Too Much To Handle

Featured image is “Reading Woman with Parasol” (1921) Henri Matisse (cropped to format)

“Do you still want to be famous?”

That’s my ex, Ben. He texts me sometimes on weekday mornings while sitting in class at the Ohio State University. When Ben is at home or it’s the weekend I never hear from him because of his girlfriend. Ben has my phone number memorized and doesn’t have my name saved in his phone. He immediately deletes every text he sends me and that I send him, I imagine. Essentially I am now on one side of a scenario that I used to be on the opposite side of. Ben checks in with me from time to time and it’s really all very harmless — our conversations are always about my writing blog (which he faithfully reads), my relationship with my boyfriend Steve, including the topics of jealousy (me), fears (me), hopes for a baby (me) and then Ben’s relationship with Jenny, the forty-fiveish-year-old woman he rebounded me with. He was most likely sleeping with her before we broke up. But that’s neither here nor there.

According to Ben, he and Jenny have a relationship that he describes as “hostile”… but I don’t believe him because, if it were so bad, then why would he stay? He’s got a lot going for him, doesn’t have a problem getting women, that’s for sure. He says he stays because he and Jenny bought a nice red brick home together in the countryside that neither of them wants to part with it. I think Ben just wants to let on that he’s not happy with Jenny just in case he ever has a chance with me, even if he thinks it’s just for one night, and in the far future. The guy is a player and he’s always planning ahead. I think these things with conviction but I never really know if they’re true. Ben tells me he’s been faithful to Jenny all these years (other than this, he says) but a part of me thinks that’s some sort of manplayer trick too. I won’t be fooled. It helps that Ben lives in Ohio and I live in Oregon. Otherwise I couldn’t talk to him like this. It wouldn’t be right. I wonder if it is appropriate even now. I’ve heard before that if any part of a given situation doesn’t feel right, then it isn’t.

Nevertheless, I respond to Ben’s question, “Do you still want to be famous?” with “I want to be a writer who is read, recommended, and respected.” And I smile remembering the passion I felt back in college, always telling Ben “there has to be more to life than this” and “I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders” and “I want to change it, I have to change it.”

Trading love for love for love for love. No more.

He doesn’t say anything back but not out of neglect, he’s probably just changing classes or getting lunch. I’ll hear from him again in a couple of weeks. I ignore Ben completely sometimes and he knows that it’s because I don’t want to mess up what I have with Steve, don’t want to look anywhere else but home for affection and attention. I’ve been around the block enough to know that allowing yourself to do that is writing off your present relationship, signing at the X and pulling the life support from it, whether it takes months, weeks, years or days, your present relationship WILL die if you invest your attention elsewhere. Trading love for love for love for love. No more.

Nevertheless, I respond to Ben nearly every other time I hear from him. And I never initiate contact. But I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t feel guilty about it. That much I do know. And I’m kind of sort of interested in his sperm (and just his sperm) if Steve doesn’t put out eventually.

We are animals. I am a monkey. I am currently reading Sex at Dawn.

So I’m actually at work through these little texts and thoughts and writings. I work at a single person post office and am afforded leisurely mornings where I can write and read after all the mail is put up. It’s a rare day that my boyfriend Steve is off of work but today he’s off and headed into Eugene for chicken feed and to pick up his chainsaw from the repair shop. I texted him around nine a.m. saying he should come by the post office and see me on his way into town. I almost didn’t text him but I figure this is what two people who have only been together for 10 months do. Go see each other and stuff.

Although Steve doesn’t text me back, he does show up at 10:30 or so, which I only half expect him to do. I am sitting on a wooden stool at the front counter, writing on blank computer paper with a blue ink pen. I smile big at him when he walks in (I am trying to make up for the one other time he came to visit me, by totally surprising me, and I was hunched over a Star magazine at my desk devouring a Payday candy bar). That was the first and last time he ever came to see me, until now.

“Hey, baby!” I tell Steve, sitting up straight and flipping my hair casually and immediately telling him how slow it is, in hopes that he might stay for at least a few minutes this time. The post office is like my little second home, I always want people to feel welcome and comfortable and just to love it in there.

I introduce Steve to the new clerk working at the mini-mart counter, which my counter is adjacent to. The kid is a single dad working for the owner of the store to pay off his rent. The kid’s been working for 14 days straight, full days, and he always shows up an hour early. The young man comes up and shakes Steve’s hand, which I think is really nice and gentlemanly.

The clerk starts talking about my poetry book (which he is reading because I gave the owner a copy which she negligently left behind the counter) which is really just a segway into how he, the clerk, is a writer and a poet and that Steve could “probably really relate to” his poetry. I shoot a look at Steve and see his eyes immediately glaze over. I’ve told Steve before he’s too much of a people pleaser (agreeable, is how I described it) and I am impressed when Steve doesn’t immediately lie and agree, “Oh yeah, I would probably lovvve your poetry, man.” Cause I swear I’ve seen him pull that kind of shit before.

Steve is going to town to pick up his chainsaw. He’s that kind of guy. He smokes like a chimney (not that poets don’t smoke, cause they do). He hasn’t cried in two years. He listens to rock-jam and plays it loud. That’s his poetry.

Steve does not read my poetry. I start a new paragraph and say that fact like it’s epic or something.

Steve does not read my poetry. Like I care about it. But I don’t, I really don’t. I really really don’t. I know how it is when you’re on the inside. There’s no need to “peek into” my life for Steve, we live together. Last night he woke up and just lay awake watching me sleep for minutes or hours before groping me and waking me up to make love, to screw me so quickly that I wondered in the morning if it had been a dream or what…that’s romance.

Steve has not read my poetry but he has listened patiently and feigned interest to many a poem read aloud on our back porch over beers and cigarettes or in bed when I am feeling romantic, straddling him in my winter PJ’s and reading “my latest.” So he is exposed to it, yes.

But it’s my exes who are my faithful readers. That’s just how life is.

At the post office, I manage to entertain Steve for a minute or two before he says, “Well, I’d better be heading out now.” Having been comparing him to Ben, who checks my Amazon reviews and reads every single blog I post the minute I post it, and the mini-mart clerk, who reads my poetry in between pumping gas and selling beer to morning-drinkers, I get a little defensive.

“Why?” I ask him, point-blank, which I never do. Why? Just, why? As in, you are my MAN, so why is it that you must go? Just because…I’ll see you at home later? Is that why?

Later, over a delicious homemade meatloaf, mashed potato and gravy dinner, Steve and I start discussing literature. It is well known between us that I prefer non-fiction works, as in true stories, life stories, dramas, stories without happy endings.

Steve for the past several years has only enjoyed fiction or fantasy/fiction, books like the Ender’s Game and Dune. Steve likes epic endings, he says. Sometimes true life stories just don’t have a ton of oomph! Can lack a climax. We agree that non-fiction is sometimes character driven and that the meanings are strewn throughout, the climaxes don’t always come at the end or anywhere near it. And that is just like real life. Not gradual and neat and then epic. No perfect arc or classic ending. Just patterns and misunderstandings and love and monkey sex and people trying to be good to each other and trying to get someone else (but not just anyone) to be good to them.

I’d been closing up the post office for the day, pulling down the tract window, and just as I was about to holler see ya later! to the mini-mart clerk I overheard him having a conversation with a regular customer of ours, a Mexican man who always buys a tall can on his lunch break.

“How’s your wife today?” The Mexican in the beanie asks him. I must note here that a couple of days ago the store clerk told me some of the guys were jokingly referring to me as the clerk’s “wife” — ever since one morning when I gave him a chipper “Hello!” in front of the fellows….

My sensitive ears perk up when I hear this, “How is your wife today?” I can barely see the clerk through the Cheeto’s-Dorito’s display but I do notice him shake his head and say “Haha, I don’t know man, I think she would be too much for me to handle.” Then they both laugh.

Wait, what? Me? Too much to handle? It was as if the clerk could read the words I am writing today…all this overthinking, all this speculation, all this longing and confusion. Too much. Too much to handle. Me?

Huh. I didn’t even know.

Terah Van Dusen

By Terah Van Dusen

Terah Van Dusen is a poet, essayist, and Postmaster for the United States Postal Service. She lives in Elmira, Oregon (outside of Eugene) and is inspired by hard truths, rock concerts, seafood, sex, intimacy, letter writing, and reading memoirs.

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