Aside 27 Feb

Coming to know you as intimately as I did – and what you are capable of emotionally — and how risk averse you are — the way we got our start is a mystery to me.  I’ve often thought about that day when we both sat in a conference room at a memoir writing workshop at a hotel on the bay, listening to a man tell how us how to tell our own stories. It was my first time in your city. As you know, I’m a southern California girl in my heart and had been waging a longtime love affair with Los Angeles by the time I found myself wandering down to San Diego for the writers’ conference. I spent so much of my college years in West Hollywood, in a rented room in that house off of La Cienega with the lemon tree in the tiny front yard and the orange tree in the back and Linda Blair next door — that it’s a miracle I managed to walk away with a degree considering I went to school on the east coast. There are few things I love in this world as much as waking up to the smell of lemon and orange trees.

From where, K, did the courage come to follow me out of the conference to the bar where I’d settled in for an afternoon of drinking with the boys at Pacific Beach? Is the answer there where you are? This much I know: you found me very physically attractive and spent the class writing about my hair, eyes, and ass. I was aloof and you loved that. As everyone earnestly hung on to the speaker’s every word, jotting down notes and furrowing brows as they processed the bullshit he was spewing, I looked at the clock and  squirmed in my seat, I made Princess Lea buns secured with pens, I bit my nails, I went to the bathroom three times and you loved watching me move. You would confess that one of your favorite fantasies would be to sit back and imagine me moving around the house we shared, going about my day.

Was it a full moon that puffed up your chest and pushed you along in my wake out to Ocean Boulevard and into the bar in the company of a tourist who’d attached herself to you earlier in the day? Was it a carbon dioxide leak that drew you out to my table in the sand in an insane attempt to defend my honor — which hadn’t been threatened in the first place? Was it fate that I disregarded your nerdy professor look and walked out the door with you as the pretty boys scoffed?

It makes me smile to think about how you looked after we’d gotten out of the bar and were out on the street. We stood on the sidewalk facing each other and you had the expression of a man who’d just gotten away with stealing a famous work of art — you’d succeeded in making off with your prize, but now what the fuck do you do with it? I saw your mind at work as you played out various scenarios. In mostly silence we walked to where I was staying — the Banana Cabana, which touted itself as a youth hostel catering to international tourists, but was really the last stop before homelessness for about two dozen locals – all male. 

The realization that I was staying at a place with a reputation for being a flophouse for lowlives seemed to provide you with direction you needed as to how to proceed with this thing that you’d started. It was at that moment the father-daughter dynamic in our relationship kicked in. Which is to say almost immediately. Of course, our age difference – nearly 20 years — probably made that unavoidable, but our own actions — you assuming the role of caretaker and worrier-in-chief — and my response, which was to bask in the attention and concern, didn’t help.

As we sat at another bar later that first night — after you’d moved me out of the BC and into the Westin downtown — I was throwing down vodkas while you nursed a microbrew and dissected my life, your questions as sharp and precise as a scalpel. There was a moment of silence between my last answer and your next question and I remember being stunned when you finally delivered it: “Were you molested, K?”

I had a physical reaction to your question that reminded me of this strange habit I’d had of labeling my peers as a child. I’d see other kids as light or dark. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that I saw them as dark and non-dark, and felt that the kids with the darkness — maybe I’m referring to their aura, but I’m not entirely sure that’s accurate – shared my own darkness. This sounds strange, but I could sense the kids like me — the ones who’d been abused.

When you asked that question, that odd sense (that ability?) that I’d possessed as a child returned suddenly. I saw you as dark.

“Yes,” I said then, without hesitation and I told you everything, which was something I’d never done before. In fact, until that night in 1997, in that moment when the red light from the Sushi place next door reflected on your forehead and my flip flop dangled dangerously from my toe and Brick played too loudly to be considered background music and the same waiter kept trying to give us food menus…I had lived as if the stuff about the priest and the pictures he took and his suicide in jail and the neighbor at the shore who showed me his special room were just stories that I knew about some poor girl.

But that all changed when I admitted to you – and to myself, really – that the poor girl was me. 

I suppose when a relationship begins with confession it can’t help but grew into a mutual worship, practiced with a religious fervor capable only by those who know what it means to have been saved, reborn. Which is probably why this feels so much like penance.

Aside 25 Feb

SUBJECT: Well, now I’m really worried

November 9, 2008

YOU: I mean, with less than 24 hours before I start, what if I didn’t get the right keyboard? I mean, that could really make the difference between a mediocre and a great script, you know? I alternate that with telling myself “you haven’t done a script for a long time so it’s okay if this one is lousy. It’s just to get back in the swing of writing. Right?” Either way, I’m spending a lot more time worrying about writing than I’m likely to spend writing when it comes right down to it

Have a good day. Not because I’m telling you to but because you CHOOSE to. That is self-empowering, see? And that’s beautiful. Or, in the timeless wisdom of your people, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

Love you, little mama. 

ME: Well thank God for overnight shipping – if you DO have the wrong keyboard, you can always get a new one FAST. Stop worrying and just write, already. You’re a really, really, REALLY good writer. Even the stuff you’ve written and think is crap – which is everything you’ve written – is good. Or, as my people say: “Snap out of it!” Imagine me smacking your face here…you like that, don’t you? : )

When do you head out to Boulder ?(hippie)

Have a good day? You can’t make me. You’re not my boss.

YOU: Going to Boulder on Friday. Writing Wednesday and Thursday. Guess which I’m most looking forward to.

Or – in the words of that romantic troubadour, Garth Brooks:

“Last time I saw her it was getting colder

But that was years ago.

Last I heard she had moved to Boulder.

Where she is now I don’t know.”

Hmmmm– not exactly sure where that came from. I think I should probably be a little embarrassed, at least.

ME: Don’t bother… I’m embarrassed enough for both of us.

YOU: LOL. You know, in Boulder I’ll have LOTS of time for phone calls.

ME: Yummm.xo

You had a breakthrough on that trip to Boulder – the first bit of meaningful conversation with your mother you could recall since your brother died from AIDS complications and she had that breakdown as you cleaned out his EastVillage apartment together. Since your own death I’ve thought of going to his old neighborhood, hopeful that I might find comfort in the simple act of retracing your footsteps of 20 years ago, the path you took back and forth as you carried his belongings from his apartment to your old Cadillac. Any physical evidence of you having been there would be long gone, of course, bathed in spit and urine then washed by street cleaners and weather; worn by the steps that followed yours and covered by new layers of concrete and cobblestone. But still…could I feel you there? Kidding…I know that’s crazy, of course (and I’ve forgotten the cross street…Houston and…?)

G’s death was a major event in your life; the death of the only person you’d ever truly loved up to that point. That was 1992…I was a junior in high school, wrapped up in cheering and dating this soccer player and you were a hundred miles away from me, cleaning out your dead brother’s apartment and having a mad affair with meth. I was probably picking out which cut-off jeans to wear to a kegger bonfire as your mother’s jaw was dropping – much to your delight – at the discovery that your brother’s partner was black. On that day we were such different people in such totally different orbits – it’s hard to believe that just five years later we’d collide…and stick.

But…Boulder…your breakthrough. You and your mother had gone out to enjoy an evening of dinner theater with some of her friends (Boulder dinner theater with people who like Marge sounded awfully painful to me before you’d even told me what happened) and as you were proudly bragging about your granddaughters, good ol’ Marge felt it necessary to stop you mid-sentence and clarify for everyone that these were not your biological grandchildren – that they were technically your wife’s grandchildren, but isn’t your devotion just adorable?? You were hurt and embarrassed and, for once, instead of shutting down you got angry. There was a blowout which led to your mother admitting that she avoided you in your first year of life. She said her difficult pregnancy (what a pest you were from the beginning!) and the injuries she sustained during your birth, as well as your own very poor newborn health had prevented her from bonding with you. I think she was under the impression that she made up for it in later years, but I know you don’t share her sentiment. You don’t have memory of that early neglect, but you do recall the day when she walked in on you – just 12 years old and diagnosed with juvenile diabetes the year before – sitting on the floor of your room with drug paraphernalia spread out around you, intent on a temporary escape from the bleak reality of that mobile home and your newly dead father. She stopped in her tracks, frozen for just a moment, before slowly backing out of the room. “She probably hoped I’d just die already,” you told me, a grimace paralyzing your face and then a vacant appearance in your eyes. You’d gone somewhere else and it was unlike you to lay yourself so bare. I knew you wouldn’t want anyone – even me – to see you like this and I found myself looking away.

“Some sort of lingering attachment disorder, I think, K,” you’d say in those rare moments you felt obligated to explain yourself. “I want you, but I can’t bring myself to have you completely. I can’t risk it. Couldn’t take it….” Your voice would trail off. I was eager to let you off the hook and I’d stand there tracing circles in the sand with my toes, as your shoulders shook silently. And you wept. I’d resist the urge to hold onto you in those moments, knowing that what you truly needed was to remain untouched and so I’d look away. I made this allowance for you – I would never have tolerated such wishy-washy bullshit from any other man, but giving you your space and my silence in those moments was like the insulin you’d been injecting for 30 years. You depended upon it and I, like I always did for you, delivered.

Your mother’s revelation about your first year of life was true validation for you; finally real evidence that your fears of connecting –  your need to flee – the way you’d drop out of disagreements, relationships, lives…this wasn’t a product of your own poor character. This didn’t boil down to simple cowardice. You really had a problem. And after Boulder you took great comfort in the idea that you just couldn’t help it.

If you were here right now you’d see my eyes rolling and you’d hear my skeptical laugh. Then we’d share “that look” – a dare, really. That look exchanged periodically; the most marked feature of a cycle I’d never bothered to count. The look in which you dared me to question this further than you allowed – to call you on your shit – and my look in return, almost a glare with pupils darting in flashes left to right and back again as if I were literally reading you. My stomach would flutter, my pulse would race, and I swear in those moments my brow would moisten as I felt the words forming on my tongue which, if unleashed, would kick all of this right off the mother fucking cliff.

But I always held my tongue. I always looked away. And I did it always for you.

Aside 19 Feb

Your illness and…ultimately…your death, prompted so much reflection on time passed, opportunities missed, and regrets that I think we both forgot that long ago we’d come to terms with what our reality would look like. A friends and lovers sort of an arrangement – with shifting emphasis based on our moods, our needs, our circumstances.

As I always did, I had a song for it.

There’s no easy answer

None to blame or forgive

Two cripples dancing

To the end we live

It worked, K. For a really long time, it worked. It wasn’t always graceful, but I would take it a thousand times over the alternative.

I hope that in those final weeks, you weren’t as focused on the regret as you appear to be in your notes. Or at the very least I hope your misgivings were accompanied by memories of all the good times…hours spent laughing and probably just as many spent in silence, taking comfort and pleasure in one another’s presence. Strolls through LaJolla, the seals on the rocks, late night diner chats, coffee and microbrews, beating me at nanowrimo every time, watching movies over the phone, jumping on the bed, that time your hands were seriously stuck in my hair, tangled up with the salty Pacific air on the last night of my last trip. You said, “this so Neruda…this long black hair and ocean shit,” and I almost pee’d my pants. We laughed a LOT, we read so much together, and we wrote volumes about why we don’t write. And, holy hell, the sex.

Since receiving your letter – part of it published here – I’ve been trying to find a way to tell this story. I guess that’s what this recent spat of posts is about. Reading through your emails this weekend I was startled to discover how contrite you were in your final months…how often it was that you apologized for having disappointed me.

K, I understand you. I know where you come from and who you are. I know your biggest fears and your deepest flaws. I know that you gave me 100 times what you’ve ever given before. I know that at times it physically exhausted you – completely drained you emotionally.

 I know that it was never easy, but it was always worth it.

 It was perfect just the way it was. No apologies.

The Letter

18 Feb

Sweetheart,

I’m on the other side of the transplant – a painless affair, you’ll be glad to know. Unfortunately, it was not the “dream.”

 And so we are here.

 Jesus Christ, love, I’m leaving you. And I fear telling you more than the death itself. I need you to know – to really, truly understand – your strength. You don’t need me, not in the way that you think you do. Not in the way that I’ve allowed you to believe. Recognize, my beautiful love, that you’re a survivor and that has nothing to do with me. All I’ve done is stand by and be witness to it all. You’ve been to hell and back, mama, and through it you’ve continued to feel so deeply, to love so completely, to trust so fearlessly … I’m in awe of you.

 You’ve been a gift from the gods to me, K. I’ve always said that. A gift I was too afraid to ever completely open, but the mystery of you has been relished.

I wasted many years spent fearing you and I can’t imagine how that must have felt for you. I was always quoting Joni Mitchell’s “Case of You” to you. The same lyrics: 

Love is touching souls 
Surely you touched mine 
‘Cause part of you pours out of me 
In these lines from time to time 
Oh, you’re in my blood like holy wine 
You taste so bitter and so sweet

 But listening to Joni last week, on a day I was feeling pretty well, a completely different set of lyrics jumped out at me, K:  

I met a woman

She had a mouth like yours 
She knew your life 
She knew your devils and your deeds 
And she said 
“Go to him, stay with him if you can 
But be prepared to bleed”

I saw you in these lyrics and realized – I mean really understood for the first time – just how much of yourself you have given me. Thank you for staying with me, K.

And I’m so sorry, but, baby…this is gonna hurt.

I love you and am with you wherever you go. And I’m beyond proud of you. I hope you’ll find a way to tell our story. For all the pain, it’s a beautiful story about a beautiful woman.. It’s a love story. And it’s your story – go tell it.

I love you my sweet, sweet animal, my mystery, my passion.

K

Aside 18 Feb

Last night the lights from Manhattan back-lit a cobalt sky, illuminating creamy clouds skittering across the skyscape. I walked alone the length of several blocks to meet my husband for dinner at our favorite Italian place. It was cold – temperatures in the low 20s – and I walked staring up at the night sky because that’s where I look for you now. You are the moon and the stars; the inky sky and black tree branches criss-crossing it; you are the shadows of the geese flying south, more heard than seen; you are the airplane lights blinking blue, white, red and disappearing into the distance; you are the moon and the stars and I carry you with me.

I was bundled up against the February weather, weighed down by layers and my heaviest wool coat, but my steps felt light as I recalled the time, after a marathon session in bed, I was demonstrating my forward flip skills on the bed. I can hear you laughing as I jumped higher and higher, gaining the necessary height to perform my flip for you. It took me three times, but I finally nailed it – landing on my feet before dropping down beside you. I turned my head toward you, my nose almost touching yours, and you were laughing and crying at the same time.

“This is everything I want and can not have.” you said.

And then I was bathed in the warm light of the Italian restaurant and searching the tables for my husband.

 I was always better than you at this, navigating the realities of our double lives – fully inhabiting my role in the lives of two men. You, though…you occupied a sometimes haunted existence in between N and me. It was like that right from the beginning. Sometimes you were better at handling it that at other times, but it was always a struggle.

June 3, 1997

I think I am not resilient enough to play the game that, I admit, I started. I’m feeling things too deeply for the casual flirting and fun I’d originally hoped for. Finding you has made me unable to be content with my life here. It has made what I thought was a comfortable fit – one that I could live with – suddenly cling and strangle me like a straight-jacket. I neither have you nor have my life and live these days somewhere in between. It is a lonely spot – and the vista is largely barren and unbroken, almost lulling and I think, “Yes, I might linger here forever.” You are all the forbidden fruits and the promises that were never kept. You are the long night with a soft breeze – and the hot sun driving me into the shade – telling me it is more “sensible” to snooze – to wait this out and all these wild divergent emotions will pass. But I have been asleep a long, long time and another side of me wants so badly to wake up.  And if this doesn’t sound conflicted enough….i love you madly. You are such a rare and precious gem, K, that I just thank the nearest gods and goddesses for bring your life in touch with mine. You are a constant source of energy and inspiration – the most beautiful thought I entertain each day – the sweetest, most luscious hope I cherish for every tomorrow. I couldn’t, even by design, create a woman more perfect for me in all respects.

Should I have let you go? Are you angry with me, I’ve wondered. Before settling on the night sky, I looked for signs of you everywhere. A few weeks after you died, when I was still feeling very raw, I was sleeping late and I was alone. I woke up – or at least I think I did – believing that we were having another east coast earthquake. My bed was shaking so hard that it was difficult for me to actually roll over and sit up. I was grabbing at the pillows and sheets, trying get out of the bed and run to safety and then it stopped. I picked up my phone, checking facebook for posts about an earthquake…but nothing.

Was that you, angry in spirit? Did I make it impossible to be fully present even in death? You were so sick in the end, but it’s become clear to me now that you were making preparations for your death, covering your trail. And from the letter Jason gave me, it’s also clear that you were terrified that I could not handle this.

I know you worried about me a lot – I hate that you had to do so on your deathbed.

Aside 16 Feb

The usual distractions of my household are absent due to work obligations and grandparent visits, so in this rare window of solitary my mind wanders to you.

For some reason, I’m thinking of the time you’d been careless while at home baking bread – walking away from your computer in the middle of writing me and you were discovered. This was not the first time I’d made an unpleasant entrance into N’s life. In the beginning, when we were completely fucking drunk on this, you’d gone to her. “I’ve fallen in love,” you told her, as if that explanation would usher you guiltlessly from the relationship. A relationship you’d cemented at City Hall just weeks earlier when — after both of you spent several years biding time until someone better came along — you’d given up and opted for contracted companionship with health benefits. I wonder if she’d recognize herself in that story? I suspect not.

The older me has to laugh at your stupidity, now. At the same time, what proof of how blindsided and knocked around we’d been by this. A 40-year-old man – one whose recovery was pinned on practicality and caution and a whole lot of low-to-no expectations – tells his wife he’s fallen in love with a 21-year-old coed, and then stands there waiting to be dismissed.

What a fool I made of you at times. There was always an undercurrent of that, don’t you think? Your resentment of this power I had – that you’d handed over to me that day we met in that bar, when you rescued me from the banker’s son. I know that mixed up with all the love and passion; concern and admiration; fascination and appreciation… was a fervent wish that you’d never come to my table that night. Tinting our bright white obsession has always been the faintest purple traces of resentment.

Sometimes I think you’d wish you’d never met me.

But not that day. Not the day you were professing your love for me and baking bread. Your head in the oven and her eyes wandering over the computer screen.

“We have to talk,” you emailed and I could read the urgency in those four words. You’d call me at 3 and I should be alone. And there I was…parked behind a Chinese restaurant in a town I didn’t really know waiting for a call from you that, for once, I didn’t want to take.

She was devastated, you were despised, and we had to end it.

And then we spent an hour on the phone sobbing. I’m not sure what else we said before goodbye. It felt like the end of everything. I was sure the break-up would stick. I didn’t think you’d have it in you to come back. Our goodbye was desperate and you made me hang up first. It was an hour before I could pull myself together enough to drive. I went home, packed a suitcase and started driving to Memphis. I don’t even know why Memphis. I was playing Neko Case – Set Out Running.

 But you wrote me by the time I’d gotten to West Virginia:

 

Your tears, in postscript, cleansing

what can’t be washed free;

scrubbing our soiled souls.

Making, of blood, two images.

Both familiar. Each lost on a journey home.

Neither flagging nor likely to falter,

nourished by my carelessness.

Finally absolute.

Finally bigger.

Fully insatiable.

I closed my eyes for a moment

without finding rest.

You were here

and not here,

smelling of pasture grass and parchment,

invisible

even while I watched you walk away.

(Always away.)

Hearing no songs louder than sobs,

I long for a crisp silence.

I am frozen in-between your breaths,

afraid to move.

The next word spoken will be one

beyond our last

And you’ll be gone forever.

Silent in the fashion of ice –

solid enough until held in my hands.

Aside 16 Feb

It’s Saturday and a rare morning of sleeping in. I’ve just woken from a dream of you. I was sitting at a table in a parking lot with people – I don’t recall who I was with – and you emerged from a building, wearing that shirt I hated and carrying a small child. I couldn’t make out her face, but knew it was one of your granddaughters; the youngest one, M. I didn’t move from the table and you walked off into the distance.

I got your letter. Jason finally gave it to me. You picked a rotten afterlife ambassador – it seems in the wake of your death, he met your wife who is apparently playing the devastated grieving widow like her Oscar depended on it. True love never dies and all that jazz. If true love conquers all, why doesn’t it compel you to avoid leaving your depressed, dying husband alone in the hospital for three days at a time? Maybe true love, if it’s so powerful, might urge you to take his sudden persistent cough as something more serious than an attempt to return to using or…whatever the fuck she was accusing. (I think I was an amazingly respectful mistress when you were alive, but in death I’m much less gracious.)  Remember my cough drop joke? It was so good to be able to make you laugh that day. In the end, it was harder and harder to reach you.

I was more than a mistress, right? I was more than that?

From you back in the day:

June 18, 1997

Dear K,

Something happened to me last night. Something got into my heart – in a secret little room that I keep locked and shrouded – and I couldn’t stop CRYING for all the feelings I have for you. Not just the sex – although that is certainly phenomenal – but the love, and the respect, and the concern and appreciation. You are so damned fine, K! A jewel, I keep telling you, but something along the Star of India or the HOPE diamond. And for the first time last night in my entire 40 years I crossed some threshold. The pieces of me that I never give away were suddenly out of my grasp. You are in me so deeply there is no way back. I realize that and it made me joyous and wretched at the same time. I have lived so long, so protected, and I don’t really know how to function in the light – not this side me, love. I love you so deeply that I can’t seem to breathe without speaking your name, like some Hindu mystic performing bhakti yoga, chanting the names of god. I realized, too, that no matter what…not matter what happens from this point forward: I am changed by you. I have taken you inside me and there is no place I look without finding traces of you. I love you, K. Much more than I’d guessed possible – much more than I’ve ever let myself love someone. I love you and I worship your tattoo because I selfishly think I am in there –somewhere amid the moon and the stars – and you will carry that piece of me with you always. I love you, K. I love you.

K

My moon and stars tattoo. It’s a good reminder, because I’ve been lamenting our caution. Our avoidance of mementos and photos has left me with nothing to physically hold onto in the nights when your absence becomes this pounding in my chest and tightening of my throat. I felt like I had nothing tangible, no physical proof of us, but an old, old map of San Diego on which you’d written directions to PB and its bar scene (because I needed a way to pass the time when you had to go) and: “Beware – there be demons.” I’d forgotten that I carry you in the moon and stars. Perhaps that’s why I find the night sky such a source of peace and comfort?

So the letter. Jason. What a dick. He held on to it for almost a year before somehow finally concluding that he was probably doing himself some serious fucking karmic damage and then he emailed me. Oh…by the way, he’s just published a book and he’s named a character for you. Isn’t he just the best friend a dead guy could have?

A few nights ago I was home alone with just the dim glow from the lamp on the mantle and a glass of wine. Pandora was doing its thing and Santa Monica (Everclear – forever a guilty pleasure of mine) started playing. That song  was on a mix I made for you once. Did you think those mix CDs were silly? I can look back now and see how a gesture like that – with the custom decorated jewel case … I feel like I probably used glitter pens for my album art … and the first album’s name ,“KW2,” a reference to our matching initials –  I can see how made me seem pretty childish and could only have magnified our age difference, something about which you were super uncomfortable in the beginning. That was something I was definitely not used to: older men wary about fucking college girls.  I have memories of waiting for you to show at my room at Pacific Terrace Inn, playing CDs with songs like Santa Monica and thinking that I’d like nothing more than to disappear into the Pacific, which was just feet from my hotel room patio, with you. Would we be swimming or floating or on a boat or on some island…I don’t know. I just wanted to be out there with you.

The song got me thinking about the first time we reunited after having been apart for two months. We’d had our whirlwind days when we first met – hours and hours spent devouring each other; an insatiable need to know everything. And then I’d gone back east to pretend to be a college student for a few weeks. When I returned we met at the lit steps of the convention center. I remember sitting in the dark on a bench afraid that this was all just some sweet illusion. But when you appeared I remember feeling like I was spinning once in your arms. Like it was yesterday, I remember how your lips felt, how you smelled, how my feet left the ground as you pulled me against you. When I close my eyes I’m back on the convention center balcony, leaning back against the railing with the ocean breeze lifting my hair and you lifting my dress. It was like we were the only people in the entire fucking city. Or world. What was it about you? Me? Nothing so remarkable about either of us individually, but combined? My god…every soul mate cliché mashed together, doused in gasoline and set ablaze. But why?

Will I be mulling the last 15 years for the next 50? If you were here, I know you could lead me to the answer in that way you had: always guiding.

It’s a total bitch that the one person who could get me through your death…is you.