Category Archives: Forgiveness

Dodging the Bullets, By Which We Mean Hearts

One year ago this month, I dodged a bullet and ran straight towards another; one year ago this coming month, I dodged that one, too.  I’ve had a strange love year, this year, and what I’ll most remember about it is that sentence:  “You dodged a bullet.”

It’s meant to be reassuring:  a friend’s arm around you, a deep sigh, as you’re steered away from the scene of a great emotional crime or the hot mess of a person.  The chorus of Broken Social Scene’s “Ibi Dreams of Pavement” warns us against the hubris of taking on too much, the danger of engaging with others’ grotesque failings:  “And if God is what they made / cut their hands off, believers / Don’t get high on what you create.”  You end up on a couch with someone, recounting all the red flags:   the smoking, the rehab, the silence about the future, the over-promising about the future, the annoying friends, any fact that didn’t seem to want to touch you, etc.  “I knew those things bothered me.  I knew it from the start,” you say, confused.   And your friend pours you more red wine and pats your hand.  “You don’t have to care about those things anymore.  You dodged a bullet.”

But every time I hear that phrase, I feel bad, for a lot of reasons.

Because it puts me in a superior position, and that feels a little . . . superior. And does this bother me because I don’t feel better than someone else or because I do? 

I know I’m not a perfect partner:  I don’t make much money, if that’s important to you.  I’m a little helpless when it comes to technology and more than a little lazy.  I always want every dead horse beaten to a pulp, by which I mean I can never let anything go. I make irritating generalizations about men.  I have the occasional drunken outburst; at least twice, boyfriends have told me they don’t enjoy having to pour me into a car after weddings.  But it’s also true that my life has so few concrete, “big” complications:  no child, no lurking ex, a stable career and a job I love.  My physical health is fine.  I am emotionally happy, for the most part, and have been for years. No one’s coming for me—creditors, former lovers, etc.  But that’s mostly just Doing Life and either not having made some of the Big Choices or having managed their consequences by this point in time.  I hate writing this paragraph because it sounds like bragging.  And maybe that’s why my friends want to say it for me:  “You dodged a bullet.  That person doesn’t have himself together.  You do.  And you deserve better.”  I get that it’s good to be met as an equal.  Why do I still feel bad about asserting my own togetherness, much less the relatively high-functioning nature of that togetherness, as a standard by which I will search for others?

Because it makes me too aware of generic definitions of togetherness, and I hate the generic?

But “having yourself together” . . . there’s got to be some mathematical term, some biological concept, for a series of evolving wholes.  The Barback once told me his ex-girlfriend thought he had it together because he had a car, a child, a cool apartment, and was going back to school.  “I told her, ‘Yeah, but I’m just THIS CLOSE to it all collapsing, to not having it together,'” he said.  Life, for him, was always just one step away from going on hold; it would take just one attack of his chronic illness to eradicate a new path.  At least, that’s what he felt. And I thought THAT was a red flag in and of itself:  that he saw Life as a series of infinite dangers, that if one block crumbled, the whole wall would fall and there’d be no rebuilding.  It was a red flag because this belief was predicated on another red flag:  he had no faith that anyone would stick around to help him rebuild.  He wouldn’t let you.  That is, he wouldn’t let me.  One unkind word from him, two unkind words from me.  He claims I was the bullet.  I claim he was the gun.

While I do like to think my form of togetherness has a sustainability, a resilience, I do understand how wholeness itself might be, at times, circumstantial, a fortuitous intersection of the right conditions with one’s desires.  Deleuze and Guattari, in fact, saw the body itself as a fluid whole, ever becoming, a shifting series of plateaus (a “thousand,” in their most famous work), rhizomes spreading out, forming subjectivities, plural.  What could it mean to be “together,” when one’s own criteria for being (much less those of another, imposed upon one) change as we age?

What it could mean is that one is possibly both the target and the bullet.

Because when someone tells a woman she dodged a bullet, there’s a kind of reinforcement that the smartest way to be in a relationship is to maintain a level of emotional safety, to choose only partners who won’t require excessive care from you.  And that seems . . . like the worst version of the worst masculine stereotype.

I Googled “dodged a bullet,” just to see what came up, and it was pretty awful, but it was mostly pretty awful because it seemed like there were a lot of links for men about “crazy women” and how a guy could know whether he’d dodged a bullet.  I won’t provide links to these.  They were callous, and they were cruel, but the overall tenor of them was this:  you dodged a bullet if she’s “making a big deal” out of something–the relationship, the break-up, etc.  “Making a big deal,” “causing drama” . . . all these seemed like euphemisms for “caring,” to me.   But instead of “caring,” the word these sites used was this:  “insecure.”

If you’ve read my other essays about The Barback, this conflation of vulnerability and insecurity might sound familiar.  And it does still anger me—not, I feel certain, because I am “insecure” but because he judged my admission of vulnerability from a place of distance, when he had been requiring that his own admissions be met with love.  His vulnerability was “self aware” and “rational”; mine was “insecure” and “dark.”  Leslie Jamison’s beautiful essay “In Defense of Saccharin(e)”  thinks through the myriad ways we in academia are taught to avoid excess, to refine our feelings and thinking while rejecting refined sugar in any form, aesthetic or otherwise, as if, in doing so, we can prove our superiority to feeling, that we’re better than simple emotions leading us to clear-cut disasters of feeling, smart enough to know what  feelings are worth it and which are not:

We dispatch entire works, entire genres in the clean guillotine strokes of these words: saccharine, syrupy, sentimental. It’s as if sentimentality is something we don’t need to define. We only need to hate it, shield ourselves from it, articulate ourselves against it—thus asserting that we are arbiters of artistry and subtlety, an elite so sensitive we don’t need the same forceful quantities of feeling. We will subsist more delicately, we say. We will subsist on less.  In this, we make sure we’re not mistaken for the rest of the world, whose sensibilities are too easily moved by crude surfaces of feeling or meaning. We don’t examine the contours of sentimentality, we simply eschew them. We don’t worry about the fine line between melodrama and pathos, we simply assert that we’re camped on the proper side of the divide.

In one strand of the essay, a younger Jamison eschews “girly drinks” for whiskey, a strategy to look tougher, smarter—to look, frankly, “male.”  It is a strategy of which I am guilty—as if whiskey will inoculate me against the bullet I’m clearly courting, a way to have my deep feelings and still seem “securely” invulnerable from them.

Near the end of “Ibi Dreams of Pavement,” the lyrics link “dodging a bullet” to not only vulnerability but to love and, particularly, women’s love:

And if love is what they gave,
Turn wives into healers
Don’t get high on what you create
Or it might just steal ya

Excessive caring is “feminine.” Taking care of yourself and not caring are “masculine.”  And the gendering of it all—of avoiding those who will “cause drama” or who aren’t as “together” as we are, the cautioning against a wife becoming healer . . . it makes me think that what troubles me most about the phrase “dodging a bullet” is that it encourages us all, women and men, to think of caring about those who need care as involving oneself in an act of danger, an obliteration of the individual self.

Which, in fact, it is.  Or, at the least, isn’t there is an alteration of the self because it has put itself in the way of vulnerability, in the path of something fast moving and vital?

But isn’t all vulnerability a risk?  And don’t we cringe at that cliché because we want to believe someday, we will understand fully all the warning signs in advance and do everything just right, as if the signs don’t change as often as what counts as danger for us as we grow, our thousand plateaus shifting?

I know that there are risks and RISKS.  I don’t want to take care of someone who won’t take care of me.  I don’t want to be with someone I cherish but who won’t mirror back the courage I try to have when I stand in the way, willingly, of what makes them crumble.  I don’t want someone who will not sweetly, graciously catch me when someday I also fall.   A yoga teacher used to end class by encouraging us to “protect your heart with wisdom—give your heart with courage.”  I’ve thought a lot about the first part of this . . . but isn’t it painful to think of so many people as bullets, of ourselves in need of so much protection, as if giving weren’t, itself, eventually to be the result?

Don’t I carry within the barrel of my own heart, a bullet I hope, some day, someone won’t dodge?

 

 

 

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.

 

Practice Rooms: Blood Memory–The Brothers and the Silence

My first draft of this disappeared when I hit “publish,” and I started crying.  I don’t even want to rewrite it, but I feel too sad to do nothing.  This won’t be as good.  You know it won’t be.

Once upon a time, the man I would fall so passionately in love with that it could, on occasion, make me sick, this man was walking through Volunteer Park, playing his bass. He was probably wearing a tank top, probably had smoked some weed, and probably was humming serenely.  His eyes were sort of hooded and he had a small, mysterious smile that made him look like George Harrison, my favorite Beatle.  He, too, was a Quiet One.

Anyway, this man heard drumming—good drumming—and he followed the sound, coming finally upon a curly-haired, Muppet-like guy with his full drum kit set up under one of the ginkgo trees. The two locked eyes, nodded, and jammed together for twenty minutes or more without speaking. They knew when to finish the song, just because they both felt when it was done. “I’m Ryan,” said the man whose love would feel like a thick cord between my heart and his. “Hey, man,” said the Muppet drummer. “I’m Jay.”

This is how Jay and Ryan met, and this is how the Brothers of Max Catharsis began. And this is how Ryan practiced.

Ryan didn’t play music.  He felt it.  He intuited it from the ether.  A friend told him about modern dance pioneer Martha Graham’s phrase “blood memory,” and he wrote a song about it, calling it, instead, “Blood Music.”  Like dancing, that song makes form fluid, runs deep into the spaces of the body that are beyond words.  The Brothers were, after all, an instrumental trio, and they didn’t need words—they ran deep enough on their own.  When I met the third member, Joe, and asked him what he did, he stared at me and replied, scornfully, “You mean, for money?  I’m a waiter,” and I felt ashamed. The three of them would build songs together, listening, responding, finding their way through the music like blind men touching bolts of silk.  When one of them would improvise for an extended period of time and really “get it,” they would nod at each other and ask, later, “You go to Havana, man?”  “Going to Havana”—that place beyond words. They put out two CD’s, but they didn’t really care who heard them.  Once, I went to a gig and was the only audience member.  They laughed and played and played, until they were all in Havana, and it didn’t even matter that I was there.

That was how I felt, at first, with Ryan:  I couldn’t always tell if it mattered I was there because, at first, he wouldn’t tell me how he felt.  He lived upstairs from me and took to hanging out on the porch when he knew that I’d be home.  That was how I came to know he liked me, and I was ambivalent.  “He never really talks, and I don’t like his goatee,” I’d tell Gretchen, wrinkling my nose.  I thought I’d give him a chance, though, and so, I did what I do with all quiet people:  I asked him questions.  What was your favorite birthday party?  When was the last time you were really afraid?  How do you feel about your mother?  And Ryan resisted—or that’s how it felt.  “Aw, man, that stuff will just come out,” he’d say, stretching his limbs out across the couch we kept on the porch.  “Let’s just hang out.”  Let’s be in Havana.

But that was how I hung out.  I was a high-wire act, rushing out into adventure and vulnerability, with very little underneath me, no net, and even less of a sense of how far down I might fall.  I was a graduate student who made her living analyzing other people’s dialogues. Words, for me,  were at the crux of all intimacy.  I don’t fall in love—I talk myself into it.  I talk myself out of it.  I find out what I’m feeling not by feeling it but through processing it out loud.  Leslie Jamison, in her essay “In Defense of the Sacchrin(e),” clearly agrees, since she says, “This is how writers fall in love.  They feel complicated together, and then they talk about it.”  I wanted a 1000-word essay from each lover on why he wanted my eyes to open on him every morning.  How could I sit on this couch in silence?  What could I feel with that?

A lot, I found.  While I never stopped needing the words, Ryan was persistent, patient, and we fell.  He’d George Harrison smile at me, reach for me, and down, down we’d go.

There was one word, though, that Ryan used a lot with me.  That word was “No.”  I’d suggest we go out for drinks.  “No,” he’d say, “let’s watch a movie.”  I’d ask if he wanted to take a walk.  No, it was cold—and he had that new song to practice.  Brunch before the Market?  No, and he’d be hungry at 3:00, that witching hour when all restaurants had stopped serving lunch and hadn’t yet started serving dinner.  Once, angry at him, I accused him of being Balkan.  “You ALWAYS say no first when I suggest something, even if you want to do it!  It’s like it has to be your idea, or you don’t want to do it.  Why, Ry?  Are you from the Balkan States?”  He laughed at that, and then said, “No.”

I see it now—that he said no because he couldn’t easily express a lot of what he wanted to say, that, like me, he was in love and frightened by the depth of the feeling, afraid, as I was, that we didn’t “get” each other.  He said no so he had some sense of control, some way to find a place in this thing that rushed, like the ground, up to meet the falling.  But then, it felt like rejection, and it felt like I was being shut out.

When I cheated on him with Johnny Horton, it was because of words.  Johnny was a poet, and Johnny had so many words, so very many words and so many ways to say yes.  And I couldn’t say no.  So I didn’t.

Ryan and I would break up five more times, over the course of two and a half years, but how Ryan and I made it past that first break-up into a better phase of our relationship taught me almost all of the words I would need to understand love, even now.  I learned that silence didn’t have to mean it was over, and he became more open, more able to talk about his fears and hopes for us. Once he came home from band practice, giddy with the pleasure of self-awareness:  “Brynny!  Guess what?  We were trying to decide what to work on, and Joe wanted to start a new song, but I said, no, we should keep practicing the old one, and he said, ‘Man, why do you always have to say no first?’  I am a Balkan!”

We were never on the same page, but that was because I wanted a page, a place onto which we could write our story.  And Ryan was a musician.  But I did learn how to feel.  Really feel.

When he moved out, after living together for one month, our second-to-last break-up, Ryan left me a list of all the things he loved most about me, all the precious things we’d given each other during our years together.  One of them was this:  “Thank you for leading me out of the Balkan States.”  So many words, in the end.  It brings tears to my eyes even now, as I write this, and sometimes, still, I am so sad thinking of him, wishing I could have sat quietly next to him forever, humming along to those songs without words.

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.

Message in a Bottle: Meaning / Mistake

There’s an essay called “Metaphor as Mistake” by semiotician and novelist Walker Percy in which he explores the cognitive phenomenon of mishearing a phrase and why that mistake strikes us with sudden emotional potency. For example, says Percy, there was the time when,  as a child, he heard an African American man describe a bird as a “blue dollar hawk.” The child was fascinated, believing he apprehended something ineffable about the bird in the name, something evocative, true, specific to him somehow, as an encounter with the divine might be.  I know this moment, I think, as I read.  It’s an experience similar to what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins calls “instress”: the moment in which one apprehends what he calls the “inscape” of another being, its innermost self in all its transcendent glory. It is a spiritual moment, Hopkins says, and we only achieve it when our own nature goes out to meet another, a godly namaste, an encounter with pure and perfect knowledge. It is a moment in which love for the world both mirrors and creates love of ourselves.  I am a big believer, if not in God, in this.

But then Percy, the child, is told the bird is, in fact, a “blue darter hawk.”  Rather than a moment of deep recognition, there has been a mistake, a misunderstanding, the  older man’s dialect slurring the second word into something more mysterious than it really is. Thus, argues Percy, the potency dissipates immediately upon the correction of the error.  But, for one moment, the child feels the “truth” of a phrase as if he has bypassed language.  And for the moment in which we all make such mistakes, we do:  we generate the phrase mostly in our own heads. Metaphor is mistake, both true and untrue—science and poetry, an attempt to assert authority over mystery, to make it closer to something we understand.

*****

In college, my junior year, I fell in love with the first of what would be many Ryans to come. It was an uneasy and unofficial relationship:   I wasn’t Mennonite or German, both of which were important to him, and he wasn’t very free, which was important to me. But loving him was my first experience with grown-up love, the kind in which you listen to each other, really listen, without trying to change each other’s minds, and respect differences instead of pushing them away.  There was, with him, a truthfulness and an attempt to connect deeply that set a healthy precedent for me, one I still honor every time I set myself aside and hear what someone else is trying to say.

But look. See how I go back and forth, even now, the trial of rewriting rejections into peaceable histories? I’ve made the man a metaphor, when there was so much neither of us could hear at that young age.

***

The truth: We had always known each other but had never spent much time together.  I was a hippie at the corner table, in a broomstick skirt and an over-sized feminist tee shirt; he participated in chapel and wore his shirts tucked in.  But then we drove from Kansas to Ohio, spent a weekend together, part of a large group at a wedding.  We’d talked more on the drive there than we ever had in three years; there were jokes exchanged and looks. We coordinated our turns driving home so that we were together in the front seat for four hours, talking, listening, asking the questions you only ask in college, when any thoughtful answer might really reshape what you yourself might think. I call it “dangerous listening” to this day.

***

And this is where the mistake, or love, begins.

The VW bus breaks down—is it surprising this is the kind of vehicle? Or that it breaks down?  We talk all night in a 76 truck stop in Troy, Illinois, share stale but free apple pie, snuck to us by Lorna, the waitress, who feels sorry for us or notices how our two heads lean in closer, while everyone else tries to sleep. We talk about God, of course, as you do in college and the dark, which means we also speak of love and art and books that sound pretentious now (The Stranger, The Fountainhead)  but, at the time, are not. They never are, at that time, that age.

Back on the road, we wordlessly seek out the darkness of the backseat, let others take their driving turns.  I curl into him; he lets me.  I feel the body of this man under my cheek, hear his heart beating so quickly, think I know it now.  “Blue dollar hawk,” the child hears.  I turn my head up to face him, notice how sweetly our lips will fit together. “I can’t,” he whispers.  Blue darter. I lower my face, pretend to be asleep, keep my cheek against his heart, despite its still-rapid beating.

***

Over and over, in the next few months, moments are sensed by me, rebuffed by him:  gazes dropped, then resumed, held, dropped again.  Sometimes, he comes down to have tea and talk about books.  I give up, go out of town, go out with someone else. When I come back, he comes to my dorm room that very night, lifts my face.  How sweetly our lips fit together in that first kiss three months after the refusal in the van.

Unlooked for, unsensed by me, these moments come with increasing frequency as his graduation looms.  We disappear to sit on rooftops after leaving the bars with friends, talking still, listening still.  He learns how bright the moonlight can be upon my pillow.  His heart still beats so quickly, and he laughs one night, lying his head upon my chest.  “Your heart’s beating so quickly,” he says, and I kiss his head.  The moon hangs like a blue dollar in the sky.

On graduation day, somebody takes a picture in which it is clear my heart is breaking:   his arm around me and both of mine around him, his head straight ahead and mine on his shoulder.  He is smiling; I am, too, but in that way that means I am about to cry. I wear his blue and yellow flannel, given to me just the night before.  It is 80 degrees, and I will not take this shirt off for weeks.  One minute before, I meet his mother for the only time, my arms full of irises after moving myself out of the dorms all day. I am sweaty and hot, stained with the ink of all those irises.  She puts her arms around me, hugs me close.  “I’ve heard so much about you,” she says.

Blue dollar?  Blue darter?  What has she heard?  What did he say?

***

The day he drives away from college, we make out for most of the day.  Our faces look again like they did in the picture two days before, but this time he can see my tears.  He is going to see a Mennonite girl with whom he thinks he might be more compatible.  He isn’t, it turns out, he tells me in a phone call, laughing, later that summer.  He promises to write,  though he promises me nothing about our own compatibility.

He writes me, it’s true, the first email I will ever receive, but mostly he writes me letters. Letters—no one raised on email can ever know the adequacy of letters from the man with whom you are still in love, no matter what they say, as long as they do not say “no.”  I am so young, too young to hear that word lurking in every line.  Still sharing, still talking.  Blue dollar, blue dollar.  How sweetly our lips press now the back of each envelope, I imagine.

Pressed on the back of the first is the phrase “Message in a Bottle.”

The Police song, of course?  What is he saying?  I am listening, as I always have. I’ve heard the Police and liked them, but now I immerse myself in a more intentional Police phase, listening so I can find its meaning for this man. I listen as anyone listens to music they believe to be a portal to the mind they love, as if the song is a secret written in many keys and one key will let me in for good, prove that we speak in code, bypass the language to the meaning, recognize the god in me as the god in you.  In him.

In the song, Sting is sending out an SOS to the world. He sounds urgent. He must be answered. I am listening. I sing along: “I should have known it right from the staaaaaaaaaart.” I sing, knowing what this song, now, really means. And what it really means, inside my head, is this: “I need your love, I need to talk to you because talking to you is love.”  And my heart beats faster again, singing it back:  “he needs me now, he knows it now at last.”

The phone rings, and though this is before caller id, I know it’s him. “Did you catch the reference on the back of the envelope?” he asks. “Yes,” I say, my head on his chest in the recesses of my mind, his head on my pillow in the blue dollar moon.  “The Police song.” “No,” he says, “The Bertolt Brecht story, ‘Message in a Bottle.'”  Blue darter.

***

That bottle, then.  The German one instead of the sexy one. The bottle, I think, confused, then, less like me, more like those things so dear to him:  German, contemplation rather than urgency, a kiss that can wait three months to happen, even though I am looking up in the dark right from the start.  I have been wrong; I cannot read his very mind; his heart still beats, but now it is too far across the continent for me to understand him.

But I look up the story again, and in its first lines, I hear myself, and him, and understand at last to whom I have been listening: “I am twenty-four years old. People say that is an age strongly inclined to melancholy. All the same I don’t think my melancholy is a reflection of my age. My story is as follows. At the age of twenty I got to know a young man in whose vicinity I felt lighter.”  And this young man, who lightens with his presence even in the dark of night, he too abandons the woman.  Perhaps it is for someone more compatible, but the reader never knows.  For he too gives her a letter, asks that she open it after three years. She waits and opens it, finds, in the end, a blank piece of paper. And the final words of Brecht’s story are pure Walker Percy, the muddled intersection between meaning and mistake, between metaphors which clarify and metaphors that simply make clear that only mystery remains:

As you know, there is such a thing as magic ink, which is legible for a specific period and then disappears; surely anything worth writing down ought to be written with such ink. I would also just like to add that about a year ago — that is, roughly two years after giving me the letter which is only a blank piece of paper — my beloved disappeared completely from my sight, presumably for ever. After waiting patiently for three years for a message which was less and less meant for me, I can only say that I always thought that love was outside any lover’s control, and that it was the lover’s business and nobody else’s.

In later calls, he will tell me about his new girlfriend and how important our time together had been to help him engage with her more openly, to appreciate her difference:  “I really was in love with you last year, and without that, I don’t know that I would have been as open to her.” At the time, it made me angry to find that he had come to think of  loving me as preparation for loving someone else, and the blue dollar moon had been replaced by the real name of blue darter hawk.  Sometimes, I was angry that those letters, those messages, were not an SOS, calling for my help, my love, a recognition of my inscape.

But as I look at us in that photograph, his steady gaze, my own eyes just about to fill, I know there was less mistake and more metaphor—that more and more, I see the messages he sent me, even before he left, were never really meant for me. They were to a young man trying to learn about himself, in a language only he really spoke, talking and writing to discover the self he wanted to become.  How could we listen well when we did not know yet what we most wanted to say?  More and more, then, that means that any messages I got from him were messages, somehow, I wrote for myself.

 

Here is the other bottle, the one in which I put my love for a time:

Patti of the World’s Two Greatest Love Songs v. The Mickey Mouse Club

Eric Price was my first real boyfriend, and I consider him a great first real boyfriend, although his taste in music was questionable. He favored bands like Color Me Bad and, on his first mixed tape for me, there were several songs by The Party–the Mickey Mouse Club Band of the time. He was a Pisces, so in many ways, this mawkish sentimentality made sense; all of my Piscean friends can cry on a dime. Though it came out at least 15 years after we dated, I would not hesitate to lay money on a bet that he liked The Notebook. Extremely romantic, Eric was the kind of boyfriend who bought you a dozen roses “just because,” though I can only imagine the number of hours he’d had to work washing cars at the dealership to make the money. He made an attempt to dress up in a town where a man marked “difference” only by the state university supported on his sweatshirt. He liked his mom, had some sense of manners, and didn’t plan on staying in Leoti. Though I’d never really noticed him before (in a high school of 120 students?), when we fell in love, it made sense.

Moreover, Eric didn’t fear my difference. This may seem like a cliche, but it can never be meaningless to those of us used to mockery and antagonism from the opposite sex in our teen years. When friends who grew up in cities try to understand my experiences then, they can’t: they had drama class, dance studios, other friends who wore black. I was a cheerleader, the lead in the one musical a year our school did. I wasn’t not liked. But I was smart, and I was not amused by the low-ball humor, the disdain for education and for school, the anti-feminist attitude of most boys I encountered. The most common exchange between me and a boy was a taunting comment from him, followed by a haughty silence or a cutting retort from me.

So when this blonde boy, a Ducky-like figure straight from Pretty in Pink, with his mouse-like face and a confidence I’d never noticed, pursued me one night at a lock-in, it wasn’t just a flirtation. It was a rare sense of being recognized and, moreover, appreciated. Desired. Eric later told me his mom was delighted when he’d told her he was going to ask me out. “Oh, I’ve always thought she seemed neat!” she said. I was used to that from moms–but not from their sons.

He was, however, like all Pisceans, two fish swimming in opposite directions: different but conventional, open but full of secrets, committed but prone to wandering. I think now of my favorite Beatle, George Harrison, another Pisces, the spiritual one, the one most committed to meditation, the man who wrote “Something,” the song Frank Sinatra called the “most romantic song in English.” It’s written about Patti Boyd, his first wife, with whom he fell in love on the set of A Hard Day’s Night–she is one of the schoolgirls on the train. Patti will later leave him for Eric Clapton, who writes yet another great love song for her: “Layla,” the passionate antidote to the reflective, if poetic uncertainty of “Something.”

Patti also inspires “Wonderful Tonight,” which appears on that same first mixed tape from Eric. Eric Price would eventually cheat on me with a girl from Methodist Leadership Camp, so you’d think, loving George Harrison as I do, that “Clapton” brings up “cheating,” that the song would be ruined for me. Instead, it reminds me of that George-like, Piscean gentleness, of that first sense of romantic approval, that sense of being a woman who, like Patti, inspired both tenderness and searing passion. George Harrison forgave Eric Clapton for the sake of greater music, which Clapton honored by directing the Concert for George. Eric Price and I broke up and never did anything together again, ever. But once, when I was home visiting from college, I attended a high school event in which he wore a slinky red dress, doing a perfect lip sync to En Vogue. It was exactly the kind of thing I had liked about him, the kind of difference that has, eventually, settled into something wonderful, tonight and in the other nights I think of love shared and lost.

Here’s my poem for Patti:

“Patti of the World’s Two Greatest Love Songs”

In the movie where you’ll meet him,
you are a silent, doll-eyed nobody,
smiling sweetly in the dining car,
the only jumpered schoolgirl to make it past
the fencing
to the Beatles and the baggage.

He just smiles at you once.

I watch this part again and over,
looking for the something
in the way you move,
how you would ease a worried mind.

Each time, I only see your eyes,
the lashes that were surely fake,
stuck on at a time when Twiggy was queen
and you were on her runway;
silence moving next to stars, you were
a comet’s path or an astroid.

Is it your own destruction
or the way that you destroy?

The one, my idol, never one for begging,
just asked you to stay, his only human mystery
amid concerts and sitars, groggy fame, detachment,
the song Sinatra called the most romantic song in English–
not enough to keep you there, the Something
only powerful to those who didn’t know you.

Maybe you wanted more —the quiet one
Mumbling his mantras—soulful, yes, but
inarticulate and mute about
what it was you were to him,
other than merely Something.

Maybe
the sight of someone begging
on their knees,
no pride, ethics crumbling like
sugar paste
beneath your tangled lashes,
or whatever else it is that
I can’t see in the dining car,
is the better measure of love,

the love that lets you know
it’s You he wants—even if he calls you Layla—

that he will not be at peace if he cannot have you,
that you are not like all things, which must pass,
that you he will struggle for,
that desire is not to be denied,
that sometimes, Something
isn’t better than nothing.