Chapter 10: From Robin's Notebooks
Alfred deserves his own notebook. This one I will actually hide. Though who am I kidding? Kevin won't want to read it any more than he wants to read anything else of mine.
About Alfred: After you have gone through all the pain of saying no to something you once wanted, then when it gets offered again and again, it becomes a burden rather than a joy. He keeps writing letters, and I keep loving them, and then hating them, too, because I miss him so much, and because I know I would only say no again. And I also know that I still want his admiration, his attention. His promise of love.
It's like getting travel offers to Greece when you have already decided you won't ever go. But you could have. You would have liked to go. Anyway, Alfred isn't a travel brochure.
The thing is, on some level I think Kevin wouldn't even mind if I had an affair. But I would mind. This is my life. This is my love. But then I must also live it quietly and without complaining.
Last night I dreamt of Alfred. We were dancing on a wooden bridge. In real life, though, I had to let him go. I had to make him go. I miss his young exuberance, his eagerness to make something comprehensible out of this world, something fair and sensible. That's all he wanted. He was, and is, so young, he still trusted justice. It wasn't just that I was bound to a husband who didn't want to dance when I danced so well. It wasn't fair that my lame (that's Alfred's word) husband didn't make the least effort to enter my world, which of course both Alfred and I agreed was a beautiful world.
I remember how I first saw Alfred, his shoulders slouched against the wall, his left knee bent for balance, reading a book in the opposite corner of the club while everybody else was either dancing, or getting up their nerve to ask somebody to dance, or waiting to be asked to dance, or bustling around, acting busy at the already perfectly functioning sound equipment, or straightening the bowls of mint at the reception table. Somebody dropped glossy fliers on each table. Someone else straightened chairs. And there he stood against the wall with his face in a book. There was something helpless and, yes, romantic, about him standing there, reading. I'd never seen him before, but then again, I only went out once a week or even only every other week, and there were all these other venues around town.
Maybe he's shy. Maybe I should ask him to dance, I thought to myself. He was agreeably handsome, too, dark-haired, tall, wearing a plaid flannel shirt which went well with his backpack, into which he finally stuck his book. The backpack and shirt did not, however, go all that well with the ultimate concept of tango, the elegance of being dressed to the nines. Though lately I find more and more people relax in that area. Jeans are fine all of a sudden. T-shirts. It is all good now. So a plaid shirt on a man was just fine. The shirt made him look rugged, the book made him look sensitive. A complex personality all in all.
I dismissed the idea of asking him to dance. I was too old for that. My dignity was at stake. Sure, if I were a breathless young girl in her happy summer dress. But I wasn't. And I remembered my lesson from watching poor Miguel, first teacher and first partner, when older women stridently asked him to dance and politeness obliged him to honor their request with just barely disguised disdain. Not fair, either, for when less strident ones just wiggled their hips suggestively in front of him, he felt justified in ignoring them, though he never felt free to ignore the pushy ones. Where's the justice in that?
Miraculously, when I returned from a bathroom break at some point, Alfred sat at my table in the seat right next to mine. That had to be a sign. Small talk was called for. Alas, I was too eager. Speaking of young girls in summer dresses. Old woman in winter clothes was more like it.
"What are you reading over there in your corner when you aren't dancing?" I asked. Wrong thing to ask. Wrong timing. Wrong something.
"Some French poetry," he said.
"Oh, Alfred de Musset?"
"No, it's an obscure poet."
He brushed off my next attempt at making nice, too, at which point I ceased and desisted.
I sat there in hot cheek discomfort until he got up and ambled over to the bar. Finally I was able to relax a little again, my ego licking its raw spots. What had I done to offend him? Also, I was still convinced that, if he named what he was reading, I would have been able to surprise him by being familiar with it. After all, books were my métier. But how was he to know that?
I felt an odd mix of bitterness and tenderness for this misguided clod who really didn't need to be rude, but clearly didn't have the wherewithal to be anything else. He felt to me like a teenage girl putting on seductive gear and makeup and then being offended when someone she didn't target, for example an older leering guy, gives her the now unwanted attention she has asked for.
After a while he got up from his bar stool to ask a young woman to dance. I watched him. He danced well. Not exceptionally well; just average well. I noticed him often from there on out. He danced with most of the women most nights. Except me, of course, the older woman who had been too forward. Which was just as well. I kept avoiding his eyes, not knowing what else to do. I kept hoping he'd change his mind and attitude, especially after he saw me dance, and be sorry and come to redeem himself. That didn't happen. He was too involved with his own legend of self. So what developed later was definitely not some sort of love at first sight. Let's call it a disconnect at first sight.
Then one day somehow my eyes must have been full of summer, and just at that moment our eyes met by chance. I was still filled with elation from a previous dance. I was in the process of returning to my table, solo. In that particular club at that particular time men said thank you, but didn't escort women back to their tables. Anyway, as soon as our eyes met, Alfred asked me to dance.
"I'd love to," I said, doing my darndest to come across cool.
He stepped on my foot almost immediately and our eyes met again in brief terror. Are we OK? We were OK. We burst out laughing and had to stop dancing. When we finally resumed, we danced without further mishap. He felt good, very smooth, an excellent leader. The tiniest bit jerky at times.
"What's your name?" I asked at some point.
"Alfred." He laughed, then shook his head with mock regret and smiled. "No, it's really Jim."
"Oh," I said. So he did remember our original conversation. I tried hard not to blush. "I'm Robin."
I called him Alfred ever after. Special occasions require special names, after all. One time I showed him a piece I had written about him. He put his hand over his heart, then laughed out loud. That's when I knew I was in love.
I still remember the feeling of our first dance after the mishap. It was a feeling of triumph, spice, and gentleness. It felt festive. At some point we started looking at each other and smiling. It would have been more tangoesque to look at each other with serious eyes, half-open mouths, etc. We didn't go that far. After all, this wasn't a show. We weren't performers. So we just smiled.
I wanted the tanda we danced that night to never end. I was convinced I wouldn't know what to do when we had to stop dancing and start behaving like normal human beings again. My heart tapped up against my throat. My fingertips tingled. His eyes were a soft hazel brown, almost like a cat's, but, no, not yellow, and no vertical pupil slit.
I checked out his ring finger. No ring. Though that was irrelevant. I wasn't wearing a wedding ring either, not since Kevin has lost his playing volleyball at the beach. Kevin kept making noises about replacing his ring one of these days, but then never followed through. This then was my tiny gesture of defiance, not wearing my own ring. I was so exhausted from Kevin's lack of care about small rituals and from my own stupid petulance.
Alfred really wasn't married, though. Of course not. Otherwise he would have shown up with his wife and danced with her all night. Though that isn't strictly true for tango etiquette either. People who come with spouses or regular partners don't stick to each other all night. If for no other reason than that there are so many extra women around, such as myself, and men have to do their social duty.
Alfred's imaginary wife would be wonderful, of course, very attractive, and he'd flaunt her with slightly angry possessiveness. There was definitely an angry streak in Alfred, a rugged rebelliousness. In any event, she'd be important to him, visibly and in every other way.
When he originally brushed me off, he reminded me of other men who had called me out about being too forward. Most of those times I had been very young and inexperienced. Once I'd ineptly flirted with an "older" guy. He was at least eighteen to my fifteen, and I was trying to make what I hoped were bedroom eyes. "Are you sleepy?" he asked. I stopped looking at him after making sure I was still unhappily grounded on the face of the earth, rather than having sunk below it. The shame of the situation never left me, and I had the feeling that Alfred had that kind of dismissive brutality in him, and I feared him a little for it, though with me he was always gentle. After our original disconnect, that is.
But his gentleness came at the price of a certain amount of pity, I think, and I didn't want pity. Pity would mean that anyone, everyone, could see how wretched I was, what a pathetic life I led.
Alfred was curious about me. That alone would have made me fall in love with him. Eventually the possibility of sex fluttered between us. That, too, made it imperative for my inner lover to scramble and bring up major feelings of tenderness way before the fact, should it ever come to pass, which, as it happened, it didn't.
As for Alfred, he thought he had certain rights to me because he was interested in me. He loved dance, and he loved me chivalrously, and maybe in other ways, too, in ways that clearly my illustrious, loyal, and self-satisfied husband didn't, otherwise that idiot would make the effort to come out into the world with me to dance a little and to live a little.
Alfred saw the cruelty in the situation. I say that as though I didn't. Of course I did. It was a cruelty toward all of us actually. And so? So nothing.
One night, instead of dancing, Alfred invited me to go down to the river with him. It was late spring. It was warm. The sky was clear for once. He pointed out the Big Dipper to me. Then we watched the majestic spectacle of an almost full moon rising over the mountains to the east. We sat on the river bank, pretending that it was the Seine, pretending that we were a couple meant for each other, meant for life, plotting a future among mossy century-old stones. I sat slightly in front of him, leaning back into his shoulder, against his chin-long hair, testing how safe it felt, how his angry young man quality and rebelliousness would protect me if they were employed on my behalf. There was a heron patiently standing at the water's edge.
It was as though his plaid shirt shoulder and arm could speak: I could shelter you as well as any man could, they told me. In addition, I would love you with the enthusiasm of desire for who you are, not just for sex and my own pleasure. I'd be interested in you as a person, as a wielder of words, as a dancer of steps. I'd be interested in just how you danced each separate boleo, each ocho, how wide you would slide your leg on the floor, how deep you would go.
Just as wordlessly as his arms and shoulder spoke to me, I told him silently that recently I had realized that Kevin was no longer interested in me at all anymore, although he was still interested in sex, and how we all had to deal with that uncomfortable circumstance. Kevin seemed more or less oblivious to the discomfort. Things were not exhilarating, but they were okay and that was good enough for him. He didn't have to do anything. That was even better. I was, after all, happy to go and get my dancing jollies elsewhere, and he generously left me free to do so, making no jealous claims. He comfortably took me for granted. He had, after all, gone through the big step of marrying me. As far as he was concerned, he was done. Forever. No need to light any more fires. Thanks to modern technology and electric fireplaces, you could just flick a switch, and, voilà, flames, mood, romance, commitment, all taken care of. How much better could it get?
With Alfred's arm around my shoulder I felt his silent yearning, the yearning part of love that Kevin had somehow lost. In a court of love, I was afraid, I would probably even get blamed for that lack, at least as far as our male society was concerned. I hadn't done enough game playing. He hadn't had to chase me enough, always a few inches out of his grasp, shimmering in his vision, becoming more important with every almost touch, with every twist of eluding him like a firefly. What exactly was the price of not playing games? Boredom, disappointment, being taken for granted. But I didn't want to play games. I wanted to live a life of simplicity and openness. I'd save my complications for tango steps and that sort of expertise, thank you very much. Was it wrong of me to not play games with Kevin? In other words, was it wrong for me to be myself? That was the question.
I was sad, so sad. I suddenly knew this was the night I would have to make a choice. I could choose Alfred's fresh fire love, or I could return to the familiar warm breeze of Kevin's carelessness. I wanted both. Both filled me with infinite tenderness.
I wanted the moment to last, this moment in which I hadn't made a choice yet, when I still had options.
"I could give you everything any other man could give you," Alfred pleaded for himself at some point. "You really need nothing from men. You are able to stand on your own. Which is what makes you so beautiful. But in addition to all that, I could give you love. It would be a pure gift. No obligation. Just a gift. I would love you like this forever. My heart is yours. My soul is yours. For as long as you want them."
Did he use those words? I don't remember. Maybe some of them came later, in one of the letters he wrote.
I do remember my doubts. Hadn't Kevin once courted me with promises of tenderness and forever love? Had he, or had I just misinterpreted in accordance with my own longings and projections? Had I looked at Kevin's gentle warm eyes and felt I was promised a world that only existed in my own imagination, which is why it then later on was not delivered? When he told me words of love, did I expect more than was on offer? What did he mean when he said he loved me? It was what I wanted most of all. Love. And in the end a commitment was made, negotiations were conducted. Love was held out. And almost immediately it was switched out for the poor substitute of sex. So much easier. For a man anyway.
I can hear a court-house arbitration. The man's voice: You promised me sex. All I get is this frilly love, plus reproaches when I fall short of delivering the most gourmet form of frilly love in return.
The woman's voice: You promised me love. And all I get is this mechanical sex, skin rubbing skin in this absurd friction that leaves my soul and my heart cold. And then I get reproaches when I fall short of the enthusiasm that would lead you to even greater heights of sexual delight. Although you do say you are very happy with the status quo, so long as you get your white-out of physical release, preferably not merely self-induced. At least you get something.
It all boiled down to this: in the end I had to love myself after all. I was so hoping someone else would take care of that for me. What a cynic I had become.
And here was this tempting offer of fresh love. From a man fifteen years my junior. Maybe that was the ticket. His relative youth. He still had the energy of youth left. But then again, his youth, like everybody else's, would go away. He would grow older. And then what? Then I'd be wrinkly and brittle, and he'd still be fifteen years younger than I. Would his love survive?
I wanted to stay in that bittersweet moment so desperately. His arm on my shoulder. I wanted to trust everything. The sweetness of the moment. The sweetness of not yet having to move on.
The moon was now fairly high in the sky. A few ornamental clouds accentuated it from time to time, but they never hid it entirely for long. There was the scent of recently mown grass. A heart and a soul were offered to me with passionate sincerity. My gut acted up strongly: Take this. This is what you've always wanted. My gut also said: Be careful. This is just a moment. Just an adorno, an embellishment. Just a quick dance movement, the flash of a leg, the pressure of a hand. Then gone.
"I don't know what to do, Alfred," I said.
"You don't have to decide right now," he replied.
But we both knew I did have to decide. Right now. An offer of sweetness and passion from Alfred on the one hand. Out in the open. All I had to do was say yes. On the other hand Kevin's tacit assumption that I was his forever. My honor was at stake here. I had made wedding vows. And no matter how many smaller promises Kevin had not kept from his end, my promises were my responsibility. It was my integrity that was at stake here, not his.
I wanted to cry. Integrity. Stupid concept. So you make a promise based on your own mistaken assumptions and projections. Are you bound forever? Actually no, a voice inside me said. But you do have to give fair warning.
And hadn't I? Hadn't I warned Kevin a thousand times that I wasn't satisfied with his smug contentment with things as they were, his passionless, careless trust that, though he did nothing, things would always stay comfortable and stable for him. That there was no need to pay any attention to me, because I had promised, and I had already proven over time that I did keep each and every promise I made, and then some. I was reliable. I delivered. Diligent and exhausted, and nevertheless yearning for the sweetness of the carpet of flowers that Alfred more or less pledged to spread at my feet.
I couldn't handle it. I fell apart.
Even now I can't handle it. I miss him so much.
All I can do now is to replay the sweet bits of that evening for myself. Around and around it goes in memory. How we'd already gone into the doors of the club, met as usual at the table where I liked to sit, close by the door -- just in case I needed to make a quick getaway for some reason or other. How he stood in front of me, his outstretched hand inviting me to dance. He had already taken off his dark tortoise-shell framed glasses to leave them behind on my table while dancing. Suddenly his hand stopped midway to the table. The energy between us was electric, though we hadn't yet touched.
"Do you want go for a walk instead?" he asked.
"Yes," I said. So simple.
We didn't leave together. We changed back into our street shoes in opposite corners of the club. I stopped at the restroom to freshen up and run a comb through my hair, never mind that it would shortly be blown into chaos by the wind. I wanted to look in the mirror. I wanted to look at my eyes that seemed darker than usual while I asked myself in silence: Will I have an affair with this beautiful man?
It made no sense. He was so much younger than I. And even so he was already dancing toward middle age. What did that make me? Ancient, it would seem.
He waited for me outside on the street and walked me to my car, his hand at my elbow. How do men learn this, to place their hand at a woman's elbow and guide her? We didn't speak except to arrange where we would meet.
"You know where the children's playground is, then a path beyond to the river?"
"Yes. See you there."
We drove in separate cars. It wasn't far. We could have walked. It felt like a dream, a huge, moody dream. We met at the parking lot and walked once again without speaking, looking at each other merely to agree on the bench we had chosen about half a mile down the path. It was still light in the sky, but darkening. The strong scent of blossoms in the air. Somewhere in the distance a fog horn. It was deliciously warm. We watched some logging ships move down the river. It wasn't Paris. No Notre Dame. No hunchback. But close enough.
"Je t'aime," he said.
Every part of my body responded. Look. Opportunity. Touch him. Melt into him. This may be your one last chance in life to open up again, to be unreservedly in love again. Come on. Come on. He is beautiful. He is willing to pay attention to you.
Oh, is he? my inner critic started piping up. Is he? Or is he interested in the usual, sex, the one thing that all men unfailingly want?
And women don't? I challenged.
Sure they do, critic hissed back. But they want it served with love and they can only enjoy it with love.
That was my answer, wasn't it? I had started loving this young man, had started feeling the tenderness that women feel for someone they are about to go to bed with. Gentleness. Openness. I tried to shoo it away. I tried to imagine him seven years old when I was twenty-two, me just getting my MA, while he was playing with toy cars and action figures. Even with all that, I couldn't chase my yearning away. It wasn't exactly pure lust either, though my body tingled. I was yearning for feelings that I felt flowing toward me and from me. They filled my veins and all of my empty spaces.
I thought in typical female fashion that I owed the world to him for this delicious feeling and I couldn't really deliver the world because I had already promised it to Kevin, the reasonable and comfortable Kevin with his calm disinterest and gentleness. Gentle disinterest. Like a pat on the head. Patronizing.
I was lonely. I had such yearning to be seen, and Alfred promised to look at me. I had already committed to Kevin's blindness, though.
It was lonely not being seen, but then I also hid on purpose, because what wasn't being seen -- my endless yearning for experience, for feeling, for passion -- was also forbidden, and was tearing my heart to shreds. I was neither the patient Griselda for whom Kevin apparently took me, nor the ardent lover willing to risk everything for a kiss. I recall Rumi recommends somewhere that, yes, all should be risked for a kiss. I wished I had that kind of courage.
Later I often wondered, what if I had said yes to Alfred? Would he then have turned away in helpless shock, because the best part of his experience was reaching over the abyss to me, reaching for something that was out of his grasp, seeing if he might, just might, have a chance to get it after all? Was he perhaps the usual proverbial hunter and interested in me precisely because I was out of reach?
I didn't say yes. Of course not. Only my soul said yes, my heart said yes. But my mind said: no can do, you have no clue how to handle this, best leave it be.
I left it be.
When it was clear that we weren't going to be lovers, at least not that night, he asked me with a light of acceptance in his eyes to stay with him until sunrise, so we could at least have that together, watching the sun rise.
"Will it rise?" I asked. I hadn't checked the weather forecast.
"It surely will," he said.
"Yes, but . . ."
"Let's just find out. If it starts raining, we can always scramble for shelter."
I couldn't stay. Always an early riser, Kevin would probably be up before five o'clock in the morning, and if I wasn't there, he'd be worried. I explained this to Alfred.
"Maybe it would be good for him," Alfred said, drawing his thick brows together.
"Maybe so," I said. "But he doesn't deserve that much grief."
"So, if it weren't for Kevin worrying about you at five o'clock, you'd stay with me?"
"Yes, absolutely," I said.
"Then that means you are living a lie," he said.
I felt tears behind my eyes. I wasn't just living a lie, I was living multiple lies. I wasn't living any kind of truth that corresponded to anything having to do with Robin. I was living to protect Kevin, pushing Robin aside for that. I was living to protect Alfred, pushing Robin aside for that as well. I wasn't living for myself. If I had lived for myself at that moment, I would have simply found the nearest shelter, taken off my clothes and let my body take in Alfred's touch, love, need, whatever he offered.
He held me as I cried. He made soothing sounds. We stayed like that for what seemed like an eternity. It was probably no more than a few minutes. Soon I started composing myself again, once more pushing Robin away and putting on the "I'm fine" mask. Alfred stroked my hair.
"I don't care if you ever make love with me," he said. "It's not about that at all. I simply love you with my whole heart, complications and all." I didn't think that was a lie at the time. I don't think it was the truth either. It was a most delicious fiction of the moment.
"You're not happy," he said. "I wish you would come to me. Live with me. Whatever. I'd do anything to make you happy!"
"Dance tango?" I asked, grinning through my tears.
I chuckled to soothe myself over the unfair comparison of Alfred's words to those of Kevin who, when I mentioned I was unhappy, routinely said that if I was so unhappy, he guessed I would have to leave him and try to find happiness elsewhere. I should feel free to do whatever it took to make me happy. He'd support me to the point of letting me go. I did cherish the notion of someone willing to do Anything with a capital A to make me happy, not just graciously allowing me to go and do so for myself.
"If you can't stay with me, then I think it's time to go," Alfred finally said around midnight. "The milonga was over more than an hour ago. You wouldn't want to have your husband worry too much."
Now I heard anger in his voice. I didn't mention that Kevin was probably long asleep by now. What would have been the point? I was angry too, because it was all so unjust. But I had never been taught how to be angry, so, as always, I simply shied away from it. His anger now made me not only a little afraid, as anger from other always did. It also made me sad. It felt as though his anger was now my enemy, the same anger that I had earlier imagined as capable of being my ally, my champion.
I felt paralyzed, unreal, light-headed, as though watching someone else go through my motions. I let him guide me back to my car, hand on my elbow again. All of a sudden I wanted to beg him to make me stay, which was absurd, of course, as I was the one making it impossible to stay.
"Everything will be all right," he said, as we stopped by my car.
"Yes, it will be," I said. I hugged him, a long hug, treasuring the length of his body against mine. Then I got into my car, waved at him, and drove off.
I only drove around the corner, then three blocks, and then I pulled over to the curb, turned off the engine and gave way to the rest of the tears, the ones I had been holding back while I was still trying to be brave in his presence. I cried and cried and cried. Finally, around 2:00 a.m. or thereabouts I felt spent and feverish, but composed enough to drive home without endangering myself and others on the road, and also composed enough to be able to respond to Kevin in some innocuous way, should he wake up and interact with me.
As I turned on the ignition, the headlights illuminated a tree's full white blossoms in front of me, gorgeous like a wedding dress. I hadn't noticed the tree before. It reminded me of a tree outside some dance venue years ago that had given me my first (and what turned out to be my only ever) allergic reaction to a flowering plant. Good, then. If Kevin asked any questions about my red eyes and red nose, I would claim a recurrence of a puzzling occasional allergy. Thank you, springtime.
Of course this only served to drive home Alfred's comment on my living a lie, which made me stay put for another outburst of sobs. This time it didn't take long to compose myself. I was tired. I was ready to go anywhere where I could lie down and rest and forget about the world for a while. Home and bed were the most convenient.
When I got home, Kevin was fast asleep and spared me the necessity of carrying on about some fictitious allergy. I took a quick bath, nearly falling asleep in the warm water, and then proceeded to lie down beside Kevin. Oftentimes when I got into bed, he would put his arm around me without really waking up. That night he did not. For once I was glad of it. It would have felt even stranger than everything already did. Having him be part cause of my pain and part comfort might have been unbearable.
The moon's brightness created a dim backlight in the bedroom. I propped myself up on my elbow to study Kevin's face. It had innocence and the relentless lines of aging. His mouth was slightly open, though he didn't snore. I was absurdly grateful for that. The creases by his eyes were deep. Like large whiskers or a child's drawing of sunbeams. He was lucky genetically. He still had a full head of hair, though it had lots of gray threads. The transition of dark blond to gray had been gradual, almost imperceptible. Recently he had grown a beard, a so-called Van Dyke, a term that made me laugh, I don't know why. The beard was graying as well, with threads of reddish gold. I liked it on him.
I realized I hadn't looked at him by moonlight, candlelight, or any other light for a good long while. When was the last time I had actually looked into his beautiful blue eyes? And yet, that's how it had all started -- for me anyway -- with a single look. Which I possibly misinterpreted or vastly overrated in my hopeful self-delusion.
We'd been sitting around a table, a group of faculty members, happy hour to get to know each other. It was after the last office hours and consultations and finals preparations, and before the long stretch of reading and marking and grading and then some more consultations with those students who were typically in poor academic shape and wanted to market their various extenuating circumstances. There'd been a tense discussion with one of the other men about the merits and demerits of a particularly challenging student. Kevin's eyes had become slits with concentration, and his forehead was in a deep frown. Suddenly the subject changed. He opened his mouth as though to add something more, then closed his lips again, stared into space for a second. Then he turned his head slightly and he happened to look at me. His eyes, face, everything seemed to melt in an instant. He gave me a look of pure radiance, pure love. Or so I interpreted it at the time. I was sold on that look, that love. I wanted more of it. Sometimes it seems to me that I have looked for it ever since. In vain. Nothing has ever touched me again like that, coming from Kevin or from anyone else. Was it something I had manufactured myself? Was it a look of my own need, rather than something that truly radiated from him to me?
I'd thought that light in his eyes was because of me. And for me. I had just danced a tango with one of the musicians. In retrospect I am convinced (and afraid) that the light in his eyes was just for me as a generic sexual being, a provider of something he wanted. But at the time, even that would have been pure beauty. I didn't experience sex as something predatory. Yet.
I remember thinking in those days that now I finally understood why there was so much fuss about sex. I longed for the magic of his body. The most beautiful part about sex for me was the pure energy of an enthusiastic "I want you." I remember thinking one day he might bring me to ecstasy merely with the sound of his beloved voice.
Then everything changed. I'm not sure exactly what we did to alter all that beauty and to take the energy out of "I want you." Was the mistake getting married? One of the pure joys of love is being chosen. Chosen by a man, chosen by a woman. Chosen by God even. The important part is being chosen, moment by moment. But men seem to believe that all it takes is choosing once. Then they are done, and forever after they are entitled to take for granted whatever or whoever they have chosen. This feels so wrong to me.
And me with my stupid integrity: stuck with the promise I had made to love and to cherish, and to honor my commitment.
I went through a phase of being jealous of eagles, tides, ospreys, baby seals, anything and anyone that still made him catch his breath while I had become merely a gently used commodity.
That night after coming home from not spending the night with Alfred, I felt tender toward Kevin and his gray-haired sleep of innocence, but I couldn't bear to stay in his vicinity. I went out on the balcony, shivering for ten minutes, but still feeling more comfort out in the air than inside with him. After a few minutes of shivering, I went inside to find an old sleeping bag in the laundry room. I wrapped myself up in it back on the balcony to listen to the trickle of water from a small creek below. It wasn't long until I heard ten thousand things. Nuances of the wind brushing the branches of trees against each other. The occasional trill of an early morning bird. I thought I heard a frog carry on by the creek as well. Do frogs sing in the morning? Perhaps I was mistaken. It felt cozy, my own breath warming the sleeping bag around my mouth.
That's how Kevin found me when he got up a little later, huddled in the green lawn chair with the sleeping bag over most of my head except the nose. I dreamed a bittersweet dream of being heavily veiled and walking through a forest, gliding almost without touching the ground, when I realized the dream had been brought on by Kevin stroking my hair over and over until I finally woke up.
"It's cold," I said, clutching the sleeping bag.
"I'd carry you inside, but I'm not strong enough," he whispered when I was finally awake and leaning on him as he walked me back inside.
"There, that ought to be warmer," he said once he had deposited me in bed and covered me with our old brown comforter.
"I couldn't sleep," I said.
"Maybe you should stay home from work," he said. It was only an hour to when I normally woke up.
"No. I'll go," I said. "But I will reset the alarm to get some extra sleep. I'll just go in without major makeup etc. It's better to go."
"Okay," he said. "If you think so. But take good care of yourself."
"I will," I said before falling asleep again.
By the time I did leave for work, minimal makeup and the most basic skirt and blouse, he had long left. I felt my typical assortment of mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was relieved that he wasn't there for an elaborate breakfast discussion. For which I didn't have time anyhow. I wolfed down a cold English muffin with a slice of cheese, saving the infusion of coffee for at the library. On the other hand, I was also sad that he wasn't there for the very same elaborate discussion, as though that was just another sign of his not being there for me, not caring enough, not having the ability to ever break his comfortable routine for me.
I made it through the day shelving books. Our student assistant who usually did the shelving was fortuitously missing that day. I was more than happy to volunteer. Sitting at the reference desk helping library customers was supposed to be the plum assignment, but hanging out in the stacks, putting books into their proper place was a god-send for me that day. I hadn't ever mastered the knack of sleeping while standing up, so for one thing it kept me from inadvertently falling asleep in public. It also kept me from having to interact with people. It allowed me to be dreamy, weepy, whatever emotion of the moment grabbed me. Matching Library of Congress numbers on the spines of books was a piece of cake. After I got home that night, I slept for twelve hours straight without bothering to eat dinner first.
The next time I went out dancing, Alfred wasn't there. My carefully rehearsed speeches and conversations remained soft internal monologues. Some of them I still remember. I must have used phrases that everybody who has ever been in love has used and, I suspect, in similar soliloquy fashion. Love is a very private feeling that you can't ever entirely give to anyone else. It's something that you give to yourself in an orgy of enthusiasm and inspiration. It's beautiful. It's also exhausting. A thousand times a day I wished Alfred well. I wished him happiness. I wished him a love that would nourish and sustain him. I wished him a life worth living. I wished him everything beautiful.
Since I couldn't have it out with Alfred in person, I of course also went through the huge procession of doubts. Maybe I had only made up stories for myself about him being so interested in me that he would actually want to make love with me. Sure, he had said so. But that was easy to explain away. It was a pretty sure bet that I would say no, so there was no great risk in asking and giving me the gift of a flattering offer. And if I had said yes? What man can't honor the occasion mechanically and then find reasonable and understandable excuses for extricating himself soon afterwards?
I think the main thing women want in life is to be desired. Ah, Kevin, if only you could understand that. A woman wants to be desired. A man doesn't want to make that much of an effort and quickly loses interest. Unless you're Helen of Troy or some such superstar.
Maybe the interlude with Alfred had all just been a bit of extravagant flirtation, which, I read somewhere, was defined as simply a promise that's not meant to be kept. Finally I managed to calm myself about that as well. I'd been taught early on in life you don't promise anything you don't intend to deliver. Maybe I've been short-changed. All I ever had to do was promise. Nobody ever expected me to deliver anything. The promise was the important thing. The anticipation.
But then, even if this thing with Alfred had just been a flirtation, nothing more, so what? If someone had gone through the trouble of giving me this elaborate gift of admiration and drama, then that was something, wasn't it? All that was left for me to do was say "thank you" and be happy.
Three weeks later, I received the first letter from Alfred at the library address. I hadn't seen him out dancing. Somehow he had gone through the trouble of finding out where I worked so he could write to me privately. It was a sweet letter, precious to me, as it mirrored all of my sentiments from my several thousand soliloquies. That day, I volunteered for shelving books in the library stacks again. He loved me. That was the important thing. And I loved him with great tenderness. I missed him. But our love had already raced headlong into this no man's land of bittersweet renunciation. I didn't want to feel pain. I most especially didn't want to cause pain. And I regretted not a single one of my powerful feelings.
During the next three months I received two more letters from him with similar feelings expressed in them. However, they had mellowed from their original vehemence. Or maybe it was just my own feelings mellowing over time.
I decided to not go out dancing anymore. What was the use? It seemed so unfair to everyone, including myself, including Kevin, including the Alfreds of the world, including every man out there who might falsely assume that, showing up there on my own, I was a candidate for activities beyond dancing. Again, I suspected I was probably flattering myself too much to think that I would cause any man any great difficulties in that regard. I would simply stay away from dance to protect my own feelings.
It's not that I don't like my feelings. I love the passionate flicker of emotion in me. It's exhausting, though. And here I was, growing older while my images of beauty became younger and younger. Girls on swings. Fairy tale foxes streaking through mist and meadows. I wanted to stay away from any and all deception or need for deception, for pretending I was hip, or sexy, or cool, or whatever the pretense of the moment might be.
I am glad I stayed with Kevin. My huge ache actually made me feel more tenderness for him as well, despite his indifference, despite his ignorance -- elective ignorance, really -- because he couldn't care less. That was his official stance in life, his eternal "I-don't-care-it's-all-good," even when it wasn't. Sometimes I still compare them in my mind. With Alfred I was -- no surprise -- mothering, nurturing. With Kevin I am perpetually deferential. Neither of those two modes is any good. I have so much to learn still. Kevin not reading my writing and not going out dancing with me is not at the core of things. These are mere symptoms. The frightening core is that he genuinely doesn't care. He probably is incapable of caring on some level. Maybe if he were to love, he'd get betrayed by someone, and he'd like to avoid that at all cost. I can even understand that.
But it's really not my job to understand him. It's my job to understand myself, and at the moment all I see is that I am weeping. I thought the other day, not until you weep for yourself can you be finally honest. It's simply not flattering to have chosen someone who doesn't care enough to be able to put aside his self-protection for even a moment. And in the end, like any well-trained woman, I am always afraid it is my own damn fault, my bad somehow, for not inspiring enough burning desire.
As to men understanding women, sometimes I think they don't want to understand us, not really. They want to explain us -- even to ourselves. Which is to say, they want to name us and define us. But understand us? No. That would be taking it too far for their taste.
Perhaps no man's heart ever aches like a woman's heart aches. We use the same words, so we erroneously believe we feel the same feeling. We don't.
If I ever go dancing again -- and that's a big if at this point -- all I will want is to lean against a man's chest in permitted touch, preferably a man of my choice. Failing that, at this point any man will do. My inner critic whispers stridently, isn't that just like Kevin and sex? Where, in a pinch, any woman would do?
You dance. You love. And then you die.