by ALLISON NEAL
The day after graduation, I woke up hungover to attend the baptism of the man I had been sleeping with and thought myself to love during those final months of school.
I thought, before writing this, that I would leave out the graduation and the school, the short time span, and, most notably, the loving — but I am immature, hasty and young, and it all shows whether I declare it at the start or hide it.
Is thinking to love someone and loving someone the same? This nags at me, though there was never a point at which he either thought to love me or loved me that I know of; the question, or problem, applies only to me.
I could reconcile my quandary if, looking back on it now, I decide that I only thought to love him, and this method of thinking was an error. But as it stands, I either continue to think that I loved him, continue to think that I thought to love him, think to love him still, love him still, or deny all of the thinking and the loving entirely. Sometimes I think that the act of thinking to love him more or less equates to loving him. That is to say, sometimes I presume to substitute one for the other, thinking: I love to love him or I loved him or I loved to love him or I love him, or I don’t and didn’t ever. Loving or not; not thinking. That is simpler.
I admit this sort of thinking and loving is insufferable; if I repeat the word enough, I hope to dull it so that it does not bring me so much shame, in writing or otherwise.
Reading over that initial sentence, the only word that now seems somehow misplaced is man. Was he a man? I don’t mean this as a slight, but sometimes I think he was a boy instead.
I often sent him e-mails of poetry. Thankfully, very little of it was my own, though that does not excuse it. One poem I sent him, near the end, was George Oppen’s “Boy’s Room.” As I was preparing to leave one morning, for good (it was always for good), he said, “I’m sorry, it’s only a boy’s room.” “You’re 24,” I said back, not caring about poetry.
I don’t know why he said it; he was never “gasping / for breath over a girl’s body” — or not mine, at least.
Truthfully, he was not then 24. It was many months until his birthday. Now his birthday has come and gone. I sent him a forcibly cheerful email, which everyone advised against. I did not write of us sleeping together, or even make any veiled references to it.
I regret that I am not the sort of person that can say fucking with any sort of ease.
I say sleeping together because I am a prude, but also because it is accurate. I think he regrets both — the actual sleeping side-by-side and the fucking. They are not the same thing, but the blanket term comforts me, pairing them as I sometimes pretended we were paired.
Lying in my bed one afternoon, in my room, I was struck by how much larger his bed was than mine.
I told my roommate my observation while she studied. “Aren’t they the same size?” she said, looking up briefly. She had seen his room before, and her memory was more precise than mine. However, I knew that there was no way that he and I could lay side-by-side, not touching on my bed and still fit. One of us would slide off. I was certain his was larger.
I was tracing the line of his back one night in his bed, not sleeping, when he interrupted, “That hurts my back, actually.” It was without warmth, but I had often traced two fingers along either side of his spine in this way.
I withdrew my hand, thinking myself seared, though I could have been pressing too hard. The curve of his back was distinctly elegant — something that may have been from years of swimming, or simply God-given, though I don’t know which.
The last night I spent in his presence was spent mostly in the dark of his living room. He and a friend of ours joked half-heartedly back and forth while swigging whiskey, as I tried not to fall asleep on his couch. I had been driving all day after moving my belongings back to my childhood home, and was exhausted to return to the place I had just left three days prior — bouncing from one old, abandoned home to another with nothing new to carry.
A pillow and blanket were laid out, though I didn’t know for whom. He was always having guests stay over and seemed to crave, or at least welcome, constant company. Everyone assumed that they were close enough friends with him to stay the night. I no longer felt that way, however, though I did adopt the pillow and blanket temporarily, while trying not to sleep on his couch.
He looked at me kindly from across the room, saying, “You just want to sleep, don’t you?” This seemed to comfort him, so I did not respond.
As the night continued, I righted myself and began to stretch, sore from travel. He took the pillow and blanket in my absence, curling up. It became clear that it was he, not I, who was now in danger of nodding off.
“Don’t you want to go to your bed?” I asked.
“I don’t like my bed that much,” he said, muffled, into his pillow and blanket on the floor.
Now, I try to regard that modest remark warmly, as if he were saying, it’s nothing personal, it was the bed all along that I didn’t like, not you! Of course, I would reply brightly, it’s a shame we never settled on a more appealing locale — the dirty apartment floor or the table with the mugs of stale tea, for instance.
I don’t know if the bed was a casualty of my imprint, or of someone else’s, or of his own. None of these options would surprise me.
In his poem “Firstly” from Love, Poetry, Paul Eluard writes: “Le sommeil a pris ton empreinte / Et la colore de tes yeux.” Sleep took your imprint, and the color of your eyes. I say it hushed like a prayer.
I was not surprised when he told me he was going to be baptized.
To be fair, I should say re-baptized. He had been baptized as an infant and grown up very religious; I encountered him during a brief lapse of faith.
Now that he has returned to his faith, I often imagine that he has sewn together the moment when he stopped believing with the moment he was re-baptized, and that I rest in the crumpled fabric, beneath stitches.
Though, what is this fabric part of, and does it clothe him? I can’t see from here.
I used to write him many letters in class. When I wasn’t writing letters, I would write over and over again, in the margins, “Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord.” The phrase related to the course, but disproportionately, compared with how many times I wrote it.
Now that I am standing still, I think I saw more in movement, but I won’t use this opportunity to draft a religious treatise. Only that: it is hard to see light from beneath stitches. I do still enjoy the phrase’s alliterative effect, and sometimes it returns to me, flowing past as water would.
I went to the beach almost every day this summer, partly because I had nothing else to do, and partly because I love the ocean. Though I became transfixed by water after the baptism, the writing of this feels more often like sifting sand before a boundless body.
“I am the easiest of men. All I want is boundless love,” writes Frank O’Hara, mocking me.
His eyes were clear, distilled blue. They were not the color of the ocean.
I asked him once what color he thought my eyes were, though I know them to be a murky blue-green. I like to see which color people settle on as a matter of self-absorption. “They’re gray,” he answered.
Les yeux glauques. He had often spoken of the term in class, mistaking glauques for gray, acting as if it amounted to something beautiful. I did not recognize the reference at the time of my question, and now, I do not know if he was making any kind reference at all, or if I have made it all up, desperately.
Why does he not see any color in me? I thought instead, and said only, “Your eyes are blue,” something that he knew.
Incidentally, glauques does not mean gray, but sea-green, or unclear, depending on whose translation you trust. Reading now from Pound’s “Yeux Glauques,” the poem we read in class, I come across the stanza “The thin, clear gaze, the same / Still darts out faun-like from the half-ruin’d face,/ Questing and passive…/ Ah, poor Jenny’s case…” Why did he think glauques meant gray, and what about them is beautiful? So far as I can tell, glauques amounts to neither, and it lawlessly sticks in my mouth when I try to pronounce it correctly.
St. Augustine advises, “Water is a unity, all the more beautiful and transparent on account of a yet greater similitude of its parts… on guard over its order and its security. Air has still greater unity and internal regularity than water. Finally the sky… has the greatest well-being.” Try as I might, I cannot make water cohere with the sea.
Today the sky is August gray, and it does emit the greatest well-being, and vividly.
His baptism took place in a church, in a tub full of water. He wore orange, a color I had never seen him in, and made a speech whose contents I cannot remember, though it moved me at the time. I do remember watching as he and his orange shirt descended, and then rose up again, smiling. But where were his eyes looking? Not up, but out. A horizon.
“Having a Coke with You / is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne / or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona / partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian / partly because…” reads some of the first stanza of O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You.” It concludes, “it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still / as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it / in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth / between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles.” Frank and I would like to know: what was the joyful, orange shirt doing in that statuary church?
When I see him emerge from the water, do I see the orange shirt, or do I see him? Which is smiling, and which is moving?
“Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air” ends Plath, and I concur. In actuality, my hair is more orange than red, if we’re going to stick to colors. Sometimes I call it gold, in a fit of megalomania, something to which I am regrettably prone.
When the sky is not August gray, I go to the ocean and sometimes regard it, and sometimes swim in it. I am not a good swimmer, but I do well with the cold and the salt does not hurt me.
When I leave the sea to return to my pieces of sand, as what do I emerge?
And can I rise from anything at all?
Allison Neal is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Berkeley.
“Shrike” – Crywolf (mp3)