It was the weekend after the Super Tuesday primaries in March, and we were arguing about Bernie. “You wouldn’t support him if you knew the truth,” he said gravely, both of us stumbling home late from the dance club where we first met four months earlier after chatting on a dating app. “There’s some really disturbing stuff you should read.” I laughed and leaned into him on the cobblestones, the New England streets quiet, wind-swept, goose bumps poking through my fishnets.
He went on. He didn’t trust the media. The deep state was out to get us. Everyone was in on it, or in my case, complicit. I had to open my eyes.
At first, I believed he was joking. Then I wanted to believe he was joking. Then we both got very quiet.
His eyes, usually playful, got glassy. “You think I’m stupid. You think I’m crazy.”
I didn’t know what to think. He was smart. He had friends. We were happy. Now, realizing I’d fallen for someone who believed stupid things on the Internet, I felt like the stupidest person alive.
I called my mother and swore her to secrecy. I expected sympathy, shock, indignation. Instead, she assured me quirky beliefs were common, that this wasn’t that big of a deal.
“People believe in the virgin birth!” she said.
I sputtered. “He thinks Anderson Cooper is a CIA agent.”
“Julia Child was a CIA agent.”
I knew in my bones this was a rift deeper than God or politics, but I didn’t know how to explain.
“You don’t have to agree on everything,” she chided. “He’s allowed to be his own person.”
My gut told me to run, but I felt guilty. I didn’t want to appear closed-minded, intolerant. For exactly one weekend, I wrestled with what to do.
And then the schools closed due to covid-19. Our favorite trivia spots and pizza joints all shuttered.
I had a choice to make. And the more I thought about it, nothing really had changed. My boyfriend was maybe-crazy, but he was still my boyfriend. Maybe I could pretend I didn’t know this about him. Maybe he was fixable, reachable. Maybe our relationship was stronger than his conviction, or my opposition, or both.
So when the state issued a shelter-in-place order, my boyfriend’s house became my home base. We stocked up on snacks and jigsaw puzzles, settled into an easy rhythm of board games, takeout, movies one of us hadn’t seen.
I forgot, for days at a time, about the conspiracies. We baked cupcakes, repotted his plants, noodled on his MIDI keyboard. I let him in on the Jewish jokes on “Seinfeld,” his favorite show.
And then we’d put on a Disney movie and he’d point out the hidden sixes in the logo as proof the company was steeped in the occult. We’d play board games like Azul and Watergate and he’d say, “Want to know what really happened during Watergate?” and I’d sigh.
One time, bent over a puzzle of the Golden Gate Bridge, he informed me, “The global elite traffic in human flesh and blood.” He explained how famous people kidnap children, then torture them to death to harvest chemical adrenaline from their veins. The punchline is: They drink it.
“It’s real,” he insisted. “Hunter S. Thompson exposed it in ‘Fear and Loathing.’”
“He was high out of his mind when he wrote that,” I said.
I kept checking in with my mother as my world got smaller and smaller. When I told her about his bloodsucking theory, she said, “That’s what they said about Jews and the blood of Christian babies. Does he believe the Holocaust was a hoax? Because that would be a dealbreaker.”
“That would be a dealbreaker? He believes in literal vampires, but that’s your line in the sand?”
I found myself awkwardly stating the obvious: It mattered to me, a lot, that my boyfriend couldn’t separate fact from fantasy. I couldn’t be in a serious relationship with someone I couldn’t take seriously, right?
The first warm day during our self-quarantine, the two of us drove to a park and walked out by the water. The trail was crowded with families in scarves and homemade masks hugging the edge of the path. I hadn’t brought a jacket and I was wearing his. We looked like a cute couple, with our matching bracelets and rings he’d made out of plastic, the occasional hand in the other’s hair.
But then he steered the conversation to red shoes in celebrity Instagram photos, the code word “cheese pizza,” the numerology of 33, dropping his voice whenever someone passed us.
“I’m the one ignoring evidence?” he said. “You won’t even look at the links.”
“YouTube videos made by randos? Send me a credible source, and I’ll check it out.”
“Don’t you think it’s suspicious the mainstream media hasn’t reported on any of this? You know they’re all paid to lie.”
I was a smart, rational person, and my boyfriend liked that about me. He was always going on about my “big, sexy brain.” But at the same time, he distrusted experts, scholars, professionals, people who knew things. People like, well, people like me.
“If it weren’t for scientists, astronomers,” I tried, “we’d all think the earth was flat.”
I looked ahead at the row of trees disappearing into the horizon. I was a critical thinker, sure, but when it got down to it, I was trusting. I relied on others to know more about the world than I did. My boyfriend assumed any so-called experts were out to mislead, never mind how implausible the ever-expanding scale of deceit.
As the trail thinned and we neared the car, I felt a squeezing inside, like I was running out of time. “Do you think the earth is flat?” I asked, wincing.
He scoffed. “I’m not an idiot.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
During the lockdown, our relationship had taken on the honeymoon haze of unreality. But driving home from the park that day, I doubted everything — whether I even liked him, what it meant to be compatible, if it mattered what he or I or anyone believed.
He assured me he didn’t care if I agreed with him, that he respected me. But I knew I’d never have a conversation with him about politics, religion or the plot of “The Matrix” without it devolving into a hash-out of some half-baked nonsense he’d read online. I thought of how I’d have to muzzle him in front of my family, if I ever brought him home.
But then we picked up milkshakes and french fries and cuddled while bingeing “Tiger King” on Netflix. That night in bed when we talked about our childhoods, I imagined things working out.
On the phone, my mother gently suggested maybe his good qualities outweighed the conspiracies. “Does he make you happy?”
“Mom, he’s insane.”
“But you like him.”
She wasn’t wrong.
Now, at his place, on his futon, winding down with wine and cop shows, I evaluate him in the screen glow, his cheekbones, black hoodie, cute goatee. I think of how he rubbed my stomach and made me soup when I was sick. Memorized a few Yiddish words, my drink order, how that Smiths song goes. Taught me to skip stones and drive stick.
Joe Biden comes on the television and my boyfriend says this one’s definitely a body double, you can tell because his ears look smaller.
“Might even be a clone,” he muses. “The real Biden’s been dead for years.”
The tone in his voice is impossible to decipher. I wonder, with a surge of hope, if he’s trolling me, if this is all an elaborate ruse, like when he pretended for weeks he didn’t know how to peel an orange and I didn’t know what to believe.
His room darkens. It’s late, and it’s just the two of us, the smell of incense and Chinese takeout and sheets we haven’t washed in weeks. He holds my hand and squeezes. It’s been so long since I’ve sat this close with another person. There’s that feeling that everything is collapsing, that somehow I’m the one going crazy, that reality is whatever you want it to be, and nothing is as it seems.
I look at our interlaced hands, the veins in them. I wonder if the stress in them can be extracted, ingested, a drug in the blood, like Hunter S. Thompson said. Would that really be so strange, so preposterous? In this world, these times, anything’s possible. I just don’t know.