I don’t know why I decided to write this today, dammit, because I will cry if I do and my brownish-black Great Lash (not waterproof because that’s nasty stuff) mascara will dissolve until I look like Maggie Gyllenhaal in “Crazy Heart” when Jeff Bridges wipes a pool of sooty tears off her cheekbone with his big thumb and says “Look at you” right before he kisses her, only I’ll be here alone with my keyboard and soggy Kleenex, eliminating any possibility of a shot for dramatic effect. And God knows neither you nor I have sidestepped a chance at drama since that fate-smacked summer of 1970, 42 hot Julys ago, when we met. Collided, actually.
Wait. I forgot to tell you that I actually fell in love with you back in 1956 in Las Vegas when I was in first grade and you were my friend Melissa’s big sister’s boyfriend Peter The Lifeguard. That he and Big Sis eloped and her horrified parents had their whispered weekend marriage erased and banished him from the kingdom doesn’t matter. Impossibly handsome Peter was foreverafter my Imprint: shortish solid studly tan Peter with thick dark hair and eyes the color of brownies, a wry smile full of straight white teeth, blue lifeguard trunks and a whistle. (Decades later there was an unconfirmed but not surprising rumor that he had become a Palm-Beachish gigolo in a wealthy West Coast beach town.) It also doesn’t matter that you were a married father of two going to law school many hundreds of miles from Las Vegas when I was six and that none of your names is Peter. When you walked toward me through my boss’s office door 14 years later, you were Peter and that was that.
Except it wasn’t. I mean part of that happened a few weeks later after a nightful of scotch-and-sodas and thigh-rubbing in a very smoky bar, but the rest of that took eighteen more years and a lot of history and histrionics until we got married and then spent another twenty living our unscripted version of Mad Men Meets Gidget Goes Hawaiian. How many times did we break up, hang up on each other, condemn each other in the strongest possible language, swear we would never ever again … and then have the most I’m-so-so-sorry, moon-howlingest, sweaty-haired makeup sex? A scant handful of serious boyfriends and a couple busloads of chicas scattered through the blank spaces, us driving past each other’s houses to check lights and license plates, dozens of hang-up phone calls and avoiding each other on downtown sidewalks and in conference rooms – we did them all, every cliché in every cheesy paperback romance, even I did them, me, the lifetime president of the No Clichés Club. When one of your kids gave me a t-shirt (the day before our wedding) with drawings of a porcupine and a cactus and the caption “The best relationships are challenging ones,” I should have known what was coming.
But what if I had? It wouldn’t have changed a thing. Because neither of us was ever able to forget or replace the other, not for long and never for real.
I used to think I was the moon that orbited your planet, the one unable to break free. How could you – handsome, brilliant you – be attracted to a girl with the face of a milkmaid and Kansas thighs? It took a long time to figure out that I’m as smart as you are and you think I’m beautiful even if I don’t, that you see the same face whether it’s pink slick clean and has invisible eyelashes the color of cornsilk or an hour’s worth of painstakingly-applied-to-look-perfectly-natural paints and sauces. Maybe it’s that I’m a good cook and I take care of every tiny thing you could possibly need, that you are utterly dependent on me for the necessities of daily life, that you would have to learn where the grocery store is and unjam your own printer, figure out more buttons on the remote than Channel and Volume. Or maybe I’m your Peter. Maybe it’s that simple. We are both planets, caught irresistibly in each other’s gravitational field, perfectly balanced to stay within sight, within reach, pulling on each other’s oceans, creating tides and clouds and wind. I am your weather and you are mine: cold and stormy, balmy and warm, chilly, icy, burningflaminghot.
But here comes the hard part. Because, Virginia, there is always a hard part.
So many people we know have died: my dad and Marge, your mother, your dad, many, many friends, more all the time, those familiar faces in the newspaper. We’re getting old now, both of us, but you’re old-er. I’m a happy, optimistic person, not maudlin or morbid, and I never used to think about death, scoffed at people who did, including you. But last year was full of dead guys and my brother having cancer, and that makes it real and so much easier to see now, know now. Someday dying won’t be just something that happens to other people. Like Sally told Harry about being 40 years old someday, “It’s out there.” That scares me spitless, makes my heart beat hard, fast.
There’s a story about Jacqueline Kennedy, what she did at Parkland Hospital in Dallas when her husband died. She told Ted White that she insisted the doctors leave her alone in the room with dead, sheet-covered Jack. One of his feet was sticking out from under the linen. She kissed it. Pulled the sheet off and looked at his flaccid, naked body, his blasted head with a piece of skull missing, brain exposed, little bits of which were stuck in the dried blood on her pink skirt. She kissed his thigh, his chest, his lips. (Pierre Salinger later said that White had used “foot” as a discreet euphemism for “penis,” but by then neither Jackie nor White was alive to confirm or deny.) Whatever parts they were, she kissed them, and him, goodbye. She took off her wedding ring and pushed it onto one of his fingers, down to the middle knuckle.
When I read that (every time, the first time, even this time), I squeeze my eyelids shut so hard the tears squirt straight out of them like those lizards whose eyes shoot blood, and then I gasp and hold my breath and listen to my heart thump. I imagine a cosmic trade I could negotiate if I believed in God and she were in a bargaining mood: I will die a crashing fiery death if I can please die first, if I don’t have to ever stand there holding your cooling hand, kissing your blue lips. How could I ever leave that room and let you go, knowing I would never see you again? I don’t think I could. I’m pretty sure I would be like one of those chimpanzee mothers who can’t believe that her baby has died and carries its limp, decaying body around for days, cradling its head on that floppy stalk of a neck, grooming its dull hair.
Awful, awful. I know. Who thinks about this stuff, huh? But I’ll tell you that, oddly, admitting it makes it happen less often. And so I don’t stay in the rabbit hole, I put this terrible smoky ribbon of fear in a pink box, close the lid, slide it onto a high shelf and go on with my day, my life, my loves and you. It hums softly, the fear does, and reminds me that I’m lucky to have another day, that you are well and strong and funny, that our love is no ordinary dime-store love, that we have a love as amazing as those Legends of Love in history. That I am the Josephine to your Napoleon and you are the Richard to my Elizabeth; that as long as I breathe, I will fight off the bears and keep you warm; I will swallow bits of you and carry the taste deep inside me; as long as I have arms, I will hold you; that you will stay with me forever.
There are two red chairs in the room where we watch television every night, the one on the left for me, the right for you. They sit side by side, but there is enough room for a person to walk between them, just enough room that, if we reach our hands toward each other, our fingers touch. We do that sometimes, touch fingers. I turn my head and look at your profile, your incredibly handsome face. I step across the space and fold myself onto you in your red chair, knees to hips, yours to mine, mine to yours, my lips where your neck and shoulder meet. The pulse in your throat taps my closed eyelid where a picture of you is tattooed on the inside. And I say to myself: you are my only one, my great love, I have this great love.
Posted in: favorites, human beans, la-la-la-love, my guy, what i'm thinking
Tags: captain, cliches, court reporter, crazy heart, death, dolores langston, father, gidget, goodbye, jacqueline kennedy, jeff bridges, john f. kennedy, kissing, las vegas, lawyer, love, maggie gyllenhaal, marriage, mr. forte, napoleon and josephine, naval officer, parkland hospital, peter the lifeguard, relationship, wedding ring, when harry met sally
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