Sunday, October 27, 2013

Telling Her Story

The second time I met Elizabeth, her name was Mary.

She wasn’t actually Elizabeth--I knew that from the start. Mary hadn’t gone to college with me, and everything she told me about her personal history, from growing up in the Midwest, her pet rabbit, her recent divorce--it was all new to me. She had longer, straighter hair than Elizabeth. I recognized these differences when I met Mary at a party. And yet, with each passing glass of wine, the differences blurred to shades of gray and sameness. I recognized the same high pitch and timbre of her voice. That she was every bit as short as Elizabeth, peering up at me with the same wide, green eyes as we made conversation. That she had the same proclivity to stop me when I exaggerated the facts of an anecdote--weighing in with legitimate statistical information and citations. That much like Elizabeth, she preferred the phrase “back assward” over “ass backwards.”

*

One of the greatest compliments I ever received, paired with one of my saddest revelations:

I lay in bed with Elizabeth, forehead to forehead, right palm splayed on her left thigh, the knuckles of my left pressed air tight to the knuckles of her right, the backs of our fingers interlaced, sides of our hands resting against the mattress in the space between our barechests. We had kicked off the comforter and the blanket in the heat of the night. We stretched her paisley bedsheet over our heads. Shelter, but thin enough so the morning sun shone right through.

“I stopped writing after I met you,” she said.

“Why?”

“I always thought I’d be a writer. But when I met you, I saw how much more dedicated you were. How much better you were. And I realized I’d never be like that.”

“You’re a good writer.” All I had to base that on was proofreading a couple essays for her, but it wasn't untrue.

“I’m good at writing,” she said. “But I’m not a writer. Not like you are.”

No one had cited me--much less what talent I may have had--as a source of discouragement before. The thought that they couldn’t live up to my standard. Elizabeth was far better-read than I was. An incisive reader who could recall passages from Cather to Dostoevsky with remarkable accuracy and insight. And yet this woman would say that my abilities were prodigious enough for her to retreat from her own creative attempts?

I told her I loved her.

She kissed me, but she wouldn’t have to say it back. She drew me closer to her. All that skin on all that skin. She slid beneath me and breathed in time to the squeak of the bedsprings beneath us.

*

A year later, after I had graduated from the Master of the Arts program in writing at Hopkins, I returned to hear the next class read from their final theses.

Mary read.

She read about sailing. About her frustration the first time on the boat and how her then-husband and in-laws chided her for confusing starboard with port.

The essay wasn’t perfect. I heard the excess language, the moments she told when she should have shown.

But it was good.

And as Mary read from her manuscript, standing tall at the podium in two-inch heels, I saw Elizabeth. The Elizabeth who kept writing and who, in time, was unafraid of sharing her work with an audience. An Elizabeth who was older. Still every bit as beautiful, but no longer for the effort of eye shadow and carefully chosen sundresses, but rather for how sure she was of herself.

Hours later, I joined the graduates, my fellow alumni, and those who still toiled in the midst of the program at a dive bar within walking distance of my apartment. Halfway through my third double shot of Jack Daniels, I made my way to Mary or Elizabeth--whatever amalgamation of the two I saw through the lens of too much whiskey. We hugged. She laughed when I picked her up in my arms, squeezing her close to me. As I set her back down, I told her that she was amazing.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Walk of Shame

See me as I was in college. But dressed like a priest. Walking down the street on a Sunday morning.

Let’s back up.

Inspired by Bridget Jones’s Diary my friends thought it would be a fantastic idea to throw a “Tarts and Vicars”-themed party. And the guests ran the gamut,from the women dressed as prostitutes, to the men dressed like clergy, to Craig, the lone man to all too predictably rouge his cheeks and dress in drag for the evening.

And I donned the black shirt my mother bought me when I played in the pit orchestra for my high school’s production of Brigadoon. The black slacks I bought at the thrift store with the left leg a little longer than the right. A cardboard white collar to complete the ensemble.

I had spent the better part of the last six months infatuated with Elizabeth at that point. We hung out more nights than not, and spent most of those nights apart trading messages on AOL Instant Messenger until one or two in the morning. We studied together and watched movies and went on afternoon road trips to explore the surrounding area. For all of that time together, she wasn’t prepared to split apart from the boyfriend awaiting her back home.

Most nights, I made my peace with that. That we wouldn’t do more than sit with our arms touching or our feet pressed against each other while we sat on opposite ends of her bed. That we were really, really good friends.

Even if it pissed me off.

Then I met Valerie.

Valerie was everything Elizabeth was not. Louder. Taller. She didn’t hesitate to tell people that the doctors who diagnosed her as bipolar were full of shit. The night of the Tarts and Vicars Party, she sported a brand new stud to fill her brand new nose piercing.

I met Valerie when she poured coffee at the café I frequented over long nights working at the newspaper office. In the weeks leading up to the party, she had made a habit of visiting the office after she got off work and hanging around while I copy edited or manipulated columns of text in Pagemaker.

As a general rule, I’m not a great judge of when women are romantically or sexually interested in me. Molded by my celibate teenage years, they have to be pretty overt to assure me I’m not imagining things.

With Valerie, nothing was ever all that subtle.

I think we both knew the score when she made a show of whispering something in my ear every couple minutes as we stood in the kitchen, at the heart of the party. She may not have said anything more seductive than a request for me to pass the chips or a comment about someone else’s hooker outfit. It wasn’t the content that mattered, but the form--the whispers themselves. The whispers that grew hotter as she blew in my ear. Wetter as she licked it.

As she did so, I made direct eye contact Elizabeth.

Elizabeth finished her beer and went home.

A half hour later Valerie and I stood in the basement with a crew of other party goers. I had only been downstairs once before, a more casual visit a few weeks before, when the party hosts had smoked weed in a section of the basement partitioned off with paisley bed sheets hung from clotheslines, and listened to Melanie’s “Brand New Key” on repeat. I had decided not to visit the house again without a clearer itinerary of what the night had in store.

I don’t remember the precise sequence of events. Just that with little effort or contrivance the crowd thinned and thinned until Valerie and I were the only two left in that basement. I sat on a recliner. She sat on the arm of it.

We talked and talked and when it occurred to me that we were alone. I coiled an arm around her waist and pulled her down, not so gracefully, on top of me. She plunged her tongue about as far down my throat I imagine she could without triggering my gag reflex.

The recliner gave way beneath us--not just the footrest kicking out, but the whole chair falling back in a violent motion. She hit her head on the floor and cursed.

I asked if she was all right.

She kissed me harder.

I can’t be certain how long we spent there, half on the chair, half on the floor. I thought I heard the basement door open, but when I paused Valerie bit my lip. I never heard footsteps come down the stairs toward us.

And then we were done.

I zipped my fly and searched for a reflective surface in which to straighten my hair. Valerie scoured the floor on her hands and knees.

“What are you looking for?” I asked.

“My nose ring,” she said. “I just got my nose pierced and it’s going to fill right in if I don’t have something to fill the hole.”

I helped her looked. Righted the recliner, then hoisted it in the air so she could search underneath. We walked the perimeter of the room, farther than I imagined the stud could have rolled. It was nowhere to be found.

She settled on an answer.

Valerie removed one of her big hoop earrings and threaded the end through the hole at her nostril. An inelegant solution, perhaps, but it seemed to accomplish what she needed.

We went back upstairs to rejoin the party. The crowd had thinned there, too. Valerie grew bored and suggested we find some privacy again.

And I eyed the door to Tori’s bedroom. I was pretty close to two of the house’s residents. More acquaintances with Tori and one of the other women who lived there. I hadn’t seen Tori all night. It wasn’t like her to miss a party, so I assumed she must have been out of town or at some other get together that night. I pushed the door open slowly and led Valerie into the darkness.

Before we could kiss--before we could so much as touch in any meaningful way--the door flew open.

Tori wasn’t missing anymore.

Without ever physically coming to blows, what followed was one of the most heated, violent fights I’ve ever been witness to, laced with pointed fingers and pejorative terms I prefer not to reproduce. Tori insisted there was no way Valerie would fornicate in her bedroom. Valerie warned her not to speak of that which she did not know. Somehow, I slipped under the radar. The altercation culminated in Tori, in reference to the hoop nose ring, calling Valerie, “Shovel Face.”

When my friends recounted the evening for the months that would follow, it was that unfortunate nickname that would remain the most consistent piece of each iteration. The longest surviving piece of my, from there, short-lived romance with Valerie.

I walked Valerie home. We sat on her couch, sipped water, and turned on MTV. She passed out inside the first five minutes, her body across mine, head half on my shoulder, half against my chest.

I tried to sleep, but got little rest between the TV and the sound of my partner's snoring. I wasn’t situated to watch the sunrise, but recall the point when I noticed yellow light cast on the wall, snaking its way through the slats in the Venetian blinds behind us.

Valerie woke. She said her mom was visiting and that I’d have to go. But that she had a really good time.

So I walked back to my dorm. I was halfway home before I even remembered the white strip of cardboard at my neck, still present through all of the night’s proceedings. I pulled it off and tossed it in a trash can on Main Street.

And just as I did, I saw Elizabeth.

She wore a white t-shirt and navy blue shorts. Light gear for the autumn weather, but she was running. There’s no mistaking the fact that we saw one another, a half block of sidewalk between us, nary another human being around. I started to say something or other. But what can you say to the woman you’re pretty sure you love, and you think might love you back, when you’re still dressed up like a priest from the night before, and all her makeup has been washed clean for hours?

She rounded the corner before we crossed paths. Ran faster then. Closer to disappearing with every stride.

I plugged my hands in my pockets, cast my eyes to the ground, and resumed my walk of shame.