His girlfriend before me was a nurse. A hard act to follow, I thought bitterly, even before he started dishing out the gory details. He corrected my assumption that she wore a starched white uniform, proudly noting that in fact she wore a green scrub-suit.
My idea of her–my dread of her–quickly grew to an obsession that he simultaneously condemned and encouraged. How many women have to hear about their predecessor’s record collection? Who could compete with a nurse who owns every record by Louis Jordan? Who the fuck even knows who he is?
At some point, he must have known he was torturing me, but the little nuggets of data kept on coming. She liked Thai food. Her teenage son was nothing but trouble. She had a tattoo, a memento of a relationship with a biker. And, news flash, she had recently enlarged the original tattoo, or rather obscured it, with a colorful dragon. Of course I had to know where the tattoo was: on her thigh, he reported smugly. I was too upset to ask if he meant inner or outer.
To be more accurate, I shouldn’t have called her his girlfriend before me, which implies ex-girlfriend. She was there first, but he had no intention of ending their relationship. And he was honest about his feelings for her. He wanted them to “go steady”, but she insisted on being a free agent. I laughed at the expression “going steady”, coming from a man of forty. I teased him about her, calling her Nursie, until he started slipping up and doing it too.
Once, she called him while we were at his apartment, an upstairs studio saturated in cat hair and dominated by a wall-unit where he displayed his creepy knickknacks. He took the phone into the kitchen and I heard him pull up a chair. I strained to make out what he was saying, but all I could hear was a murmur, in a low seductive tone that was unfamiliar to me. Finally, I heard him ask: “murmur murmur attractive?” with a suggestive intimacy that stabbed me like a hot poker. He returned to the couch, explaining that (a) Nursie was having car trouble, and (b) had gone shopping for lingerie to console herself. Wonderful. Now I could begin creating a cinematic image of Nursie modeling her attractive new underwear, her big tattoo snaking down her fat thigh.
In an unguarded moment, he had confided early on that she was about 12 pounds overweight. Now I modified “Nursie” with “fat” creating a new designation like “wet-nurse.”
When we had sex, she was like a third person in the room–a fleshy, blues-loving tramp who he had already described as a “great lover.” I didn’t like that term and never understood what it meant when a man said it. My sister had once offered her own interpretation, of a woman who thrashed like a fish out of water and made a lot of noise. In the case of the Fat Nurse, though, I pictured her expertly carrying out some unimaginably disgusting procedures involving latex and rubber tubing.
Naturally, these thoughts were inhibiting for me, and it took me hours to come. We would both be soaked with sweat from the effort. He was angry and resentful; I was apologetic and ashamed. But the minute we parted, I wanted more. I craved the feel of his hands on my skin, the sound of his voice, the intoxicating smell of his flesh and hair. My hunger for sex with him was not tempered by our dismal performance record. I thrashed and screamed all right, and I wasn’t faking it. But it was a Sisyphean effort that once actually left him with a blister on his lip. Tough shit for him, I thought. It was his grandiose ego that drove him on to make me come; it was an area in which he considered himself an undefeated champ. I assumed that Nursie gave him less trouble. She probably came after two seconds of penetration, like a squealing porno actress. I pictured them entwined on her floor, surrounded by half-empty containers of pad-Thai and kung-pao chicken.
Little by little, as I accumulated data, I created a vivid virtual-reality starring the Fat Nurse, my bete noir, whose name isn’t important here except to note that it ends with an “i” instead of the customary “y”. The astute reader will find this detail hugely revealing. I was mildly disappointed that she didn’t dot the i with a little happy face, but still, I had plenty to work with, especially after seeing the photo of her in her living room, surrounded by kitsch clichés like plastic pink flamingos and the cat-shaped clock with the swaying tail. While I sneered at her taste, I was upset by the inescapable fact of her attractiveness. The photo was out of focus, but there it was: long blonde hair, a confident toothy smile, and small childlike hands that bore no evidence of bedpans or catheters. I hated her more than ever. I hated myself, mostly for being dark-haired, and therefore handicapped in this competition. And I hated him for insisting that I was actually prettier than Nursie.
Since he continued to prefer her company to mine, I was left to ponder the vast array of areas in which he found me inadequate. Not just inadequate; inadequate to a fat nurse. I began to hector my friends, demanding that they endorse my superiority to a woman they’d never met. Alternately, I would bitterly criticize and deplore every aspect of myself: Who would want me if they could have a fat blond nurse with pink flamingos?
One night we had phone-sex. It was the first time for both of us, and a distinct improvement over the face-to-face kind. It took me about 3 minutes. I lay back on the cool hardwood floor, panting gratefully into the receiver, taking perverse pleasure in his evident awe. Plus, the fact that I’d made him do something he hadn’t done with Nursie was a triumph I relished to an inordinate degree: It was like beating the Russians to the moon.
Months passed, and my addiction to him deepened, providing a degree of exquisite pain that had me praying to Jesus for release. For an atheist, this was an especially desperate measure. At this point, I was getting Nursie’s film reviews–she had a penchant for foreign films–as well as her home remedies for stomach trouble and her schedule of Twin Peaks viewing parties. Nothing was too insignificant for him to report to me. One day, he showed me her business card, smiling as I contorted my face in genuine horror. It was pale pink, and printed in blue calligraphy: GENTLEWOMAN AND SCHOLAR. Underneath in smaller print: “Knows All, Tells Some.” Then it gave her name and phone number, which I was too stunned to memorize. He laughed heartily at my expression. Since I was so easy to provoke, his glee seemed especially cruel. Anyone would cringe at Nursie’s card, which baffled me but indicated an ego to be reckoned with.
I had to meet her. I had to kill her. Fat, stupid AND pretentious. Maybe I could seduce her and marry her just so he couldn’t have her.
More time passed but not much changed. I felt paralyzed. Nursie bought a new car, and he joined her gym. Now I could hear about her resting heart-rate. I broke up with him too many times to count, always crawling back within three days. I could hate him for 48 hours, but then withdrawal kicked in. He never refused to take me back; he probably didn’t care either way. One day, he asked me to take care of his cats while he was away for the weekend. I couldn’t wait to look through his desk, which was covered with piles of old bills and packets of photographs.
I let myself into his apartment and felt my heart begin to race in my chest, the way it does when you’re a kid, preparing to steal a candy bar. The apartment seemed weirdly neutral without him in it. The objects I’d come to hate just looked harmless and dull. I went straight for the desk and found what I needed: A Christmas card from the Nursie, featuring a picture of her wearing a Santa hat and holding a martini glass. He had kept the envelope, with her return address sticker. I copied it onto one of his old bank statements and left without even looking for the cats.
Sex had improved when I trained myself to think hard about deviant acts that otherwise revolted me. Nothing was too bizarre or distasteful. The worse they were, the easier I could get off. He probably thought he had awakened my dormant sexuality. I paraded around in a bustier and fishnet stockings, which he loved, always suppressing an urge to laugh. When I asked him what Nursie wore in bed, he patted me on the leg and suggested, “Just let it go.”
With her address, I found her phone number. I didn’t feel able to confront her in person yet; maybe I would have to go blonde first, to even the playing field. So I called her from public phones or my friends’ cell-phones. The first time I heard her voicemail message, I felt a surge of joy at her idiotic smugness. There was a fragment of some crackly blues recording, followed by her throaty voice, saying “Yes, that was Blind Willie McTell. Call Later”. I never left a message. What could I say? “Please kill yourself?” But I called often, and never felt like a stalker. The whole time, I felt more like she was stalking me.
On the day he planned to drive Nursie to some godforsaken outpost of Los Angeles Country to take some Doctor exam, he stopped by my apartment to give me a present: a thrift shop sweater, three sizes too big, with some straggled beading on the front. I threw it away as soon as he left. I knew I had crossed some line later that evening when I sat with a friend in Starbucks. Gazing out the window, I saw a nurse walking down the street. “Richard Speck was a great humanitarian” I said aloud. The announcement startled me. My friend and I laughed, but I feared I was losing my mind.
He didn’t call me the next day, or the day after. I left so many messages that I stopped feeling embarrassed and just starting calling every hour until I fell asleep. On day three, with my veins screaming for a hit, he finally called. Nursie has broken up with him! They had some kind of argument over her need to be Free. That’s what he said, anyway. She told him it was over and he seemed literally deflated. I had never heard him like this. It was almost self-pity. It was spooky. I asked if I could come over for coffee; he used fresh beans and I had always been incapable of making a decent cup. He said okay, without enthusiasm but also without his usual edge of hostility.
We had sex and this time it was like tumbling gracefully over a cliff, instead of the usual struggle to let go. After a few moments of surprised silence, we both said “Bingo!” The first and only time we were ever in sync. We went at it again in an hour; same result. I started to talk about Nursie, but he told me he needed some time before he could discuss it. It was weird without her. Now there were just the two of us. It was lonely.
We continued seeing each other but the premise has shifted so drastically that nothing was the same. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I fell out of love: it’s not like that “clunk” you feel when you first open your heart to someone and let them in. I stopped calling him after a few weeks, and never saw or heard from him until one day, around six months later, I was walking to the post office and he drove past me in his PT Cruiser. He leaned over to wave, and I pretended I didn’t see him.