Once More Beneath the Exit Sign
Stephen Elliott


On the fourth day together we broke up. We had planned this for a while; not the breakup, but the four days. Her husband wanted to spend a week with her over Christmas in Chicago, get her out of the Bay Area, and so she wanted to spend four days with me when they returned. That was the deal they worked out.

We had been dating for over five months and her marriage was falling apart. Eden was in one of those open marriages, the kind where you see other people, the kind everybody says doesn’t work. Except her husband didn’t see other people, which was fine because they had different desires but then I came along and we fell in love and in the nine years she’d been with her husband she had never fallen in love with someone else. Her husband told her he felt ripped off. She told me he hated me but I didn’t think it was my responsibility. It was the situation that was killing him. I was incidental. Anyway, I had my own problems.

We spent almost the entire four days in bed and when we broke up there were condoms on the floor, latex gloves covered in lube, a rattan cane flecked with blood. There was rope spread under the desk and near the closet and attached to the bed frame. There was a roller box full of clamps and clothespins and collars and wrist cuffs and a gas mask and leather hood pulled from under the bed so we had to step over it when we got up to go to the bathroom. There was a strap-on dildo and holster sitting on top of a box of photographs next to the door, a purple silicone butt plug near the radiator.

Love is a hard thing to explain. I didn’t mean to fall in love with a married woman. I had successfully not fallen in love so many times that when Eden told me she was married I didn’t even flinch. We were in a cafe and she was wearing all black. It was the first time we met. She mentioned her husband, said he was away for a couple of days. “I tell him everything,” she said. “I told him we were meeting for coffee.” She wanted to be sure I understood that he was her primary, that I could never be first in her life.

Two and a half weeks later I was sitting on her kitchen floor while she prepared dinner — slicing eggplants, soaking them in salt and transferring them to the stove. The flames licked the bottom of the pot and I was careful not to move. I didn’t want to get in the way. She leaned down and took my face in her hands.

“Look at me,” she said. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” I replied.

The breakup didn’t come from nowhere. I had lost my mind in the week she was in Chicago. I called friends I hadn’t seen in years just so I could tell them my story: that I was in love with a married woman and I slept with her once a week and the other six nights I slept alone. My thoughts were consumed with her and I couldn’t do my work. My savings were nearly depleted. I lost my adjunct position at the university when I failed to show up for two classes. I saw her two other days each week during the day while her husband was at work and on days we spent apart we spoke for an hour on the phone. Sometimes I saw her on the weekend as well and we went dancing and she came back to my house to sleep over an extra time. I told my friends I saw her more than her husband did, as if that counted for something.

They said, “Get rid of her.”

I said, “What if it’s me? What if I’m not capable of love?” And what I meant was that I was thirty-four years old and I had never been in a serious relationship in my entire life. I had never been in love. I had minimal contact with my family. There was no one in the world who depended on me in any way.

Before we broke up she told me the story of meeting her husband. They had been neighbors in the Haight District. It’s the neighborhood that had been the capital of free love and counterculture forty years ago before succumbing to drug addiction and excess and is now populated with fashion boutiques and street hustlers, junkies sticking themselves against the frosted windows and smearing their open sores on the parking meter in front of a bar shaped like a spaceship, the worst of the rich and poor.

She had a boyfriend and lived with him downstairs and her would-be husband lived upstairs with his wife. They rarely spoke, instead she spoke with the wife and he spoke with the boyfriend. But years later he was divorced from his wife and Eden was no longer with her boyfriend and he called and asked would she like to go see a band. He’d fathered a child since the last time they met.

He didn’t try anything that first date, because he’s a gentleman, with his short dark hair and innocent face. He’s tall and thin, straight shouldered and from a good family with a good name. He works in a brokerage, wears a suit to work and a black leather jacket. He asked her on a second date and then asked what her deal was. She explained that she was seeing someone, this guy. But the guy had moved to Seattle. So now they were still together but she was seeing other people as well. She said she liked seeing other people. She didn’t believe in only seeing one person anymore, in constraining her love, not fulfilling her desires. She was never going to be monogamous again; she had tried and it made her unhappy. This was Northern California, a woman’s body was her own and people didn’t have to abide by the old rules if they didn’t want to. He asked if he could be one of those other people she was seeing and she said yes and six months later they were living together and then they were married and she became a mother to his son.

We had almost broken up on our first of four days. I had arrived to pick her up at her house badly damaged and trying to hide it. Why was I so sad? I thought it was the holidays. Christmas is my least favorite day of the year. And my girlfriend had been gone, unreachable, away with her husband. And we’d had a fight before she left. And my friends were also out of town. But maybe I’m just a sad person. I make decisions assuming that I’m probably going to kill myself anyway. It’s just a matter of time. That’s my big secret.

Christmas was over; it was cold and the streets were wet. It was eight in the morning and I was on time but not early because her husband left for work at seven thirty and he and I had already run into each other too many times. They owned a house in Berkeley, a small ranch house built in the backyard of a larger house. Their bedroom was different from mine, dominated by a king-size bed with a short space between two large dressers. Her husband’s laundry sat in a small pile in the corner and I waited there while Eden showered.

She had been miserable in Chicago where the streets were so cold and her feet hurt from walking the city. She said they’d been to the library and the museum, the Art Institute, and Clark and Division. They’d taken a train to Addison and seen Wrigley Field. I was from Chicago and I held my tongue because I thought they had missed everything.

Later that day, in my room which is just a yellow space I rent in someone else’s apartment and is filled with everything I own in the whole world because I own so little, before the box full of sex toys was all the way out from under the bed and maybe there were just one or two gloves on the floor, she told me she didn’t think it could work. And we broke up. But then she changed her mind. In the morning she broke up with me again, and again changed her mind. We never left the bed.

I told a joke about Arabs sending threatening email in order to get the federal government to come out and dig up their yard for them.

On the third day we didn’t break up. She caned me, then tied me spread-eagle to the bed and got on top of me. “Don’t come,” she said. And then we lay in bed talking about how much we loved each other and the various things we had done together. It was a list that included Nashville and honky-tonk bars and packed lunch on cliffs overlooking the San Francisco Bay. We’d been to readings and parades and movies and shopped for organic produce at an Asian grocery in Berkeley. We always held hands. We’d been dancing and we danced together well. We spent hours on the phone agreeing on the political issues of the day. Beneath it was this: we were sexually compatible. She liked to hurt people and I liked to be hurt. She liked it when I cried and I wanted to cry all the time.

She turned me over and tied my arms forward and my legs spread and a rope around my ankles and thighs to keep my knees bent and greased her strap-on and slid it inside of me and fucked me violently. “I’m not going to go easy,” she said. “I want to hear you.”

When we were done she said, “I did all the things you like today.”

“You did,” I told her. She asked me why I thought she did these things and I said because she loved me and I told her I loved her too.

We went out that night, the only time in four days we left the bed. But not for long. We went to a noodle house with small round tables and I looked at other couples on dates or just eating dinner. Everyone was in pairs; no one was eating alone. There were couples who had just met, trying to impress each other, still a long way from that moment of truth, still hiding their core, afraid of what the other might think when he or she saw them whole. Older couples were there, people who had been together many years and stopped talking altogether. Each person in each couple was unique with his or her special needs. I wondered what those needs were and if they were being met. In her book Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, Janet Malcolm tells how a famous analyst was once asked, “What would you call an interpersonal relationship where infantile wishes, and defenses against those wishes, get expressed in such a way that the persons within that relationship don’t see each other for what they objectively are but, rather, view each other in terms of their infantile needs and their infantile conflicts? What would you call that?” He replied, “I’d call that life.”

From the noodle house we went to a bar. There were people I knew at the bar and they were playing darts. One of them was moving to France. “I’ll be gone six months,” he told me. He was going to finish a novel he’d been working on for years. I didn’t want to know about it. I thought the bar was cold and empty and there was too much open space.

Then on the fourth day we broke up for real.

It was 1:40 in the afternoon and the curtains were open. We could see my neighbor sitting at a computer in a square of light on the fourth floor of the large apartment building across the street. She asked if I remembered when we first got together and she told me how she was territorial and jealous and I had said I could be monogamous to her. She told me she was consumed with jealousy. It wasn’t a matter of me seeing other women, she was burning with the idea that I might desire them, which I didn’t deny. She had never felt this kind of jealousy before.

I told her I didn’t know what I wanted because I had never been in a relationship like this. I didn’t know what it would do to me. I didn’t tell her that I was in free fall. I didn’t say what I thought, which was that this was about other things, that we both wanted our lives back and we had run our course together and there was nowhere left to go. I wanted to write and she wanted to save her marriage and I wanted to find someone who would love me all the time even though I doubted I would. Even though I knew deep inside that being with her part time and sharing her was more than I would ever get full time with someone else. But we had stopped growing. Everything had stopped. We were stuck and there was nowhere for us to go and there was no acceptable change. She wasn’t going to leave her husband and the depression that lifted when we met had returned and engulfed me and was getting worse.

Our four days was two hours and twenty minutes from ending. She was meeting her husband at Union Square. They were going to go shopping, and then maybe see a movie. It was New Year’s Eve tomorrow and she wanted to get groceries so on New Year’s Day she could have a traditional breakfast with fish and rice, and friends invited over to start the new year correctly. Earlier in our relationship she mentioned that she hoped we could get to where I could come over for New Year’s and be comfortable with her husband and he with me. But we never got to that point. I never fully joined her harem with her husband who has stayed true to his wife these nine years while she went through a parade of men looking to see if it was possible to love two men at the same time and finally deciding on me. Maybe it was the sex. We fucked like animals. She rarely had sex with her husband. He wasn’t into the kinky things we were into. He hadn’t grown up eroticizing his childhood trauma the way I had. And he had married a sadist.

We had two hours and twenty minutes and she said she couldn’t do it and I agreed. Then I waited a heartbeat and I said, “So we’re breaking up?” And this time I knew it was true because I started to cry and she grabbed me closely and I buried my face inside her hair.

“I can’t leave you.”
“I don’t want to be without you,” I said.
“Then don’t be.”

But five minutes later I asked what was going to happen and she said we were done and I nodded my head. Still we stayed in bed and I pressed my lips against hers, placed my hand on her ass, ran my palm over the contours of her backside to the top of her legs. I kissed her deeply and cried more.

“Don’t cry,” she said. I’d cried in front of her so many times over five months. At first I had been embarrassed but then I realized she liked it so I cried freely. I was shocked by my own propensity for tears. I never knew I had so many of them and they were so close to the surface. I would cry when she was hitting me and she wouldn’t even stop. She would beat me the whole way through until the tears were gone and I relaxed again and I came back to her. She said she wanted to provide a space for that little boy inside of me. But now she didn’t want me to cry anymore and I tried to put the tears back into wherever they came from and I succeeded and then they came again and then they stopped.

Still I knew I was making my own decision. There were things I could say to keep it going and I wasn’t saying them. I was once again jumping from a burning building, abandoning what seemed like an unsustainable situation, something I had been doing since I ran from home when I was thirteen, moving out to the streets of Chicago. I never went back. I never did. I’ve been running away my entire life.

I reached into that tub next to the bed and grabbed a condom from a paper bag. I fucked her hard and fast and in a way unlike any I had ever fucked her before. She began to scream and then her own tears came, drenching her face until she resembled a mermaid. This was our due. We were breaking up and we were entitled to this sex and we were going to have it. I slammed into her with everything I had. It was like fucking in a storm. I gripped her legs, the flesh of her thighs. I sniffed at her neck. “C’mon,” I said, and she screamed and shook with orgasms. Then we rolled over and she was on top of me with her fingers in my hair and one hand on my throat. We were still fucking. She pinched my nipple hard, she reached down between my legs. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to come.

“I want to come,” I said.
“Okay,” she whispered.

“I can’t come inside you.” She got off of me. We were running out of time. I lay next to her and masturbated quickly and came into the rubber. She pulled the rubber off of me, tying a knot in one swift motion, pulling the end with her thumb and forefinger, striding across the room while I watched the naked triangle of her legs tapering into her ankles.

She tried to call her husband. She didn’t want to meet him downtown, she wanted to meet him at home. But he had already left the bank.

“I have to shower,” she said.

“He’s your husband,” I told her. “You don’t need to shower for him. He’s seen you dirty before.” “I’m not showering for him,” she said. “I’m showering for myself.”

I followed her into the bathroom. My shower is small, barely room for the two of us. We used the chocolate-scented soap she bought me. She was always buying me fancy soaps. This one was composed of dark brown and white blocks and thin lines and the bar separated into its parts while we were scrubbing.

“I have to go,” she said.
“I can’t walk you to the train,” I told her. “I don’t want to break down at the station.”

I got dressed while she dressed. I pulled on my jeans and an undershirt and a T-shirt. I laced up my gym shoes.

“Why are you getting dressed if you’re not walking me to the train station?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.

It was raining and I offered her my umbrella. I lose my umbrellas so I never buy expensive ones. The umbrella cost six dollars. I considered giving her my necklace but I knew she wouldn’t wear it. She turned down the umbrella. She was going to get wet. We moved toward the door of my room. She was wearing her long blue wool coat.

“Don’t go,” I said suddenly. I didn’t even know where it came from and my hand was in the pocket of her coat and her hand was along my neck and the back of my head. I could have turned into an animal, a dinosaur. I could have grown a giant tail and swung it and broken the windows and the table legs and smashed the bed to pieces.

“Walk me out,” she said.

I walked her downstairs, out the front to the entryway to the building. I lit her cigarette on the steps. We kept having one more kiss. She was going to be very late to meet her husband. But he would probably be relieved, his ordeal was over. He would make rules next time, communicate better, draw lines in the sand. There would be no sleepover nights with the next boyfriend. No boys in the house when he came home. But for the foreseeable future he would have to hear about me and comfort his wife while she romanticized our love and cried in his arms.

You concentrate on your time alone, you never think about how hard it is to be in bed with someone else, thinking about you, she said once.

She opened the gate and stepped onto the sidewalk and the rain hit her immediately. It blew horizontally in sharp little beads. I ran down the stairs and grabbed the gate and watched her walk to the corner. I waited for her to turn around. She never looked back. She crossed south and then the light changed and she walked east in front of the housing projects toward the station and the train, which would take her home.

Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books, including the memoir, The Adderall Diaries, and the novel, Happy Baby.  He is editor of The Rumpus, and his writing has been featured in Esquire, the New York Times and GQ.  He lives in San Francisco, California.  Published with permission of Cleis Press.