Category Archives: Adult Love

Aspiring to the Condition of Music: A Meditation on Knowing Your Song

“This is our song,” I tell Xstina, over red wine on my red couch. The singer is Kishi Bashi, an electronic violinist, ethereal and epic; the song is “Q and A,” with this chorus:

You are the answer to my question
You are my accomplice in all crimes
You are my wing woman, and I did I mention
We were together in another life
In that dreaming, you probably were my wife.

I am in love again, and it is big. The best thing about falling in love when you’re 40 is how much easier it is, how much less frightening, to contemplate realistically the future with the beloved, or, as Jason, my lover, says, “The fear of asking big questions and giving big answers subsides with the realization that, when faced with something so good that so quickly becomes so necessary, it is NOT unreasonable to ask if it can be forever.” He said that. Beautiful. True. Big. I am in love.

“But how did you decide it’s your song?” asks Xstina. “Did you first kiss during it or cry during it or dance?” She tells me the story of her song. It was their first date, they were on the hill in Gasworks Park; Drew had brought his iPod and a plastic cup to amplify the sound. He played First Aid Kit’s “Emmylou.” She cried. He held her.

This is a good question, especially since I’d just told Jason two days before that our song is “Here Comes the Night Time” by the Arcade Fire. “It HAS to be an Arcade Fire song,” we agreed, for we would have never seen each other again, never known this love, if not for the two free tickets I had to the Gorge to see them. If not for the fact that no one could go with me, I would not have posted a last-minute offer on Facebook; if not for that offer, Jason would not have sat on his porch for two hours, wondering if he should write me, even though we hadn’t seen each other in four years; if not for that deliberation, his brother would not have told him, “What’s the worst that could happen? Write her.” If not for Facebook, Jason, a former student of mine in 2003 and 2004, when I was a grad student, would never have been in contact with me at all. Furthermore, if there had not been compassion in those years for a depressed freshman, he would not have contacted me at all, would not have saved, as he just realized this week, every paper he’d written for my class.

On a different set of “if not’s,” if not for Ed’s betrayal (this is a forthcoming essay–look for it soon), the breaking of my own heart, Ed would not have sent me these tickets as a thank-you for forgiving him, for trying to return from lover to friend. That break-up, so awful I moved without telling him, sobbed a rib out of place . . . if not for that, I would not have the memory of standing on the observation deck of the Gorge with Jason in a summer twilight, golden as that entire day, as he told me about playing cello, and the whole world, that giant crowd, receded in the face of his face.

Does it, then, have to be the Arcade Fire? But is “Here Comes the Night Time” the right song for our song? It does emphasize the uniqueness of that night, the sense of something big and epic and beautiful coming, of the importance of music in our relationship. “If there’s no music in heaven, then what’s it for?” So that song goes. It explores making choices against dogma; it reminds us “if you’re looking for hell, just try looking inside.” So much of our conversation that night was about the power of reflection, how to work well with pain, instead of letting it make you bitter. So surely, this is our song—the finale, with its erratic rhythmic shifts, confetti canons, the Haitian drum breaks celebrating the other side of reflection, which is insight: “when you look at the sky, just try looking inside—God knows what you might find.” We were beside ourselves in that moment of the show—that is, we were the same.

Or is our song the simpler island song, “Haiti,” during which these two relative strangers turned to each other and briefly slow danced, suddenly pulling away at the same moment, out of . . . what? We think nerves . . . or recognition.

Is it the song during which I felt Jason’s arms around me from behind for the first time, a spontaneous hug, as he shouted in my ear, “I am so glad you took me!!” We both remember this moment, the profound moment of contact. We don’t remember which song, exactly, it was.

In his thank-you email to me the next day, subject line “I’m Still Feeling that Show!,” Jason tells me he has been listening to “The Suburbs” again, the Arcade Fire’s previous album. We have not yet told each other we are falling in love, and so he tells me, instead, how this concert was a needed gift, how “timing is everything,” when it comes to understanding a song, how his new favorite song is “Ready to Start.”

And we both are—ready to start this new creation, which feels like a whole album, a discography in the making, not just a single or even an EP.

“All art aspires to the condition of music,” my beloved Walter Pater says, for it is only in music that analysis fades away and we are left finally with the evocative, the “not-quite-yet-just-so.” We are left with pure feeling, the sensation of something real beyond the Real we can articulate. That realness evolves, the more real we become to each other. Every day, I feel this as we love each other, and so, every day, we have a new song.


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


Day 7 of The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook, a Meditation Challenge: Sullivan’s Cold Rice Salad

Oh, look at that—it’s months later, not, in fact, one day (or even one week later). Perhaps one of the trickiest thing about trying to develop a writing practice is that, in writing, you tend to lose yourself in time, which results in a heightened sense of Time as a Construction. We think we “lose it,” we think we never “have enough” of it, but really, as all writers know, it’s about “making it,” making Time, like you’d make a pie or a cold rice salad.

We return, thus, to The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook challenge, and on this final day of the “week-long” challenge, I reflect on Sullivan’s Cold Rice Salad. Sullivan was the grandson of Thisbe’s/Erin’s grandmother’s neighbor, and their visits to their grandmothers coincided enough to make a friendship of sorts evolve. (How often we make something out of what we have: mountains out of molehills, love out of nothing at all, friends out of random boys when there’s nothing else to do.) When their grandmothers’ neighbor Myrtle died, the authoress and Sullivan found themselves reunited, sitting shiva together, sharing the food brought by other mourners and their collective, if limited past. Erin/Thisbe brought Wacked-Out Will’s Chicken Wings (another recipe in this cookbook), and Sullivan brought a cold rice salad. It sounds really good—it contains almonds (I will eat anything with almonds), and, best of all, it makes use of leftover rice. You always have leftover rice. The authoress insists that it went extremely well with her chicken wings, which led her to contemplate whether she and Sullivan would have gone well together romantically, if things were different. But they weren’t, and nothing romantic ever happened, and so they grieved and ate together.

Moral of the story: Making do can be more than enough, but we always wish there could have been more.

As the super moon last week drew near, the man I’d been dating the past six months broke up with me. Just as the distant, shining globe of a moon pulled itself closer, an urgent partner interrupting a slow dance, Dan came suddenly into contact with the realization that he was done with our own dance. We’d orbited together, illuminating hours of the night I’d known only in insomnia instead with hours-long conversations and acts of intimacy. As the orbit drew its nearest to the earth, though, he noticed something he hadn’t in awhile: other girls. And it was time to go back to that world. He did it gently. “Please don’t tell people I broke up with you just so I could see other girls,” he groaned, and I know it wasn’t just that. He wants to be present for his age and the experiences it brings, instead of in a private universe of two. I miss him, but I don’t fault him. Whenever you date with a considerable age gap between you and your lover, there are some things you accept—not as inevitable, but as probable and possible.

But I’ve been surprised by many friends’ easy dismissal of this relationship. We began dating shortly after my major break-up, and to some, it might have seemed that he, like Sullivan, was simply sitting shiva with me, a lover found simply by looking to the side and picking who was there rather than by a vetted and careful deliberation about suitability and shared interests. Even Dan shared this perspective, to some degree: we first kissed over the drinks we were having because he’d heard about my break-up and wanted to check in on me. We had a lot of drinks. But we also discovered we went really, really well together—like chicken and rice. We are both quick, both curious, both able to shift topics and make connections in ways that create new things, instead of just fragments.

Primarily, though, saw himself as a companion to me during a difficult time, a fragment disconnected from the larger wholes of our separate lives, visitors thrown together, like children visiting their grandmothers. When I asked him, near the beginning, how he imagined our relationship ending, since neither of us envisioned a longer-term relationship with each other, he said, “I imagine you will meet a Spanish intellectual who will whisk you away and be the partner I can’t be. And I’ll find my ax wench who wants to live in a basement and play D and D with me, when we both don’t need five hours of alone time.”

So, we had dinner every Monday and Wednesday night: pizza and gin or Thai food and white sheets and cool white wine. We were reading Tennyson’s Idylls of the King together; we were up to “The Marriage of Geraint.” We had a cafe and a place to get Stockholm Buns, which we’d eat as we walked on Golden Gardens beach on Thursday mornings. I made him CD’s, even though he said he didn’t like music, and he made me a Valentine, which he walked over to deliver to me on Valentine’s Day proper, even though I wouldn’t be getting home that day until much later and wouldn’t see him. I wrote him poems. “Brynny! I deserve humorous limericks! Not beautiful poems with complex rhyme schemes and intricate imagery,” he wrote in response to the poem at the end of this piece.

But that’s what happens sometimes. The person you thought was simply beside you is a real person, and I love real people. I found that I loved this real person: full of confidence, able to make me laugh uncontrollably by imitating his dog becoming suspicious while eating, someone who claims to be bad at conflict but who was often first to offer a useful solution, the deep voice in the dark night, a man already, despite his own ambivalence and the hobbies he claimed would always keep us apart.

At some point, we all think that what we DO is who we ARE; we believe our hobbies and beliefs MUST be shared, in order for someone to prove they know us well and that they approve of what we know. How else would we know how to play, when we are small? I have Barbies, and you have Legos; it can be hard to share a landscape, even in imagination, so we begin with what seems most obviously to hold us together. But what I know at this point in my life is that it’s not the toys that make the landscape: it’s us. And even if we start out side by side, accidental friends in our grandmothers’ apartment complex, sometimes we find the way to real love, our differences complementing each other, as do spicy chicken wings and cold rice salad. We need others—not just to define who we are through difference but to have our own flavors enriched.

Rice salad alone . . . it’s ok, I guess. But, having had enough, I would rather have more.

“Terza Rima for Dan”

Once-near star, his lost light
lingers, fixed by all cold space,
still, vast, and endless as a blight.

New star, I look upon your face,
our constellation from a different sky,
now shining in this place.

The Southern Cross is flipped
like a light switch. I’m in darkness there,
on fire here, an ember dipped

into the ether. Your hair,
my legs, our lips erase
the stars, leaving this night.

The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook Meditation Challenge: Day 6—Love Can Never Be Junk Food

Today’s story: We meet today Ralph, of “Ralph’s Popcorn Cake.” Firstly, I find it incumbent upon me to remind everyone that these are not my stories. This cookbook is an ACTUAL cookbook by Erin Ergenbright and Thisbe Nissen, who, my friend Catherine informed me, teaches at her university in western Michigan. (And look at Thisbe’s super-cool notebooks on osperies! She and I should be friends.) Thisbe has a Wikipedia page; Erin does not. Oh, writing: it’s hard to determine what makes someone visible in the literary world. They both did MFA’s at Iowa—the very Iowa to which Hannah from Girls was accepted. On the show, they act like it is a big deal—and it is . . . but it’s not like being in the Mafia, where you can become a “made man.” One thing I find hard, with flashes of finding it wonderful, is that every time you achieve something big, you think you’ve got it made. Sometimes, one big thing opens you up to other big things. Sometimes, you (meaning me) hit it big and then simmer. I hesitate to say “recede.”

This leads us to Ralph. Apparently, Ralph made one of the authors popcorn cake, and she fell in love with him for it, only to “spend the next two months trying to extricate yourself from a relationship that was suddenly not what you thought it was.”

I had a popcorn cake for, I think, my seventh birthday. Or ninth. It was good—think “bundt cake-shaped popcorn ball, with M and M’s.” This version includes gumdrops, which seems like overkill, and pushes it into that category of Midwestern “delights” that you make for a coastal potluck, years later, and can’t believe you ever ate multiple pieces of something that sweet.

The lesson: One big hit does not equal a lifetime of love.

Jerry Seinfeld put it another way:

Of course when you’re a kid, you can be friends with anybody. Remember when you were a little kid what were the qualifications? If someone’s in front of my house NOW, That’s my friend, they’re my friend. That’s it. Are you a grown up.? No. Great! Come on in. Jump up and down on my bed. And if you have anything in common at all, You like Cherry Soda? I like Cherry Soda! We’ll be best friends!

Yeah. I still do that.

If you’ve been reading my “Music and Intimacy” essays, you KNOW I still do that.

I offer my love for a song, literally, pretty often. When I was at Kansas State, a guy drove me out into the country and played Kate Bush’s “Running Up that Hill” for me, while we lay on the warm car hood and a cool summer breeze blew over us. It was the first time I’d heard the song. If you didn’t fall in love then, you are made of stone.

Other times, it’s a sentence a student writes that shows they are moved by something in the world, or a sympathetic look someone gives you at a party that makes you think that even though they don’t know you at all, they totally know. One of my favorite UW students, Nicolene, told me about her deep bond with a friend over a misreading of a line in The Catcher in the Rye. My own best friend from high school, Amy, and I often ended conversations with the words “You know?” “Yeah, I know.” As if tacit understanding was all you needed.

But sometimes, it is. Why does this lesson usually have the implicit moral of “and so, don’t do that again”? It’s true that the “Running Up that Hill” guy wasn’t as spiritual as I thought he was; he was just Christian. Also true is that the student’s beautiful sentence doesn’t always bespeak a complex intellect and struggling soul.

I don’t care. I think I could count on one hand–maybe even one finger–the times those connections really weren’t worth it. Is it really wisdom to start mistrusting those small offerings, those tiny gestures that reach you, even if that person wasn’t reaching out? Are you shallow if you respond equally to a shared secret and popcorn cake? Last week, I told my already-wonderful, brilliant British literature class that I had started watching Game of Thrones. Later in the week, one of them was talking about Heathcliff or Hareton (almost same diff), how he was both part of the family, yet not part of the family, and I said, “So, he’s a Greyjoy?” They erupted in laughter. I swear to God (on all the gods that be!!) class has been even better, even livelier.

I think of my beloved Walter Pater, whose conclusion to The Renaissance inspired the title of this blog: “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” This is why I will never be the kind of cool that listened to punk rock. Although (of course) I love the Ramones song, I don’t wanna be sedated. I want to be ignited—even by the tiniest of matches, even if, like Hans Christen Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl,” the flame burns out quickly. She is left colder than before and dies, when her matches run out.

I will never run out of matches.

Day 4 of The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook Meditation Challenge: When is a Quesadilla Worth It?

Day 4 of The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook Meditation Challenge: Rhett’s Quesadilla Things. I have to just quote the author on this one: “Is it karmic law that at some point everyone has to put in her time with a devastatingly attractive, brilliantly witty, total misogynist jerk who’s incredible in bed? He was everything I’d never wanted in a boyfriend: didactic and argumentative, moody and uncommunitive. He assumed all women read Cosmo, was prone to statements such as ‘You know, I probably know more feminists than you do.'”

The lesson for today: Hmmm. This is harder. I think it might be this: when you find yourself putting up with more than you ever thought you would, there must be a pay-off to which you’re drawn. It might be a negative one. It might be a quesadilla.

I’ve definitely put in my time with these guys, but really, not for long. I don’t have much patience with someone telling me what I “really” think or need, which is not to say that I haven’t had to hear it. Please step forward if a guy has never broken up with you on the grounds that he knows what’s best for you, and tell me how you avoided hearing that single most obnoxious statement uttered because I would pay my eye-rolling weight in jeweled gerbils for that secret. But back to the jerky boyfriend. Many people assume that you must have low self esteem—that you believe you “deserve” to be treated that way. I am 100% confident that, like the authors of this cookbook, I fall firmly into another camp: the camp of “I’ll just pretend I didn’t hear you say that because there is just no way anyone attracted to me would say that.” It’s not that you believe you deserve it—it’s that you can’t believe it happened.

But when you do, finally, believe, you have to figure out the pay-off. As the authors note, really great sex is . . . sometimes it. But there’s no finite market on that—the road to hell is paved with irritating, virile young men.

How did this meditation help me understand anything this week? Well, I’m still teaching Wuthering Heights, a novel in which every single character puts up with lies, rage, abuse—we’re talking Heathcliff throws a KNIFE at Isabella, and it sticks below her EAR—all in the name of love. They put up with it, largely, because they live on the MOORS, which sounds romantic until you visit them and realize they look just like parts of Kansas—which means you can watch your dog run away for three days. There is simply no one else around. Cathy, Jr. badgers Hareton, then falls in love with him, because the pay-off for hating him is simply more isolation. It gets boring. She got bored.

So, we turn to love, sometimes, when we are tired of feeling superior.

Elsewhere in my life, I took a yoga workshop intended to help us transition into Spring. Jessica, my beloved yoga teacher, has also been working through a break-up, so she was focusing us, literally, on rebounds: on the possibility of the mind, the body, and the spirit to snap back, to be resilient. It was a concept that I realized I don’t honor enough because, frankly, my default to happy is pretty quick. I don’t really “earn” my resilience; it just happens, usually. I don’t have to struggle to find the pay-off; “happy” is usually the pay-off. (Brady Becker is the exception here–the relationship in which I decided “hilariously funny” is not an adequate pay-off for “unkind.”)

But the idea of finding the rebound when we are pushed down made me think about my own rebound relationship. For what it is, I have some happiness. I am not purely happy for the obvious reason: it’s not the partnership for which I felt ready, at this point in my life. Occasionally, I hear faint echoes of the detested “I know what’s best for us both” in his assertion that he “causes suffering” and that he only wants me to stay as long as the happiness outweighs the suffering. But he’s not a jerk. When our limited relationship makes me sad, it does not depress me thoroughly–a deep thumbprint in the dough. The (light) weight of the connection means I can try to grow in small increments, openly acknowledging what doesn’t make me happy and talking about it with him, without having to push or be pushed hard in order to get some sense of spring, of invigoration. When you are faced with a Rhett, their sheer, unbelievably bad behavior eventually yields you the high pay-off of knowing you are the better person. Sometimes you date them so you can hate them cleanly, later. Sometimes, like Cathy, Jr. you hate them until you’d rather date them. But hate is boring, if pure; it does not require you to think, aside from “What was I thinking?” And so, we find stimulation in these other, messier moments, putting up with low-grade annoyances, the pay-offs minimal but satisfying, like a good quesadilla.

The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook Meditation. Day 3: Kittens on Your Stomach

Day 3 on The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook meditation challenge: Today’s story was “Poor Donald’s Chicken Enchiladas.” Donald was a blind date who had just done mushrooms before the author picked him up. He wouldn’t let go of her hand, insisted that she stay overnight with him, and his cat gave birth to kittens on her stomach.

The lesson for today: Sometimes, beautiful things can come out of going along on someone’s bad trip.

“Poor Donald’s Chicken Enchiladas” is my favorite story in the whole book.

It’s so awful, so ridiculous: you agree to go out with someone you haven’t even met, and he doesn’t even have the decency to try to put a working foot—much less his best foot—forward. As I try dating again, it is simultaneously so laughable, so painful to have something like this happen. It’s like somehow it’s become socially acceptable to agree to go out and make zero effort. “At least I tried,” such an effort seems to squeak, from its separate corner in the room, far, far, from your corner. But I guess I’ve never had someone show up on psychedelics before. Once, when my high school friend Amy was in town, I convinced her that it would be fun to pick up my new kind-of-lover and go watch the fireworks on Fourth of July. When we got to his house, he was drunk. I don’t remember what Amy said, but I think the phrase “Real Winner” was uttered.

Nothing beautiful came of that particular experience, and it was a hard meditation to impose on my day. I suppose it could apply to the fact that, in a bizarre twist of fate, I only have one person in my spring freshmen composition course—ONE—and I have to figure out how to make it interesting and less painful for that poor, intelligent, stranded student. She’s good and we are getting along, but no kittens on the stomach yet.

I suppose I could use the story to consider a new angle on my new sometimes lover. As I mentioned in the previous post, I have trouble with “sometimes.” While he’s actually very present and is neither on mushrooms, nor is he clinging to my hand and insisting I don’t let go, I find MYSELF clinging. I am Poor Donald. He reminded me last night that he has, in fact, done multiple things to show me he cares about me; in no way am I being left to go on my own bad trip, completely by myself. I oscillate wildly between kittens on the stomach and sick to my stomach. I enjoy our new, silly games; this morning, we composed a track listing for an album all about necrophiliac love songs. The album title? Necromantic, of course. But then I can’t help wondering how I will ever meet someone who wants to spend as much time with me as I like spending time with him. The new lover likes me; he’s just got other enchiladas to make, other kittens to fry. “You already see me one and a half times more than anyone else in my life,” he said.

It’s not that I doubt I will ever fall in love again or meet anyone again—with regards to THAT stuff, it’s kittens on the stomach all the time. I excel at finding love. It’s just that Eli and I met on my front lawn and literally didn’t separate for months. Over the years, I could count on him to meet me wherever I was, at whatever happy hour we were, with whomever I was. Now, I am trying to remember that there are, potentially, a lot of Poor Donalds, but the kittens will be up to me to find, sometimes. And I have to try not to BE Poor Donald—so wrapped up in your own trip that you don’t recognize when you have held onto someone’s hand so tightly it’s turned white . . . even if there are kittens in compensation.

The thing I like some much about this story is that it makes me think I would love the author: a woman who, like me, is so easily reeled in by the unexpected, so startled by the miracle of a shared experience, that she would overlook the insanity of the trip it took to get there . . . a woman easily blinded by all those kittens.

First Love, Second Draft: A History of Us in Debt

Why is it that when we talk about the past, we often talk about what we owe it? What does it mean to have a debt to memory? And what of those we love primarily in memory? When is lost Love an expenditure—a junket, an indulgence to be enjoyed like a gift certificate which we can use as we like—and when is it an investment—a surplus, a resource on which we can draw a return? Can we ever write it off?

Memory is a banker for whom we provide the bail-out. We make deposits and withdraw at all hours; even when we are sleeping, we are spending as much as we have saved. There is no saving—only countless transactions with hidden interest charges and fees for shifting that which was allotted for our future into currency for the moment. We attempt to balance our accounts daily and always think we have enough. We do not consider what will break the bank.

The Short-Term Loan

You are 12, and I am 16. We are at musical theatre camp, and you are the real performer, lying about your age so you could come. You see one long braid down my back and follow me around, from the cafeteria to vocal rehearsal to dance practice, where you want to be partnered with me, as if you could spin my red hair into gold. I think you are 14 and only notice you because I believe I am worth following and because your eyes unsettle me, watching me as a cat watches unseen souls in the darkness. Because of the age gap, I feel powerful, but when you first touch me, I become a liquid asset, transfigured by your heat into something altogether different. There is kissing behind the sets and on the stairs to the dressing room. You call me once that year and talk about horror movies, which I find disgusting, and you seem both arrogant and naïve.

At camp that next summer, and for the next five summers—even when I am in college and your counselor—we will continue to withhold affection spitefully, the age difference an arrogance of its own. The withholding takes different forms: one year, you will awkwardly ask me, at the beginning of the week, if I mind that you want to be with some other golden-haired teen beauty who can tap dance. The next, I will mock you for your devotion; I will do this cruelly to prove that I am learning something in college, until my fellow counselor, who is also my best friend, who is also in love with me, will yell at me outside of the dorms when our campers—including you—sleep inside because I never look at him the way I look at you.

So then, each year, each of those weeks will end with our reunion, magnetized to each other by doubt and conflict. We will give in, give it all to each other in those moments when we feel time running out and the rest of the year, after one summer week, spreading out like a certificate of deposit. Our touches feel grasping and greedy, but our tears and our silences are ever-plentiful and free. You will tell me that you love me, and our weeping is a consecration. We are like a young married couple applying for our first loan—the loan to buy our dream house. We do not know that we cannot afford this house, nor that we will pay for it for the rest of our lives.

Legacy

You are 18, and I am 22. We make love once—my first time—that June, at camp, of course, although this time, I have had to drive to meet you, no longer even a counselor, for you have called me, extracting the number from a college friend still working on campus. You have called me, and I must come because there is an uncashed check in your voice and I must sign for it. When you walk out of the choir room and see me, you stop, radiant, and I ignore the greetings of all who still know me, pushing past them to bury my face in your warm hair, your neck, the secret of us revealed to all around like a legacy read off by an executrix. That night, your roommate sleeps in the current counselor’s room, since the counselors now were campers who knew Us, who knew about the dark walks after rehearsals and me coming back in tears, you flushed with lust and confusion. This roommate will have told you not to call, that one’s best chances are with girls one’s own age; however, since I have shown up, he is impressed, sets his bar higher, and sleeps on the floor in the next room. I have been naked before with men but never with you and never for sex. We have never had more than an hour alone to count the prizes among the treasure of our bodies. For years, I will tell others that the album playing was Liz Phair’s “Supernova,” but it is, in fact, “Fields of Gold” by Sting, in stark contrast to the bare walls of the dorm room, made stranger by my knowledge of the room’s previous inhabitants, how the walls, during the school year, were covered with a dime store tapestry and posters of French films. It is harder to accept this gift than I thought, though neither of us doubts that it is time for it to be given and received.

This is your last year attending camp. You will go to Colorado the next, intending to study film; in two years, you will have a son you did not plan. You will drink your twenties away, hoping that merely staying near him will make up for your own father’s disinterest. But now, you are 18 and I am 22, with an entire night before us. I wear your dead grandfather’s robe to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and your roommate tells you that you have eaten of the forbidden woman.

Bankruptcy

You are 18, and I am 22, at a Best Western in Tulsa, a city I do not know at all, in which I have little interest except that it holds you. It is the second hotel room I ever pay for by myself and the first for these purposes. I have driven all day to Tulsa, your home, where I have never visited you, simply because it did not occur to me that I could, our assets so tied up in location, so rooted in camp. It occurs to me now because I have a paycheck that isn’t from work-study, which somehow legitimates this plan. It later occurs to me to wonder why money legitimates anything about being grown up.

It is one in the morning, and I have been here since eight o’clock, watching the television and wondering when you will come home and find the message I have called. These are the days before cell phones, when one had to trust in the goodness of mothers to pen a note from the girl she knows you love and have no business loving. One hopes the recipient notices the note on the counter, in the dark, when He returns from a night out with friends, doing the things that lead him to rehab years later. Tori Amos, your idol, is on The Tonight Show, singing “Father Lucifer.” She wonders if Joe DiMaggio still puts flowers on Marilyn’s grave. I have been wondering many things. You arrive, and I think of nothing to do right, over think everything else. We are in bed again, for the second time, and I do not know why I have to get up and leave the room for a minute, after sex, but it has something to do with the division of this room from this situation, of myself from you.

The next day, at your parents’ home, you do not know fully for what I have come, which makes two of us, since this was a gamble, an unsound plan with unstable backing. You tell me it is too strange, that you have nothing to give me, that I will always be your gold standard for women, but all we have given is foreign currency, beautiful and worthless, which cannot be exchanged for anything, except at a reduced rate and is better left a trinket. When I return to my apartment that night, I play “Father Lucifer” on repeat one; it will repeat for two weeks, as I lie on the floor and drink cheap wine, leaving only to teach my first composition class.

But that is after the drive home, which takes four hours, so I will cry all the way back to Kansas and throw change into the tollbooth every thirty miles, until I have nothing left.

Refinancing

You are 28 and I am 32. I have made a huge mistake, moving from Seattle to Missouri, and I am alone in my office when I receive your message on Friendster, reading, simply, “Just let me explain.” On the phone that night, we talk as we never have or could when we did not understand the value of even our own lives—the many ways one can invest poorly, how one is capable of gaining and losing interest in lovers without intending to do either, how some things retain their value because they are rare. Having always spent Time like it is an arcade token, which is to say to spend it when we had it, this phone call is a vacation accrued after years of labor. The darkness stretches out in a room more familiar than the hotel room or a dorm room stripped bare, since this is my room, and you seem more familiar, more loved for your years of absence than when we lay absorbed by those rooms belonging to neither of us. You apologize for youth. I am awed and saddened by the difference in how we spent our twenties.

Though I feel as if I have been given a great gift in your return, I will choose to pursue another lost love because the risk seems lower, more manageable given my emotionally impoverished state in this terrible town. When I write to tell you this, you say it is as if you are standing on a dock, watching a boat pulling away; you see me wave from it, and you did not realize I was even on the boat. Though I will feel your cat eyes on me in the dark, I will rejoice in making a careful decision. The choice to love this other will later become a consolidation of all emotional losses and exceed them horribly, at the same time, but at this moment, I consider myself simply lucky to have secured access to your life again.

Overdrawn

You are 34, and I am 38. I look at Facebook for the third time this morning to see if you have responded to my comment about Pina in 3D. I consider adding Adrienne and Claire, your two best friends, and remind myself, again, that I have never and will never meet these women, though we speak through your wall to each other like Pyramus and Thisbe. We speak about you, around you, and you “like” everything we say. Two years ago, you consider visiting here but have no money; and I consider buying half your ticket. I consider going there myself, but I have vowed never to go to you again, or to listen to Tori Amos. I have moved back to Seattle to save what was left of me after Missouri and the break-up with the other one I loved, which caused me to sob until my top rib slips out of place to make room for the sadness. It has taken two years to recover. A friend, upon seeing your picture on my wall, says you look like my new boyfriend, and at times, she is right. He finds my spirit generous, and the love is true and supportive. You respond to one out of every five messages, and I send one more immediately, in which I ask you more questions than you will ever answer, beginning the wait again.

Armed Robbery

You are 36, and I am 40. I step off the plane in Austin, dressed in all white, and you step out of the car to pick me up. I said I would never go to Tulsa again, and I haven’t, but I have forced my way here, instead, your new home of a week. It is a big moment, but I hate your hair. Your cat eyes are puffy from drinking again, and you tell me, as we get in the car, that if you act weird, it is because you took an Aderol yesterday to help you finish some work. We have two nice hours and a bottle of wine before you yell at me. I do not understand that it doesn’t take much for drinkers to get angry because I do not understand addiction, my own drinking heavy but not daily or in secret. We are on your bed, listening to the CD I made you, just for this night, and I tell you if you yell at me again, I will leave. You apologize, as Beck’s “Lost Cause” comes on. I think: if God exists, he manifests primarily as a DJ.

We canoe on the lake the next day and try to have all the conversations for which we never had time, try to make up for lost time. But the time is already lost—I could not make love last night after you yelled at me, could not sleep, and each time you touch me, I pull away, despite the years I have spent wanting just that. There is a new love back home in Seattle, but I tell him that this trip is one I have to make in order to be whole, one last heist before I quit for good. Before you are even awake that first morning, I call him, tell him that this trip is not going well, that this was a mistake, and that I love him, love him, love him. He tells me to get through the next two days and then come home to him. He will listen to the CD I made, until then.

I do not make it two more days. The second night we drink heavily: I am desperate to have fun, having disliked you all day—your arrogance without accomplishment, your bitter rage at your 24 year-old ex-girlfriend, your mother, your son, your life, your need to smoke a cigarette or weed or take a pill or drink every two hours; you are angry at me in that way only lust can fuel and want to blur my edges, if you cannot have my soft body. We drink until we are drunk, and then we drink some more, get in your car, and suddenly the tumblers click, the safe is open, and the alarm inside of me goes off, as we speed down the highway and you begin to yell at me again. You are not my treasure, this has not been worth it, and I think that we might die, the car going faster, and I pray for the first time in years, really pray. You notice I am white-faced, that I refuse to look at you or talk. And so, you yell and yell, swerving to scare me more, laughing when you do. This is not my sweet-faced lover at 12, or, maybe, it always has been.

We arrive at the apartment, and I run upstairs, find my suitcase, start to pack. It is three in the morning. You push me on the bed and somehow there’s a knife, but I am sobbing with my eyes closed, and a voice from my mouth stumbles as it repeats the thing even it cannot believe it says: please don’t kill me please don’t kill me. You let me up, I grab my bag and run from you, as I always knew I should, run from the scene of this crime against my heart and maybe yours, run in this strange neighborhood until I reach a Walgreen’s, and the night manager takes me into the back room, gives me a bottle of water, wipes the blood that is, thank god, not my own off of my arm, and tells me, as I cry and hate myself, “Girl, we’ve all been there. You got away, and you never need to go back.”

Safe Deposit Box

You are 18, and I am 22. It is one in the morning, and the knock on the door startles me so that I feel sick. I open the door, and you are finally here. Your eyes are clear, and you are wearing a straw-colored tee shirt the color of your shoulder-length hair. In the sodium light, you are so golden, you are so beautiful, that it brings tears to my eyes. Here, in memory, I stay with you in that doorway forever, owing nothing to you or to myself but that which we owe to love, who never forgives a debt, and so we keep on paying until there’s nothing, nothing left.


Jingle Bells: An Elegy

It starts because we both think my unpredictability has become predictable. He finds it hilarious. I look up in the middle of reading to do it, stop stirring risotto or petting the cat and turn to him. “Hey, Eli,” I say, “Name that tune.” Without breaking eye contact, I begin to tap on his arm. Dat dat daaaa dat dat daaaa da dat da da daaa. “Jingle bells!” he says, breaking into a smile. It is always “Jingle Bells.”

Once a year, over our three and a half year relationship, it will be the first act of the Nutcracker Suite. But usually it is “Jingle Bells.” And it becomes one of our favorite things about each other: this game that pretends to offer surprise, that requires close attention to the message being tapped, like Morse code, onto the other’s body, when, in actuality, we know it is a ritual communicating our certainty of each other, a sly wink to the other in the face of the unknown. “I know where this is going, but I will pretend I don’t,” his eyes smile at mine. “And when it goes there, we will have gone there together.”

I decide it will be our first dance at our wedding.

I imagine his delight as I announce, in a beautiful, creamy dress, a glass of champagne in my hand, that I have chosen a very special song for this first dance, and the song begins—Bing Crosby’s version, or maybe that of Sammy Davis, Jr. He laughs as I prance towards him, and we join hands. We swirl in a big circle, enclosed inside arms and an inside joke.

But there is no wedding because I’ve been playing the wrong game. That’s not what love is–there should be no games, I know. Except that there are, and it is a game in and of itself to pretend there aren’t.

There are games of strategy, which I attempted to avoid, the more it became clear that he really didn’t want to get married—the kind that drive you to read articles titled things like “How to Get Him to Move In with You” or “How to Tell If He’s Never Going to Be Ready.”

There are board games, structured as the weeks you spend together: pick up your piece and go to the farmers’ market; buy a half-flat of raspberries for half-price (bonus points). Proceed to Monday, Tuesday, your weekly viewing of “How I Met Your Mother” (watched late because of band practice). Thursday—Standing Date with Friends (overdid the drinking again! Lose one turn).

There are games of chance (“We’re at the P.I.–join us for a drink, if you’re on your way home!”) and team challenges and individual foot races. There are mind games, but these are be benevolent, recast as “relationship discussions,” in which I sit on the couch beside you, the cat sleeping behind our heads, and love you as you try to come up with something, anything, to explain why you are not ready to want this life you have built with me. I turn this game on myself: this is not about me, this love is worth more than your pride, Bryn, not everyone is as quick with words as you are.

There are rules of engagement, but the engagement never happens. He tells me that at some point, he felt like we stopped being on the same team. I look at our life for the evidence of this: his anticipation that I will want the flour back on my side of the counter as we cook, my ability to pick which restaurant we should go to during Restaurant Week by the lack of nuts on the menu, the sand squirrel he made me on Ruby Beach, the book I bought him this Christmas on how to draw a chicken. Even when I think of the couch discussions, I think of holding his hand and thinking, “This is what love is.”

There were different teams? When had the game changed? What was the game changer, when marriage, maybe a baby, seemed only like extensions of the game we were playing together, the one I called “We’re So Lucky”?

Our relationship did not “move forward,” but the movements I miss now are these: the whirling in the kitchen, as I grabbed him for “Surprise Dance,” the intuitive rearrangement of limbs as one person turns on their side in sleep, the tapping of my fingers to a tune that will not be guessed, a tune tapped, now, on air.