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.
…like any good poet, I was always good at suffering. Though back then, in my 20s and my 30s it was always for the wrong reason. In other words, men.
Men were a challenge–going all the way back to grade school before they actually bloomed into men–mostly because I had to both protect myself so no one would find out about the pitch lake monster and also pay homage to my raging hormones. I seemed to be able to get the best of both worlds by throwing myself with great force at men who were emotionally unavailable and/or completely uninterested in me. If my target had a girlfriend I’d make sure to become his best friend because nothing says love like having a front row seat to masochistically watch the boy you’re in heavy-duty like with love someone else. If by chance there was some shred of interest by a suitable man, I’d make sure to be around ALL THE TIME, which until you’ve sealed the deal is, luckily, exactly the way to not seal the deal.
Notable fact: I tried online dating back in the early 1990s when it was back-of-the-newspaper dating and met some rando (with a very bad perm and way-too-tiny shorts) for a double date at the Science Museum. Online dating–over the succeeding couple of decades–was also a great way to go through the motions of being a normal woman with normal urges while making sure no one got close enough to find the monster. And when all else failed in my quest to neither have my cake nor eat it, sarcasm worked. Wit can be a terrible weapon in the hands of a confused and floundering but intelligent and literate woman.
As I type this I’m listening to Roberta Flack. On vinyl. Killing Me Softly, which has that great two-sided piano cut-out flap on the cover. The first time I had my own record player—it was probably the mid-1990s—I played the song “I’m the girl” relentlessly. “He likes me yes/no more than that. The one he really loves/is you.” “I’m the one he’ll leave after a while/I’m the girl.” It was my f-ing anthem, and I suffered. Which was all I knew about love. All I’d been taught.
To be continued….
“That dawn is my final picture of Rachel, her round little face screwed up in anger and hurt as I make her promise not to tell anyone I was there. Her arms are folded so tightly that her t-shirt rides up and you can see that she’s wearing white panties. She just listens while I talk, her eyes seeming to become darker and darker. She knows we’ve come full circle to where she takes up a lot of space but isn’t really there. But I don’t let myself know that; I just wheel my bike down the hall and out into the morning.” — from “Rachel,” circa 1998
I’ve been rifling through my file cabinets trying to find something to write about tonight. I was watching the Christmas special of Vicar of Dibley where Geraldine finally gets married, and I thought I might write about weddings, but then I knew I’d have to ask the question, “Do I not want a big wedding because I really don’t want one or because I think I don’t deserve one?” and tonight I just want to drink wine and watch Netflix and not stick my hand down my throat and root around for my heart.
In the Miscellaneous file I keep a lot of false starts and fragments and finished poems that weren’t very good but I can’t bear to throw out. I’m not one of those artists that can blithely discard old work just because I don’t want anyone to find it. Even though the writer I am now knows it’s not good, when I read the old poem or story, I remember how proud of it I was then, how each was its own risk, its own achievement, and that’s what I’m holding onto, promise and risk, the failure part of it isn’t very relevant other than as a sign that I was willing to take a risk.
I’m also reminded how self-conscious I was as a writer, how worried I was about being honest versus hurting someone’s feelings. These days I know that the people whose feelings might be hurt by what I’m writing don’t actually read my work—there are perks to having a family who’s not into the arts. And anyway, would they even recognize themselves? Living the same life doesn’t mean you remember or feel or even actually do live it the same.
I wrote a story in my late 20s called “Rachel.” It was my attempt to understand what had happened between me and the one who got away in college, who was also the one who was but wasn’t. My big idea was that if if I wrote it from his perspective, I’d maybe understand if I’d loved him, if he’d loved me, what had broken between us, if there was even anything there to break. I was still in touch with him a little then, and I faxed him the story (or maybe I e-mailed him) before I started submitting it to journals because I wanted to make sure he was okay with me revealing so much about our relationship. So many of the scenes I wrote about were barely disguised fiction: the time I was the a/v tech when his English class watched The Red Balloon, the time he tried to kiss me on his bed and I panicked and ran, the time he came by my apartment our senior year for a booty call.
Nearly two decades later I’m fairly certain that he wouldn’t have recognized any of those scenes. There was no reason for him to hold onto them, playing the filmstrip frame by frame searching for meaning, for connection, for love. I think I was important to him, but not the way I wanted to be, not the way that makes you remember every detail like that. I thought I’d written the story from his point-of-view but, really, the way I’d seen it kept getting in the way.
Sometimes I think I’d like to see him again but we couldn’t have the conversation I’d want to have, the one where he could tell me if the whole thing was in my head back then or not. The one where I could explain all the ways I used to be numb, and what a relief it was to be with him because I actually felt something, even if it was anger half the time.
There are answers I’ll never have. And really, I don’t need them because they don’t matter now. We wouldn’t have worked out even if I hadn’t been awkward and numb and fumbling. I still had decades of growing up to do. At 19, 20, 21, I still had no idea how closed I was, and I certainly didn’t understand that there was, in fact, another way to be in the world. He really wasn’t the one that got away, I guess. He’s the one who was a really smart, good-looking guy, who sometimes made me feel pretty, who got tired of how often I hung around him and his friends but didn’t know how to say it, and the one who introduced me to Patsy Cline. And that’s enough.