Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancée, but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.) … She’ll stick around for a few months because you been together a long, long time. Because you’ve gone through so much together — her father’s death, your tenure madness, her bar exam (passed on the third attempt). And because love, real love, is not so easily shed.
Yes, it’s the third Diaz story TNY has published since April. Yes, it’s the same character, Yunior. Yes, it’s the same style. Yes, it’s second person (which is fine with me, but I know a lot of people have a problem with it).
And yet, while I went into it with the reluctance of another dental cleaning, by the end of the story I was moved.
It’s the tale of a man slowly coming to terms with himself, with his own behavior, and the consequences he and others have suffered as a result of it. He’s helped along the way by seeing how similar behavior on the part of his best bud Elvis affects others. Funny how that works; it’s always so easy to see failures in others, while our own remain mysteriously obscure to us.
It’s structured by years. Year 0 is the breakup with his fiancée, who remains unnamed, and proceeds in similarly-titled chapters until Year 5 when… the story gets written. Yes, another one like that. Maybe this is the Year of the Feedback Loop. I’m not saying it doesn’t work. I’m just saying I’m seeing it all over the place now. Was it there before, and I wasn’t paying attention?
I like the chapter titles, which give it a scientific cast, like an anthropologist tracing the development of civilization from Year 0. Or maybe Ground Zero. The chapters also provide a structure I appreciated, since it’s a cycle of Yunior falling apart, professionally, personally, physically, and pulling it together. It starts to feel very “I’ve been here before”. The chapters assured me that yes, I had, because he had been here before. I have to admit, I was getting a little peeved.
Year 4 includes a trip to the Dominican Republic with buddy Elvis, to visit the secret, second family, son and baby mama, Elvis has stashed there in the squalor of the Nadalands. That appears to be an invented term, but you get the idea, it’s a mud flat “falling off the rim of civilization.” Elvis has plans to move them out. He picks Elvis up for the drive to the airport:
He has three suitcases of swag for the boy, including his first glove, his first ball, his first Bosox jersey. About eighty kilos of clothes and shit for the baby mama. Hid them all in your apartment, too. You are at his house when he bids his wife and mother-in-law and daughter goodbye. His daughter doesn’t seem to understand what’s happening, but when the door shuts she lets out a wail that coils about you like a constantine wire. Elvis stays cool as fuck. This used to be me, you’re thinking.
To me, it felt like this is where the story starts, but actually it’s almost over. Without the previous material, nothing here would have much meaning, so I can understand the importance of developing enough of a rapport with the adult Yunior (I never read the original collection introducing us to him as an adolescent) and how he’s mishandling his life. Over the past five years, the tables have turned a little: he’s the one who’s been crapped on. One girlfriend wouldn’t sleep with him; or more accurately, she’d chastely sleep over on Sunday night, bringing her own pillow. It says something about Yunior that she could get away with that. She walks out when he complains.
Another, a law student, breaks up with him for another guy, then comes back and tells him she’s pregnant with his child, only to recant in the delivery room under the stresses of labor: “I don’t want him in here. He’s not the father.”
In Year 5, he gets a photo and an invitation to her wedding to the other guy. Elvis rips it up. “You manage to save a tiny piece of the photo. It’s of her hand.” This, too, says something about Yunior. Unfortunately, these things were easy to miss on first read, with the parade of depressions and recoveries and girlfriends coming and going.
Yet through the whole story, in every year, the fiancée is present. In his TNY interview, he says it’s about a central absence, like most of his stories; but to me, the fiancée is there all along. It’s a very powerful element, how she sticks with this guy who doesn’t seem to care about much.
I was very lucky to enjoy a brief visit from my former Zoetrope friend Melissa (she’s still a friend, we just aren’t very active on Zoetrope Virtual Studios – hi, Melissa) over the weekend, and when the conversation inevitably turned to what we’d been reading, she told me of her experience with Diaz’s Oscar Wu novel: that for all the misogyny and misbehavior, there’s a tenderness to his work. I agree. Yunior cheated on his fiancée with fifty women over the course of their six-year relationship (hence the six-year span of the story; it’s a mirror image, the relationship after she leaves). He’s a dog. But then there’s that photo of her hand… Change is always possible.
Finally, when you feel like you can do so without exploding into burning atoms, you open a folder that you’ve kept hidden under your bed. The Doomsday Book. Copies of all the e-mails and photos from the cheating days, the ones the ex found and compiled and mailed to you a month after she ended it. Dear Yunior, for your next book. Probably the last time she wrote your name.
You read the whole thing cover to cover (yes, she put covers on it). You are surprised at what a fucking chickenshit coward you are. It kills you to admit it, but it’s true. You are astounded by the depths of your mendacity. When you finish the book a second time, you say the truth: You did the right thing, negra. You did the right thing.
Elvis looks at the book. “You really should write the cheater’s guide to love.” Yunior hasn’t written anything in the six years since the breakup.
The ending is predictable, sentimental, and perfect.
It takes a while… And then, one June night, you scribble the ex’s name and: The half-life of love is forever.
You bust out a couple more things. Then you put hour head down.
The next day, you look at the new pages. For once, you don’t want to burn them or give up writing forever.
It’s a start, you say to the room.
That’s about it. In the months that follow, you bend to the work, because it feels like hope, like grace – and because you know in your lying cheater’s heart that sometimes a start is all we ever get.