Cara's Men (As Told to You in Confidence)
Her first boyfriend was a Jehovah's Witness. His parents didn't want him dating her, or dating at all, and he told them that she was a friend from school, and that they had been assigned to work together on a project that term. She waited in the entryway of his apartment, and felt: The silence. The shining parquet. The atmosphere of piety, certainty and disapproval. They climbed the stairs of his building to a locked door that opened onto the roof and made out on the top step pressing against the steel of the door. The echo in the stairwell magnified and restrained their movements. She was wearing a skirt. He pushed inside her, and she felt nothing. No pain. Nothing. It was only for a few seconds, and then he stopped. The next day he told her he had wanted to see if she would let him do it. He was already distant when he said this, not expressionless, but withdrawing into disdain, and they broke up.
Cara makes an issue of the strange and hurtful behavior of her exes. She asks you, Why? Her voice dramatic, irate, almost panicked, uncomprehending. In these moments, her face is open, caught between surprise and bewilderment. Why would he do that? To me? But she never says anything about her first boyfriend, the first man to be inside her. It is as if she accepts him, as if his behavior is explicable, not excessive or aberrant, a common, understandable cruelty.
In high school, Cara dated a boy from a home like hers—breaking, but not yet broken. He was erratic, and she now wonders if he is a manic depressive, maybe a sex addict. He liked her to bite down hard on his penis. Hard! He cheated on her and they broke up. She went to university and he became a photographer and a bon vivant, an offbeat dandy. Right now he has a mullet and a potbelly, wears a novelty belt buckle that he bought in Calgary, and is considering moving to Kingston for its history. He travels on assignment or on a whim. Next month he is going to watch a rocket launch in Kazakhstan. Why? you ask. Because he can, says Cara, because he wants to. You are fascinated and a little bit horrified by the people Cara knows: they are self-absorbed, recklessly unapologetic, and utterly unlike you.
This ex calls her sometimes and talks about how much he misses her. Cara tries to explain to you the silence she hears collecting around his need, the emptiness reverberating on the other end of the call. She imagines him hunched, taught with confession, an arch terminating in the phone: He has never stopped caring about her. It was always her. It will always be her. Becoming more hysterical, more sincere: His next girlfriend would deep throat him on the living room couch. Deep throat him. And all he could think about was her. He offers this as a demonstration, a grand gesture, to make a point about the depth and intensity of his obsession. He doesn't mean to be hurtful.
Cara did it with two boys in the yearbook office. She isn't normally elliptical, but when she talks about this, and she only has twice and briefly, she uses words that stop short of the possibilities they suggest. Her eyes, which you expected to be locked on yours, to demand your attention, drift away. You wonder if this is a pleasurable reverie, a memory of pain, or the aftereffect of having given over control, a lasting diffuse blankness. Is that what sex is for her? A surrender? You think about this often and at length, but what you imagine is as vague as Cara's words: You arrange the three bodies, but the arms and legs and mouths won't fall easily into place; the tableaux you invent are tentative at first, blurred by generality, and then too precise. The teenagers take on the sharp unreality of porn actors, and you shy away from what comes into focus. You can never make it happen the way it must have. You are disoriented by the excessive, predictable intersections of flesh, and repelled by the same force that attracts you.
During her undergrad, Cara dated another creative writing student. In an author photo she shows you, he is round. Round glasses in a round face smoothed by fat. Rounded shoulders and his chest rounding into the gentle promise of a gut cut off by the border of the image. He has never been attractive. Cara tells you that when they were dating he looked like a half stuffed sock. You say he looks over stuffed now, and she tells you not to be mean. Cara's exes belong to her like a family, and you can criticize them in solidarity with her, but that is the limit.
Cara, her ex, and a woman she doesn't like to talk about competed for the best marks in their class; in the end, Cara came second, and he came third. Last summer, he published his first book. She went to the launch, and saw him with his new girlfriend, and thought about how it could have been her, how it should have been her, drunk, elated, thanking everyone loudly for coming.
Cara went back to his room with the captain of the York cross country ski team. (Does York have a cross country ski team?) He looked Norwegian, maybe Swedish, tall, blonde, lean but muscular, blankly, impassively beautiful. The athletic type. They had nothing in common. She didn't even like talking to him. Cara wants to know: Why do men expect women to go down on them during one night stands? Why do they take it as a given when sex is still uncertain? And why do they never reciprocate? Your answers leave you both unsatisfied.
Cara was raped in first year. Another student roofied her and walked her back to his room. She woke up half-naked on his bed. He was watching her from the chair next to his desk. While she was still semi-comatose, stunned by what had happened and the residue of the drug, he told her what he had done to her, how he had fucked her, in detail. She couldn't report him. It was her word against his. What you feel when she tells you this: rage at first, but not unironically. You are aware that it is what you should feel. And you feel it uncertainly—does Cara want your anger or your sympathy? After it, replacing it, a cold sickness close to despair. And then a revulsion at what men can do, at what they are capable of. You draw back from Cara, but not visibly. You conceal your discomfort, and maintain the distance between you; instead of pulling away, you sense her isolation and do nothing, consciously do not reach out with either tenderness or desire: Some victims can repel us with what they make us feel. You think about this regularly, probing the incident and your response, as if the hurt belongs in a way to you, but never when Cara is present.
During her MA, Cara had an on again, off again, mostly off again, never quite a relationship with another graduate student. He was an eighteenth centuryist with delicate bones and a darting quickness who approached everything he did, from scholarship to relationships, with the same adamant drive, as if the key to life was deliberate persistence. He worked as a research assistant writing entries for an online encyclopedia of 18th century culture. She tells you this with pride. He is a doctoral candidate now, and he has a small penis. The first time they slept together was in a closet down the hall from the graduate student offices. When he put it in, she couldn't feel it. You wonder if this is an exaggeration. It reminds you of a line from Sex in the City. Cara isn't quoting, but she often speaks in formulas. He is still pursuing her, she says, and she still answers his calls, sees him regularly, although not for sex.
Cara's first boyfriend in graduate school, her partner really, was a philosophy PhD. from Edmonton who was writing a thesis on Heidegger's materialism. He once presented at a conference attended by Derrida. Cara never tells you how they met, or when then moved in together. All she talks about is what came after. He was an alcoholic who went on day long benders, bar hopping across the city, and stumbling home, incoherent, always belligerent, at odd hours, in the middle of the afternoon or in the blind darkness of the morning. He once found himself at a New Year's Eve party thrown by Russell Smith, but didn't know who he was. Cara told him where he had been after the fact, when he described the host to her. He won a SSHRC and started doing cocaine. He came home, still high, his euphoria declining into a lucid sedation, and asked her if she knew that you could smoke cocaine. Oh my God, she said, you smoked crack, and he didn't seem bothered.
They had a two bedroom apartment, and the second bedroom was his office. He wouldn't let her into it, not even to clean. Dust coated the desk. Dust softened the lines of the monitor. Spiders strung webs between library books, and he wouldn't let her get rid of them. He said he needed them to think, and slammed the door.
He hated that she could only come with a vibrator. She hid it in her underwear drawer, or at the back of her closet, but he would find it, and break it.
There were the good times, like the period when they went to restaurants. They went to ethnic restaurants, Thai, Cambodian, Ethiopian, an Eritrean restaurant that they made the mistake of calling Ethiopian, or searched out undiscovered gems, trying to find the next big thing before it got big and they couldn't afford it. They went on long streetcar rides to these restaurants. On the way back, they sat together in the almost empty cars, touching comfortably, feeling sated, a little superior. They saved up, and went to North 44 for an anniversary. They agreed that it was better on TV.
And then there were the fights, wild, hysterical screaming matches, and worse. He smashed a plate against the wall, and she called a cab. He followed her out to the street, and they fought on the sidewalk, yelling, crying, coming undone and not caring who saw them. When the driver pulled up, he asked her if she wanted him to call the cops. The cops, says Cara. The word is an offering. You ask, did he hit her? She is cautious, evasive. What she means, and what you understand, is yes, but not in the way men hit women, in rage, in frustration, to hurt; he was lashing out at the impossibility of the situation, not at her. She may have hit him back. You are shaken by the violence, and by the intensity of the emotion: Cara has been caught up in an attraction that didn't stop at destruction. You think of her on the sidewalk, painfully revealed, but in silhouette, a picture of herself coming undone, not caring. She is set apart in your mind, and in hers. She never tells you how it ended. It isn't how it began, or how she got away that matters, what counts is the dense fact of the trauma, that it happened.
When she met him he wore Nine Inch Nails t-shirts. Those were the ones she recognized. The rest were shirts for industrial and metal bands she didn't know. Some of their names were German. All of the shirts were black with hard edged lettering in reds, greys and metallics. They were faded, frayed at the hems, beginning to disintegrate, and he wore them over jeans that were old enough his mother could have bought them for him. She took him to The Gap for basics and to Club Monaco for professional attire. She convinced him that his shirt size was medium not large, and persuaded him to buy a pair of khakis. She told him what to wear to conferences, lectures, and department functions. The next time he applied for teaching, he got a section of Intro to Philosophy. I got him that course, says Cara. She is bitter, and proprietary.
Cara met her most recent boyfriend at a party. She didn't like him at first, but then she decided that she liked him. She wasn't sure if he liked her. He is casual, inattentive. It is a relief not to be cared about too much. She took him bathing suit shopping, and he encouraged her to buy a knit two piece. It wasn't until she was walking out of the water at Wasaga Beach that she realized it was see-through. He didn't seem worth getting mad at. He took her to Niagara Falls for the weekend, and got a hotel room with a heart shaped hot tub. She asked him if he was being ironic. He looked surprised. After sex, he turned on the basketball game, and Cara didn't mind. She tells you it was peaceful, almost reassuring: She could exist, she could breathe, in the space of being his girlfriend.
The Rusty Toque. He lives and works in London, Ontario.
Photo credit: Amy Mitchell.