Over the course of this peripatetic existence there have been more than two dozen occasions when people have declared their undying (and hopeless) love for me; six proposals of marriage; four people I’ve liked enough to split the rent; two I’ve married; one person sufficiently persistent to know longer than a year or two. Throughout all of these machinations and maneuvers I have remained puzzled by the emotions, drama, betrayals, reversals. I’ve had more than my statistical share of romance, and neither enjoyed nor believed in the experience. This is what I think of romantic love: shrug. Whatever.
I reckon that what most people call love is just infatuation, a fleeting and fundamentally biological feeling. I don’t do feelings. They’re not reliable, logical, or trustworthy. The main proof of this is the fact that when I reject advances or break up with people they never remain friends. Perhaps this is normal: I wouldn’t know.
It is however a cheat. If I like someone, it is forever – regardless of whether they live up to my expectations or give me exactly what I want. When people say they love me, I have always asked “why?” or some variation of “uh-huh, but for how long?” – invariably valid questions, if not exactly endearing.
It is not surprising that I cannot even remember the faces of the people who claimed to love me when they merely wanted me to love them. First husband, what was his name again? I cannot recall, and I am not exaggerating. My imperative truthfulness is a scourge, and ordinary humans prefer marriages based on mutual admiration. In my life friendship has always been more important than romantic love, friendship is based on realistic expectations, and my only lasting romantic relationship has been with my best friend, the person who has been there year after year, through every adventure, no matter how strange or alarming. Lots of people have claimed to love me. But there is only one person around when I need a ride to the hospital, who also wanted to help raise my kids, who can be relied on to say yes when the rest of the world says no.
Friendship is fundamental, rewarding, heartbreaking, real. My friends are the people who show up when I need them and stay away when I am too ragged to talk. They’re the people who laugh at my grotesque stories, understand my flaws and hesitations, and show their own. They’re the people who wander away, but always come back.
There are thousands of people I call friend, and only a handful of people I talk to with any consistency. I have too many responsibilities, too little time, and an urgent need to see more of this world before I depart.
The last few months have been difficult, a fact that I would never have admitted as the events unfurled. I’ve hidden myself away, closing up around the pain and confusion, saying I’m fine, it will all be fine. But spring is arriving and it is time to get back to work.
I am humbled by the extraordinary opportunities I’ve had, and by the people I met along the way. I don’t say it enough, and I want to make this clear: I love my friends, and thank them with all sincerity. Not for what they’ve done, but instead, for who they are.
Karl T Steel came through town for a day, bringing news of his medievalist research, his sabbatical in Paris, his plans for a return to NYC.
It remains a marvel that we are friends at all let alone that we have known each other through so many jagged transitions. We’ve never approved of each other, we’ve always been at odds – generally taking turns between some pretence of grown-up pieties and flights of punker-than-thou rants. We mock, we excoriate, we are hilarious. Though nobody else gets the joke.
We’re from the same place, or near enough, and there are very few people who started in that place and ended up where we did. And where is that, you might ask? Anywhere, everywhere, wherever: we do whatever the fuck we like, no excuses accepted and no criticisms allowed.
I’m not talking about our educations, jobs, income, marital status, the stamps in our passports. Instead I’m talking about an elusive and fundamental freedom that is never granted and can only be seized. Radical departures require risk. To truly leave home, walk away from everything and everyone you have ever known or loved, is rare – because it costs too much. Most people avoid the pain unless it is thrust upon them. Very few people choose what I chose, what KTS chose.
KTS understands better than almost anyone why I work hard, and then work harder again. My relentless drive is about remembering and forgetting, escape and imagination. Right now I’m at the start of a new adventure that will overwhelm and displace all other thoughts – and I like it. KTS looks dismayed when I tell him about my plans, but he gets it, and laughs.
When we were seventeen I forced KTS to join the Sea Scouts in service of a complex scheme to acquire a warehouse on the docks. My plans included a youth centre, a condom distribution program, a sort of safe clubhouse for all the weird kids in the three-county region. It was a bonus that I pulled it off under the auspices of a scouting organisation – I thought the whole thing quite amusing. In the process, KTS was dispatched to give talks to Rotarians about youth leadership, in which he made wild and totally false claims that won over the crowds and secured our funding.
He doesn’t remember that, because he has always been way too cool to have such a geeky thing on his resume. Nor does he remember sitting next to my bed in the ICU, listening to me talk around a dislocated jaw as the heart monitor beat out the refrain broken. His imperfect memory is typical (my cousin, another creature of invention, does not remember our childhood – at all). But if he remembered, if any of us truly remembered, would we have been able to leave?
One thing I learned from the Sea Scouts is that you can join the organisation without taking the pledge, and remain a Scout without ever touching water. I also learned that while it is easier to drift than it is to row, it is better by far to set sail with compass in hand.
Marisa has been on tour in Europe and she transited through my home in her usual way: calm, quiet, organized, steady. She is a dose of commonsensical reality, an anchor and ballast all at once. We had our usual conversation about mortality and she was delighted to point out that she has been proved right. We’ve known each other more than a decade – and this is in fact amazing.
I still take the position that there is no time to waste, and she still believes there is enough time to accomplish whatever is needed. We walk next to canals and rivers and oceans in different cities, states, countries, talking about books and places and people. I don’t want to go back to Portland, and I don’t miss the old times. But I do miss Marisa (even more when she is here). We’re friends: simple, true, and dear.
The only truly puzzling thing about this great friend is the fact that she is a freak magnet. How can a person so self-contained, so eminently and abundantly watchful, attract so much drama?
I do not understand – I walk through this neighbourhood without talking to anyone other than the occasional lost tourist requiring assistance. Certainly I would never pick up a street drinker intent on commenting on my appearance. Nor, if I stepped around such a person, would the encounter escalate.
But with Marisa, it did, to the extent that I found myself in a shouting match with an angry gentleman of the road who screamed that I was, quote, a middle-class cunt.
I was prepared to break his fingers, but this sorry excuse for an insult was wholly unexpected. I could only laugh, blow him a kiss, and walk away.
I am essentially a guttersnipe, a street fighter. If my surface has changed so much that a potential adversary cannot see that fact, can instead perceive me as middle-class, I have changed more than all imagining.
And Marisa is right – there is enough time for anything.