There was no reason my love for Alice should have lasted. Probably it didn’t last. It must have expired slowly as we went out to dinner, to foreign movies at the Embarcadero cinema, to the hated Temple of Faith Bar, which was one of her favorite places in the city. My love could not have survived the revelation that Alice was, in real life, the kind of person who wore fleece vests and stretch pants; even if it survived the vests and pants, the exercise bicycle that stood by the window of her apartment surely did it in, or, if it dodged the bicycle, my love drowned in Alice’s bathtub, in the deep hot water scented with sandalwood and vanilla oils. But even as my love for her perished, it must have perished, how could I have loved a woman who handed her keys to the parking valet without a flicker of guilt, even as my first love for her was crushed under a stack of boxes from Gump’s and Banana Republic, smothered between dry-cleaner bags, drowned in premium vodka, my desire to see her only grew. I think that I was drawn to Alice’s unknown-ness, to the ways in which she and I were opposites. Alice was from Bakersfield, and she had triumphed over circumstances that I could only dimly imagine: her alcoholic father, her mother who believed in direct communication with angels, her Berkeley boyfriend who had suddenly lost his mind and joined a cult. She was small, athletic, argumentative and possessive, everything that I was not, and I was as ardent to know her as if she had been an unknown continent that I had to cross on foot. At the same time, I think, I saw in Alice a person more or less like myself, but who was trapped in the evil world of material possessions. My job was to let her out, or rather, since she could leave at any time, to appeal to the little me in her, to keep whispering to this small person, whom I could practically see, sometimes, curled up in her chest, its eyes tight shut, its hands over its ears, come out, come out, it’s all right, put down your shopping bags and be free. Be like me. As if I were free, myself.
And Alice, what did she see in me? The counterpart to what I saw in her, maybe. A version of herself that she was trying to bring to light. All I know is that when we first fell into bed together, three weeks after we met, Alice said, “I always wondered what this was like.” A remark that made no sense to me at the time, because I knew she wasn’t a virgin. I’d already met several of her previous boyfriends: Matt who went mountain biking, and Opeyemi who worked for McKinsey, and once at a bar in Bernal Heights, Alice pointed out a woman named Susan, with whom, she said, she’d tried some stuff, years ago. It was only much later that I gathered, from a conversation on an apparently unrelated subject, the information I needed to make sense of her curiosity about sleeping with me: apparently Alice had been in love with one of her teaching assistants at Berkeley, an English graduate student named Benedict. She pursued him down the usual course that such romances follow, coffee at People’s Coffee, drinks at the Starry Plough, but he, the prim prick, was not willing to follow that road to its natural end, his single bed in the Manville Apartments, the narrow single bed in a room with a green linoleum floor, with a shared bathroom down the hall, and, next door, a roommate from some recently independent Central European republic. Instead Benedict supplied scruples, regulations, a definition of the French critical term différance, which meant, miracle of French, both distinction and deferral, he was wily, was Benedict. His bed was a referent indefinitely deferred; the farthest she ever got was a kiss, on the lips, yes, but not square on the lips, not a kiss with tongue, or langue as Benedict would probably have called it, only a generic kiss, langage, and more talk. Ever since that night, Alice had been wondering what it would be like to bed, well, yes, set deferral and distinction aside, to fuck a teaching assistant, a position that I had occupied for two years at Stanford, and which I must, in my first rush of self-disclosure, told her about. The connection between Benedict’s French kiss and my lumpy, unmade futon was, from Alice’s point of view, utterly subterranean. But unearthing those connections was my specialty. When I heard the story of Benedict, I knew what I was, a substitute, but by then it was too late, substitution is a durable operation in its own way, and if my bed, which was, at least, a double bed, bigger than Benedict’s, to say nothing of his other presumed inadequacies, played the part, for Alice, of the forbidden, noumenal teaching assistant’s bed, what could I do, except lie in it, put my hand on Alice’s small breast, and whisper, you, beautiful you.
None of my friends liked Alice. Alex, ordinarily kindness itself, made fun of her pants. Erin cringed theatrically when her name was mentioned, and intimated that if I lacked the willpower to break up with her, Alice could be made to, you know, disappear. They balked at her taste, and her job, and the fact that she talked about the gym and the sale at Neiman’s as though they were features of everyone’s life equally. I think my friends would have forgiven Alice those defects, though, if it hadn’t been for her habit of claiming things as her own, which spoke of a deeper weakness, a wrongness that even I didn’t like to think about. She told embarrassing but harmless lies that put her at the center of things, for example, that her company had invented the Web browser, or that she had gone to the very first Burning Man on Ocean Beach. She put her arm through mine when we walked. When one of my friends wanted to see me, she said, You can borrow him.
“It’s like she bought you at Neiman’s,” Erin said. I tried to explain about the tiny Alice I could see, the one who covered her eyes and secretly wanted a teacher. “The vestigial twin theory,” Erin said. “You’re in love with the person who might have been. But you know how those twins work, right? There’s a reason why one turns into a person, and the other turns into a little ball with teeth. It’s because one of them is stronger, OK? Think about that.”
I did think about it, and I decided that Erin always took the dark view of things. Given enough time, she would come around. It was the era of the Internet, and all sorts of incompatible devices were talking to one another; I didn’t see why human beings shouldn’t develop their own universal protocols, and join together in a vast association of little networks, a new way of living in which small differences would be erased. Alice and I were evidence of just how much had already become possible: here we were, a girl from Bakersfield and a boy from New York, a connoisseur of sample sales and a historian of apocalyptic sects, getting along. Our relationship gave me wild hope, not just for us, but for everyone. If we could make it, then who knew what other opposites might be reconciled? We would be an example to young and old, rich and poor; we partook of the same magic that would, in time, reconcile the Palestinians and the Jews.
In fact, though, what we partook of were drugs.