Alida Winternheimer


Your lover looks like a man of distinction, a man with enough money to content you in the world of things, the world of the worldly: world travel, exotic trinkets, foreign caviar, vintage wine, and designer gowns. Your lover has mostly gray hair, but he has all of his hair. When the white beard comes in after a weekend away from the city, you rub his chin with the flat of your hand, and the bristles scrape (up) then smooth (down) as you rub. He likes it when you do this because you are looking at him closely, inspecting him, and in your eyes, he sees that you regard him affectionately. Your lover has three names printed on his business cards. You will later reflect that it is a thin line between distinction and pretention, between classy and ostentatious, though at first you found it attractive and thought it boded well for yourself.

You feel that “boyfriend” is a juvenile word, while “lover” is a mature word. Because you have taken a lover, you feel grown up and possibly a little foreign, specifically French. You take to watching films that center on lovers: Henry and June, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Little Children. You realize that these films are based on literary works of fiction. You are not incapable of enjoying literary fiction—you have read A Sport and a Pastime—but you absorb words without visualizing them; they are more like texture than color, so you watch the films and consume with your eyes the physicality of bodies together. You watch these films on the nights that you are alone. You will later reflect that “lover” is a word for the noncommittal. “Lover” implies sex and danger. Everything else—romance, adventure, exotica and erotica—can all be subsumed under sex and danger. With that understanding, “lover” seems like an insult.

Your lover does not want to meet your friends. Meeting your family is out of the question. You begin to lead two lives: the old life that includes work, family, friends, friends to a diminishing extent; and the new life that fixates on your lover. Does he demand this of you? Perhaps, but you give yourself so willingly it hardly feels like a demand, something forced upon you. No, it seems like a necessity. If you are to love your lover, then you must be exclusive with your time, your energy, your face, your breath even. Your friends call you less than they used to. They have resigned themselves to waiting for you to get back to them as you have resigned yourself to evenings spent alone. Alone because you have made yourself available and he has remained unavailable. It is a necessity, you tell yourself. It frees you up for watching films about lovers. You begin to notice that the characters in the films usually come to violent harm, whether physical or emotional.

Your lover tells you that he loves you, but he could never give up his current commitments. He wants you to be his forever, even though he could never be yours, not fully. Do you love me? he wants to know. Do you love me? If so, then we have to make our time and space and it has to be enough. We have to carve it out from the rest of our lives and blossom within that niche. The idea of your love being confined to a niche depresses you. You feel like you have become a niche. His niche. But for what? What is he so carefully depositing there? You realize no one is really happy in those films.

You pack your suitcase with a strapless sundress and entirely new underwear. You are excited. This feels like fruition. Your lover noticed your despondency and showed you a plane ticket that he would not let you touch, to tease you. He is taking you away, somewhere exotic and hot. Perhaps the Riviera. Perhaps Italy. You once told him you had always wanted to ride a camel, so it may be Egypt. He tells you to pack lightly. He will buy you clothing there. You know it is across an ocean. This feels like a niche you can live with. You fly into Marrakech and spend a week eating olives and figs, wearing thin cotton dresses around the hotel and brightly colored tunics in the city. You wrap your hair in a turban and ride a camel. The camel feels like something you have known before. Your lover has fulfilled one of your dreams. You make love with the balcony doors open. The climate requires that you sweat behind your knees and in each other’s arms, dampening the linens. When you go home, you ache for what you left behind. The first night you are alone, you masturbate. You find yourself weeping, and yet your resolve to continue has been deepened. You eat couscous every day for two weeks.

Your friends, those who have not drifted away entirely, are asking about your lover. You don’t even have a photograph to show them. You have been insisting that you are in love with your lover for almost two years, and only now do you begin to realize that it is strange, his absence from the majority of your life. You feel your world contracting, as though the relationship is a box (niche) with shrinking walls. You realize it is your own desire that put you in this box, but you had not foreseen the distancing of yourself from everything else that you had been. Dissatisfaction creeps into your encounters. You begin to identify with the tragic lovers.

You tell him you cannot go on this way. He tells you to date other men. It will be good for you. Blindly, you try this. You tell the men willing to date you that you are in an open relationship. They are the sort of men who don’t mind arrangements. Later, you will realize that while the relationship was open, it was mostly closed. You will feel bizarrely disconnected from two years of your life. You will think, I was a tragic lover. You cannot stand films (or literature) about lovers any more.

Alida Winternheimer lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she occasionally emerges from her writer's den to buy paper and dark chocolate. Her fiction won the 2010 Confluence Award and appeared in Confluence Journal. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in rock, paper, scissors. She is a graduate student in the Hamline University MFA program.