Monday, August 2, 2010

harlem sundown

I wrote this as an e-mail response to brilliant writer Stephen Elliott's Sunday daily Rumpus e-mail, in which he post-scripted, "Where are you? What are you thinking about?"

I am in East Harlem, sitting in my apartment on the third floor, listening to two hipster girls move into the apartment on the second floor where my best friend of three years used to live but which he vacated two days ago to move to New Orleans. They are blasting Indie rock music that I don't recognize, and the lead singer is a girl.

I am thinking about love, and how real it is versus how fake it is. I am thinking of the e-mail I got last night from a sailor I met when he was in New York for fleet week. I've never openly said I'm in love with him, but I know I am, or I was, in some way or another. I used to believe in the innate power of those words, saying you love someone, or that you're in love with someone. I used to see them, without knowing it, as a sort of death sentence - like when you say it aloud to someone, or even just to yourself, your life as you know it is over, and you've committed yourself to a forever feeling. It used to give me panic attacks. I don't believe that anymore. I know now that love has so many variants, an infinite number, and that the way I was in love with my first boyfriend when I was 15 will always be a unique experience, versus the way I'm in love with my sailor, versus the way I'm in love with the ice cream I had for lunch today, versus the way I'm in love with the nights I spent dancing in my friend's downstairs apartment that now belongs to someone else. The only thing they all have in common is that they are temporary.

Anyway, my sailor is a little younger than me and he is floating in the middle of the ocean in a location he will not disclose to me, and in this e-mail he told me how he used to have a problem, here undisclosed, and how he had to drop out of college because of it and how he joined the military to help him get over it. When I read it, I thought of how we all have or have had problems, haven't we, and I thought of how I had shared with him recently the heartbreak I went through over the past year as the result of my problem with a man. My sailor said, "Keep your head up and your eyes open, and good things will happen, I promise." Men have always promised me all kinds of things, and not a single one has kept a single promise. This time I believe him because this particular promise is his, but it's up to me to keep it. Or maybe I just believe him because I want to. Maybe promises are equivalent to hopes - images of things that don't actually exist, just figments of our imaginations, yet the most necessary parts of life.

I am thinking about how I have this habit of keeping the men in my life at bay. For years I've only seriously dated guys long-distance, and more recently I've really only hooked up with guys outside of New York, or guys from outside of New York, like my sailor. My downstairs best friend used to get on to me for this, saying I was afraid of a real relationship that would require a daily commitment: seeing the same person every day or every other day or every couple of days, scheduling my life around this person. I used to disagree with him, assuring him it was just a matter of happenstance that all my serious relationships were long-distance.

But now I know he was right, he is right. I am scared shitless. Not of commitment, not of intimacy, not of waking up beside the same person every single day forever. I want all that shit more than I can say. But right now, I wake up from dreams with song lyrics and poetry in my head, and I roll over and grab my phone so I can record myself singing them, or I write them down in my notebook. But if I woke up beside my sailor, I would roll over and graze the back of his neck with my lips, and he would stir and roll over to kiss me, and I would forget my dreams and I would write nothing down because my hands would be full of man. This scares me shitless. A fruitless life of nothing but sex and love and passion and babies and white picket fences and blue eyes and dimples.

I just know I would wake up at 40, 50 years old, and ask myself what I'd given the world, how I'd changed anyone's life, and the answer would be that I had not given or changed anything, because I lost myself in this painful sort of love for another person, because it's easy to want, and it's easy to create, at least compared with art. And then I would down an entire bottle of anti-depressants and some whiskey and some pain relievers and my sailor would find me on the floor of the bathroom with a note by my head that reads, "I failed. I love you."

So yeah. I'm scared shitless of that. And this is why I'd rather, for now, have a figment love with a man I barely know on a boat I've never seen than have a real relationship with a man in the present space. And this is what I'm thinking about today, as I sit in East Harlem, in my little chair, in my little apartment, in my little world.


  1. "I love you" as a death sentence: I feel you on that.

    I always think of cliffs and Buffalo.

    And I'm glad I'm not the only one who empties the contents of my mind into Rumpus response emails.

    Love you. (No cliffs involved.)

  2. Love this post!

    Take some unsolicited thoughts from Sadie Sadie Married Lady over here - the good news is that if I need to reach for my husband, he's there. If I need to reach for my pens and journals, they are also there. There's no "instead of". Maybe there was, once, but that initial endorphin rush of sick heroin "have to have you right now" feeling wears off and comes in fits and starts rather than constantly (which is a GOOD THING).

    Being an artist is hard. So is being a wife. Somehow I make them work. Who knows for how long? Art is a constant sea storm. Love is a buoy, a lighthouse. I guess the major difference between art and love is that you can't really lose art. You can lose yourself in it, but art never goes away. Love...well...we all know what can happen there. There's a quote in Nights in the Circus by Angela Carter that basically says that the problem with love is that you spend the rest of your life in fear of losing it, in anticipation of loss. No one says that about art.

    (sorry this was a long comment)

  3. I think the promise he made you, the kind only you can be accountable for keeping, means far more than anything someone else is supposed to deliver upon.

    Love can be a muse, but rarely do you find yourself keeping track of all the pretty things you think up. You'll find a way or you'll keep love at bay (unintentional rhyme, that) but either way I think you'll choose whichever option will make you happiest.

    Chin up and eyes open, best advice anyone could give.

  4. Thirty years into a marriage, I can tell you that I was able to make a difference -because- I had loving support.

  5. You captured it. You used words to beautifully box up the fear that I also have in my head--I'm unable to explain it to my friends or my "sailor".

    Your writing is beautiful, and I think it would be lovely gracing the poem section of the New Yorker...submit!

  6. Thank you, all. Thank you thank you.