I remember speaking on the telephone long-distance to a friend, a female friend. We were catching up with each other, e.g., children birthed, books read, votes cast. My pregnant wife was out in the backyard, mowing the dandelions, or I thought she was till I heard a knock at the back door, which meant my wife was locked out and needed back in the house. Continuing to speak on the telephone, I unlocked, then opened the back door to my wife, her eyes swollen, cheeks tear-streaked, and lips crumpled and cracked. I knew right away she’d been in our garage-turned-studio, reading manuscript pages not meant for her to read, manuscript pages to this very book. The work was very rough. I had yet to make up names for secondary characters, which is to say, the women I wrote about, the women I thought and fantasized about or had had past relationships with weren’t named Frannie, the name of my composite character, the name of my female ideal. I’d used actual names of real women, e.g., Georgia Peterson or Elaine Von Waggoner or Missy Navarro, names familiar to my wife because they were friends, co-workers, ex-girlfriends. Even though I write a combination of memoir and essay, the truth is I fabricate brief instances, exaggerate dramatic encounters, and amplify (thus distort) discussions with my various selves, digging for what I do not know, like I do not know how two people can sustain a marriage over a lifetime or how and why we give up erotic love for companionship or why, just as I’ve created something meaningful and, dare I say it, healthy, I punch the self-destruct button or why erotic love, once consummated, begins to vanish or why the best sex I’ve ever had is in my head. (Not that I’ve figured any of this out now having written and revised the manuscript.) My wife had known I felt uncertain about our marriage. In couples therapy, I’d told her there was so much inside me I couldn’t share with her and all of our issues (my struggle with touch and my shameful fear of rejecting her) seemed to press right up against this concealed inner life. What was I dissembling? I had been thinking a lot about Frannie. I couldn’t go ten seconds without conjuring up Frannie’s sullen, hazel-freckled face. — What are you smiling about? My wife would ask, handing me her basket of dirty laundry. — Nothing, I’d say, recalling a disparaging comment Frannie had made earlier in the day over coffee, the kind of bitchy prattle in which my wife would never indulge. — A joke, I’d say to my wife, — One I heard at work. No, I had not initiated any extramarital touch but each afternoon I’d visit the café in which Frannie worked. We’d talk about literature, music, our dogs and she’d pour me free decaf lattes. I didn’t ogle her or linger at the counter like other men who held crushes on her yet inside I constructed a beautifully blistering alternate reality in which Frannie and I muddled around together like teen lovers, broken, lascivious, uncomfortably confessional, unapologetically unhealthy, a life of coffee, cigarettes, and gravy fries. Mine and Frannie’s friendship in reality helped me to populate my capacious and insatiable fantasy life with players and situations, and the loneliness and sadness engendered by such dreams became the manuscript’s raw material. I wrote about imagining my wife’s death and letting Frannie console me. I wrote about my proclivity to sit in cafés dreaming up varying scenarios of meeting women. Certainly one could argue the book, that is, the manuscript taken in its entirety, is a single, sustained dream of the other but that would be reducing the work because it’s about other things too and honestly the writer is not the best person to say what his book is about. The point is the women in my fantasies had drastically different personalities than my wife. Of course there were other daydreams about which I did not write: a first kiss on the steps of a church in Frannie’s neighborhood; a quiet, studious life in North Berkeley, a shabby cottage amidst an unkempt and overgrown yard and inside, unlit rooms that seem to swallow whole the yard’s cool shade, rooms with hardwoods that creak and buckle as our shadows leap out in front of our steps, Frannie standing at our wall of shared books, fisted hands in pockets and head tilted, scanning spines for a title to bring with her to bed, me kneeling before her mons pubis. What was more beautiful than the mons pubis of the woman about whom I dreamt? Perhaps more beautiful were her bare legs tangled in blue sheets. Her body in repose. Mine and Frannie’s life is not heavily scheduled. We do not have a baby or pets. We do not obsess over house repairs or lawn and garden care because we rent. We sit around and read sad books and listen to sad records and watch sad movies and we fuck a lot too and if we leave the house, it is for food or coffee or a book and occasionally we ride BART into the city and we don’t stay in touch with extended family nor do we discuss 401(k)s, drywall materials, or getting together with So-and-So for dinner. Very romantic stuff, I admit. I didn’t imagine the painful route I’d have to take to arrive at a new relationship: screams, fist poundings, door slams, the spit of our incompetence, a frosty separation followed by a soul-killing divorce and a new apartment in which my son couldn’t fall asleep, the dark hallway (bulb burnt out) connecting his new bedroom to the living area with kitchenette and lumpy futon. Or if I imagined cheating on my wife, did I imagine the elaborate lies and the shabby network of visible tunnels through which adulterers must move, did I imagine the substantial time commitment necessary to flip between two relationships or the bodily exhaustion of living so close to the heart’s white knuckle or my wife’s face upon finding a condom wrapper in the basement? Which is to ask, did I imagine the reality of adultery, that it rarely lasted? Did I imagine the chiseling pain and unending disappointment my wife might feel after finding out I had betrayed her? Did I imagine the indefatigable shame I might feel about my own behavior? My secret desire for Frannie seemed to fasten me to an illusory present moment, but not any foreseeable future. And of course I realized human beings were naturally inclined to share meals with other human beings, and yes, I enjoyed the company of my adult siblings and parents and great aunt but I wished to free myself from activity that didn’t bring me the kind of pleasure I felt from solitude, beauty, and desire. I still felt like that kid tired of being dragged around by his parents on this or that errand or to that family brunch or Sunday mass or golf club. My dreams pulled me out of bed, placed one foot in front of the other, padded the lonely walls up against which my life threw me. Mine and my wife’s marriage seemed to balloon with inventory. We owned a house, two dogs, a car, we shared bank accounts and credit cards and my wife scheduled nights and weekends with activities (dinner parties, movies, etc…) and now, a baby? This inventory required cataloguing, monitoring, maintenance. My wife kept a calendar on which I forgot to write down all of my important events. I needed to take the car in for an oil change and then check and reset the rat traps. My head felt overcrowded with to-dos: work, doctors’ appointments, electronic bill pay, household chores, grocery lists, weekend plans, weekday plans, weeknight plans. My secret, imagined life consoled me while erasing my wife into a smooth, blank space, an empty screen on which to project more dreams. I flew to Berkeley by myself to conduct research for a story I was writing and I recall walking up Shattuck Avenue towards Black Oak Books, nurturing a Frannie dream, spotting a bungalow I liked, a ramshackle, leaning house with untended garden. This house became a reality prop with which I could now use to furnish the house I truly wanted to inhabit – the one of my dreams. Braiding the real with strands of the fantastic distorted my sense of self enough to mute the loneliness I felt. I thought, Frannie, let’s deal with overgrown myrtle next year, or: Is my copy of Too Loud A Solitude in your to-read pile? Or:
Woman Whom you love.
I didn’t exactly breathe complications into my fantasies, that is, in fantasy I turned away from (not towards) complexity and mystery. In fantasy the mist-filled atmosphere, the loose dress, the minimal furnishings, the scratched timbre of two voices folding into each other – it all lacked ordinariness, the accumulation of burnished years. Dried skin flaked off to reveal moist dermis vulnerable to any touch. In fantasy I was not becoming my father (and not-my-father) nor did I scratch myself or fart. Nobody was beating me up or making me watch. No sour breath or lumps in breasts or funerals I felt guilty for not attending, no car pools, no stained underpants balled up inside a dirty T-shirt or denial or awareness of said denial, no hard and cold lips on my stubbly cheeks. No broken bicycle, no empty wallet. The moment I brushed up against such mystery, the fantasy ended. I didn’t understand that the elation wrought by my dreams was, at best, fleeting and at worst, intoxicating. I woke up in a bad mood for no discernible reason. The day seemed to end before it really did. A child comes upon a closet in a cold unfinished basement, dark, seemingly endless, unfathomable, and he retreats back upstairs. My dreams seemed to say, Come to me, follow along, but there was no place to go except away. Some images I could have never dreamt, could only attain through experience, e.g., what her face looked like when it was close to mine, her clammy skin and hair tumbling, her eyes sort of lolling beneath halfopen lids, her wolfing mouth rising to mine. Meanwhile my wife, five-months preggers, dined with close friends and discussed the alien inside her body, possible names, would there be a shower, with or without those stupid games, the benefits of midwifery, ten fingers and ten toes. In other words, very real things.
Excerpted from Wedlocked (2013), by Jay Ponteri, with permission from Hawthorne Books.
Jay Ponteri directs the undergraduate creative writing program at Marylhurst University and Show: Tell, The Workshop for Teen Writers & Artists. He is the founding editor of both the online literary magazine M Review and HABIT Books. His work has appeared in Tin House, Puerto Del Sol, Seattle Review and “Listen to This,” was chosen as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2010. Jay lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and son.