I Shall Wear White Flannel Trousers, 1
Play this, please: lugubre, brioso.
It is an ode to Daniel.
When I write personal essays, I am often spurred by losses. They are grits of sand under my eyelids, obscuring my vision and obsessing me until I finally weep up a pearl.
I write when people are dead. I write when people break up with me, or I break up with them. I write when a friendship crumbles, or when I've left my hometown, or when my permission to remain in a foreign country has expired.
I do it for various reasons: to build a private shrine. To pour my wasted love into some kind of vessel. To embalm. To indirectly beg pardon. To make an imitation of immortality, because it salves my pain.
But mostly because -- for the majority of the writing process -- it feels good. Really good. Because something creeps into me, and takes me by the neck as if I were wearing a choker made of the pearls, and a fire goes up my throat. I write with mercurial energy.
This is not my usual slog of novel writing, or the scheduled practice of editing. I am searing my fingers on the holy of holies. Lovesick. I skip meals and stay up until morning.
I do not experience this transfusion often. Something is circulating, shaking hyssop over my head, making my hair silk. Even when I get droopy, I don't want to stop. Another wave slaps me in the face and revives me. Ah! salt. Ah, shriek, shiver.
I am remembering, consecrating.
The infrastructure of this energy can be dissected simply: absence glorifies and nostalgia obsesses. When the person or the thing is gone, I am smitten and shattered. I remember details -- details that usually blot into the matte of daily life -- that suddenly stand up in sharp relief: and everything becomes poetry.
Oh, the significance of tea bags on a plate, next to the carrot peels.
But, no, really. The significance of tea bags on a plate.
Absence hurtles a person to the very edge of life. What is essential suddenly becomes apparent. . . the answers to life lie in the seemingly insignificant details. A trite phrase, but a miraculous theory. The little things.
And the kind of writing I dream of doing suddenly becomes possible, palpable. The weepery dislodges memories.
I decide that, if I'm going to have anything left, I might as well remember those tea bags and the carrot peels. Or the last time he touched my face. And those stains of pollen on the hood of his car. Or the roll of mints she kept in her purse, the tinfoil tucked down. That time he called me a wretched witch-child. The way the mountain's silhouette looked like the rope of a spine. That day she drew Princess Spring-Summer-Fall-Winter with me, and the smell of stale cigarettes in the room.
I naturally hold stories anyway, but the storyteller in me is never more activated when called to composed a eulogy, or to remember a country I can never stay in, or to extol a childhood forest destroyed by developers. (Jack-in-the-pulpit. Jeremy plants. Maidenhead ferns, all spored in immodest delicacy.) To be besotted with a ghost is a torment.
But to be besotted with a living being is heaven-on-earth. And my subject is alive, but frequently separated from me. So this ode spans both hellos and farewells. Lamentando. Gaudioso. And the fragile-in-between.
And through the vision of loss, I have tried to live in the present with the same sibylline sight. "I wonder if I could write you," I mused once.
Daniel did not protest, and I took this as implicit permission to try.
"Can I do it well, is the question?"
Pickle a wild heart in words.
I honestly didn't know if there was a brine strong enough. Or a mesh fine enough to net him: I believed he would slip through, all gossamer. I only had my clunky sieve and a canning jar. And his soul is as "pure as a pane of glass", to quote Sylvia Plath.
He is twenty-three years old. He leaves a shredded paper trail behind him wherever he goes: napkins on restaurant tables, musical exercises on arm chairs, receipts on the counter tops. All ripped into perfect strips, in the neatest of pyramids. He likes to eat "ragged claws", the meat shiny and stringy, dipped in melted butter. But his idea of the greatest treat is Kentucky Fried Chicken, and he can eat a whole bag of sour gummy worms at once. He likes to watch gazelles leaping on nature programs. He once casually took the idea into his head to run a road race, having never run one before, and clocked a 5:30 mile. He can burp the whole alphabet, used to knit in class as a child, and dropped out of high school. He can quote "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" almost in entirety and taught himself French. Oh, and the piano. But more on that later. He knows the scientific process of a perfect cup of tea. He has opinions on mugs, on the size of their rim and the density of their clay. He unfailingly turns the milk into a beautiful rusty color, and balances the bitterness with an unholy amount of honey. He actually once poured out a cup of tea I made for him: without a word, an unapologetic splash into the kitchen sink.
Oh, he is my friend and my heartbeat. I only have to look at him and I fall again.
At the end of August, Daniel visited me in the United States for the first time. When he left to return to his native Ireland in September, I wrote down everything. Every single memory. For two weeks I bowed my head and stormed. I capped it at eighteen thousand words. I did not put every moment into the final product, but there is enough distilled and pounded, so that I hope it is a fresh taste of Daniel I am lifting to your lips. My sweet and sometimes-acrid Daniel that I am sharing with you.
I figured I could start with a natural beginning: how he drank root beer, and roasted a marshmallow, and fell asleep to the sound of crickets, all for the first time. (He was also jarred by the rough purring of the air conditioner, so we had to turn that off at night.) Or how he was hooked on Dunkin' after his first honey-glazed doughnut.
But, in the end, I cannot skirt the creative force of loss in my life. And so I am going to tell this story backwards, starting with the goodbye. And I've tucked a heartbreak in there. Not because I'm a masochist, but because timing decreed que sera, and our road trip paralleled my loss. But I will spoil the ending for you: writing healed my heart. More than that, Daniel healed my heart -- of holes larger than any butterfly-stitch could suture. And as I recorded our story, as the reflection unspooled, a metamorphosis took place in my own soul. I had been afraid, the entire time Daniel was with me, that he was keeping me numb, and that I would have to deal with my heart-mess when he left. But I discovered that love does not temporarily repress symptoms. Love deals with the root cause. That is what it does: it goes down deep, it touches the nerve, and if it is real, love heals.
"Goodnight, my ruby dust. My love-tinted bliss. Goodnight."
Key signature: C major. It is the voice of my beloved that knocketh.
* * *
His laughter is raucous. Going up chimneys, rousing morning crows. Hearing it, I walked down the hall.
I opened my bedroom door, where he was supposed to be sleeping, and saw him lying on his back. My first thought was that he looked like Jesus, banded in linen and aloe, in the Gethsemane garden -- but I didn't say that aloud. Just that his chest was white. And the rest of his body was swallowed in soft cream. He was a laughing Christ.
"What?" I said, closing the door behind me.
"I was thinking about the time your clarinet teacher told you you looked like a chipmunk," Daniel said, "with your cheeks puffed up."
I laughed and crossed the room to him. He is beautiful, with a chiseled face and skin that is feathery up-close. His jaw is strong, but his mouth is soft and malleable. His eyes are the color of the sea. "Can we snugs?" I asked.
He whipped open the fluff-blanket and folded me in.
"I woke up and looked at the sun," I whispered, "and had a sinking feeling, and I tried to be positive, but then I just succumbed."
"Oh, I'm desolate," Daniel said. He ran his fingers up and down the fatty part of my arm.
"What are you playing?"
"A Midsummer's Night."
"I like when you do that."
"I like being your piano."
I liked being skin under his fingers, turned ivory. I liked feeling his pulses and presses, his insistence and precision. I liked being on the inside of his world-class technique, when suddenly my body is the piano being played in three-four time, transposed up a perfect fourth to the tonic key.
Then his hand moved to my head and he roughed his fingers through my hair. "Sheep damsel," he said.
Between us, Daniel and I have nothing that could be construed as jousting for top position. We have a healthy competition when it comes to bird whistles or jogging, but musically I quit the clarinet at nine-years old when the teacher told me I looked like a rodent. Daniel is a concert pianist who is actively working towards an international career, playing in Leon this Christmas. I am a writer inching towards publication, and an artist who paints once a year (if ambitious). When I saw a chess board lying on a coffee table, I said to him,
"We have never played a competitive game before."
"Let's not," he responded.
"No, never," moving the board to set up my laptop to watch our chick flick, next to the containers of take-out burgers and fries. "I hope you didn't think that was a precursor to an invitation. I'm in no mood to beat you in a game."
"Good," he replied, picking up his burger, "because I'm in no mood to quash your notions that you have any chance of beating me in a game."
In bed, I laid my hand on his arm. He had taught me how to do this, because I used to draw squiggles on his forearm whenever we snuggled. When he complained that I was tormenting him, I asked how he liked to be caressed. "Show me," I said. His motionless pressure on my own arm was tender and perfect.
"My indigo-feathered friend," I sighed.
"My seaglass-dusted --" he paused, "-- compatriot."
"That was a nice one," I said. I turned on my side and put my temple against his check, my nose by his lips, my mouth against his chin.
"I'm sorry my mouth is wet." I still had mint spittle on me.
"It's alright," he said, "I'm not going shifting you."
"You're not what?"
"I'm not going shifting you."
I kept my eyes open. I studied his face, the frosted gray of the hair around his ears, the perfect ears tangerine-flushed. He had freckles I never noticed, fawn-colored.
"This is all so unacceptable."
"I know," I said.
"I need to shower before I pack. Is my towel dans la salle de bain?"
"Merci beaucoup, ma douce fleur amie. Mon pâmoison saphir."
"De nada." Then I burrowed my head into his shoulder.
"I hope you know --" Daniel tightened his arms around me as if he could belt me to him -- "I love you. With all the force and vigor and vibration and vehemence possible. Out of control. And I mean vehemence with an 'h'."
I laughed into his neck. He smelled like cloves, like eucalyptus, from the warming spray we bought him to use for his tendonitis.
(I had guessed what eucalyptus smelled like
from the clots of Vicks VapoRub
in my nostrils as a child
But then I climbed a mountain
in Spain and there was a forest
at the top of scented leaves
and I knew what it was like then
to be wet -- to the ankles -- with green,
to be lifted in a chair of mint.)
I lowered my head and pressed my nose into his shoulder. At my request, he had brought back the princess costume I left in his closet in Ireland, and the crushed velvet smelled like wood and his woolen jumpers. And a little like him, too.
Then I silently reached out my hands to him and opened and closed the fists spasmodically.
Daniel caved-in. "Baby club hands. No!"
For the past three weeks we had roadtripped in my silver-pink car. Whenever I invited other drivers to go in front of me, I would signal with just a few fingers. He thought the hand-motion looked like a toddler begging for something she wants.
"It's preposterous. And you all do it." He flapped his fingers. "I can't even do it. And I'm the pianist. It's utterly unnatural."
"It's the most natural and instinctive movement in the world," I countered. The minutes were clicking by and starting to needle into my stomach.
In just a few hours, I would stand on the sidewalk and gesture with club hands to him on the stalling bus, so rambunctiously that the driver would actually come down the steps and stick his head out and said to me,
"But you aren't supposed to dance until he's gone."
"I know it," I said, looking at him in the window.
"Are you kicking him out?"
"I'm giving him the boot," secretly blowing him kisses with my eyes.
"Was there no room for you both in this town?"
"Not in this whole entire country."
"I'm so glad I could see you here, though, in your environment," Daniel said, "so I could see even more things unique to you, and love you for it." He started to sing Joni Mitchell. "I've looked at Saz, from both sides now, from up and down, and still somehow, it's Saz-illusions I recall --"
I half-slapped his stomach under the blanket.
"Just kidding," he said.
Just kidding, because you don't have illusions about someone after five years of friendship, six months of living next door, three months of living together, and almost three weeks of a road trip. Sometimes we smell like raw onions. I pick the toppings off apple crisp. He picks the corn and peas out of shepherd's pie. I switch the songs on the car radio spastically. And I had once dared to turn down the music he had playing on my laptop.
He noticed. "You turned down my music!"
"It was squawking," I protested. "Wait, no, that was the wrong word choice. It's so beautiful, Danny Pop."
I looked at him beguilingly and quoted: "Will you stay a while, kin of my faint and flickering heart, and a spend a moment more with me?"
He stabbed into his egg whites. "No."
"I knew you were going to say that." I turned back to my yolks.
Under the blanket, I luxuriated deeper into his side. "My Danny."
"Oh, my gold-balmed dewdrop," he said.
"What! How do you come up with these things? You shatter me."
"You call it out."
He was playing Rachmaninoff up my rib cage. My barrel of bones reverberated with his musical joke. Scherzo.
"I wish to be in a rocking cradle by the Sea of Galilee with you," he said.
I murmured into his shoulder, "Did you just make that up, too, or was that a song line?"
"It was Yeats."
While Daniel was running triplets across my elbow, I looked around my room. My olive-gray suitcase was standing in the corner, where I had left it when I came back from Ireland ten months ago; it had sprouted cobwebs.
Above the bed, there was a curling piece of parchment paper tacked on my wall, inscribed with the lyrics of "The Boys of Barr na Sráide" -- the song I chased to Ireland in 2012.
Next to it was a silk tapestry from my second move to Ireland, this time in 2014, and it is a painted cherry orchard in watery grays and pinks.
Then, finally, directly above our heads, there was a sprig of artificial bittersweet. 2016. I had found it at a country store, on a trip through New Hampshire. It was August and my birthday, and I had bought it as a present for myself. (It is an American emblem to me, the red berries capped with golden shells.) Then I cried the rest of the car ride home, because I had received a "happy birthday" text that day from my boyfriend, like we were acquaintances. The next day, when I confessed my emptiness, how I had been empty for months, my boyfriend said, "When are you home from work? I'm checking out early. I am going to be there."
"No, don't," I said. "You don't have to."
"I've left the hospital already."
A couple hours later, he showed up with two flower bouquets, vegetarian dinners, açaí smoothies, a bag full of snacks that made me laugh (my favorite potato chips and coconut water), and a gorgeous, hand-carved leather journal. He wrote on the inside cover and scattered love-notes throughout the pages. "You are my sweetheart." I put the presents on my desk and we escaped together to a trail head. Even though he had to get up at five a.m. the next day for another fourteen-hour shift, we stayed in my car and watched the stars come out, one by one, to the scoring sounds of "Ave Maria" in German, and I played with his lavender tie. I am still brushing the petals of those bouquets off my desk. Brushing and brushing. The petals are shriveled to the shapes of moons now.
I stirred. "Well, Danny-Pop."
"Alright," he said.
"Time to shower and pack."
We got up out of bed.
He pulled on a paisley shirt and began to button it. "Sarah," he said, "I know I've said this before, but I can't wait for the day when I'm playing at a concert --"
I creaked open my laptop to check my Facebook.
"-- and you'll be there. And I'll know you're there. And I'll play my heart out, like a nightingale pouring its blood into the rose. And then we'll walk out, arm and arm, under the lamplight down the street."
I wasn't looking at him, but I was in the audience, like I'd been at so many hot points, watching his hands and the reflection of his face in the gloaming rack. And then I was giving him a long-stemmed rose, and we were floating down the streets of Geneva or Prague.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"I'm writing your sentence down." I was typing on a computer document. "I thought it worth recording." He came and looked over my shoulder. "There, tell me if I wrote it correctly. Do I need to add anything?"
He read it. "'For you'," he said.
"You need to add 'for you'. Playing my heart out for you."
"You didn't say that, though." I melted.
"That's what I meant."
"But it's funny, my brain was actually thinking quickly, and accepting that you're an artist and give yourself to a whole audience. Not just to one person."
"No. That's why I said 'I know you'll be there.'"
"Oh, Danny. What am I going to do when you're gone? No boyfriend, no job, no Daniel. Mainly no Daniel."
"Stay away from the shrine fountain. I don't want to hear you've been found in two inches of water."
"And you stay away from any bog puddles."
"I'll try. Can you sort my coins?"
He poured dozens onto my desk. I rifled through the money and picked out the Swiss francs and Euros. The design on the francs was delicate and the heft in my hands felt medieval, and I begged him for the Euros.
Fermata. A week before Daniel came to me and the grapes were hard, my boyfriend ended our relationship. I was not expecting it. I answered the phone call, walking in too-bright sun around my neighborhood. I thought he was calling to discuss strategies for moving forward. To sort us out like the francs and dimes. But I heard him say instead, "I think we should break up." Everything felt unreal, squinting up in the light. The pavement was hot under my bare feet, sharp.
"It's alright," I said. "If you didn't do it, I would have done it myself. I was headed in that direction anyway. I've been feeling rejected in little ways, so this isn't much."
"You're taking this surprisingly well. . ."
"Yes, well. Don't worry about me. Honestly. I mean, I know I'm going to have a stronger or more real reaction later. But this is mutual."
I could hear him start to cry.
"Hey, listen," I said cheerily, "maybe this was just one of those learning relationships. Maybe it's time to roll the dice again and see what we get next. But whoever comes after you is going to have to live up to a lot of expectations I never had before. You certainly set the bar high for me. And I know I did for you, too."
Then I walked into the house. Orange juice. Green plastic cup. Ran a hot bath. Really hot. I poured a cap-full of lavender oil under the tap. Then I sat down on the floor. I became strawberry-red, all over. I sobbed, leaning forward, planting my face on the bathroom mat.
The tub was filling. My hands were limp. I had lied on the phone.
Then I did something funny, funny even to myself in the moment. I stood up, while still crying, the water still running, and looked at myself in the mirror. I wanted to know whether I was beautiful, intensely, in that moment. I felt my shoulders, looked at the curve of my neck. I saw how the lamps made lemon slopes down my back. Was consumed by my own beauty. Then I dropped back into the dark hole.
For six days, my friends basted and pinned me together. They fed me banana bread and gooey chocolate-peanut-butter cookies. One brought a tall bottle of wine, and we drank it by the pool. Another put on a comedy and sat next to me, wrapped up in blankets, saying nothing about boys. They all did this to hold me together, until they could hand me over to Daniel.