Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings. – Anais Nin
When you open yourself fully to someone else, when you let another person in past the point of reservation, it is certain that the future will somehow be altered.
There are things that will always remind me of her, and they will come to me in painfully bright flashes. The white tea scent of the Westin Hotel. Fluffy towels. The songs of Marvin Gaye, Norah Jones, and Elvis Costello. Garnets and rubies. Holding hands in a car. Cosmopolitans, well-ironed clothes, striped blouses, airports, parking lots, bars, and resorts. Too many cities and shared meals to count, and too many bewildering memories of either anger or tears in her eyes. The barely-there fragrance of her cologne, and the grace of her hands. The one time after an argument that she kissed me like a woman possessed, even though she’d always told me she didn’t like to kiss like that: She liked kisses that were soft, more lip than tongue, more gentle than possessive. I kissed her then the way she kissed me, and I came to hunger for that kind of lightness. Slow, almost lazy passion, the sensual brush of her lips on mine, the deft flight of her pale fingers over my body.
Today, I’m sitting in a hotel room in New Mexico and all the floodgates are open. Awareness has washed over me but instead of feeling cleansed, I feel bruised. Beaten, as if something integral to life depended upon my making a bet and I foolishly chose the longest, most impossible shot.
Months ago, in this same room, not long after our first meeting, I lied on the bed and spoke with her for hours on the phone. She wanted a picture of how I was feeling, and I took one for her. We then went on a breath-holding journey of almost-there wishes and maybe-soon hopes. I felt like a wide-eyed Alice in Wonderland to her wise and grinning Cheshire Cat (although to be fair it’s just as likely that I was occasionally the mad hatter and she was the Queen of Hearts). Eventually we both fell, but into different spaces, miles apart, irrevocably separated by all the incongruent things that first drew us together. She was amazed by the capacity of my heart—I was calmed by her sense of stability. She found joy in my adventurous spirit—I found something that felt like home in hers. She resonated with my stories—I found reprieve in her sense of humor. But none of it was really real for her, it was a well-played but flimsy house of cards at best. Now it can only be unreal to me, and she can only be a distant memory of palm trees and slender hips, blue cabanas and backrubs, and rabbit hole arguments that (I realize now) were meant to keep me lost while giving her an out.
I love you hard, she used to say.
And it was hard at times but (I thought naively) not impossible. Not if I could get past the brick walls of her fears and shame, and not if I could shed my own insecurities and trust that when she told me she loved me she meant all of me, and not just the way I made her feel when we were locked away in private, skin-to-skin, with no one the wiser and no one to judge how she could have fallen so low as to love someone like me—unpedigreed, too blue collar, from the wrong side of the tracks, an unsuccessful writer, a blogger.
She lived in terror of any potentially dirty laundry that, left unchecked, might blow into her carefully fabricated life. And nothing—not love or relationships, or even her own ideals—mattered to her more than: What might other people think? How could she ever stand the humiliation of not fitting in or measuring up or being judged as less than perfect? And what if other people knew she was gay— what would her children, her family, her friends, and a whole world of acquaintances and strangers think? One time, she even reprimanded me for saying the word “gay” while dining in a restaurant on the off chance that someone in her broad circle of acquaintances might be lurking around a corner. When I called her on it (I used the word about myself after all, not her), she got angry. I was putting her—her whole life—at risk. “I’ve lived this way successfully for 47 years,” she told me shortly. “I know what I’m doing.” And from the outside looking in, (which is the only view she really cared about), she was successful. She wasn’t truly happy, though, or comfortable. I rarely ever saw her relaxed or in any kind of natural state except in the bedroom, and even then there were rules to follow, and things that could and could not be said or done.
She was uptight and closed-off in many ways, but in our most intimate moments she seemed to want my encouragement to open up—to tap into some forgotten bravery and conquer the dread that held her hostage. This, too, was part of our almost-there, maybe-soon journey. I was the hope-pusher and she was the reluctant optimist. She often saw my best wishes for her as pushy, even unkind, but at the same time she wanted to hear them. She wanted, I think, to dabble in the realm of possibilities while still clinging to the fears that she felt kept her safe and away from the frightening territory of change.
Decades-old shame was at the core of all of her fears, and I came to love her more, and more gently, because of this unfair vulnerability.
I had been shamed often and early as a child—marked by wooden spoons and fists, baseball bats, and brutal rapes. In the end, my shame made me rebel. My own sense of right and wrong made me stand up naked and scarred, not proud, but resolute. Because once you’ve been in that kind of gutter, over and over again, there’s really no choice but to reclaim your own body and dignity—not if you’re going to live any kind of life—even if it’s the kind of life other people might look down on because they can’t possibly know that even being a one after being a zero for so long is an accomplishment, even if it’s not the kind that can buy a house or a car or even a day in Martha’s Vineyard.
(I am a one, but I am something, and if she’s a ten—and she believes she is—then it’s by the grace of a kinder god than I have ever known, and I will always be grateful and thank that kinder god that she’s never had her face broken or her fine body split open under the weight of a violent man.
I will thank a different god that my broken spirit rose and rose and rose, no matter how many times it was crushed, poisoned, or stolen. It rose, and maybe not so high, but high enough that I could see that while imagination is a saving grace, life should never be pretended – not for one second, not for someone else, and especially not for the sake of fitting in and feeling accepted, because that kind of acceptance can never be real, and at the end of the day when you’re alone with your soul, you will feel carved out and empty. And if you’re empty long enough, you will lose yourself. You will no longer be able to name what it is you really want or need, and you will just keep flopping like a fish in a shallow pond, anxious to avoid hooks, feeling suffocated, but too afraid to take the risk of jumping out, even if it might lead to something better and altogether more human).
Sometimes she spoke of wanting to be my hero, and god knows I wanted to be hers. I wanted to help her jump out of the pond—I wanted to jump with her into something that would feed us both, without hooks, without fear. I wanted to hear her breathe easily, comfortable in her own skin. I wanted to see her smiling at me, stretched out on the bed, with her ankles crossed and one hand behind her head, content to be with me for longer than a few borrowed hotel hours. Most of all, I wanted her to accept me, and to be proud of us for taking the risk to love. I did not want her to feel ashamed—of herself or of me.
I wanted too much.
Ten years is a long romantic drought, and perhaps I waited too long. Perhaps in that decade of solitude I stored up too many wishes of bright beginnings and happy endings, but when I met her on a winter’s day in Seattle and she bid me to come out of the car and give her a hug, every cell in my body lit up. I stammered and stumbled and laughed as if I’d never laughed before. I watched her hands play over a frosty glass at dinner, and I listened to the first lie she ever told me, and I knew it was a lie, but it was told in the name of shame and self-preservation and somehow that made all right. She had a shell and it needed protection. I would be a patient shell-guard and the truth would come out in time.
She was a shameless flirt, and I took it as a sign of things to come even when she told me, “Oh, I do that with everybody.” She prided herself on being entertaining company, so she took me to a strip club in the city—my first time, not hers—and insisted it was for me. I was the gay one, after all. However, she was the one who seemed disappointed when I didn’t take her up on the offer to buy me a lap dance. Naked twenty-something girls in Lucite heels only make me want to bring out blankets and offers of escape hatches.
We walked along winter streets and stopped in dimly lit Irish pubs. After a few drinks, her shell became a little more transparent, and there seemed to be something a bit fragile and aching underneath. She seemed as lonely as I had ever been, even in a crowd—even while telling me how full and wonderful her life was. Her bright green eyes sparkled and dimmed at turns and even though we were only flirting at the time, when she asked me if I wanted to spoon—when she told me she’d have kissed me if I just hadn’t had that cigarette—I knew that we were just steps away from having an affair. There was just something so empty in both of us, it seemed, and it felt like we could fill each other until the emptiness was gone.
When I know something, I know it down to the bones. I know it in 3-D, in color, in irrefutable hues of potential. I knew that nothing about our relationship had to be hard. It could be, instead, beautifully simple. Every time she started an argument with me—which was often, and always over something trivial—I wanted to shout back at her that it didn’t have to be this way: that it could be any other way she chose, and that if she’d just screw up her courage and choose love instead of everything else than anything she’d ever wanted might be possible. Her friends and family might actually respect her for who she was instead of who she pretended to be for their approval. She might not be so afraid of being harmed, or of being judged, or cast out.
I wanted her to know the triumph of rising even just inches above her self-imposed prison of anxious rules and rigid expectations. She wanted me to quit smoking, be more ambitious, be less truthful, appeal more to the upper middle class, dilute my opinions, throw a coat of gloss over my past, get a real job, be more social and socially acceptable, sell my work, stay in the background, and love her passionately and unconditionally, but much less. So much less that it would be unnoticeable to anyone else.
She was ashamed of me but she loved me. Hard. Always. Forever, she said.
My romantic view of life collided with almost everything she valued, but she still liked to hear me talk about how one day we might have a dog named Molly and a living room decorated in ocean colors, where we’d spend evenings curled up on the couch, and I’d rub her back until the tension left her shoulders. How we’d fill our cupboards with wholesome food and spend Sunday mornings making love in bed while fresh sheets rumbled in the dryer and a roast beef slow-cooked in the oven. How, on sunny days, we’d walk to the coffee shop hand-in-hand, not caring what the world might think. I’d write her love letters and she’d bring home bottles of wine for dinner. We’d love like no one was watching, and she’d come to realize that no one really was, and that genuine happiness is a more welcome gift to those who care about us than all the anger, paranoia, and emotional pain that comes from living in fear, in shame, and in the closet.
It took a lot of faith and hope for me to love her, and it took a purposeful pair of blinders to ignore all the warning signs. I knew she found me lacking—I knew that in her eyes, she deserved someone prettier, better, wealthier, and more genteel. I knew that my job was to be a mistress and not a partner—to be the wrong-side-of-the-tracks girl that could be wild and free in bed and invisible in the world. Still….
I couldn’t help but use my imagination. I couldn’t help but take a peek behind the façade, where it was easy to see her as a child that was born more sensitive than others. A child who didn’t quite fit in—who was bullied by her older brother, not quite as beautiful as her older sister, daunted by a successful father who made her feel as if she’d never be good enough to earn his respect, and by a prematurely deceased mother whom she saw as loving but somewhat weak, and prone to depression. I saw her as a child who had instinctually learned to defend herself, and who couldn’t stop even when there was no attack on the horizon. As someone who had been made to feel ashamed of her androgynous good looks and hipless body, and who had learned early to place a premium on material things instead of people. Lastly, I saw her as a woman who craved genuine love and kindness but who was afraid it would weaken her and leave her to die early.
I could, I thought, love her into loving me. I could love her until all her walls came down, until she no longer needed to wear three layers of clothes, until she could stand up naked and proud in the light of day. I could love her until she favored sunlight over closets, and holding hands over holding grudges. I could love her until the makeup ran off of her freckled nose, and she finally cut her fingernails. I could love her until she opened her heart and let me in—until she saw that love was bigger, brighter, and more encompassing than anything money or status could ever buy. I could love her until her spirit came out from beneath the weight of fear—until her own soul mattered to her more than the opinions of everyone else.
And I did love her with that kind of bold hope but the walls never came down, they only grew.
“I loved you once,” she told me in the end, “but it was all wrong.”
Reality is perception, she was fond of saying, and the reality is that there was always a question mark at the end of her ephemeral and highly conditional love. I knew that. I knew it was a long shot and probably unwise: We had a working relationship; she was involved with other people; she was ultimately comfortable with deception, and seemingly content to spend the rest of her life in a shallow pond. I was a convenience, an ego booster, a lover and a counselor when needed—and maybe in some ways a theoretical possibility—but I was never going to be someone she could love when the lights were on and the doors were open. I was only going to be another secret shame. Making love to me was a charitable backroom cause but loving me, really loving me, was unthinkable. I was too open, too honest, too poor, too rough around the edges, too unsightly, and too out of the closet. I was too little of everything else.
(‘Cause the love that you gave that we made wasn’t able to make it enough for you to be open wide, no….)
She had a beautiful body and intuitive hands but she liked to make love under the sheets, and when she had to leave the bed she’d wrap the sheet around her like a suit of armor. I begged her not to, I begged her to let me see her naked and whole, but there were things about herself she hated because she found them imperfect, even while I loved them simply because they were part of her, and part of being human. The light stretch marks on her belly and the downy patches of hair that grew on her thighs, and even her own sex, were things that she was ashamed of, and it always fractured my heart that she could not see herself the way I saw her. She was lean and strong, with scattered freckles and smooth, pale skin. I loved curling up next to her shoulder, with one of my hands on her hip. I felt at home there, even in hotel beds. Her body was a sanctuary to me, offering equal gifts of passion and reprieve. And while I lay there, warm and drifting easily into sleep, I would dream. Of a bed that wasn’t borrowed and a love that was wanted, and therefore possible. I would dream that she loved me and let me love her.
(Now that it’s over, I have to wonder…. if she hated the imperfections of her own body so much, what must she thought of mine?)
I have scars that she never saw not only because we made love only in the dark but because I was never real to her. I was a base and lowly fantasy. To put it unkindly, I was a whore. And even women who love women can be whores, falling in love with skin-to-skin patrons who seem to be so much more.
If love is not returned though, then maybe it isn’t love at all. Not in the truest sense. Maybe it’s just some kind of starved and crazy one-sided hope let loose inside of a closed cell.
“Let it go,” she wrote. “Let me go.”
And I have. I had to, because while she was with me, she was already exploring someone new — a woman who hadn’t walked through the storms with her, and with whom she could start a fresh book, not just a new chapter. But there’s still me, trying to unlove what was never real in the first place—remembering how she’d already chosen an ending before starting our final argument—how the argument itself was just an easy out—and how far removed I always was from any possibility of moving beyond the brick walls.
And there are still palm trees in the distance and airplanes flying above. 1,394 emails, three t-shirts, a serape blanket, two pens, a necklace from a tourist shop, and a bag full of hotel souvenirs.
There’s a broken spirit, and it’s trying to rise above but I don’t know if it will. I’m lost and I’m drained and I don’t think I’ll able to love with that much hope again.