BY LEE TAYLOR
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
- John Keats
It was a miserable Monday afternoon in December. Freezing rain fell sideways, and the only option was to pull the parka hood tightly and let woolen fingers be wet. My ex-husband and I sat in my living room, deciding where to hide the Elf on the Shelf. For several weeks I’d been engaging in a text message flirtation with a boyfriend from college, someone I had not seen in twenty years. We were sharing in an erotic mania, the reconnection allowing both of us to open recesses of desire that had been quelled by our respective divorces. It was dizzying and intoxicating. There I was, a 38-year-old single mother of two, masturbating on the bathroom floor before heading to yoga class.
As the holidays neared, the tone changed. His verbosity clipped to incomplete sentences and longer stretches passed between contact. Then, that drizzly day, he told me why. There were mental health issues. Lifelong ones. He needed to retreat. I put my head down and let the phone fall to the floor with an emphatic thud.
“What?” my ex-husband asked.
“You’re not going to fucking believe this,” I said.
I was trying. This time, I was actually trying to have something normal.
Many people don’t believe in astrology; they think it’s stupid. Not me. The next time another person will be born under my unique formation of stars and planets is some 3,000,000 years into the future. So many twinkling lights, juxtaposed with imperceptible movement down here on earth. It’s amazing to ponder.
Yet all of that vastness can be contrasted with uncanny synchronicities here in the human realm. At the end of a seventeen-year relationship that took up the bulk of my adult life, friends and lovers began to drop back into my life as if summoned by my return to the woman I was before. Closing tidy little circles.
When I moved back to America after my separation, I spent the summer dating a succession of internet-mined men. I lived and behaved probably as I should have in my twenties – a decade that I instead spent needlessly committed. In the autumn, when things quieted down I wrote about my experiences out there on the singles market and in doing so resuscitated the tale of breaking up with this college boyfriend. I rarely thought of him over the years, but for whatever reason, that moment came back to me in hashing out the history of my heart. And just weeks later, he came back to me through the sorcery of social media.
Memory is coy. I remember very little of him from that time when I was eighteen. I know I loved speaking with him, and joking with him. I remember the arc of his trapezius muscles when he looked at me squarely, from between my legs, before going down on me. (The first time anyone had done that.) I remember the peculiar rage he exhibited in that final ugly battle of 1996, but what exactly we were fighting about, I have no idea.
After owning up to the mental health issues, he disappeared for a while. Christmas fell into the New Year and I gathered I might never hear from him again, substantively at least. In a way, I was amused at the idea of having had so much imaginary sex with a person only to have it never be consummated in the flesh. There are many, many ways to have a love affair. I could romanticize it being like Kafka and the married woman he was in love with and left his diaries to – they spent only six days together in total and upon his death, he chose to give her the tangible contents of his brilliant mind’s meanderings.
Eventually, my own epistolary love affair resumed, but it was decidedly not the same. In his words I felt a mixture of continued curiosity tempered by reluctance. He was making an effort in the name of not wanting to regret not making an effort.
I did end up seeing him. And then decided I needed to see him again.
We all have a narrative that defines us. Some of us hear the script outright, while others yield to its direction subconsciously. For most, this story represents the core truth of their being and can be traced back to an exemplary moment in childhood. I find myself returning to mine often, when meditating or lost in the labyrinth of dreams. I was thirteen or fourteen, awkward and ungainly like all young teenagers, wearing a baggy t-shirt to conceal the breasts I wasn’t quite ready to possess. A camp counselor for whom I had a unique affection grabbed me on the way into the dining hall, having me sit on his lap.
I began squirming immediately, already sensing that he was going to give me some type of affirmation (he was the camp’s spiritual program director). He held my shoulders still and demanded I make eye contact with him. I still recall the blue of his squinty Irish eyes. “Taylor,” he said, “I love you, girl. You are a beautiful, beautiful human being.” I grumbled some type of acknowledgement and broke away as soon as I could. And that is pretty much all you need to know about me; to give is better than to receive. To receive feels like being swallowed, losing my footing. It’s simply too much. I’m safer on the other side, even if sometimes I give so much that I embarrass myself or am worn down to the point of illness and exhaustion.
He was a little boy when his story took place, seven or eight if I remember rightly. They had been making kites for a school project and his was a butterfly. In the middle of the night, he woke his parents, frantic. He had somehow decided in the depths of darkness that his kite was too effeminate. They had to take him to school early so he could make a different kite. So, they did. And he did. Already as an elementary school student, he was jarred to consciousness in the night by some anxious churning in the mind, unable to get out of its way. A mind that in spite of knowing better was prone to conjure worse case scenarios, to take words the wrong way and to fret about the most mundane of human interactions. We lay the framework in our youth and then make choices in our lives to stay on message.
There we were, damaged goods. The two of us exchanging these stories and knowing that even in knowing we might never be able to improvise.
The night before I left to see him, I went to bed at midnight. I needed to be awake at half-past four to get to JFK for a morning flight. This is a specific kind of “sleep,” where one stirs on the hour to check the time, fearful of oversleeping. The light from his incoming text woke me at 3:15. That same little boy and his thoughts on a hamster wheel in the blackness.
Earlier in the evening, I had spoken off the cuff. I was trying to remind him that my visit was in the name of fun and nothing at all meant to trigger his anxiety. I triggered his anxiety.
“Maybe if I could calm down, I would have had a happier life. Maybe my wife wouldn’t have left me…”
It’s interesting, it was not the misunderstanding of the text that troubled me, but the rumination. Knowing that for the three hours I had just spent tossing in bed, he was going over my words, “calm the fuck down,” and how to respond to them, over and over. I boarded the airplane having no idea if he would accept my apology. I traveled across the country having no idea if I would even see him that weekend.
A couple of hours after he picked me up, we sat in the last two barstools of a coffee shop. He started to tell me how he was thinking about using a medical mask to keep people from speaking to him on the street. “Headphones, sunglasses, mask…” his voice trailed off. There was a hint of self-deprecating humor but also, seriousness.
“What are you so afraid of?” I asked.
His face twisted. His eyes welled and he was caught in the awkward moment of wanting to say something to deflect the emotions but being unable to because he was, ostensibly, crying. I put my hands on his head, the way I would to my 2-year-old. So much pain. How are we allowed to walk around in so much pain?
In bed with him before parting, sober and in the light of day, I sensed that he was wasting away. I remember that feeling myself. Shortly after my marriage fell apart, I was laying on an examining table in the dermatologist’s office. She was removing a stubborn cyst – one that had ironically been in my leg the entirety of my marriage. I watched her saw away at my skin, like she was metaphorically excising my ex-husband from my body.
It was like a cancer, that little lump. A physical manifestation of all the complaints, protestations and pointed questions I should have given voice to. The doctor struggled to free it from my leg, stopping once to hurriedly inject more anesthetic as she plunged deeper into my thigh. The scar is still quite vibrant, some sixteen months later, raised and raw – a symbol of where I am still bravely working.
While she operated on me, my hands rested on my hip bones. I was amazed how they protruded so. I weighed under a hundred pounds for the first time since high school. In that moment I felt as if I was disappearing into the table. Shrinking down to nothing. The person who I thought I was, and would be, was no longer. My body was in a malnourished purgatory while it waited for another version of myself to inhabit it. He was still there, in that place of confusion, needing a hamburger and fantasizing about moving to Thailand to count down his remaining days in isolation.
I spent that afternoon in his house, waiting for him to come home from work so he could bring me to the airport. Entering alone, I was overwhelmed by the grief within. It’s unbelievable how much suffering the beams of an old Craftsman can bear. I walked around with a burning stick of Palo Santo, trying to clear the space of all that sorrowful energy. Upstairs, I placed my hands on the foot of his bed. I conjured my deepest resources, wanting to bring peace to the place where I knew he spent hours being held hostage by thoughts untethered.
Later, we would be there naked.
“You are full of contradictions,” I told him. The window panes rattled behind our heads.
“I’m full of contradictions,” he echoed.
I loved his voice. It seems like a strange thing to say. The bass-baritone range, smooth timbre, careful elocution – I liked listening to him speak. Not that he did a whole lot of it. I talk too much.
My comment got under his skin somehow. I could feel it bouncing in his head after we stopped rolling around and decided to rest for a spell.
How could he not see the contradictions? The compartmentalization? Just the day before we ran into a former student of his when she drove into a parking lot we happened to be ambling through. In mirroring her, he was transformed.
For a moment he became the charismatic young man in my memory. There was the charming fraternity president who had not yet been hobbled by anxiety and subsequently dismembered by divorce. The one who didn’t need to cover his head constantly, religiously devoted to hiding in plain sight. The dichotomy between this incandescence and what lurked in the shadows was fascinating. How could he be both who he was to that lovely young woman in the parking lot and who he was with me – a man so encumbered by neuroses that he wouldn’t spend the night in my hotel room. Throughout the weekend I drifted off to sleep naked and alone, feeling a bit like a concubine, and imagining what it would be like to once again wake up next to a lover.
I sat cross-legged on the floor telling my 21-year-old babysitter about my trip. “I hope I’m not speaking out of turn here,” she said, “I know you know you deserve better, but for some reason you just don’t demand it.”
I smiled. I’m not sure I want who better comes with. She‘ll understand when she is older, the difficulty getting out from underneath patterns and desires. How even in the midst of growth the same challenges come back around. Tidy little circles.
He sent me five of his poems to read, each reeking of melancholy regardless of content. Nothing makes me lean in like an undercurrent of heartache, the kind where the speaker seems to be continually smiling through tears. I have always been drafted by sadness, like a small vessel carried out to sea unawares.
As a young girl, I orchestrated a life of solitude for myself. While my family worked in the yard, laughing and joking, I would hide in a circle of pine trees, lost in my imagination. At our cottage on the lake, I would hike up to a hidden waterfall, a special place where I sat silently and allowed a queer mournfulness to grip me. Some nights, I would cry in front of my bedroom mirror, watching grief contort my face, filled with a strange mixture of intrigue and rapture. It’s no surprise then that this is what I go looking for in love.
I went to a birthday party shortly after coming home from California, in a Brooklyn apartment packed with affluent families. I watched the husbands and wives balance duties of bagel cutting and diaper changes. I looked around at all the men in the room - so white, so average, so basic. I wouldn’t go on a second date with a single one of them, even though some pretty ladies had seen them fit to mate with. I am drawn to the thing that drew me into the mirror. A reflection of my own pain. A creative soul treading water and needing someone to swim to shore with.
Lee Taylor is a writer, musician and light worker raising two children in Brooklyn, NY. She has an MFA in creative writing from The New School and spent the past six years living and blogging in Switzerland. Her essay “The Patron” was recently published in the inaugural print edition of Hofstra University’s literary journal, Windmill. She was also featured in the March issue of Bodega, an online literary magazine.