Category Archives: Delusion

My Year In Three Albums. Part One: Angel Olsen and Loneliness

There’s nothing like making a list at the year’s end to make you believe you understood what just happened.

But certainly, it seems significant to me that this past year was primarily set to three albums:  Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness, Other Lives’ Rituals, and Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Style.  My 2015 was defined by two things:  it was the year in which I’d entered more comfortable with the idea of myself as a writer, able to fully commit to my book project as a real project, and it was the year in which, as I wrote more and more about intimacy, I faced the possibility that this loneliness I feel is permanent.

This loneliness . . . it is difficult to express without sounding morose and fatalistic, delusional even, given the many and wonderful people in my life, the time I spend with them, and my own relentlessly cheery nature, even in the face of darkness.  But something inside me shifted this year, and I found myself trying to understand intimacy on a deeper level, to confront any obstacles or illusions more bravely so that I can live, if not with a loving partner, then at least more honestly with myself.  At times, in my writing, I reached bigger insights about the love I’ve felt, and I would finish an essay teary, grateful to have the chance to understand what I’ve felt or who I’ve loved differently.  Sometimes, this experience gave me great peace.  Sometimes, it brought back the loss so clearly that the profundity of my errors humbled me—nostalgia means, as Leslie Jamison says, “the twinge of the wound.”  Sometimes, that humility facilitated more vulnerability, and I felt more capable of being more present for others, as with my students; sometimes it made me feel the best any of us can do is simply to give what we can and try not to damage each other too much.

At one point this summer, I realized that the writing of these essays itself had replaced romantic intimacy for me, that I WAS, in fact, in a relationship:  with myself, with these songs. It felt good—but how couldn’t it?  What better way to protect myself from my own heart than to stop giving it to someone?  I was in control of all the conversations, never had to address the needs of another; all the negotiations were always made in good faith because there was only one bargainer in the deal.

Still, rather than read last year as mere retreat, I wanted to honor where I was, to think about how these three albums functioned as all good relationships do:  how they gave me solace and insight, how they wallowed with me, how they moved me into different emotional spaces, revealed alternate possibilities, and how, in the end, they taught me something about myself.  Listening to whole albums is an increasing rarity—at least for me—and having three full albums in a year that mattered . .  . well, maybe you don’t need to be in love to keep learning about it.

Angel Olsen:  Burn Your Fire For No Witness

I quit my dreaming the moment that I found you
I started dancing just to be around you
Here’s to thinking that it all meant so much more
I kept my mouth shut and opened up the door

I wanted nothing but for this to be the end
For this to never be a tied and empty hand

If all the trouble in my heart would only end
I lost my dream, I lost my reason all again

It’s not just me for you
I have to look out too
I have to save my life
I need some peace of mind

I am the only one now
I am the only one now
I am the only one now

You may not be around
You may not be around
You may not be around

—“Unfuck the World”

I’d first heard Angel Olsen’s “Forgiven/Forgotten” last summer and bought the album without realizing that song was by far the most optimistic on the whole thing.  “Forgiven / Forgotten” is about two minutes long and I loved it because it was like a cheerful theme song for one of my long-standing problems:  a tendency to continue to take emotional risks, even when it’s been established that there will be no pay-off.

In one of my favorite movies, The Anniversary Party, Kevin Kline and his five year-old daughter reenact the rocky marriage of the couple (Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose anniversary it is:  at one point, he pushes her dramatically away from him, and she walks sadly away, only to turn and rush back, to fling herself back into his only partially extended arms.  I cry every time, identifying with the five year-old.  “Forgiven/Forgotten” went on the last CD I made (and will ever make) the Camp Romance, a last-ditch attempt to forgive someone who didn’t think he’d done anything wrong, who wanted, moreover, to be forgotten. Why did I do it? In “Dance Slow Decades,” Angel Olsen seemed to know:  “I dance because I know this one.”

More recently, I was trying to explain a questionable romantic entanglement to a dear friend and her dear husband, together since they were fifteen.  “I mean, who’s it going to hurt, other than myself?” I said blithely.  Foreheads simultaneously wrinkled, and they looked first at each other, then at me.  “Exactly, honey,” she said.

But the rest of the album isn’t about that—it isn’t about self-destruction, about flinging oneself at all.  It’s not about risk as much as it is accountability:  that quality most essential to a risk, without which a  “risk” is merely carelessness.  It’s an album about facing loneliness and choosing to be oneself.  “If you’ve still got some light in you, then go before it’s gone / Burn your fire for no witness / it’s the only way it’s done,” Olsen sings in “White Fire.” The Pitchfork review of the album agrees:

“Hi-Five”, the third song on Angel Olsen’s second album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, has got to be one of the most cheerful songs ever written about being lonely. [ . . . ]  “Are you lonely too?” Olsen warbles. A beat later, her band’s back in full Technicolor, and the next line hits like a title card in an old “Batman” episode: “HI-FIVE!/ SO AM I!”

When 2015 began, I was still recovering from the Barback, and I found a new theme song:  “Unfuck the World,” quoted in its entirety at the beginning of this section. It’s the first song on the album, and it sounds like the kind of song a sad girl would write alone in her bedroom.  Since I was a sad girl writing alone in my bedroom, I curled into it like a cat curls into a small space when it’s feeling insecure.

I was suffering to a degree clearly disproportionate to the relationship, feeling an anger I sensed was not about Jason.  And when I heard this song, I knew why.  I really did love the Barback, but I also loved that he seemed ready to give me everything I had wanted . . . with Eli.  Once, in the first month of our three months together, I’d mentioned that even after three years, Eli was never comfortable talking about getting married.  The Barback turned to me.  “How long do you think is rational before we move in together and get engaged?”  I looked up at him, startled.  “Two or three years?” I said, weakly.  “Well, I’m thinking six months to a year,” he responded.  “Eli didn’t know what he had.”  Maybe he didn’t, and maybe the Barback didn’t either, or maybe I’m just that good at inciting the one unpleasant confrontation that will end even the most committed of relationships.  But Angel Olsen knew—she knew what I had.  “I lost my dream, I lost my reason all again.” 

My heart wasn’t just breaking—it was being rebroken, in all the most sensitive places.  My grief over the end of my relationship with Eli had only reached the bargaining stage by the time I met the Barback, and I saw him, his readiness to talk about big things with me, to actively love me enough to want a future with me, as part of the bargain:  maybe if I just make the strong choice, maybe if I break up with Eli even though I love him, I will still find a lover who chooses me without hesitation and get what I want.  “I wanted nothing but for this to be the end.”  

And it wasn’t the end.  The next relationship is not the reward for “doing the right thing” in the last one.  There is no reward.  Maybe there is no right thing.  And that awareness unleashed the next phase of grieving:  anger.  It’s the emotion your friends least want to hear about, the emotion you least want to feel towards someone you once loved most.  But what I learned about anger over the first five months of this last year was that it is a motivator.  In “Enemy,” Olsen gently confronts her own disillusionment and comes to terms with the tricks her own mind has played on her:

I wish it were the same
as it is in my mind
I am lighter on my feet
when I’ve left some things behind

I knew (and still know) the anger I felt was less about either man and more about having to force myself to move forward to face being alone—really, really alone.

And I hate it.  I still hate it, mostly.  I enjoy my own company, and I do meaningful things, but I really am an extrovert, and it’s just not fun for me to have as much alone time as I do.  This essay isn’t going to end with me finding out how much I loved being alone.  The anger has dissipated somewhat, but it’s still there sometimes, although it’s changed directions (why can’t I better appreciate what so many wish they could have—this intimate time with oneself?). I still know I would far rather have a partner than be singing soft songs to myself in my bedroom.  But this album repeated to me, again and again, the soft song that would be more useful to sing:

It’s not just me for you
I have to look out too
I have to save my life
I need some peace of mind

I am the only one now
I am the only one now
I am the only one now

You may not be around
You may not be around
You may not be around

You’d think this would have been obvious—we all die in our own arms, anyway.  But somehow, this was the year in which I really understood that I might not even have someone there near the end and that I might want to start getting used to that idea.  And even though I don’t like it, this awareness feels meaningful.  Again, the Pitchfork review offers me a way to think about this meaning and grow:

Olsen knows too well that dreamers are usually loners. Not that she really minds. If she seems unafraid of—even superhumanly amped about—loneliness, it’s because her songs find an almost beatific peace in solitude. “If you can’t be psyched about your own thoughts,” she said in an interview a few years ago, “Then how are you supposed to have a meaningful interaction with anyone?”

I’m in the process of growing right now, of trying both to be open to emotions as they come, without turning them into dreamy narratives, and to stand up for myself and what feels useful, if not good.  If this year began with track one of Burn Your Fire for No Witness, it seems apt that it has ended with me thinking more about the final track, “Windows.”  After a whole album of confronting oneself and others, Olsen reminds me that all the confrontation is also not just for the sake of self-awareness—it’s so we can feel better.  I spent a lot of time alone with my thoughts last year, and some of them were powerful.  The meaningful interactions were there, too.  And I hope I can keep feeling better.

We throw our shadows down
we must throw our shadows down
we live and throw our shadows down
it’s how we get around

What’s so wrong with the light?

https://youtu.be/0CQSOoFlaxI

 

 

 

 

 

 

Divorce Closet: Songs that Are Not Yours to Sing

 

I am in the Corcoran in Washington, D. C.  Everywhere, I am surrounded by the Annie Leibovitz exhibition, A Photographer’s Life, and everywhere, I am undone by the evidence of love.   There are, of course, the famous Rolling Stone images, the ones loved by the world:  giant prints of naked John Lennon and clothed Yoko Ono, Meg and Jack White as circus performers with Meg strapped to a wheel and Jack aiming a dagger. But this exhibition also contains the photos of a dead Susan Sontag:  of Annie taking care of Sontag, of Sontag being wheeled onto planes to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, and, finally, controversially, of her corpse, alone.   I look at that thin, still body, the signature shock of white hair, and I know that all of these images are love.

But I am newly in love, and death is far off in the background of my world.  I’m still in Act One, and Mortality is merely a dusty prop in a dark corner, to be exposed once, only, in the very final scene, the very last act.  I know that I see love, but my love has never died—will never die, I think.  And so, I have to round the corner before I find the photograph that undoes me and brings tears of recognition.

Small, square-framed amidst two or three other minor works, it is a picture of a handful of seashells.  “Susan’s Shells,” it’s called.  I weep openly.  Strangers look over to see if they are missing another picture of the corpse, squint at the tiny image, glance sideways at me.  After all the chemo and bones and death and pain, Annie Leibovitz took pictures of her lover’s things.  She took pictures of the shells because Susan was loved, and because Susan loved them, the shells are loved.  The shells are love.  I am surrounded even here by love:  these images of what the lover has left, in the end.  The beloved, the beloved may be dead, but still her objects remain, and anything she touched with her notice has become love:  all that it was and all that remains.   I am surrounded by love.  And because I am in love, I feel this, and I weep.

*****

I go back to Alexandria, Virginia, to my beloved’s home to which I have a key, and I feel it again.   I am here again from Missouri, and I let myself in with this key his hands have touched.  I feel it again in his closet.  Sam’s shirts.   Surrounded by these artifacts of him, imbued with their “him-ness,” the smell of him, I am surrounded by this love of him concretely:  tactile, viscous, the densest reality of this man with whom I am in love, perhaps more than I’ve ever been.  I sigh with happiness to be this close to him, even amidst the merest traces.  He seems so present that I turn, instinctively, to look for him in the doorway.  But he is on a business trip, and I am here in his closet, looking through his stuff for evidence, the proof that his divorce was the best thing ever to happen to him and to me.

*****

I am a snoop. If you are in a relationship with me, and I have not yet sounded out the depths of your heart, unpacked and analyzed the degree to which you love me, I will secretly read your diary, pour over your photo albums, maybe look under your bed to find, among the dust bunnies and crumpled, mislaid receipts, the measure of your love for me.   It is not that I am empty, low on self esteem and skittish in my trust, but rather that I cannot accept “enough” when I could find out “more.”  I am a museum with a permanent source of funding; I am the curator herself, rubbing her hands with glee over each new acquisition, considering its possibilities, reconstructing the exhibit again and again.  I know each love is a story with the details missing, with multiple threads, and the fuller I can make the story, the more of it I can tell.   And feel.  And tell again.

This story, the story of Sam and Bryn, has infinite possibilities and has borne infinite retellings—a strong initial framework, rife with blank spaces, waiting to be filled with evidence:

We meet in Kansas, 1994, both in separate graduate programs, but he walks into the used bookstore where I work, and he smiles at me.  I think to myself—I really do:  “He is the handsomest man I have ever seen.”  He approaches the desk. 

“Hey, do you have a copy of The History of Saturday Night Live?”

In my head:  “Oh god, and he is funny, so lovely, the man of my dreams.” 

Not in my head:  “No, but if you leave your name and phone number, I can call you if it ever comes in.” 

The book comes in the very next day.

We become friends of a sort, despite his girlfriend, on whom I ask him to cheat before he returns to New York; he will say thank you and gently refuse, in the third email I ever receive.   I will receive one email from him every year, and so, we stay in touch. 

And when he visits me in Seattle, 2003, just before they get engaged, I am mid-way through my doctorate and my own happy relationship.  It will not seem so strange, although I have my suspicions, suspicions confirmed years later, in bed, when I ask him why he visited then, why I was not invited to the wedding.  Sam turns to me and holds my face.  “She wanted to get married, but I couldn’t sleep.  I couldn’t sleep, so I came to see you. And you seemed so happy.   I wanted to invite you, but you were the hope, and I couldn’t bear to see you.”

We are that story:  old friends with bad timing.  It bears retelling.

We decide to retell it.  I am a professor in Missouri when she leaves him 2007, and the email I receive is, somehow, not entirely surprising: “I’m getting divorced and will be in Kansas in May.  Want to meet up?”

It is not surprising—is this not how the story goes?

We meet again in Lawrence, Kansas—not the city of our meeting but the city in between that of the business trip bringing him back to Kansas, and the small, depressing university town to which I’ve willingly exiled myself, not fully anticipating the loneliness of the single, small-town professor.   We decide to meet at his hotel room.  Between us, we have eleven years of unconsummated desire, an implicit agreement that we are soul mates, permission newly granted.  And we meet at a hotel room.

Is this not how the story goes?

We begin to fly back and forth between Missouri and Washington, D. C.  I take to singing the Magnetic Fields’ song “Washington, D. C.,” joyful in its specificity, how it’s about him, it’s about me:

Washington, D. C.

it’s paradise to me

It’s not the people doing something real

it’s not the way that springtime makes you feel  no no no

It ain’t no famous name on a golden plaque

That keeps me that makes me ride that railroad track

It’s my baby’s kiss that keeps me coming back

Occasionally, he has more business trips—one or two days during the three or four I visit.  I stay, rather than return to my miserable town, consider these days in D. C. without him my chance to try out being the second wife.  I prowl the rooms, feel out a space for myself in this home recently abandoned by the first one, familiarizing myself with his neighborhood, his life, his things.

By which I mean I snoop.

*****

Still in the closet.  The mother lode is behind the shirts.  I push aside a box of files and find a giant document, beautifully illuminated with scrollwork, elaborately framed.  It’s the first ketubah I’ve ever seen, but I recognize it from the mini-lessons in Judaism Sam’s been giving me—an explanation of a blessing here, “you cover the bread so it doesn’t get embarrassed,” a definition of a word there, a “lulav” is a palm frond.  I gather in the lessons greedily:  Sam’s faith.   I laugh when others ask if he is trying to convert me.  “No,” I say.  “Not yet,” a part of me whispers, hearing the echoes of the not-yet-ex-wife, the phrase “cultural differences.”  But here it is, this ketubah, her explicit agreement that even if she is not Jewish, their children will be . . .and that she will love him forever, as will he. I find his signature (Sam’s signature) and read the lines:   “And I, Samuel Edward, say to my beloved, Sara Renee . . . .”

It is beautiful.  But I am the beloved now.  It moves and irritates me, these words of forever dismissed after two years of marriage.  Our story is just as long as theirs, and our marriage will be longer.  Is that not how the story goes?

I set the heavy frame aside, impatient, glimpsing the wedding album stacked in the corner.  This object better fits my need for evidence, contributing to the details of my collection in a more satisfactory way.  Images never lie like words.  These photographs are sepia-toned, as if from an event well in the past, one for books closed, books of mistakes not likely to be repeated.  There are many posed family portraits and few candids, and the curator inside likes this:  the “not us” portion of our love’s retrospective.  I will give it not even a full wall, this marriage never meant to be, a function of convention, John Lennon and Cynthia, Jack and Meg White’s brief marriage before the real fame came, the youthful, unquestioned “next step, later justly questioned.

The curator ignores the fact that it is the wife, the first one, who did the questioning.

Beloved, beloved . . . the writing actually on their wall.  “I, the beloved, promise to break these solemn vows, beloved, once loved, I will no longer love.”  Even as I look through this album, this bride’s face looks happily out at mine, and I know she is beginning life again with another, the bad one; they are the cheaters.  I know this from her blog.  My search is not limited to this home.  An academic knows to diversify her sources.  A curator will accept an anonymous donation, if it serves her purposes.

I close the album, full of his pain, giddy with the pleasure that I know it now.  It’s not enough, and I want more.  And then I know it’s here, somewhere.  If all these things were kept, there is another object in this house.  I will trace the failure of this marriage to its first object. I will find it and know it all.  Love him fully.  And somehow, I will know that I am, too.  Loved more than her.

I look for some place small.  Like me, my lover believes in ritual, and so, I think like him.  That’s how it is, in these stories:  two hearts, one mind.

And I find it sooner than you’d think:  in the small, shallow drawer of his valet.

His wedding ring is placed inside another circle—a bracelet of beads, protecting it from further harm. It is a gesture so Sam, I catch my breath.   Sam’s gestures.  I pick it up, note the two diamonds inside the band, and (I do), I put it on.

It is, predictably, too big for me, but there’s a coldness to this ring.  I feel less, not more.  I feel, in fact, so small:  smaller than this world I’ve made of Him and Me, smaller than a shell.

Even if this ring did fit, I know with sudden clarity what fact this evidence supports.  I am not inside this circle.  In fact, I am so far out of it that it embarrasses me. I need to be covered, like bread.  This is the truth.  It’s not the truth I meant to find.  It is, however, the truth that must be faced, and for now, there is no other corner to turn and find my face in love.

This is what it means to go through a divorce.  You exit a life that has been years in the making, and you leave it so fast, you leave a wake—not breadcrumbs leading you back to home but the pieces of the home itself. They’ve led me to see that you are the one who never wanted to leave, the one who can’t yet break the circle.  I have presumed that I could break it, reform it in my own image, simply by looking to understand you, my love, my darling, by feeling out these crumbs of a home and thinking they were mine.  But they are not mine, just as no collection of you can ever make you mine.

This is the end of this story.  Beloved, beloved—there is a blank space in another story not my own, a story of you, a stranger, this quiet hoarder.  Here is all the proof you’ll ever need that, once, you were not loved enough, not even enough for her to take the wedding china or these photos and save you from the things that were your things together. I know now these things will never be my things.  This is not my story.  I will not be the next wife.

Golden Moment, Red-Headed Architect

Within 15 minutes, Brady turns to me and says, “You want to get out of here?”

“Yes,” I say. “Yes, I do.”

We are in Rome but have, somehow, ended up in a German bar with students from both our programs.  Though he will go on to be an entrepreneur, he is with the University of Colorado architecture program, and I am on the UW poetry program.  I will go on to be me.

Walking back through the Campo di Fiori,  we wind through the other pairs of dark-eyed lovers filling the square.  They kiss casually, unabashedly, leaning against the statue of hooded Bruno, in the center.  Bruno was burned at the stake in the 16th century.  Brady and I are burning in another way.  I look at the lounging lovers and feel the flush of recognition I’ve felt so often this summer.

We climb the endless stairs to his apartment, climb the short ladder to his upper-bunk bed, and lie together, side by side, holding hands.   The balcony doors are open, and the sounds of the Campo float in on the warm air, like ashes off a fire.  Brady has the first iPod I’ve ever seen, and he scrolls through with a touch now familiar to my body. “Here,” he says, holding out one of the earbuds,” this is a really good song.”

In one year, my friend Solange will frown, listening to her voice mail.  “What’s up?” I will ask.  She’ll turn.  “Did you know I saved your voicemail from New Year’s Eve?”  I freeze.  “Why did you do that?”  “Because I knew that you would want to forgive him, and I wanted to make sure that you would have some way of remembering that you never, never have to forgive him.”

I meet Brady in Naples, sharing a tour bus and a Belgian tour guide with whom we will drink grappa.  The UW poets shame the CU architects by answering all the questions he asks about the city planning as we walk the Herculaneum.  When we all stop for gelato, it is so hot the whole group simply stands there silently, the melting sweetness dripping unheeded onto volcanic soil.  “I want to marry that guy because of his tee shirt,” says Becca, coolly gesturing with her head to the left.  Brady wears a teal Huey Lewis and the News tee shirt, and his hair is shaggy and the most beautiful true red against the green.  He looks miserable.  I find him stunning and move towards him; the heat reduces us to basic impulses, always.   “My friend wants to marry you because of your tee shirt,” I tell him, bold even in this heat.  “Oh, where is she?   We ought to get that going.”  He barely blinks, licks his popsicle, and only then looks at me.

We both like Yo La Tengo, both like Bottlerocket, both miss nachos here.   When we return to Rome, get off the bus, I ask him if he wants to go have Chinese with us.  At first, he says he’ll meet us later, after he takes a shower.  But he then catches up to us before we turn the first corner.  Later, in bed, he’ll tell me, he wanted to go home, recover from the heat, “but then I thought, ‘If I don’t go right now, I’ll never see that girl again.”  He pushes my hair off of my face, behind my ear.  That girl is me.

Solange hands the phone to me, and I hear sobbing.  The sobbing is me.  “I am so stupid, so stupid, Solo. I brought this on myself.  This was the worst, worst thing I’ve ever done.”

We spend every day together.  We give each other assignments to combine our programs:  “Write a poem as a triptych with a pediment.” “Design a seating area that poses a problem and a solution, like a sonnet.” We ride scooters in deadly traffic, nearly dying on a turn near the Janiculum.  We walk daily to San Crispino to get gelato and once watch a man propose while standing in the Trevi Fountain.  We cheer with the crowd as she steps in as well, boo when the carabinieri walk down to fine him.  The lover doesn’t care and pays them on the spot.  Every lover watching cheers again, and fifty couples begin to make out in solidarity.  The rose vender insistently taps our knees with roses, but we are laughing as we’re kissing.  We are here for this moment, and nothing could be more lovely.  We are here, and we are kissing.

I visit Denver and Brady for the first time only two weeks after we return.  When we show up at happy hour with the other architecture students, they are delighted.  “What are you doing here?” crows Matt, hugging me.  “Why would I be anywhere but with Brady?” I say.

I adore him. He is brilliant.  We are brilliant together.  Each visit, there are more assignments; we like solving problems together.  We build our own Hadrian’s Villa in his backyard with all the broken door and window frames he’s found.  We make our own sushi.  We go to Casa Bonita, the obscenely pink Mexican restaurant that rises from a strip mall on Colfax.  It seats a 1000 people, has cliff divers, a Wild West shoot-out, terrible food.  “I want to get married here,” says Brady, wrapping his arm around my waist.  “Me, too,” I sigh.  His best friend Paul looks over, cocks his head, says nothing, notes that neither of us said to whom.

“Most people think I’m kind of an asshole,” Brady tells me, as we wait to hear the INXS cover band on the Tiber.  Yesterday, he showed me the video he and Paul made for the band Of Montreal:   still shots of pictures from a children’s book corresponding cleverly with the lyrics.  Today, for class, he designed a bridge based on dancing couples.  He shows me how the supports will twist, as if they’re arms intertwined.  The computer program shows the blueprint, then superimposes the dancers on top.  I tear up.  It’s beautiful.  It can be hard to be creative, to not have others understand you.

In three years, I am living in a Missouri farmhouse when I get the seventh text.  It’s been two years since I’ve seen him.  “I’m sorry I wasn’t good to you.  I’m different now.  I can’t imagine not knowing you.”  I try to write the email that will show I take the blame—that I cannot forgive him because I cannot forgive myself.  That I was the one who wouldn’t see when it was over, that I know changing my ticket to be with him on New Year’s Eve was an act of desperation.  That, despite all this, it was still humiliating to find he had a date, to spend the day crying until he drives me to the airport.  “I may have over-reacted,” he says, looking miserable.   I see him as he was in Naples on that first day:  uncomfortable, detached.  At midnight, I look out across the tarmac as the fireworks go off over Las Vegas.  I start crying and laughing at the same time, and no one taps my knee to offer me a rose. I send the email, hoping I have been kind but firm, honest about my pain while owning my part in creating it.  He doesn’t like it.  “To not forgive is to live in hate.  I’m sorry for you, and I’m blocking you from now on.”

It’s a puzzling response, but this has to end.  “Why can’t you forgive me?  Just because I didn’t love you?  I always want to know you,” he writes the month before.  But that’s just it:  it is just because of that.  Because you didn’t love me enough to save me from myself.

But it is Rome, and the air is thick with spells, the sounds of lovers loving.  Brady puts one headphone in my ear, the other in his own.  “Listen to this song,” he says.  “It’s a really good song.”  There’s a sound like an ocean rushing, and my breath catches.  “You call me after midnight / It must have been three years since / we last spoke.”  Kings of Convenience—I have not heard of them.  I had not heard of Of Montreal, which will become my permanent favorite band, who I will love for so long that I will forget who introduced me to them.  I had not known such kissing underneath a bridge, my heart beating with that of a city.  Later, I will not know such deep humiliation nor understand what kind of friendship can exist after such a mess.  But I do not know it now, and this song is a really good song, this moment one of the best, I know, I will ever have in my life, even if I knew what would be coming.  The song advances and retreats:  “You changed into somebody / for whom I wouldn’t mind to /put the kettle on / Still I don’t know what I can save you from.” And still, I hear no warning in the words themselves, will only ever know, when I listen still years later, that I am lucky to remember what I do:  the air, the dark, perfection in one moment, the pressure of his hand.

 

Real Phone Number, Fake Name: A Post About Music and (Non) Intimacy

Forget, for a moment, that I met him at a bar. Perhaps forget, also, that Kate and I had met for drinks at 4:30 p.m., and it was 1:30 a.m. when he first kissed me. Because while I’ve tried to take the blame on those accounts, most of my friends (oh, dear, dear friends) all roll their eyes and remind me of this: “Lots of people met at bars. Bars where they’ve been drinking. But it is just fucking weird that he gave you his real phone number and a FAKE NAME.”

It’s not even that dating is getting hard. It’s that WANTING to date is getting hard.

The only thing I knew about Nicki Minaj was that she performed under alter egos. I learned this from a student presentation in my British Literature class; she was Lauren’s example of a contemporary Oscar Wilde. And I get it: Minaj invokes a character she calls “Roman Zolanski,” who is, apparently (yes, I looked on Wikipedia), Minaj’s inner “twin brother”—he’s “gay,” a “lunatic,” and he comes out when she’s angry. He’s the equivalent of Jack Worthing taking on the name of “Ernest” in The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s the alter ego that enables him (and later Algernon) to court their moniker-obsessed beloveds; it’s the alter ego that grants them access to what they want. As Gwendolyn says, “My ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.”

I don’t know if I was destined to love him, but I liked him an awful lot, and he seemed to like me, too. The VPJB (Very Painful Jason Break-Up: see any post from this past fall) was over four months ago, and, instead of healing slowly, I’ve found myself angrier and angrier: at Jason, at myself, and, as a delayed bonus, angriest of all at Eli. I knew I’d handled that break-up too well.

Some people feel really empowered by anger. As a rule, I don’t. And I don’t shy away from strong emotions. But the thing I don’t like about anger is that Anger doesn’t care about being fair. I can handle righteous anger; I know when to stand up and speak. But the kind I’ve been feeling is both overly simple and not simple enough. It’s not cleansing. It’s my default feeling at night, when I can’t sleep. It’s Elizabeth Kubler-Ross anger—which is to say, it’s the anger associated with grieving.

It’s the anger I’ve felt when friends didn’t bother to tell me they’d invited Eli to something, and when I say that I would appreciate at least a heads-up, I’m told I “should be over it by now” or that I’m only ostracizing myself. It’s the anger I felt when he got invited to Passover, and I got passed over. It’s the anger I felt when I was promised an Eli-free Christmas party, in recompense for Passover—a promise to which, I was told, he agreed—only to find out a few hours before that he’d asked to be invited anyway and would be coming. It’s the anger I’m feeling as I realize I will have to let go of a group to which I’ve belonged for years. It’s the anger I feel towards him now, as I lose the good feelings I had remaining for him, because he is perceived as someone for whom to feel sorry and I am perceived as unforgiving.

I’d spent a year doing so well: sad but resolute. Better to be without than to remain with someone who couldn’t make a choice. And then . . . there was Jason. Jason, choices made too quickly, my own intuition ignored because it felt so good not to be sad anymore.

And then came the break-up. And then came the anger. And then came more anger.

So, two weeks ago, at karaoke, when a witty, animated, incredibly handsome guy told me that I “killed it” with my performance of “Back to Black” and asked me for my number, it felt good not to be angry. He texted me immediately, so I would have his number. He told me his name was Nick, and while it didn’t inspire “absolute confidence,” it at least didn’t inspire any negative emotion. And when he kissed me later that night, one might have almost forgotten sadness and anger ever existed.

That is, until I did what any self-respecting 21st-century person would do the next day: I Googled him. The images that came up for the name he’d given me . . . were not him. Had I had that much to drink? Nooooo . . . I’d asked if he was a Nickoli or a Nicholaus, and he’d said, “Nicholaus.” (To protect the poor man whose identity had been handed over to me, I won’t tell you the last name, but I’d been given one. He lives in Germany, just for the record.) He’d told me he headed a marketing firm and dog-sat for a company called rover.com. Well, he doesn’t work in marketing—he works at World Spice, behind the Pike Place Market. How do I know? Because he does actually dogsit for rover.com—and they have a list of their sitters. With pictures. And bios.

Real number, real dog-sitter, fake name, fake career. Let’s hope he was telling the truth about being divorced.

Reading the bio, and, I’ll confess, looking at his Tumblr page, I can see that I would have really liked Chris. (Chris is, of course, his real name—I’ll spare you the full name reveal, if only to show I am not wholly lost to dark inclinations.) He is an artist and paints pictures of foxes. He has the Fantastic Mr. Fox ON his Tumblr page. He seems silly and wears cool clothes. Does it really matter that he lied about his name?

Hell yes. Because what made it ok in The Importance of Being Earnest was that Ernest really was Jack’s name, in the end—the alias was a surface deception that actually had depth. The real person never changed, and the alias wasn’t an escape as much as a practice run at being himself. Wilde meant for the play to demonstrate the malleability of identity, but always, at the core, the play is supposed to be funny. Names don’t matter if the deception doesn’t hurt someone.

Why doesn’t this seem funny? Why, in fact, does it hurt?

Apparently, that night at karaoke, Chris sang Nicki Minaj’s “Superbass,” which accounts, I guess, not only for the text he’d sent (“Hey Bryn–this is Nicki Minaj”) but also, perhaps, for the choice of “Nick” as alias. I’d been in the bathroom at the time, but the irony is not lost on me now. Somehow, it makes me too sad to be angry—all that hope turned out to be just another trick. Maybe I need to summon up a Roman Zolanski, so someone else inside me can be angry for awhile.

You Remind Me of the Babe: Labyrinths, Tegan and Sara, and Going Nowhere With Love

“That is what I HATE about American Buddhism,” my friend Sonora says. “Everyone thinks they’re detaching to GET something, instead of just BEING.” It’s true—we even need to make NOT getting, not going, a kind of getting and going. It’s “growth,” it’s “moving towards enlightenment.” My favorite Buddhist saying reflects the futility of trying to make meaning of one’s own growth in the moment it is happening: “Oh, my friend, going in circles—you may enjoy going. But not in circles.”

So the saying . . .goes.

As much as I hate the name “Tegan,” smacking as it does of made-up sorority girl names, there is one Tegan and Sara song I think of, with terrible regularity: “Where Does the Good Go?” Its chorus refuses Buddhist detachment and demands an account of feelings remaindered like unpopular books: “Where does the good go?” While other clever lines clarify the singers’ losses, what sticks out is simply the repetition of this refrain, always calmly, as if it were not a desperate statement.

I often pass, while on my way to work, a church with a bulletin board that periodically invites you to walk its labyrinth, an invitation to meditate while walking, meeting obstacles as they come.

Is that labyrinth, too, supposed to “go” somewhere? Or are you just supposed to know, with each false turn, each dead end, that God is waiting in the center? Or is he/it walking with you, “Footprints” style?

I make no claims to believing in any guiding force, but I don’t mean it as a theological (or anti-theological statement) when I say I’m coming to think of Love as a labyrinth with neither Minotaur nor Goblet of Fire in the middle. (And, frankly, if you’ll recall, the Goblet of Fire itself was actually no prize but a trick, a monstrous, deadly trick of a port key.) When the obstacles aren’t glaringly obvious—red flags of ivy and of thorn (he has no career! he has no hope!), they seem to grow up in front of you, almost of their own accord, Harry Potter-style, with no purpose but to block your way. “Try again,” they whisper, and so you turn around, try to remember which routes you’ve tried and which you still have left.

Is this growth, this retreading of old ground? Is this blog, with its obsessive reconfigurations of the past, the story-boarding of my life with an ever longer soundtrack, a discography of singular moments of intimacy and B-sides of my heartbreaks . . . is it growth? Or are these several loving walks down Memory Lane ending, again and again, with the same sign at the end: Trail ends here. Turn around.

Where does the good go? The literary soul in me feebly makes the case for Roethke’s claim that “we learn by going where we have to go.” But that, too, turns all that desire, the deep pleasure in a former loved one’s face, the feeling of their hand in the dark, into a roadmap going somewhere—turns all that glorious love into mere accumulation, the shadows of some greater “There.”

In a movie from my childhood, Labyrinth, David Bowie plays the Goblin King and talk-sings a little ditty with some now-forgotten creature:

Bowie: You remind me of the babe
Creature: What babe?
Bowie: Babe with the power.
Creature: What power?

In that labyrinth, the search is for the thing you think you didn’t love until it was taken away from you. In this one, this writing of my own emotional maze, its hedges taller every turn, I sometimes wonder if that’s what I’m searching for, too—as if, somehow, by revisiting myself as the babe with or without power, I could find out where the good goes.



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 5 of The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook Meditation Challenge: I Will Always Love the False Image I Had of You

Day 5 of The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook Meditation challenge finds us with “John’s Spinach-Orange Salad.” The authoress meets John, an art history grad student, at a laundromat, where she astutely surmises that he is, in fact, a grad student because he’s doing laundry—with a stack of papers to grade and a six pack of beer—on a Saturday night. (Once you’re actually done with graduate school, you are just home on a Saturday night, listening to “The Swing Years and Beyond” or watching your 90th hour of Game of Thrones. With a bottle of wine.) He does something truly amazing—he asks her over for dinner the NEXT NIGHT, which leads her to believe he is going to be awesome. And I will say this for graduate school: because you have so much to do, so incredibly, terribly, so much to do, you never ONCE say, to a person in whom you have any romantic interest, “I’ll call you later.” You will jump at the chance to stop working on your dissertation, particularly if it means real human contact. (Again, once out of grad school, your connection to the real world seems to contract and you will, instead, watch two days of Game of Thrones—sense a pattern?—before remembering you met a cute girl on the bus. Oh yes–by “you”? I mean “dudes.”)

Anyway, she goes to John’s house and is somewhat startled that this seemingly classy art history graduate student has plastered his walls with pictures of scantily-clad women—not “vintage” pin-ups but, like, Victoria’s Secret “angels.” (Oh, Coventry Patmore—is this what you had in mind with “The Angel in the House”?) Worse, each image has a thought bubble, attesting to John’s sexual prowess, making requests more suitable to a bad OK Cupid creeper than a seemingly suave art history student. But, as with Rhett of “Rhett’s Quesadilla Things,” the narrator stays for dinner, and John takes her picture . . . before they have a “nasty fight about the validity of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, and [she throws] a glass of wine in his face.”

The best part is that, four pages later, she gives us a recipe for “Josh’s Spinach-Strawberry Salad.” Josh was—you guessed it—John’s twin brother.

The lesson for today: I called in my neighbors, Natalie and Andy, on this one. Natalie, who self-reports as unsentimental and “not the type to nickname,” asserts that the moral is “Some people take themselves too seriously”—by which she means the authoress. “He was being ironic,” says Nat (who is nicknamed, and often, herself). “He’s basically doing the equivalent of ‘That’s what she said.’ He was ahead of the curve.” Andy agreed. When I hedged, they asked me if I would have thrown my glass of wine in his face, and I said, “When I was in early grad school? Yes.” I once had a “nasty fight” with an ex-boyfriend, Colin (I’ll provide a link when I post my music essay about him later), when I realized in his 300+ CD collection, he had one—ONE—CD by a woman. Misogyny!! Worse than misogyny because unintentional!! Blind to his own tendency to oppress!! Patriarchal secret agent!

I probably wouldn’t throw my glass of wine in anyone’s face now, but that’s probably because I wouldn’t stay for dinner. The last time I even came close was when I found out the guy I was seeing was a Republican. (I was having a dry spell, and I was so unhappy I didn’t even let myself suspect it, preferring, instead, to just keep making out and letting him make me dinner. It was a dark time.)

I think there might be two lessons here: one specific, one general. The specific lesson might be that some “clever” men of a certain age don’t decorate for themselves—they decorate for other men. Or men don’t think anyone will ever come over to their apartments. Or they don’t think the women they invite over can read. Or see.

The general lesson might be that everyone in whom you are interested will manifest at least one deeply revealing, if seeming contradiction. With John, it was that a dedication to art history doesn’t make one classy.

This week, I went out for drinks with a 24 year-old friend; we made friends with the handsome bartender, who was 34 and seemed really thoughtful and complex. He gave Katie his number. I felt somewhat hurt and, then, incredibly, sheepishly aware of my egotism. I was hurt because I thought someone that thoughtful was clearly capable of being attracted to a 40 year-old woman—namely, me. I went first for the satisfying interpretation (actually articulated for me by another male friend, lest this post read as unjust in its male representation): men would rather try for the woman 10 years younger than the woman closer to their age because it is easier. BUT—thank you, Natalie and Andy—maybe I am missing the more obvious, less complicated point here. Katie is totally beautiful and smart and fun, and I date younger men all the time. Maybe he just thought she was prettier, and I am a big hypocrite, despite my fancy-free approach to what-is-appropriate-in-dating.

As you drive down Olive Way, in Capitol Hill, you will pass a mural on the side of one building. It’s a mural I’ve loved since Colin-who-listened-to-no-women’s-music and I lived two blocks away. A woman stands with one arm raised, holding up a wreath of real, rusty nails; across her chest is a Miss America-style banner that reads, “I will always love the false image I had of you.” Was the bartender less complex than I thought he was? Or am I?

Capitol Hill Mural

The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook: A Meditation Challenge. Day 2: Immersion as Blindness

Today’s act of bibliomancy centers on an entry titled “Jared’s Holiday French Toast.” Apparently, Jared made over $1,100 in 3 weeks playing Santa in a department store but lost either Thisbe’s or Erin’s interest shortly thereafter. (You really must get The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook by Thisbe Nissen and Erin Ergenbright –it is truly fascinating how these escapades belong, ambiguously, to both co-authoresses, as if to insinuate that, hey, it could have happened to the best of us–or all of us.) Why? Because he kept role-playing Santa, insisting that she sit on his lap and tell him what she wanted for Christmas.

The lesson here, I decided this morning, might be that obsession or immersion are admirable things, but we can’t expect others to stay immersed with us for very long. Too soon, the joke becomes old; the game becomes creepy. Personally, I’m just not that into French Toast, and romantic breakfasts of sweets alone become tiresome when one begins to crave the savory dish, the less predictable. Thus, we must be mindful of our obsessions, remembering that no matter how much you love it, not everyone will want it all the time.

It didn’t take long today for this particular meditation to sink in, turning to the random page, as I was, on my way out the door to have coffee with my sometimes new lover. The thing is, I’m not very good at the “sometimes.” Ironically, we are starting Wuthering Heights tomorrow in my class, and I have spent a lifetime trying to convince students of what I can never fully convince myself: that such a love, rooted in possession, mired in misidentification, is not love. Merged souls? Bad, bad, bad. Or, as Nelly Dean answers Cathy, as Cathy tries to answer why she has chosen Edgar over Heathcliff, “Bad . . . bad, still . . . worst of all.”

Yet here I was, trotting out hand in hand with someone who cannot be my partner, who, while fond of me, does not love me as, at times, I find myself wanting to love him. This is not news. This was the deal from the start: a role-play of a relationship, a chance to experiment with an old acquaintance in a different way. I’ve sat in his lap and (forgive me) Christmas has come more than once a year. We are not made of the same material. I will never haunt him. I have loved and lost so many that I put Tennyson, who coined the phrase, to shame. (He took seventeen years to write In Memoriam; I took twenty to really accept that my first love had been little more than one person’s chemicals dressed in the sheep’s clothing of romantic murmurs. See my post “These Arms Were Mine.”)

But I don’t go by halves–not even when they’re half my age. I never have. It’s why my first love still calls me when he’s in dire straits. Why my students don’t understand how hard it is for me to cut texts from the survey course, accept that if I teach Wuthering Heights, it means they might never read Jane Eyre or, worse, never read Villette–all texts, by the way, in which there is one speed, and that is All You Have. It’s why I teared up this morning, while having a perfectly good time with the sometimes lover, because I wanted to know again what it feels like to be part of a pair so immersed in the other that there’s no question of what you’re doing that weekend–you’re going to be with each other.

The famous lines from Wuthering Heights, of course, are these:

My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it.—My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don’t talk of our separation again: it is impracticable . . . .

It’s disgusting. It’s the paragraph that has warped love for millions of readers, probably young women, who thrill to the notion of immersion in another. The Santa hat stays on forever, and Jared serves French toast for every morning. It’s the paragraph quoted in Twilight, for God’s sake. So, as I drop off my sometimes lover back at his house, I shake myself by the shoulders inside and whisper, “This is not your whole world, and it will never be his. There’s a time to strut and fret your little part upon the stage, but your life is not a stage.”