|Jan/Feb 2014 Nonfiction|
Image courtesy of British Library Photostream
In need of money, Bernie seeks to sell a diamond ring, a gift from a formerly dear friend, now just a reminder of her loss, she says. The diamond is finer than most that people walk in off the street with, and the jewelry store manager is almost apologetic about the price she offers. Attempting to lighten the mood, the manager, a heavily made-up, matronly-looking woman, inquires, "Is this your son?"
"No," I say simply, curtailing further questioning.
We're both disturbed. We know we're not, but we'd like to pass for normal, and oftentimes do. Slim, eyes bright, stylishly dressed, Bernie is age-indecipherable. But today, wearing a sweatshirt and jeans, I could be nineteen. Nor do I cultivate any air of gravitas as a counterbalance. On the contrary, I'm artsy and stubbornly anti-gravitas—I look like a damn kid.
Bernie brushes off the question, busying herself with the next present moment. But I'm still trying to make peace with what others see, which is to say, I'm at war with myself. It's not a new battle. My outlier heart has haunted me to varying degrees throughout my life, a ghost of otherness I've wrestled to keep out of sight, until I hardly knew him as anything more than a pressure in my chest, a tear I blinked back, a catch in my throat swallowed down.
Impossibly fervent, intolerably vulnerable, I made my growing up an exercise of mind over body, reason over feeling. I thought everyone did this and assumed adulthood would generate its own sense of connection and substantiation to replace what I'd sacrificed. But the more I hid my haunting, the more ethereal I became, until I almost wasn't present at all. So I started living by my outlier heart, and I'm seeing where it takes me.
My ex, before Bernie, communicated through accusation. I'd try to calm her but often became so incensed by her attacks I ended up screaming right back at her. Once the neighbors in our apartment complex called the police. The bulky presence of two Scottsdale cops at our front door stunned me. I apologized for the noise—told them we were fine. I gestured to her for confirmation, but she just stared, her beautiful blue eyes blinking pensively, slow as butterflies batting their wings, neither confirming nor denying. The cops withdrew, but she'd clearly abandoned me to my fate.
I declared my eternal togetherness to the ex on countless occasions with utter sincerity. Now, I've broken every one of those promises, which I hardly want to start recycling with Bernie. But as often happens with Bernie, I just don't quite have the nerve to say it, and she does.
Without a trace of self-sacrifice, without even a micron of manipulation, which I know so well, Bernie says, "If you ever want to be with someone else, I understand. Just be honest with me about it."
How many women would say that, much less to a man born 30 years after them? Or maybe those are precisely the women capable of saying such a thing and meaning it.
It was conversation that first brought us together, the ease of it and the startling depth. Bernie had always been an open book, and perhaps because of this, had been taken for granted. I was more of a sealed tome. But Bernie listened with her whole body, a listening that can save your life. She had a talent for understanding, but an even greater gift of not needing to. I found her endless. I hit no stopping point in her, which I thought was an organic element of human connection—the wall, beyond which one did not pass.
I'd spent my adolescence and young manhood conjuring a person who could do without such communion. There seemed no choice. I made him so well, I partly killed myself, playing a double game, a writer's game perhaps, of being myself but only on the inside—and I lost. What wasn't expressed withered. Now that atrophy started to reverse.
The self, like a knot, can tighten when drawn out, but Bernie's receiving of me remained constant, minimizing, for once, my own constraint. My mind ranged, emotions surfaced, rising to the occasion of our conversation. I don't mean to leave sex out, only to say that there was intercourse before intercourse. But communication being the ultimate aphrodisiac, we eventually became sexually intimate. The strangest thing is how natural we felt.
But we have shocked family, friends. And we are shocked in return, struck by lightning, burned and electrified both. I'd exhausted my own family's comprehension even before this. Bernie's children, with whom I'd once been close, and grandchildren won't speak with us. Others chime in their silence, too. They see us, particularly Bernie, who long swore allegiance to a static relationship, as betraying previous pledges. They see us as an expression of her crisis, a sinking ship they are trying to save her from by jumping off. They are gone.
Their absence pulls cruelly at our newfound presence together. It's difficult to believe we're okay when so many don't think so. We are well-matched, but we are also strangers, to this situation if nothing else. Bernie, a crisis smoker, picks up cigarettes again. Every day, she is both smoking and quitting. She drives to the gas station for a pack of Marlboro Lights, smokes two, breaks the rest in half and flushes them down the toilet.
My whole life feels molten, shifting and bright and searing from the inside, with love and loss and unknowns.
Driving helps us both—the external movement making some bodily sense out of our internal journeying. (Maybe this is why babies, racing with growth, so easily relax and sleep in cars.) In Bernie's beloved little red Celica convertible, about the only asset of value she has been able to hold on to, in the squinting heat of summer, we drive to Tucson, where it's 103 instead of 108. We stay in an older, more affordable place, a sweet little resort of brick casitas, where the lobby and restaurant are a converted old ranch house. We are in need of sweetness.
We know of nothing special to do in Tucson, and neither of us are sightseers anyway, so we cruise the Catalina foothills, scoping out the beautiful homes. In the heat of afternoon, the asphalt soft and black as packed coffee grinds, we're the only thing moving. By the grace of air conditioning, we take our time, noting the details of the houses that we can see from the street. What we like, what we don't like—our preferences are free.
In the restaurant that night, city lights twinkle at us. Bernie's large hazel eyes light up in the presence of good food, no matter how simple or fancy, and she puts away portions that consistently surprise servers, given her slight frame. Now all her focus goes there, which is fine; tables in particular tend to silence me.
Bernie eats as she does everything, with such single-minded application, such physical sincerity that one is drawn to watch. Women are always stopping her in stores and restaurants to compliment her on her platinum bob or some smart outfit she's put together. But I know it's not the shoes or the top or the hair that makes them actually speak to her—it's this unceasing flow of presence that pours through her. I see this about Bernie plainly, as some people see auras, and my somewhat spectral being is warmed and fleshed out by the seeing.
After eating, we walk back to our casita hand in hand. It's not so much cool as it is dark, probably 90. The brick path leads us past cactus gardens, serenely sculpting the night air. Three shallow, slightly sunken steps lead down to our casita's door. We could almost take them in one stride, but somehow Bernie loses her footing. I grasp her elbow to steady her. But Bernie's full weight is now falling and, standing beside her, I can't hold her up. Then I'm falling, too. I try to step past her sprawling form, but Bernie, who still has hold of me, has toppled across my stride. Trying to step over her, my knee hits her square in the face. I hear her nose crack. I've broken my nose playing basketball and know immediately.
Even as it's happening, the whole thing is bizarre, like the bricks are alive and conspiring against us; as if some force literally wants us to fall, and perhaps it does. Bernie's beautiful little nose, cracked right on the bridge, lies tragically left of center. She wails quietly, blood pooling in her hands and on the ground. By the time we get inside, it looks like a crime scene.
I call for ice, and when it arrives, I take pains to explain the blood in front of our door to the front desk guy, as a criminal might, covering his tracks. I didn't do it. I have felt like a criminal, a transgressor. What am I doing with Bernie? I'm 29, a wannabe writer, with no career. She's 59 going on forever.
But Bernie isn't thinking any of these things. Bernie isn't thinking. She has her hands on her nose and pops it back into place. We both hear it click. She takes her hands away and her nose is straight. It's a miracle, of the wholly physical dimension, which she so gracefully occupies, and where I, day by day, am more fully joining her.