It’s late. Hank’s sleeping, and I’m downstairs writing. Earlier, I played him the Jaws theme song on my phone, while he splashed in the bath: he was riveted– unable to turn away, scared, but unsure why he was scared, by a simple, two-note song. I long to call the ex and tell him this, as I long to call the ex and tell him everything. I very nearly do. The moment passes; instead, I write of it. I’m thinking, I should have written a book years ago, I should have poured my heartbreak into penned words instead of a glass of wine, when a private message comes through on Facebook, from a man I haven’t seen in person since I was 17:
“In fact, I DO think you’re beautiful.”
I stare at this strange, unsolicited sentiment for a moment, contemplate ignoring it completely, and reply, “Apropos of what?”
He writes, “I’m most likely adding to a long line of compliments and I’m okay with that. I don’t like leaving stones unturned.”
“Is that wrong of me? Of course it is. I’m neurotic. Guilt and uncertainty define me. But I know beauty when I see it.”
“You’re married,” I type. “Which I’m sure you’re aware of. Just not at this precise moment. Or maybe more than ever, for all I know.” Then, for good measure, “Good heavens. Why me? You’ve been at this now for years.” I met this particular person at a poetry reading, my senior year of high school. We barely spoke. Two days later, he called me on the phone at random, having looked up my number in the phone book. We had a halting conversation, and at the end, I asked him the same question: Why me?
Because, I hear him say through the black receiver, all those years ago, I was enchanted.
(The next day in school, I told my creative writing teacher about this phone call; he’d had him in class, years ago. Bad idea, Em, he said. A really bad idea.
But he said he was enchanted! I protested.
Oh, come on, he said. That’s like, how to get smart chicks 101. Don’t give in that easily.)
It took many years, but I no longer give in that easily. Which is why, when he messages back, “I’ve been admiring you for years? Yes. Yes, that’s true,” I write back, “I’m really not terribly admirable up close.” Then I take another tack: “Seriously, though. The married thing. With children, nonetheless. Isn’t that a problem?”
“I’m not too sure how to respond…” he begins, and I tune out from there, although I am genuinely curious why he thinks it’s okay to send me these kinds of messages, when I know for certain he’s married with three children. Before long, he writes again: “How can I make you happy? Or anyone? You deserve the best.” And this is when I block him– a click of the finger, a roll of the eyes: go back to January of 1998, where you belong: when I wore purple lipstick and purple eyeshadow, and ridiculous hats and men’s ties in an attempt to look like Annie Hall, when I smoked like a chimney, when I drank like a fish, when I was still willing to put up with any line of lovely bullshit. And stay there.
“Whatever happened,” texts R., “to the meaty kid you were talking with at the dinner party? About particle physics?” R. is my best friend, or one of them. “My gay boyfriend,” I sometimes say, but feel a twinge of discomfort when I do, as though I’m marginalizing the reality of our friendship, or even of its possibility, as though a man and a woman can never really be friends, as though even a gay man and a (mostly) straight woman have to somehow sexualize the terms they exist within. In any case, R. is my friend, my real friend; someone who listens to me without judgement, and speaks to me without reserve.
“He’s around,” I say, but I mean it literally. He lives just up the road, but I haven’t seen him in weeks, and only once since the dinner party in question, when we spent hours in conversation, after everyone else had gone for the evening.
“Why is he off-limits?”
“Girlfriend,” I text back with one hand, pulling a t-shirt over Hank’s head with the other. (After the dinner party in question, Hank woke up; I held his hand, and soothed him back to sleep. When I closed the door behind me with agonizing precision, desperately trying not to wake him, the particle physicist stood there. He took my hand. I led him to the next room in silence, and he wrapped his arms around me, and ran his palms firmly down my back. My cheek pressed against his chest; my hand rested in his hair. He smelled right. It doesn’t happen every day. From behind the door, I heard Hank stir–)
“What a serious inconvenience,” R. writes back. “He was lovely to look at.”
“Lovelier to be held by, I assure you,” I write. “I try not to think about it. I have this massive, achy crush on him. It hurts a little bit.” (After Hank is settled, we wander down the stairs and lay on the couch. This can’t happen, I think, but give in to pretending it can for another hour, or so. I sit up. “This isn’t like– I mean I hooked up with someone at my sister’s wedding, and it was– well, it was a lot of fun, but it was just like that, it was for fun. But you’re–” I don’t go further. You’re what? What? goes my brain. You’re one of those people, it replies, but I remain silent, staring ahead. Those people we meet so rarely. The ones who you follow with your eyes. Who take you out of yourself for a helpless moment. Whose evenings you’ll remember as timeless, crystalized, a kind of melancholy perfection. I say nothing. Upstairs, Hank cries for a third time–)
“Well, things happen,” R. texts back. “I didn’t mean that in a Lady Macbeth way! But; you know; people break up; entropy & all that.” Even his text messages are perfectly punctuated– I marvel at the tiny joy that brings me.
“Yes; let’s hear it for entropy,” I write, and rush to get Hank, and myself, to school on time.
When I was 17, I fell in love twice: once with a boy named Dave who was two years my senior, who played lead guitar in a punk band and was still smarting over the end of his relationship with a blue-haired, rabbity looking young woman named Sarah, and again with David Bowie, who the aforementioned Dave introduced me to, unwittingly, on the night we met. It was March; I was on spring break, and at a house party at his best friend’s apartment in Atlantic City. I stood awkwardly by the green-shag carpeted stairs, stone sober, watching the room get drunker, wearing vintage Levis and a men’s white tee. My hair was dyed jet-black, to the chagrin of my parents and almost every adult I knew: my sophomore English teacher tapped me on the shoulder in the hall the day after I did it: “Emily,” she said, “you dyed your hair black.”
“I know,” I said.
“I don’t like it,” she said, and walked on. Perhaps as a function of the fact that people seem to think they can say absolutely anything to me, I began to develop the ability to say almost anything to anyone. Perhaps this is why, when I looked up and saw the moody, handsome guy staring balefully out at the party from the vantage point of the stairs, I said, “You don’t say much, do you?”
Ah! Jordan to my Angela, at last. I knew who he was; I knew he was out of my league. I had no business speaking to him. He was tall and angular– like Bowie– and had fair skin with high color, always breaking out in a flush over his Slavic cheekbones. He looked down at me, and shook his head, slowly, a smile breaking over his face. “You like poetry, right?” he said. Good god, I thought, he knows who I am. This, indeed, was an ever-shifting universe, a miraculous place where the floor might open up and swallow me at any given moment. I figured I should go for broke.
“Yes,” I said. “I do.”
“Who’s your favorite poet?”
“Allen Ginsberg,” I replied, hastily. A girl had to pick; Sylvia Plath might send the wrong message, and if he knew who Sharon Olds was, I’d fall over dead from shock and good fortune.
“Mine’s Emily Dickinson. She only wore white and she only came out at night. People thought she was a ghost.” Speaking of Picking Up Smart Chicks 101. Swoon. I didn’t know the first thing about Emily Dickinson’s poetry, but I nodded like that was old news. Before long, we were engaged in a heady conversation about books and music. I leaned against the wall, trying to look cool, and he rested his elbows on his knees in their beat-up jeans with the wallet chain. After at least an hour of this, the rabbity ex wandered over.
“Here you go,” she said, smiling, and peeling a sticker off of a long roll, something that had clearly been plucked from a doctor’s office. She stuck it on the left breast of my t-shirt.
“Thanks,” I said, smiling hesitantly. She grinned a huge, sincere grin at both of us, and walked away.
“That says ‘For Rectal Use Only,'” Dave said, and swatted at it. My face burned, but what did it matter? Who was he talking with, after all? Later, in his friend’s bedroom, he asked me to choose music; I leafed through his records and chose The Best of Bowie at random. “Oh shit,” he said, “you broke out the Bowie.” I played it cool, like it was deliberate. Maybe it was. Maybe I was aiming for esoteric. Maybe it was fate’s long, slender hand guiding mine toward what would be the lifelong of the two love affairs I began that night: before the evening ended, Dave would kiss me on the edge of a dock overlooking a wind-swept, black bay, and I would be draped forever at the knees of the man who crooned, “Is there life on Mars?” in a voice unlike any I’d ever heard before. Later that month, alone in his bedroom, he slipped The Man Who Sold the World into his six disc changer, and I heard it for the first time, that bone-grind squeal, one lone guitar tripping down a spiral staircase and a voice at the bottom who laughed a challenge: In the corner of a morning in the past… I barely knew what happened next: a beautiful boy with long, tender white limbs tackled me for my first sweaty, truly sexy make-out session, and David Bowie egged us on, tripped us up, felt his way into my consciousness to reign forever in my imagination, an amalgam of love without sex, desperate for it, untapped, unending desire, outside of time: oh, I am beautiful, beautiful, beautiful for the first time, and nobody knows it better than you…
Of course, Dave broke up with me, went back to the blue-haired sticker bestower, a few short weeks after we met. I was heartbroken. I hadn’t known I could feel that good, and so, it stood to reason I’d be equally shocked to discover I could feel that bad. If relationships are relics, well, Dave’s the Holy Grail– from that point on, I searched exhaustively, endlessly, for boys, for girls, for women, for men, who could produce that thing in me; and the ones I found? Their hearts invariably belonged to another. I was something on the side. Such a cool chick, so smart. Years later, I ran into Dave at a bar– “What are you still doing here?” he asked, as in here, as in this island, as in, you’re such a cool chick, so smart. “I thought you’d be like, running a think tank somewhere,” he said. Nope. Still here. Angrier, fatter, but still here. “I was so crazy about her,” he told me, meaning Sarah. My mother almost named me Sarah. I seem to give them something, these boys, these men, these interludes; what? I picture the ex, still heartbroken over L., reading this blog; it comforts him, somehow. It comforts him because he becomes a new character in an old story: he is L., and I am him, in love’s clever, sadistic game of musical chairs. Someone will end up on their ass, and it looks like it’s me–
“Why me?” the ex texts me, late one night. “Of all your exes?” As though I’d spun a wheel, a bottle, and landed on him: Kiss Me! As though he was one in a bundle.
My ex-student and I are wandering down the beach. I tell him about my dream: Persephone and pomegranate seeds, and a faceless man telling me about god– and he tells me about his thoughts on gravity as a possible source of sustainable energy. We return to our long-standing argument about Lolita.
“It’s a truly great love story,” he says, loping closer to the water with his absurdly long legs.
“No one loves anyone in that book,” I say. “Lolita is a slave.” And what is love, after all, but freedom? The freedom of the imagination, where what looms large is suddenly attainable, where I am a noun, a glorious, navigating subject in the plumed sentence of my self, my body. Where you are not my hunted object, and I am not yours, but are, instead, your own subject, and mine, an interchange– in bed with the ex, this idea becomes reality: you are everything I want, you are nothing I fear: I want you to have me how you want me, and I’m not afraid to say it aloud: in the day, I wear so many faces, and here, behind these doors, I wear only mine– but back in the light of day, he hesitates, again and again, not ready, I need time, can you just give me, one of these days, I swear, we’ll be together– I give him time. I give him more and more of it. I think back to those messages from the married man: What can I give you? You deserve the best… As though the best could come from someone I’m forced to lie with, sneak around behind closed doors with, as though the best could come alongside damaging a marriage, children– what I want is the freedom to walk with someone in the sun, in the same manner I give myself over to them in the dark–
I dream that R. and I are walking quickly across a city street at night, dressed in fancy clothes; he is smoking, and he hands me his cigarette. We are giddy, and headed somewhere thrilling, but I can’t recall, when I wake, where. “This part of the city makes me happy,” he says. “It’s filled with possibility.”
“I know,” I say back. “It reminds me that no matter what, I love life.”
“Despite the fact that we are grossly underpaid for the thing we do best,” he says, and we both howl with laughter. “Let’s go!” he says, as we recognize our destination. He opens the door and grabs my hand, pulls me up a long flight of stairs– I remember how it felt to thunder up them in heels. He makes a joke, and I throw my head back in laughter– “You look like a howler monkey!” he says, which only makes me laugh harder. I wake up. I am somehow immediately sad, nostalgic for this dream. I text him the dream in its entirety, telling him, “It was like the perfect expression of how we get along,” but it’s a lie, a coward’s text. It was the perfect expression of my absolute love for him, which is deep and abiding, which lives in my imagination and also in my waking life, which is outside of time, blessedly free of desire, its anxious clock: You’re not alone, the dream sings in a voice that’s hauntingly real, terribly familiar, ever-fainter– You’re wonderful– just give me your hand–