1. Stop expecting. Fields of expectation yield harvests of heartache. 2. Curb your craving. This is fairly easy: for every pang in the hollow of the chest, tighten the cocoon you’ve made of a favored blanket; for every pinch at the lips where his kisses once lingered, taste a comfort food — or healthier: belt a loud, offkey song. 3. Stalk. (And this is a critical, oft-concealed step.) Find out how quickly he’s moving on and how. This will have no bearing on your own pace; it just satisfies a maddening curiosity. Make peace with the fact that she’s pretty (and witty and brilliant. He has good taste, after all; he chose you). Do not call; preserve the fourth wall. But allow yourself your petty voyeurism. It will pass when you’ve seen enough (but first — and perhaps longest, it will sting). 4. Remind yourself that rescinding this romance means an end of self-censoring, a recalibration of filters: let more in, let more out. You will not feel so accountable; you will feel much less beholden. 5. Fully realize the self rejection teaches you you can be: steely, unapologetic, affirming. Combative, if necessary. 6. Say aloud and often you are better off friends, not just because it’s true, but because there should be walls, low and easy to clear, but resolutely erected: piled, pebbled markers on an otherwise boundless affection; a redistricting of wide-open spaces you once claimed as your territory: Time, Enthusiasm, Mouth, Conversation. Accept that it is all shared domain. Accept that there are moments when he is not open to the public. Understand that you are now the public. Mercifully, this cuts both ways: you are also your own again. These days, you are greeting yourself in mirrors as you would a long-lost friend. 7. Resist blame, especially if you’re prone to blaming yourself. It doesn’t work this way. There is no sense in believing you’re broken. You will approach every new suitor with inordinate deference, with a palpable, discomfiting desire to be fixed. 8. Admire him and raise a glass. You don’t know how he does it. 9. If you ever see each other again, be mindful of how you hold yourself. Your every appendage speaks a language, but you are no longer on safe terrain for the utterance of old dialects. When you recall this, when you remember all the sentiments left unsaid, you may find that the need to touch him overwhelms. Dead languages are too beautiful not to be whispered. They were meant to be murmured in understanding ears, meant to be conveyed with a too-long embrace. If this is your case, wrap your arms around your breasts; press your fingers into your back. Become your own strait jacket. 10. You are not out of love at all; you are in the eye of it, watching it whip around, carting off heavy things, antiquities you once held dear. Your meager walls, your feeble resolve: collateral damage. But this is the clarion purview. Be your absolute stillest. Feel and look and listen. Soon it will crash in; it will carry you off. This love that once felt close as breath will fling you far way.
I tend to bend toward ambivalence. Romance is a whirl I can withstand; romance does not quite uproot me. It is the man who makes me question why I have come, who leaves the silence draped around us in an open room, who is kind but, in every way that matters, begrudging. He is the leveler.
For him, I will be all three rings of circus: here, the contortionist, pretzeling with anticipation, folding in and unfurling when it doesn’t seem to bore him; here, the fire breather, holding for far too long in my chest whatever ignited my ardor in the first place; here, the tightroper. (I will spare you suspense: I fall.)
Even as the tents collapse, I am cycling, juggling, looking for signs other than exits.
It is curious, how rejection becomes an intoxicant, how similar being slighted can feel to being loved, how easily a shrug can absolve a lover.
Because I am as often a pusher-away as I am the pushed, I understand the value and artifice of open ends. I respect the intentional blur. Like breath wiped from glass, I can see the hint of a message, an illegible trail left by fingers whose nimble urgency once beckoned me near. It is still there, beneath the smear. With love, there can be no clean erasure, and as it wanes, I will always, always cling to the streaks left behind. Are they kitschy nostalgia or coded promise?
Here is where I will linger, on a sidewalk outside the glass. I will come here to hope long after I’ve trained myself not to expect, to continue questioning silently what my pride has stopped me from pressing aloud, to venture sentiments into the silence, bracing for nothing but echoes.
Beyond the smudges, I can see him moving on. There is no greater delusion than believing I can slow or reverse this and no greater hubris than wondering how my every movement may have impacted his choice.
But these are the possibilities that surface so simply in fog. This is where imagination breaks free and runs.
I want to hit the glass, or better, to break it as though this were an emergency. Instead I wipe the pane, collect the smudges somewhere along my sleeve, and accept for fact the sight I’d always second-guessed.
When he spots me, I will mouth: This is how far apart we’ve grown. This may well be as close as we’ve ever been. Let us light upon each other and not look away. We will never be so clear again.
The last time you were here, you left an open pack of tube socks in the trunk of my car. It’s still there, two weeks later. It will stay there until you return.
I often feel responsible for the things that remain when you leave. There are imprints of you where I do not want them and one beaming emblem of you I could not live well without. I am accustomed to keeping things safe till you reclaim them. I suppose I will continue to; it does not seem to do me much harm.
I can say this without animus now, but it is not always as easy as I lead everyone — including myself — to believe.
Loving anyone other than you had long been an alien concept. Twelve years long, if we’re honest. We were only together for eight (nearly nine) but even when it ended — even during the pregnancy, when I hoped and I prayed that alone or reconciled to you would not be my only options — I did not truly believe I’d fall in love again. I would not let myself, not if this was how I’d feel at love’s departure.
But what could I tell my daughter of love if I could not remember its shiver? How would I hear her fawning first brush with a tremulous hand if my own palms knew only a craven kind of emptiness? How could we parse her first heartbreak if I never let go of mine?
This is the supernova, the white burst, the back-pressed-to-wall, the unending kiss, the lips that won’t leave yours even to whisper, the words you get to roll on your tongue and relish the fact that they were once, just moments before, not your own.
You are holding them now. You are holding him now. And being held and being held and — Father in heaven — being held.
It hardly seems sane, for your arms to know an embrace other than your wriggling toddler’s, to know kisses other than the ones she sees fit to bestow, in boredom, in blessing, at bedtime.
And it isn’t sane, really, or sustainable. It peters as quickly as it popped, a fire in a lidded jar now. And this great, ghastly, heart-pounding, promise-eating love is swallowed up in air, in sky.
Weeks ago, Father John, the eldest priest in our small parish, preached of love.
I wanted him to say something sense-making about women like me, alternately afraid and excessive, who understand love simply as being someone’s priority. I wanted him to tell me how such a low bar could be so difficult for some men to clear.
But I wasn’t entirely listening. I was thinking of all the things and people to whom I’d come second and third and sixth. I was wondering whether or not I was worthy of preference, whether it was fair or childish to expect to be preferred.
“You know that passage, that 1 Corinthians 13 that people like to read at weddings? That’s God’s love. Agape,” he said with a wave of his massive hand. I watched him shake his head, as if all we romantics were a bit misguided.
Father John moved on quickly; for him, this was just an aside.
For me, it was a lifeboat.
Someone else would find this alienating, this idea that we should not use agape love as a matrimonial blueprint because we could not possibly erect it properly and would feel as if we were failing whenever a window shattered. Someone else might scoff at the notion that we shouldn’t strive toward a perfect, selfless care for our fellow man.
But all I could do was think of my own loves: often impatient, sometimes insecure, disinclined to hope or believe all things, occasionally self-seeking, and certainly — if nothing else — susceptible to failure.
I leaned back in my seat, and I sighed relief.
How do we do this? How does anyone do this?
I used to believe I would never be rid of you because you were my predestination. Then I thought I could never be rid of you because of our girl, who looks back and forth between us, whenever we’re together, with calculating eyes.
You make moving on difficult, because you are a kind amnesiac: giving and grinning and hoping to catch us, even as we flutter on, mostly without you. For all your texts, your calls, your checking in, you do not remember — and sometimes do not even accept — what you are not here to witness. You will always believe that I am the keeper of things you happen to leave behind.
I am your safe deposit box. I am your cage.
The other one was elegant, an autodidact, confident in ways I couldn’t imagine, calm in a manner that requires discipline not artifice. He was meant for a family — but he was not meant for mine.
Of all the things that are difficult to accept, this is perhaps the hardest.
He, himself a cage, a keeper of things left behind, always treated me like a bird who’d forgotten the grace of flight.
We who understand what it is to be a series of gilded, bloodied bars want nothing more than to bend them for others. We are the freers, even at our own expense.
I used to be a woman of many compartments. But motherhood makes you an open space. Anyone you love must stand on your floor and face the things and the people you once had an inclination to hide.
There are no fallout shelters. There is no time to assuage hurts, massage egos. No strength for mediating others’ aughts, for carrying burdens larger than those upon which we’d already agreed.
Everyone’s interests must dovetail. Or else, the only door stands open. All are free to exit at will.
I crawled into you and set up camp. You were warm, steady as a strong-blooded pulse, and I was shivering. I came because I was sure I could survive. But you wanted me, remember? I did not invade; I was invited.
Soon enough, I learned you were a desert. Everything that grew easily had been gutted. You were no mirage; I touched you, beveled, pocked, and longing. Every space where you hurt hummed under my hands; I saw the blood. Sometimes, I walked away with a spot of it staining a dress. Old blood, crusted yet somehow fresh: oozing from regenerative wounds.
I saw enough — felt enough — when I leased this square inside you, already so overrun with other squatting things. I thought I understood. There were memories and guilts and sadnesses you must nurse and not evict. They are the true lay of your land. And though I did not set out to save you, I still cradled a garden in my palms: every seed I thought you’d need not to die. I still prayed that I’d grow the right balm to properly bandage your gashes.
It was easy to ignore how dry your tongue remained after giving you so many gourds of water. Your kind of thirst is difficult to quench; you wish for a well whose waters bend time. At my best and on the keenest-eyed of voyages, I will never scout you this. But we remained silent on the subject. It seemed enough that, even when your eyes were sallow, listing, they still lit when they locked on my face.
Sometimes I followed your gaze and saw them: a family, waiting, their laughter carrying across these empty arcs of dust and air. You would rather be with them. Our circle of seeds was inadequate.
You could see what I had yet to: the futility of tilling. But it brought you the briefest of hopes. You have always wanted a garden. Something must’ve appealed to you: the gentleness, perhaps, with which I lifted sand and primly patted it back, my cracking lips dropping promises: someday, we’ll dine. You could see it, once, couldn’t you? A feast of eggplant and lentils, of grapes so pregnant with juice that their skins pulled away from the stems?
I could be so strange, sometimes, so withholding. But I wrote you so many loving missives in the sand. (You read them? The winds will let you hold them?)
Yours is a house of sorrow but your porch was built of cedar. We sat there, somewhat happily, awaiting signs of life.
It has been months since winter. But yesterday was cold. The frost bit our first — our only — emerald tendril.
(Or did it?)
Deserts are impossible places for love, overrun as they are with so many duplicitous images.
But I know that the family is real. Some of them are waiting. I see them, even when it seems I don’t. They are waiting, but they are also watching. Do not rush to them; they want you alive. They need you to drink and revive, to grow green things again.
So did I.
First comes the absence of accent. You hear it before its loss registers elsewhere: a flatness, frosty and far, where there were once warm lilts and bends. Your voice was a carousel, your language a whirligig. It’s since sanded itself, become polished and practiced, indistinguishable.
You are hiding your truths in places you will not so readily find them.
It is easy to tell a man you love him, easy to mean it. But over time, it morphs in your mouth, its meaning multiplying, reducing, clouding. Something is always wanting, in the translation.
You are not clear when you articulate love, because you have never understood men as more than audiences. Perform for them, but keep them distant. Perform for them, but know when to leave, when to grant an encore. The performance must be evocative, but respectable. It must titillate but it must also offer insight.
You are less actress than apprentice. You cannot tell if he is on the edge of his seat or yawning. Men, in this way, are mysteries.
But this is beside the point. Audiences owe so little: attention, at best, and in short supply. The actress owes a world.
No, never view a man you love as something to be acted upon. You mustn’t perform. You will always feel you are earning a keep. You will dance till dawn for a bit of applause and feel empty, wanton, when he withholds it.
Women learn this first with inconsistent fathers. When they are with you, you wish to dazzle them — and you do. For as long as you care to, you do. Find his heart, his preoccupations, his passions. Become conversant in them. And you will be clever and interesting because, at first, you are the most flattering kind of mirror. When he is with you, you offer such forgiving reflections. He is younger with you, time has stood still, a judgment day feels far enough at bay that you’ve nearly convinced him he’s invincible.
But he is often gone. And in his absence, you are building calluses over your needs. First it will be hard and hurtful to articulate them. Then, you will not feel the need to do so at all.
What is love, if not knowing when to keep silent?
The beginning of new relationships is when your accent is heaviest. Love leaves your lips easily, and love on his lips takes a razor to every callus.
I want to know everything, you whisper. I want to tell you everything, he responds.
You hope to dazzle him, and you do. But soon, you will want your distance. And in the distance, the calluses crust over.
My daughter’s speech is muddy, a mix of water and silt. It floats out, as if behind gauze or a veil. I understand her, sometimes, but less than I’m told I should by now.
I am not one of those mothers who begs and borrows and steals to acquire the trendiest literacy aids. I do not own an iPad. I believe in board books and conversation and sunshine.
She watches television. (And I realize, at this point in the reading, someone is sending me to the stocks or the noose in old Salem. But understand, at this point in the reading, that if my daughter did not watch television, I could not be writing this. If I hadn’t watched as much television as I did growing up, I wouldn’t likely have wanted to be a person who writes things down.)
Now that she is closer to three years old than two, I am told her speech should not sound like it is being sifted. She should be clear, responding to questions, asking them, forming simple sentences.
Because she is not in daycare, we have both been spared the intense developmental comparisons we’d find there. But whenever she does get to mingle among peers, I am concerned with her insouciant acquisition of language.
She is no loafer. Story is an empath, a firebrand. She is intellectually curious, musical, startling perceptive. She is creative, a gesturer. She cobbles her own expressive roads.
But she does not speak in ways that are easily understood.
Even mothers like me, neither tigers nor minimalists, know when to be concerned about their children. And for us, it is rarely overreaction.
I worry that she has inherited my ambiguities. I do not often know how to speak, either. Perhaps it is just that the words morph in her mouth in more literal ways than they do in mine.
But here is where that similarity ends: my daughter knows exactly how to love. It is not complicated. It is in the eyes, in invented songs, in laughter, in the folding of her bony limbs and skin around mine. It is all the kisses I give her, returned. It is alphabets and gifts of toys, constellations, saying hello to the moon, to her mama’s smiley-face mug in the morning.
It is not confined to the way her words are formed.
Nearly a fortnight ago, in the basement bar of an East Village restaurant, I slid onto a stool, waiting for a lithe, sparkly-eyed twenty-something to transfigure an excerpt of fiction I wrote last year, in a fit of pique. She was first in a lineup of actors cast to read the works of writers, both established and grappling. I am the latter, of course, the non-resident only in New York for a few stolen hours, the sole writer featured without a published book to sell.
In Baltimore, it is easy to forget who you are. It is not so often affirmed. In New York, if you are literary, neither affirmation nor criticism are ever in short supply. You are among kinsmen fluent in the language of representation and publication, professorship and craft. You are among people who amass rejection and do not identify it as masochism, but as love.
I had never heard my work publicly read aloud by anyone besides myself, let alone performed. New York is the only place where I’d want to.
The audience waited for the first line, spoken by a seven-year-old twin to her conjoined sister: “Do you think Mommy loves us?” It’s a play on an age-old theme, a lifelong wonder. Are we allowed to interrogate love? And when we do, will we ever be ready for the result?
The girls are black, sharing organs at the lower torso. One is developmentally delayed, the other fairly precocious. In this scene, they are in conversation. It is difficult to imagine this going well. The actress is white and grown, her body positively un-twinned.
But the language is universal, her interpretation thoughtful and quiet. She draws the attention of our intimate crowd, pulls them toward the words, and for a moment, they are not my own, and she is no longer there. There are only the twins, those susceptible twins, and their questioning of a mother’s love.
My friend Shelly, who co-organizes the event, tells me witnessing this often makes writers as nervous as if they were reading their own words aloud. Indeed, it is a foreign thing to see something intended for silence enlivened. It is strange to surrender a sliver of an incomplete novel to a room, to see the way your own words land on other ears.
This is is what readers do all the time, Shelly reminds me. They take our words into themselves, add their own inflections, superimpose their experience. They gasp, perhaps chuckle, and occasionally, they call into question their loves.
It is risky to be let in on this process. Day to day, we understand the words we write as spores, floating out and off and overhead, but rarely touching down.
Here, I was watching cupped hearts catch them. I could see them sink into the loam.
I had my answer, then, about the way I communicate love. Mine is an adoration mapped with words. For the utterance of a loving word is the loudest act there is.
Whether you keep record of the glorious or the grotesque, beware the lover whose first impression of you is forged through your work. The suitor who falls, head first, for your words — their beauty or strangeness; their raw, vein-opening properties; their subtle choreography across a page — will never truly know you. He may think you part-goddess, a sorcerer, a changeling, confusing your rare talent with an unattainable affection. For him, your heart is only to be apprehended in increments, a collection of short, amorphous fictions. For him, you are slightly more than mortal, a creature to be loved but held aloft.
He is not wrong. You do possess a particular power; all women do. But for the writer in love, words are an amulet of impregnable potency. Carefully composed, your words can bear him up. They can be lowered into pits, dropped like ladders from the sky. They can carry him elsewhere. But they can also be a murder, an acquittal, an asylum.
Maddeningly, what they meant months or weeks or mere hours ago may not be what they mean the next moment.
In this way, it is more possible for the woman-writer to destroy something essential in a suitor than it is for any other construct of woman in existence. It is right for the men we love to treat us gingerly.
If we are idealized, it is, at first, not entirely unwelcome. We intend, however quietly, to be adored. Here is our secret: we do not feel mortal, not always. When we are with the work, in solitude, we are transcendent. And when we emerge, we covet the worlds of our making, disappointed when we look up and find ourselves tethered to a reality we cannot so easily bend. No, we do not expect to die; our words, should they reach the eyes of future generations, will regenerate us.
Writers may be more reclusive — may appear more enigmatic — than actors, but we court a similar importance, perhaps especially in our romances. We may come to our lovers as casks filled with nothing save our insecurities, and expect that they empty us then refill us with affirmation. We may find ourselves unable to fully invest in their conversation or emotion, so preoccupied are we with capturing the moment for later freeing on an empty page. We may pummel them with a deluge of missives and demand that they respond in kind. And if our dealings with them begin to breach that most sacred of spaces — the space within which we create — we will grow to resent them.
It is unsurprising, then, that the layman who falls for a writer often feels he has gotten both more and far less that he’s bargained for.
But woe unto the woman-writer who becomes enamored of one of her own. They will be as two tempests in battle, each on quests to throw the brighter bolt of lightening. Whether hot or cold, they will gasp under the weight of all their words. The lava and the avalanche are equally likely to consume them.
None of this is to say that we should resolve ourselves to solitude. It is simply a reminder. We must never let our power corrupt our ability to care. We must remind ourselves that the bone and the breath, the warm inner skin of a palm, belong to a person and not to one of our paragraphs. If we are to love at all, we must understand our limits. Though our words may grant us second life, it is only this first in which we are able to truly live.
For you, the erstwhile Tender, a good bar serves mead and counsel to common men, and bawdy talk to strangers is but a prelude to battle, a toast to what may be one long, last ride. You, as if by unspoken vow, are a keeper of tallies, of wagers, of secrets, a steadfast sage often mistaken for a mere villager.
For you, Baltimore is but one of many kingdoms, its harbor a passage to freedom, to war. Yet your wanderlust has been waylaid and you’ve felt tethered, as if by some sorcerer’s edict, to home. Though a firstborn son, a namesake, an heir, you do not seem as interested in these familial vestments as you are in the many storied marvels that lay months away from your own hearth, as you are in worlds written into the endless reams of parchment you are able to consume in far less than a fortnight.
You are someone else; you are more, meant for a life beyond the hills of druids, beyond fair Canton’s shore. You’ve an earned nobility, if not a noble’s name, an unused valor, and purposes as yet unmined. You are most at peace among large, intimidating tomes that foretell unspeakable futures as well as untenable pasts. You are warm, even in winters of the soul, when the hearts of lesser men grow coldest. You deserve to slay dragons, to gaze on citadels of light, to stare into the eyes of sirens without succumbing.
Though I suspect I am able, I’ve no desire to turn you to stone.
When I met you, you were full of tales, of lives interrupted, of grounds both gained and lost, and you looked at me as though I were a great ship’s bow, a star pointed eastward, a vast sea itself. Would that I possessed the power to knight you. I would see you kneel this very night. I would hear your solemn oath.
But none knight men like you, save God and Self. You are your own, and everyone you serve is better for it.