I wounded myself on Erica. She made some bad decisions regarding what to do with me, but it was not her fault that I put her in a position to have to make them, and she could not have been expected to resolve it flawlessly. At first it's strange, that I bear her no malice but loathe John, when my experience with her was more painful and dragged out so much longer; but somehow she never came to resent me, no matter how out of control I became; she always took the greatest care with me even when she was walking a tightrope with no sight of what was below or ahead. Her fluctuations in resolve were nervewracking, but she never deceived me. So I never got the feeling that she betrayed me... I knew that I'd done this to myself.
I wrote in blank book journals incessantly for a year and a half after she and I got together, documenting every thought I had about her, every event that involved her. The narrative began rationally enough but soon devolved into a schizophrenic microanalysis of her every word and action.
Her physical substance was faintly crystalline; she had fire-red hair whose translucence made it glow, and possessed very pale skin saturated with freckles, patterned along her limbs and contours like some kind of jungle cat. Her blue-gray eyes did not transfix, but rather fit her easy, smirking smile. Casual confidence. She was curvy and soft and sleek, but I didn't see her body. Her personality absorbed mine and her smile could not be disregarded. She had a biting wit, genius sarcasm; the world was here to be judged by her, was that so unreasonable? In many ways she was a template for me.
One can talk about how another person is beautiful, is intelligent, is fun to be around, but from where do these feelings obtain? I've wondered if enumerating Erica's qualities was simply an effort to justify a desire I did not understand.
Late in January of my junior year I became aware of her. I saw her in the labs and we ran into each other at parties. As a bit of apocrypha it seemed she'd dated my first college roommate Mike Horner; we had unknowingly crossed paths many times. Erica's charm was an implacable monster. I became infatuated with her. Recollection suggests I needed little excuse to do so. But she had a boyfriend, or rather two. There was Paul, or 'Oskie,' a twenty-three year-old graduate student whom she'd been seeing for about a year and had planned to marry, and Brian, another junior, who was her constant companion and auxiliary consort. She'd dated Brian since the previous October. Of the two I considered Brian to be the insurmountable obstacle. He was what was called a Renaissance man, geeky to be sure, but personable, multitalented, smooth in his own way. I dug him. I couldn't imagine she'd dump him for me. Compared to him, Oskie was mere theory, flat and uninteresting. I saw nothing appealing about Oskie... he was a nice guy but a zero.
Early on I told her of my attraction, obvious as it was. She graciously shot me down, explaining that two boyfriends were problem enough, to say nothing of all her coursework, and I agreed. But as we continued to hang out together I made no secret of my feelings, at the same time trying not to be a pain in the ass. Realistically I imagined that would be the end of it, since that's how it always turned out. So we were friends. We caused havoc at keg parties, or sipped tiny glasses of Cointreau at her place, drank beer and traded rude jokes with her roommate, a pretty DJ named Sunday. They smoked assloads of cigarettes they'd scammed out of a marketing group, drank until they staggered, farted in private company. They took no shit. They were a new breed to me, hot intelligent women who were as aggressive and assertive as any guys I knew. Later I would wonder if I'd fallen so hard for Erica because she was what I wanted to be, or if I became what I am because it was a way to possess what she was.
She gave me her address so we could meet during spring break, so while home in Sarasota I planned a road trip, driving from there to Jimmy's house in Plantation, near Miami, on the way back stopping in Ft. Myers to see Erica. Alligator Alley at the time was 100 miles of two-lane blacktop through the wilds of south Florida with no breakdown lanes and no stops. If you wanted to pass you had to go into the oncoming lane. Accidents were frequent. The speed limit was whatever you made it. On the day I drove it was hot and dry; in places the grass burned on either side of the road, turning it into a tunnel of fire.
Jimmy and I cruised the mall for a couple of hours, and then I got going so I'd have time to see Erica. I hadn't told Jimmy that I was obsessed with her, but he wasn't stupid. I was driving what had been my mother's car, a 1978 Cutlass Salon I called the Carnagemobile. It had a leaky cooling system which needed to be refilled after an extended journey. This was not normally a problem. But this would be the day I crippled the Carnagemobile.
In my haste to get back to the Gulf Coast I forgot to refill the radiator. I was already speeding. Ahead of me was a white BMW. Impulsively I decided I would not be left behind by it. Some kind of testosterone thing. Now, the BMW is a car made by a country whose highways have no speed limits. What was I thinking? I had the Carnagemobile up to 90 for several minutes when the engine started kicking and grinding, shaking the entire car like it would fly out the hood. Then it stalled. It struck me then that I'd forgotten the water. I popped the hood and twisted off the radiator cap; this should have been disastrously foolish but the radiator was desert-dry, and instead of being hit by a geyser of scalding water I was greeted with a breath of hot, rusty air.
Distressed, my only thought was that I'd never see Erica now. I had some water in a jug in the trunk. When I poured it into the radiator it boiled. I tried scooping some dirty water out of the drainage ditch to top it off. The car did not want to turn over; it was impossibly overheated. After fifteen minutes I was able to start it but it wanted to stall, and I slid into somebody's driveway to wait some more.
The guy who lived there offered to help; he put his garden hose in the radiator and flooded it with water. It could be this that finally damaged the car, the cool water creating untold fractures in the engine. He ran the hose until the overflow was cool to the touch. The car started easily after this and I thanked him before limping back to the west coast at a cautious speed.
In Ft. Myers I found my way to Erica's parents' house. I was surprised that such a remarkable person lived in a house so ordinary, almost run-down. Erica wasn't home. I was greeted by her father, a man in loose work pants and a strappy t-shirt, a curl of white hair dancing in the breeze above his head. I'd heard a bit about the guy. He'd been quite a character in his time. He'd stolen Clark Gable's girlfriend at one point, had fucked the green alien dancing girl from Star Trek. Unbelievable things. He was friendly and puzzled. I asked him to let Erica know I'd been by.
I've never decided why Erica became attracted to me. I've never ascribed to the idea that I'm lovable for my own sake. It might have been my unobtrusive resolve. She might have been a sucker for flattery, as I am, or a collector type, weary of the lovers she already had. Maybe Oskie pushed her too far; maybe Brian's pride incensed her. Maybe she perceived some quality in me which I am incapable of admitting. All of these? None of them? But she was growing attached to me. She told me so on a Monday afternoon in April.
I used the common phone in the hallway of Buckman co-op, sitting in a cruddy leather chair, the air still and a little too warm. The subject turned to my feelings. Erica asked me what I thought she felt for me. I had no idea and told her so. She confided that she was attracted to me and that I'd been on her mind frequently in past weeks.
By now I was in love with her. Perhaps if she'd known the enormity of my feelings she wouldn't have said anything. I was immobilized by her admission, stunned into flatline. Circuit breakers had snapped in my mind. As though anticipating this, mitigating this, she reminded me that her romantic involvements were as fucked as ever and that taking another lover was not called for. I nodded. Sure, I said, made perfect sense. I'd have said anything. The rest of the day was a blur.
At two the following morning a knock on the door permeated the music in my headphones. There was a call for me. Erica told me she'd been out partying with a friend, drinking cheap wine, when she'd had an urge to call me and went home to do so. She was tempted to drive over but felt too drunk to manage.
Erica asked me if I wanted her.
The second following her words rang out forever. I needed her, I replied. Then come over, she said. But knock quietly; her roommate was asleep.
I lost some minutes. I found myself pedaling my bike as fast as I could uphill, the tails of my trenchcoat flying out behind me, gooseflesh on my legs because I was wearing shorts in the damp, chill night. Illumination was dreamlike; I was pedaling into a painting. Sidewalk cracks thumped beneath me, trees floated by, muddy water splashed my calves when I crossed side streets. This wasn't real... nothing resolved itself in my favor... good things did not happen to me. Maybe Brian and Oskie were going to beat the shit out of me when I got there, I thought, laughing and pedaling.
For a long time Erica and I just held each other. The weight of the world, the insuperable angst and loneliness of being an unlaid, undesired teenage boy flooded out of me, trickled into the earth, hopefully never to return, leaving me weightless. We kissed, traveled through universes I hadn't dared imagine. Then we were on her bed.
The poor girl had to ask and ask again; I dared to do nothing. How did I think she felt about me, she asked? No help from me. Erica took my hand and pressed it into the crotch of her jeans. She had soaked them through. Did I do this? Impossible. I was being destroyed, I had brought myself to exquisite doom. Everything I'd believed about myself was fragmenting.
Naked now, the touch of my hand on her skin seemed to bring her indescribable pleasure. I was very much a spectator; this was a dream. We made love. That was what I understood it to be. This ideal was not mere fucking. My nervousness rendered me impotent at first, but she knew what to do, what to say, and then it was good. We tried a couple of different positions; whatever my own epiphany, Erica wanted to be pleased. We sorted out something to our mutual satisfaction.
After, she told me the truth, something I later would or could not see. She was afraid of hurting me, because there was no telling when our thing would have to end. Nothing beyond it had changed. I told her that even if I got hurt it would have been worth it, but in a way I was lying, for inwardly I'd started to believe I could be hers. I got dressed and slipped off home.
We talked on the phone the next day. Neither of us expressed any regrets.
Erica and Sunday gave a small private party that weekend. Jimmy came along with me. It was pretty intense and a lot of us crashed there. In the morning people started drifting out, and in the end only Brian and I were left. Erica excused herself, saying she needed to get back to bed. Brian and I prepared to leave. I had a pile of photos from my class to put away and took slightly longer than he did.
When Brian slipped out he left the door ajar. The implication was clear. He knew there was something between myself and Erica. He didn't trust me alone with her. The open door was to suggest that I leave. But I was still gathering up my shit. I felt weird, sitting in the living room with the apartment door hanging open, but I couldn't close it, couldn't symbolically shut Brian out. A couple of minutes later he returned. I thought he'd forgotten something, but he just looked around in agitation, said nothing, and left again. I knew that he knew.
The front door was still open when I knocked softly on Erica's bedroom door and said goodbye. She walked me to the front door and hugged me before I left. She held me. After a minute she pushed the door closed and locked it.
We retired to her bedroom. It began as a repeat of the previous visit, but this time she couldn't do anything for my impotence. I was as overwhelmed as ever. She began to understand how badly I was stuck on her. It had to stop, she decided. She liked me a lot and I got her wet, sure, but she could see that when it inevitably ended it would destroy me. It had to stop now before it went too far.
I was devastated. Only just acclimating to being with Erica, she was out of reach again. I went home, wept and howled into my pillow until it was a mass of snot and wet, indifferent to the appeals of my roommates, my voice carrying out into the hall. When I could be bothered to sit up I looped a belt around my neck and pulled it tight with my hands. When the black came upon me I relented and let it go. I sniveled for hours and finally just sat and stared. Erica called later to check on me. She asked me if I wanted her to stop speaking to me, to make it easier. That was unthinkable. I said no.
In the following days I spoke to no one, my mood bleak. I heard that Erica had extricated herself from our mutated lovers' quadrangle, choosing Oskie. I had shaken her; she felt guilty for having fun with me when I was so obviously enamoured with her. She blamed herself for everything. She had to pick one of us for the good of everybody involved.
At first when she told Brian he thought it was so she could see me. My longing and devotion was sloppily glaring to everyone but myself. He didn't speak to her for weeks after. Five days in her possession had wiped me out. I couldn't imagine what six months had done to Brian. When she told me about it she acted pissed off, but really she was hurt that her friend had closed himself to her, or perhaps was shocked. Brian seemed too mature and confident to go off in a snit. But I couldn't blame him. Oskie? It made no sense. Brian had never really believed he could lose Erica.
I chewed on the results like a damaged mainframe, running them around in my head over and over, scrawling analyses and heavy metal lyrics in the journal I was keeping. Erica kept a journal, so now I did too. Why Oskie? How could it work? How could they get married if he'd driven her to take Brian and then me? I had to prove to myself that it definitely would or wouldn't work, either way, anything so I wasn't left hanging. There were no definites for me. Erica didn't hate me; she wanted to stay friends. Furthermore she was not unattracted to me. Resolving to date only one guy implied that she desired us all, and wanting to stand by her decision was not the same as enjoying it. Erica and I still went out together, still held hands, held each other.
Although she surely understood that Brian needed solitude to sort himself out, she was upset by his reaction; she missed him. She was not prepared for the consequences of her decision, not prepared to have us retreat, although she saw no alternative. She and I talked on the phone for hours every day. Brian had always been her confidante and now he was pulling away. I desperately craved any time with her and now she confided in me. She needed someone to help her go through with it. I did not understand this at the time; at the time I couldn't see how difficult it all was for her. I was blind to everything but my own desire and pain. She thought I could handle it.
Erica may have been letting me down gently. But while she was letting me down she was being dragged in. It was finals week. All of us were trashed from this romantic implosion; we'd be lucky if we didn't all flunk our fucking exams. And in the middle of this Erica admitted that she loved me. Again I was overjoyed, confused. But fuck, I was her friend, her confidante. I told her she'd have to consider not talking to me anymore if she was sliding back into the same situation. She didn't like that idea... it was as unthinkable to her now as it had been to me a week and a half earlier. She asked me to be strong for her, that if she started to give in I should keep it from going too far. Me? A most unlikely person. I would do my best.
Why did she come to me with her problems? Why not her fiancée? At the time I thought she was sticking with Oskie out of some stubborn resolve, or as penance for cheating on him. But how could she possibly confide in him that she still felt strongly for her other lovers, and wound him over and over with her words? I was the only one left who was acquainted with the dilemma and who would listen.
Erica bombed out of her philosophy final. My own grades were crashing and burning but I didn't give a fuck. I would continue to not give a fuck into my senior year, as my graphic design instructors noticed. But Erica cared about her future. She was trying to get into her major. Whatever Oskie said to cheer her up afterward was all wrong. Rather than rip him to ribbons she sent him home. Then she called me. We talked, I offered advice and support. Did I want to come over? she asked. Sure.
We were just going to hold each other. I'd promised it wouldn't go any further. When we started kissing I stopped us. Three times. By the third time she sounded disappointed, frustrated. I gave her a look. 'What?' my eyes said, but I thought to myself 'What am I doing?' I was her friend, I had promised, but I was also her plaything. I told Erica I wanted her as badly as she wanted me, but that if she could assure me she would have no regrets I would relent. She said she would have none at all, and we kissed. A few minutes later she rose from the couch and pulled me toward her room. "Come on," she said gently, as though it were inevitable. I looked at her; I suppose I looked fearful. She calmed me, said that we might as well have done everything already. I had failed. I didn't feel like I'd failed. I went with her.
This time she took me slowly. She would not pounce me and have me turn into a flaccid eunuch due to excessive adulation; and we had a small but intense history now, I was blinded less by her magnificence. This time it was incredible, unspeakable. I felt vindicated after my previous fuck-ups. "Okay, that's what's supposed to happen," I said. I went down on her as well. I'd never wanted to eat a girl out-- Helen curdled any appetite I had for it --but I was eager to please Erica in any way, so I dove upon her, gorged on her. I was impressed at the reaction I provoked, but I've since learned that anything done with the tongue between the legs is golden. I got over myself.
The next day Oskie was not happy, but remained manageable. He and Erica didn't break up. I realized then that they probably never would. Fine, I said to myself, I would ride this out until the end. I had no choice. I was now what Brian had been, it seemed; the lift from it kept me from blowing my finals completely. Erica, meanwhile, was back where she'd started.
Erica and I fucked two more times. The final time I imagined it was some sort of definitive statement regarding my chances with her, and it was, but not the way I thought. The break between spring and summer classes was almost upon us, and on her last night in town she sent Oskie home and invited me over.
After one of our last times together Erica took a piece of glass and slashed her forearm. She couldn't say why. She hadn't done it for years. But it was pretty clear it was because of me, because she was still seeing me. I would repeat the action years later in my own duress. I learned self-mutilation from Erica. She hated herself for what she was participating in, feared that she wasn't capable of being faithful to anyone. Oskie didn't trust her at all... once when he left her place he admonished her to 'be good.' He would not give her an ultimatum regarding me. He understood that although Erica doubted her judgment she would not be told what to do. It was the first of May when she cut herself.
My going home for the break was explicitly to give Erica and Oskie time to cement their relationship. But I was surprised when this happened. We kept in touch over the break. One night Erica told me we had to stop saying we loved each other. She saw it as a first step to commitment to her fiancée. I acceded but I still wanted her, not seeing or caring what the situation was doing to her. She sometimes felt incapable of fidelity; I imagined I was not really anyone's friend. My desire for her always overrode my consideration for her well-being. I justified it by telling myself her life with me would be for the best, an obvious lie in light of my wretched self-esteem. I constantly lied to myself where it involved Erica. And I believed (perhaps we both believed) that our dating would resume when I got back to Gainesville.
But fortunately for her, Erica had at last found her resolve. We had one last snuggle in my summer room in Buckman, talked about lunchtime trysts, but after that she found her balance and held firm. It took me a few days to accept, and when I did, I fell and fell. I tried the belt trick again. I went after my wrist with a knife, being too much of a coward to do anything more than scratch it. I'd torn up my arm while robbing a candy machine, so it was camouflaged and I didn't have to explain it. Erica spent less time with me, to get over me, I suppose. I returned to constant analysis of a static situation. At night I curled up in bed and whined. I skipped my classes.
Around this time Brian reappeared. Maybe he was smarter than all of us and just bowed out of the mess until his final exams were dealt with. I became convinced that Erica was going to take him back or had already done so. I stopped talking to her, unable to handle it. I'm sure she understood even if she wasn't pleased. But I really didn't think she'd miss me.
One night early in July I left a small note on Erica's door which simply said 'Goodbye.' I got into the Carnagemobile and took the narrow, poorly-lit south road out of town. I plugged Megadeth into the stereo and pushed the car as fast it would go, the engine screaming, my eyes filled with tears as I waited to lose control of the vehicle, not quite having the balls to jerk the wheel and finish it. By the time I reached a red light I had calmed down... I stared dumbly through the windshield as the car stalled.
A couple of guys in a pickup truck came along and got out to help me. They seem to have also been suicidally insane. The larger of the two men pulled off his t-shirt and used it to unscrew the radiator cap. The cap rebounded off his belly and bounced into the night, never to be found; he staggered backwards as an enormous fountain of hot rusty water shot up into the night sky, suffusing the intersection with the stink of dying automobile. Muddy droplets rained down on the roof.
They gave me some antifreeze. I pushed some money at them, thanking them, and turned the car around, but it kept stalling. No longer suicidal, now I just felt foolish. I pulled into the driveway of a fire station. There was no hose or faucet I could find, so I waited for the car to cool down, expecting to drive off and on until sunrise. But after an hour one of the garage doors rattled upward; they had an emergency call and my car was in the way. Again I'd failed to kill myself and now I prevented an unknown bystander from getting assistance. The fireman ran some water through my radiator and I got out of there. Erica was pissed about the note. I didn't tell her what else I'd done.
Late in August I'd wound down enough that Erica and I were speaking again. Brian and I were her frequent companions, both waiting to inveigle a new relationship out of her. It was a return to the state of affairs before she and I slept together, but tainted by our history. She smelled that I was waiting for another chance and was wary of my stability.
Whatever for? I had a stock of sleeping pills in my room. I told myself that if it got too bad I'd eat them all. I did take a couple to equalize my schedule after doing term papers, but the rest never served their purpose. Vodka and I became very closely acquainted.
I started fucking other girls. They flocked to me now that I was ambivalent. Many were aware that they were surrogates, and had varying opinions about Erica, whom I never shut up about. I took my degree courses but I considered classes irrelevant and didn't attend regularly. My design instructor was infuriated by my lack of concern... once I knew this I baited him with it. Imperceptibly, as months passed, I rejoined the world.
I was less wounded-looking and Erica was more inclined to spend time with me. But as I got over her I was less interested in that. When I did speak to her it was like an addict shooting up after being clean a while. So good, but so wrong and frightening. It became so that I would almost flee after meeting her.
One helpful event was that she divested herself of Oskie, meeting a new guy named Kevin. If I'd needed a signal that the problem was not Oskie but me, this was it. I didn't even have the pleasure of hating Kevin because he was too fucking nice, he didn't feel threatened by me nor made me feel unwelcome. What can you do sometimes? Erica wanted a friend, not an emotional vampire. She told Helen as much; I wanted so much that she was afraid I'd drain her, leave her with nothing. I refused to understand.
After a while she and I kept completely different company... I graduated and later moved out of town. The last time I spoke to her was a couple of years after. She called Jimmy for some reason, and when she learned I was there she had him put me on. I had nothing to say to her. She still considered me a friend and tried to engage me, but I found her pushy and overly familiar. I spoke briefly, sounding faintly pissed off, before making an excuse and hanging up. Now that I'd killed hope of romance with Erica, I discarded her friendship.
For a time she was the arbiter of my existence. I still can't say why. In one explanation, of the people for whom I've expressed romantic love, she was the first to endulge me. Another idea is that she was the first girlfriend whom I felt was worthy of me, that beneath my persistent self-loathing is something prideful whose requirements were never before satisfied. These might have fed each other.
At the time I found it very easy to lay my emotional state on Erica, but truly it was continuity with what I'd known before her. The denial, the thwarted hope made me blame her. In the end it was all me. Erica was the spectator. She did not make me what I am; she diverted me momentarily.