I feel like a fraud when I read my love poems. They’re spun out of thin air and imagination. From a lifetime of reading romance novels. From watching friends fall in and out of love. From TV. And movies. I feel I should read a disclaimer before I read any of them: “I know not of what I speak. Enjoy the poem!”
By writing about my father I have written my way into looking at him with tenderness. Perhaps by writing love poems I’m writing my way toward falling in love? Am I writing my way toward openness? Toward vulnerability? Or am I merely writing about the love story that might have been If I’d had a different set of wounds? Will the poems ever be more than the made-up stories I tell because I don’t have any of my own?
I think that’s why C crosses my mind every so often. I want to be able to say, “Yes, I’ve been in love. His name was C— and he played soccer.” It feels so aberrant to not be able to declare that authoritatively. Not having been in love can make me feel like I’m broken. It can make me feel even worse than you feel when you get picked last for the team.
It makes some conversations so uncomfortable. The kinds where over a couple few martinis you’re dishing with your girlfriends about the boys, the men (or women) you’ve loved and lost. I resort to talking smack about my celebrity crushes (Hi Armie Hammer!), hoping to get a laugh, hoping to disguise the fact that I have nothing to say and that my lack of romantic history is my sunken place, and the outside me who smiles benevolently at happy couples is just a facade.
That’s why nearly 30 years later it still feels so important to put a name on what I had with C. It hardly matters now, and also it matters terribly.
Please don’t misunderstand: I know I am beloved. I know I have many people in my life who I love and who love me right back. I expect that unless I outlive everyone, there will be people at my funeral who will wish desperately I was still around and will feel a little empty in all the places I used to be.
I also know that I don’t need a man to complete me, that I am a complete person in and of myself even if I never have a romantic partner. I won’t die alone. I won’t die unloved even if I may die with the world’s record for celibacy by someone who’s not a Catholic nun or the Pope.
I’ve known longing. I’ve known hunger. I’ve known exactly what Lenny Kravitz meant when he sang, “I just can’t get you off of my mind.” And yet I still don’t know if I’ve ever really been in love.
I’ve been thinking a lot about C, a man I knew in college. At the end of Call Me By Your Name—the novel, not the film—thirty-something Elio visits forty-something Oliver, and I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to run into C again, how he would see me, how I would see him. He’s not on social media at all, but I have seen one recent photo of him and he looks like a man on the verge of 50 tends to look, though he’s still recognizable as the handsome young athlete I last saw roughly more than a quarter of a century ago. I think I could still spot him in a crowd. I imagine I’m fairly recognizable too—fatter, less outwardly drenched in neediness, but still the same round face, the same cheesy smile, the same childlike voice.
It feels odd to write about C though I haven’t told you much of anything at all. It feels somehow indiscreet as if I’m roping him into my tell-all without permission. No, that’s not exactly right. It feels indiscreet because I don’t know how to accurately describe who he was to me, and by writing about him, it feels like I’m implying we were something to each other, that I left marks on him, the way he’s left marks on me. And I just don’t know if that’s true with any certainty. I just don’t know if he’d recognize me in a crowd, or if he did recognize me if he could put his finger on who I was or if he’d even want to.
I’m babbling. Cause I don’t want to write what I’m really thinking about: Did I love him? Did I even know what it meant to love someone then? (Do I know now?) I know that he made me feel my emotions quite powerfully—jealousy, anger—emotions that I was used to tamping down inside me. He disturbed the numbness I cloaked myself in like a security blanket, like a wall. But I don’t know for sure that I ever disturbed anything in him.
I hungered him. I craved him like a drug. I liked the drama of dissecting with my friends every look he ever gave me, every conversation we had. I liked martyring myself in the feelings of unworthiness he triggered in me. (I should say here that those feelings of unworthiness and martyrdom were self-generated; C was never anything but kind to me,)
What the film Call Me By Your Name gets exactly right is the way in which the late teens and the early 20s are a time of gestures. Though we have accrued hundreds of words by the time we hit that age, we rarely use our words when it comes to crushes and infatuations and even love, depending instead on how we interpret or often misinterpret each other’s gestures. And we don’t have the capacity it seems to distinguish between the intended gesture and the accidental gesture, each of which sends its own (supposedly) soul-baring message.
Like me walking down a hill toward campus with C and his friends one day. He tried to put his arm around me and I pulled away for a moment, just to change my purse to my other shoulder so I could comfortably walk him, and then of course he pulled away from my pulling away and… And I wanted to say, “Oh, I was just switching shoulders…” but that series of gestures had spoken so loudly—with the wrong message, of course—that the conversation about us wanting to be close to each other was effectively over.
Or when I saw C several months after we graduated and he reached out to give me a hug, and I froze in his arms and he felt it as a rejection. If I’d known how to use words (and if I’d been courageous), I might have told him that my tension was not a reaction to him exactly, but that I was shocked by how powerfully good it felt to see him again and to have him hold me and I’d simply short-circuited a bit.
I realize these stories do nothing to answer the question of if I loved him. I know he was capable of short-circuiting me, I know I had to numb myself against him, I know I was decades away from being able to be openly vulnerable in the face of someone who made me feel so damned much. But surely, given that this post is populated with “I’s” and “me’s” mean I couldn’t have really loved him. Thinking through it as I write this, he seems more like an object to be acted upon than a love interest. But can someone who was merely the foil for your one-sided romantic drama mark you the way he has marked me? To borrow from myself, what do I name this things between us that left me with “shocky fingerprints?”
Happy Valentine’s Day y’all. Like every singleton in the free world, I used to slump deep in a funk each Valentine’s Day bemoaning my perpetual free agency. I did have a boyfriend one year for the big day—the one year I actually had a boyfriend—but he was not gifted in the gifting department and it just felt a bit perfunctory. (Given that in that relationship I was, if I’m honest, more interested in performing love than actually open to falling in love, that was probably par for the course.) But then one year, maybe a decade or more ago now, I decided to send Valentine’s Day cards to all the people I loved. Which broke the woe is me spell.
These days I think it’s sweet when people wish me a happy valentine’s day, and February 14 no longer sets off a spell of pining in me. I realize it’s a completely manufactured holiday, but hey, if we’re going to make shit up, I’m down with making up a sweet (albeit completely consumerist) holiday.
Speaking of love, at dinner with L. the other night we started talking about that idea that you have to love yourself before you can love someone else. Which is not bullshit exactly, but it’s not entirely accurate either. The idea behind that sentiment always seems to be that everything will be magically wonderful if you just commit to celebrating your own awesomeness. Which is always a good idea, but will only get you so far. And will probably make you try to measure up to impossible standards like having your shit together all the time and all at the same time. Which, let’s face it, is not a thing that can actually happen. For anyone.
Love, real love, isn’t only about the good bits; that’s the kind of love that comes with conditions. (We actually need some other word for that.) What we’re hopefully striving for in a long-term love relationship is unconditional love, and that’s where we need to start with ourselves if we want to end up having that with other people in our lives, whether or not they are people we want to make out with. We need to get comfortable at looking at all of who we are in this given moment. Without judgement. Without guilt or shame. With compassion. With empathy.
This doesn’t mean we have to like everything we find. And we probably won’t. But we do have to be able to say, At this moment, this is who I am and I’m going to embrace myself without judgement. Which is both excruciatingly hard, and excruciatingly necessary, even if we’re quite happy being our own valentines for the rest of our lives.
Let me leave you with this, which is so much more a true thing than that “You complete me” nonsense…
Here is a section from an epistolary short story I’m not writing:*
I haven’t been able to stop crying. No, let me be accurate about this. I have only been able to stop crying for short periods of time. I cry when I make my morning coffee. I cry while I unpack another box of books. I even cry when I’m sitting on the toilet and of course I pee so much these days.
Everything here is green. Which is beautiful and too much all at the same time. Sometimes I look at M, at those eyes I trust with my everything and think yes, his eyes are also too green.
I didn’t think that at home. I mean at my home.
I look like no one and nothing here, but I knew that going in. I said yes anyway. Loudly. Publicly. Enthusiastically.
I feel I need to be as accurate as possible now. So I don’t misname things. So I don’t get confused. So I don’t think “grief” when this is probably only homesickness.
You remember those poems about a lover being a home? Everyone liked them, including me. Do you think I was wrong? And who was I lying to? And why?
Who cries at the beginning of things? Who cries at wonderful and perfect for me? Who cries when it’s taken so long to happen? Why can’t I stop crying?
(Oh, about the pee-ing thing. I’m not pregnant, just middle-aged. Remember that time we talked about everything that disappears after a woman turns 40—why didn’t we include bladder control?)
I hate the phrase “ugly cry.” I told my sister about the weeping—not how often just that I was doing it—and she said,” I hope you’re not ugly crying. You and M haven’t been together that long.” (I also hate that she said “together” not married. I mean I know it was just a clerk’s office but she was there, wasn’t she?)
I should go now. I’m about to start up again. I can feel the waterworks rumbling just underneath my skin. I’ll write more tomorrow.
I’ll write about how beautifully green it is here. I’ll write about my plans. I’ll figure out how to tell you how damned happy I am.
*Reasons not to write this story: I have an adversarial relationship with commas, sentences and I don’t get along, James Franco, I am much lazier than I appear in the mirror, I don’t know where it starts, having a short story roaming around in me is more painful than the usual giants, the poems will get jealous and lustful for revenge, if the story refuses to have a happy ending, oh, how that will break my heart.
I have to let go of what I once saw and open my eyes wide to what’s right in front of me now. Or something like that.
I wrote earlier in this project about letting go, that it wasn’t about giving up, but rather it’s about allowing for other possibilities. Many days I feel okay about the possibility that I will never get married or have a partner or even be a woman who goes on dates more than once every other year or so. Still, every time I know I’m going to be in a situation where I know I’ll meet new people, some of whom may be unattached, hetero men, I hear my 16-year-old self enthuse, “Maybe this will the time I meet the one.” Or if I get introduced to a man—a new work colleague, a friend of a friend or just someone I randomly talk to at an event or on the Metro, I find myself wondering if this is the moment that everything changes.
It, of course, never is. And I find myself wondering if that moment of unbridled hope and optimism that I think is quietly happening inside my head is actually being projected out of my eyes like a neon sign while I forcefully emit a football field-sized pheromonal cloud that, if it were to be bottled and sold, would be called Eau du Desperation. Is there something in my voice when I say hello that sounds too eager or too lonely or too something that is the thing that men interpret as Cupid waving his arms around and screaming, “Danger Will Robinson, danger Will Robinson.”*
Or am I instead broadcasting loud and clear—Look buddy, I’ve got my life handled so just take your possible admiration and move it along. I’ve been told that men are reluctant to approach strong women, but at this point in my life, I don’t know how to be any other way. I’m fairly up front about what I don’t know how to take care of myself, but if reaching the top shelf in my kitchen, telling car models apart, or vacuuming don’t come up, I’m kind of sunk in the showing I’m helpless department. But seriously folks, I’m perfectly happy to let someone else take care of me, but you’ve got to show me first that you can before I hand over the reins. And somehow I haven’t learned the trick for figuring that out in the time it takes to have a meet cute (that will turn into a great toast during the wedding.”
Whether you think I come off as too strong or too desperate, I think the real sinker comes when I explain that I’m 45 and I’ve never been married or even close. I mean I’m starting to think I should make up a divorce or being left at the altar or a string of broken hearts I’ve caused strung from sea to sea just so I can seem normal. Of course I know all the reasons I’ve been single this long, and they are all valid, not-that-crazy reasons. But again, there’s no sexy way to say, “I had narcissistic parents who fucked me up and I’ve just figured it all out so now I can have a healthy relationship” while also trying not to spill your martini (with a twist, preferably of orange instead of lemon, but definitely not an olive). This is the part of the letter, Marc, when I really wish you were actually writing me back. Sigh…
*For my younger readers, look it up.
To be continued…
…Or maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all except I was lonely and there Joaquin was 20 feet high on the screen and looking deeply kissable? Maybe it means—though good Christian women who are trying to work on their relationship with God aren’t supposed to feel this way—maybe it means I just need to get laid. Sigh…
Joaquin’s not my usual drug of choice. I’ve gone through a number of crushes over the years starting with Matt Dillon when I was a tween (though I don’t think “tween” was yet a word when I qualified as one). In recent years, it’s been Matthew McConaughey, Christian Kane, Michael Fassbender. I was on a George Clooney kick for about a decade, but that faded a few years ago. I read a few interviews with him where it struck me that he was a man who always needed to be in control of the situation, or at least that’s how it came across in the interview, and his control freakism was a huge turn-off. (What do they say—you dislike in others what you dislike most about yourself?)
What I’d really like to write in this next paragraph is something about how looking at the personalities of the men I choose to crush on has been revelatory to me about what I value and don’t value, at least theoretically, in a man I might actually meet and have a relationship with. But the elephant in the room I rarely talk about is that they are all white. Yes, I think Lenny Kravitz is gorgeous. Ditto for Boris Kodjoe and Idris Elba. But they’re not the ones I’m planning a meet-cute with.
No one wants to be THAT woman–the woman of color who prefers white men. Lord knows I do enough in my life that has made numerous black people over the years tell me I’m not really black. So to point out another piece of evidence you can use to prove that case is not really in my best interest. But while I still hesitate to own this fact out loud (you have no idea how much I want to hit the delete button right now), I have, in fact, thought a lot about why that’s the case.
I don’t consciously think white is right or better or smarter or some magic pill to happiness. (I add “consciously” cause let’s face it, we’ve all bought into the advertising about skin color, weight, height, accent, etc. in one way or the other to some degree even if we’re not conscious of it.) But I really do think that a great deal of my choice for the other is that I’m choosing someone who doesn’t look like my father. Or like my uncles. As if by choosing someone who doesn’t look like them I’m somehow guaranteeing that I won’t get cheated on repeatedly, emotionally abused, devalued. In many ways my uncles are great men (and, to hear his friends tell it, so was my father.) But what I learned from them as a little girl, when they’d forget I was in the room and smart enough to figure out what was going on, what seeped through my skin and right down to the bone as they joked about their affairs and their illegitimate kids, was that men couldn’t be trusted. And since all the men I was around at that time were brown men, since I saw the facts of why men couldn’t be trusted or depended on in nearly every interaction with my father, I internalized that even further as brown men couldn’t be trusted.
I’m not still a kid. The reality is I’ve been asked out by a few brown men recently and I’ve said yes. And some have turned out to be cheaters (what fun to get an e-mail from the angry wife of a man you thought was single!) and some have turned out to be nice men who just decided not to call for a second date. But still in my fantasy life, it’s still the white man I’m yearning for. I’m not sure if I should be concerned by that, or, given what happens in reality, not worry about it. Am I prejudiced against my own people? Does your fantasy life develop out of what you experienced in childhood and to that end should be taken with a grain of salt? What am I supposed to do with all of this evidence that I have a preference for white men? Where am I supposed to put that shame and that guilt? Should I even carry that around with me given that I don’t put that preference into action? Is this even something I need to be grappling with?
(PS You’re on my list of crushes, too. But I thought it would be weird to write that. And yeah, I was right.)
To be continued…
But I’m going to be blatantly Pollyanna and say it also means bad things end, and good things get even better or just change into a different version of a good thing. Nothing’s ever in stasis, is it? No matter how stuck we feel. Hmmm, so maybe that’s the only thing we can count on as being true forever? Everything changes eventually.
I’m not sure what to write about today, how to follow up on change and forever and stasis. It’s all been said, right? I can’t think of a single jumping off point that doesn’t feel like beating a dead horse. I can tell you that I went to see Inherent Vice today and I didn’t hate it exactly but I also almost fell asleep a few times during it. I love Joaquin Phoenix and I appreciate P.T. Anderson’s work, and I’ve adored Josh Brolin since The Goonies, but I just couldn’t find my way into this film. I felt bad because I really really wanted to like it. I didn’t want to keep getting distracted thinking about what it would be like to make out with Joaquin. What it would be like to date him, hold his hand. I mean he’s nuts, right? Super talented and super nuts. And I can’t quite decide if that would be exhausting or exhilarating.
And I’m wandering to the bus stop in a delightful winy haze (yes, it was an 11:40 movie, yes I got popcorn and wine anyway CAUSE I’M ON VACATION, DAMNIT!) daydreaming about holding Joaquin’s hand and trying damned hard not to notice how lonely I am. Not friend lonely. Not person to have breakfast before work with lonely or friends to laugh with at the office lonely or some place to go for the holidays lonely. It’s someone to kiss lonely, someone to hold my hand lonely, someone who just wants to stick his nose in my neck and take a good sniff lonely.
I don’t mind being alone, but I do mind being untouched. I do mind the day to day hunger for someone else’s skin next to mine. I’ve been celibate for more than a decade now. I’m a little ashamed to even type that as if it’s some badge of defectiveness. But really, I stopped sleeping around because I couldn’t quite play by the rules of the one night stand (I always wanted to have breakfast the next morning), and, you know, with the faulty narrative of the pitch lake sloshing around inside me, I never was able to have an actual relationship. I always thought—oh, when I lose weight I’ll get a boyfriend. Nope! When I go out more, I’ll get a boyfriend. Nope! If I stop mean-mugging when I walk down the street and actually smile more, I’ll get a boyfriend. Nope! When I learn to love myself and treasure my alone time, I’ll get a boyfriend. Nope! I’d like to think the pitch lake is all but drained at this point and still, here I am on my couch. Alone. Being a little too fond of how soft the blue velvet couch and squishy gray blanket are against my skin.
Intellectually, I know how precious my freedom is. I can make plans without consulting anyone, change my mind at the last minute, live like an utter slob, eat cheese and crackers for dinner every night for a week if I want, go weeks without doing laundry, you know, live the perfect bachelor lifestyle. I love being (romantically) alone—except for those aching moments when I don’t.
What I want more than anything is to find someone who I love being with even more than I love being alone. Who won’t pull away when I rub the small of his back. Who’ll understand why I hate talking on the phone cause he’s read every single thing there is to read on outgoing introverts and send me e-mails that make me giggle instead. I know that when it comes to relationships, I’m difficult, ping ponging between a wide-open heart and prickliness, affection and sometimes (God help me) outright disdain. I always envisioned that I’d meet someone who’d see right through me and when I got to the part where I tried to run away cause I was overwhelmed by all the vulnerability and responsibility of loving someone, he’d just kind of hold on to me while I ran in place, windmilling my legs like some they do in cartoons, till I ran some sense into myself.
But maybe the fact that I’m yearning after Joaquin Phoenix, who I’m just going to go ahead and stereotype as the wild-eyed difficult artist type means deep down I don’t actually want anyone. I’m not exactly daydreaming about the settle down and have a quiet life guy next door, am I? Or maybe it means that I’m looking for someone who seems like he’s like me, at least the me I am when the filter’s down and I’m having a hard time doing all those socially acceptable things one is supposed to do? Or maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all except I was lonely and there Joaquin was 20 feet high on the screen and looking deeply kissable? Maybe it means—though good Christian women who are trying to work on their relationship with God aren’t supposed to feel this way—maybe it means I just need to get laid. Sigh…
To be continued…
This is a lightly-edited version of what I found myself journaling about this morning before church…
I love my life, but still, there are sometimes those moments when I wonder how I’ve made it to 43 without the expected benchmarks—a husband, kids, a few heartbreaks. Truth is my heart was broken so early, so repeatedly before I was even a teenager by people who should’ve known better that I couldn’t see past the wreckage for a really long time in order to let someone in. I’m wondering why it seems the only men I can ever expose all of myself to are married or gay. Is it because they won’t demand anything of me more than what I’m willing to give? Or is there just a certain type of courage I lack?
With a married or gay man, I can have a deep and intimate friendship but I still retain—I’m not sure what the right word is—is it my identity that’s at stake? Is it my selfhood? What is it that we give up when we enter into an intimate, romantic relationship with someone?
I have platonic friends of both sexes who have seen both my best self and my worst self. They’ve known me to be kind and generous and sweet, but they’ve also known me to be arrogant and jealous and mean. So, if I’m okay with giving all of that to my women friends, my married male friends, what is it that I’m withholding or scared of showing possible romantic partners and why? What is it that I’m afraid they’ll demand of me that I haven’t already willingly given to my friends?
I’m fairly certain it’s not just sex. Will it be fumbling and awkward given that it’s been more than a decade since I’ve even made out with anyone (and didn’t have much practice before that)? Sure—but I also know without a shadow of a doubt that it also will be so much easier than before cause I don’t intend to sleep with someone (or marry someone—they go hand in hand for me) until I feel utterly and completely safe.
Is it possible then that I’ve kept myself closed off from true romantic love not because I’m unwilling to open myself up but because I was raised with the deep knowledge that men are in fact bogeymen, that the most tragic thing that can happen to a woman is heartbreak, is being abandoned with mouths to feed and school fees to pay? What if I’m not actually afraid of romantic love but rather I’m scared of its aftermath? What if the real bogeymen is the dread of heartbreak turning me into a reflexively controlling woman who lives her life from a place of fear, becoming more and more impervious to receiving and giving love as I get older?
Growing up in my family of strong-willed women, I saw few happy endings. I learned that men always cheated and women (and the children) always suffered. As an adult, I can look around and see the relationships that have lasted, where there is mutual love and respect and tolerance, but those stories came a little too late.
So my real challenge is, I think, not just learning to be open, but convincing myself down to every fiber and cell, down to the DNA level, that the story of my mother, the story of my grandmothers, are not my own. That a happy ending for me is not only possible but is absolutely and positively worth the risk. The challenge is remembering that even if I do suffer a broken heart, I am resilient. That a broken heart or a string of broken hearts won’t make me brick myself up again unless I let it. I can not only be free to love, but I can be free to heal and free to love again, wounded, maybe, but also wiser, with a heart broken open to let love in, not keep it out.
Okay, it’s time to begin…