ADMITTING THE TRUTH ABOUT A RELATIONSHIP CAN BE LIFE SAVING. Even if the pain rips your guts it may not hurt as much if you let yourself experience it. I used to have a photo on the wall above the towel bar in my bathroom, opposite the toilet. I hung it there to look at while taking a shit, to remind myself at least twice a day of what happened between my ex-wife Emma and ex-best friend Adler. As if I could forget! I shot the photo on a nude beach in Anguilla when Emma and I were still a couple. Adler’s wife Judith was off getting her hair braided or pissing in the ocean for all I know. The photo seems innocent, Emma and Adler naked from the waist up. A couple of months later they were screwing. Now, Emma calls the police if I come near her. If she had said the word, any word, I’d have taken her back in a heartbeat.
______The women I’ve dated since Emma share her librarian expression and bad girl bed manners. They love the flowers I send on Fridays, peonies when I can get them. They role-play in sexy lingerie and let me lick their breasts in public bathrooms. They respect my temper. They don’t hide my glasses or bother me about my cough or tease me when I cross my leg driving. They stay over when I want, and don’t mention the photo of Emma and Adler.
______They never seem to last. I wouldn’t kiss Elise when she cleaned her face with a bitter antibiotic solution. She stopped using it but her cheeks flared with acne. Robyn is a botanist. She took on the smell of decaying plants whenever discussing her age and marital status. Jan’s Shih Tzu marked its territory by puking on my pillow the nights I stayed over. Maggie baked pastries with imported chocolate. I lost my taste for croissants when her reminder lists started looking like recipes, you know, mix two phone calls to the travel agent with one heaping withdrawal from Joel’s bank. Jennifer is an Egyptologist. Her lips sealed tight as The Sphinx when we kissed. I don’t know if she has a tongue. Sex was best with Carol, as if her plumbing had been custom designed for me. Her summer home is next to a pond full of mosquitoes. She insists on sleeping with the windows open. I bought a pair of toy poodles, a black boy and white girl. The male peed all over my carpets; the bitch chewed a slipper I had stolen from Emma. I gave them back to the breeder.
______Is it me? I want someone to overlook my scheming, someone to love me, someone to put up with my throat clearing and inappropriate cursing, someone to bathe me, talk dirty to me, seer me with hot wax, dine alfresco along the water with her toes in my crotch. Emma never questioned our love until after Adler met her nipples on the beach. Shouldn’t I have expected better from them? Emma took me to court and claimed I was obsessive. Her brief included phone records thick as an almanac and a valise filled with love notes I’d written on post-its. I thought the evidence proved my love for her and showed how much I wanted my family back. The judge stripped me of phones with redial buttons and banned me from buying office supplies.
______I showed up at her house July 4th. We’d always seen the fireworks together. So what if she had a Restraining Order against me? She wasn’t home when I got there, so I climbed the trellis and waited for her on the balcony outside her bedroom. We’d built the trellis together. She wrapped it with wild roses after marrying Adler. I didn’t mind the thorns stuck in my hands. I felt so warm and good in the sunshine, waiting for her blonde bob and flowery sundress, remembering the raised bumps of a birthmark blushing like a fresh picked strawberry above her vagina. She tried to hide it when we first became intimate, turning off the lights or covering it with a band aid as if a disgusting mole instead of a sacrament I came to worship.
SHE HAD ME ARRESTED JULY 4TH FOR ILLEGAL ENTRY. The judge agreed to suspend jail time if I attended ten consecutive meetings of a self-help group known as HAMMER. It met Tuesday evenings at PS 183 on East 68th Street. I wore a wife beater and camouflage shorts to the first meeting. A removable henna tattoo of a bloody skull dwarfed my bicep. To hell with being short and ignored! A Hispanic guard gripped his gun when I entered the school. His left eye gave me the once over. The right eye crossed and stared at a mop in front of a trophy case. He reeked of cleaning fluid. I wondered if he doubled as the late night janitor. I mentioned a study linking industrial strength Mr. Clean to severe eye problems. He shoved me to the wall and frisked me.
______“Metal detector’s out,” he said, “you fit the profile.”
______I wondered which profile. “Is it the tattoo,” I asked.
______His breath yellowed my shirt. I coughed, cleared my throat, and coughed again. He aggressively patted my groin. His nightstick pressed my buttocks. He called me his bitch. I said I wanted his mother. He said his mother was dead and squeezed my balls. I scanned for video cameras, tapes for evidence in a suit against Emma and Adler, the judge, the guard, the School Board, the City, the Feds, anyone, for the emotional damage I had suffered.
______“I’m here for the HAMMER meeting,” I said.
______“Figures,” he replied, “stairs to the basement, second door on the right.”
______The door was marked by a crooked oak tag sign with “HAMMER -- Husband Anger Management Mental Evaluation Review” in blue Sharpie bubble letters. Way to go, Your Honor, just what I needed to cleanse the sins you let Adler and Emma pin on me in court while letting theirs go unpunished! The room had the sour smell, curdled walls and waxy ceiling of a milk carton well past its expiration date. A morbidly obese man sat on an old Parsons table surrounded by kiddy desks. Fat stretched the wrinkles out of his skin. I guessed he was 50ish, a few years younger than me. He ambled in my direction with the slow gait of a heifer plumped up to show at a county fair, each leg of his khaki shorts big as a farm silo. His sweat soaked thighs matched a stain on the table’s worn wood surface; an oxcart full of hay would have made a better seat.
______“You must be Joel,” he said. I was expected! His nametag read “Bob, Moderator” in the same bubble letters as the door sign. He smiled and reached out his hand. I cursed myself for leaving home without Purell Sanitizing Wipes and offered a fist bump. He didn’t appear offended.
______“I don’t belong here,” I said, “I’m not angry.” Lonely and miserable, yes, abused and misunderstood, yes, angry, no, Goddammit! I made small talk with a bartender before the meeting but the Margaritas left a hangover. I’d taken my last Percocet and the doctor refused me a refill. Even my son had turned on me. He won’t let me see my new granddaughter because I shoved him at the hospital the night she was born. Didn’t the little prick know I’d react when he let Emma bring Adler into the maternity waiting room?
______The three regulars in the group introduced themselves. Brad spoke with a twang. He met his wife at a rodeo in Madison Square Garden. He walked with a gimp and claimed he’d been thrown by a bronco. He wore earmuffs if his wife made requests, chased her with a cattle prod if she made demands. Rick was a chain smoking welder who married his pulmonologist. He insisted panache, not anger, led him to blowtorch his wife’s stethoscope after she tossed his Joe Camel lighter.
______And there was Rita. Braless nipples stabbed at her sheer blouse and jolted me. She arranged flowers in Brooklyn and raced motorcycles in Watkins Glen. Curls from her platinum Mohawk spilled over the close-cropped sides of her head. Her hands were disturbingly thin, nails down to the fingertips. The tattoo of a bloody dagger on one forearm aimed at a smiling Buddha on the other. I imagined her serving me tea and stroking my belly then beating me senseless.
THE 'I DON'T BELONG HERE' ATTITUDE I MAINTAINED FOR THE FIRST FEW WEEKS DIDN'T SEEM TO FAZE BOB. His smile never diminished, as if the meetings were the bright spot in his life. I wondered what life would be like as a three or four hundred pounder, if Bob’s huge belly sagged over his penis, if women ridiculed him. The thought appalled me.
______Things heated up the night Brad limped agitatedly around the room. He blamed his wife for his bad disposition, said his bum leg was killing him but all she cared about was a nail fungus that forced her to cancel a pedicure. “Bought me a bus ticket to Montana,” he said, “goin’ back to the ranch where I was thrown. Gonna kill me a bronco.”
______Rita charged Brad before he could free himself from his desk; when he stood, it wrapped around his thick waist like a four-legged saddle. “Dump the dialect,” she said, “you’re from Staten Island, for Christ sake.” She pointed a stubby fingertip as if provoking a fight. “Hurt a horse and you’ll answer to me.” Rita had balls. I looked away and rubbed a few wrinkles out of my shirt.
______Brad found his New York voice. “Shut up, bitch,” he said, “you got no right to be here.”
______Bob threatened to sit on Brad’s lap. He seemed to know a lot about Rita and protected her, in a fatherly way I thought at the time. He explained that Rita’s judge, a same-sex marriage advocate, had ordered her to attend HAMMER meetings. Rita returned to her desk and spoke again, this time about Phyllis, a Manhattan endodontist she referred to as her “ex-wife”.
______“I went to her for emergency root canal,” she said of their first meeting. “She got me loaded on Nitrous, pinched my cheek and romanced a syringe of Novocain into my jaw. She flashed her shiny little files like she was tuning my Harley, humming and painless. I felt like a songbird. Then she probed my mouth with her tongue and licked the tooth exposed in the oral dam. I unbuttoned her lab coat right there in the chair, the Nitrous mask still over my nose, the tooth hollow and nerveless. My crown was ready the following week; we were together the next four years.”
______Rita’s story touched and excited me. An erection growing below my belt pointed to my obsession with Emma and Adler’s first sexual encounter and the troubling reality that I couldn’t get hard without visualizing it. I pictured Emma and Adler’s chance meeting at a car wash when Elise unbuttoned my button-fly jeans. I smelled Emma’s perfume when Robyn pinched my nipples. I saw Emma step into Adler’s car when Jan drove her tongue into my ear. Adler’s hand floated over the gear box and under the hem of Emma’s sundress when Jennifer reached into my boxers. Emma guided Adler’s hand up her thigh when Maggie took me into her mouth. I heard Emma groan when I climaxed with Carol. And when I masturbated, I was a lonely junky grooving on an erotic fix of Emma and Adler until shame found me and I cried.
______“I came home early from the flower shop one afternoon,” Rita continued, “with a dozen pink peonies, a surprise for Phyllis. Found her in bed with Butch, lead rider of the Avengers, my biker club. She said his name attracted her. Her smell was on him. My nails were long and black back then. I went out of my head, scratched most of the skin from her face. Then I turned the sidewalk in front of our apartment into a giant emery board and took my nails down to the skin. I would have filed ‘em to the knuckles if the God damn cops hadn’t stopped me!”
______You could feel Rita’s spirit sparking in the tips of her fingers. She had brought me to the heart of things.
______I stopped in the bathroom after the meeting. The door lock was busted and I worried the guard might walk in; I can’t pee with a nightstick watching. The light switch didn’t work but enough light seeped under the door for me to recognize familiar shapes. I leaned against the tile wall above the urinal. I dug my nails into a layer of crud covering the tiles and scraped the filthy skin off. I unhooked my belt. My jeans dropped to the floor. I wasn’t wearing boxers. The drain may have been clogged. Piss splashed my sandals when I peed and when I flushed, the coolness of whatever flowed onto my feet felt so good I didn’t care what it was or that it might soak my jeans.
A FLY WOKE ME THE NEXT MORNING. My snoring must have distracted it from the pissy sandals and damp jeans I’d dumped on my bedroom floor the night before. I tripped on an empty shipping carton on the way to the kitchen and landed on a mound of t-shirts returned by a surf shop in Montauk. I’d started a t-shirt business after Emma kicked me out. I bought an appliqué machine and one hundred gross blank t-shirts on EBay. The New York Widows and Orphans Society agreed to endorse the shirts for a percentage of the profits. I trademarked “Black Widow”, a brand name I thought would be well received in minority communities. The designs were hourglass shaped scenes of black widow spiders eating their male spouses. The tagline read, “Deep down in your heart you know it ain't right,” homage to Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”. A Daily News editorial called the designs, “racially targeted, misogynist and frightening,” and demanded my indictment on hate crime charges. The New York Widows and Orphans Society claimed irreparable damage to their reputation. Pickets from PETA and the National Organization for Women hung my effigy from a gargoyle over the front door of my building. The Janis Joplin Estate threatened copyright infringement litigation. I sold seventeen shirts at full retail; fourteen thousand four hundred twenty three shirts choked my apartment. Disaster relief agencies wouldn’t even take them.
______I needed to get away from all that cotton. All I could think of was Rita. I wanted to see her somewhere other than the basement of PS 183. I went looking for her, for the heat signature of her footprints, the shine of her motorcycle seat, the fog of her breath on the rear view mirror, a plant stem cut by her scissor. I pictured what she did during the day and followed the trail. I started at the Harley dealer in Long Island City and found something unexpected. It wasn’t Rita. Each Sportster and Nightster, Street Bob and Low Rider, Fat Bob and Soft Tail, Road King and Electra Glide was saddled with the presence of Woody Hughes, a guy who worked a wire twisting machine at my family’s metal alloy business back in the seventies. I recalled his visit to our factory a few weeks after he’d been bounced from his motorcycle by a county highway pothole, and his reverence for the utility pole guide wire that severed his leg below the hip, so cleanly he didn’t feel a thing. He may have taken too many pain meds, but Woody seemed genuinely proud the guide wire was made in our factory, maybe even on his own machine. The thought propelled me from the showroom.
______Rita had mentioned living in Park Slope. I went there next and searched florists. Blooms on Fifth and Root Stock & Quade, Zuzu’s Petals and Opalia’s Flowers, Jasmine’s Floral Design and Picazo Buds: lots of vases, no Rita. The same result in Prospect Heights and Carroll Gardens, RAMBO and DUMBO, Flatbush and Bushwick, at Passion Florist and Flowers by Florence, Shalom Florals and Tehran Tulips, Mother Earth’s Miracles and Belle Fleur: lots of sidewalks, no Rita.
______I wandered and wondered. I convinced myself Rita could be for me. So what if we had never actually spoken? So what if she was dangerously damaged, displayed a destructive temper and preferred vaginas to penises? She moved and excited me. I wanted to kiss the nubs of her fingers and make them safe from bad things. I wanted her to reach for me, caress me, help me feel new, help me feel good. I was sure she could love me. If only I had a Percocet refill to tide me over!
MS. JOPLIN OF AT&Y CALLED THE MORNING OF THE NEXT HAMMER MEETING. She demanded payment of Emma’s old cell phone bills. “Why call me?” I said, “I’m not responsible.”
______“It’s clear you’re not responsible,” said Ms Joplin, “but that doesn’t mean Emma Adler should pay. You signed the credit application. The debt will be disclosed to the credit agencies unless you pay the bills immediately. Your ability to receive credit may be adversely affected.”
______How dare she use the name Joplin, how dare she hassle me at 6:35 am over cell phone bills, how dare she twist my words and say I’m not responsible. I bristled at her emphasis on “You” and “Your”. Was it me or did her robotic voice turn human when she said “ex-wife” and sound absolutely giddy enunciating “Adler”? She emailed copies of the unpaid statements while I held on. The months corresponded to the start of my suspicions about Emma and Adler. Most of the calls were to or from Adler. The sons of bitches expected me to pay for their love calls!
______“Take another little piece of my heart,” I said to Ms. Joplin. I hung up the phone and crossed over to the bathroom. I ripped the photo of Emma and Adler from the wall opposite the toilet and dropped it out the window. I watched it fall twenty-seven stories, to the awning of Lee’s Wash & Fold, the place that cleans my dirty laundry. To my horror the picture appeared undamaged, rescued by the awning like a baby thrown from a burning building to an NYFD safety net. Mr. Lee recognized Emma’s likeness and personally delivered the photo to me before 7:00 am, complete with its cheap frame in mint condition and his grin of moral superiority. His wash and fold service should only be that good. His lips pursed when I shut the door; the bastard expected a reward! Can you imagine my impotence? How could I kill the memory of Emma and Adler if I couldn’t kill their damn photo by dropping it from a skyscraper!
______Excuse me Your Honor, excuse me Emma and Adler, excuse me Hispanic guard, Bob, Brad, Rick and Rita, my problem wasn’t anger. I lived in cuckold hell. I’d do anything to stay connected to Emma, even if it meant thinking of her and Adler screwing, even if picturing them screwing was the only way I could get off with other women, even if my viewing position looked up at Adler’s six feet two inches and size thirteen shoes, even if Adler laughed at my five feet six inches and size eights.
______Something had to give. I switched from Fruit Loops and Captain Crunch to oatmeal, brown sugar and raisins. I ditched mac and cheese casseroles for orange roughy and salad. I replaced the bloody skull tattoo with a jade pagoda surrounded by lotus blossoms. I dressed in a seersucker blazer, collared shirt and khakis, my boxers fresh and my sneakers clean. I wanted Rita’s attention.
______“How was everyone’s week?” Bob asked to begin the meeting that night. I spoke up for the first time and gave my version of July 4th. I wanted the group to know the court misinterpreted the facts. I wanted Rita to know I wasn’t a lunatic crossing her path.
______“I’m waiting for Emma on her bedroom balcony,” I began. I left out climbing the trellis.
______“Was it OK for you to be there?” Bob asked. He must have read the police report.
______“He wants to know how much of what you say is bullshit,” said Rick the welder.
______“Like your blowtorch story?” I asked, careful to control myself. “I see Adler carry a food platter from his car. I lean over the railing and ask what he wants. He starts pacing and gets nasty.”
______“Did you expect a dinner invitation?” Rita asked. I hadn’t expected her sarcasm. “You were breaking and entering,” she said. “You wanted to jump his wife’s bones. You provoked him.”
______“I was having fun. I told him Emma was in the shower, hinted we’d had sex. He lost it, smashed the platter against the front door, salmon all over the place. He saw my car in the driveway and dumped marinade over the seats. He ruined my sour ball stash! He’s the angry one, not me.”
______“You were cruel to him,” said Brad. He’d been working on his soft side since the exchange with Rita over killing broncos. I liked him better as a short-fused brute.
______“Then he drops his pants and pisses in my car,” I continued. “Do I get mad? No, I cheer him on. I’m thinking, ‘The jerk’s killing himself. Too bad Emma’s not here.’ Then her car pulls up while he’s holding his penis. I’m thinking, ‘Perfect! She finally gets to see who this guy really is’.”
______“Did you see who you really were?” asked Rita.
______“What don’t you get?” I asked. “The prick was my best friend. He stole my wife.”
______“Maybe your marriage sucked to begin with. Maybe you were a bad husband, as much to blame as them.”
______‘Maybe you and Phyllis were on the rocks,’ I wanted to say. ‘Maybe you did to Phyllis face what you wanted to do to yours. Maybe Emma and I are none of your business.’ I kept my mouth shut. Rita had finally spoken to me. I liked this side of her, the honest and feeling side.
______I followed Rita up the stairs after the meeting but the guard cut me off. He said he admired the Black Widow t-shirt I’d worn the week before and asked where I’d bought it. I offered to bring him one but didn’t admit to warehousing fourteen thousand four hundred twenty three of them. When I exited PS 183, the only trace of Rita was the fading heat mirage of her Harley’s exhaust. I would have battled the specter of Woody Hughes for the opportunity to ride off with her.
______I felt a new urgency, different than July 4th. It wasn’t about sex, jealousy or rage. I felt frenzied, certain I’d made the wrong impression on Rita, frantic I wouldn’t make it through the night without straightening things out. I debriefed myself about the meeting. I hadn’t behaved angrily. Rita had finally spoken to me. She pushed me to admit things I’d never considered; I took it as a sign she cared about me. I needed a plan but couldn’t put one together in front of the school. Instead, I wondered which of the chewing gum remnants on the sidewalk had come from Rita’s mouth and whether drops of oil where her Harley had been parked indicated engine trouble and whether she’d make it home safely without hitting a pothole.
I WANTED RITA'S ADDRESS OR INFORMATION TO LOCATE HER AND THOUGHT BOB MIGHT BE A SOURCE. I sat on a shipping carton at my computer desk and went to HAMMER’s website, husbandanger.com. I scrolled through “Locations and Schedules” to find my group. The moderator was identified as Bob Biggz. I searched whitepages.com for the Bob Biggz, Robert Biggz, B. Biggz or R. Biggz closest to my 10021 zip code. The only non-commercial listing in the five boroughs was on 9th Street in Brooklyn, a street I remembered from my Park Slope florist excursion. If the Brooklyn listing was for my Bob, it meant he and Rita lived in the same neighborhood. I left immediately, drawn to 215 9th Street without knowing where it would lead.
______What I knew about Bob’s connection to HAMMER came the night of my first meeting. He was goaded by Ben, a Hasidic militant who later quit the group for fear of assassination by the guard who, Ben believed, was Palestinian, not Hispanic. Ben bitched incessantly about size of the kiddy desks, size of the toilets, and absence of kosher products in the vending machines. Bob tried to quiet him by relating his own story about HAMMER and its benefits.
______“I weighed 229 when I met my girlfriend Janine, 347 when she left me. The angrier I got, the more I ate; the more I ate, the angrier I got; the fatter I got, the sicker my thoughts. She threatened to start buying low fat ice cream. Instead of thanking her, I brought the argument to bed with us. When her nasal whistle kicked in I rolled on top of her, not for sex, to smother her. Neighbors intervened and I passed it off as ‘sleep-rolling’. The court ordered me to HAMMER meetings.” Bob eventually became a moderator, the title given to counselors without Master’s Degrees.
______I got to 9th Street at 9:30 pm. I pictured Bob living in a full-service building with elevators and hallways large enough for his bulk. Such was not the case at 215, a two-story row house with a single, standard sized front door. Nothing bloated the block, each home’s gable roof, red brick walls and large windows duplicated the ones next door. Twelve-step stoops rose from clean slate sidewalks. The neighborhood was everything family, not what I expected for Bob. I was convinced some other R. Biggz lived there, perhaps Roberta or Ronald, Rachel or Ricardo.
______I looked up to 215’s entrance and second story from the sidewalk. Light shined through the first floor windows and one of three on the second floor. The twelve-steps looked as steep as Mt. Everest, a terraced slope of nerves, expectations and fear of disappointment that froze me. I felt childish, as if unable to stop myself from doing something I thought I shouldn’t do without understanding why I shouldn’t do it. Silly innocence took over and I recited, “She loves me, she loves me not,” as I climbed each tread to the top. I peeked through the full-length window alongside the front door and saw Bob in a white t-shirt and massive plaid boxers. He may have been on his way to the kitchen. He wasn’t expecting company. I rang the bell anyway.
______Rita opened the door. Bob’s bulk had hidden her; it could have hidden a squad of Rita’s.
______She shook her head. “Joel? Are you OK?”
______The reindeer and red-cheeked Santas prancing on Rita’s pajamas didn’t seem to care it was only September. Long sleeves covered her tattoos, hands exposed and steady, Mohawk relaxed, hair flowing over her ears. Her beauty had become simpler, no longer the mirage I created to move me away from Emma. The allure had vanished. I gave a look of surprise at seeing her but mostly felt relief. She was Bob’s and wouldn’t be mine. If they found love, couldn’t I?
______I floated peacefully in a clear stream of honesty, sensing the current and flowing with it. I thought of Mr. Lee’s awning and the rescue of Emma and Adler’s photo. Would the awning have broken my fall? You can’t see me in the photo but I’m embedded there, as much a part of it as Emma and Adler, an unchangeable scene blinding me to the stuff orbiting my present. I scammed myself by hanging the photo in the bathroom. Viewing it twice a day made the past my here, now and future. Rita’s shattered pieces mirrored my vulnerability. I didn’t see her putting the pieces back together, very big and very fat pieces it turned out. I had made Rita into a fiction, a story fitting what I wanted: an end to pain, an end to being alone, an end I wouldn’t find in an old photo.
______ “I came here to see Bob,” I said, “to ask him about you.”
______“Cup of coffee?” Bob asked.