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[Story]

This Feels So Real

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When Ashley told me to go home, I went. Well, not immediately. First I walked to a garden and sat on a bench, or I think it was a garden, but there’s a chance it was a cemetery and I was crying on a grave. Who knows. I was not in my home country; love had led me, Ryan P, astray. Love had led me to Taiwan, love had led me to China. Love has led me to China! I tweeted and maybe even said. But maybe love didn’t.

So I cried when Ashley broke up with me, something I wouldn’t normally do after nonexclusively dating a girl for just a few weeks on TV, except that there were the usual camera people following me around, and I knew it would make them happy if I cried, and I wanted to make them happy. They pestered us constantly to bad-mouth each other—to admit, for example, that we thought the other Ryan, Ryan M, was secretly gay, or that Blake was a hilarious dumbass because he always said “Karma’s a bitch” after he’d himself done something worthy of a karma smackdown.

We guys told Ashley that our families loved us and we loved our families, that our families were our spiritual protein shakes, that our notion of an ideal Sunday was to cook turkey chili with them, and toss a pigskin on the lawn in Tommy Hilfiger sweaters, and love-tackle each other in the red leaf piles. Even those of us who grew up in Miami with wheelchair-bound Dominican parents told her this. I told Ashley this, too. It didn’t happen, but it could have. I came from a family where the energy was too low for much hating or divorcing or, conversely, chili making or ball throwing, but, conversely, we did sit on couches on Sundays and most other days and watch the plasma and never talk but, conversely, never did we call each other cuntsacks. Truth, see. No real love but the total possibility for it. Though my mother did say to me once, and not even because she had cancer, You are my sun. I am. I am everyone’s sun. Some people in my family, my father, for example, because he has cancer of the personality, hate the sun. What can I do with those people except beam them with my special optimism and say to them, just as I say to the potential accounts at my solar-energy firm, Without the sun you die?

So in the Chinese garden or wherever I cried, I told the camera people, which was true, that I’d been one hundred and ten percent open to falling in love with Ashley; she was so smart; she was supposedly a dentist and I totally believed this about her, because she was always sucking with her tongue at her teeth, self-cleaning them or something. This is why I’d embarked on this journey, I told the camera people, to meet the woman of my dreams. Plus what we’d had was so real, I recalled; when we were on our date on top of a half-finished skyscraper, which we’d summited with the help of a team of urban mountaineers, I’d said, This feels so real, and Ashley had totally agreed. Then, as we fed each other fondue, I’d informed her that I had let my walls down and was ready to fall in love. And sure, maybe my walls coming down wasn’t as dramatic as the other walls that had come down on her other dates with the other guys, because I didn’t have a dead dad who’d made me put up those walls, just a perma-dick dad, which didn’t count as much. But all these other guys with their dead dads and their walls, it was frankly kind of ridiculous; it was like each guy’s dad was a carpenter, and before he died he’d said to his son, “Quick, son, build yourself some walls!”

I could honestly say, flaws aside, like the teeth sucking and the fact that her water heater, while she was in China, was consuming hundreds of pointless kilowatt-hours in Philadelphia, that Ashley was the kind of woman I could see spending my life with.

She’d told the camera people (one of them later told me) that she could see that about me, too.

And then she stopped seeing that about me, I guess.

After I finished crying I said to the camera people, of our breakup, “Whoa, I was not expecting that,” though what I was not expecting I can’t exactly say. I wasn’t expecting to have to board a plane basically immediately and fly with a teen Mongoloid tour group in coach, totally alone, totally without the guys and the carpenter ghosts of their dead fathers, and sprout a giant bunion on my carbon footprint on top of it all. I wasn’t expecting to return to my job at Sun & Sons Solar and a life so real that it verged on totally unreal, a life where I was not Ryan P but just Ryan because I wasn’t part of anything bigger than myself, something bigger that was also, if this makes sense, very small. On my journey with Ashley I knew my enemies, I knew my friends, I knew which Ryan I wasn’t, and I knew I wanted love. Sometimes these four things tried to cancel each other out, which got confusing, but mostly it was not at all confusing. Now it was confusing again. Again I was in competition with the faceless millions of men out there for the faceless millions of women, most of whom did not have an army of stylists on hand to make them look beautiful, even when they were feeling gross and sad. I was not expecting my chest hair, when I stopped waxing it, to grow back so soft.

And maybe it was this, the soft chest hair that I enjoyed blowing with my hair dryer after I’d finished with my head and watching in the mirror as it rippled and flattened like the down of a chick. I’d once found a chick in a rainstorm and rescued it and blow-dried it, a story I’d meant to tell Ashley once we’d gotten to know each other a little better and she was ready to hear what the camera people called my “sniper shot,” the story that would core the heart from my remaining competition, all of whom I loved, by the way, like brothers. But Ashley had never been ready to hear about the chick. Every time I tried to get her alone and tell her about the chick, she got a scared look on her face, like she’d had too much champagne and was going to vomit in her lap. Then she’d accused me, on our final date in China, of being too positive. She told me to take it down a notch, energy-wise, because she preferred a “half-caff guy,” a guy she could just hang out and be herself with, and I’d said, smiling, “Sorry, Ashley, but I’m a fully caffeinated joy latte,” a comment she later told the camera people proved that I wasn’t being real with her, but it wasn’t totally my fault, because I was not a real person.

She said it was sort of like expecting a blind guy to describe a sunset. It just wasn’t fair to do that.

But then a few weeks after Ashley broke up with me, the show’s host, Chris, called me out of the blue. He said, “I don’t think you’re ready to end your journey with Ashley.”

About Chris. I still didn’t know what to make of Chris, because, well, to be totally factually accurate, Chris was the one who broke up with us, not Ashley, because when Ashley broke up with a guy she preferred to communicate in symbols, not language. Once a week Ashley gave out symbols of her affection, symbols that she would first fiddle with and hold against her truly astonishing boobs, which I guess to her was her heart, until she didn’t give you a symbol, and then Chris would step in to translate what her failure to give her symbol meant.

It meant that she’d dumped us. And, all due respect, but we didn’t need Chris to tell us this. We were pretty sure that Chris spent the many hours when he wasn’t translating for Ashley watching porn in his hotel room. Not judging, just saying. We all spent a lot of time in hotel rooms waiting for Ashley to ask us on dates, and I’d be lying if I said this didn’t mess with our sense of justice, and made us watch programs where for example a woman is stripped naked and tied to a wooden pallet by a trio of forklift operators wearing chaps and no underwear. “Porn is the balm!” the other Ryan used to say, and he was right, it was the balm; it soothed our burning pride while we waited around in our bathrobes for Ashley to choose us to escort her on a spelunking expedition through a network of caves, because Ashley was claustrophobic and every date involved deeply freaking her out so that she might mistake her panic for the violent disorientation of love. Point being, Chris always had that glassy thousand-yard porn stare when he emerged from whatever room he’d been hiding in and started swishing his hands around, and now that I think about it, maybe he’d just washed them, thank God, because of what he’d just been up to, and now he was drying them.

But regardless of my not totally getting the point of Chris, I figured Chris probably had a pretty decent sense of what was going on in Ashley’s heart. And he was saying to me, by not exactly saying it, that she had not finished her journey with me, even though she’d been journeying and journeying since she’d dumped me; but maybe her journey was feeling empty to her, and also unreal and kind of wasteful, because she’d really heard what I’d told her about nonrenewable resources. She’d made a hasty decision sending me home, and now she was stuck with a Greek guy who ran an Italian-American restaurant in Atlanta and a contractor with a 3-D temple vein and a probable gay—all of whom I still loved like brothers, no matter what they said about me—and while they’d seemed full of renewable hotness in a sea of less burningly hot guys, individually they winnowed her life down to three specific and pretty dark futures. And she maybe wanted me to increase her happiness odds, because I was her sun, and because she needed to choose a husband, and her options sucked, and time, as it always is for women, was running out.

Chris told me where I could find Ashley. (She was in Fiji now.) And so, though my carbon footprint was verging on the Yeti-size, I flew to Fiji, and I checked into a room, and I waited until Chris called to say that Ashley was “ready for me.” So I knocked on her door, and Ashley was not ready. Which I guess by Chris’s porn standards meant she was ready, total surprise being the best trigger to instantly depart the logic of your situation and tear off your clothes and enjoy some intercourse. He was, in his way, looking out for me. Ashley was shocked to see me, but not so shocked that she unknotted her sarong and threw me onto her futon and made speechless, animal love to me. But I saw this as a good sign. She was trying to see me as a husband. Not once did she smile. Mostly she just played with the fruit on her coffee table, bowling it off the edge. At one point she asked me if I thought optimism was a form of aggression, to which I replied that I was a happiness warrior, that I would fight like hell to protect our joy, one hundred and ten percent. In short: Yes.

She said that wasn’t exactly what she’d meant. She said something about her stepfather, and how he always grinned really wide before he hit her mother in the face.

Afterward I went back to my room and waited. Ashley said she’d find me “later,” but she didn’t find me later that day, or early or later the next day, either. Before bed I decided to do some sightseeing, so I hiked five miles and completely by accident found a torch-lit beach at midnight, where Ashley was having a date with Greek Italian-American Restaurant Guy. I could barely see their heads above the food, whole birds that glistened as though they had each been transported over the scrub dunes inside the mouth of a native and disgorged directly onto a platter. Ashley fingered her symbol, which she kept on a copper dish beside her wine glass. Tonight was a big night. She would give the Greek guy her symbol, or she wouldn’t. Good thing I had my binoculars, and can read lips, because what I saw made me very confident that Ashley would never marry this guy over me. This feels so real, he kept insisting while admiring the way his oiled biceps flexed in the candlelight whenever he lifted his beer bottle. No way he was getting her symbol. The Greek guy evidently suspected this, too, because after he said a bunch of uninspiring stuff, such as that he was one hundred percent ready to find love, as though Love were the name of a girl not currently in front of him, he abruptly left her there. On the beach. Alone (except for the camera people).

Afterward Ashley refused to talk to one of the camera people who was pestering her about her feelings. Instead she poured hot wax from a candle onto her forearm, and then she pulled her symbol apart like it was a small person she hated, and threw the pieces onto a plate of uneaten kebabs.

So I figured that Ashley would come and see me the next day. And I figured we could have a good discussion about the difference between one hundred percent and one hundred and ten percent. It wasn’t just a difference of ten percent. One hundred percent is like saying, “Yeah, I want you to think I’m trying really hard here, but I’m not even trying hard enough to get outside of this cliché that’s basically a cliché for doing the minimum amount of trying.” Like, “Hey Ashley, one hundred percent, I showed up and allowed a gay man to rub foundation on my face and then I flew all over the world for free and pretended on the bathing-suit shoot we did to raise money for charity that I really gave more of a shit about the tsunami orphans than I did about how radically assertive my package appears in a Speedo.” Wow, dude, what a sacrifice. Whereas one hundred and ten percent, which is also maybe a cliché, is at least a cliché for a total willingness to bust hump in the performance rankings, and maybe allow the gay guy to putty more foundation over your acne scars, and maybe not watch as much porn on the Ashley-less days, or assume that you deserve to be loved because you’ve been loved in the past by an infinite parade of hot skanks in jeggings.

But Ashley didn’t come to see me the next day. She was sad, maybe, too sad a project even for the make-up artists. And again it was a total accident that I found her on a different beach that night, this time with the probable gay, a really nice and handsome guy who resembled Snoopy if Snoopy wore a lot of hair gel and constantly talked about his dead dad and the walls he’d built because of him dying when Snoopy was barely thirty-five. He told her again that his walls were down, and that his journey with Ashley was the reason, and that he was ready for love, and then he opened an envelope snuck under his mai tai, and inside was a key, and he and Ashley walked up the hill to a wooden bungalow fired up with an excessive number of candles, and the camera people left but I stayed. I stayed and I watched her give Snoopy her symbol after the usual boob/heart fiddling. Then they spent a lot of time with their faces in each other’s necks, avoiding each other’s lips, until they figured they had to take their clothes off and have the kind of thong-shattering sex that is mandated by flames and giant moths dive-bombing the skylights and the distant explosions of surf, these so-called romantic trappings that, in fact, cue in our reptile brains the end of the world, and so we fuck our way through this honeymoon apocalypse because it doesn’t matter who we’re with, we need to perform one last act of sodomy before we die. And then it was over. And nobody enjoyed it sincerely but then again nobody cried, except me, a little bit, because Ashley, naked, was a glory to behold—she stared straight at me on the other side of the picture window, and she sucked in her stomach, and she tongued her teeth, and she jiggled her tiny thighs, and she frowned.

The next day, at around lunchtime, Ashley came to my room. She was wearing sweatpants and eyeglasses, and she didn’t look happy or aglow, she looked deflowered, or deflowered isn’t the word because I doubt she’d been a virgin, but she did look de-something. A part of her was missing, a part of her was gone. I understood. I was missing something, too. I missed feeling real. I told her this, and she stared at the place on my coffee table where the fruit might have been if Chris hadn’t booked me into a cheap room. She tried to tell me that she was really impressed by the fact that I had no walls at all, but then she asked me if walls were maybe a good thing, maybe just a wall here or a wall there. Were all walls bad? she asked. Where would we be without walls? We’d be wet. We’d be cold. We’d be bitten by centipedes.

We’d be bitten by love, I said, and I reached for her hand, but found it fisted around a damp tissue.

Maybe I’m using the wrong word, Ashley said. Maybe the word I’m looking for is boundaries.

Boundaries, I said, are the hobgoblins of little dictators. Then I told her that I’d done something very special for her, to prove the realness of my love. As a means of offsetting my carbon footprint by traveling to Fiji to see her, I’d stopped in Philadelphia en route, I’d broken into her apartment and turned off her water heater. I told her about the money she’d saved, and I measured her sacrifice in baby seals. Regular numbers, I find, cannot speak to the magnitude, sometimes, of what one person is willing to do for another.

Seals also make girls cry. Ashley started crying, and she used the damp tissue, which was already at its absorption max, and then she handed it to me and, without speaking, left. I believe she just wanted me to throw the tissue away for her—she was no litterbug—but maybe she was giving me the only symbol she had at her disposal?

So I guess I wasn’t totally surprised when Chris knocked on my door and told me that Ashley wanted me to go home. Again. He could not explain this, and he seemed very sad to have to break the news to me, and also a little bit disappointed with Ashley. She really was acting crazy, he said, and for a so-called dentist she did a lot of decision-making with her so-called vagina.

And I did think about doing as Ashley requested. I did think about leaving, and putting an end to my journey, until all the baby seals that would die when I flew back across the Pacific, and for no good reason at all, flashed through my mind. A parade of ghosts—like a bunch of dead fathers, except worse.

So I did not leave. I checked out of my hotel. I moved in with a guy I’d met on one of my Ashley-less days, an old and toothless man who sold tribal masks in the marketplace where Ashley liked to go on culture dates, tribal masks that he said were antiques, and that I helped him scuff on the concrete-block walls of his house and rub with dirt in exchange for a cot, a sheet, and the occasional warm embrace of his wife or daughter. I spied on Ashley when she went on dinner dates with Snoopy and the vein guy, and I subsisted on the piles and piles of meat and fruit they always left uneaten. I never talked to the camera people, though they tried to catch me, training their lenses on me like I was a safari creature and they wanted a trophy to bring home to their bosses.

They did catch me once, on Ashley’s last day in Fiji. You can see me in a boat; I am nearly invisible on the horizon, but I am there. I was there. I was there when Ashley stepped out of the helicopter in her silver dress, flashing on the windy spit like a lost fishing lure, and rejected Snoopy’s marriage proposal. I was there when the vein guy showed up in Snoopy’s wake and got down on his knee, and before he could wrestle the ring box from his suit pocket made Ashley cry. I cried a little bit, too, not for me but for Ashley. Women hardly ever marry for love. A woman has regular sex because of her killer body and yet she fails and fails and fails to fall in love. Her killer body, meanwhile, is running covert genetic-compatibility tests and reminding her, with constantly updated and worsening fetal-retardation statistics, of how little time she has left to improve on the fool kneeling before her.

Bodies are dream slayers, is my point. So big surprise. Through her tears, Ashley said yes. And her dreams started to die. I could literally see them dying; they looked like seals to me, little white puffs that rolled into the sea at her feet and sank, trailing ribbons of blood from the eyes.

Thus began my real journey, my circumnavigation of the globe, with Ashley as my GPS. I followed her back to New York, where she and the vein guy shared an apartment; I infiltrated her marriage ceremony on the coast of Maine, and, on her wedding night, after she hiked up her train and got theatrically loved by her now-husband, and after he left her among the bazillion hard lace pillows to party with his buddies, and after she fell asleep, I touched her face through her veil, I put a finger on her lips as she lapsed into a nightmare and said over and over again as she thrashed on the bed, This feels so real. I went with them on their honeymoon to a glacier, and through the steam of a thermal spring I saw them fighting, or maybe they were just aggressively making out, even though there was nobody to watch and care except me. The camera people were gone; they were following Snoopy now, because he was so ready for love he’d gone on his own journey with a bunch of girls and was breaking up with them with the help of Chris. Thus I have to think that Ashley and her husband knew that I was there, because why talk about love if no one’s listening?

But I was listening. I am always listening. Each day I check on Ashley in Long Island, where she and her husband bought an asbestos-sided cape and filled it with triplet sons, all of whom have their father’s trigger jaw. She’s betrayed the body that’s betrayed her, punishing it with bags of red licorice she resentfully gnaws like they’re the intestines of the deer that eat her tulips. She dyed her hair blond, then brown, then back to blond, then brown again, as though testing methods of camouflage. It’s working. Her family treats her like she’s a stranger they’ve never seen before. Nobody recognizes her at the stores; she is just a woman with a charred bob and a shopping basket the size of an armored tank, flipping through the magazines near the gum, checking out photos of the women Snoopy didn’t marry.

After her shopping is done, and her half-assed attempts to fold the themed underpants, and her prolonged and violent thigh-jiggling session in her bedroom’s three-way mirror, during which she fiercely grins, Ashley often pulls on her husband’s parka and strikes out for the back yard, punching herself in the face while the boys rage through the filthy house. She circles the interior of the hurricane fence three times before crouching behind the hibachi and staring at her black reflection on the grass. Some days, when she’s particularly dead in the eyes, I’ll show myself to her, and blast away her messy shadow. Who needs to be reminded that they’re fat now? Who needs to be reminded that if they hadn’t been so scared, maybe they’d still be beautiful and happy? But she keeps her body tightly coiled. She pushes her thumbs into her pupils. I do not blame her. I am too real for her. Some of us build walls not to protect ourselves from the cold and the wet but because we can’t bear to watch true love die.

I know, I say, and rub her scorched hair. It hurts to look at the sun.

is the author, most recently, of The Vanishers (Doubleday), and a founding editor of The Believer.

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November 2012