Sunday, November 25, 2012

Back to Life

When we look back at the people in our lives, we tend to categorize. Because this is going to be one of those posts, let me boil that down a little further. I’ve had different types of girlfriends, or, more precisely, types of relationships with women.

The ones I thought I might spend the rest of my life with.
The ones with whom I knew I’d never have a meaningful connection.
The ones with whom I was, legitimately, better off as friends.

This is the story of one who brought me back to life.

I went through a really difficult breakup. Top five hardest breakups ever, right there with the first time I ever got dumped. That feeling that this. Could. Not. Have. Happened.

But it did.

I was hearbroken and I buried myself in my work. My writing. My blog. I started volunteering more. I worked out like a mad man. I filled the time.

To borrow a phrase from the film adaptation of About A Boy, “I had a very full life. It’s just that it didn’t mean anything.”

I went to a conference out of town, where I met up with a few old friends and acquaintances. We went out to dinner that first night and one of them introduced me to Anne.

She was slim, hair tied back, chic blouse and pencil skirt. Physically, Anne was a beautiful woman, and there’s no denying that was the first thing I noticed about her. The next things I noticed: she talked down to the waiter; she cursed a lot; while it seemed affectionate at first, I became increasingly certain that her “ball busting” of the friend who introduced me to her was more mean-spirited than jovial.

I volleyed with her. Given the right setting, the right people, I can be a bit of a ball buster myself, and so I engaged, almost equal parts joking and coming to my friend’s defense.

After dinner, a smaller group of us lingered and moved over to the bar. While I waited for the bartender, a weight came to rest on my shoulder. Anne. In heels, she was almost as tall as me. Tall enough to put her chin right there.

“Am I distracting you?” she asked.

“Can I buy you a drink?”

Our little party thinned until Anne and I sat alone. She sipped a martini. I drank my Jack straight. When we weren’t talking about something we got along much better, sharing the briefest anecdotes and factoids from our lives, then teasing one another about each one.

“It’s a shame we’re only here a few days,” Anne said.

“Why’s that?”

“Otherwise, I might ask you out to dinner.”

I walked her up to her hotel room. She put her card in the slot on the door. The light flashed green and she turned the handle.

It was the first time I saw her awkward, unsure of herself.

She took about three steps inside and turned around to face me. I kept the door propped with my foot.

“I had a good time tonight,” she said.

I kissed her.

A couple minutes later, we said good night.

I went about my business the next day. I bought a two-dollar banana and a cup of stale coffee from a vendor on the expo floor. I sat in a series of sessions and asked questions, struck up conversations after workshops, and gave business cards to a dozen folks I’d never hear from again. It was a completely ordinary conference experience, notable only for the nervous energy manifesting itself in a near-literal bounce in my step as the hours wound down to seeing Anne again.

I told our mutual friends I had a headache. I’m not sure what excuse Anne used, but I don’t think anyone scrutinized us too closely. The second night of a reunion never feels as vital as the first.

Anne used to live not so far from the conference locale. We hopped in her rental car and drove for half an hour to a much smaller town. We shared a plate of fried calamari over drinks at an Italian restaurant and quickly found that we had all but exhausted topics for conversation. Then I spilled a drop of red wine on the crotch of khakis. She said I looked like I had had my period. We were off and running again.

After dinner, we walked the stretch of storefronts, hand in hand. The town had strung white Christmas lights along all of the tree branches, oddly out of season.

We got back in the car. An old Richard Marx song played on the radio. She called it gay and changed the station. I spared her the lecture on homophobic language. Along the drive, I watched the patterns that took shape on her face in the glow of the dashboard, under streetlights, and beneath the shadows of the tree branches and telephone lines at the side the road.

We made it back to her room.

Under the covers I ran a hand over her bare arm. “It’s a shame we’ve only got one more night.”

She might have nodded. Might have rolled your eyes. You never know what you’re missing in the dark.

I mentioned that we didn’t live that far apart. Absurd, since you’d have to drive almost a full day to get from my door to hers. She called me on it. I reminded her of the existence of air travel. She asked if I knew how expensive that flight was. I admitted I didn’t.

I knew by then that Anne wasn’t the woman I’d spend my life with, and removing physical contact from the equation, I couldn’t imagine we’d make great friends. Nonetheless, as our big toes crossed, I realized I hadn’t thought of my previous relationship or the break up in over 24 hours.

That felt pretty good.

“What are we doing?” Anne asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m just saying that maybe I could come see you in a few weeks. And if we both have a good time, maybe we’ll see each other again a few weeks after that.”

“For Chrissake, we’ve only known each other two days.”

I didn’t spend the night.

Despite the rocky ending, I still couldn’t wait to see Anne again for our last night in the same zip code. I sat in the same session as one of our friends that morning, the one who had introduced us. He wore a black tie patterned with yellow and blue and pink balloons. “It’s my birthday,” he said. “So no headaches tonight. We’re getting the whole crew together.”

Anne didn’t answer my text messages that afternoon, so, indeed, I joined the whole crew, Anne included, in the hotel lobby that night. We walked to a karaoke bar four of five blocks from the hotel.

The birthday boy and Anne sang a duet, he as Andrea Bocelli, her in the role of Sarah Brightman on “Time to Say Goodbye.” It seemed emblematic of something or other. The abrupt end to my brief time with Anne. The ending of a belabored, too-long epilogue to my previous relationship.

The two of them made googly eyes as one another on stage. Just for show, I figured. I ate chicken wings and pretended not to notice, all the while wondering what kind of bar had that song in the rotation. When my turn at the mic came up, I sang “I Believe In a Thing Called Love” by The Darkness. My ability slip into a falsetto is the only remotely impressive weapon in my karaoke arsenal. The crowd cheered when I approximated the high notes. Anne talked through most of my performance, her eyes fixed eight inches above the knot in my friend’s balloon tie.

Ten minutes later, I finished my beer, waved a hearty salute to the table, and got up to leave. I made it all the way to the sidewalk when Anne caught up with me.

“You’re going to leave like that?”

She put her arms over my shoulders, locked her fingers behind my neck. A few doors down a group of really little kids--first- or second-graders by my best guess--were gabbing away with each other. I wondered where the parents were and why on earth these kids were out so late at night. Anne and I both watched them for a few seconds.

“We’ll have to keep this G-rated.” She kissed my cheek and hugged me.

I hugged her back, holding her long and hard, knowing it would probably be the last time I would do so.

We traded a handful of emails after we had both gotten home, but promptly fell out of touch the way people with little in common and little time together tend to do. In the months that followed, via Facebook, I saw that she and the birthday boy had forged their own relationship. I was confused. Then upset. Then OK with it. All in a span of a couple days.

I ran into him at another conference almost a year later. We talked for about ten minutes on the street. Anne’s name never came up. We made sure we had each other’s numbers and agreed to meet up for drinks that night.

We never did.

Post-Anne, I never looked at the woman I was seeing before her in quite the same way. And for that matter, I wrote a little less. And I didn’t feel so bad about skipping a trip to the gym.

To return to that line from About A Boy, I suppose you could say my life was a little less full. And perhaps it’s because I carried far less baggage that I was finally ready to move on.

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