The Centripetal Force of Holding Hands

The Centripetal Force of Holding Hands

by Matt Briggs

WHEN PAT TOOK BOARDWALK, PARK PLACE WAS STILL IN PLAY. He couldn’t resist touting his slumlord skills. He would lock us in tenements at the edge of the Monopoly board so foul that he wouldn’t have to call the exterminator because not even vermin would live there. “I’ll charge you a fortune and use the cash to buy useless things like gourmet marshmallows to feed to the pigeons.” In the middle of his rant he turned to Hanna, my wife, and said, “I guess I like women.”

My wife and I saw Pat a couple of times a week. We drank wine and played cards or board games or watched movies. Pat had lived with his mother for many years. After much encouragement, he had moved out. He was 26 years old. His lack of girlfriend or boyfriend and his having lived with his Mom made us all, including Pat, assume he was gay. It seemed probable that he was gay. The story fit that he was gay.

“When did this happen?” Hanna asked.

“It didn’t happen. It is like finding a street that has always been there. The street didn’t happen,” Pat said. “It was already there.”

“How did you find this out about yourself?”

“How did you find out yourself?” he asked. He had moved out of his mother’s house into the cheapest apartment in all of Seattle. It was in a lost neighborhood between Ballard, Greenwood, and Crown Hill. He lived there in the dark months after leaving his Mom’s house. He’d left at the end of October, in time for daylight savings time, and with enough time that he was hoping he could get through Christmas without buckling and returning to his Mom’s house.

“I haven’t,” Hanna said. “I really don’t know much about myself. That is why I’m asking.”

“I had a date,” he said. “I wanted to go on a date with someone, and the person I ended up going on a date with is female. So I think that means I’m straight. I couldn’t go on dates with men. I tried. Actually I think they could tell I was straight.”

“How could they tell?”

“One guy asked me if I liked to suck dick.”

“And what did you say?”

“That’s a personal question.”

“What? So?”

“That’s what I said to him. That’s a personal question.”

“But do you?”

“That’s a personal question,” Pat said. Pat had a filthy mind, but he was a prude about certain things especially if it had anything to do with revealing anything about how he felt about anything. “And this guy said, ’then you are straight.’ And I guess he was right because the next person I talked to with the intent of setting up a date with was female.”

“You’ve been on a date?” Hanna asked. “A date with a woman?”

“I’m not a virgin anymore,” Pat said.

“You said you lost your virginity when you were 19 years old to a guy at the beach,” I said. “There was an entire story…”

“There was,” Pat said. “I had an entire story. And you licked it up and wanted as much detail as possible. And did I disappoint?”

“But it wasn’t true?”

“So what?” Pat said. “It is personal.”

“How many dates? Oh my God. Pat is in love with a girl.”

“I like her,” he said. “We’ve been seeing each other for seven weeks.”

“How did you keep that to yourself? Seven weeks? That is forever,” Hanna said.

“Well the problem is, because it is me there is always a problem, the problem is she said she is not the marrying type.”

“You want to get married?”

“No. I mean maybe someday maybe,” he said. “But the problem is she said she is polyamorous and bisexual. She likes women, too.”

“How is that a problem?” I asked. “How in the world is that a problem? That is about as awesome as it gets. She doesn’t want to get married, and she likes women!”

Hanna socked me in the shoulder.

“Well the problem is she is on a date right now.”

My wife said, “Well, that is cool I guess, but you know for your first girlfriend maybe you should try something less advanced.” By advanced she meant that this girl required some relationship skills to date. “Maybe you would like to date someone who is more like you?”

“I can deal with it. I can deal,” Pat said.

Pat had fallen into the habit of posting things that would irritate me on his Facebook page. He sent me photographs of signs from the Westboro Baptist Church, and I would lose an hour writing a response. I would feel the anger drip into me and wash over me and then become a palpable thing that would transport me. I was spending longer and longer on FaceBook and my boss finally noticed although I worked as a documentation coordinator at a nonprofit and work moved less rapidly than the melting of the Nisqually Glacier. I had probably written several thick volumes of FaceBook rebuttal to the rather thin procedural manual I was supposed to be working on. We did our work, but there were weeks or even months where we just had time to kill, time to get to the next frenzy of work, and yet in the gap between one busy time and the next I would become livid, subsumed by rage. One time Pat had fed me several articles, and I returned home still fuming and we got to his house with a bottle of wine and Pat had another bottle and then there was a laptop open and I signed in to let Pat know what I thought in an appropriate public way. I could just tell him in the apartment, but what is the fun of that? And then there was a Twitter battle raging and at one point I was oscillating between Twitter, Yelp, and Facebook and I said we are out of wine and we need more and then Pat and my wife left and when they returned my wife looked shaken and we all went to the balcony to cool off. I drank a glass. Pat smoked a cigarette. “How are things with the coffee girl?” I asked. “When are we going to meet?”

“Do you all think?” Pat asked me, “Do you all think as though you would like to try to have an open relationship?”

“What? Us?” I asked although it didn’t occur to me if he meant us because it was a preposterous idea. “I don’t think so.”

“Not that there is anything wrong with it,” Laura said. “I mean to each their own. But I don’t know.”

“By ‘I don’t know,’” I asked, “Do you mean you don’t know or are you just passively saying No?”

“Why? Should we be open to it?”

“I was asking what you said.”

“Do you want to have an open relationship?” Laura asked me.

“Is that a trick question?”

“It has a yes or no answer,” she said.

“You said you didn’t know. That makes it sound as if it was possible. That you possibly would want an open relationship.”

“I was trying to be polite,” she said. “I didn’t know you wanted an open relationship.”

“I don’t. No, I don’t. Totally happy with how things are. Are you?”

“I guess,” she said.

“I’ll just take that as a yes,” I said. “I’ll adjust the contrast on that answer and make it black and white. Yes!”

“So how are things going?” Laura asked Pat.

“She’s out tonight with some guy she met. She warned me. She said we’d been seeing each other for a while, but that she would see other people. That is what she does. She sees other people. And I thought the first person she would see would be a chick. I have no problem that that. Vagina and vagina: totally fine with that. Awesome. It is the vagina and cock pairing that I’m not sure about.”

“How long has it been?” Laura asked. “It has been a while.”

“How long is a while? It seems pretty soon to me. It’s been seven weeks. We have our two-month anniversary coming up,” Pat said. “Next week.”

“Two months!” Laura said.

“Yeah,” Pat said. “I like her so much. But I don’t know about this open thing. I mean she calls it that, open, as if to be monogamous is closed. It makes monogamy sound like the weird thing.”

“Well, it’s kind of,” Laura said.

The rage had filtered out of me now, and I was aware of the cool air and the spring air and the smell of the fruit trees. Pat lived on the shady side of a hill. The sun set over the lip of the hill. At dusk the sky was blue and still light for hours. There was a park at the top of the hill that remained light way past the rest of the neighborhood. It was a region of valleys and hills, and then there was a row of mansions and condos and the cliffs and then Puget Sound which was a sea, kind of odd for a sea since you could always see the other side and in the far West there were the Olympic Mountains that I used to hike in a lot as a teenager and in the first couple of years of dating Laura but I had not been there in four or five years and they had grown distant and foggy and kind of mysterious to me now. I wasn’t sure even of the names of the peaks. The big one was named Mount Olympus, but looking at the skyline I couldn’t really tell which one was the big one.

“Well,” I said, “You could start dating too. You don’t have to be the one who doesn’t go on dates. Maybe that would be good for you. If you aren’t polyamorous it may be hard for you and then if you find someone you like better, you can dump her. It’s totally what I would do.”

“But that isn’t how it works,” Laura said. When Pat had first said he’d been dating the coffee girl and that she was polyamorous, Laura began to read everything she could get her hands on. She’d read a book called The Ethical Slut and I have to admit I found the term itself really interesting. I would probably find any two nouns if one of those nouns was slut interesting: microprocessor slut, doughnut slut, wheel borrow slut. I had never thought of sluts as unethical. The thing I liked about the concept of sluts is that I felt as if I had a chance of getting laid with a slut; I myself was a slut conceptually, tentatively. I was a tentative slut. I had not really dated a lot before meeting Laura. We met when I was a freshman in college and before her I had a few short relationships that were screwed up mostly because I had no idea what I was doing, and I really wasn’t raised right. I didn’t know how to treat a friend much less a girl. The three of us were like that. We had all three lived in screwed up households for many years. Laura’s parents were Pentecostals who exiled her when she expressed doubt about the existence of God, and then when she demonstrated a fluency in the theory of evolution they lost their nut. She had not seen them in four years. They moved to Alaska. Her father earned a living as a Pentecostal author. He was whatever passed for an intellectual in that tradition. I guess enough of them bought books that he earned a living selling them his books. He’d written a book about Laura that was widely read among the Pentecostals about losing your child to the secular world, The Darwinian Seduction. I’d grown up the son of a single mother who had been a hippie and had me out of wedlock or even any sort of relationship. She wasn’t sure who could have been my father. I was conceived she said while she was tripping in 1968. She said now that she was not a hippie. She had become a computer programmer in the early 1970s and was one of the first generation of female developers, although she said that women had always been in computer science, but for some reason the engineers took over in the 70s, and it became a male-dominated profession. My mom wore a pocket protector. It didn’t matter her gender; she was more geek than normal person. Pat’s mother had been a professional foster parent after a kind of shady career that ended in the 1960s as a performer as some kind of a dancer or vaudeville or jazz singer. Pat actually didn’t know. Pat had been adopted by her. His adoptive father was Chinese and had died in the early 1980s of a heart attack. Pat had grown up in the International District (called the ID) in Seattle. His mother was white although her original hair color had been lost to history. She had red hair, but it was probably once blonde or brown. She was German or Irish or English or something. Scottish maybe? She had never said, and she adopted Pat because she needed to know she had someone to help her as she got older. Pat was raised with this transactional frame of reference. She would provide him home and shelter, and he would take care of her as age made her increasingly infirm. Pat got a job at the mall as soon as he could, and then he began working at an insurance company while he was still in high school and he still worked there.

We drank more wine, and I was no longer full of rage but curious about the gap that had suddenly sprung up among the three of us. Pat was into this other girl and we had yet to meet her. When we left, Laura and I walked up to the top of the hill and Laura wanted to sit on a bench and look at the stars. We could hardly see them over the light of the city.

“Do you think you could be open?” she asked.

“I could be if I had to be,” I said. “But I don’t want to be. I don’t think Pat is. I think he likes this girl because she is the first girl who has expressed interest in him. She is, so he is going along with it.”

“I think he might be.” A tiny man in an overcoat dragging on the sidewalk walked a large white dog past the park. “What if we became open?” she asked.

“Isn’t that the same as saying you would like to see other people?”

“Not exactly,” she said. “The implication is that you are looking for something permanent, a replacement for what you already have. And that isn’t open.”

“But it would be seeing other people.” It is like keeping your day job and moonlighting. Of course you may not find a better job, but if you do, score.

“Before you,” she said. “I had three boyfriends and some short things. I was seeing two of them at the same time.”

“That happens. You are looking for someone and it seems prudent to keep your options open until you find someone. I thought you had found that someone.”


“That the person you were looking for, you had found. Me.”

“Oh. Yeah.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Of course. I’m with you. I don’t see that in question for me.”

“How do you count your boyfriends?” I asked. “What makes someone before me a boyfriend?”

“Someone I slept with and had more than a crush on.”

I thought about this as we sat there in the dark. More than a crush? She meant people that she loved. I thought then what they might be like. A few times she had me catalog the people I had dated before her. I wouldn’t say there was anyone before her that I loved. There were people who I liked and with whom I had a crush. And I wanted to know them better. I suppose at the time if I had been asked whether I loved them, I would have said yes, but I wouldn’t really know what I meant by that. And now sitting on the bench with her I wondered if she wanted to break up with me, or if she wanted to date other people so she could find someone new and then dump me. It seemed kind of mysterious and I was a practical person. I felt this passion that Pat had been trying to build up about the wrongness and the rightness of the world. I thought of that nearly as a kind of entertainment. Could I lose her? I held her hand then. The only times I realized that I had felt for her an intense feeling had been when I thought I was going to lose her: otherwise, she was like my hand or something; otherwise, she was like something that was part of me; otherwise, I didn’t think at all about her. You might call this taking her for granted. Rather she was an essential aspect of my life. She was her own person, too, and I was aware of this. My hand wasn’t its own person. If you cut off my hand at the wrist, my hand would die. I would live, but my hand wouldn’t make it on its own. My hand couldn’t provide itself with nutrients lacking a mouth or stomach. But people weren’t part of the same body. If you broke two people apart, they both had mouths and stomachs. They would do okay equipped with essentials like mouths and stomachs.

Hanna blinked and stared at the stars and had thoughts in her head that I couldn’t know. I could look at her and see her blinking and flicking bits of moisture from the skin under her eye. I know the type of things that she might do, and she might stand, and then sit again while talking to me but when she was ready to go, she would stand, and lean to the direction of the house as if to say, this is the way. Finally, she did this and we walked hand-in-hand down the hill. There were ridges formed in the cement hillside sidewalk to help our traction. I said, “I am glad these are here or otherwise! Who knows? We could slide down the hill to our death.”

And she said, “I am glad they are here too. And I am glad you have my hand, or I could fall and then I would roll. I don’t think I would die, but I might break my arm or something. So thank you.”

The fruit trees – plums I think – bloomed but did not bear fruit. They spilled a plumb smell and stray petals over the dark sidewalk. The old houses on the slip of the hill had massive stone rockeries that formed terraced lawns alongside the steep sidewalk down to the valley floor. Driveways passed the side of the trees to garage doors closed for the night. The rockeries were cool in the night air and heavy with vegetation and the kind that grew in the cracks of the stones. We came to the flat spot at the bottom of the hill and came to our house among the fir trees. We unlocked the door, and I brushed my teeth and listened to her taking her medicine and drinking a glass of water and then finally we slid among the sheets as the furnace rushed warm air into the room. We were there. Out beyond us in the night, outrage rushed along the channels of Twitter and Facebook. It twirled in loops tighter and tighter. I let it all ease away into the open field of stars.

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