A Song with No Words for Love that Could Not Speak Its Name

The other day, on Facebook, I’d posted a picture of my friend Jessica drinking the Whiskertini we’d just invented (vodka, Chambord, white whisker from my cat Judy as a garnish). Amid the “likes” and occasional “ew” comments I saw his name, both warming my heart and making it stop. Ryan Farris was a friend of Jessica’s (true to FB friendships, she didn’t, at first, remember why they were friends), but he was far and away the most important boyfriend of my 20’s because with him, I realized the consequences of not understanding how you love. He was, to twist a phrase, the love that could not speak its name. “Could not”—so different than “dared not.” While the love that dare not speak its name is the closeted homosexual love, a love hindered by disapproval and the judgment of others, the love that cannot speak its name is what I had for this dark-eyed George Harrison of a man, a love in which I was the only hindrance, my judgment clouded by my first full immersion in an emotion I couldn’t articulate. I say “immersion” because loving him felt like drowning.

This wasn’t his fault. Ryan was the most loving, the kindest, the hottest. There was so much love. I understood that I had not, before, actually known what it meant to make love before him. He was good. It brought out the worst in me. We broke up (I broke up) five or six times over two and a half years before calling it quits for good. There’s a famous modern dance piece called “Kiss” in which two dancers swing towards each other in harnesses; whenever their ropes twist, the female dancer slowly, painfully pulls away, spinning away from the body against which she was, a moment ago, so blissfully pressed. After the first year, I felt like that every day—involved in an untangling, rather than a simple break-up. I fell in love with Johnny Horton (see “Paint It Blacker”). I fell in love with another Ryan. Every day, I would walk the Burke-Gilman trail to school and catalogue the lies I was telling to cover my affairs, those weak attempts my spirit made to show my weaker flesh this was not the man for me. “I am not a liar. I am a truthful person,” I’d tell my bewildered self each day. Each day, I’d hear my rational self swim up from the emotions in which it was drowning: “Then why are you doing this?”

I didn’t know—that is, I couldn’t talk about this love in ways that made me feel at home with my heart, but I knew it was love. But drowning . . . it also felt like drowning. I’m a Libra, an air sign. I’m at my best when I am in mental free play with someone. Ryan was a Taurus. Earth. The Bull. The first time we ever sat together on the shared porch of our group house (he lived on the top floor, and I, on the bottom), I started to ask him questions about his childhood, about what shaped him. “That stuff will just come out,” he said, stretching back on the ratty couch. “Let’s just hang out.” Startled, I leaned back and tried to enjoy the small talk. I didn’t. That wasn’t, still isn’t, how I hang out. I interview. I analyze. I try to reach insights—I don’t wait for them to drift past me like the warm air in the night. As we fell in love, I literally felt a cord between the two of us, much like the one the dancer struggled to unwrap from her own separate cord. That cord was real, and heavy.

Even in our music, that silence was present. Though we were both hippies, our words meant different things. For me, “hippie” was folk music: the Indigo Girls, Bob Dylan, and blue grass, while he favored world music and tablas or Jaco Pastorius, World’s Greatest Bass Player. That first summer, we rode around in his jeep listening to Akbar Ali Khan, and Ry would look at me all the things that could ever be said. He sang little made-up songs about me constantly, which I loved; our favorite was “Come and Stay, My Love.” It went something like this: “Come and stay, my love / You’ll never have to leave, my love.” We hummed it often. Once, dreamily listening to John Coltrane, I was startled out of my reverie by the realization that something was familiar. “Ryan! This is ‘Come and Stay, My Love’!” It had been subliminally remixed in his mind, those chords so deeply played inside of him that they were not longer recognizable as anything but his own heart. That stuff finally had just come out, unintentional plagiarism.

My favorite song in high school was Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence.” Why was it exactly that I couldn’t do with Ryan? Now I can see the value in just “liking” the photo of us with a Whiskertini, but I couldn’t then. I needed to know why my heart felt like it did, how that cord could hold me to someone without choking me, how, as in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” deep water didn’t have to mean drowning. That first summer, I didn’t know, and I would watch him silently as we slept. I didn’t sleep for months. One night, in the dark, I put on Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine” and tried to let it be enough to fill the silence I felt between me and this beautiful man, tried, as I would until the end, to trust in the beauty of a song without words.

“Fleurette Africaine” by Duke Ellington


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