I can gauge the state of my well-being by the volume of unwashed dishes in my kitchen sink and the frequency with which I catch myself wishing for something.
I tend to like order and clean surfaces, not a bad thing for someone living in an open-space apartment, but the more stressed out I am, the sloppier I get… and the more often I find myself wishing for something: from the trivial (like the annihilation of the aphids in my terrace garden) to the grandiose: a sabbatical in Munich, someone to cook breakfast for, or a summer house on Patmos.
If hope is heroin to the soul—something that makes living in an abusive or dead-end relationship endurable, if only for a while—wishes are a snort of cocaine. A momentary high in which you project yourself into a happy future in which your wish is fulfilled. For do we ever wish for something without imaging, even if for an instant, our life when the wish comes true?
I don’t often wish for things. It’s not just because my overly rationalistic mind forces me to think in terms of probabilities (one reason I don’t play the lottery). It’s also because of the lessons I learned from playing Genie with Matthew. God, that was eons ago, but some lessons are so painfully won that you never forget them.
Matthew loved games. All kinds of games. Handball, backgammon, whist, Trivial Pursuit. Except video games. He wanted his victim live. And I hated losing to him. And Genie was a game he always won. Maybe because he always played the Genie. But that was one of the rules: the last person to win got to be the Genie the next time around.
Even after we broke up, we would still meet up for dinner now and then, and he still wanted to play. The last time I saw him was no exception.
We had long finished dinner at my place, enough time for the amber steak juices on my plate to coagulate into a patina of hard white saturated fat. Rapid warning system. Too bad you don’t get the same turnaround time with cigarettes or lovers.
“Time for Genie,” he said.
“I don’t feel like playing,” I replied.
“Three wishes. Come on, just for old times’ sakes.”
“Those are exactly the times I want to forget.” I made it sound like a joke.
Two years after splitting up, we were still groping our way around to something that I hoped would half-look like friendship. I thought it’d be easy at first. Our break-up had been so… civil, so mature—no tantrums or smashed plates, no hurtful accusations, no bouts of post-partem boozing. Instead of apportioning blame for what went wrong we drew up lists of who got what stuff. And even that was just an exercise in form, since in the end he didn’t take anything with him except for a foot-long ceramic fish platter we had picked up during a trip to the Cape.
It was, however, just the illusion of maturity; spending time with Matthew was turning out to be much harder than I’d expected. It’s hard to kid yourself into thinking you’re richer than you are, even with credit cards. Or more attractive or younger, despite the gym and butch gear and inner youthfulness, whatever that is. It just takes the monthly bank statement or picking out the photo you’ll post on your gayromeo profile to bore through the shale of your self-deception. But the illusion of maturity is much more resistant to reality checks, except maybe when you’re back at home for the Christmas holidays arguing with your father like a fifteen-year-old. It took me a long time to realize that I could take Matthew only in small doses, like the ice cream or fried clams that after my cholecystectomy I now can only eat in moderation, otherwise I’m shitting the rapids. Half a cheese pizza would send me running to the toilet where I’d spray a violent gush of an unspeakably watery stool; three hours with Matthew and I’d be revisiting those moments in our shared history in which he had disappointed me with his distance or by just not being there when I needed him. And all of which made me angry. The anger didn’t surge and erupt like my post-pizza bowel evacuations, it just radiated, but the sense of violation and loss of control was disturbingly similar.
The game was simple enough. The Genie gives you three wishes. Your goal is to secure happiness, his to make you miserable in spite of or, better, because of your wishes. I don’t know where the game comes from. Could be Matthew just made it up. He sprung it on me on our first trip out of Boston, two weeks into our relationship, which at the time was not much more than bed and breakfast. I thought it was his idea of a litmus test for potential friends and lovers. So I skipped the usual wishes like money (too shallow), peace on earth (too New-Age), and a big dick (too insecure). I thought I could make a decent impression by going for a triptych of the romantic, the down-to-earth and the creative, nothing too esoteric, something that would make him think, yeah, here’s a guy with some hearth potential. And I said, “I wish I didn’t have to work so I can devote my time to writing. I wish I had my own space. And I wish I would share this space with someone for the rest of my life.” The faintest trace of a smile swept across his face for an instant, and he said, “Ok, you’ve been wrongly accused of murder and have been sentenced to life imprisonment. You spend your time in a cell writing the great American prison novel and getting fucked by a cellmate who’s a serial rapist with rotten teeth and an aversion to washing his foreskin.”
In the course of our relationship, I had gone through countless permutations. We quickly dispensed with the classic triads, like wealth, fame and beauty—hello, Marilyn—or wealth, fame and a long-life—ola, Ismelda. And I quickly learned that any one wish for greater endowment immediately used up the other two, because you’d have to make sure, first, that you could actually use it and secondly that there was someone to use it with, otherwise Matthew would conjure up all sorts of disfigurements and you’d be pumping your monstrous cock all by your pock-marked and grossly obese lonesome self. Playing Genie meant descending into Matthew’s netherworld of spiteful Fates, where pleasure ineluctably led to sorrow, where in the end your Jaguar, hunk of a husband, or Emmy award would be nothing more than a pretext to paralysis, impotence or aphasia.
My friend Grace, who’s a therapist and so ought to know more about this kind of stuff than I do, once told me that people stay in a relationship, just as they do in a game, as long as they think the rewards of the relationship or the game are greater than what they’re investing in it. But I think maybe she was wrong about the game. I never got anything out of it except pissed off.
“I promise. One round and I’m off,” he said. He had pushed away his plate and was now picking up the remains of the baguette. It was a postprandial ritual for him, though most of the time he wasn’t even aware of it. He’d press his index finger into the crumbs scattered on the table, three or four at a go, then raise his finger to his mouth to deposit the crumbs onto his pursued lips. It was, as I discovered at a family reunion of his, something his two brothers did as well. It made me wonder whether there was some recessive gene for bad table manners.
Even someone as strategically inept as I am could see that the only way to win at this game was not to play, but I was tired and wanted to get up early to squeeze in a swim before work, so I said, “ok, but just one round, and your ass is out of here.”
“I’m thinking, wait a minute.” I knew enough not to look at Matthew. His eyes, bright with the anticipation of nabbing his prey, would unnerve me so I let my eyes wander around the room, where of course they alighted exactly on the point of the dining-room wall where the telltale brownish-yellow stains and blistering paintwork evidenced a serious and as yet untreated problem with dampness.
“I wish I never need to call a lawyer, a doctor or a repairman ever again in my life,” I said.
Matthew took about ten seconds to reply. “You lose your job, freak out and decide to chuck it all and leave to lead an ascetic eremitic life in a hut without running water and electricity in the most inaccessible part of the Pyrenees. You chop your own firewood, and hunt, harvest or fish your evening meals, and the nearest place to buy Gitanes is 17 kilometers, so you have the heart of a 20-year old and the six-pack you’ve dreamed of.” He said as if reciting a passage he was forced to learn in catechism. Perhaps he, too, was losing his enthusiasm for the game. Either that or he found it too easy.
“If I lost my job, wouldn’t I need to call a lawyer?” I asked.
“Corporate downsizing. No case,” he said.
“I’m a teacher, I can’t be downsized.” I protested.
“Budget gets slashed. You’re out.” He flexed his legs and pushed back the chair. It squeaked as it slid over the wood, a battery of squeals that made me think of the pigs I’d have for company in the mountain wilds of southwestern France. “Speaking of repairmen, you really should get somebody in to take a look at that wall damp. Leave it unchecked and you’ll be breathing in mold,” he said. It sounded more like scolding than advice. He took out his address book and scribbled down a number. “I’m giving you the number of a mason. He’s good. I’ll call him tomorrow and tell him to expect a call from you.”
Just like Matthew to end a cozy dinner à deux with advice.
I never saw him again. We called a few times thereafter, but didn’t get together ever again. I think we both realized there was no point. What we once had for a time, a rather long time in fact, was wonderful, but it had run its course. No amount of wishing would change that.
Things at work are rough. I wish I could wish for something in the way I did before I met Matthew.
Image: Louise Bourgeois, He Disappeared into Complete Silence