I woke up to what Byron calls perfect weather: another grey, overcast English day. I met Byron in the market for tea and then we sat on the wall in front of King’s, listening to the bells of Great St. Mary’s and watching hoards of tourists stream past Senate House.
We talked idly about what I should do as my “public risk” for the reading in November and he suggested I take volunteers from the audience to kiss (because I’ve slept with more people than I’ve kissed and symmetry is important to my obsessive mind). But that would involve fixing my lipstick in the middle of an event. Which would be annoying. I’ll have to come up with a better scheme.
Byron left for work and I wandered through the market, buying chorizo and olive oil from a man who is shutting down his stall and going home to Malaga. I stopped at the bread cart for a loaf of calamata, then at the olive stall for tapenade and pesto; the olive lady helpfully informed me that she will not be around next weekend so I bought extra.
Today was the first day I’ve made it to market while the organic vegetable people are still stocked up; it was thrilling to pick through bins of lettuce and cucumbers and kale before handing my coins over.
The whole family is mad for KTS: he is and always has been more scathing, hilarious, and decent than almost anyone I know. Of course he denies the claim (the first time we spoke after years of silence he apologized for being such a jerk) but he is a truly good person. The proof of this is the fact that my children adore him and refuse to share his company. We parents were dispatched on errands so the younger set could have the guest all to themselves.
Our friendship started in an odd way, on the periphery of a youth leadership program run along the lines of a cult (though I may be biased in this view). It was random chance that put us in the same — er — cohort group, and we probably would not have talked then if not for the fact that our leader lost one of the kids; everyone fanned out to find her but KTS and I sat on a boulder, reckoning she was already dead.
The people in charge of the summer institute kept us awake most of the time, cut off much of our contact with outside friends and family, exposed us to books and films designed to breach our pre-existing world views, sent us to watch war games on a military base, marched us to the gay pride rally, put us through media training, and generally did whatever they could to incite our nascent political consciousness, in whichever direction would prove most unsettling.
We were challenged (some would say coerced) to do whatever was absolutely impossible; my fear of public speaking was forever extinguished by the fact that my graduation speech ended up on the evening news.
The institute was brilliant, and dreadful.
Two days after I went home, KTS came over to watch movies with some of my friends; I don’t think I have ever asked him if he knew that my boyfriend and best friend were hiding in the next room kissing while we innocently sat on the couch watching a bad gothic film about Lord Byron.
The boyfriend was a burden I had been trying to shed, so I wasn’t terribly upset, although the guest list for the next day was changed to exclude the best friend (for her appalling manners; she could have had the boyfriend if she had asked nicely). In the end I was also too harassed to pick up KTS, and only four of us ended up in the car on the day of the accident.
KTS turned up at the hospital and sat next to my bed in intensive care for an entire day, listening to me talk fast through a fractured face. He did not wince; he did not display anything except sarcastic wit. It was exactly what I needed.
That crazy year played out in various sinister and horrible ways. Some people might have found refuge in music, art, or religion. I found a different One True Way: I distracted myself by starting a nonprofit.
I may not have been sane, but that didn’t stop me from working endlessly to create the Youth Initiative, to travel around the state and meet kids in every high school, to do a hundred or a thousand sundry tasks at the service of an abstract goal. It was easier than staying home. My friends from the institute didn’t understand about the accident; nobody knew about the cancer. The work let me be a different person, and that person survived.
KTS shows up in this narrative as the amenable albeit exasperated boy who was embroiled in my plans. I presume he was bored; there isn’t really much to do where we grew up. But regardless, it is baffling now to think of everything he did at my bidding: show up for countless committee meetings, help set up and run symposiums, speak at the breakfast meetings of fraternal organizations. I mean, really; I even made him join the Sea Scouts (so we could get access to a warehouse on the waterfront). I have no idea why he went along with my schemes. He doesn’t even remember doing it.
There were one hundred people at the summer institute, and four of us went on to attend the same college. We didn’t have much to do with each other; we were all trying to establish adult identities. The strangest thing about my story happens at this juncture — because Byron met KTS before he met me, at that small red hipster house (it had a name that I cannot recall) that was later torn down.
Byron was hanging out and KTS showed up with a mix tape. Memorable? Not really, but for some reason the incident lodged in various brains. Next Byron met and developed a crush on Buffy (who could resist? Nobody I knew), the genius mathematician girl James dated during and after the institute. The first time I glimpsed Byron I was trying to convince her to eat, while he was laying across her bed playing chess. Then Byron moved into a house where James was already resident, without connecting any of the other three people. Then I showed up.
I didn’t put together any of the connections until this weekend, as Byron and KTS were stretched out underneath the dining room table chatting, when it struck me as statistically improbable.
It was a small town but not that small; I have scores of friends now who were there at the same time and we never encountered each other back in the day. Byron did not meet my other friends from high school, or my stalker, or my best friend, or the boy I would marry that year. Our lives intersected only with fellows of the institute (who mostly were not talking to each other).
Seventeen years later, KTS is a reformed DJ and determined medievalist. We walked around this old city and he told me more than I had ever hoped to know about the place. I’m so pleased that he is my friend.
My experiment in pure hedonism was bound to fail. When not occupied by work or family I am capable of wandering around in a haze of sensation. But that only takes up a portion of the day; at some point the fugue state lifts and it is inevitable: I start to think about something abstract. This week it was the politics of pleasure.
Stevie has a peculiar ability to ask questions that solicit secrets, and KTS shares memories of things best forgotten (he even, unlike me, remembers the names of the principal characters).
I’ve always done exactly what I liked, but I am intrinsically ethical and conscientious; I believe that life should be fair and fun.
In fact, I could never enjoy one without the other. I wish that more people felt the same.
Stevie and I walked all over Cambridge singing chorus songs. Between us we should have known at least a dozen, if not more, but the memories have faded. It was startling to observe how much can be forgotten; we practiced together every week for years but can’t get through an entire song without stumbling.
I asked Did you know that I cried when I left?
She replied No.
Of course this means that she probably does not know how hard it was to leave.
That final weekend I went to the coast for Writer’s on the Edge. The event was in a theater and after I read three passages from the Lessons in Taxidermy manuscript Marisa did a set. Later we went out to a bar with our friends and a crew of local artists and musicians. Someone offered me drugs, for the first time in my life, and I was so surprised I was probably too sharp in the way I refused.
We walked along the beach with a bright moon illuminating the dunes and ocean, sat on driftwood and watched Anna Ruby and Stevie dancing in the moonlight. As the others talked quietly I put my head down and cried silently, tears dropping on the sand.
Marisa and Jody were sharing our room and everyone laughed before falling asleep; I turned my head on the pillow and cried quietly.
There were mad escapades on the beach in the morning and when Stevie and AR embraced me for the final time I started to cry, tears slipping down the side of my face, obscured by snarls of hair. As we pulled out of the parking lot our friends flashed us, and then we were on the road.
Byron and Marisa tactfully ignored my tears. I gripped the armrest and cried and cried for hours. It was all I could do not to break into wrenching sobs.
Eventually the tears stopped; we found a roadside burrito stand and watched in baffled amazement as a girl at the next table vomited and her friends just kept eating their lunch. We got back on the road and talked and laughed for the rest of the ride.
I knew that I would see everyone again, and that the ocean would always be there.
Stevie is remarkable for many reasons, but singular amongst my friends in that she once forced me to admit that I love her. I don’t throw that word around easily, no matter how strong the feeling; there are people I care about equally who have never heard me profess any emotion whatsoever.
Now she has gone home again. I’ll miss her.
In other news, the film festival has a series of Studio Ghibli features, and last night we went to see Whisper of the Heart.
This film would have my eternal allegiance just for the use of Take Me Home, Country Roads as a central plot element. But the depiction of love based on career competition was extraordinary.
The idea that relationships can not only survive separation but thrive on the challenge was more true (for me at least) than any movie I’ve seen in recent memory. The movie suggests that knowing people with huge transgressive aspirations will force you to want more, do more, achieve more, feel more.
Seems pretty accurate to me.
Many of our conversations over the weekend centered on figuring out how we feel about living in a small calm university town. Before we arrived various people were worried; they tried to warn us that we would not be able to maintain our hectic lives in this setting. More than one told us we were insane to come here.
We rode our bikes along the tow path, past the Baits Bite Lock, talking about how our lives have changed. While it is true that there isn’t much going on in town, this means that we have lavish amounts of time to do our work. When we aren’t working we ride bicycles, wander through cemeteries, eat picnics in parks, and drift along on the river.
Our daily life is in all respects more satisfying than the way we lived in the states; our careers are exponentially more interesting and rewarding; our children are flourishing; we have lots of new friends. We can go home whenever we like, and many of our old friends visit us here. I have created a new and independent space for myself on the boat.
I do feel somewhat nostalgic for what we left behind. I could call the feeling homesickness, but that word doesn’t have much resonance right now. I’ve never really belonged anywhere, and claim no affiliation with any community. I have made enormous emotional investments in friendships with people who are never around, and this arrangement suits me. The truth is that I’ve always felt almost exactly how I feel now; the difference is that my rootless ways were never visible to others.
I’ve been sad and even despondent at various points in the process. I have even, secretly, cried. But I know that I’m lucky. I also know that the amazing crazy fun times in the past had nothing to do with geography. Those other cities were not more fun than this one; I just threw more parties back then.
Yesterday I opened the cupboards that store the remnants of my wardrobe. I gave away hundreds of dresses before we moved, and dozens were ruined in transit, but there are a few left. I haven’t worn them in years but I picked through, pulling out the best ones, remembering the trips and performances. At the very bottom of the cupboard I found my favorite dress, a blue wraparound so well-worn the unraveling seams can no longer be repaired.
I wore the dress during my first trip to Paris with Byron, when a sudden gust of wind undressed me in a park, much to the delight of passerby. Later we had a fabulous dinner and were befriended by an elderly man and his companion, who declared that she was a whore.
I wore it on the Breeder tour; there is a picture of me with Gabriel, laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe. I wore it when I covered the door at various events, stuffing cash in my cleavage for lack of pockets.
I wore it to the formal wedding of a good friend, and took Stevie Ann as my date; it didn’t occur to me that I would scandalize anyone with an outfit cut so low my red undergarments were on full display.
When Gabriel and I ran away to Italy for a month I took the dress along, though I was not wearing it the day we stared down at the swans on the Arno and I declared that it was necessary to move to Europe.
I pulled the dress out and put it on, then we cycled out to Grantchester for a fabulous garden party.
One year ago today we moved to England.
This new life is brilliant.
Happy Independence Day.