What is there to say when a person you’ve loved stops loving you? When the reasons he gives you betray the thinking and vocabulary of someone else; when the eyes he sees you with belong to someone else. All at once, he perceives you as though you were a stranger: what was beautiful has flaws now, yet it’s not the flaws themselves that you find shocking, but his sudden perception of them, as though they had not already and always been intertwined with everything else that goes to make up the swirling arabesques and wobbly pirouettes of your unique beauty. To realize that he failed to see it in all its interconnectedness, the power and paralysis, the fear and the fortitude, saw only what he wished to see; that you mistook this selective perception for love. The body senses it first: an alteration in speech, in posture; the person who was at your side, drawn in by another orbit now and drifting away. You experience relief, the miracle of freedom and autonomy regained, until the internal monologue arrives and you see each moment of misunderstanding laid out clearly before you as on a tabletop, or a chessboard. There are no moves open to you that do not compromise him, imperil his Queen. You hold out your hand, speak in words as pure and unambiguous as any you’ve ever known, but it’s no matter now; he is no longer listening, or if he is, it’s with a filtered understanding, peering imperiously through armor acquired from past battles, past pain. And who can blame him? A perilous business, love: you worried about him, allowed yourself to begin dreaming with him, you nearly began leaning on him and finally broke down in front of him when the dissonance and disconnect became too overwhelming. To realize that Q. did not understand the reality of your anguish is to become aware of the level of manipulation he’s grown immune to, but this isn’t much help as you maneuver yourself to a safer place, and second person singular slips into third.
And you. Do you remember how we sat on a balcony—was it in Gythion?—and I asked you what it was you wanted to do; we’d been traveling for weeks already and I was beginning to miss the studio, amazed that you could spend so much time doing nothing. What do you want to do with your life? And you, who had always been hesitant to lay claim to anything, to wrap your fingers around it and close your fist over it and say It’s mine, who had been vacillating for too many years already, accustomed now to indecision, to squandering time, said you wanted to play the piano. The speed and certainty with which you delivered your response startled me. Good, I said, then we’ll move your piano to the studio when we get back to Berlin, and when we did, it was so huge and heavy I thought the sagging floorboards in the rickety old factory building might cave in, but they didn’t. And then you began to play, and that’s what you’ve been doing ever since: all you ever needed was permission, someone to say إفتح يا سمسم, Open Sesame, though it wasn’t the treasure of forty thieves locked inside the cave that you sought, but your own.
We spent years piecing through our family histories. We were looking for the black box, the irreducible core of things, telling each other story after story until we narrowed it down to an essential repertoire, one for you and one for me, the Story of A. and the Story of C., and these became the stories we told each other, over and over again, trying to make sense of them; wondering if we were numbing ourselves to their effects as the groove we dug grew deeper and deeper. And where are we now? Our exchange orbits around a child into whom half of you has flowed, and half of me, whatever it is we carriers of genetic information might be, living libraries. We’re no longer children, but once we were like two orphans who’d left behind a trail of breadcrumbs, and then we woke up and found they were gone and there was no way to retrace our steps or to begin again. And so I took one path, and you took another, and it’s the love for a child we have in common now; the worry. Appendicitis on my side of the family, Goodpasture’s Disease on yours; diabetes on mine, cancer on yours. Schizophrenia on mine, schizophrenia on yours—but your piano is still in my studio, and it always will be.
Family dynamics: how a person who understands nothing, literally nothing, can hit the nail on the head; how she can enter into a situation she does not understand, does not even possess the equipment, perhaps, to understand, and can nonetheless turn everything upside-down, blow it apart. The girlfriend of the son whose mother married a man who was not his father and who rejoiced when she bore him a son: like a medium in a trance, she absorbed things she could not decipher, tuned into voices from the past, raged against them when they failed to make sense, gave them new meaning. No matter that it was false; her role was to register the emotional discrepancies, to stumble over the elephant in the room, and she was so disturbed that she railed against the girlfriend of the son’s father, because if you search long enough for a guilty party you’re bound to find one, stories are everywhere and readily available. No need to invent one yourself, just borrow from those that exist: fables and fairy tales and movie scripts, we’ve been refining the process for centuries, we are a story-telling species for God’s sake, there are thousands upon thousands to choose from. No matter that many of them are multi-layered and ambiguous, or devised to conceal things too difficult to face—there will always be an abc version available, a Disney version with a good guy and a bad guy, an evil witch and unsuspecting children in the woods, or even better: the evil stepmother. The Evil Stepmother! The wickedest of them all: a narrative that traces back to the beginning of time, that contains elements of the archaic mind. It would take a century to identify the mechanism of splitting, the defense mechanisms of idealization and devaluation, the separation of a painfully complex reality into the more easily digestible categories of good and bad, but let’s not digress from the story.
So the girlfriend pins the tail on the donkey; blindfolded, she makes a beeline to the evil stepmother. A lively girl confused by the subtleties and silences of the people around her, she kicks up a ruckus and throws tantrums and eventually becomes a conduit for everything the boy needs to expunge. You’ve ruined my life, he’d wanted to say to his mother; I want to kill you, to his stepfather. But because families have a way of sticking together, because family glue has a way of oozing back over everything that’s been seen, everything that’s been said, because every taboo oozes back into the subconscious oblivion it came from, these missives search out new recipients. An evil stepmother! What better way to get rid of your rage?
An impatient girl; a child, really. A well-meaning, brave, impetuous girl capable of dialing a telephone number twenty times in a row if she felt like it, of showing up unannounced on the doorstep. A girl on a mission, a Jeanne d’Arc with imperfect eyesight. And the boy, hiding behind her like a ventriloquist, letting her say the things he didn’t dare to. How could she know? It would take her a long time to understand, she would need to separate from the boy, and then, eventually, she would unravel it all, or part of it, and then she’d turn up unannounced at the door, years later, to apologize: you weren’t an evil stepmother after all, and the story was far more complicated—a belated revelation that comes as a relief even now, among the shards; a belated forgiveness.
An email notification—is it a coincidence that you’ve begun following my blog?
What can I tell you, now that I know you’re here? You were young, as sure of your brushstroke as a lean boy hungry for experience can be, and I’d loved you for so long already, since the first time I saw you in P.’s class. Did I never tell you that? I see us standing on a corner on Second Avenue, the sun so bright it blinded me, the fiercest squint serving only to make my eyes tear. I pressed my face into you, wishing I could become small enough to fit in your pocket, to stay with you and never leave your side again, even if I was only headed to the studio. That’s how I was back then, licking my wounds as my mind curled increasingly inward, and yet just as cocky as you, just as certain.
I see us on a downtown train, striking up a conversation for the first time, our heads resting on our arms as we clutched the bars overhead, swinging slightly with the movement. I didn’t think to tell you I had to change at Brooklyn Bridge. When the conductor announced the station, I jumped off the train and looked back and laughed at your consternation. I leaned in and gave you a quick kiss, and when the subway doors closed, you stared at me through the glass, looking almost annoyed. I smiled, and then I swiveled around and sauntered away, just long enough until I was out of view. I kissed him! I thought as I skipped across the platform to catch the local. I made sure to ignore you after that, just long enough for you to begin following me around. This is one of the moments that surfaces in my mind when I think of you.
Another: we are walking in Central Park, me in a pleated burgundy skirt I wore for a job interview, you in your pea coat with the collar turned up. The side of your face, the long neck and slightly protruding lower lip was an image I drew again and again after you left me that first time. You didn’t want me anymore, but it always takes me some time to realize these things and it took me some time that day as well, trying to catch up with your long-legged gait, trying to tell you what it felt like looking for a job somewhere on Wall Street, a former math wiz turned art school dropout—I wasn’t yet nineteen, but already the first sense of a decision’s irreversibility had instilled itself, of life being a board game in which you could miss your turn and wind up too far behind.
I showed you an abstract painting I’d made, and I see your mouth pucker in scorn. You asked if it was about anything, if I had any ideas; evidently, you considered me capable of engaging in meaningless activity. I’d been the class genius, had never been exposed to that kind of thing before, the way dudes think that girls are somehow less smart. As always, it took some time for this to sink in.
These are the things I see; that, and how innocent we were.
I see us at P.’s, cat-sitting, living in one of the tin-ceilinged lofts we’d missed by a decade, we whose lot it was to gentrify the roach-infested, rat poison-reeking tenements of the East Village. The Grand Street pediment of the Bowery Savings Bank, its reclining classical figures and domesticated lions: this is what we saw from the windows as we lay in bed, the female figure holding a mirror, the male a hammer: it was everywhere, of course, and I was only beginning to understand.
I see us in our apartment on Ninth Street, after we’d already been living together for several years: I tell you that I might take the apartment upstairs, and I see your eyes moisten, see how this stings you. It was one of the few times I became aware that you loved me.
And later, how many years later, P. drooling over his dinner, but as sharp as ever, as ornery and stubborn as ever. I was drained of emotion; I’d begun mourning him months before, when the illness hadn’t yet devoured his head, the tumors hadn’t yet begun to distort his face. Later, after we’d put everyone in a taxi, you walked me downtown, and I could have talked with you all night if I hadn’t been exhausted from lack of sleep. You brought me to the Neuhaus installation at Times Square, where we stood above a subway grate enveloped in a space of sound that initially seemed mechanical, plausible, but gradually induced a subtle disjunction between sight and sound that was sufficient to suspend time and elevate perception, render the reality around us cinematic. Later, further downtown, you told me you’d Googled me, tracked down my address and seen the semicircle of flagstones in front of our building from above. I was moved beyond words to learn that I continue to live on in your mind.
P. was the only father you’d ever known. When we gathered at the Grand Street loft one last time for Thanksgiving, he was still contrary enough to reprimand my son, who hadn’t been doing anything wrong besides wander a bit too close to the paintings. The tipsy joy I felt after closing the door to the tiny loo, the time-travel voodoo only physical surroundings can induce, when paint on a pressed tin wall and the crunchy pull of a ball chain hanging from a light bulb can transport you back to paradise. I’d forgotten how happy I was back then. But then, at the dinner table, there it was again, that sense of banishment from the magic circle: P. with his boys around him, speaking the P. language and not the least bit curious about my achievements. And I, after all these years, still needy enough to notice. I’d told this to you years before, after you came to my opening on Broadway; you said I shouldn’t pay it any mind, that P. was set in his ways, that there were certain things he’d never understand. I, who had been my father’s rightful son, but was a girl and hence had never been given that rite of passage; who had been born in a sadly Amazon-deficient world, a sorely Amazon-deficient time, felt the snub once again. These things are difficult to explain, but you, O fatherless friend, must surely understand. Later that evening, on our way to your studio nearby, where I saw that self-portrait of yours with the lines drawn on an orange ground—a painting you made when we were together, a painting I still love enough to steal—I turned around and saw that P. had made the journey downstairs after all, and the sight of him lugging a garbage bag to the corner filled me with grief as I stood there, overwhelmed by conflicting emotions and feeling foolish, a grown woman crying there in the middle of the Bowery.
A sudden change in perspective; a transposition of the pronouns “you” and “he.”
We sat opposite one another, our hands cupped around a small glass of whisky each—and there it was, an opportunity to tell you something I thought you needed to know. When things started to unravel, I began. When it seemed my life was coming to an end. But these are just words, of course; what I remember are moments of fragmented interiority, fleeting things that disintegrate when exposed to scrutiny. Let’s say I was broken. I no longer recall precisely how this felt on the inside; I know that it was dark and sinister and appallingly familiar. I remember the awful certainty that everything I’d ever tried to do, everything I’d ever undertaken to accomplish had been in vain. I forced myself to hang the laundry, to adhere to normal, everyday tasks, but it was like discovering that a curse had been cast upon anything I’d ever dreamed of in life, and all at once I understood it the way a child who has been taught to absorb guilt does when she’s hit her head or scraped her knee and, with the cruel logic of an inborn sense of the undeserving, accepts it as punishment for whatever she imagines she’s done wrong. You will never have this. Love, happiness, peace of mind: bright and shiny, and forever out of reach.
When things got so bad I didn’t know what to do, when I tried out the words “nervous” and “breakdown” in my mouth, maneuvered them around with my tongue like pebbles smooth enough to suck on, but then, horrifyingly, as brittle and jagged as the teeth I spit out in my childhood dreams—when I was able to say them, that these were perhaps the words for what was happening to me, that I was losing my ability to think, to pull myself out of the mud, that I was stuck on the bank, sucked down by the muck, sinking deeper and deeper with the waves lapping calmly over me, I asked myself: who do you run to when your mind is falling apart?
I wrote to my sister; I asked if she could come. I tried not to phrase it as a plea. Maybe this summer? I’ll get back to you, she said. And then I never heard from her again.
I began telling you this, and already I could feel that sense of despair that the family ties I thought would never be severed had already, in fact, been eroded by time. And I, as always, am the last to know.
But then something distracted you; you pursed your lips and summoned the waiter. I sat there, stung. I tried to explain. You had difficulty following me; when you finally registered what I was saying, you phrased it in workplace terms. When there is a problem, we look for a solution, you said. What would be a solution, you said. There is no solution, I said, it’s not about solution. It’s about a family legacy. Then if there’s no solution, you have to get rid of the problem some other way, you said. You have to forget it. But you don’t understand, I said. This is life, I said. This is how we’re made, I said. Isn’t that of any interest to you? Not really, you said. I’m a practical type of person.
Men, and women; fathers and daughters, mothers and sons. And you, who were always so uncomfortable with emotionality of any kind, later recognized yourself in one of the typologies. Your mother, a woman from modest circumstances; your father, a businessman too busy for his wife and children. What kind of a love could she have shared with this remote man, you wondered, but when she died your father let out the moan of a wounded beast. A mother who remains a mystery; who traded one currency for another, who disapproved of every girl you brought home. Who gave you the only love you ever knew. She’s after money, she said. And beneath that the unarticulated, insidious, in all likelihood unintended message: you are not loveable for who you are, for your weird, endearing humor, for your talents, your charms, your weaknesses. None of these things matter in the end, and you’re a fool to think so.
There was a man whose father left his mother soon after he was born.
There was a man whose father left his mother soon after he was born and started another family somewhere. The man developed an unusually close relationship to his painting teacher; the man’s older brother joined a religious sect and dropped out of sight for decades.
I loved this man, and still do.
There was a man whose father could not give his sons the love they needed to flourish, but saved it all for himself; whose father so dwarfed his sons that to this day they cannot physically endure his presence in the same room.
There was a man whose mother played the same musical instrument as he. And though she’d separated from his father many years previously, she was too blinded by the competitive war they’d waged to give her son the approval he needed to make it his life’s work.
There was a man who loved a woman who’d vowed never to become like her mother, but was more like her own mother than she cared to know.
I loved this man, and still do.
There was a man who had wanted to become an artist, but started a family instead, and grew silent.
There was a man whose wife suffered from his silence and went insane.
There was a man with a daughter whose lot it was to become an artist, to correct the family error. But the man silently stymied his artist daughter and nearly drove her insane.
I loved this man, and still do.
There was a man whose mother brought him a bag of bagels on his birthday, and then took the remaining ones home with her when she left.
There was a man who vowed never to become like his father. His entire identity so hinged on not becoming like his father that anything else became preferable, even living a lie.
I loved this man; maybe I still do.
There was a man whose mother left his father when he was very young. He and his mother shared a love that was legendary.
There was a man who went in search of his father many years later, found him, and rejoiced when he discovered how much alike they were. His father still feared his mother’s vindictive fury.
There was a man who created a legendary love between himself and his mother to still the fear that he might have reminded her too much of his own father.
I love this man, and I see more than he can know.
There was a man whose mother convinced him that his girlfriend was after the family’s money. Each time he found a new girlfriend, his mother convinced him that this girlfriend was also after the family’s money. The result was that the man remained alone, because he could never quite believe that anyone could love him for who he was.
There was a man who could not love the son of the woman he loved because he reminded him of the boy’s father.
There was a man who could not love the son of the woman he loved and rejoiced when she finally bore him his own son.
There was a man who so rejoiced when the woman he loved finally bore him his own son that he nearly drove the son of the woman he loved who was not his son insane.
To be continued.