The stiff, white creamed cheese frosting peaked high and sharp against the humid summer sky outside Cupcake Charlie’s. Its swirled sides loomed over the edges of the wax paper like a cornice over Denali’s West Buttress. It was spread too thick for my tongue to penetrate and so, pulling my lips back over my gums, I sank my teeth gently around the swirled top and sucked a kiss-sized mouthful away from the cake. A rush of sweet exploded as my tongue pressed the melting sugar and cheese into the roof of my mouth. J’s eyes met mine and we moaned together, “Oh my God!” he exclaimed, swallowing his frosted chocolate on chocolate bite, “this is SO good!”. We smiled ecstatically, letting the thick, sweet scent from the cupcake store linger between us before I reached into my purse and pulled a small spray bottle of Windex. J’s eyebrows knit together pleadingly. He wimpered as I methodically sprayed our cupcakes and threw them in the trash. It was the only way to keep from eating more.
I lie. That never happened. At least it never happened like that. J and I did share cupcakes at Cupcake Charlie’s when he joined me on my vacations in Falmouth, just as we shared many sweet indulgences when I took him to Gloucester and Rockport or as we wandered through Newport, or after a poetry slam at the Oberon. And he always moaned, and I do press the frosting into the roof of my mouth, and the sweetness does explode, and we did let the smell linger between us. But I was always the one who cleaned my plate, despite my ambivalence about stopping for sweets. And J always stopped before cleaning his plate, despite begging me to join him for dessert. Sometimes, I even finished his leftover dessert. I should have noticed that pattern.
Metaphorically speaking, though, I did spray our cupcakes with Windex and toss them in the trash by going public with our story. I tried to keep the Inauguration Day blog from reaching J and his friends. But, some one, or maybe more, of his “well-meaning” “friends” saw it and shared it, and now I have no access to triggers like J’s girlfriend’s posts of them kissing or the beach they’re probably lying on as I write before the foot of snow outside my window. Now that they’ve denied me entry by closing their borders, I can no longer study their pages for material. Now I must feed off of the cupcake in the trashcan, or sit and examine the impulse to retrieve it.
Valentine’s Day, V-day for short, a day selected for performances of The Vagina Monologues to raise money for the liberation of women from violence, an abbreviation linked to Victory Day, my analogical day of Freedom, felt so exultant at its peak. Who hasn’t felt the triumph of a character pouring the evil scotch or vodka down the toilet in the story of alcoholism? “You Go Girl!” you cry. The problem is that with every peak there’s a valley, and it’s what happens after you go cold-turkey that really makes a difference. Withdrawal, even emotional withdrawal, is hard, folks. I won’t lie about that, it’s damn hard!
The women in my life are my saviours, but, I must rely on them with care. I see them cringe as I reach into the trash to swipe off a touch of frosting. I see the alarm on their faces as I try to wipe away the tainted surface. I see their disgust as I open my mouth to take a bite. That soft, white, neglected, gelatinous underbelly of mine ain’t pretty. Don’t NOBODY wanna see that! Especially in someone who was your leader, your inspiration, your rock. Nope.
We don’t tolerate the human condition well. As a society, we lean towards Western ideals of good and bad, judgements over perceptions, familiar over foreign, closed over open, restrictions over abundance, fear over love. At least there is a very vocal minority of us who view the world in black and white, leaving the rest of us in our many shades of grey and vibrant color out in the cold looking for comfort in the salvaged sweet of a tainted cupcake. This was a source of constant conflict between J and I.
“You act like your shit doesn’t stink, Paulina, but it does!” yelled J, amusing himself with the innuendo, “You act like you’re this perfect little yogi, but you’re not!”
“But I AM perfect, J, just as you are! We are all perfect!” I managed before he interrupted with the list of things he did “right” in contrast to my many “failings”. Our ideas of perfection were vastly different concepts.
“J you have a false sense of self if you latch on…” but I couldn’t even hear my own voice over his vehement condemnations of my character. His jaw was set tight against some woman who was not the one standing before him. “It’s not fair to take it out on me, j. I don’t know who you’re talking about, or what she did, but it’s not me you’re talking to.”
And that is what hurt me the most every time. The angry accusations and insults he flung at me fell flacid at my feet because I could not relate to them. But I was the one standing before him. I was the one who exposed my underside to him. I took down my guard and opened my heart. How could he not see me standing there? And, as if I didn’t exist, he left me standing there, exposed, while he went off and “processed” things without me.
And I still don’t know what was processed. Did he chew on what I said to him to make it digestable? Or was it merely the anger he processed through cement walls back to the locked cell of his psyche? After two or three days of silence, absence, avoidance, one or the other of us would text and we’d get together again as if nothing ever happened. There was never any true reconciliation, never any discussion about what happened.
J did strive for a version of “perfection” - a clean surface, West-Hartford kind of perfection. He does still, I’m sure of it. He is meticulously well-groomed. He shaves the hair on his torso to a very specific length. He sees the dentist regularly and whitens his teeth. He worries about the skinfold above his belt.
“Are these pants too loose?” he asks me, pulling at the seat of the pants he’s trying on at The Gap. “I think they look great!” I answer, happy to absorb the sight of his lean, tan body. “You don’t think they sag at the butt?” he persists. “Oh my God, I’m dating a girl!” I exclaim. “Well you don’t want me to look sloppy, do you?” he stressed, hitting the nail on the head. “No!” I said, alarmed, “Ok, let’s try on the other ones for me to compare.” And that was when I decided I was dating the man of my dreams.
My biggest pet peeve about Boston men was their slovenliness. I hated the way they wore baseball caps backwards, I hated their oversized sweatshirts, I hated their board shorts and untucked dress shirts. I hated their spare tires. While the women were expected to find that perfect balance of conservative and polished sexy, Boston men lived like they were still in college well into their thirties. They hung out and joked like frat boys. They slept on mattresses on the carpeted floors of their Charlestown condos and gathered on sectionals in front of big-screen TVs to drink beer and belch or fart loudly then laugh about it. They told sexist jokes in front of their girlfriends and none of them spoke up to defend us. I pretended to be cool about it, but I hated it. J was not like that at all. I love that about him.
But like everything we love, there’s another side. The time not spent watching football is spent locked in the bathroom. Perfect teeth and skin require gadgets and potions that interfere with pillow talk. The energy spent selecting a perfect pair of pants or grooming or resisting the cupcake is energy not spent cogitating the Fallacies of Perfection. Cogitations that might let those fallacies fall away towards acceptance and love.
“Can I put my feet on your dash, J?” I asked as we drove away from the mall, “They’re clean.” He shrugged, “sure.” I Leaned back to let the breeze blow through my hair and put my feet up. The hem of my pants fell back to reveal unshaven legs. “I’m dating a guy!” exclaimed J. I looked down at my shins and laughed heartily. It felt like acceptance. It felt like we were partners in defiance against a world that would limit our experience by defining us. I felt like we were mutable pegs exploring the space in square holes. It felt like I got to enjoy the same freedom as men in that instant, and I loved him even more for it. And J seemed to love it, too.
In his bedroom that night, the sense of freedom I felt joined us. He turned on the stereo, put on the lights, and I relaxed enough to let him play and explore. And when were were done, as we started pulling on clothes, a familiar rhythm emerged from the speakers, a new remix of an old favorite of mine that compelled me to move. With the curly strands of my long hair brushing along the small of my back, my arms raised, I swayed and bounced my hips to “Get Lucky” as J rested on his bed and watched. It was the first and only time I ever danced topless, moved by the music, rather than any attempt to please. My topless dance was a celebration of freedom.
J’s sweetness was like Miami heat to this Yankee. It slowed me down, it made me appreciate the breeze, it made me forget the millions of things I had waiting to be done. It was an escape. And it felt like J was attracted to the sense of freedom I experienced around him. But his slow was not to be confused with innocence. It was West-Hartford reserved. It was deliberate. And “acceptance”, as impossible as it is for a woman to find, is even more difficult in Beantown, and practically a foreign concept in J’s home town of West-Hartford.
The sense of freedom and acceptance I felt with J would be short-lived. Freedom feels exhilarating in the beginning. With no anchors to hold you back you can sail as fast as you want, allowing the breeze and tides to carry you. If you are not prepared for it, though, freedom can feel terrifying. When you go so far out that you cannot drop anchor, you need to be able to interpret the color of the sky, the density of the air, the direction of the wind, and the sound of your heart. If you have not learned to rely on your own intuition, you define the world by the set of rules you were raised with and curse the elements that will not let you drop anchor.
Freedom was a reality for me. I had prepared for some time to let go of the rules imposed upon me by society. J had not. He continued to play by the only rules he knew - those of the West - from the Old Testament to West Hartford - rules of judgements and retaliation and laws. What I had not prepared for was the world that existed outside my bubble - the world that J was familiar with. As I got excited at the prospect of the first woman president, the tactics of a misogynist set free a world of hate. To keep up the appearance of perfection, honest communication fell prey to fake news, totalitarian-style propaganda, and outright lies.