by Emerson Henry
He was the first lover I’d had who only knew me as Emerson; everyone before him had met me as my former self, a girl unsure of her body and desires. The year before I’d come out as non-binary; now, at the beginning of my senior year of college, I was re-introducing myself to people I’d known for years.
I met E. in September 2013 when I signed up for his class. He wore a deep purple shirt and a pink tie and had a silver ring in his left eyebrow. I liked him immediately. Something about his tranquility in that windowless office by the dance studio, the way he asked me my pronouns within the first minute of our meeting. I was always ten minutes late to class, and he never said a thing, kept treating me respectfully and praising my work. I would bring him baked goods after my barista shift; I knew he liked his tea light and sweet. He delegated setting up the projector and making copies to me; he called me his chargé d’affaires to the rest of the class. It felt nice to be useful, especially to someone who did not need me. All my classmates knew I had it bad for him.
After I graduated we stayed in touch via text, and I took to calling him E. Sometimes he suggested I visit him at home. He would tell me, “Se te quiere mucho,” which means you are loved, but not I love you. The distinction drove me crazy; I wondered if he was trying to draw me in. My friends teased me for obsessing over such a small thing. Did I love him or did I like him? Did he love me or did he like me? How close could I get to the line between sass and flirtation, appreciation and desire? How long before he would shut me down?
When I visited, I met Lola, the sun conure that lived in a corner of his bedroom, and his mother, Mercy, a dangerously-thin, brown-skinned woman perpetually in pajamas and a bathrobe. She was a heavy smoker, as was I, and we would sit on their stoop to smoke together. She would tell me the stories of the passersby, all of whom she knew; her family had lived in that apartment for twenty-five years and E. was now filling his father’s erstwhile role as building superintendent. E. would bring us water, ask, “Em, seguro que no quieres nada?” I’d say, “No, gracias, estoy bien.” He would smile at me with something in his gaze, perhaps the passing strangeness of having a former student in his home. Soon I met the rest of his family: his sister, her wife, and their daughters. He loved being a “queer tío” and often spoke of his responsibility to the girls as the primary male figure in their lives. Sometimes we’d meet them at the park and I’d play with the girls as tío E. looked on. No one questioned what I was doing there, the nature of our relationship. I fell into his life easily, as though he’d been waiting for me.
* * *
By June 2015, I had settled on applying to grad school and needed a recommendation from E. I went to visit him on a Tuesday afternoon. We shared red wine as he cooked, and we talked politics. In the living room Mercy was sipping Coca-Cola, smoking her Marlboro Golds, and watching the afternoon novela. I’d chosen especially tight pants that day, and my heart hammered as he winked at me. I thought, am I really the only one playing this game?
I remember it all. How he drew closer to me in his kitchen and couldn’t keep his eyes from my mouth. How he asked me some question I don’t remember now, how I gave an answer I’m sure he didn’t hear, how his hands crept to the counter behind me, and I was caught between. How he carried me to his bed and kissed my neck, held down my hands, licked my belly. How I stared at the ceiling and thought this is happening, how I looked down to see him looking back up at me, is this really happening, how he said, eyes burning with desire and maybe also pride, “Do you like that, baby?” and how, since it really happened, I couldn’t answer.
Later that night I replayed it all in my mind: that first kiss in the kitchen, being in his bed, Lola’s squawks over the creaks of the bedframe. I couldn’t align this new side of him, passionate and desiring, with my calm, respectful mentor. I was happy, and yet I sobbed, disappointed in myself for allowing this to happen, fearing that E. would regret what we’d done, and I would lose my friend. I was drawn to him, desperately so, but I felt out of my depth, a child when compared to his life. How could I bring anything new to the relationship? At his age, over twice mine, he’d probably seen it all, had countless life experiences that I, as a young white person, would never fully understand. What could he possibly see in me?
That fall I started a job in Newark, a one-year gig that would sustain me until grad school. His home in Jersey City was conveniently between work and my Brooklyn apartment. I started staying over on Tuesday nights, and this turned into every Tuesday night, sometimes Thursdays, and all weekend, every weekend. Back at my place, my cat trashed my room out of anger at being left alone. On Sundays I’d find vomit on the rug, my clothes soaking in his water bowl, my shoes chewed.
In E.’s house the television was usually on: Telemundo, Univision, always the announcers speaking so quickly it was hard to pick out words. His mother was, still is, descending into Alzheimer’s; she was always heating up half-full mugs of coffee in the microwave and forgetting them there. When it was cold he let her smoke indoors, and the apartment smelled of tobacco and black coffee, of the patchouli oil he rubbed on his head in the mornings.
His room was that of a depressed person. Everything was covered in dust, and there were books everywhere. He insisted he liked it this way, that he knew where everything was. “Ethnographies along that wall,” he gestured with his right hand, “and histories over here. Theology on the windowsill above the bed.” I rolled my eyes. In the corner, Lola shrieked and called to him; she regularly knocked food out of her cage, and the floor underneath her was littered with birdseed and feces.
Lola hated me. We established this as truth because she screamed whenever I came into the room. He’d taken to keeping her cage covered with an old pair of jeans, ragged and holey, at which she picked through the metal bars. Sometimes she laughed a strange, throaty cackle, and I had to wonder what she knew that I didn’t. Was I really, as he told me, the only person he was bringing home? I’d thought about poisoning her; I once floated the idea to him, and he laughed, implying he wouldn’t be upset. The internet said it’s illegal to kill an exotic bird like her. But the internet hadn’t met Lola.
* * *
Weeks passed, and E. and I built our own private world within the confines of his bedroom. He told me it was our home, mi casa es su casa, nuestro hogar. He’d tell me all his things were mine, that he had nothing to hide, that I should feel free. Mercy constantly misgendered me in Spanish, and we tacitly agreed not to bother correcting her. He texted me all the time saying he loved me, missed me, that Mercy had asked for me, sort of. She would forget my name and call me Allison, Jefferson, Edison. Close enough.
One night Mercy went out to smoke on the stoop and locked herself out. The buzzer didn’t always work, and when this happened, she resorted to tap-tapping on the bedroom window. It could’ve been twenty minutes or longer that she was at the window and her in slippers. Before we knew it, she might wander away and forget how to get home.
At dinner he confronted her with this as he was cutting her meat. She was extra cranky that day, and as the smoke from her cigarette curled about her face, she looked at me and winked, mouthing something like, él está loco. “Ma, I don’t want you going out to smoke anymore,” he said. “Smoke inside.” Bad for our health, but Mercy’s potential escape was more dangerous. Besides, she was not my parent and it was certainly not my place. Sometimes I thought he was rude just to aggravate her; sometimes it seemed he didn’t care if she got mad. I hated feeling discord in the home and would try to remove myself from their arguments.
But with Mercy it was hard to know where she was. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if she was talking about Louis, her other son who lives in Puerto Rico, or Luis, her husband, who died in 2011. Sometimes it was safer to sip my coffee again, even though he had made it so strong my stomach turned.
* * *
Weeknights we watched Jeopardy! together. Between the two of us, we could cover society, history, biology, literature, philosophy, current events, and pop culture from the ‘70s on. We did all right.
When he left me alone and went out on errands, I sat in his recliner and listened to the television in the other room. I’d learned to sleep through it the way I’d learned to sleep through his snoring, through the way his mother opened the door without warning with some inane problem or request; all of this was part and parcel with his love, and I had to get used to it.
But if this were my dusty den of iniquity, I’d have cleaned it yesterday, last week, last month. At night mice came pattering behind the books to pick up the birdseed Lola dropped from her cage; my skin crawled when I heard them, but this, too, I was used to. How easily I accepted it gave me pause: was it not harmful to oneself to live in a room in such a state? At the very least the plentiful amount of feces in the room should be dealt with. But I rankled at the thought of cleaning it for him, not wanting to play that gendered role.
One night when I was reading in the recliner and he reading in bed, a little gray mouse came out from between the books and stopped in the middle of the floor. I picked my feet up, tucked them under me and stared. The mouse was frozen in its place, shaking. A minute went by, maybe two. E. hadn’t noticed, and the mouse hadn’t moved.
“Does the mouse have a name?” I said finally.
He looked up from his book. “Does what have a name?”
I pointed. He got up, and then he saw it. “Oh, my God.” He came closer and stomped, once, twice, but the mouse was still motionless on the rug. There must be something wrong with it, I thought, because a normal mouse would have run away by now. He picked it up by the tail and took it out of the room. I heard the toilet flush.
When he came back, he looked at me strangely. “You’re so calm. Any other person might’ve screamed when they saw that.”
“I grew up on a farm,” I reminded him. And in my head I added, and I’m not a girl. Because sometimes he expected me to act like a girl. Sometimes he forgot who he was talking to and called me mamita, and when I corrected him he said he makes mistakes when he’s tired. I’m tired of being misgendered. But his fatigue takes precedence over mine, and he doesn’t always apologize.
* * *
Soon after, he left me alone in the house with Mercy and his cousin Jeannie. We all ate dinner together and then Jeannie and I started to clean. The biggest problem at hand was the books. They were everywhere: in piles on the floor, lined vertically against the far wall, in bookcases older than I am, two lines deep on the shelves. They were all covered in dust; the ceiling was cobwebbed and peeling.
We moved the books into the living room, dusting as we went. Jeannie took charge of Lola’s corner and laid sheets of plastic on the floor under her cage so at least her droppings wouldn’t hit the already-ruined rug. She dusted the tops and shelves of the bookcases, his degrees on the wall, the elephant figurine I got him last vacation. I vacuumed one half of the room, skirting the furniture, and listened to the crackle of mouse poop flying up the long hose of the machine.
I picked a stack of envelopes off the floor and went through them. One: junk mail, credit card offer. Two: an envelope full of little notes and letters I’d written to him, sweet nothings he keeps as sentimentalities. This used to be tucked behind the frame of his doctorate, and I put it back there. Three: a notice from the university about enrolling in health insurance. This I placed on his nightstand as important papers, things he should look at or at least know where they are. Four: the envelope was a large one, Manila, its only contents a sealed ziploc bag with a pair of pink panties, Victoria’s Secret PINK brand size small. No return address, only a name. Postage $1.24.
I remembered seeing this envelope come in the mail maybe four or six weeks prior. It’d been on top of the bookcase for a while, open, gathering dust. I knew that meant it was not important; it is natural for a person to hide something important. But this he left in the open, findable and reachable, as though I didn’t live here too. As though he didn’t stop to consider my feelings might be hurt should I find this package.
I felt heavier then, a little less like cleaning this grown man’s room, a little less like creating some sort of home for us, but I did it anyway. And when he got home I was still happy to see him and acted as though everything was fine, although my heart screamed, how could you let him touch you? You betray us. And my skin rejoined, is this happening, is this really happening?
But it was real, and it was happening and that night I slept next to him as though nothing in the world were wrong, although, as we both knew, because we were social scientists, most everything was.
* * *
“Are you worried I have other lovers?” he said one night not long after. He’d turned me down for sex and was drifting into that brief, unguarded state right before he slept. He talked to himself, to me, during this time and never remembered what he said. Was this question part of that, or was he still awake? Would he remember this in the morning? I could never tell.
“I know you do.” I hadn’t been able to wash the image of those bagged panties from my mind. He’d thanked us for cleaning, said, “You really didn’t have to,” to which my mind responded but I did. Because I’d needed to contribute in some way. I needed there to be some space in his room for me, so I could feel like era mi casa, as he said, and not that I was another lover among a collection.
I knew he had other lovers, but I preferred not to know. This was our agreement: we were free to follow our hearts, or I guess our lust, and share when asked. I never asked. An open relationship was convenient, especially given our age difference. He had needs, desires I didn’t know about, and leaving the relationship open got me off the hook. I didn’t have to be everything to him, just as he was not everything to me.
But I still lived in his house, and at brunch when he flirted with the waiter it bothered me. I mentioned that he might be more considerate, and he said something like, “Are you really so traditional? Isn’t the beauty of queer relationships freedom?” This is typical of men, the straw-man argument that gets the discussion off-course. I was not restricting his freedom: he was free to insert himself into whatever he desired. I was asking to be respected as his partner, even if only while I was sitting in front of him.
But this seemed too fine a point for him to see at that moment, so I left it alone and went back to my little life in Brooklyn. Sometimes while sleeping in one bed I’d miss the other. Sometimes it felt easier to keep things separate, everyone on their side of the Hudson.
My lease was coming up soon, and I’d been hinting at moving to New Jersey. He hadn’t given a real answer one way or the other. If he didn’t want me to move in it would be fine. I would stay in my apartment a third year, and fight with the landlord so they wouldn’t raise the rent, and watch the neighborhood grow whiter and my subway stop get busier. I would let E. take me to brunch at the same place, and I would slowly expand my palate until I could order everything on the menu. He would talk to me as he fell asleep: it’s too much, I’m so stressed, I can’t take it anymore. He would continue to use his age as an excuse and ask me, holding my hands and looking into my eyes, are you happy with me? Is this the right time for us? No, of course not. There is never going to be a right time for us. He is a middle-aged bisexual man, and I am thirty years his junior, attracted mostly to women and neither a girl nor a boy. So when he asked, I told him yes, it is the right time, because there will never be another time. He will only grow older, and I will want to get free.
* * *
Sunday mornings he would say, “It’s bird o’-clock” when the lauds-hours birds started warbling outside. He smiled at me every time he said it, like a child who knows they’ve done something right. The same way he prompted me to say his name by saying mine, I love you, Em…I never did. I hate his name.
We’d spent the whole night entangled after being apart for a week, which felt eternal to us both. He dozed, breath rattling through his lungs, and I stared at the ceiling. How odd that I was there, in my former professor-turned-lover’s apartment. How odd that now when I left work to go home, this was where I wanted to be.
He rolled over, saw me open-eyed, said, “What are you thinking about?”
The truth? The truth was that I was thinking about the contradictions in our relationship. To outsiders it may seem that our age gap was the stumbling block, but the real contradiction was that he’s a man. I was used to being with women or trans people. It’d been a while since I’d had to fight to make my own space in a relationship. I had forgotten how exhausting men can be, how fragile their egos.
Some days we fought over little nothings, and other days I just took it and let my frustration lie fallow in my heart. It was a season of external disappointments: I applied to five sociology PhD programs and had received four rejections. Whose idea was it for me to apply to grad school, anyway?
It was hard to keep going every day knowing you worked yourself into a frenzy, got up early every weekend, taught yourself math for the GRE, for what now seemed like nothing. Six months of work and close to a thousand dollars and to show for it four letters beginning we regret to inform you…
After the season’s disappointments I didn’t trust myself anymore. How to know the decisions I was making were the right ones? How to know I should listen to him or even myself at all?
In February, we went to the doctor’s office and sat next to each other in the waiting room. The receptionist called me up to the counter once, twice. I filled out the forms and pointed out the answers a diligent partner should know (a hospitalization in 2005; allergic to pineapple). I was not afraid of the procedure; the procedure was necessary because I was afraid of getting pregnant, a fear I had mostly underplayed and ignored. But here we were, months of casually unprotected sex later; this irresponsible practice was a delusion of love, tempting a fate I did not want. How could I have played myself like that?
The IUD insertion lasted fifteen minutes, tops. It took hours for the brutal cramps to finally hit me, and by that time I was already pleasantly high, floating somewhere my body couldn’t reach me.
I stayed in bed for the next three days. I had never experienced that kind of pain before and have not since. It radiated through my back, down my legs, and into my feet. Eating and the ensuing digestion brought fresh pain, too, as my bowels moved and pressed against the IUD. I could not even bring myself to read a book; the pain was too distracting. The only things that helped were the warming patches E. got me and the visible anguish he was in as he watched me from across the room. “I feel responsible for this,” he said. As he should.
* * *
A month later the affair ended abruptly, just as it started. He broke up with me via text message, as though he were my age and not a respected, known community organizer and professor with publications and acclaim. “I can’t be your lover anymore,” on a Friday afternoon, just like that.
The next week I went home when I knew he wouldn’t be there. Mercy chattered to me as I packed my things. Before I left, I smoked a cigarette with her and found myself crying. She patted me on the shoulder. “Stay,” she said, and I couldn’t tell her that I wanted to. I could not tell her that I was relieved, that no longer would I have to watch my boyfriend flirt with waiters or fight with the television for his attention.
I told her instead that I had finally been accepted to a PhD program and would start in the fall. I told her I’d be back someday. She wasn’t sure what I was saying or why I was crying. But she liked me, so she smiled and gave me a hug before I left. “Le diré que viniste,” she said. I gave Mercy my copies of the house keys, told her to give them back to him. I doubted she’d still remember by the time he got home.