I started playing the saxophone in middle school because it was a boys’ instrument; girls played flute and clarinet. I played saxophone and I made sure I was better than all the boys, which didn’t necessarily change anyone’s mind about saxophone being a boys’ instrument but did earn me a little bit of respect, and a little bit of self-respect for doing something unexpected and unique.

Playing music taught me that it feels fantastic to be recognized for being good at something. It feels especially fantastic when you don’t have to work too hard at it. I was fortunate to pick music up fairly quickly — to slide by on “‘talent.” I never had to practice as hard as some of my bandmates, which came back to bite me. When I reached the point where I needed to practice to reach a higher level — in my case, being a good improvisational soloist in jazz band — I didn’t know how to put in the work. Frustrated and uncomfortable at not being the best anymore, I started selling myself short to avoid rejection. I decided I was a good accompanist. That was true, it was also an excuse to skirt the fear of not being a good soloist by never trying. I deferred my soloing opportunities to other people in the band. Eventually I chose to stop playing entirely rather than grow through the growing pains of becoming talented. In the process, I failed to learn that talent is something you develop, not something you have or don’t.

Shortly thereafter I went off to college and into a variation of the same process. I’d always been at the top of my classes, the “smart girl,” again without having to try too hard. I was unprepared to go from a high school with a graduating class of five hundred to a university where one of my classes might have five hundred people attending lectures and competing for grades. I’d been a big fish in a smallish pond, and someone had dropped me into a big, deep, cold ocean. To further complicate things, I’d decided I would study science because it was important, because I thought it would be the most prestigious choice, not because I felt a driving passion for it. Biology fascinates me, but it doesn’t sparkle in my blood the way books and language do. Being average and having to work my ass off for something I didn’t love was uncomfortable and unpleasant. I got my first C+, then my first C-. Flashcards didn’t help, home-drawn posters of organic chemical molecules didn’t help. I called my mother and cried.

Eventually I switched over to study language. This made me happy, and I thrived in the new program. Still, I couldn’t let myself off the hook for changing paths — for “failing” at science. I spent a damn long time selling myself short by making excuses. Science had been too hard. I wasn’t as smart as the other students. I was too poor; I had to work, so I couldn’t study enough to be competitive. By switching to the humanities I could have two majors and a minor, not just one major.

All these barriers to success. All these barriers to admitting that I wanted something, and going for it. All these barriers to being myself. I was getting my ass kicked over tiny little things, but I wasn’t learning anything except how to be stuck. I wasn’t learning to fail gracefully or how to risk until I earned a reward. I was following one safe path until it turned rocky and narrow, then cutting across to a new one. I never had to ask myself what I wanted, or what I was good at, or what it would take to combine those two things. And now it’s ten years later, and I still feel stuck.

It feels so personal and isolating, but there’s really nothing special about this struggle. I’m not the only cog in the machine that thinks she’s the only one keeping everything going, but I’m not. None of us are, really, which should be more liberating than frightening. Everything goes on without us; except to the people we love, we’re each completely unnecessary. And to the people we love, we’re each already everything we need to be.

I had that thought alone in the middle of a rainforest, and it was the most beautiful and liberating moment of my life so far. I have that thought here, back in the middle of the machine, and I freeze up in fear. Why the difference?

phoenix

April 24 was the day I left my marriage. April 22 was the day I told my husband I would leave him, but I stayed to pack a bag and attend one final counseling session to hash out the nuts and bolts of a separation. That’s what I called it a separation. Not because I thought I might ever come back, but to soften the blow a little, to ease him into it. As an intended kindness, I suppose, though maybe it would have been better to let the wave hit all at once.

April 24 was the last day of the most painful period of my life thus far, and the first day of my scrabble back to myself. It’s the day I remembered what it felt like to be my own person, and nearly the day I started to forget again. Within a few months of leaving, I tried to tangle myself up inside another person, began changing my plans to give them what they need, making the same concessions that had caused me so much grief in my marriage. I decided to give myself a year to be single before I entered into another relationship; a year on my own. And so I marked a year in my calendar. On April 24, 2013, I’d be ready to be with someone again: Game on.

It was arbitrary, sure, and it didn’t exactly work out that way. To be honest, the anniversary might have passed me by as nothing more than a bad patch, if not for the note in my calendar. I might have thought that the bouts of anxiety, mysterious tears, and sadness had to do with the changing seasons, or the travel I’d been doing, or were just a part of me. I might have forgotten about this final milestone, forgotten that I was — am — marking the anniversary of my “before” life going up in flames.

But I’d left myself a reminder, and it’s clear that the symptoms will linger beyond a day. Because it wasn’t just the walking out on April 24; I’d been on fire for a solid month before I admitted that I couldn’t stand any longer and pretend everything was fine. I watched everything turn to ash around me, watched the person I thought I was go white hot around the edges and lose her features.

My body stores memories just as much as my psyche; I feel the tension I carried in my shoulders and across my back. I feel the pressing on my chest, recognize the shallow breathing. I need more sleep, I crave more food, my hands and feet refuse to stay warm. I brace myself to fight at the slightest whisper of confrontation. My muscles remember the motions required to keep my spirit alive.

My body remembers the fire.

the new guy

My best friend gave me a new mantra this weekend. “Trust,” she said. Mostly I do. Mostly.

Not very long ago, I stumbled into a new relationship. I was still figuring out the dating thing, finally having fun with it instead of constant stress and anxiety. I was learning how to show up without any expectations and how not to be devastated by someone I’d known only a few weeks. Honestly, I was kind of looking forward to figuring out the process, to the excitement and butterflies and romance of being pursued. F-i-n-a-l-l-y.

woo meSo at ten on a full-moon Sunday night, I decided to have a beer with some boy who’d recommended an album of pretty songs and made me laugh over a text message. I thought I was in for a fun and interesting evening, but not much more. I arrived first. While I waited for the bartender to finish up his break the boy walked up behind me, and that was that. My switch flipped, and I knew. This is it for me, for a while.

And it’s been lovely, more than I could have guessed. More on that as I go, but I’ve never felt this quality and strength of connection paired with thoughtfulness and caring. The other time(s — it’s happened once for sure, and maybe twice, but the end of the second one scoured out my memories of the beginning so I can’t say for sure) this feeling has come tied up with ups and downs and drama. This is calm and comfortable and I feel so, so happy. And grateful. And lucky. And very, very infrequently, scared to tears because I’m so very open and exposed, and my poor heart has been through so much in the recent past.

But those moments are short and infrequent for now, and I’m trying. Trust.

As always, writing has gone to the wayside during the honeymoon period. I’ve often wondered why I don’t write when I’m happy, why I don’t record those moments in words. Images, yes, but not words; I think I’m afraid that putting those sensations into words will take away the magic. Make the living version less real, less valid. It’s not true, I’m probably  just too wrapped up in the experience of it to sit and write, but still. I’d like the words to come easier.

Because it would be nice, when I feel those flashes of anxiety over opening my heart again, when I realize just how much I have on the line, during those moments where I don’t trust, but need to: it would be nice to have a record of happiness to backs up that faith.

Auld Lang Syne

New Year’s Day, I wake up in grey light. Someone has cracked open the curtains. Of the four of us, I am closest to the window; I pull a pillow over my head and press my back into Tommy’s chest. He slides his arm up my side and around my belly. He is tall, and I fit inside his contours with room to spare. His gold cross tangles in my hair, digging into my scalp.

I chose him as soon as we walked into the bar. Partly because he’s tall and easy to pick out of the crowd, yes, but mostly because of that pretty black magic that draws people to each other. He is babyfaced the way I like, and a sweetness floats in the air around him. He was dancing with a group of women when we walked in, but clearly not trolling. We held eye contact as I followed my friend Leigh to the back of the bar; I turned away first. In ten minutes the ball would drop in Times Square, less than a mile away.

Ten, nine, eight. Leigh and I ready our champagne glasses for the toast. She is beautiful and dynamic, and tonight she brought the party girl out to play. Someone has draped an arm around her shoulders, laying a claim. No one has tried  to claim me, and that’s just fine. I want it, and I don’t. I’ve been claimed for the last thirteen new years, first by Jeanette and then by Brad; this year I want to claim myself. The ball drops. Leigh and I share a quick kiss, say we love each other. Her admirer kisses her, dipping her backward, trying to sweep her off her feet. As an afterthought, he leans over and offers me a small, chaste peck. It’s a sweet gesture.

I glance around. Tommy is watching me.

He makes his way over in time to the music, keeping his eyes on me and moving his shoulders, so by the time he reaches me we’re already dancing together. The dance floor is crowded and we are jostled from all sides as we introduce ourselves, but somehow keep from touching each other. I forget his name as soon as he says it. The couple next to us starts making out again and Tommy shrugs and gives me a kiss, for the  New Year, he says; it’s the first contact we make. Leigh comes over, more introductions. Can he buy us a drink?

We are drinking whiskey, neat. Knob Creek for me, Jameson for Leigh. This confuses him. Bourbon and what? Just bourbon. Just pour. He is mixing vodka and Sprite. He does seem a little young to appreciate liquor on its own. My lipstick rubs off on my glass. As I reapply, Tommy leans down, offering pouted lips for me to color in. I get greedy, smooth more color onto my own lips and lean in, telling him I have a special technique. (Greedy AND cheesy, I should say.) He pulls back before I can make contact. The cycle repeats. Clearly he doesn’t want me to kiss him; I shrug and continue dancing, thick with lipstick.

Then Joey shows up.

Tommy had mentioned he was out with his best friend. That’s Joey. Joey is a twenty three year-old Jersey Shore stereotype. Short, heavily muscled, extremely forward. Goodfellas accent. Joey seems to think that he has claimed me for the evening without having asked for my input. He tells me over and over to touch his abs, and insisting that if I just take him home he will fuck me like crazy all night long. This makes up about 85% of our conversation (the other 15% is about his ex, with whom he is not on good terms).

I think Joey doesn’t know much about women.

I tell him that we are not going home together; he sticks around. Fine. Somewhere between Joey spinning me around the dance floor and providing an unsolicited lap dance, Tommy disappears. Despite having my hands full, I notice. As Joey buys me another drink, I ask him about Tommy, why he’d pulled away and disappeared seeming interested. “Tommy?” Joey asks. “Tommy’s gay.”

Ah. It’s no wonder I liked him, then. He is my people. Leigh squeals at the information and runs off to find Tommy and squeal again with him. Before the bartender comes back with our drinks, Tommy shows up again. I lean across Joey’s back and tell Tommy that Joey had mentioned he was gay, that I’d been surprised he’d turned me down earlier but it made sense now.

“I’m not gay.” No anger at his friend’s lie, just a simple statement of fact.

I grab my drink and Tommy’s hand. I don’t look back as I drag him to the other side of the bar. As the night goes on, I do get him to kiss me, and claim me, and this time I like it. Tommy is sweet, gentle. Unlike his friend, he does seem to understand women. He flirts with both Leigh and I, leaving no one out. When she buys me another round of bourbon (neat), he takes it from me with a small plea. “Don’t drink that, please don’t. If you drink that you won’t remember.” I don’t drink it. I want to remember.

Still, as the night winds down I tell him the same thing I told Joey — he’s not coming home with me, either. Not because I don’t want him to, but because I’m sharing a hotel room and I don’t want to do put Leigh in an awkward position. We start considering our options, wondering about the odds of finding an open hotel room this time of night. Not good, we think, but we’ll try. We’ll try.

Leigh finds a boy of her own; things change. We can go back to my hotel, and we do. This story’s already too long, so I’m going to leave off, but whatever you think happens next? Does.

The only boy who could ever reach me (and all the rest of them)

He always was the kind of boy that Dusty Springfield ought to sing about; the son of a preacher man, gentle and sweet with a hint of wicked. I loved him in that aching, desperate way teenage girls do. I wrote poems, lived to hear him play guitar, clung to his image with wanton abandon. I kissed him in the backseat as our friends drove, held his hand as we ran through dirty festival grounds and tangled up together in stacks of straw. I fawned, and pined, and waited for him to fall in love with me.

He didn’t.

Somehow he never knew. Maybe that’s why we remained friends. Tangentially: the love that filled the room when we got together could suffocate you, but we didn’t get together that often, keeping up with each other through word of mouth, pictures on the internet, that special metaphysical gravity that you develop with the people you love when you’re young. Miles, states, coasts apart, we continued to orbit each other and the sun of a shared history. Then, something shifted. We aligned again.

Summertime, he came through my town for seven hours: ready, set, go. Lord, I’d missed him. Stealing kisses from me on the slide.

Winter found me on a bus headed toward Baltimore and familiar arms. Taking time to make time. Twirl me, I said before I came. Show me your city.

Teach me again is what I meant.

Teach me again how to dive into love like I did back then. Teach me how to offer the back of my hand for a kiss, how to rest my hand on your chest before we kiss. Take my face into your hands and send lessons firing like sparks up and down my spine. Climb up on the roof and give me the sunset, flirt with the people selling food on the street. Dance with me while we wait for dessert, because they played your song and because we can. Decide this will be our anniversary, and remind me every year. Be wild and tender and romantic, then hold on to me tight, I’m leaving in the morning. Remind me how it can be. I’m leaving in the morning.

He did.

He plays bass now, mostly; upright, an instrument you embrace and coax notes from. His hands are still graceful and wise. He writes in verse, even if we don’t call it poetry anymore. And he will forever, ever, ever reach me.

*****

When I was younger I fell in love hard, and frequently. I suppose I still do, to a certain extent. I love making eyes, flirting, first kisses and the moment right before when the world swims through closing eyes.

Now that those pleasures are available to me again, I’ve been taking advantage where I can. I wouldn’t have guessed, but the best new connections I’ve made have been old ones. I’m being taken apart and put back together by a small army of familiar small-town boys.

Most of them are new to me in one way or another, but the difference between old-new boys and the new-new ones is that I don’t have to be anything for the old ones. There are no expectations; they already know me as someone, so I don’t feel like I have to change to please them (which is something I do with new people). And surprise surprise, they want to be with me anyway.

And each one of them who remembers me who I was before I knew to hide her, and loves me anyway? Each one of them chips off a little bit of the plaster I used to cover over myself. Each one peels another onion layer, leaves me a little more vulnerable and a little more safe in that vulnerability. Each one heals me a little more.

He’d kiss & tell me everything is all right…

Back to the beginning

no risk no rewardPaul Madonna has got my number.

My divorce is final; I’m officially alone. (The statement is a touch more dramatic than the feeling.) Just before it went through, I opened myself  again, and in doing so discovered I wasn’t the right person for someone I really liked. Which is fair, but hurt, and does not inspire me to risk losing again. Risk fucking up. But you have to, if you want to live the way I want to live.

For a few days I steeped in sadness and self-pity. Then guilt, for feeling so sorry for myself about trivial things while there are children being slaughtered at their schools. Then I  started to come back around.

Tomorrow morning I get on a train. New Mexico will treat my wounds with her snow, hot springs, stars, and quiet. New York will stoke the fire in my belly, help me crave life again, and a quick trip to Baltimore to see a dear old friend will twirl me around. (One of my life’s great treasures is the collection of sweet reunions I’ve gathered over the years.) I am taking a notebook, and a Polaroid camera, and a heart to fill with hope. And also some wool longjohns to guard my weak California sensibilities.

(I disabled comments for now; it’s not that I don’t like the interaction – I do – but when I know who is reading and how they’re reading, I begin to write for my audience, and that’s was not my intention for this space.)

and that’s a year

One year ago today I logged in to Facebook and found a message from S, the first contact we’d had in ten years.

One year later, today, I haven’t talked with him in nearly a month, and it had been a month before that, and we are well on our way back out of each others’ lives. Like we always are. In and out, brief flashes of frenzy followed by years of nothing.

Honestly, I thought this time would be different. I think he did, too. But then I admitted that if I wanted to live I had to leave my marriage, and I became available, and that ruined the fantasy for him. Or something. In any case, that was the beginning of the end.

So today is the anniversary of one of two major heartbreaks I’ve undergone over the past year.  And I’m doing my best not to confuse those heartbreaks with the feelings I’ve been developing over the new guy who has come into my life, though after five fantastic, comfortable, familiar, and building dates, it seems like maybe that’s drawing to a close as well. Of course, I could be getting ahead of myself or conflating everything, but the memory of the two previous abandonments, S and my ex, have my reflexes primed for rejection and pain. Any and everything that I let myself feel is another step toward an inevitable ending, or so it seems.

Anyway, I hope I’m getting ahead of myself.

Thumper

So, that line in the sand. I came home from vacation to be effectively dumped by the friend I was steadfastly “not dating.” I was spending a whole lot of time with him, doing those things you do with people you date, but we. Were. Not. Dating.

It’s true, we were friends. Are friends. But any way you slice it, rejection sucks, and there I was fresh off a lovely vacation, kind of gnawing my arm off in anticipation of a reunion, ahem, and bam. He’d met a girl who he liked and who wanted what he wanted. (And which I, emphatically, did not want. Do not want.)

We’d been hanging out for about three months, which is the same amount of time I’d been with my ex when he tried to break up with me at the beginning of our relationship. To keep the story manageable, we’ll just say I didn’t let him leave me. I couldn’t handle the thought of being alone with the bitter taste of rejection in my mouth, so when none of my friends were around to help me pick up my pieces, I called him back and told him I was coming over.

In hindsight, well. Maybe not the best idea. But it’s done.

This time, when I was rejected after three months, I sucked it up and handled my shit. And by “handled my shit” I mean “went home alone and cried myself to sleep,” but hey. I’d been up for nearly twenty-two hours at that point most of them in a car or on an airplane, and I was feeling a little fragile. I woke up early the next morning and dragged myself out for a run before rounding up a friend to go to the farmer’s market.

I handled my shit. All by myself. I made peace with being alone for the foreseeable future.; I made lists, set plans, started making stuff and exercising again. I realized that I had no idea when or even if I’d fall in love again, and that was okay. It was no longer something I wanted, or needed.

The next week, which was last week, I met a boy.

I think maybe it might happen sooner than I thought, possibly.

coming back to town

It’s funny how I can feel totally at home and at peace with myself in the woods, going to bed just after sundown, not worrying about entertaining myself too much (well, except books), not feeling the need to interact with humans, but the second I start moving back toward the city I feel lonely. Being around people is what makes me feel lonely. It’s also what I crave. What kind of brutal paradox is that? Hmph.

I wrote that about a month ago, after I returned home from a camping trip. Saturday I returned home after a week on vacation. Tropical paradise vacation. I traveled with friends, and spent a week as part of a unit for the first time in a while. Having time to myself again and falling asleep in an apartment that’s empty except for me was both lovely and lonely.

My moods are up and down and back again lately. History is repeating (or I’d like to think it is), except this time I make the right decisions. The trip feels like a line in the sand; I had my escape and now it’s time to hunker down. In a month I’ll be officially, legally on my own. A divorcee (ooh, fancy; where’s Henry James when I need him?). I’d like to cross that threshold with my life in a certain order.

Step 1: kill jet lag.

the beginning

Let’s call him S, mostly because his name doesn’t start with S.

I was sixteen when we met. During the summer. We must have crossed paths two years prior, during the year we attended the same high school, but it would have been just that – walking past each other in a hallway. Certainly we didn’t know each other until he’d graduated, and I’d come into my own a little more.

Still, it was just after I started school that year that something stirred and I began announcing to my girlfriends that I thought my soul mate this time around was male (announcing this even as I was deeply in love with one of those friends, and trying to get into the pants of several, and oh oh do I feel silly typing all this out), and that we’d already come across one another. I didn’t think back on that much, until recently.

Anyway, summer. I’m sure we met through mutual friends. I don’t specifically remember our first contact, nor do I remember our first kiss (though I wrote a journal entry describing it with more than a little heat). My first major memory isn’t really of him at all, it’s of letters I wrote to him. Four days after that first kiss (again, I know this thanks to my journals), my aunt took me to Europe, and rather than documenting my travels in a journal, I wrote daily letters on ruled yellow paper and sent them off to him in thick packets. I bought all my envelopes in Italy; they were orange and if I folded my letters in half twice — lengthwise, then crosswise — they fit perfectly. I’d always intended to copy those letters down into a proper journal, and I tried several times, but I only finished last year, after I moved into the house I bought with (for) my ex. Just a few months before S showed up again.

(Lord, this is going to be a really long story if I keep up with these tangents.)

So, after knowing S for a very short time, I trusted him with all my memories of the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. I trusted him blindly, and though it’s not the point, he lived up to it (except for one letter that succumbed to water damage when he slept outside with it and it rained). I spent three weeks in Europe with him tucked in my pocket, on the tip of my mind.

When I got home I found letters he had written to me on his own summer travels, letters with paragraphs I remembered exactly all this time. Sometime that summer I made copies of my letters to him; fifteen years later I finished copying them into my journal. And in between, life trucked along.