by Cari Oleskewicz
Cora’s kayak is balanced on top of Andy’s compact car. From my seat on the passenger side, I watch its pointy yellow tip, imagining it flying off the roof like a javelin.
This kayak has been a fixture at Andy’s house for the entire three-and-a-half years of our relationship. It is faded and dirty, full of spider webs and leaves. A mourning dove we named Federica once made a nest in there. Andy grew attached. “Try not to scare my bird,” he would text before I came over.
Cora is his ex-girlfriend. The partner before me. They stayed friends for a while after they split. “We’d still do fun things together,” he told me. He was proud of this, and I felt, at the time, like he was trying to reassure me his break-ups were without anger and drama. Like I could trust our romance to one day end peacefully.
But I found it irritating. I don’t understand remaining friends with exes. I have an ex-husband who I have to talk to because we have a daughter. I’m not friends with him and I can’t imagine doing anything fun with him. The boyfriend between my ex-husband and Andy left the state after we broke up, thank God.
Cora moved to Europe for work and stayed five years; first in Brussels and then in Dublin. She’s back in St. Pete now, and wants her kayak. Andy asked if I wanted to ride over with him and I said yes, mostly out of dark curiosity. Who is this woman and what can she tell me about Andy, I wondered.
But as we crossed the bay from Tampa, I began to feel unsteady. There was more than curiosity splashing around inside me. I felt – jealous? Insecure? These are normal things to feel when one is meeting a boyfriend’s ex, however it didn’t make sense. Not for me. Not for us.
Here’s what else I know about Cora. She went through treatment for breast cancer and Andy was by her side. She is originally from Chicago. When I asked him to describe her, he said she is politely abrasive. She played rugby in college. She’s best friends with the woman who still cuts Andy’s hair. When they were together, she liked to drink heavily and smoke pot and attend large outdoor concerts. I don’t do any of those things.
Cora just bought a condo on Snell Island, hardly a low-income neighborhood. Her building is on the water and she is bored, Andy told me. Of course she wants her kayak. He told me he tried to ignore her and then made vague commitments but then her texts became more insistent. She even offered to pay him. Finally, he agreed to drop it off.
A picture of them pops up on his Facebook margins every time I go to his page. They are out with friends, celebrating her cancer recovery. She is smiling and he is leaning in to kiss her cheek. He has not untagged himself from that photo. It is part of the permanent record, and while something flutters in my chest whenever I look at it, I’ve never mentioned it nor asked him to remove it. That’s not like me. It’s not like us.
“You don’t have any reason to feel jealous,” he preemptively said after she’d called him about being back in the area.
I remember shrugging casually. “I don’t. You were together for two years. You were there for her when she was sick. I think we can honor that relationship as a part of your life.” Big words from someone who suddenly cannot breathe as the GPS announces we are 10 minutes away.
My anxiety doesn’t make any sense to me. Not now. There have been episodes of jealousy and discomfort. Once, we were having tacos in a low-budget hole-in-the-wall restaurant known for employing recovering addicts and parolees. Over my head was a poster for an upcoming rugby tournament.
“I’ll send that to Cora,” he said, snapping a photo. When I looked up from my carne asada, he shrugged. “I haven’t sent her anything in years.”
It’s not in my nature to protest or question or accuse. These things would expose too many of my own feelings, and I didn’t want to be hurt. I didn’t want a scene. So I nodded.
Another time, we were driving to the Suwannee River for a weekend of hiking and birding. As I drove, she texted him to say she was in town. She invited him to dinner.
“You’d be invited too, of course,” he said.
I let the silence settle. My eyes were fixed on the interstate and my grip on the wheel tightened, my face flushed.
“But, I’ll tell that ho to step off,” he joked, putting away his phone.
I laughed my nervous laugh.
I could explain the nausea and the heart flutter, as we turn into Cora’s community, if I was madly in love with Andy. It would mean I felt threatened by his ex. But I’m not madly in love. I’m not sure about my feelings at all. If I could summon up jealousy and possessiveness, it would be so simple. I would know: okay, this is my guy. I will beat the bitches off him if I have to. But I don’t feel that. So why the nerves? Why the nagging self-doubt?
Our first date was near-perfect. Andy was so interesting that I kept him on a pedestal for a solid couple of months. He was smart and had a peculiar sense of humor and remained attentive without being overbearing. He listened. He shared. He pirated all the movies we wanted to watch and he was a sexy, all-in kisser. He was good at all the foreplay and even the dry humping, which, now that I think about it, is a bit odd for a couple of 40-something adults. But I was just so distracted by everything I loved about him that I didn’t stop to notice his discomfort with the physical act of sex, or his strange habit of sometimes getting into bed fully clothed in what he wore all day.
It took me a full year to realize the scope of his problems.
He’s on a long list of pills that alarmed my friend, a pharmacology student, when I itemized the ones I could remember. These treat a series of undiagnosed illnesses and conditions. The Tramadol is a pain pill prescribed for a vague neurological condition which he says doctors have not been able to get right or fully understand. There are sleeping pills and anti-depressants and something for anxiety. He takes Ritalin for ADD, something for acid reflux, and a blood pressure pill. When he still can’t sleep, he pops Benadryl, which he insists is not habit-forming, or inhales marijuana through a diffuser. He recently began micro-dosing psychedelic mushrooms because he’s heard it treats anxiety and depression and could potentially help him get his life together. There’s a prescription for Vicodin.
These pills are catalogued and hoarded. The Vicodin are packed away in a closet because he worries he won’t continue getting prescriptions. It seems he is addicted to drugs but what he’s really addicted to is pain. He identifies himself as one who suffers. Always. More than anyone else. The ailments are many and they change to suit what must be avoided or explained.
I can’t act like this isn’t what I wanted, once. He is complex, and that’s attractive. He is challenging, and that draws me in. He is withholding with affection and intimacy, and that is familiar. I come from a family that trained me to expect it. Andy’s suffering always leaves me feeling responsible for something. I was raised to accept what I am offered and to ask for nothing more. I will deny my own needs and hide my own expectations in order to support, enable, and not ask questions.
Cora, I learned immediately, was never that person.
Out comes an energetic, happy woman with a big grin, skinny legs, and short blond hair. She babbles with gratitude and laughter. She and I introduce ourselves to each other while Andy is at the back of the car, mute and busy with string.
As we untie the kayak, Cora and I chat about nonsense. She is glad to be back in the U.S., especially with the pandemic raging. She bought this condo for a great price, and she’s hated the work-from-home bullshit of COVID. She doesn’t social distance, standing right beside me to help with a stubborn knot.
“I noticed her cough a few times,” Andy will complain later, smothering his hands in homemade sanitizer that smells like alcohol and stings the skin.
I find myself wishing to skip the small talk and get right to the meat of things. When did the sex stop? Did he have all the same sensitivities that he has now? Did he get weak at the smell of hand lotion or a scented candle? Did he claim an allergy to milk and maybe peanuts? Did he refer to chairs as torture devices if they did not perfectly contour to his unique bodily needs? Did a whiff of eucalyptus upset his stomach to the point that he took to his bed for days? Did he ever go to the ER after holding an ice pack on his knee for too long and, allegedly, getting frostbite on his skin?
How many medications? Did he count them out every Sunday night and break some capsules open to make his own concoctions? Did he stare at the middle of tables with nothing to say in social situations?
These are the questions I really want to ask.
We politely decline to see the inside of Cora’s new home and drive away. I can feel it fall into place. The creeping emotions I had felt on our drive here now make sense. I wasn’t insecure about meeting an ex-girlfriend. It was the manifestation of my ambivalence to this entire relationship.
Of course they broke up. The woman I just met would never stand for the relationship I am currently navigating. Returning the kayak revealed the truth of my envy. I am jealous of Cora. I feel depressed and inadequate, but not because she was Andy’s girlfriend before me.
I’m jealous because she isn’t anymore.