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Nora’s Story: Nipples and Nightgown

Pierced nipples were the last straw. The mere suggestion ended a four-year tug-of-war with my college boyfriend, Ben, and finally left our relationship wheezing in the dirt.

Just to be clear from the onset, Ben’s nipples weren’t the pierced culprits. The simple aesthetics of that situation would have made the messy affair much easier to discard. And, while I may have made some ill-advised hair color decisions in my time—from aspirational Jean Harlow platinum to Archie Comic orange—the pierced nipples weren’t mine either.

And yet pierced nipples did us in.

The offending incident occurred in 2000, when pierced nipples had actually lost their edge, giving way to Marilyn Monroe-style beauty mark studs, bull-evoking septum pierces, stretched ear gauges and tattooed sleeves. But, perhaps poetically, the saga began five years earlier in 1995, in a hip hop and grunge-heavy era when pierced nipples were at their height, considered cool by a specific set (probably including Ben, who had a double-pierced tongue) along with adult rave pacifiers, plaid flannels, hoodlum baseball caps yanked sideways, bicycle chain chokers and paper clip scratches of “CURT” on fleshy teenage inner arms.

That year, I left my childhood nook on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I waved goodbye to my eccentric art world parents, knishes and cranberry muffins from Fairway and friends from fifteen-year-old celebrity club promoters to first generation immigrant kids (who dealt pot in order to pay their parents’ rent). I landed in LA’s Inland Empire; without a driver’s license, without a friend, without a clue, without a gourmet food market in sight.

It was in the midst of this fog of culture shock that I met Ben, who spotted me that first week on line at a campus-wide BBQ. He was a west coast skater kid, tattooed with wild milky green eyes—a little psycho in effect, but compelling too—like staring into a translucent crystal ball that I clearly wasn’t intuitive enough to read. I was wearing a gray flannel Calvin Klein nightgown, trying to pull it off as a dress, but the smell of night jasmine (and “beer goggles” via several pints of Guinness) must have clouded his perspective, for in years to follow he spun a fairy tale version, claiming he’d first seen me as a vision: silver gown, aura of light, sparkling and skinny and young.

Ben’s magical nightgown tale offered me an elevated version of myself that I embraced in the way you might cling to a particularly flattering photo, though it somehow doesn’t resemble you. And, while it took him almost two years of inappropriate drunken outbursts and, at times, something close to stalking to coerce me into surrender, eventually—when neither of us could hold off another moment—he pulled me into a dark dorm common room and kissed me hesitantly against a decrepit yellow fridge. I was obliterated, lost to super nova strength infatuation, all glittery and wild particles of light. Suddenly, this entertaining, but odd little dude turned Technicolor. Especially in contrast to the cookie cutter houses, myriad candle and incense shops and Patagonia-clad students peppering the desert below Mount Baldy in Claremont, California, which all seemed so beige.

At that point, we were already kindred, so our time together—mostly spent scoffing at everything else—slowly magnified: we ogled kittens in pet store windows, drunkenly made out, built his celebrated little film projects. After graduation, we decided to play house in a little adobe enclave in the slums of Beverly Hills. And we nested happily for a while, until the realities of an adulthood for which he wasn’t quite prepared descended and shattered the magical nightgown into a billion scraps.

Countless red flags should have been earlier catalysts: The first time his enormous cat took a shit in my potted plant. When he insisted we keep that disgusting orange velour couch. When I told him I didn’t want the responsibility of a cat and he promptly bought me one. When he told me Camus’ The Stranger was his favorite book because he related to the main character. When I actually read The Stranger and realized that meant Ben might be a sociopath. (I’d watched enough Law & Order to know the downside of that particular affliction.)

When he told me he hated sushi. When he stopped working, but set up a cavernous walk-in closet—yes, closet—as his office in which to play role-playing computer games. When he started using a creepy vintage wheelchair at his desk, just for kicks. When he got a DUI on his way home from a strip club. When he threw down a bag of groceries on the floor and actually stomped his feet like a child having a tantrum. When his best friend came to stay in our one-bedroom apartment for a month and a half. When we came home to find that friend shirtless and shit-faced in the vintage wheelchair, watching Pavarotti on TV at an insane volume, with empty beer cans strewn everywhere.

When I came home at the end of the day to a pitch-dark apartment with only a crack of light streaming out of the “office.” When he told me to stop hovering, when I came to say hello. When he demanded to know why we always had to have dinner together. When he began eating only sourdough bread. When our next-door neighbor pretended to invite me over for a glass of wine, but actually wanted to express concern because she overheard our profane shouting matches. When I started huddling in my own closet for alone time.

When he started staying up until 4am to play his computer games. When, during a dish session, my friend Carlos meekly asked, “Does a small part of you wish he was addicted to something a little bit cooler than video games?” When I answered “Yes,” and we burst into hysterical laughter.

When Ben dragged me to Dublin’s, the world’s cheesy bar, where a strange older man assured me that I was young and there would be many other boyfriends in my future. When I told him I didn’t want other boyfriends. When I declined to go home with Ben for the holidays because last time he made me feel discarded. When he called me and admitted to kissing another girl on Christmas Eve. When I felt crushed, but deeply relieved. When he told me he wanted to move out, but stay together and I was disappointed that we weren’t breaking up. When his parents told him he was making a mistake. When he asked me to help him apartment hunt and was indignant when I said no.

When I smelled his bachelor pad. When I fell in love with my own sweet little studio apartment with crown moldings and green tea colored walls and nearly died of happiness over having my own refrigerator, stocked with pickles and Dijon mustard. When I started taking morning jogs past beautiful turret-topped stone buildings on Fountain and working out to Tae-bo on tape. When I began a new job with a bunch of loveable metal head and indie boys, who were kind and goofy and made me smile. When he showed up drunk on my doorstep and ranted and raved about my “new friends.” When he told me he’d like to see me less often—maybe twice a week?

But it wasn’t until the pierced nipples that I officially closed the door. At that point, our relationship barely existed. Still, I’ve never been good at letting things go. I practically eulogize old socks. I guess I keep imagining they’ll return to their old glory again, even with all those irreparable holes. I still love them for what they were.

One day, on some ruse, I stopped by his place and we had sex against that old ugly orange velour couch. Attraction doesn’t die in the same way as do respect and affection. And, as I was dressing to leave, he asked me to hurry.

“Why?” I wondered aloud.

“I promised this girl Erica I’d take her to get her nipples pierced,” he grinned. “ I don’t want to keep her waiting.”

So, this was rock bottom. Not that scenic. It looked a lot like Ben’s disgusting living room. And, in that moment, beside a kitchen counter littered with rank dirty cat food cans, it all came to a crashing halt.

That was it. I was done. That day, I officially put that magical nightgown to bed.

And I have pierced nipples to thank.

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