I Shall Wear White Flannel Trousers, 2
[Younger readers: drug use mentioned. And maybe some brief thematic content that could be upsetting. I would keep this to the older readers.]
Secondo movimento. A word on how I met my Irish soulmate.
I remember it in only blurs and pieces:
Twenty-three years old. Waking up under swan's down. Woozy from a four a.m. plane flight. Seeing my breath in the bathroom; my toothpaste being frozen in the tube. Forcing open shutters and looking out over a January field. Two cold sheep. Wondering what in the world I had done. Disoriented with the time zone change and realizing it was afternoon. Creaking across a hallway; going down thin-carpeted stairs. Trying to find a sign of life in the mansion. Dozens of doors, all closed. All peeling with paint. Finally hearing voices behind one, as if from a tunnel, jumbled. A loud squeak of the door: a bright yellow kitchen. A chunky mug that was seal-colored. A spray of lavender on the kitchen table. A thin boy dropping his teaspoon with a clatter and jumping into my arms.
Whoosh -- clack.
I had known he was eighteen. I saw he had pointed shoulders and blueberry eyes, and was wearing a baby-blue hoodie. I knew his name -- mispronounced -- and I knew some grody things from stalking photos on Facebook. I knew he was studying classical piano.
But I knew him, as one recognizes a beloved, in that first reedy, ecstatic hug we shared. That magic.
When Daniel released me, he said he had been waiting all day for me to wake up. He asked, with old-world courtesy (and in the most cooing voice I had ever heard), how I "got on with my flight" and if I wanted a cup of tea. But by that night we were holding hands and bouncing on our knees on my bed, half-screaming about energy drinks.
We wanted to make our own energy, we said. We wanted to forge our own path. We wanted to make our dreams come true. "I don't 'have' drive," he declared. "What an insulting compliment, to tell someone that. I don't have drive. I drive myself." And I said, "Yes -- yes -- yes!"
I don't remember what else we shrieked about, but we kept shrieking.
He was ferocious, with skin the color of cream -- of lamb's wool. He was the most ethereal and wildest person I had ever met. And he called me his bliss, his love-blossom. We cut our names in a tree. The tree overlooked a field of sheep, the sheep all spray-painted pink and blue. It was an ancient beech, with sleek bark. The trunk had a nestling dip, and my back fit into it like a nut into a glossy shell. I sat there, our names denting my back, and Daniel would lie at my feet.
Oh, set me as a seal upon your heart.
During the daytime I planted rows and rows of leeks. He dissected sonatas and strengthened his fourth finger for trills. I cut comfrey and pulled horsetail roots out of the ground, orange snakes. I wrote him a Valentine's Day card. He told me he used to knit in class as a child, his fingers purling wool when his work was done. He told me shards of his history -- never once asking for pity -- how rocks were thrown at his back in his village; how he sat on the swing outside and sang "La Vie en Rose" when he was eight. Bullying in halls. . . on sidewalks.
One night he asked me with quickness, "Did I ever tell you about my back?"
"No," I said. "I don't think so."
And he snatched my hand and put it against his lower back. Through his shirt, close to his hip, I felt something like a hard steering wheel. It was his spine.
I breathed in shortly. "Does it -- hurt?" I managed to ask in a level voice.
"Sometimes," he said. "Sometimes a lot."
Every evening I wrapped myself in a blanket and settled at his feet and listened to him play. He turned his room into a cave of stars, lifting the ceiling until I saw the Milky Way. After the last note faded, we boiled the electric kettle, and I curled up in his olive-gold armchair. We talked, the windows slowly fogging up. One night, I announced that I was going to tell him about my past. And I didn't let the story trickle out. I was stodgy about the recitation: thick splurges of words, and he listened noiselessly.
When I was finished, with almost every fact of my life lined up, I concluded with,
"I'm guessing it wasn't so bad. I know so many people have gone through worse. But I just want to know -- was it bad? I've never had any tell me that, straight-out. I just want to know once. You know, as an outsider's objective opinion. What did you think?"
I had told him about the blood foaming in my oldest brother's mouth --
-- about holding him turgid in the bathroom, soothing his breathing, looking into his chocolate eyes, dilated from stabbing himself in the thighs with horse tranquilizers. How his heart stopped at a carnival a year later. How I pulled the knee-high plaster statue of Mary into bed with me as a child, putting her behind me and pretending she was holding me while I heard the fighting downstairs, as a child hears the screams muffled by floorboards and carpets, knowing the pitch in the gut and knowing what divorce papers look like and the red lights at night and "don't let her take you if she ever gets you up from sleep, don't ever let her take you away from me." And Mary's robe was flowing and white and cool to the touch, her body hollow, but I felt comforted and warmed. And standing at the window, praying, "Please, God, let daddy come back safe tonight," and the relief and fear hearing the tires crunching on the gravel. And would he come in with little matchbox cars for us and play Monster or would he have the yellow breath. And the bruises from fingers wrapped around arms. And a maroon rocking chair. And my brain-damaged brother swinging, his bird-like legs, toes touching floor, his mouth always lollipop-red and open, screaming -- "waffles, sausages, no no no" -- every night, yes, past midnight to dawn. And getting the phone call when I was walking on a guided historical tour of a local woodland -- "I took as much as I could but it wasn't enough Sarah it wasn't enough it wasn't enough --" and I turned away from the group and ran the rest of the way home, ran through the woods, to my car, to my little brother. And there was a dirty bandage on a wrist and a split lip and always cleaning up feces my autistic sibling smeared on every surface, and all these things, but at some point I stopped talking.
I didn't say these exact words to Daniel, but I indicated it:
In conclusion I could stand here like I was in a corn field and keep talking to you until all you saw were brutal stalks of stories and my face became lost and that's what I feel sometimes, these hot kernels in my rib cage, the golden bristles on me until I can't see the sky. But that's not who I am. Who I am is my desire to follow the tassels, the stars, the little glimpses of "something could be better" until I am standing outside the field, my legs and arms free. And I've tried. I keep trying. I followed some kind of gold here to Ireland.
And Daniel heard this all, but he still looked at me and said,
"It was bad, Sarah."
So I said, "Thank you."
I was holding a notebook in my lap, and I was tapping the pen on its cardboard back.
"That's what I thought, but I just wanted to hear someone else say it." Rap, rap. "I just needed to hear someone else say it once, you know."
During these nocturnal talks, we shared ourselves, exchanging dreams in that steamy room until my oxygen was his, and his, mine. I learned about Daniel's longterm goal of becoming a concert pianist. No one I knew had been brazen enough to take the path he had. When he was younger, he woke up at four a.m. and cycled through the rain to play the piano in the town hall before school. He often skipped classes to prepare for competitions, but what he really wanted to do was practice at least eight hours a day. So at sixteen Daniel dropped out of school altogether. Later he crossed paths with the Merlin-like owner of the estate, who offered him a place in his stables, where Daniel could bring his piano with him. The two other pieces of furniture in the room were his bed and an overstuffed armchair.
Then I told him about my dreams of writing a novel.
"Except I've never finished anything in my life," I said. "I never even put 'The End' on my stories as a kid."
"And do you want to?" Daniel asked. He was sitting across from me and holding one of his perfect mugs, his fingertips pressing into the clay. His nails were shiny; the flesh of his fingers was pink.
"Then you've got to believe it. Say it to me now."
"Say to you what?"
His eyes were variegated, and at the moment they were roiling. "Say to me that you're going to finish your novel."
"I want to finish my novel. -- No, no. I'm going to finish my novel."
"Well, that had as much enthusiasm as a boiled potato. Try it again."
I raised my fist. "By golly, I'm going to finish my novel!"
"Don't make a mockery of your real feelings," Daniel said. "Say it seriously."
I was taken aback. "Sorry." I coughed. "I mean, I know I'm going to finish my novel," I tried to say with surety. "I do know it." My voice sounded unusual to me. Exposed. Suddenly I broke down and giggled.
"Why did you laugh?"
"Because this is ridiculous."
"I think it's because you're afraid I'm going to laugh at you,” Daniel said. “Or that I'm not going to believe you."
I paused. "I guess so."
"But no one is mocking or doubting you here." His eyes crested then, turned inky, and glossed. "It's only me, and I love you. Now say it again."
I looked down at the table. I breathed in and out, softly, quietly. "I'm going to finish," I said at last. "I really am. I want to, and I am. And I mean it." Then I looked up and his gaze was on me.
He said, "I know you are."
So we whetted each other, iron on stone, two royals. We gave the other a swinging breach of both space and challenge: the challenge was unconscious, the space was deliberate. It fastened us to each other.
Daniel told me about birds. "You're supposed to wave at magpies," he said, "to ward off sorrow. But I never do. Sorrow breaks up the tapestry of life."
"You tempt fate," I chided.
"I court melancholia."
And whenever he was depressed or afraid, I knew it. He lost the poppies and hailstorm from his playing. I saw when his elbows became locked, his eyebrows wooden. But I also knew never to mention it when he took his hands off the keys: his lips pursed, when he was flicking a page over. Yet one time he got up from his piano, made a cup of tea, and sat down on the overstuffed chair. His cup was rigid between his fingers.
And I was sitting on his bed. I watched him, observing the violet shadows crackling across his face. And then I jumped up. I crossed the room and vaulted onto the arm of the chair, perching there like a sunbird. And I took his head in my hands and placed it against my chest.
"I heard you play that song like a warrior last week, and I know you'll do it again," I said. "I believe in you; I trust you. You are going to do it again."
Daniel won his international piano competition that year; I myself embarked on my first novel, sitting in his olive-gold armchair, to the backdrop of those relentless trills and stanzas.
Five years later, I was writing down a terminal number at Logan International. Cleaning out my car and picking out the crumbling leaves.
I bought him a ham and cheese croissant, in case he was hungry. I put one foot in front of the other: "This is your cross-oceanic-soul-lover coming to you," I reminded myself. You will explode into heart-zinnias and diamond confetti when he arrives.
But, hot and anxious, I missed my bus because I had gone to buy roses.
On the second bus, I swallowed an aspirin and exhaled. When I finally arrived, an hour late, I saw him. Outside the terminal, on the sidewalk. I could have picked Daniel out by shape and color: skinny wrinkled black jeans, tight-collared button-down, cherry-red sneakers. His hand was wrapped around the handle of his rolling bag. His back was towards me, talking to airport officers, asking directions to another terminal. His phone was not working. Ten seconds more and I would have missed him entirely.
I breezed over and threw my arms, pink roses and all, around him. He spun around inside my arms.
"Welcome to America!" and the officers laughed.
We could only talk about how surreal it felt -- arms slung around each other, walking down the too-bright corridor of the terminal. We ordered fast food inside the airport, and I watched him flounder with U.S. currency. In his wallet, the bills looked so green and long, next to the rainbowy Euros. Then Daniel had a break down over the shape of American Coke bottles. "They're fat clubbed bottles," he howled. "I can't handle it! They're the strangest shape. Look, look." He kept squishing the plastic with his hand. "And did you hear how the Burger King lady thanked me? 'You go-on have a nice day, honey,'" in imitation. "I think I'm in love with her."
"You fall in love with everyone."
"I know it," he moaned, into his fries.
"But it's a wonderful thing," I said, taking a sip of my iced tea. "And I heard you call them French fries. I'm so proud of you."
Afterwards we leaned against a concrete wall outside, fanning ourselves and waiting for our bus home.
"First time on American soil, Danny." My shirt was sticking to my back.
"So how far away is your village from Boston?"
"They don't call them villages here."
"Well, what do you call it then, if it isn't a village? A hamlet? Glen? . . .Hobbiton?"
"A town," I laughed. "And we're actually going to my friends' town tonight."
My friend and her boyfriend had generously lent us their house for the weekend, the cutest and tiniest of red bungalows, because they were away for a wedding. When we arrived and retrieved the housekey under the gnome, the first thing Daniel did was careen himself down into the basement. I heard his footsteps whack down the stairs, and then clatter back up in joy.
"I've never been in one before!"
"I forgot about that," I said.
Then we read our to-do list, and the first thing was to give my friends' diabetic cat an insulin shot, which neither of us had ever performed. After watching YouTube videos and flicking the glass countless times to get the air bubbles down, we completed it successfully. Bigby was compliant, his emerald eyes looking up at us long-sufferingly.
Next Daniel's request was, classically, for food.
So we returned to the night air and an explosion of crickets, and got back into the car.
"I actually have no idea where a grocery store is," I said, shutting the door.
He pulled on his seat belt. "Don't you have a sat nav?"
I started the ignition. "Asawtna?"
"A sat nav."
"A snot mauve?"
"A sat nav!"
"I literally have no idea what you're saying," I said, "but thankfully I have a GPS, so we will be fine," and I pulled out the navigation system from the center console.
Daniel glowed with delight at being in an American grocery store, clutching the basket to himself, flitting from cupcakes to lemonade. I bought a kale salad. He bought a peach drink, sour candies, a blackberry tart, a baked chicken, and baguettes.
We carried our baskets to the counters and stood in line. Daniel looked past the costumer in front of us. "Wait, we don't bag our own groceries here?"
"Bag our own groceries -- what!" hefting my basket up. "Never. Welcome to the land of the lazy."
When we returned and settled back into our bungalow, we unloaded our food and began to eat. And then Daniel went into a miniature fit.
"Where my patches at," he said, jumping up off the couch.
"Your what?" I asked, with a mouthful of kale.
"My patches. I can't find my patches."
I put down my plate, got off the couch and followed him into the kitchen to help him look. "What are you talking about?"
"I bought patches and now I can't find them." He started fluttering around like a tourmaline moth.
"If this is another Irishism, babe, I'm not up to date."
"Daniel. I absolutely have no idea what you're -- ohh, you mean your peach drink! Here it is." I picked it up off the counter. It was a bottle of peach mango juice. "Wow, that took me so long to figure out. Your peaches."
"No, not my peaches -- my patches!" and finding what he was looking for, he snatched it off the counter and rattled the candy box of Sour Patch Kids under my nose. I exploded.
I exploded, specifically, into shimmering lights. I actually couldn't remember the last time I had laughed so hard. So hard that my spleen turned neon green and I pushed my hands into my knees and I tried to hold on for dear life -- and even the room tipped: I just saw the kitchen tiles and lights start sliding. His patches. I gave into it, like a surrender to obliteration, to levitation, and somehow I stayed on my feet.
Then he ate his sugared candies as we sat and watched a David Attenborough documentary.
"This is like the old times," I said, snuggling down.
"This is perfection," he said.
But it was not. Not exactly. A vapor of foreign air was crawling between us, and I felt it -- subtly -- when we we climbed into bed that night. Something was wrong.
Daniel said, "Are we going to listen to that atrocious buzzing all night?"
"What, you mean the sound of the air conditioner? Yeah, we can turn it off." I got up. "Wait, do you not have air conditioners in Ireland?"
"Of course not. You forgot we didn't have basements, too."
I switched off the icy blast. "I guess I only noticed things that were new to me. I didn't notice what wasn't there." I went back to the bed. "I personally like the air conditioner because it's a white noise, but I've heard it since childhood. Now we're going to hear other things that might keep you up just the same, because you're not used to them. Crickets and cicadas and tree frogs," going under the blankets. "I'm sorry if any of them bother you." The bed was a cloud, and I saw that my girlfriend had a ratty baby blanket. I grabbed it and unashamedly tucked it under my arms. I had a similar one from infancy, and it smelled the same. Musty and woolly.
Then Daniel pressed play on a violin concerto I had never heard before, cupping his phone on the hollow in his chest.
"Oh, Danny," I crooned.
"Yes. Isn't it soul-cutting?" he whispered.
"Oh, play it again," when it was over. I moved in closer, and put my head on his chest.
And then my head could not find its dent.
I attempted to listen to the song. I moved again, adjusted my hair.
His skin was drum-tight. I tried to nuzzle my cheek deeper into his bony valley. But I could not get comfortable.
I could not find home. His goose-pimples were under my fingers, rising on his flesh like chicken skin, almost slick. It was dim in the room, and I became lost in the darkling blue. The cicadas began their hissing, and then the unfamiliar feeling formed into solid thought and unnerved me:
"This is not my boyfriend's chest."
Suddenly I was no longer in the bed. I was helpless with longing, lost under waves of memories. How I had read aloud words that had tied my tongue -- onychocryptosis, xerostomiath, sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia -- while helping him study. How the last thing my boyfriend and I had eaten together was ice cream, at a dairy farm, slow-churned and full of molasses. The flavor was Indian pudding, and we shared it with spoons, licking the rough cornmeal off the slippery plastic. It was so gritty, and so sweet.
I could visualize, against his nutmeg skin, his perfect teeth: teeth that could have been a Crest toothpaste commercial. He also had a Norman Rockwell neck, alien eyebrows, and dragonfly eyes. He had smooth luscious lips that were almost African, a broad nose, and a Neolothic browbone. (Or a superciliary arch, as he taught me.) His ears were set high, his hair cut short. So short I could never run my fingers through it. And he was always clean and shower-gelled, so clean I had been almost afraid to touch him. It didn't help that he once asked if I had washed my hands after tossing away my apple core. And sometimes he didn't want me to touch him altogether. Sometimes he studied so much, his brain hurt, his temples were inflamed, and he had flinched away from my touch. But the many times when I was able to run my hands over his head, I had felt his delicious bone structure under my fingers -- soapy and velvet. He was very sharp in some ways, and that was why I had loved to find those soft spots: the pool of green in his eyes, the padding underneath his toes, the way he would watch videos of kittens and instructions on baby-holds on YouTube. And I loved everything about him that was boyish -- the whorl of hair at the top of his skull, the set of his shoulders, the erect assertive curve of his thumb. I even -- or secretly, mostly -- was titillated by the triple stripe going down his athletic pants.
Now, an air conditioner, now dying clicks. Crickets. I tried to bring my mind back to the little room. Back to Daniel. Back to the ratty blanket. I had been prepared to fall into the jasmine-bath that was his aura, peppered with memories, a veritable coat rack of laughter and nippy fake-fights. Yet I couldn't stop thinking of the other person, of wanting him.
The guilt truly sank in when I realized I didn't want to be in that little red bungalow at all, listening to crickets. I wanted to be in the city of Worcester, hearing a siren wail, an ambulance pumping into the hospital across the street. I wanted my cheek pillowed near his armpit, my nose folding into his shirt, my senses engulfed in Old Spice Pure Sport.