My first draft of this disappeared when I hit “publish,” and I started crying. I don’t even want to rewrite it, but I feel too sad to do nothing. This won’t be as good. You know it won’t be.
Once upon a time, the man I would fall so passionately in love with that it could, on occasion, make me sick, this man was walking through Volunteer Park, playing his bass. He was probably wearing a tank top, probably had smoked some weed, and probably was humming serenely. His eyes were sort of hooded and he had a small, mysterious smile that made him look like George Harrison, my favorite Beatle. He, too, was a Quiet One.
Anyway, this man heard drumming—good drumming—and he followed the sound, coming finally upon a curly-haired, Muppet-like guy with his full drum kit set up under one of the ginkgo trees. The two locked eyes, nodded, and jammed together for twenty minutes or more without speaking. They knew when to finish the song, just because they both felt when it was done. “I’m Ryan,” said the man whose love would feel like a thick cord between my heart and his. “Hey, man,” said the Muppet drummer. “I’m Jay.”
This is how Jay and Ryan met, and this is how the Brothers of Max Catharsis began. And this is how Ryan practiced.
Ryan didn’t play music. He felt it. He intuited it from the ether. A friend told him about modern dance pioneer Martha Graham’s phrase “blood memory,” and he wrote a song about it, calling it, instead, “Blood Music.” Like dancing, that song makes form fluid, runs deep into the spaces of the body that are beyond words. The Brothers were, after all, an instrumental trio, and they didn’t need words—they ran deep enough on their own. When I met the third member, Joe, and asked him what he did, he stared at me and replied, scornfully, “You mean, for money? I’m a waiter,” and I felt ashamed. The three of them would build songs together, listening, responding, finding their way through the music like blind men touching bolts of silk. When one of them would improvise for an extended period of time and really “get it,” they would nod at each other and ask, later, “You go to Havana, man?” “Going to Havana”—that place beyond words. They put out two CD’s, but they didn’t really care who heard them. Once, I went to a gig and was the only audience member. They laughed and played and played, until they were all in Havana, and it didn’t even matter that I was there.
That was how I felt, at first, with Ryan: I couldn’t always tell if it mattered I was there because, at first, he wouldn’t tell me how he felt. He lived upstairs from me and took to hanging out on the porch when he knew that I’d be home. That was how I came to know he liked me, and I was ambivalent. “He never really talks, and I don’t like his goatee,” I’d tell Gretchen, wrinkling my nose. I thought I’d give him a chance, though, and so, I did what I do with all quiet people: I asked him questions. What was your favorite birthday party? When was the last time you were really afraid? How do you feel about your mother? And Ryan resisted—or that’s how it felt. “Aw, man, that stuff will just come out,” he’d say, stretching his limbs out across the couch we kept on the porch. “Let’s just hang out.” Let’s be in Havana.
But that was how I hung out. I was a high-wire act, rushing out into adventure and vulnerability, with very little underneath me, no net, and even less of a sense of how far down I might fall. I was a graduate student who made her living analyzing other people’s dialogues. Words, for me, were at the crux of all intimacy. I don’t fall in love—I talk myself into it. I talk myself out of it. I find out what I’m feeling not by feeling it but through processing it out loud. Leslie Jamison, in her essay “In Defense of the Sacchrin(e),” clearly agrees, since she says, “This is how writers fall in love. They feel complicated together, and then they talk about it.” I wanted a 1000-word essay from each lover on why he wanted my eyes to open on him every morning. How could I sit on this couch in silence? What could I feel with that?
A lot, I found. While I never stopped needing the words, Ryan was persistent, patient, and we fell. He’d George Harrison smile at me, reach for me, and down, down we’d go.
There was one word, though, that Ryan used a lot with me. That word was “No.” I’d suggest we go out for drinks. “No,” he’d say, “let’s watch a movie.” I’d ask if he wanted to take a walk. No, it was cold—and he had that new song to practice. Brunch before the Market? No, and he’d be hungry at 3:00, that witching hour when all restaurants had stopped serving lunch and hadn’t yet started serving dinner. Once, angry at him, I accused him of being Balkan. “You ALWAYS say no first when I suggest something, even if you want to do it! It’s like it has to be your idea, or you don’t want to do it. Why, Ry? Are you from the Balkan States?” He laughed at that, and then said, “No.”
I see it now—that he said no because he couldn’t easily express a lot of what he wanted to say, that, like me, he was in love and frightened by the depth of the feeling, afraid, as I was, that we didn’t “get” each other. He said no so he had some sense of control, some way to find a place in this thing that rushed, like the ground, up to meet the falling. But then, it felt like rejection, and it felt like I was being shut out.
When I cheated on him with Johnny Horton, it was because of words. Johnny was a poet, and Johnny had so many words, so very many words and so many ways to say yes. And I couldn’t say no. So I didn’t.
Ryan and I would break up five more times, over the course of two and a half years, but how Ryan and I made it past that first break-up into a better phase of our relationship taught me almost all of the words I would need to understand love, even now. I learned that silence didn’t have to mean it was over, and he became more open, more able to talk about his fears and hopes for us. Once he came home from band practice, giddy with the pleasure of self-awareness: “Brynny! Guess what? We were trying to decide what to work on, and Joe wanted to start a new song, but I said, no, we should keep practicing the old one, and he said, ‘Man, why do you always have to say no first?’ I am a Balkan!”
We were never on the same page, but that was because I wanted a page, a place onto which we could write our story. And Ryan was a musician. But I did learn how to feel. Really feel.
When he moved out, after living together for one month, our second-to-last break-up, Ryan left me a list of all the things he loved most about me, all the precious things we’d given each other during our years together. One of them was this: “Thank you for leading me out of the Balkan States.” So many words, in the end. It brings tears to my eyes even now, as I write this, and sometimes, still, I am so sad thinking of him, wishing I could have sat quietly next to him forever, humming along to those songs without words.