In Which We Configure Perfectly The Life We Love

joan brown the kiss



The second time was at Christmas. My best friend took me over to her boyfriend’s mom’s two-bedroom house with the intention of introducing me to the older brother, who was in town from New York. “He has a pompadour and this big face,” was her only description. When we got there the mother was in bed and the brother was sleeping on the sofa in the uncomfortably small sitting room. We startled him awake and promptly installed ourselves on the adjacent loveseat, speaking gently and staring at him inquisitively, hands folded in laps, like caseworkers. His voice rumbled with a shower of gravel in a wheelbarrow. He put on some music. I asked him, after an awkwardly small amount of conversation, if I could touch his hand. I asked because it dangled over the back of his chair like an accessory, and it looked coarse and weathered. I knew he’d been working as a commercial fisherman off the Alaskan coast. I needed to fact-check.

Maybe you have never suffered from this fetish. Maybe you didn’t spend lonely Friday nights in high school charting every tic of Travis Bickle’s waxen face over the entire 113 minutes and crying at the part when he takes Betsy to the dirty movie. Some women are sick people. As children, they take the Beats too seriously, and then they go off to college and lament all of the squirrelly young fellows around them who manage to seduce with unsteady intellect and little else. Like how Jake Barnes describes Robert Cohn as someone who did something because he read about it in a book once. These women seek the antidote to that; the man who is the book, not just the reader. We dabble unconsciously in Marxist literary criticism and fake-suffer from the fact that there are no Men around. “Where are the Men?” we ask, like a team of Marlon Brandos will just materialize on the far side of the quad, all leather-daddied out and everything.

joan brown san fran bay

So this fisherman person was a revelation. He never went to college; it was a fight we would later have a dozen times. He wooed me with inimitable stories about stealing chickens from Hasidim, gutting fifty pounds of octopus, getting picked up by a transvestite so he would have a place to sleep indoors for the night. I gave him an AK Press copy of You Can’t Win, and he patly told me he used to volunteer at AK Press. We disagreed about Charles Bukowski, and he spent an entire day scouring every bookstore in town until he found a copy of Ham on Rye, which he wrapped nicely and presented to me at work. I read it on Christmas Day. It was a perfect burst of romance for whatever it was. I wish we hadn’t ruined it.

Our relationship was confusing. He left to fish the crab derby and I’d hear from him once a week, in strange Alaska time, which was usually at the end of my college night. The more weeks passed, the more he seemed like an apparition. The more I began to subtly imitate his coolly slurred diction, his impenetrable slang. The more I flirted with women in the way that I imagined he would. I didn’t want to love him as much as I wanted to be like him. It was a lame and quiet fury. The fury of a sad person.

If you’re from Alabama but you’re not presently there, everyone will call you Bama. As the girlfriend, I was forbidden from using this moniker. I was hardly able to say it with a straight face anyway, seeing as how we were sleeping a block away from the University of Alabama campus. If I drank too much and it slipped out, he would scowl like I’d called him some nasty epithet. Sometimes when I came home from class he would be drunk already. He was almost his sweetest then, like a proud father watching his daughter succeed. As the night progressed, though, this appreciation would curdle into resentment, and I’d get an earful of what exactly I didn’t learn about the world from behind my ivy walls. The thing is, though, I loved being talked to like that. He was right. I didn’t know. And because I loved it, I would explode with defensiveness.

joan brown the theater lobby

paintings by by joan brown

He got his entire throat tattooed while he stayed with me. He stalked around the apartment with the residual ink-and-pus mixture oozing onto the neckline of his wifebeater. He laughed in slow motion. One night in May, we threw an impromptu pool party at a shitty apartment complex where only one of our friends lived, and he swam in a pair of my bikini bottoms. He filched wooden pallets from behind the Publix next door and built a fire in the cookout pit. It was like California all of a sudden. Everything he did extemporaneously came off without a hitch. He was desperate with charm. I would beam at him from short distances, watching him operate completely without anxiety. I was so envious of this human.

Our fights got worse. One of his last nights in town, I didn’t eat enough food, and drank for most of the evening. We ended up wrestling on my bed. He pinned me down by my shoulders and I headbutted him in ludicrous self-defense. The blood from his nose dripped over my face and neck and onto my pillow. When  I sat up, I moved to strike him again and he clocked me in my right eye. I saw stars like a cartoon character. I slumped against the wall, knowing I’d been defeated. A few days later, when he was out, I called my ex-boyfriend, with whom I’d also fought like this, to tell him what had happened. I still don’t know why I told him, but I was almost certainly boasting. Like a tough guy.

I experienced a four-day hangover the week he left. I thought I’d been poisoned, or given some kind of disease. It was obvious things were bad and may not continue. He was silent for two weeks, and when he decided to call me again, I was already seeing someone else. He remained furious until a few months later when he called to clear the air and tell me he was also in love with someone else. A local Alaskan girl. We were glad for each other.

The thing is, it’s unfair to fetishize someone else’s life, even if they portray their life to you as some kind of glamorous fiction. Even being the antidote to the college boy doesn’t completely free you from the conscriptions of your imagination. He loved Moby Dick and he became a fisherman. Growing up he felt he was the ugly outcast. When he discovered Henry Chianski, his feelings made sense and he began to adorn his body with disfiguring tattoos in lieu of acne vulgaris. I also process fiction like this; many of us do. We all have small ways of emulating the lives of unreal people we hoped we’d become. The line of truth between him and me was that I was a woman, a pretty Southern woman, wholly uncomfortable in my skin. What I felt like in my soul was the heedless wanderer, the working-class hero, the undereducated alpha. I was imprisoned by my culture, by my body. He was my most realized attempt to escape, and it didn’t work.

Picture 6

We grew up, and our memories of the people we were together became more foreign to us. He traveled the world, settled in San Francisco, then L.A., became a fashion maven, a filmmaker. I lingered in the South, pitifully literary and resisting as many cultural traditions as I could: a permanent, pointless rebel in a land where rebellion was a regional myth, not a pastime.

We remained in touch, e-mailing every now and then over the years, saying nothing in particular. I married a lithe Texas hippie and moved to Northern Italy. I grew more miserable. Married life hurt me and Italian culture stifled me even more than I was used to. I was in the most meaningful relationship I’d ever known and was totally at odds with the concept of losing the fiction of myself for this greater cause. I drank in my resistance, and in my drinking, revealed I was no different at all from the angry little person I was eight years ago, clawing and snapping, physically struggling against the person who says they know better than me, and is saying so because they love me.

The blistering morning this spring I conceded and decided to get sober, I came across a piece of crushing news. This Bama, my sailor of yore, had thrown himself headfirst into the bay beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. He broke his neck, his back, and shattered both his femurs, but survived. Just as I always believed, he is a miracle. How we managed to twin our suffering for so long, I have no idea. True, I have never quite reached the dark heart of despair that he has, but crashing into cold tiled floors, screaming at the sunset from the top of a medieval wall, tearing at my chest, I feel I have come close. And how strange that we surfaced almost at the same time? Immediately I sent him a note of condolence and he wrote back, gushing with wisdom and positivity: “Realize you are perfect right now. Everything is okay and everything can change in an instant to the life you always wanted. No matter what. When you are happy and hopeful your husband will be happy and hopeful.” I have a postcard he made in the hospital, a watercolor of a green face with a giant blue and pink eye, in the style of a Toltec carving, inscribed with a quote on the back from one of his friends there, “Maybe life’s not as hard as you thought it was.” I am already, almost instantly better. I just hope that he is also now free.

Natalie Elliott is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find her twitter here.

Paintings by Joan Brown.

natalie photo

“Black Moss” – Johanna Warren (mp3)


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