What Was It Like For You? is a monthly column of reflections around intimate experiences.
The first time I realized I was actually in trouble, and not in a sexy, flirty way, was months into the relationship.
We were laying in bed and Michael asked, “Did you get the coconut oil?” He told me to buy some before he came over that day, and I didn’t. I don’t know why, but I felt resentful of the idea, which was only solidified when he was on my bed and said he wanted me to give him a massage. I couldn’t believe he was asking me to perform manual labor.
“No, I didn’t get any but I have something that will work the same.” I came back with a bottle of marula oil. I sat down on the bed next to him and he held my hands by the wrist, looked at me seriously and said, “Why didn’t you get the coconut oil like I asked?” I squirmed but he kept a firm grasp and said I don’t know. Following a silence that shrank the room, I finally made eye contact. “I didn’t know you were being serious,” I told him. He let go of my wrists, and I turned my back to him and smashed my face into a pillow. He softened and stroked my hair.
Before that, I thought it was playful when he was angry or annoyed. The punchline is that it was all serious, and Michael was not smart enough to have a sense of humor.
My memory of our time together is muddy. It was a few months, but I can only identify a handful of distinct days. I lost so much of that period to grief. When things with Michael exploded, I didn’t bother to sift through the ashes.
Time during my mother's illness and after her death was blurry, especially when it comes to my time with men. I know Peter was around when mom was sick because I remember rushing home to make sure I could give her her 4 AM morphine. Billy was right after she died because I was in the paint-by-numbers coping era of my grief. Eric was a few months later because it ended while I was on a thinly veiled suicide watch with my dad. And Michael, Michael was at least 6 months after she died because I had moved out of her apartment.
They all served a purpose, most of them the same — a moment away from the ledge I sat on the rest of the day, the one I kept thinking I’d fall or jump into had it not been for these distractions. Michael was sort of an exception. I still think about him while the others feel like footnotes, characters in a movie I didn’t like. The years have turned them into nothing more than their nicknames — blood boy, boat guy, the bruiser, thick Nick.
But I still remember Michael as a real person. He lived in Harlem with his grandmother, who he called “mama.” His actual mother lived nearby, but he didn’t live with her, for reasons I never learned. He had two sisters, one of them was young, still in school and the other one had gone from job to job but was now a stripper. His parents had been divorced most of his life and his dad lived in Puerto Rico. Michael had cousins in the city and he was really looking forward to moving to New Jersey with them. When we were apart he had his job, music, and the gym.
He never called himself a musician, and I wouldn't either, but he made music. One day I texted him, “what are you doing?” He responded, “I’m in my room vibing, in my zone.” He sent a picture of his setup — it looked like the computer desk my grandparents kept in the guest bedroom to entice us to visit. It was accompanied by a demo, “something I’m working on,” he said. It sounded something like mellow wave techno. There was nothing interesting about it and it shocked me how confidently he shared it.
I missed him all the time, but when his schedule would get overwhelming he’d text me, “I miss working out.” He’d send me photos from the gym, lifting his shirt up slightly so I could see his abs. Sometimes the text would be, “I miss your ass,” and I’d try to unsuccessfully parlay it into a furthering of the relationship I wasn’t even sure I wanted.
“You miss me?”
“Show me what I did last time.”
I’d respond with photos, but really it was about the marks. Sometimes a big red area with a few especially distinct lines. Other times a galaxy on each cheek — navy blue outer circles.
I wasn’t completely oblivious to him being controlling, but at the beginning it just seemed like foreplay. “Wear that lace set I bought you and that skirt I like tonight.” I didn't mind it, I even appreciated it. Every insipid decision I had to make on my own became a spiral of tears and existential panic. He asked questions but none that involved my opinion. He'd say, “We're having pizza, where’s the nearest place?”
I hope but don’t think there was more to the relationship than sexual chemistry and his lack of substance, which I mistook for complexity. I thought it was a type of withholding I learned from my father. But there just wasn’t any more to him than a man in his mid-20s who wasn’t aware that grapefruit was a different thing from grape, the fruit.
I try to remember the qualities that kept me infatuated, but I am just putting off admitting that it was about bodily fluids. My orgasms are famously rare. I chalk it up to antidepressants and some sort of body-mind disconnectivity that happened once the trauma took root. It’s happened less than a dozen times, but I came with Michael every time. I didn’t know that was possible for me. With the other men… I tell them not to worry about it, that it just won’t happen even if I have enjoyed myself. Or — I fake it. I do three kegels and shake my leg a few times.
It crossed my mind once that the fake orgasms weren’t viable long-term solutions. But with these men, with Michael, I saw the end at the beginning and I felt safe in that. He was a passing fixture in my life and I thought if I could create enough friction, I would force myself to feel something other than the blind heat of abandonment of my mom’s death.
I could see this death coming and I could be prepared. The orgasms were a weak mirage, they let my brain entertain a relationship without an end. But being with Michael was like visiting a friend who only has months left to live. I’ve already gone through the grief, the waiting is painful. This was a disruption of what the next normal would be and I needed it to come quicker. The agony and grief were already here, let’s have the funeral already.