He wants someone to protect and care for, woman as little bird, woman as perpetual girl, to distract him from himself. It’s just safer that way, to steer clear of one’s intellectual equals or, punish the thought, superiors.
He basks in long silences. Instead of talking, he prefers to immerse himself in other worlds, fantastical or familiar: he would prefer to not have to think about life’s forward motion, that momentum might be a difficult but a better kind of happy, a higher plane of happy. It seems too hard to get there, to continually put in the effort, to build a life brick by brick, instead of in fits and starts. He likes to take the easy way out of things. He would be the first to admit this.
He’s sitting in front of new friends, watching them sing other people’s music under a glittering crystal ball casting shards of light onto their faces. He thinks he loves one of them. Her skin is pale and beautiful, looks so soft. She is wearing a baggy but revealing sweater, something girls seem to like to do lately, teasing the men who have to look at them all day. Too much length, too much fabric, but the clear silhouette of breasts beneath. She wears too much eye makeup, but she wears it well. She is singing a Mariah Carey song, not poorly, but drunkenly, too loudly, too shrilly. But he’s had at least eight beers, which has the effect of muffling her misplaced crescendoes and bungling of lyrics and the occasionally accurate harmonizing of her friend, who is taller and has better hair but is not as pretty.
Hours later, in the low little Ikea bed in his friend’s student apartment, he sees that the tall friend has tagged him on Facebook. He will immediately untag himself, not interested in broadcasting to the world the simple fact that he has had fun. He thinks of his father, disapproving of digital junkyards. He respects his father’s opinion and mostly agrees with it. Where he comes from, a car is technology enough, excitement enough, with the freedom and possibility it promises. The Internet, on the other hand, is a vast but shallow pool. Too many choices, not many of them interesting or worthwhile. The desire to tell the world where you are and take pictures of your friends to prove you have friends is alien to him, and he hopes it always will be.
He is in the airport now, the karaoke farewell feeling suddenly long behind him. He is pacing up and down carpeted ramps on the outskirts of a city he has never really seen, listening to the music his new and now distant friends gave him. He is going home, and in eighteen long hours he will be on his parents’ two-seater sofa on a pillow dragged from his room, lying under an old patchwork blanket from childhood, determined to fight a staggering jet lag in order to watch the Olympics. He will be so tired and shocked to be gone from the otherworldly pocket of reality he just experienced, with its different trees, different birds, different music, different light, different accents, that he will not be able to carry on a conversation with his family members or me, his old friend. But we’re all used to this.
If only I could be as skilled as he is at ignoring the persistent questions of disappointed family members. The constant, whispering why. The occasional, gentle when, blanketed in ellipses and softened brows. It was when I was sitting next to him as he lay there, watching a kayak race on the old, boxy television, so exhausted and shellshocked, vacant, indifferent, that I realized I wanted to give up everything for him, which I knew would mean being bombarded with questions from my own family, my own set of whys and whens, but probably a set far less patient and understanding than the ones that came from his parents. Then, I wished they would just adopt me, so I could feel free to come live here, near this young man I loved so much. Then I couldn’t marry him, of course. But at least I could be near him, basking in his simple and pleasant way of being, which is almost animalistic in its simplicity, cat-like, concerned only with basic issues of survival.
Nothing had happened with the pretty, pale brunette. Story of his life. I was happy to know this, playing the role of his dependable, old, sexless confidant. Felt a little surge of devilish glee when he began to make excuses for why nothing had happened: that she wasn’t smart enough for him, that what would be the point since he was leaving soon and might never return, though he wanted to, but would be prevented by the fact that it would take the world’s most expensive plane ticket to get him back there.
Little did I know then, he experienced the same giddy feeling when I told him that same day that my boyfriend wouldn’t be making it up this time. I heard the change in his voice when he responded with a breathy, Ah, well, but doubted it, told myself it wasn’t really there, that my ears had played a trick on me. He was just happy, happy from a combination of jet lag and vodka, that beautiful, bubbly fatigue that a person in limbo, a person between two worlds, can’t help but feel, lets themselves feel for a few days or a week. In his case, probably longer. He was very forgiving of himself. He would continue the habits he’d learned back there now that he was home: watching too much TV, drinking too much, lying about, kicking the future away with a lazy foot.
We each had this dangerous, potentially tragic habit: of automatically giving our competition more weight than we gave ourselves, of putting these others, these prospects and exes and current significant others, on a pedestal, seeing them as perfect. See, I’d invented all the details about the brunette friend. For all I knew she didn’t have good skin, or even pale skin, or breasts seductively hiding beneath a too-large sweater. But I saw her as perfect, because there was no other way. She was flawless and irresistible and I was just me, whatever that was: flawed and resistible. He had resisted me for this long. So clearly I just wasn’t good enough, and nothing could be done about that fact.
The mistake there, of course, is that sometimes in our conviction that we are unlovable, we hide too much of ourselves from view. We make ourselves so unreadable and so unapproachable that other people are unable to love us. They are afraid to love us, because they can’t see that we love them. They can’t see anything. We prevent them from being able to love us. We block their path with our mysterious high walls. There is love behind those walls, but they’d never guess it.
It was easier then, when he was seven thousand miles away from me in either direction. Now he dangles himself in front of me, a border away, but an easily crossable border. It taunts me. He is a quiet soundtrack, he is music playing in the elevator of my mind forever. As I’m making my bed, as I’m scrutinizing myself in the mirror before work, as I’m moving my eyes across the pages of a book, as I’m taking a sip from a heavy glass of red wine, as I’m running, as I’m walking, as I’m sleeping. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. So someone tell me what makes the heart grow less fond. I know it is not presence. At every opportunity I cross that border, seize his shoulders in uncertain hands, and his presence makes my heart grow fonder, too, and many other things: weaker, sadder, angrier.
What I want is for us to be able to look each other with faces that say nothing, to know each other so well that we just look to look, look to silently speak, to say, I am here, a soft, unblinking expression that solidifies the evidence that is already there: the physicality of us, two proximate, familiar bodies. It is the way only old, familiar lovers look at each other. It is hard to find. But it is hard to find because it is hard to suggest, hard to participate in, hard to proffer. It’s so much easier to just sit here, a friendly border away, and preserve each of my memories of him, as if thinking is practice for doing, though we all know that only doing is practice for doing.