Just That Way
I was once watching CSPAN, and there was a panel about the prospects for peace in the Middle East. It is hard to imagine how anyone could have anything interesting to say about this tired topic, but there was a man who had one smart, original thought after another — not just about Arabs and Israelis, but about life itself — and he was also shockingly handsome. I could not forget him, because he was what people mean by unforgettable. Several years later, I was at Yale Law School, with nothing to do in New Haven at age 39, and I found out that he was a visiting professor that year at another part of the university. All of a sudden, life made sense: I emailed him, we had dinner that night at a Cuban restaurant with a name that had something to do with the sun, which was perfect because even in the candlelight everything shined, and we fell in love.
The longer story is less lovely because it did not last, but here is the point: I think that I am meant to get involved with men I see on TV. Or more ridiculously, on CSPAN. Or whatever. I have an irrational idea of how this works.
About endings: There are no happy endings. If a relationship ends, it is necessarily sad. It does not matter if it is for a good reason, it does not matter if you understand, it does not matter if it is your idea, it does not matter if it is the right thing, it does not matter at all no matter what: a good thing does not end.
I saw Clark on Jay Leno’s show in 2001, when I was living in the town in upstate New York where West Point is, because my boyfriend was writing a book about the military academy. I remember that is when I saw him on Tonight, because I watched it religiously, because even with cable, NBC was one of the few channels we actually had reception for. (Some combination of the mafia and the Department of Defense had run all utilities into the ground.) I remember thinking that Clark ought to be the biggest star in the world, because he was so gorgeous: handsome with blue eyes that looked blue on a bad TV. I could not figure out how that wasn’t the case. I also believed my boyfriend was tyrannical. I told him that living with him made me understand how Saddam Hussein came to power, and I knew what I meant by that. We had killed a deer driving one night, and got stung by many bees on a walk through the forest and ended up in the ER, and I even took to cutting myself like a teenager to make a point — knife slashes in jags all up my arms and it was summer so no hiding them — and it felt like we were living with the Ten Plagues, but really it was just that we were under one roof in a little hamlet, and it was hot and hateful. I was so happy to move back to my apartment across the street from the World Trade Center in August of 2001.
And then I was not happy about it at all. I lived in Ground Zero. My life was on fire.
Clark lived near the World Trade Center also, and after 9/11, someone connected us, and we had a phone conversation that went on for two hours. I believe there was some professional pretense. What could it have been? I’m sure there wasn’t one. What did we talk about? Being displaced, I am sure. And lots else. I cannot remember, which means it must have been incredible. Of course it was.
At the end Clark told me he was getting married and moving to Los Angeles, but talking to me made him wonder if both those things were not a mistake. Of course they were.
That was the end of it.
Then as 2010 was turning to 2011 in the beginning of the cold dark season, somebody posted on Twitter that Clark was playing at the Bowery Ballroom. I retweeted it and said it would be fun to go. Like five minutes later my phone rings and it’s Clark: he never lost my number. He invited me to come to the show. And here is the funny thing: when I picked up the phone I said, Hi Clark. I hadn’t lost his number either. I was expecting to hear from him at some point. Everybody turns up eventually. The Chinese say that if you sit by the river long enough, all your enemies float by. Also your friends. Surely your lovers. The Chinese mean it in a bad way, maybe they mean everything in a bad way. I sit by the river in a good way: curiosity always gets the better of the best of people.
I was at a dinner party in Harlem that night so I missed most of the concert, but what I saw was great fun. The backstage area at the Bowery Ballroom is at the top of a tall staircase that crosses over at a diagonal at some point. The landings are shaky, or maybe it was the alcohol. This seems hazardous for drunken musicians maneuvering to and fro, which might have been a consideration, but I guess not. When I got to the top step, Clark was there. He was like: I have been waiting a decade for this to happen.
Maybe you will always have Paris. Clark and me will always have the top of the staircase.
So here is the thing about Clark: he is very serious. It is actually too much. He has read all of Ulysses, and who does that? He does. He had many people to see backstage. I talked to everyone, music writers and old friends of Clark from here and there. A girlfriend of his from long ago. For a while I thought all Clark and I would do was meet that way. But when he was ready to leave, I was still there — of course I was — and I offered to walk him to the Jane Hotel. We talked for many hours that night. A lot was not right with his marriage. He told me that he had never cheated on his wife. I found that amazing. Very nice, and nothing so rare, but he is on the road six months of the year so, yes, amazing. I couldn’t figure it out at all. By that time we were sitting on a fluffy velvet couch in the Jane Hotel lobby, with all those Persian rugs that are meant to make it feel intimate, and it does; it is one of my favorite places to drink hot mulled wine in winter. We were sharing a bottle of Petit Syrah, which is a very rich grape, opaque and deep, the color of blood that stains and does not come out in the wash. Clark had just turned 40. He was restive. So I said: Wanna start?
We went up to his room.
Hotels are so sexy. The whole point is sex: a woman walks into a hotel room with a man, and no does not mean no. Sex is better in a place that costs hundreds of dollars for nothing more than a bed, and what is required to make the bed a pleasure. Down comforters, feather beds, fluffy pillows. Are there enough words of praise for a mini-bar? How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Milky Ways and Pinot Noir when you need them, between blow jobs, say. So Clark and I had a ton of fun. He was at the Jane Hotel all weekend, so fun with hot butterscotch and hot fudge and whipped cream and a cherry on top.
Yes, it was really fun, as these things are. I’m in this for the part where everyone feels more alive and happy, and not the other part.
The rest of the story is not worth telling. Clark had a pretty thorough crisis about the whole thing. Being married is a big deal, and cheating is a big deal. For the next few months, he spent an inordinate amount of time taking out the trash and shoveling snow and raking leaves and things like that when he was home, because we would have these long conversations. He spent a good deal of Christmas dinner at his in-laws’ in the bathroom off the den, texting me. On the road, he hid in the back of the tour bus, so he could have privacy and be on the phone with me. We talked a lot. It’s shocking that we don’t talk at all anymore, because we talked so much. It is a frightening thing about life that a great presence becomes a huge absence and somehow you go on.
That is the most amazing thing of all about life: you go on.
What happened between us was such a source of pain and anxiety for Clark. And that was mostly my fault, because I was very crazy and very unhappy at the time, so I was not a good person to get mixed up with. I recently sent him an apology that included an apology for how self-serving it is to even say one is sorry, but yes, it did make me feel better to say so.
He wrote a beautiful song for me when all this was going on. He recorded it on his iPhone and emailed me the file. The demo is better than what he did in the studio. It came out on his most recent album. He changed the lyrics a bit––he made them more specific, and said something about how he would never forget the night we met. That surprised me. Here is an awful truth: I am just like all women, and deep down I feel wretched. I sell lots of books because I am so ordinary, despite some extraordinary experiences, and like everyone else I assume people don’t remember me once I leave the room. Obviously, life has taught me that this is not the case, but what I know is not what I feel.
I have not had any contact with Clark in a couple of years, but I was moved to know I had affected him at all. Look, people say lovely things plenty. But it is not the same. I can’t think of how many things I say that are nice just to avoid confrontation, which is, of course, one of the best uses of kindness. And obviously songwriters lie in songs. Doesn’t matter. It reminded me that life is very rich, and a lot happens in a short time if you are just that way.
I want to be just that way. It is exhausting, so I am taking a break from it, and much happier actually. Love is complicated, even when it is not. I have peace now. Starry Night has deeper curves when I stare at it. I go to the Museum of Modern Art and look at it for twenty minutes at a time, and of course I must blink, but it feels like I do not. I feel Vincent Van Gogh’s energy as if it is a wildcat charging at me, because there is room in my life where love at first sight used to be. I write sentences so pellucid, someone who does not speak English would understand what I am saying. I feel sorry for need, which gives us life and wastes our time. But I am deep down just that way, and it is good.
I love being in love. I have wasted so many productive years on relationships that have amounted to time spent. But what is life but time spent?
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