York, October 2018
Last week, late on a Tuesday, I was waiting for the G train to take me home and this actuality - by which I mean: staring down a dark tunnel peering for the lights of the approaching train - struck me like some groaning sophomore metaphor. Disconsolation came in round my edges, like soft paper dipped in ink, and I missed you.
I get a text from M, who spells his name with a "y". He once accidentally sneezed on the other M, who'd recoiled in such an egregious way that it was more of a faux pas than having sneezed on someone in the first place. M with a y is drunk and life is hard, he says. His girlfriend is sad and far away and he can't bear hearing her crying when he can't do anything. And I try to explain that being a loving voice on the phone while your girlfriend cries is doing something, and I don't even mind that I've explained this same thing to so many straight men over the years, men who want to jump up and fix the thing, instead of listening to the thing that can't be fixed.
I'm thinking, as I text M on the G train, and again as I write this to you, E, of how I'd taught a workshop class that day, and it had been two startlingly good stories of female sexuality, the difficult complicity with male desire and how, afterwards, one of the other women had lingered behind. She'd lingered, so I'd smiled. "All of the women in class are so angry," she said meekly. And I responded, with that friendly-despairing-coping tone that mocks its own glibness, that tone that comes to all of us living in these times: "Aren't you angry?" She covered her face quickly with her hands, the gesture of a child, and for a second I thought she was laughing or performing shame, until I realized she was crying. Through shoulder shaking sobs, she said, "I thought I'd be the angriest in the room..." I told her to come sit and I got tissues and she wept in waves and told me she was going through a court case with a man who'd assaulted her. The other students' stories were hitting her in a raw place, she said. She kept talking and crying and eventually I asked whether she had something really good to read, as in, whether she could arm herself with rock solid companionship right now, and she looked up and answered with sudden conviction in her voice: Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood, she said. "I need truth tellers," she said.
When she left I was alone in the empty office with its lights on and in that moment what just happened seemed like something I very much wanted to tell someone about. And I thought huh, here's a thing about being single - you no longer have that daily repository of the person to whom you tell and are expected to tell these small things that hurt. You, E, wisest interpreter, have often been that person, but you and I are and our friendship-marriage are in one of these hiatuses that we go through every seven years or so.
So much happened this past summer, didn't it. We ripped our skins off or had them ripped from us, grew new ones, ripped those off too. Sometimes it was the wildest trip to be roaming the world unskinned and raw, feeling it all, and other times we just wanted our stinky old skins back, to crawl into and tug around ourselves and huddle in. With all this skinning going on were too much for each other. A few days from now I'll text you a picture of the small ceramic bird I bought in Maine, and you'll text back a picture of the small ceramic rabbit you bought at the same place at the same time - we bought them together, a pair, and this is our love language: my bird, your bunny, communing for us when actual human words are difficult. And in a few weeks' time we'll have found our way back to each other, and it will be better, or at least different, which is the same thing.
Now though, I'm on the G train and M with a y is apologizing for being, "all drunk and emosh up in your texts." I'm not drunk; I'm rarely drunk, I haven't been drunk since I was 27, but I am emosh because I'm always emosh, so I tell him about the angry woman and her sudden tears after workshop, my shock and shame for not being more attuned to my students while this blood-boiling farce takes place on our screens, the man bawling and lying and yelling about beer on national TV. And then, finally, I tell M what I just told you E, that feeling of to whom do you tell these things. These decisions of intimacy. And he says damn. He texts it twice: "Damn. Damn." And then he says "sending love to her, but more to you."
A few nights ago I did a reading from the new thing in the East Village and there was this in-love feeling in the room like honey. Maybe something about a sunny Sunday evening on the last day of September, everyone infused with the harvest moon. I moved to New York with J eight years ago this month and the weather was just like it was that day. When I stood up to read I said, "hi, friends and strangers" and now I cringe at the line, what a corny salutation, but in the moment I was pure love so there could be no cringing. Everyone there was honest and beautiful, as though I was on the best MDMA in the world. This, I think, is the feeling other people often have for children, that abstract human love, but I strongly dislike children in the abstract and usually in the actual, too. Monica and R were there and he asked a question about teaching, whether my students had informed the novel's young character. Which is why, the next day, I thought of his band. I'd taught four stories about consent that day and I'd told the students that if it became too much, if anyone needed to leave the room at any point, they should feel free. No one did of course. They were bemused by this little speech of mine, like I was the snowflake. They were fine, ready to casually extol Mary Gaitskill and disparage "Cat Person" and I left the class feeling old and wondering if any of them have been in love yet.
Before all this, I'd been listening to a lot of funk and soul. I needed music that sounded like the tilt of Angela Davis' chin because I was walking down streets feeling I might actually take off with elation. But that day, a bit sick, very tired, leaving that class in which I was the snowflake, I just needed music to huddle to, an old skin to be in. So I get on the 1 train downtown and I open Spotify and I type the name of R's band and the first thing that comes up is a new release, 2018. I press play, ready to hear something new, but then I'm ambushed. Because it's not new, it's old. It's a reissue. A B-side from a decade ago, and it's a song he used to play to me and I'm capsized. He loved that song, it was his love song to me. And when R had asked that question the night before, I'd thought, in a revoltingly self-congratulatory way, about how you can be watching a band at the Shepherd's Bush Empire with your first love, and then, ten years later it's another city and another life, past loves, and the singer of that band you admired is your friend's boyfriend and he's asking you a question about your book and here you are. Except on the 1 train with this song in my ears I'm no longer 'here', I'm ten years ago, listening to these words, "Everyone stares when you walk in the room/ They stare when you go/ You've got so much control/ How could anyone say no?/ They rarely do, that's why you're you" and I can see his 22-year-old face with no heartbreak written anywhere, because we're still five years away from me breaking his heart. And for all this summer and decade of change there's this small, unfading thing, a permanent bruise. The person changes around the bruise, but the bruise doesn't, it's always the same, and, like all good consolation, it hurts. I sit on the 1 train so fine with tears falling down my face, allowing them, because for a moment I have no control and, because this is New York, no one stares when I go.