BY CINDY ZELMAN
At the six-month mark in our relationship, Jan stops brushing her teeth. I don’t know if her avoidance of proper hygiene is due to depression or to complacency in assuming a certain level of comfort between us. Perhaps it is a test of how much I love her. Will I kiss her, and will I enjoy it, with all the stinky remnants of dinner aging between her teeth? Well, if it is a test, I fail it miserably.
“Look, I hate to say this, but would you mind brushing your teeth? I mean, really, the onions from dinner. I know how this sounds but I’d appreciate it.”
Jan wants to make love again, and the thought of kissing her onion-y mouth is setting off my gag reflex. Sex for Jan is like an obsession, or a possession, a claim on my life every time we have it. My status as a single woman grows weaker, and my role as enabler in her happily-ever-after-fantasies grows stronger. I’ve learned that people have sex for a variety of reasons and with a slate of motives. Jan is a hunter out trapping a mate. The least she can do is brush her teeth.
It’s dark in Jan’s bedroom with only the TV aglow. She always wants to make love with the TV on no matter how much I try to teach her about candlelight and music. I bring over romantic CDs from lesbian singers like Lucie Blue Tremblay or Melissa Etheridge and attempt to convince her that music and making love by candlelight are romantic. She doesn’t care about romance; the sex is all about the hunt. So always, the TV light beams, and the Home Improvement Channel plays, and some guy with a beard talking about hammers and nails keeps us company as we kiss and fondle and give each other orgasms.
“Yes, sure, okay,” Jan says, as she climbs out of bed and through the door to head for the bathroom, where, presumably, she still keeps a toothbrush.
I believe she wants to spew forth a statement such as, “If you really loved me, you would want to kiss me no matter what my breath smelled like!” I would not argue that point. I do not love her enough to kiss her with rotting food in her teeth. I doubt she flosses. I don’t think she ever flosses. Sometimes the thought makes the hairs on my arms stand up straight – all those years of not flossing. What might be hiding in the crevices? I block out the trauma of such a thought. Her teeth are clean enough on the surface.
She comes back to bed and kissing her tastes like Crest Toothpaste. I am not turned on. I make love to her anyway, because it is what she expects. We’ve had so many arguments over how I fail to live up to her vision of all I should be in her life. I spend too much time with friends. I participate in some odd and incomprehensible thing called “a writing group.” I don’t come over to her house often enough. Apparently, every weekend at her house and one night during the work week, battling rush hour traffic out of Boston, is not “enough.” I promise her three orgasms on Sunday morning but only deliver two. Jan even decides against giving me an empty fish aquarium cluttering her basement for a decade, although she knows I want one. She says, “Fish are pets, too, and one more reason for you to stay home.”
I find her abandonment of brushing her teeth a sign of mental illness. There are other things, too, for example, the way she’s given up working out since we started dating. She’s gained twenty pounds. It isn’t the weight gain that scares me, but her rationale for stopping the exercise.
“Working out takes time away from us being on the telephone,” she explains.
In my better moments, I say, “Uh huh” to such odd statements. But when we fight I say, “We have nothing to say to each other, anyway!” Our cell phone bills are in the hundreds of dollars. Jan wants all this useless chatter, and I give it to her. I try to make her happy. I sense the mental desperation in those telephone bills, but I don’t stop trying to please her. She says it’s worth the money. It’s worth three hundred dollars to talk about nothing? Yet I hang in there. I was dumped the year before, and I am doing that rebound thing people do but always tell themselves they won’t.
I am only Jan’s second woman lover, although the first woman she’d been with was in her life for eight years. Or perhaps it was nine years or ten years. Every time she brings up her ex, Jan seems to add a year to the relationship, and I nod with understanding although quite confused. She can’t understand why I’ve had so many women, so many lovers. I am in my forties and a twenty-year veteran of lesbian dating.
“Why did you date so many women?” she asks over and over again. She never understands my answer: It’s just the way my life has gone, a draw of the cards, people are all different. Again and again: Why had I dated so many women? Why did I sleep with so many of them? Every time I try to explain, she just becomes more upset with me.
I never ask: Why did you stay with your ex so long when you were miserable for most of those years? I don’t ask: Why did you sleep with so few women? Her ex-girlfriend’s name was Mindy. My name is Cindy. You can imagine Jan’s brain trying to sort out the Cindy and Mindy sounds. More than once she refers to me as Mindy. At times, she introduces me to some of her family that way, although thankfully, she never screams out Mindy’s name when she is in bed with me.
I call Jan “Deb” once by mistake. Deb was the woman who dumped me. Jan proceeds to point out that Deb sounds nothing like Jan, but Cindy and Mindy are so similar that her verbal lapse is completely understandable, while mine, of course, is unforgivable.
I often wonder why I date Jan or stay with her as long as I do. In retrospect, I would say we were incompatible, frankly, that we couldn’t stand each other. But we love the idea of being a couple and we make a nice looking couple and we figure we can fix me. Or I figure I can get used to her. In other words, we don’t love the other person as she is, but we pretend we do.
Jan is a good person, and I know this. She is an ICU nurse and she has three nice kids and cooks me great meals. She dangles the carrot of family and belonging in front of my lonely face. I become trapped in this familial seduction. But the end does come, of course, and I’m sure it is obvious to any outsider how wrong we are for one another, even though it takes us nearly a year to figure it out. This demise is mainly my fault, for wanting so much “space,” a word that tortures Jan every time I bring it up.
“I hate that effing word,” she screams. “You think you don’t have space? You have tons of space!” She doesn’t understand the concept as I do — like can I stay home a weekend and pet my cat? Watch TV? Read a book? Sleep? But Jan truly is a good person, I remind myself — a hard-working nurse, a devoted mother, a giver of herself, and a saver on toothpaste expenses.
After eight months together, Jan starts making joking references about marriage. She calls me up and says, “Will you marry me?” The question is followed by a lot of “ha ha ha ha,” nervous laughter.
“Not today,” I respond, trying to sound cheerful, wondering what this is all about. She gave me a ring at Christmas, not a wedding ring, but still, diamonds. They are my birthstone. I keep telling myself this: Diamonds are your birthstone, your birthstone! Do not panic!
Another phone call. “Will you marry me?” Hahahahahaha! Second time this week.
The legalization of gay marriage has brought residents of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts awkward moments. I’m a full supporter of gay marriage, but I’m not sure everyone recognizes the downside. Having a girl you don’t love enough fall in love (or in obsession) with you and ask you to marry her is a downside. Having a girl who stops brushing her teeth at six months ask you to marry her is a downside. Our jokes about U-HAULS on the second date have been upgraded to jokes about marriage. What’s a good lesbian second date? Not a bottle of wine and a U-HAUL, but now bottle of wine and a wedding ring!
Postscript: I once and for all broke up with Jan on a cold November night. Angry, she threw a bowl at my head. She missed.
Cindy Zelman is a writer based in Boston, whose blog, “The Early Draft,” explores a variety of topics, including lesbianism, writing, agoraphobia and humor.