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KAREN SHEPARD

JERKS

The man I love now wants to know if I've ever gone out with someone as smart as I am. He's tired of having me run down old boyfriends. Or he wants to hear more.

We've gotten a whole weekend together; we've spent most of it in bed, and we've been going over the other men. The army from my past.

Sure, I tell him: David was smart about cars. Maury knew about architecture. Putnam, he could train horses. I could, I tell him, go on and on.

"Let's stop there," he says, and pulls me to him.

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In fifth grade, Peter Deckoff, who was big enough to be in eighth grade, pushed me through a doorway and told me to "get out of the way, you Chinese piece of junk."

He was being funny. The teacher made him stand in one of those school-size garbage cans for an hour. It was a very progressive school. Teachers went by their first names.

I said nothing, though I remember thinking that in China, junks were boats. I got the joke.

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When I got to eighth grade, I danced with Sean Sullivan. This was at the "More Than a Feeling" dance. He was the only one taller than I was. He was embarrassed about his height and stood with hunched shoulders, so I often seemed taller anyway. I refused to hunch, even though it would have made us both feel better.

We danced to "Stairway to Heaven" and "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad." We danced to "Summer Breeze." He moved me around in a circle. His hands on my back left damp spots, and he smelled of oiled wood, and during the last dance he pulled back to look at me and to say that I was pretty in an ugly kind of way.

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Matthew and Craig: they were roommates in college. Craig was sophomore year. Matthew was junior. I stayed friends with both of them. Senior year, leaving a note for Matthew on his desk, I saw an envelope. A letter from Craig. Written across the back flap, like some sort of seal: So, who's she sleeping with now?

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My senior year in high school my best friend, a fairly unstable girl named Kristen, had a screaming fight with Ben, my first real love. I was a spectator. It was outside our high school after some sort of talent show.

She yelled all sorts of things. It was high school. Finally my boyfriend came up with a comeback.

"Cunt," he said. I was standing right next to him.

She slapped him. I looked at his cheek. His skin was beginning to pinken, and I reached my hand to my own face, a gesture I still can't explain.

She left. And I stayed with him.

I walked him home. I put my hand on his shoulder and told him not to be upset; she was really angry with me. I was upset. That I didn't say. Instead I hooked his arm with my arm and racked my brain for whatever subterranean thing I'd missed that could have made him say what he had. I had the impression he had already put it out of his mind. It really, I remember saying, had nothing to do with him.

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I broke up with Scott over the phone the summer between my second and third years of graduate school. The night before, he'd called, telling me he'd tried to reach me all weekend. He'd gone to a party and had wished I was there with him. He'd felt left out. There were so many couples.

In the morning I told him it wasn't fair of me to be with him. I loved him as a friend. I wasn't in love with him. I thought I could've been (this was a lie), but I was wrong.

"Yeah," he said. "Yeah." He had been thinking the same thing.

We talked about other things. His family. My dog.

"So," he said after a pause, "we're gonna tell people it was mutual?"

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The man I love now touches my face with his hand and says this comment is so discouraging on so many levels he doesn't even know where to begin.

That's not the problem, though. The problem is that the man I'm in love with now-a man who I'm convinced is different-is a good man doing a bad thing. He's married. And how is that so different?

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Chester the Molester: The artist who was from New Jersey and pretended that meant New York. He prowled the Houston art community. He prided himself on his nails. We were at a bar, actually in the parking lot of a bar, waiting for others. I don't know how he ended up in the group. We were leaning against a car. I was feeling sick. It was late. I'd been drinking. I'd just thrown up in the ladies' room. He didn't know that.

"Hey," he said. "I have a surprise for you."

I turned to look. "Yeah, what?"

He said, "This," and then he kissed me.

"God," I said. "Don't do that." My mouth was tight.

He held my chin between thumb and forefinger. "Mmm," he said. "Why not?"

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There was a student-faculty lunch to discuss the future of the graduate program. Twelve of us sat around a circular table. Karel, the Eastern European poetry professor who had drifted in late, debated aloud whether to sit next to his colleague or me, the second-year graduate student.

He said to his colleague in his slow, deliberate way that he was sorry, he liked him, but I was so much cuter, no?

I held my hand to my chest. I looked at the others and said, "Well. My goodness."

Later we had to squeeze together to make room for more latecomers. Someone asked Karel to move down still more, and he looked at me and said to the rest of the table, "It's a good direction, no?"

There were only a few chuckles. There were already rumors. The rumors were untrue. The truth-that I'd done little or nothing to squash the rumors, being somewhat flattered, and wondering idly if they could be put to any use-was worse.

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There was another poet. A man I went out to drinks with a month after I broke up with my five-year lover. I let him kiss me. I had been pinching myself for a month; I wanted someone else to do it for me.

We kissed and kissed on my living room couch. "Why is it," he asked, propping himself above me, "that I have all my clothes on and you don't?"

My dress was unbuttoned. My bra was pushed aside. "I have my clothes on," I assured him.

Weeks later, after I had told him I didn't think he and I, us, were a good idea, he told me that if he'd pushed just a little bit more, we would've slept together, he could've convinced me.

"Oh, really?" I said.

He nodded. He had told our friends this.

He told our friends what?

A near miss. He'd told our friends it was a near miss.

The next day a girlfriend of mine made a skimming motion, palm past palm, when she passed me in the student lounge.

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The spring of my freshman year in college, Ben, the high school one, and I met in New York. We had a weekend of tears and decided to break it off.

I got back to school late Sunday night. There was a keg party outside my dorm. A senior hockey player blocked my way to the door. His teammates called him Mega.

"So," he said. "Hear you left something in New York."

I said news traveled fast.

He said he'd be interested in, you know, seeing me sometime.

"Sure, sure," I said. I just wanted to get through that door.

----------

At the end of my graduate career I walked with Karel, the Eastern European poet, and some friends across campus. He asked what I was going to do after school. I told him I wasn't sure.

"You could," he said, "come to Paris. You could be my, you know, secretary. My assistant."

My friends kept their eyes forward, ostentatiously discreet.

"Of course," he said, "I will have to check with my wife. I think as long as we don't show her a picture of you, we'll be fine, yes?"

My friends laughed-Oh, that Karel-and looked at each other.

Who, Karel wanted to know, would they find in the program to replace me?

My friends were looking at me, poised between what I liked to read as jealousy and a wry disbelief at his comic persistence. I returned their looks and said, "Replace me? Is that possible?"

----------

Gary was a senior when I was a freshman. He was an econ major. Bank of Boston after graduation. Boston, he told me, wasn't all that far from school. He could visit all the time. He'd be coming back to see friends anyway.

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With Matthew, the first of the roommates, it started during summer break. In someone's cabin in Maine. Four of us in bed after a beach cookout and a late-night swim. We closed our eyes and kissed. I closed my eyes, thinking that protected me. His brother, my girlfriend, and a random partygoer all slept next to us, and I thought: Don't talk. Don't say anything yet. Let's just kiss.

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The man who lasted five years moved to Texas with me only because he had to. I was going to school there and he could, I pointed out, do what he was doing anywhere. He was the one who knew about horses. He couldn't think of any arguments in time. For my birthday, three months after we moved, he gave me a subscription to People.

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Matthew reminded me of Teddy Moss from high school. Teddy, who never studied and got double 800s on his SATs. Teddy, who played lacrosse and skimmed his ten-speed across New York City streets.

Matthew looked just like him. I never got Teddy.

----------

The near-miss poet, on our first date, before any kissing at all, told me he had been warned about me.

By whom? I wanted to know.

He didn't want to say. But they had told him he should watch out.

That girl, they said, toyed with men.

They? I thought.

----------

Bob I met my first year in graduate school. A writer: articles in local newspapers and magazines. Novels, unpublished in his filing cabinet drawers. A story in The New Yorker that I heard about way before I met him.

Bob was married. During a fight, his wife told him that his problem was he was in love with me. He told her she was right.

This he told me outside my house, on my stoop.

"Oh, Bob," I said, getting up, brushing off the backs of my pants. "You don't love me. You just think you do."

Sitting very still, with his hands spread over his thighs, Bob wanted to know what the difference was.

----------

The man I love now says, "When you told me about Bob before, you didn't say he was married."

I lean closer to find his mouth. I part my lips to meet his. I keep my eyes open, as if checking for similarities. Here's one big difference: the man I love now has already gone out on a limb; he told his wife, not the other way around; they started counseling. But here's the problem: the man I admire wouldn't be doing this.

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Putnam, my five-year lover, gave me for a college graduation present a silver bracelet engraved with elephants. It would've been really great, but he had no way of knowing how much I love elephants.

I hugged him and told him I loved him. First time. We had already established that he had never told anyone that. I had sworn to myself that I wouldn't say it first.

Chin on my shoulder, he said, "I love you, too, I guess."

I registered the "I guess," but I also thought, tallying up the score: No one else. The only one.

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Once told he didn't really love me, Bob, the married writer wrote a story about me. He changed my looks. My hair became red. My eyes green. His woman didn't have a hand. This, he wrote, was the thing he loved most about her.

The copy he gave me had For Your Eyes Only written across the first page in purple felt-tip. The sentence was cornered with stars, and finished with exclamation point, exclamation point.

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A few months after his Chinese junk wisecrack, I sat behind Peter Deckoff during meeting time. He was picking at something on his neck. It was a tick. I watched him pull it out. He looked at it, then looked behind him, at me. I said, loudly, matter-of-factly, "Peter just pulled a tick out of his head."

It took the student teacher five minutes to calm everyone down. She pinned the tick to a small square of Styrofoam, hoping to transform this into a science lesson.

Classmates snuck looks at me while she talked. I pantomimed how he had pulled the tick out. Then they looked back at him, sitting now across the room at a table of his own. Everyone had made a stink about sitting near him. When he looked over at me, I pointed at his neck.

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I went to Vero Beach with Putnam, the five-year lover. We met some friends for beer and oysters at a restaurant on the shore. We sat at grayed, worn picnic tables, shivering in the beach wind. I ate.

He carved something in the table. He always carried a buck knife in his front jeans pocket, a sharpening stone in the change pocket. I glanced at what he was working on. His name. He had P-U-T so far.

As we got up to leave, he turned to me and said, "See, now we'll be here forever."

"We" and "forever" didn't often come out of his mouth in the same sentence. He had my attention.

He'd carved his name and my initials. The two were connected by a plus sign. Exactly, I thought. Equals what?

"Yeah," I said, burying my nose in his neck. "Forever."

----------

Craig was the romantic. He never tired of pointing this out. He left jellybeans on my desk in the library. He called attention to the beauty of sunsets, spectacular or otherwise. He always wanted to play his guitar and sing a song. James Taylor. "Fire and Rain."

----------

Putnam and I drove across Texas, east to west. Acres of flatness, desert and wire fencing. Cattle and rabbits, armadillos and birds. I sat in the car, looking out my window, thinking: This is good. This is right.

We passed a solitary cow. The cow looked up at our car. Putnam looked back at the animal in our rearview mirror and said, "It's like he's looking around going, 'Fellas? Hey, fellas? Where'd everybody go?'"

I laughed. A real laugh.

That was nice. That laugh, I mean.

----------

I stood by Craig's bed, bending over at the waist to get something out of my bag. He lay on his side, propped on his elbow. "Hey," he said. "Looking good in those jeans, babe." He reached forward and ran a hand up and down the leg closest to him.

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The first one-lover? jerk?-was ten years older than I was. I was sixteen. My girlfriend and I met him at the same time. Some club downtown that we weren't supposed to be at. He was introduced to her and took her hand to kiss. She threw her head back and laughed. I was next. I held out my hand. He smiled crookedly, looked at his buddy, and when he leaned over, I could feel the shape of his smile on the back of my hand.

Later that night, when he was on top of me in his buddy's bunk, he held my arms over my head, both wrists in one hand, and told me I hadn't seen anything yet.

----------

I broke up with Ben, my high-school boyfriend. He warned me about getting involved with other guys too quickly. He wanted me to remember the reputation I had before I started going out with him. Our relationship, he pointed out, had fixed that. I wouldn't want to go and ruin everything now, would I?

"No," I said.

"Thanks," I said, and slept with a guy everyone knew was a jerk.

----------

Once, Putnam and I were watching TV and I saw the first one, the one with the crooked smile. He was in a Lysol ad, welcoming country fresh into his life.

"Hey," I said, pointing. "That's Nick."

Putnam looked.

"The guy I lost my virginity to," I said.

"Oh great," Putnam said, stretching out his legs. "Now I've gotta worry about some guy on TV?"

----------

Senior year, a girlfriend from home came to visit. I gave her a tour of the campus, and we ran into Scott.

He wanted to know if I was pointing out all the spots of my conquests.

I smiled too broadly. "No," I said, "that isn't the tour we're on."

"Yeah," he said, smiling. "That would take way too long."

----------

In ninth grade, Adam Mirtz and Susan Blair went out. She went away for the weekend. I sat next to Adam on someone else's couch and laughed at things he said, made the kind of comments that always made boys say, "She's like one of us," and worked my hand between his leg and the cushion, moving my fingers slowly back and forth against his corduroy.

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The man I love now: I know his wife. I've eaten dinners she's prepared. I've talked with her about the plans she has for their house. I've helped her tease her husband.

It would kill me, if I found out my husband was having an affair, to realize I had made dinner for the woman. I had laid out towels.

----------

That Tuesday Adam Mirtz said Let's just be friends to Susan Blair.

That next Saturday we squished next to each other on my single bed and watched hours and hours of free HBO. One of those promotional weekends.

We kissed. He had red hair and freckles. His mouth was small and smelled stale and old.

Sunday night I called to tell him I was sorry, I didn't think it was going to work. Maybe, I suggested, it wasn't too late to talk to Susan again?

----------

These stories have a complicated relation to the man I love now. Telling him these stories is complicated. He knows both of these things. There's a lot of intimacy here. And aggression. They constitute one long warning that he has already acknowledged he understands.

He's had two other affairs, before. He says those were different, and I believe him, but what do I know? He says those were secret, and this one is not. He didn't leave his wife for those women.

He hasn't left her for me.

----------

Bob the married writer left graduate school before I did, with a teaching job, a contract for his first novel, and a rejuvenated marriage.

The following spring, I got a postcard. It was handwritten. It said: Recent publications of Bob Hansen: August 1992, "The Shark Pool," The New Yorker. September 1992, "Eyes as Blue as Mine," The Atlantic. March 1993, "The One-Handed Girl," The Paris Review.

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And what about Tony LaBruna? Tony LaBruna only had relatives named Anthony or Maria Teresa. All the men were dentists.

He was fooling around with my best friend in high school, the unstable one. Nothing serious, he told me. He was walking me home one afternoon. He kissed me outside my apartment building.

"I know," I said and kissed him back, thinking of what she had said about his mouth.

He had told my best friend that I had beautiful legs. People never said stuff like that. It was nice, standing there, in front of him, in the V of his legs, watching his hands on my thighs, knowing that his liking my legs meant he liked me.

----------

No one, the man I love now tells me, has loved your body like I love your body.

And I believe him.

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When Bob the married writer told me he loved me, what else could I say but, No, you don't? The second his words hit the air, he was gone. I had him. He was nothing.

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John was the summer after freshman year in college. I met him at Willie's or The West End after I got off my waitressing shift, my pockets filled with ones and fives. He drank too much. He was always pushing his dirty hair out of his eyes. He talked about driving his MG convertible down California coast roads. He told me when he rode his motorcycle, he never wore a helmet.

He asked me, towards the end of the summer, what I would do if, say, I went abroad for a semester and fell completely in love with someone. Would I, like, stay in the foreign country?

His leg bounced under the table while he asked.

I told him that first of all, I wouldn't fall in love with anyone that quickly. But if I did? "Big if," I said. "But if I did, I'd go back to school." I picked up my beer and looked at him. "Why?" I asked. "What would you do?"

He told me he'd stay; if he was in love, he'd stay.

I told him he could never be sure. It was too easy, I knew, to convince yourself of anything.

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I was more in love with Matthew's mom than with Matthew. She was dying of cancer when we started going out my junior year. She wore scarves to hide the neck brace, men's sweaters for the back one. She stopped wearing her wedding ring because of the swelling the drugs were going to cause.

She loved books. She had been a seventh-grade teacher. She loved making things. She knitted sweaters. She painted. She cared about her children. Matthew and his brother. I visited them at their farmhouse in Pennsylvania. She couldn't keep from them. Her hands strayed to theirs at meals. She took the long way around a room to pass them and touch their shoulders, the backs of their necks. Her bunnies, she called them.

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When she died, Matthew and I hadn't been a couple for two years. I was living with Putnam, our first summer together in Tennessee. Matthew called to tell me, give me the details. The family had gone to the hospital in Boston. They had all gotten to talk with her. She had squeezed his hand.

That had been in June. He called in August. He had been talking to Craig the Romantic. Craig had suggested that I might want to hear.

I hated Matthew for this. Absolute hate. No chance for forgiveness.

----------

John and I ended up in his bed, naked and a little drunk. He pushed my legs open wider with his knee. I asked what he was doing.

"Well," he said. "You tell me. It's your call."

----------

Five years after Matthew's mother died, I saw him at Craig's wedding. The five of us who knew each other from college stayed up until four in the morning the night before the wedding. We snuck into the hotel hot tubs, balancing glasses of wine and whiskey on the slippery tile edges of the tubs. Matthew's legs found my waist in the hot, churning water, and even before everyone else left, he had me wrapped to him, my hands on his forearms.

In other words, five years after he had done something I had announced to myself to be unforgivable, I pulled off my wet bathing suit for him, in a public place, wedged myself into the corner of a hot tub, and, already feeling hungover, let him think he had no reason to treat me any differently. And, in fact, he had no reason to treat me any differently.

"That was fun," he said, the next morning. We were standing around in our wedding clothes. I deserved it.

----------

After Ben and I slept together for the first time, he told me that he wished I hadn't slept with anyone before him. Before I could begin to reassure him, he said, "Because, you know, I was so nervous. I mean you have all that experience."

----------

A former one-night stand calls during the second night of our weekend. The man I love doesn't get out of bed. I hold his hand throughout the conversation. The former one-night stand is fairly upset about the way his life is going. His divorce, his girlfriend, his job. I have trouble cutting it short.

I hang up. Things are awkward. Eventually the man I love tells me this is not how he expected the night to go. It turns out it was pretty hard to listen to me.

"I'm sorry," I say. I take a breath to say it again. This would've been my usual pattern. It suddenly seems important not to keep to that pattern.

"Hey," I say, surprising myself. "Let's remember who's married here."

----------

That first man: I couldn't sleep next to him, and my insides felt like nothing I knew. I got out of bed, sixteen years old, wrapped myself in a sheet that had wild animals all over it, went to lie on the couch across the room, and tried to remember what I used to feel like. Like when I had a cold and looked at all the healthy people around me, trying to remember what it felt like to be them.

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Why do I think the man I'm in love with now might be different? The best I can explain it is this: when we were first dating, Putnam, my five-year lover, came to my room at four in the morning. It was the middle of winter and he was wearing a tweed jacket, the lining sneaking out from the sleeves. He was carrying an album, and he leaned down and told me he had something that I had to listen to. I just had to. He fumbled around in the dark with the stereo and then came to lie down behind me just as Patsy Cline started with "Walking After Midnight."

He held me, still wearing his jacket, touching me with as much of his body as he could, telling me, his mouth at my ear, that he'd been alone in his room, and he'd known, like in one sharp instant he'd known, all he wanted to do was hear this song, with me, that night.

The man I'm in love with now makes me feel like that a shocking amount of the time.

But the man I'm in love with now would also point out that the example I'm using comes from another relationship.

----------

On Sunday afternoon, end of the weekend, I ask the man I'm in love with now whether he's going to leave his wife.

I want to tell him I'm not very good at this belief thing. I want to tell him I'm the sort of person who needs lots of evidence.

The thing is, I don't have to tell him any of this. He knows without me saying a thing. But when nothing happens and we're both silent, I think: won't his knowing and not acting on that be worse than his not knowing at all? Do we deserve happiness? Do we deserve what we'll get?

----------

After Craig's wedding, Matthew and I ended up at adjoining gates at the airport. We made small talk, and then when it was time to board we hugged and said how great it had been to see each other. He pulled back and kept his hands on my shoulders. He wanted to tell me something he had never told me before. "I love you," he said. "I never told you that when we were together." He looked down, then back up to my eyes. "Guess I didn't have the guts or something."

He was the same guy, and I had screwed him in a hot tub. That was the situation. Maybe it was him; maybe it was his mother. Either way a small hole inside of me was getting stretched until it seemed like the best way to describe me was to point out what was no longer there.

So I fixed my face, and put my hands on my forearms to steady myself, and tried something cosmopolitan. "Or," I said, "you just didn't love me then."

"Yeah," he said. "You're probably right." And it hit me that knowing how we did this to me wasn't going to make me feel any better.

----------

So Matthew haunts me. Putnam haunts me. And I'm supposed to be head over heels.

And then the man I'm in love with now tells me he has to spend his life with me. He's waiting for an answer.

This is a cool breeze on a bus stuck in traffic. This is what I've waited months for. But still I'm standing here, short a reaction.

I'm willing to believe he admires me. I'm willing to believe he needs me around for the rest of his life. But do I want to keep performing? Do I want to keep doing what needs to be done? There are all these surprises. He surprises me. I surprise myself. But going home alone, stepping out of the ruins of those attachments: it was exhilarating. I could shut the door and be alone with myself. Which was the perfect punishment, the ultimate self-indulgence, the thing I loved the most.

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