lifestyle. And I don’t want to put that down or make you feel like it’s disgusting.”

“I still should have told you.”

Nina gave me a wry smile. I was looking for a forgiveness that was not forthcoming. “We just had different assumptions, I guess. But it didn’t work out too bad.”

Another woman rounded the corner, carrying a 24-pack of toilet paper carefully balanced on her shoulder. She had deep brown skin, a tall athlete’s build and jet black hair that was shaved on the sides. “Hon, all of our pooping needs have been met.”

Nina flushed and cleared her throat. “Mike, this is Jen. Jen, Mike.”

It took a moment for the gears of recognition to turn in Jen’s head, but when they did it was obvious by the half-pitying smirk on her face. “Oh yeah, Mike. How are you doing?”

“Um… okay.”

Jen put her arm around Nina’s shoulder. I’m not sure I could have imagined a more awkward situation. I quickly made my excuses and exited backwards through the meat aisle, pulling my cart along with me.

I guess it had all ended up all right. Nina had someone, I still had my housemates, and we were even on speaking terms now. But if that was so, why did I feel like shit?

Like all arguments, the one between Padma and Julia (and, in some obscure way, everyone else) was not so much resolved as it healed over, leaving a faint but visible scar. The everyday business of living together – preparing dinners, watching TV, haggling over shower time – brought Padma back onto seemingly normal terms with Julia and the rest of us. But all the while, she was making preparations to leave. She got the job, and came home bubbling over with the good news. Then she could be heard talking loudly on the phone with unknown landlords. And finally, she returned home with a half-dozen folded-up boxes under her arm, and we knew there wasn’t long now.

I found her sitting out on the back stoop the night before the move. No one in the house tended to the backyard, and it had grown a thick carpet of weeds. When asked about it, Julia would respond by asking what was so bad about weeds anyway, and everyone else would shrug or mumble something about getting to it later. But it was what we saw out of the kitchen window every morning, and that alone gave the yard a kind of sentimental potency.

“How are you doing?” I said as I sat down beside her.

Padma shook her hair out. “Oh, I’m fine. I mean… well, I feel a little melancholy. You know, just thinking back on the old times.”

“You think you’re going to miss this?”

“Well, I’ll be going to sleep by myself for the first time in a while,” Padma said. “But I think I’ll like having my own place. Doesn’t all the chaos around here kind of wear on you after a while?”

I looked up at the dark orange sky and considered the question. “Not really. But then, you’ve been here longer than I have. When did you move in again?”

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