Can I Keep You? by Melissa Grunow

“If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
―Friedrich Nietzsche
 

He had been speaking for ten minutes about a girl named Maureen, whom he also referred to as Mo, also referred to as “my girlfriend.” She was a residence life director in Indiana, he said, and he continued on about something to do with long-distance relationships and how they met and something else that I couldn’t hear over the voice of dissent in my head. But he’s gay, I thought. He’s got to be gay. Isn’t he?

“So,” I started, dragging the word into multiple syllables to give me time to put my thoughts together before he went on with another story that would fill me with more questions. He had been on the job for a week, and aside from a telephone interview, an internet screening, and a brief orientation, I knew very little about him. “Then who is Ian?”

He let out a loud cackle, his boxy beaver teeth revealed between smiling lips. The laugh broke the din of the neon-lighted restaurant, and patrons at a nearby table looked curiously in our direction. He stirred his frozen margarita and ignored the onlookers, even though he watched as my eyes looked around to see who was staring. He seemed amused by my discomfort, and it intrigued me.

“I mean, your Facebook profile says you’re in a relationship with someone named Ian. He’s obviously not the girlfriend you just mentioned,” I continued.

He laughed his shrieking hyena laugh again as if to say, gotcha! “You shouldn’t believe everything you read on Facebook.” His eyes settled on mine until I had to look away, my cheeks burning from what I thought to be the tequila or maybe the humid August evening. I sipped down swallows of ice water to cool my body from the inside out.

***

I knocked on his open door and stepped inside his office. “Can you go to the celebration dinner after training on Friday? Or are you leaving for Indiana right after your presentation?”

We were supposed to have meetings once a week, but he invented reasons to come into my office at least once a day. The office visits increased, and soon, I found myself wandering into his, just barely lingering in the doorway as if I had somewhere better to be, but what I had to say couldn’t wait and I didn’t have the patience for email. We always talked about work, about program planning, about making the greatest impact for the students. They were leaders in the making, and it was our job to create opportunities for them to lead the way. The success of our programming was essential to his longevity because his position was grant-funded and predicated on outcomes assessment. If we worked hard enough, planned long enough, and interacted more than enough, I would be able to keep his position, and maybe even him, long-term.

“Mo broke up with me,” he said. “So I’ll be there.”

“Oh.” I couldn’t say that I was sorry. He always spoke of her in past-tense as if she were already gone. I invited him to have a beer with me after work so he wouldn’t be alone.

“I think I’m just going to go home.” He didn’t add “and cry,” but my memory adds it for him.

Later that night he sent me a text. “Let’s go out on Friday. Somewhere close to your house. I’ll probably need to crash on your couch after.”

***

He turned his face toward mine and moved his body in. I angled my neck, tilted my head back, my mouth upward. He moved in again. I lingered there, waiting. His arm was tight around my back, taunting me with the proximity of his lips, and then he moved in all the way, his mouth on mine, breathing heavy breath, and we kissed on the couch in my basement because he wasn’t sober enough to drive home, because his girlfriend had broken up with him, because there was nothing stopping us. We kissed, we groped, we breathed in each other’s pain and misery and hurt and disregard and we sighed through it, moaned through it, kept our mouths busy through it so neither of us could speak up, say stop, say we shouldn’t be doing this, say this is wrong.

***

“I want to look like Ke$ha,” he told the Chinese woman while she fitted him with a wig cap, and he stared at his reflection in the mirror. She didn’t flinch, as if men frequently wandered into her store with their not-girlfriends and requested to look like pop singers. “I don’t know that,” she said.

He searched for images on his phone and showed her one of a superstar with mascara artfully smeared below her eyes. The Chinese woman nodded, clapped a little, and walked off to find the perfect wig.

It was two weeks before Halloween, but he wasn’t buying it for Halloween.

In drag, he called himself Alice, and he was going to introduce her to me for the first time. He lived in a wonderland of performativity. It was a world I didn’t understand. He was gentle but unrelenting, as he took my hand and led me down the rabbit hole. I shielded my face as we descended together, terrified that I couldn’t see the bottom, had no idea how to predict the outcome. He was a man who was a woman who was a man, a clashing of binaries that caused a hiccup in my step as I carefully tiptoed around the question of who was he really?

But he didn’t let me tumble. He didn’t let me fall.

All I knew was that at night, in the dark, he was all man, all mine, and he could keep me as long as he would have me. I clung to that, idealized the fantasy of him, of me, of us. It would be the single most important act of defiance against normativity that I could conjure. What if we survived it? I wondered. What if we survived each other?

***

The breeze coming in through the open window chilled me awake. The temperature had dropped considerably that week as it often did when the warm weather lingered shyly at the onset of autumn. Nightfall was heavy in the room and only moonlight filtered in through the cracked blinds.

In the dark, my voice was a scratch of a whisper. “Can I keep you?” I pressed my chilled fingertips into his back and felt his heat run through them.

His breath slowed to a sigh, and he turned toward me, nuzzling his forehead against my cheek. It was the only way he could look at me and away from me at the same time. I felt his body relax against mine as he fell back asleep. An answer left unspoken was better than a reassuring lie and so much better than the truth. In the meantime, anyway. I could hang on for the meantime.

***

We went to every campus event together and had our picture taken at all of them. We would throw our arms around each other and smile as if to say, “Look! We’re great friends! Look! We’re an unstoppable team! Look! There’s more going on here, and you would see it if you would just look! Look.”

Photos were posted and tagged on Facebook, and we lived in each other’s social media as much as we did each other’s offices, text messages, and lives. On the nights we were apart, we fell asleep on the phone together like we were in high school. At my house, he took over a dresser drawer and filled it with warm socks and hooded sweatshirts. He put leftovers in my fridge and reheated them in the toaster oven. His apartment remained vacant most of the time and completely absent of me. Of the few times I had been there, I didn’t leave anything behind. In his world, I didn’t exist. I waited for someone to ask, “What’s going on with you two?”

And yet, nobody noticed.

Whenever he shrieked his ostentatious laugh, I never understood why no one saw the person sitting next to him, the person accompanying the loudest person in the room. To me it seemed our entire relationship was a storefront window, a fishbowl, a voyeur’s playground. What I didn’t consider, though, was that maybe everyone else assumed he was gay like I had before I got to know him. With his slender physique and high-pitched laugh, his gentle lisp voice, and his activism in the LGBT community, he masqueraded as the assumed. Yet, I saw him through every mask, every fanfare, every feather, all the makeup, and he could do nothing but return my gaze.

***

We met up at a bar on a Saturday afternoon, sat together on the patio, and ordered a beer. I yanked the zipper on my hoodie as high as it would go. It was probably the last weekend of the season that we would be able to sit outside. Winter was upon us.

We made small talk. We nibbled on mozzarella sticks. I almost choked on my beer when he asked me, “Where do you see this going?”

I pinched my face in dread and ordered another drink. “I don’t know.”

“Because I’ve been thinking about it.”

“Oh?”

He crossed his legs tightly together like a woman, in a way my thick thighs wouldn’t allow me to imitate.

“I don’t feel anything for you. I’ve tried. I’ve thought about it. But there’s nothing there.” He gestured with his hands, but stared down at the table as he spoke. It was humiliating.

I felt that familiar weight in my gut, the sting of self-doubt, the hollowed response of deception. I refused to look at him. He couldn’t have my gaze. Not there, not then.

“I know you don’t want to hear this,” he continued. “But it’s because of your size.

“And because you’re my boss and we want different things. But mostly because of your size.”

I put down the mozzarella stick and spit what I was chewing into a napkin. “I’ll stop eating.” I was a little taller than he was and a healthy weight for my height. But next to him, I was a giant.

“Don’t do that.”

“You don’t get to say that to me.”

“It won’t change anything. There’s no future here.”

I felt my body funnel into itself and gather in a puddle on the concrete. We were the embodiment of semantic dissidence living in a linguistic black hole. Our relationship was a test of the system, an experiment of authority. It was set up to fail because it wasn’t anything of substance. After the bill was paid, we left separately and agreed to only interact professionally in our shared professional setting.

We lasted just one week apart.

***

We drove eight hours together to Washington, DC., so that I could be elected president of a board of directors for a non-profit I didn’t know how to run. I was nominated and voted in at the start of the meeting while I sat at someone else’s dining table and blushed, ate another chocolate chip cookie from the generic grocery store container, and allowed for board members to congratulate me for something I didn’t want to win. In three weeks, I would resign, having done nothing to perpetuate our mission. I was in no position to give guidance to anyone on anything.

He got so drunk our first night in Virginia that he didn’t remember what happened after we walked out of the bar. He paid his tab, slid his credit card back into his wallet, walked to the front door, and literally stepped into darkness.

But I remember. I remember him reaching for me in the night, tugging on my clothes, then his, and not because he wanted me, not because he wanted it. No, it was to try and sober up, to make the room stop spinning.

The next day, we took pictures in front of national monuments. At the end of the day, we settled in at a restaurant that he chose, one that was overpriced and didn’t have enough food and served peas—peas!—in the pasta sauce. I was hungry, and that hunger found a solid space of empty inside me. Maybe the space and the walking and the climbing and the laughing and the wondering what he was thinking would help my stomach flatten out; maybe we would drive back to Michigan and realize the trip had bonded us, and that maybe his declarations that I wasn’t attractive enough because I was bigger than him, maybe all of those things would fix themselves with a road trip to the nation’s capital, a weekend’s worth of nights at the Red Roof Inn, a local cover band at a bar called Sweet Caroline’s, restaurants that didn’t give us enough food, and taking turns smiling for a camera that couldn’t capture our expressions, our eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses. Maybe, after all that, I could keep him. Maybe, he would decide to keep me.

No. The trip was the beginning of the end. The end of our friendship. The end of our affair. The end of his job less than two months later when I fired him for sleeping with a student employee.

Fraternization was grounds for termination because his position was government-regulated, and she was a tuition-paying customer. It should have applied to me, but it didn’t. That was the loophole. What I had done was wrong. But what he did, that was against the rules.

The girl had actively pursued him since the night he got drunk at a student event and danced with her for hours while I sipped water from the sidelines, feeling like a chaperone until I had to carry him to the car and lecture him about what getting involved with a student could do to him, what it was doing to me. He sat in the passenger seat, hands in his lap, head down, face blank, and nodded, assuring me he knew better, assuring me it wouldn’t happen again. Then it happened again.

He was an hour late for work the day I fired him. He was often late for work, but so was I. Nobody was watching me, and so he thought nobody was watching him.

I was. I had been, anyway. When he arrived, I called him into my office, told him to pack his things, and gave him twenty-four hours to vacate his campus apartment.

I had his full attention. “Okay,” he croaked. “But why?”

I slid the report across the table and pointed to the infraction, the pictures that had been posted on Facebook of them dancing together, the timestamped security footage of her going in and out of his apartment, the way she had replaced me so quickly that my face felt as though it were sucking on lemons.

He nodded a single nod. He pursed his lips in defeat, tapped his knuckles on the tabletop once, stood up, and was gone.

I didn’t monitor him to make sure he didn’t steal anything as he packed his belongings. I didn’t call security to escort him off campus. I didn’t draw any more attention to my blatant retaliation than I had to.

Silence fell over our office. There was no laughter. There was nothing but the standard awkward tension that follows a termination.

I left work early and hunched over my kitchen table where I had sat with him so many times before, each of us staring into laptops and working together on yet another program. The silence clawed at me like a dark shadow ready to sink its nails into my duplicitous soul. I turned up the ringer on my cell phone as high as it would go in anticipation of the call that would end my career. I practiced my justifications, speaking to an empty room. “He crossed the line by sleeping with a student.” “He had been warned.” “He’s done this before; he told me so.” He’s done this before. “It’s my duty to protect our students.”

I fixated on the wall in front of me and practiced my truth over and over while I waited. An hour went by. Then another. I checked my email. Nothing. No requests for explanations. No messages from my supervisor requesting a meeting. Nothing from the funding agency asking for a response to any accusations against me. He had gone away quietly, his position cut short and his career threatened, and I could go on as if I had never even known him.

He never called me out on my hypocrisy. He didn’t let me tumble; he didn’t let me fall.

After finding his deodorant in my bathroom and pajama bottoms in my drawer, I drank a bottle of wine on an empty stomach then threw up into my kitchen sink. I sent him a text asking him when he would get his things. I received no answer.

He deleted his Facebook account that day, and with it, all our photos together, all our shared experiences that should have left everyone wondering, but that no one said anything about—not then, not ever.

The girl’s profile stayed active, and for a week she had one lone status update: “Strength will find you sooner than you thought it could.” Before that, months prior, she responded to a post he was tagged in. “I love his laugh!” she had written. Otherwise, there was no public evidence that they were anything more than acquaintances.

You shouldn’t believe everything you read on Facebook.

Was it my motive to protect her, though? If not her, then who? I was beyond saving. So was he. So was the program he was developing that died with his termination.

I considered emailing the student and requesting a meeting with her to explain that it wasn’t her fault, that it would be the right thing to put her emotional well-being before my own. All that would do, was make me out to be some kind of hero, and I wasn’t. Neither was she. There were no victims. There were only perpetrators.

I fell asleep early, and woke up early, the sky still dark outside my window. As daylight devoured the few remaining stars not already hidden by city smog, I pulled away the covers and rose to my feet in a room that had cooled with the onset of winter. I had met him in August. By December, he had vanished. For just one season, I had kept him. For just one season, he had let me.

Melissa Grunow
Melissa Grunow is the author of Realizing River City (Tumbleweed Books, 2016) which won Second Place-Nonfiction in the 2016 Independent Author Network Book of the Year Awards. Her essays have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and listed in the Best American Essays 2016 notables. For more information, visit www.melissagrunow.com.