3. A quiet, carnivorous inhalation

Who is this person I’ve been writing to for a month?

An inbox full of emails; a man who drops down from the sky, just like that. One day I’m commenting on a friend’s thread, and before I know it we’re writing to each other eight times a day. But whose story is this, and what were the others that preceded it, and how can I even begin to tell you how many of my own footprints I catch myself retracing? Here, this was the path that led to the cliff—I let myself fall and fully expected V. to catch me, but V. was worried about other things, proposals and deadlines and that glittering family veneer and who knows, maybe throw in a lecturing career, a publishing or talk show sideline on top of that, a man who looks ahead, a man with vision—why not? In academia since the age of 17, that’s two-thirds of a life in college, an entire life in school for God’s sake. Campuses and competitive sports and ambitious students obsessed with their grade point averages, but maybe I never liked it enough, never liked the idea of fraternities and sororities, old money and initiation rituals, whereas the important things are learned well beyond school, everyone knows that. Toss in a bit of failure and you’re in business.

How it began: V. describes himself as a train wreck just waiting to happen, and me as the person who will change all this, but what does that vision consist in, I wonder? I am different, unlike anyone he’s ever known before, he tingles with anticipation, but then he maps it out and grows dizzy from the mind-boggling complexity of it all: the uprooting of lives, the imperfect merging of families, a vindictive spouse. We booked a room and spent an entire day in the dim light shining in from a small hotel courtyard, the first new lips I’d kissed in how many years and the rest of it a rapturous blur. And afterwards, for months, an agony of absence: running my tongue along my own flesh to recapture some sliver of that day, the way it zoomed out in all directions at once like a bomb exploding in slow motion, creating not a cloud of hurtling debris but a perfect reality unfurling in some other dimension. Odd how disembodied the carnal instincts can be. And afterwards, my mind careening back to that day again and again: the floating stillness, the quiet, carnivorous inhalation of one another’s being. Incomprehensible to live in a world where I couldn’t close my eyes and transport myself back to that hotel room, at will, instantly.

And you? I hold out my hand and we walk to that cliff, careful to stay far enough away from the precipice. I will not close my eyes this time, won’t let myself fall, my hair flowing out from my scalp as though I were floating on the surface of a phantasm. And what is that part of you that has been cauterized inside and joined back together, and how long does it take for the nerves to grow back, to regain feeling in that scarred spot, two millimeters a year, I’ve read. The pain was once so intense that it burned a hole right through me.

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