Darren hugs the pillow as he sleeps. He turns his head away from me and begins to snore. I never imagined him as a snorer. There was always a stable, soothing quality to his breath when awake.
I can't sleep with him snoring, so I get up to check Lucia. She's turned around in her crib. I put her head back in the right direction and cover her with the blanket even though I know she'll kick it off in a few minutes. She's only recently let me sleep through the night. "It's just colic," I kept telling Gabriel, but he suspected something else. There always had to be some hidden meaning to it, some sign to be interpreted in the most trivial circumstances. He's still resentful. Somewhere he feels I coerced him into getting me pregnant, but he'd never admit it because that would mean he lost control.
I knew he was crazy about me, that there was no one else. I've always been sure enough about my femininity to know when a man is addicted to me, but I also sensed that his films were his first priority-no matter how often he derided his "vocation," as he called it. And that of course was what attracted me to him in the first place. I was star-struck when I met him (and he wasn't even famous or making feature films yet), but I immediately recognized that genial eye, that cold ruthless approach to reality. Once he grabbed hold of an idea, he dissected it with his camera and using as few words as possible-always the most cutting, most accurate words-he gave the image or situation a light that made you change the way you see reality. And that was exactly what I needed when Gabriel came into my life: a new way of seeing my reality of dinner parties and witty conversations with the denizens of Academia-staving off boredom with other people's ideas.
I was teaching English Lit at an upstate college. I didn't need the money, I just needed something to do with all the years of universities and travel abroad my parents invested in me, so as not to feel like a parasite. I knew I didn't have what it took to be the writer I used to dream of being as an undergrad. I didn't have the pitiless eye to get past myself and my own emotions.
Lucia jerks in her sleep, and I feel as if my own doubts and confusion are the cause. I go to her. I think maybe I should cover myself, but it's quite warm in the apartment. I go to the living room couch and flip through the book on architecture Darren bought me at the exhibit. I instinctively pick up the phone to call Gabriel, but realize his cell phone is useless in Mali, or maybe he's in Morocco by now. I just have to will him to call me. These are the games I play. He's sensitive enough to hear in my voice that something's amiss, and he's jealous enough to think there might be another man in the bed. I've certainly played on his jealous streak often enough, though this is the first time I've acted out (apart from a couple of flirts cut off before they got too far). But who knows how many women he's slept with since he's been in Africa? Doing a documentary on the Tuareg nomads-the blue men of the Sahara. Another one of his pet obsessions. Nomads. I throw it in his face. I tell him I'm not a nomad, I'm a tourist. I like to go to a place and see everything I've read or heard about the place, see it all, get exhausted, fill my mind with natural beauty, architecture and history, then come back home to comforts and friends and tell them about it. Gabriel always held me in contempt for that, and we eventually stopped traveling together. Though that was more because he was always broke and couldn't stand me paying for all the trips. For such a liberal, free-spirited artist-type, Gabriel, I would come to learn, was incorrigibly macho and resented being a "kept man".
When Lucia came (he insisted on the name, though to me it sounded pretentious at first) he made it a point to look for projects that would bring him some money and gave up on the unsellable avant-garde films that only a few hundred of his friends and their friends might ever see. Brilliant films, obviously ahead of their time and hardly accessible to the average movie-goer, but they were too full of his cold eye. He was obsessed with the image for its own sake-unmediated by thought, morality or function-and showed no compassion for human subjects. I loved his films when we first met, but the closer we got, the more I came to recognize and be hurt by his faults: his pride, his touchiness, that petulant irascibility of his, the feigned cheerfulness he wore to hide his paranoid streak, and most of all his selfishness. And of course the more I hurt, the more I began to see those same faults in his films.
That first conversation with Gabriel, at Walter Rhodes' house, our mutual "academic poet" friend, seduced me. I decided he was a seducer as soon as he opened his mouth. And after three years with Richard, a man old enough to be my father and rich enough to free me of all the strings attached to my father's financing my endless education, I felt liberated by this short, stocky, quietly extroverted Romanian Jew, who when he found out I'd done my doctoral thesis on the English Romantics began quoting Shelley with his arms outstretched holding a wine glass in one hand and punctuating the poem with a bread stick in the other hand, as if it were a conductor's baton. All the while undressing me with his eyes. It seems so banal now, a woman looking to distract herself from a less than satisfying, albeit functional, relationship by giving herself up as an object of desire so she can sponge the charisma off someone who does all the things she's afraid to do because she knows she's inadequate. But then life changing diversions often seem that way in hindsight when you're afraid of repeating them.
Gabriel courted me in an almost nineteenth century manner: flowers, hidden notes, a surprise party for my thirtieth birthday. He loved my body, indulged in its imperfections: my disproportionately wide hips, my calfless legs, my thin hair. He bought me pre-Raphaelite clothes and filmed me from angles that brought out my curves, normally imperceptible. He wasn't very delicate or sensitive as a lover (I think his implacable though well-masked selfishness prevented that) but he was enthusiastic and tireless. He brought the same obsessive qualities of his art into the bedroom and made me feel like a different woman-alive.
I keep willing him to call. It's already dawn in West Africa and he's probably watching the sunrise. Whenever we go out of the city he'd wake up early to watch the sunrise, study the light, maybe take some photos or notes, then go back to bed and wake me up to make love. I hated being woken up, and he took it as a betrayal when I brushed him off with a curt mumble. Those first looks of a man betrayed made me understand the power I had over him. But I couldn't just betray him for the sake of silly power games.
He wouldn't stand for any talk of children, and I was beginning to feel my biological clock about to sound its alarms. The relentless curiosity he'd shown in the beginning lost its seductive power and became invasive-a turn off. He wanted to possess me with his eyes, absorb my being. He studied the broken capillaries on my thighs like a dermatologist. Whenever he went down on me he'd pull back from time to time (a particularly annoying pause) to stare at the shape of my lips-the color, texture and consistency of my fluids. This was his power game. He knew it put me off, made me feel ill at ease with him, and that's exactly why he kept doing it. Then he'd complain that I never took the initiative. Never in my life had I lost myself in love-making as fiercely as I did with Gabriel, and he had the nerve to complain like a spoiled child. He sulked, gave me the silent treatment, and of course I began to see his defects with his eyes. That put an unbroachable distance between us.
I can hear Darren snoring. I'm glad he's going back to Seattle, back to his wife and children and his Anthropology department. Once he's gone I'll have the memory of something different, the contradictory self-satisfaction that only a combination of risk and secret guilt can give.. I go to the bedroom. He's lying on his back. I look at his chest. No hair, well-formed pectorals, finely sculpted face... I'll forget the face as soon as he's gone.
I felt children might set a progressively deteriorating relationship back on track. He argued lack of paternal instinct combined with scant financial resources. He was still a struggling avant-garde film maker who'd resigned himself to a hand-to-mouth existence. Yet he knew I had no money problems. I didn't want to "buy him out", as he claimed later in one of his patent verbal ambushes, I just needed a child, and I wanted the child to have Gabriel's eyes. For a while the arguments over children became the passion-generating crux of our relationship. I allowed my aggression to come out, told him exactly how egotistical he was, how it reflected deep-rooted psychological problems and emotional inadequacies which only sabotaged his art (I had to say this because he justified his defects as being necessary for his art), made it inhuman, estranged the work from others and made it clear he held his audience in contempt; that he would burn out as soon as the truth about himself hit him hard enough, that his work was pure self-indulgence and he was kidding himself thinking anyone would be interested in spending more than five minutes with the delusions of grandeur he feeds on, no matter how beautiful or genial, that he was simply not interested enough in entering another person's mind, another person's story; and all this would lead to him becoming a parody of himself. (I'm having an argument with a phantom and I wonder if that's how I know I'm in love with him and wish I wasn't.)
That's when he got violent with me. I always knew he was violent from the scenes in his films, his fixation on war and oppression. Back in Romania Gabriel got into trouble with the authorities for writing inflammatory articles while still in university. His father was a big-wig in the secret services, and that's the only thing that kept him out of prison. He defected when he was twenty. Control was an ineluctable theme in all his work and he couldn't be expected to shake it off in this life. I'm convinced he got me pregnant to control me. There's no way he could have given in to my wishes innocently. He's too corrupt to let anyone prey on his meager innocence. He says he loves Lucia because she's making him relive his childhood, but that's just another form of domination. He says he has to get a grip on his pre-conscious imagery. Everything revolves around his images-filtered through the prism of his self-referential mind.
I told him I'd get pregnant with another man if he wasn't willing. He smacked me, not as hard as he could have. I'm sure he held back. He put me in a head lock, threw me onto the bed and taped my mouth shut. I think he wanted to tie my hands and feet, but I offered no resistance. My intent was to provoke him and I succeeded. He came inside me within seconds, gave me a disparaging look, then walked out the door. That couldn't have been when we conceived Lucia because I got my period two days later. But after that episode, we calmed down, came to a better understanding and made love tenderly. We both forgot to keep track of my menstrual cycle, and he never bothered to pull out. It was like he could only submit himself to my needs if I didn't offer any resistance. When he accepted the fact that I was pregnant, he began thinking more in terms of others. He began collaborating on a documentary about the homeless who live in the abandoned subway tunnels of New York. Some awards followed. Trips to film festivals. Recognition beyond the incestuous circle of his presumptuous avant-garde friends. He did another, less successful documentary with an Italian journalist about the pedophile rings in Romania. The critics felt he overindulged in the horrors. They accused him of being pornographic. He knew the critics would feel that way, but he refused to compromise. "I'm the product of state generated ideological pornography," he'd say sardonically, always stretching the analogy between sex and politics. "Maybe people are just afraid to recognize their own pornographic impulses." We'd have endless, circular discussions about pornography in the broadest sense. The taboo image as most direct route to the unconscious, and so on. He was a brilliant pornographist-but he lacked the compassion to get beyond it.
I felt dirty under his eyes, an arbitrary subject for his almost cruel gaze. I enjoyed it at first, then started to feel too comfortable in that position. I was afraid of how Lucia would turn out growing up under that gaze. Now he's looking at the nomads dressed in blue, wandering across the Sahara. It's probably good for us to have a break. He certainly needs to feel less like a "kept man", even though I'm the one financing this documentary with my trust fund money. I know it's low of me, but I occasionally tell him, jokingly, that I'll cut him off and spend the money on Lucia. I probably do it because he never seems to get offended. He just looks at me and tells me blackmail has always been a major erotic catalyst for him.
He's been jealous lately because I've devoted so much time to Lucia. I breastfed her for a year and a half. I left my teaching post at the college half-way into the pregnancy. When I stopped breastfeeding, I needed to fill a void somehow. Gabriel was often absent-at a film festival or on location. I could still see the desire in men's eyes as they watched me walk down the street-even with Lucia. I must admit, Gabriel had done wonders for my self-assurance, and he opened me up as a lover. I never wanted an affair. I just wanted to feel like a woman-which probably means a sexually objectified woman; because giving birth, breast-feeding and raising a child are obviously very womanly undertakings. Gabriel became suspicious. There was no other man, but he managed to give life to men hidden in the remotest shadows of his mind. He brought my demons to life by introducing them to his own. That's his vocation-bringing demons to life. He knew I was stalwartly monogamous in general, and utterly faithful to him as an individual. But I assumed he was projecting his own guilt on me. Whether or not he had affairs didn't have as much bearing as the fact that his mind was constitutionally unfaithful; he had little control over his rabid imagination and, having realized as much early on in his life, he had to make a pact with his promiscuous mind and submit to it entirely if he hoped to stay sane. There was that cute assistant I suspected for a while, but I was busy with Lucia at my breast and it all seemed so insignificant at the time. Even now these diversions don't seem very threatening, and I'm not sure why.
Darren wakes up to go to the bathroom. He's disoriented and can't find the door. He nearly walks into the closet. He looks so young and perfect that it's hard to imagine him with two children and a frumpy wife he doesn't even touch anymore. I lead him to the bathroom. On his way out he gives me a kiss and goes back to bed.
I make comparisons. I hate making comparisons, but they're inevitable, and maybe that's why I've always hesitated. But Darren is tall, full of right angles; he soothes and protects-even while he makes love. He's aware of what a woman needs and doesn't make a point of upsetting the roles just for the sake of drama. He lets the natural patterns develop. He trusts the patterns He and I were raised in similar circumstances and it shows in his very matter-of-fact approach to control. It's second nature to him and has never been a grave issue. He never had to rebel against it, like Gabriel. Gabriel, who distrusts anything that smells of routine or homogeneity. Gabriel who needs to fight, constantly, Who's gotten considerably rounder in the belly, whose facial features have spread out and settled into a pudgy smirk. Gabriel who's officially lost me in bed because he no longer bothers to control me. He's just out to control his own tireless imagination. At times I feel he uses sex as a cure for insomnia.
Still, there's something inscrutable about Gabriel's energy that feeds me even when he's away. He's probably shooting in the morning light now. I need sleep. I check on Lucia, cover her again, then go back to Darren. I can still feel him deep inside me and imagine I'm feeling Gabriel inside. But Gabriel hasn't filled me up like that in way too long. I caress Darren's thigh and half-hope he'll wake up. He's not snoring anymore, but he brushes my hand off his thigh. I turn to the other side of the bed and follow the nomads Gabriel is shooting as they ride their camels through the desert, their faces covered with blue turbans, robes blowing in the wind. Gabriel studies the light, looking for angles that will give the image a vague quality of necessity; and I fall asleep full of him full of himself.
© 2003 Stash Luczkiw
Stash Luczkiw was born in New York City and now lives in Milan, Italy, where he writes poetry and fiction. He is also the editor of Cartier Art magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org