Category Archives: Young Love

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.

 

Valentine’s Day Week Writing Challenge: Day One

(A repost from a new project–see “These Arms Were Mine” in previous posts for a full version of the story.)

Valentine’s Day Week Writing Challenge: every day, I’ll give you a love song and a memory. If you have a memory associated with this song, please write a comment.

Day One
The Song
: “These Arms of Mine” by Otis Redding.

The Memory: I was a camp counselor at musical theater camp, and I’d been carrying on a destructive and illicit affair with a camper since I was a camper myself. I think I was 19 and he was 16 or something bad like that. I was trying to break away from this kryptonite-like attraction and had mostly successfully pushed him away that week. But at the camp dance, he walked up to me during this song and simply took me in his arms to dance. There was no divide for 3 minutes. The physical spell was so powerful that we both forgot about all the bewildered eyes upon us and sank into that song in a way I’ve never danced again.


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

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

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

The Short-Term Loan

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

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

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

Legacy

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

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

Bankruptcy

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

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

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

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

Refinancing

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

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

Overdrawn

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

Armed Robbery

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

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

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

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

Safe Deposit Box

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


These Arms Were Mine: First Love is a Slow Dance that Goes On Forever

First love looks like so many things. For my niece, right now, it looks like a tall, silent guy being forced to make Smores and endure the incessant, quick-paced, ludicrous banter / badgering of her mother and aunt with him. For my sister, it looked like a 19 year-old girl driving across the state of Kansas every weekend to see the guy she started dating the summer before her first year of college, the guy she would become engaged to at the end of that year. I don’t know if I really saw my first love as my first love until years passed, and I realized he is still the one I think of, when I think of young love.

For one thing, he was too young for me. At an age when half a year develops the brain substantially, he was four years younger, though I wouldn’t know that at first. We met at musical theatre camp (true story), and he followed me around a lot. New to kissing, I was not averse to doing more of it, even if I wasn’t sure about this kid who liked to talk about horror movies and was definitely in charge of finding out how to get marijuana from the college-age stage hands. After that first week of making out behind the sets, he only called me once, and that pattern continued: once a year. Because, like some fabled creature reborn under magical conditions, or a plant that blooms only when two blue moons follow each other, this attraction renewed itself every year. For 6 years. We made out behind sets, found unused rooms with broken pianos in the fine arts center, until I graduated from high school–and then I was a counselor, attending the college where the camp was held, which meant I knew more unused rooms, more places dark and intimate. Old enough to question everything, I accepted, without question, that while everything else was up for intellectual grabs, this was fate. Even if he never wrote me, never called me, I was going to suffer and wait it out. Until he was . . . old enough?

Real relationships in college came and went.  Once, I hurt a friend who’d come to love me, after a week of camp counseling with me.  At the camp dance, after a week of me trying to push down my feelings, push the love away, “These Arms of Mine” came on, and the boy walked across the room, took my hand, and pulled me into a slow dance.  The other campers, the counselors, looked on confused, disturbed.  I suppose.  I was so deep inside that moment that the edges beyond our locked eyes are barely there.  Afterwards, my friend sat with me outside the campers’ dorms, my young love somewhere inside, and we stared at the moon, unable to look at each other.  “You NEVER look at me the way you look at that kid,” he spat.  I looked on at the moon, wishing it could speak.

Its highest point was followed, quickly, by its lowest point, when he sat me down with the fact that there was no future for this strange, passionate thing that seemed like fate, or maybe love. And so, I set myself to the task of undoing my naive beliefs about love and fate and, for awhile, the meaning of life. It took a few years.

We finally did reconnect, after 11 years, and while we still aren’t actively close, I find his presence in my life adds a depth and richness akin to that of a childhood friend, a cherished family member who lives far away. He’s still never made me a CD or tape, never writes me a letter, and the only picture I have of him is the double another counselor gave me of him with another girl.

That is why this song, a slow dance I can still feel 22 years later, holds a weight in my heart so heavy that if my heart was an ocean, which I sometimes believe it is, this love would be anchored to its very floor. It’s the only thing I feel like I really have from him. He even goes by a different name these days, but he, too, has said when he hears this song come on in a bar, he is lost in that moment with me, once again that boy I know now I really loved.

The Summer We Knew We Were Young

Have you ever lost intimacy with a whole household?

Each summer draws nigh, and my students get their summer living situations together with each other, I miss so deeply the Baumgartner House, the house in which I lived the summer between my junior and senior years of college at Bethel. It was a pink Craftsman Bungalow with a big front porch, built-in bookshelves, and an electrical system so dangerously old that when you ground coffee, the light would flicker. I lived in it with Lost Erin Scott and my friend Liz, who would fall in love with her future husband all of that summer, leaving me the ten-window bedroom all to myself. Our friends Matt, Stephan, and a loaner-cat named Honey lived in the basement.

We all played guitar.

We all had jobs we liked but didn’t really care about: I was repainting the college a shade called “Industrial Almond,” Liz actually did something meaningful but I can’t remember what, and Erin was the cool Godfather’s Delivery Girl Who Drove a Red Convertible. She came home from work one day and told, with tears of laughter, of the six year-old’s birthday party to which she’d delivered that day. When they saw her car, the birthday girl had exclaimed, “When I grow up, I wanna be the Pizza Girl!”

Everyone came over to that house that summer. Since my job started early, I’d come home at 3 to find half our friend group already on the porch, playing Uno and drinking beer. We spent Erin’s tip money on bags of cherries and would eat them all, driving around in her convertible. I kissed the Message in a Bottle Ryan for what I thought was the last time outside of that house. One night, both floors of the house stayed up and watched somewhere between four to eight hours of Sting / the Police videos. When I got the letter from Ryan announcing he was going to pursue a relationship with that other Mennonite girl, I went out into the living room where everyone was gathered, said “I’m hot,” and cut off my hair–from waist-long to my chin. (I sent him a piece of it. I know.)

Every day was tomato and mustard sandwiches, wearing each other’s dresses, spontaneously driving to Oklahoma City. Every night was the pleasure of fresh bread, the solace of friends when a lover was lost, the coming in covered with mosquito bites from making out in the warm Kansas eve.

Moving out was chaotic, as any disruption of paradise should be. Honey the Cat had a terrible case of fleas, with which we’d coped temporarily by wearing thick woolen socks when we went down to get the laundry. On moving day, though, we had to pull mattresses out, flea-bomb the whole place, swearing at the friend who’d foisted Honey off on us for the summer, and hating the poisons tainting the end of this glorious tenure.

We all moved back into the modular apartments on campus, probably 500 yards away.

The family from whom we’d sublet the house moved back in, and so it went. I knew while I was there that I would never have another summer so golden in my life–that it had been the most perfect expression of being young and hopeful and free. Every day, that knowledge both had saddened me and had made me that much more committed to being as intimate with the moments of that house as I possibly could. If anyone finds that tragic, they are wrong. That sadness etched that summer into me like light fixes the image on a photographic plate, so deeply that I can call up my 20 year-old self, as I near my 40th birthday, as easily as pulling a file from a folder. Easier–and with more pleasure.

We listened to this album a lot. It’s a kind of music to which I no longer spend much time listening, the music of that young woman I was just becoming, in that time of infinite ease and gladness. The video is so terribly pure, so incredibly innocent in its low-production value, that it could not more perfectly represent this summer.


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.