All the Men I Loved
By Christine Lee Zilka
“Of all the men you’ve ever dated, how many have you loved?”
Maybe the question was intended to throw me off balance, but he was no Casanova; I expected a smooth operator to proffer up a wide grin, follow-up line, anecdote, or compliment, something to get me talking, to open up in a moment of disorientation. Executed with such finesse, I might have taken the bait, because after all this was a wedding and I was at the singles table, where there were expectations to meet. But this dude was earnest all the way down to the way in which he bent forward from his waist at the table like he was about to let rip a fart, his tie lapping his chicken dinner, so eager was he for a reply.
I bristled as much as anyone donned in a lavender bridesmaid dress could.
The question held possibilities; I imagined a discussion about ubiquitous, slippery, elusive love, and I resented the fact that the question was limited by the world of the person who’d asked. I’d fallen into some dude’s narrow idea of love, and I’d been robbed of philosophical exchange and connection. And robbed I’d been—my fiancé had called off our wedding a few weeks prior, the reason I was even sitting at the singles table for the first time in years.
I bit the inside of my cheek. I wanted to bite down until I hurt, until I went numb, until I bled.
The dude was persistent. “How many?”
I released my hold. My tongue swam over the impression of my molars. I tasted iron. “I loved them all. Why would I date someone I didn’t love?” I hoped my sharp answer would deter him.
Did I say the dude was persistent? He asked, “And how many boyfriends have you had?”
He’d just wanted to know how many men I’d dated, how many men I’d “been with,” messed with, or fucked. I wished I could reach inside myself, take out my heart and cut him with its jagged, broken edges.
I narrowed my eyes and counted aloud. I took great pleasure in counting my past boyfriends. I took great pleasure in seeing his eyes widen in discomfort at my candor, and I took pleasure when from the dimming of his eyes I could tell at what point I’d surpassed the quantity of his “loves,” and then I took the deepest pleasure of all as disapproval spread across his face. I took pleasure in pushing him away, in gaining control, in stifling courtship. He no longer found me viable. And that was fine. This rejection—this rejection was welcome. It was good to not want someone. To experience a mutual dislike. To not pine for someone. To gain relief from high stakes romance.
He leaned back, the tip of his tie dark with grease. “I see,” he said.
“What,” I asked, “is it that you see?” I’d loved every man I’d ever dated, and been wounded every time. But this last time felt close to death. What could this dude understand?
“You’re a romantic,” he said. He said it like it was an awful thing to be.
Christine Lee Zilka is the Fiction Editor at Kartika Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals and anthologies such as ZYZZYVA, Guernica, Verbsap, Newport Review, and Men Undressed. She was awarded a residency at Hedgebrook in 2006, placed as a finalist in Poets and Writers Magazine’s Writers Exchange Contest in 2007, and received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open in 2009. She has a novel-in-progress.