Level 15: Little Ex


And Frodo when he saw her come glimmering in the evening, with stars on her brow and a sweet fragrance about her, was moved with great wonder…
— The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

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It was Saturday, October 6, a cold fog rolled in and the sky was full of drizzle. Behind me MP stood guard over the turkey and almonds I was roasting in the oven. Later that night I’d be attending Jenn and Kyle’s pre Halloween party; they were holding it a few weeks early because Jenn was easily excited. That morning I’d shaved my five-day beard down to a sickly mustache. I was going to wear it with a straw cowboy hat I’d purchased for a Facebook picture. It was a stupid buy. To get some value out of the reckless splurge I was going to wear it to the party with jeans, a T-shirt and my disgusting mustache. I called the ensemble “Ironic Cowboy.”

Jenn and Kyle threw great parties, their wedding that summer had been one of the best I’d ever attended. It was classy and fun. Despite the pedigree and my incredible costume, I knew it was going to be a shit night. Little Ex was going to be there. I wasn’t looking forward to it.

Little Ex was good at everything. She could even beat me at Catan. One time Robbie, Little Ex and I were playing and she scored four points in one round for the win. I was mad because it meant I’d lost, but secretly it gave me a nerd boner.

Little Ex was actually my Big Ex but I couldn’t call her that, she was just too small and beautiful. I’d broken up with her almost a year ago and in that time she’d managed to land a new boyfriend. New Guy was super Catholic and a few semesters away from his M.D. I didn’t stand a chance.

In story time, it was May 20. I had survived the night despite the incessant ramblings of The Mouth of Sauron and his painful sword. The Mouth of Sauron wasn’t real, he was a metaphor. He had not invaded my apartment and run me through; he was merely a literary device, my way of extending the story. I was making my readers suffer through each painful day, just as I had done. I wanted them to have a sense of the long torture; to endure as I had endured.

I lay in bed thinking about my wasted life. I was bedridden, a 32-year-old man boy with a 400 square foot apartment and a list of shattered dreams.

For as long as I could remember I’d wanted to be an artist, but it hadn’t worked out. I had learned to play the guitar and violin, moved to LA to be a rock star, cut four albums, performed with more than 30 bands, written several novels, illustrated a comic book, painted a billion (poetic) canvasses and gotten a degree in art. Then I fell in love.

The beautiful creature’s name was Little Ex. She was perfect. I gave up my dream of being an artist and went back to school for a real degree. The plan was to use the real degree to get a real job and make good money. Then I could buy us a house and together we would raise some children. It was a great plan. Then this (expletive deleted) priest showed up and ruined the whole thing.

The most embarrassing card from the most embarrassing level in the whole book, collect all one!

Love Potion No. 2: Pornography is Awesome

There is a plague sweeping the world. It’s called pornography or, more specifically, Internet pornography. Pornography has been around for a long time, but it has never been so accessible. As kids we’d stumble upon a magazine here and there and pass it around like the lost Ark of the Covenant; it was precious and rare. Today every desk with a computer and pocket with a smartphone had access to a wealth of porn unimaginable to the randy kids of yesteryear. I was one of the lucky ones, the last generation to pass through puberty before Porn Hub hit the scene.

When I was a kid I was horny just like everyone else. My friends and I would watch the scrambled cable nudie channel, staring at blurry squiggles for hours, hoping to catch a glimpse of some side boob. When we got older we found jobs and could have purchased as much porn as we wanted, but we didn’t. The expense and embarrassment of procuring dirty magazines was always too high. If you wanted consistent cleavage, you had to get a girlfriend, so that’s what we did. Soon, most of us discovered that the reality of physical contact was better than porn and, after a certain age, most of us stopped watching the scrambled channel. We called our girlfriends instead. Unfortunately, this was no longer the case.

In my youth I used to baby sit for extra cash. The best part of the night was after the kids went to bed. I’d grab some snacks and turn on the TV. My family didn’t have cable so it was always a treat to watch late night television at a neighbor’s house. My favorite station was Comedy Central. At night they’d show comedians and I loved to watch. Back then every comedian had a bit about how they wanted sex all the time but their woman didn’t. They’d joke about how they were always horny and went to great lengths to get their hands on titties. Comedians didn’t have bits like that anymore. Nowadays, guys medicated on their own – no girls needed.

When I first started dating Little Ex I was like most man-boys my age. I wanted sex as much as possible and would do just about anything to get it. Little Ex put the kibosh on that, but we still got to do other things. I was fine with that. She was worth it.

Little Ex was Catholic. I was Protestant, but I never went to church. Little Ex loved attending weekly Mass and because it was important to her, I went as well. It was a fascinating world full of architecture and ceremony, a far cry from the bare-footed hippie worship I was used to. One week this (expletive deleted) priest took the stage and started talking about purity, sexual purity. My stomach gurgled angrily, I knew what was coming.

He told the congregation that they were the bride of Christ and that one day, He would marry them so they’d better be pure. On the walk home Little Ex was quiet. “Is something wrong?” I asked, pretending I didn’t already know.

Her tiny feet beat perfect time in fashionable shoes as she considered the answer, “I,” a full quarter rest, building dynamic tension, “don’t think we should do stuff anymore.”

“Stuff?”

“Stuff.”

I had been keeping the monster at bay for months. We didn’t do much but what we did do was keeping me going. I was a junkie bumping coke until the heroin shipment arrived, “Do I get a say in this?” She shook her head. “Just like that?”

“I guess,” she said.

“Because of the sermon?”

“It’s been on my mind for a while.”

That (expletive deleted) priest, that stupid, (expletive deleted) priest. The guy was just doing his job but couldn’t he talk about drugs or tithing or something? I’d gladly give 10 percent if it meant he’d shut up about the purity thing.

Our self-imposed chastity didn’t last long. Still, every second passed like a decade. She’d walk around her apartment in tight little jeans and it’d drive me nuts. Somehow I kept it together. She was worth it. Eventually she gave into the pressure from her hormones and things went back to normal. Then a few months later, that same mother (expletive deleted) climbed the stairs of the ornate lectern and launched into another sermon. If I’d had laser vision I would have blasted him where he stood. Later that night, Little Ex told me we were once again going to enter the desert. We could kiss, but that was it.

“Seriously?”

“I’m sorry,” she said. She was. I could see it in her eyes, but a higher power was calling.

“And once again, I have no say?”

“We can’t have it both ways.”

I was angry. I was hurt. I wanted to break up with her, but she was so damn perfect. I decided to teach her a lesson. If I couldn’t have what I wanted, I wouldn’t give her what she needed. I withheld all physical contact. No kissing, no hugs, I barely held her hand. It was the nuclear option and, like all atomic bombs, there were consequences for both sides. Little Ex seemed unperturbed. She later told me that she had been dying inside, but the girl earned a living by twirling around on 10 bloody toes. She was good at hiding pain. I wasn’t. I wanted to show her that it sucked to have the terms or our physical contract decided by one person. I amended the constitution, banning all contact, but that meant I got nothing as well. My balls filled with cum. I got agitated and surly. How long could she last? It turned out,  longer than me.

I’m not trying to blame Little Ex or the Catholic Church for the end of our relationship, sexual purity is an important thing. Rampant promiscuity spreads disease and babies. Babies are great but only if you want them. If you fuck everything that moves there’s a chance some poor kid is going to have a terrible life. Religion is good like that, it reinforces what you should already be doing anyway, but the flesh is weak. I had gotten used to regular loving. Twice I’d had the rug yanked out from under me. I couldn’t go to the club in search of action because I already had a girlfriend. What was a boy to do?

In the early days there was a ton of porn on the Internet but you had to pay for it. That had changed. There was now as much free porn as your eyes could handle. With the Internet by my side, I figured I could make it through. It would be hard but I was man enough to try. Little Ex could have her purity and I would be able sleep at night. Unfortunately, like every drug, there were side effects. I had been warned about them, Christians were nuts about the dangers of pornography, but no one had been honest. Pastors would take the stage and try to scare teenagers and adults away from their computers, but to really be effective they had to tell the truth. Instead, they talked around it.

When I was a kid I went to Wednesday night church at this hip place in Castle Rock. They had electric guitars, an awesome, young pastor and a giant, 3D painting of a cross in neon colors. It was totally rad. One night this old guy got up and started talking about sexual purity. Christians were nuts about sexual purity. He told us he wanted to get real, to tear away the crap and have a heart to heart.

“Pornography is bad, guys, real bad, you shouldn’t look at it. Your friends might tell you it’s OK, they might call you a square and say it’s not that bad, that you can look at it and nothing will happen, but some day you’re going to get married and if you’ve looked at pornography? It will ruin your relationship with your wife.”

His words were empty, but the idea was intriguing. Was it possible that looking at pictures of naked women could ruin my marriage?

He continued, “I know it’s an embarrassing topic, but we’re all adults here and it’s time to get real, no holds barred, just you and me.” He climbed the three steps up the stage and turned. It was very dramatic. “Guys, if you look at pornography those images are going to be burned into your brain.” Christians were terrified of flames. “Pretty soon you’re going to get married and you’ll have a wife and if you look at pornography and sear those images into your mind, then some day when you get intimate with your wife,” he paused for dramatic effect. “You will think of those images during the physical act of love.”

The room went quiet. No one moved. Was he serious? That was the punishment for looking at pornography? I had never done the deed but I imagined that while I had sex I’d think of all sorts of things. My mind always wandered. I sat there thinking about my future wife and the sweet love we’d make. I thought about looking at pornography and how that would force me to imagine those same images while I had sex. It seemed alright to me. If that was the only consequence then I’d look at pornography every chance I got, those chicks were hot!

Then I discovered that pornography was hard to come by as well as unsatisfying. Regular girls were better. I had friends who looked at the stuff. They hated it. In Christian circles there was no worse sin than staring at tits, and pastors hammered that point home constantly. I didn’t care. It wasn’t my thing, but my friends would come to me, “Dude, would you be my accountability partner? I’m addicted to porn.” I used to laugh at those guys and never help them out. To me it was a foreign world. I was too busy having fun with real women.

Fifteen years later, I found myself in a committed relationship with a girl that wouldn’t get me off. I began to medicate with Internet porn. If only that old guy on the stage so long ago had actually been real instead of talking around it. Little Ex and I might still be together.

Now it was my turn. I was on a stage with an audience listening, did I have what it took to be real? Could I succeed where that old man had failed?

Buckle up, bitches, it’s about to get rough.

The thing about pornography is that it steals your boners. If you look at it enough, you won’t be able to get an erection. You’ll be so used to staring at ten thousand girls in every imaginable position that the gentle touch of the girl you love will no longer excite you. This principle is why boner pills sell so well.

That old bastard blathering on in front of the hip, neon cross knew this, but couldn’t bring himself to say it. My guess is pornography had stolen his boners. He was trying to warn us but he missed the mark. He was a coward. He should have told us he was addicted to the shit and that it ruined the most important part of his marriage. He should have said he was no longer a man, that he had been enslaved by dirty images, but he was afraid and only went halfway. Fortunately for the world, I wasn’t a coward. I was a wretched, sick fuck, no better than my old man who divorced my mom then blew their life savings on prostitutes. I had the perfect woman. She was everything I’d hoped for and I threw her away. I started jerking off to Internet porn. It made me angry and lethargic, I lost my mojo. Balls full of cum drove men to great deeds. They inspired us to climb mountains and write poems so we could plant flags and dedicate books in the name of the women we loved, but if you consistently drained the main vein you would become a shell of yourself. I know, because it happened to me. That old bastard had known as well, but he was too cowardly to admit how he’d discovered the awful truth.

For men, sex is everything. This is not an exaggeration, it’s scientific as can be. After I wrote this level I passed it out to a bunch of people to see if I’d gone too far. The feedback was positive. It turned out a bunch of my friends were slaves as well. One of them wrote back to let me know that he was addicted to porn. He told me that it had destroyed his creativity. He’d always wanted to learn to play the piano and guitar, to draw, to learn to fly and build bike frames, all kinds of stuff. But he didn’t. He said it was because of pornography. I believed him. I’d been there. When I was spanking it I turned into a sad shadow of myself. For men, sex was everything. If your sexuality was unhealthy, you were unhealthy.

Every bridge, skyscraper, airplane and scientific advance had come about because men were desperate to leave something behind. They couldn’t have children, not in the meaningful way women did, and so they climbed mountains, made paintings and wrote poems in a desperate attempt to thwart death. Women did these things as well, but not as frantically as men. Men were fatally aware of their mortality, while women took comfort in their children, knowing that their soul would live on in a vessel more profound and beautiful than the sum total of man’s strivings. When a man masturbated, his mind was tricked into believing he had completed the genetic imperative. He could sit back and relax. After the refractory period, he became energized and began looking for a place to spill his seed in the hope that this would add meaning to his dull existence. If there was no woman forthcoming he would set about trying to impress one so he could have sex with her. He might paint the house or build a car, glue together a model train, or trim his bonsai. He didn’t know it, but he was trying to have a baby. His model airplane, paintball trophy or high score would attract a woman so his line could continue. The resultant baby would be a testament to the world that he had existed. If, after his soldiers had recharged, he again spilled his seed on the carpet, he would again believe he had done his duty to civilization and take a nap. Instead of doing something interesting that he could point at with pride, his life would become a dark series of shameful acts followed by a short nap.

The Internet has given us 24-hour access to a Kryptonite of unimaginable potency. I should have known better. I’d been warned. I didn’t know I’d lose my boners, but I’d watched a porn addiction ruin my parents’ marriage, then I let it destroy my relationship as well. And I wasn’t the only one. For years my friends had been telling similar stories. We’d be on a road trip or at dinner, just talking, letting the conversation flow, then their faces would get somber, “So I was with this girl last night?”

“Sera, yeah, what a babe, I can’t believe you hit that!” I held up my hand for the obligatory high five, but he left me hanging.

“No dude, it didn’t happen.”

I put my hand down; I could tell something was weighing on his mind. “Was she on her period?”

He looked at me with confusion in his eyes, “I couldn’t get it up.”

“It?”

“It.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“I don’t know. It’s been happening a lot lately.”

It’s been happening a lot lately, to a lot of guys. Comedians used to talk about the lengths they went through to get laid, now Dane Cook cracks jokes about You Porn; but it isn’t funny. Not really. I have a bunch of friends who have lost their boners. When they told me it was awkward, I didn’t know what to say. Now I realize what happened. Pornography took their manhood the same way it did me. An epidemic was spreading, wrecking marriages and relationships with deadly poison. In pockets and glowing screens on desks, the Enemy was sapping our strength, stealing the drive that made us men. It was disgusting and awful. I didn’t know if sharing this private part of my life would help or hinder, but I was beyond caring. I was a 32-year-old man boy with a 400 square foot apartment and a list of shattered dreams. I was a worthless mess; my only hope was that my wretched, stupid story might help other people avoid the same mistakes. I had fucked up my life and there was no going back, but you, dear reader, didn’t have to go down that road. You could stop before it was too late.

Spotify was telling me Little Ex was listening to As Long As You Love Me by Justin Bieber. She always listened to pop music when she got ready for parties. That song used to be about me. Now it was about a Catholic medical student. I had to dress up as an ironic cowboy and go to the same party she was getting ready for. I had to watch some guy hold hands with a girl I threw away because I let myself be enslaved. What if that old guy at the hip church so long ago had been honest, would I still be with her? I didn’t know, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to make the same mistake. My readers would get the truth, every flaccid inch of it. What they did with it was up to them.

Back to the story.

When I gave up on art and started down the road to an unsatisfying career as an engineer, I was convinced I was going to marry Little Ex. I had grown up in a shit hole war zone of conflict caused by the lack of money and always promised myself I’d never do that to my children. I’d been trying my guts out for most of my life to make it as an artist and hadn’t come close. After I met Little Ex, I decided to give up. She would be my art, our life together my canvass. I abandoned the dreams of lil’ Nathan and enrolled in school. I was going to be an electrical engineer, not because I thought it sounded fulfilling, but because those guys made tons of money. Little Ex and I would be able to afford a house. She could stay at home and raise our children and once a year we’d go on vacation. When the kids were grown Little Ex and I would pay for their college. It was going to be great.

Then I got addicted to porn and fell out of love with her. Physical intimacy was a vital part of any relationship and I ruined ours. She became a friend, a buddy, my pal. I got what I needed elsewhere. Mid-semester I broke her heart and shattered my own. Suddenly I found myself chasing a dream I wanted to wake up from. Without Little Ex to inspire me, college became a dreadful chore. I liked the math classes but the engineering courses were unbearable. The teachers were miserable and I hated the other students. All I wanted to do was make art, to write poems and make paintings like I used to, but I couldn’t, there was no time. I got very depressed. For a year I slogged through, figuring some day there would be another Little Ex who would want to raise a family with me. If I finished my degree, I’d have a job that made enough money to buy a happy marriage. Then Sauron struck and my world ended.

“She’s coming,” said The Mouth of Sauron, his wicked blade shoved through my guts. I had double-booked. I was planning on attending Hannah’s graduation party and hanging out with Little Ex. It wasn’t intentional. Hannah’s mom had invited me to the party about a month before and Little Ex had texted about meeting up a week prior. I’d agreed to both. I sucked at life. Fortunately I’d been throwing up and writhing in agony for more than a week. I didn’t have to decide.

“Take me to my computer,” I told the dark figure above me.

“This is not my job.”

Such a cool little girl.

Painfully, I removed the blade from my stomach, each inch a separate agony. Slowly I stood and waddled the four steps to my machine. I sat down and facebooked little Hannah. I told her I was sorry, but I was sick and couldn’t make it. She was one of the first to know. I barely knew her, but she was one of the first people I told. It was kind of poetic. I tried to watch a draft video, but I was in too much pain. I couldn’t concentrate. I lay down and waited for Little Ex to text.

LE: Still want to meet up?

It was noon or so, Saint Mary’s Cathedral had just gotten out.

N: Yes. City O’ or tea on my stoop?

LE: Stoop. See you in 10.

It was a good choice. City O’ City was a hipster joint two blocks from my apartment; you could get coffee and be seen by Denver’s finest, but it kind of sucked because the people were kind of mean. The stoop of the Ambassador, the apartment building where I lived, was my favorite place in all of Denver. I was glad she picked it. I put on some clothes and limped into the kitchen to boil some water. I took out two mugs and a couple of bags of chamomile tea.

“Who you making tea for?” asked MP.

“Little Ex.”

“I liked her,” said the little filter.

“Everybody did.”

“You should’ve listened to Gus, it’s not good to leave your Clara.”

“Every cowboy needs a muse.”

MP dripped thoughtfully. “If that’s how you want to see it.”

I put honey in my mug, but left hers dry, Little Ex didn’t care for sweet stuff. MP tried to peer around the corner. “That spooky guy still lurking around?”

“Yes and no.” I got out a plate to act as a serving tray so I could take the mugs outside in one trip. “He doesn’t actually exist. He’s just a metaphor.”

“A metaphor for what?”

“Struggle. Pain. None of this happened. I didn’t talk to you while making tea for Little Ex. I didn’t hallucinate Shelob or Sauron’s lieutenant, I just made that stuff up to fill space, to make my readers wade through a bunch of crap so the story would have a sense of time.”

“That’s not true,” said MP.

“What’s not true?”

“You didn’t write about me to lend a sense of time, you wrote about me because Lonesome Dove is one of your favorite books and you wanted a cowboy in your story. Same with those two creeps in your bedroom,” he gestured out the door. “You want to be a novelist but you ain’t got what it takes, so you stole a bunch of ideas from your favorite authors and made their characters your own. That time thing is a nice consequence and all, but don’t act like you planned it. You ain’t that smart.”

He was right. I was writing about each day in exaggerated detail so my readers would understand what I went through, but that wasn’t how it started. In the beginning I was just out of my mind on prednisone and sleep deprivation. I thought Confessions of a Diarrhetic was going to be a single post on Facebook. It turned into something more. Art was like that. You started with an idea but when you tried to make it happen, reality got in the way. That’s what made it fun, you never knew what to expect.

The water began to boil. I decided to wait and not pour it into the mugs until Little Ex arrived so her tea would be steamy and fresh. My sister had spent a lot of time in China and said the Chinese didn’t boil their tea water. Apparently 100 degrees Celsius was too hot, it messed with the flavor. They had these little statues you could stick in your pot that started peeing once the water reached the correct temperature. Their pee wasn’t actual pee, the figurines just redirected the water you were heating out their little spouts once the water was perfect.

A few minutes passed. I started to get antsy. I was excited, half hoping she would profess her love and we could get back together. I poured the water into the mugs, put the mugs on the plate, added the teabags, cinched up my pants and waddled out.

The air was crisp, the last vestiges of winter still clung to the shadows. Cars and trucks whizzed past, I could hear a siren in the distance. The city breathed traffic. I sat down painfully on the stoop. The corner my apartment building stood on was one of the busiest intersections in all of Denver. There was always something interesting going on. If you were lonely or bored, you could grab a bowl of cereal, head out and be guaranteed conversation from one of the building’s tenants or a hip passerby. Sitting on the stoop was one of my favorite things, way better than watching Internet porn. I played with the tea bags, nervously scanning the block for signs of my former girlfriend. She came around the corner with her bouncy walk. She looked great. Tall, boots, black tights under a short skirt and some kind of sweater turtle neck thing I’d never seen before. Every inch of skin was covered, but she was still stunning. Beautiful girls didn’t need to advertise.

She waited for the light to change and crossed the street, then headed my way, “Hey.” She looked amazing, there was a glow about her. When we were together there had been no glow. I must have been a terrible boyfriend.

“How was church?” I asked.

“Good.” I handed her the mug of tea. “Thanks.”

She sat down next to me and cradled the steaming cup in her tiny hands. The mug looked gigantic, like an oversized novelty toy. It was very endearing. “So,” she said with punctuation, “how are you?” The lilting notes started high, dropped half a step, then finished on middle ‘E’.

“I’ve been sick. Real sick.”

She looked at me, slightly worried, “Are you feeling better now?”

The pain increased. My insides felt like a war zone 15 minutes after the last soldier died. Smoke filled the air and silence hung over everything, a Bowie knife tried to tear through. I closed my eyes and tensed my guts, trying to squelch the pain. The tremor passed, the ache subsided.

“I guess. I can drink tea and stuff, so that’s good.”

“You couldn’t drink tea?”

“For a while I couldn’t drink anything. It kept coming back up.” I sipped at my chamomile, savoring the sweet honey.

Little Ex looked at me, “You should see a doctor.”

“I can’t afford one.” It was true. I was uninsured and poor, the classic college student, except that I was almost twice the age of the average freshman. “Besides, I’m on the mend, I’m keeping down broth and everything.”

We sat there, sipping our tea, waiting for it to cool. “How’s your family?” I asked.

She shrugged, “As good as can be expected.” Her family had recently been through a hellish year. In the midst of one of the worst times in her life, I broke up with her. It was a jerk move. She filled me in on the details, it was mostly sad with happy bits mixed in, just like everyone’s family.

“Well you look good,” I said. “Great, in fact. You’re glowing.”

She smiled, there was a peaceful calm I’d never seen before. “I’ve deepened my faith,” she said. “I’m about to be confirmed.”

“Finally decided to take the plunge, eh?”

“Yeah.”

Little Ex was 22 and, like all 22-year-olds, she was reevaluating her life, testing new waters, discovering herself. While we were together she began to change, I did as well. Her faith deepened while mine began to falter. Our worlds began to separate, slowly, like icebergs. The destruction of my boners wasn’t the only reason we broke up. It was the biggest (pun intended) but things might have ended anyway. Faith was important to Little Ex, for me things were changing. I had begun to doubt the teachings of my God.

“I’m glad,” I said. “It seems like you’re at peace.”

“I am,” she sipped her tea, staring off into space. “Oh!” she perked up, a brash chord struck across all four strings, “I can run now!”

“I don’t believe you.”

“I can! I can!” Sixteenth note, quarter note, sixteenth note, quarter note — a song bird in the morning.

Little Ex had never been able to run. Her body was wrong for ballet. She could do the motions but to achieve the highest levels you needed more than raw talent. Ballerinas were supposed to be nimble and lithe. The various postures looked better if the dancer’s joints hyper-extended at graceful angles God never intended. Little Ex had some hyper extension, but not enough. To make up for the deficiency she worked out certain muscles in excess and avoided activities that strengthened others. This shaped her limbs artificially to look as if they bent like a true ballerina. Running was one of the activities she tried to avoid. That was why she was so bad at it. On nights when we headed out to the club she sometimes got so excited she couldn’t help herself. “C’mon, let’s run!” she’d say.

Her dainty little steps in fashionable heels always made me laugh. “That’s not a run.” I’d joke.

“I don’t know how to run, now keep up, you slow poke!”

We’d jog a block or two then return to her bouncy, regular gait. It was one of my favorite memories.

“Seriously,” she said. “I’m taking a fitness class and everything. I’m even running a 10K with Derek later this month.”

That was news. My adrenaline surged. Derek was the guy I watched the game with the night the Nuggets lost to the Lakers, the night this story began. We had gone to Boulder to watch a ballet performance by Little Ex No. 2. Little Ex No. 2 had the same name as Little Ex, she was also a ballerina. I hadn’t planned that. It was all very silly and confusing. After the performance we’d gone to a bar to catch the game. Derek was my friend. Derek was Little Ex’s friend. He hadn’t told me they were running a 10K together. Why not? What was the big deal? Unless he was trying to move in on my girl. I fought back a grimace and pretended to be happy. I smiled big so Little Ex would know how happy I was that my friend was trying to date her, “Awesome! That’s great! Really spectacular! I mean it!” I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it at all.

“Yeah, my fitness teacher really likes me. He even let me lead a yoga session for people in the class.”

“I bet he did.”

I could almost see it, dainty little Little Ex approached her teacher, “Can I teach yoga to the class?”

The professor looked at her, imagining that beautiful body clothed in stretchy, Lululemon spandex, moving the class through various sexy poses, “Absolutely.” He replied. Pervert.

I probed her for more information on the Derek thing, hoping for a big reveal. Were they already dating?

“We’ve hung out at a few parties.” She said, “He’s really nice.”

“I bet he is.” I wasn’t one to pussy foot around. Break down the door and come in with guns blazing, that was my style. “Are you two dating?”

My question had the impact I was looking for, “He,” her face got all uncomfortable and blushy, “asked me out, sort of. He said we should hang out sometime, one on one. I told him I wasn’t comfortable with that. We’re just friends.”

We’re just friends. As if such a thing were possible. Every time I claimed it wasn’t, girls inevitably said, “All my friends are guys. Girls are mean.”

I usually responded with something along the lines of, “And if you wanted to kiss him, would he kiss you back?”

That usually stole their thunder, “I. Guess…”

Little Ex and I sat on the stoop and talked for hours. There were plenty of long pauses where no one said anything, where we just watched the traffic. My guts hurt, the pain oscillated between miserable and unbearable. Eventually I decided to broach the topic. “So,” I paused, did I really want to jump in? “How do you feel about the way things went down?” It seemed I did. “Between us.” I added, in case there was any uncertainty.

“I,” she considered it, “I guess I’m over it. I’ve moved on.” She turned to look at me, “How do you feel about it?”

This was it, the crucial moment. I looked into her giant, blue eyes, “I hate how it turned out.”

If she said, “Me too.” We were in business, any other answer and I’d have to pack my bags.

She didn’t say anything. Instead she shrugged and made the ‘oh well’ face. I was out. Game over. Thanks for playing. I didn’t have any room to complain. I’d broken up with her. I was the asshole, the pervert, the jerk. I deserved everything I’d gotten, including her dismissive shrug. “OK.” I nodded and went back to watching the traffic.

Five months later I was sitting at my computer, writing this Level and watching Spotify updates to see what Little Ex was listening to as she got ready for Jenn and Kyle’s pre Halloween, Halloween party. I usually arrived late to such events, after the party was in full swing, but I was scared that Little Ex might show up early, have a few obligatory conversations, and then duck out with her new boyfriend before I showed up. I put on my straw cowboy hat, checked my ironic mustache in the mirror and headed out. The night was cold. Fall had come. I pedaled across town on my single speed and breathed the crisp air. It was homecoming weekend and as I passed the local high school I saw tons of kids dressed to the nines. They were all so young and pretty. It warmed my heart.

At the party everyone was awesome. One of the couples came dressed as Juno and Paulie Bleeker. The girl was actually pregnant and the dude’s terry cloth running shorts were so tight you could see the outline of his package. Jenn had gone completely nuts with decorations. There were jars of tasty alcoholic beverages labeled ‘cyanide’, ‘blood’ and other horrible things. Sticker bats and black cats fluttered and meowed across the walls. There were black spider web tapestries, a shower curtain with bloody handprint smears, a black owl with glowing red eyes and skeleton-hand salad tongs, everything you’d expect from a party thrown by Jenn and Kyle.

Kyle was dressed as a zombie in a slick, black suit and Jenn looked stunning in a flowing gown with dangly wizard sleeves. I wanted so badly for people to ask what I was so I could grin and say, “Ironic Cowboy,” then tip my hat and wink, but no one did. My costume was uninteresting and obvious. Little Ex wasn’t there. She hadn’t arrived yet. That was good. I didn’t want to miss her. The party slowly filled. Each time the dog barked my heart jumped. Was it Little Ex? No, not yet. The mutt was decked out in a pink hippo costume with a phosphorescent tutu. Tutus always reminded me of Little Ex.

Eventually she arrived, sans boyfriend, sporting the purple corduroy jacket I liked so much. She took off her jacket to reveal her costume. She was wearing a cowgirl shirt with black jeans and Western boots. We had come dressed as the same thing. Kyle handed her her hat. It was bent in exactly the same shape as mine. She didn’t put it on. Instead she just stared at me.

“You’re not going to wear your hat?” I asked.

“No,” she said and shook her head. It was perfect. We hadn’t planned it. Nothing could have been more awkward.

“You’ve got to admit it’s hilarious, though, right?”

She shrugged dismissively.

“How’s school?” I asked.

“Good.” She perked up at that, “I’m a teacher’s assistant in a biology class.”

“Oh wow, good for you.” I pretended to be happy. Inside I was jealous. She was succeeding where I had failed. Nothing could stop her. She was incredible, I was nothing.

We made a few more idle passes and went our separate ways. The party wheeled on, eventually Little Ex left, her cowgirl hat in hand. The whole scene would have been beautiful and poetic had it not been so sad.

to be continued

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