There’s an essay called “Metaphor as Mistake” by semiotician and novelist Walker Percy in which he explores the cognitive phenomenon of mishearing a phrase and why that mistake strikes us with sudden emotional potency. For example, says Percy, there was the time when, as a child, he heard an African American man describe a bird as a “blue dollar hawk.” The child was fascinated, believing he apprehended something ineffable about the bird in the name, something evocative, true, specific to him somehow, as an encounter with the divine might be. I know this moment, I think, as I read. It’s an experience similar to what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins calls “instress”: the moment in which one apprehends what he calls the “inscape” of another being, its innermost self in all its transcendent glory. It is a spiritual moment, Hopkins says, and we only achieve it when our own nature goes out to meet another, a godly namaste, an encounter with pure and perfect knowledge. It is a moment in which love for the world both mirrors and creates love of ourselves. I am a big believer, if not in God, in this.
But then Percy, the child, is told the bird is, in fact, a “blue darter hawk.” Rather than a moment of deep recognition, there has been a mistake, a misunderstanding, the older man’s dialect slurring the second word into something more mysterious than it really is. Thus, argues Percy, the potency dissipates immediately upon the correction of the error. But, for one moment, the child feels the “truth” of a phrase as if he has bypassed language. And for the moment in which we all make such mistakes, we do: we generate the phrase mostly in our own heads. Metaphor is mistake, both true and untrue—science and poetry, an attempt to assert authority over mystery, to make it closer to something we understand.
In college, my junior year, I fell in love with the first of what would be many Ryans to come. It was an uneasy and unofficial relationship: I wasn’t Mennonite or German, both of which were important to him, and he wasn’t very free, which was important to me. But loving him was my first experience with grown-up love, the kind in which you listen to each other, really listen, without trying to change each other’s minds, and respect differences instead of pushing them away. There was, with him, a truthfulness and an attempt to connect deeply that set a healthy precedent for me, one I still honor every time I set myself aside and hear what someone else is trying to say.
But look. See how I go back and forth, even now, the trial of rewriting rejections into peaceable histories? I’ve made the man a metaphor, when there was so much neither of us could hear at that young age.
The truth: We had always known each other but had never spent much time together. I was a hippie at the corner table, in a broomstick skirt and an over-sized feminist tee shirt; he participated in chapel and wore his shirts tucked in. But then we drove from Kansas to Ohio, spent a weekend together, part of a large group at a wedding. We’d talked more on the drive there than we ever had in three years; there were jokes exchanged and looks. We coordinated our turns driving home so that we were together in the front seat for four hours, talking, listening, asking the questions you only ask in college, when any thoughtful answer might really reshape what you yourself might think. I call it “dangerous listening” to this day.
And this is where the mistake, or love, begins.
The VW bus breaks down—is it surprising this is the kind of vehicle? Or that it breaks down? We talk all night in a 76 truck stop in Troy, Illinois, share stale but free apple pie, snuck to us by Lorna, the waitress, who feels sorry for us or notices how our two heads lean in closer, while everyone else tries to sleep. We talk about God, of course, as you do in college and the dark, which means we also speak of love and art and books that sound pretentious now (The Stranger, The Fountainhead) but, at the time, are not. They never are, at that time, that age.
Back on the road, we wordlessly seek out the darkness of the backseat, let others take their driving turns. I curl into him; he lets me. I feel the body of this man under my cheek, hear his heart beating so quickly, think I know it now. “Blue dollar hawk,” the child hears. I turn my head up to face him, notice how sweetly our lips will fit together. “I can’t,” he whispers. Blue darter. I lower my face, pretend to be asleep, keep my cheek against his heart, despite its still-rapid beating.
Over and over, in the next few months, moments are sensed by me, rebuffed by him: gazes dropped, then resumed, held, dropped again. Sometimes, he comes down to have tea and talk about books. I give up, go out of town, go out with someone else. When I come back, he comes to my dorm room that very night, lifts my face. How sweetly our lips fit together in that first kiss three months after the refusal in the van.
Unlooked for, unsensed by me, these moments come with increasing frequency as his graduation looms. We disappear to sit on rooftops after leaving the bars with friends, talking still, listening still. He learns how bright the moonlight can be upon my pillow. His heart still beats so quickly, and he laughs one night, lying his head upon my chest. “Your heart’s beating so quickly,” he says, and I kiss his head. The moon hangs like a blue dollar in the sky.
On graduation day, somebody takes a picture in which it is clear my heart is breaking: his arm around me and both of mine around him, his head straight ahead and mine on his shoulder. He is smiling; I am, too, but in that way that means I am about to cry. I wear his blue and yellow flannel, given to me just the night before. It is 80 degrees, and I will not take this shirt off for weeks. One minute before, I meet his mother for the only time, my arms full of irises after moving myself out of the dorms all day. I am sweaty and hot, stained with the ink of all those irises. She puts her arms around me, hugs me close. “I’ve heard so much about you,” she says.
Blue dollar? Blue darter? What has she heard? What did he say?
The day he drives away from college, we make out for most of the day. Our faces look again like they did in the picture two days before, but this time he can see my tears. He is going to see a Mennonite girl with whom he thinks he might be more compatible. He isn’t, it turns out, he tells me in a phone call, laughing, later that summer. He promises to write, though he promises me nothing about our own compatibility.
He writes me, it’s true, the first email I will ever receive, but mostly he writes me letters. Letters—no one raised on email can ever know the adequacy of letters from the man with whom you are still in love, no matter what they say, as long as they do not say “no.” I am so young, too young to hear that word lurking in every line. Still sharing, still talking. Blue dollar, blue dollar. How sweetly our lips press now the back of each envelope, I imagine.
Pressed on the back of the first is the phrase “Message in a Bottle.”
The Police song, of course? What is he saying? I am listening, as I always have. I’ve heard the Police and liked them, but now I immerse myself in a more intentional Police phase, listening so I can find its meaning for this man. I listen as anyone listens to music they believe to be a portal to the mind they love, as if the song is a secret written in many keys and one key will let me in for good, prove that we speak in code, bypass the language to the meaning, recognize the god in me as the god in you. In him.
In the song, Sting is sending out an SOS to the world. He sounds urgent. He must be answered. I am listening. I sing along: “I should have known it right from the staaaaaaaaaart.” I sing, knowing what this song, now, really means. And what it really means, inside my head, is this: “I need your love, I need to talk to you because talking to you is love.” And my heart beats faster again, singing it back: “he needs me now, he knows it now at last.”
The phone rings, and though this is before caller id, I know it’s him. “Did you catch the reference on the back of the envelope?” he asks. “Yes,” I say, my head on his chest in the recesses of my mind, his head on my pillow in the blue dollar moon. “The Police song.” “No,” he says, “The Bertolt Brecht story, ‘Message in a Bottle.'” Blue darter.
That bottle, then. The German one instead of the sexy one. The bottle, I think, confused, then, less like me, more like those things so dear to him: German, contemplation rather than urgency, a kiss that can wait three months to happen, even though I am looking up in the dark right from the start. I have been wrong; I cannot read his very mind; his heart still beats, but now it is too far across the continent for me to understand him.
But I look up the story again, and in its first lines, I hear myself, and him, and understand at last to whom I have been listening: “I am twenty-four years old. People say that is an age strongly inclined to melancholy. All the same I don’t think my melancholy is a reflection of my age. My story is as follows. At the age of twenty I got to know a young man in whose vicinity I felt lighter.” And this young man, who lightens with his presence even in the dark of night, he too abandons the woman. Perhaps it is for someone more compatible, but the reader never knows. For he too gives her a letter, asks that she open it after three years. She waits and opens it, finds, in the end, a blank piece of paper. And the final words of Brecht’s story are pure Walker Percy, the muddled intersection between meaning and mistake, between metaphors which clarify and metaphors that simply make clear that only mystery remains:
As you know, there is such a thing as magic ink, which is legible for a specific period and then disappears; surely anything worth writing down ought to be written with such ink. I would also just like to add that about a year ago — that is, roughly two years after giving me the letter which is only a blank piece of paper — my beloved disappeared completely from my sight, presumably for ever. After waiting patiently for three years for a message which was less and less meant for me, I can only say that I always thought that love was outside any lover’s control, and that it was the lover’s business and nobody else’s.
In later calls, he will tell me about his new girlfriend and how important our time together had been to help him engage with her more openly, to appreciate her difference: “I really was in love with you last year, and without that, I don’t know that I would have been as open to her.” At the time, it made me angry to find that he had come to think of loving me as preparation for loving someone else, and the blue dollar moon had been replaced by the real name of blue darter hawk. Sometimes, I was angry that those letters, those messages, were not an SOS, calling for my help, my love, a recognition of my inscape.
But as I look at us in that photograph, his steady gaze, my own eyes just about to fill, I know there was less mistake and more metaphor—that more and more, I see the messages he sent me, even before he left, were never really meant for me. They were to a young man trying to learn about himself, in a language only he really spoke, talking and writing to discover the self he wanted to become. How could we listen well when we did not know yet what we most wanted to say? More and more, then, that means that any messages I got from him were messages, somehow, I wrote for myself.
Here is the other bottle, the one in which I put my love for a time: