Archive for October, 2019

The 25 year mark

I have a pair of jeans in my closet from the mid-90s. Heavily patched, and in the faded wash that was popular then, they weren’t always mine. They were handed down to me by my boyfriend when he outgrew them. I thought of myself as an adult at the time, fifteen years old or so, and he the same age, but the fact that he was still getting taller argues that we were both, literally, not full grown.

I kept journals then, and still do, a habit I started when I was seven and have mostly maintained since then. These journals are silent on exactly when I met Christophe, twenty-five years ago when we were in high school, aged fourteen. That fall, I didn’t know a soul at the prep school I had been admitted to on scholarship with very little understanding of what a prep school was. My journals indicate a frenetic leaping from crush to crush, some on teachers, some on students, some appearing to last only a day or two, though I did not date any of the entries, so it’s difficult to know. I don’t remember meeting Christophe, and the event was not remarkable enough to make it into the journal. Some days or weeks later, he appears, in a passage reporting, “I stayed overnight at school and we went to see Jurassic Park. I have decided to like Christophe. He’s nicer than [name redacted].” My reasons for liking him? “1. Extremely intelligent, 2. Devout Democrat, 3. He even likes Star Trek.” Entry after entry exists in a timeless agony of wondering if he likes me, wishing he would like me, deciding I don’t like him after all, declaring that I love him. Then, we become again anchored in chronology at the line, “I have never liked any one person for this long before; it’s been a week!” It ended up being longer than a week. The elder of the two children we now have together is far closer to fourteen years old than we are. Listening to that child talk about his interests and plans, I sometimes feel at a far remove, observing him from the outside with his mix of adolescent fanaticism and grown up plans, the obsessive, shifting fixations of childhood, but the creeping in of adult understandings of limitations—of time, of money.


By early in spring semester of our first year in high school, Christophe and I were going out, boyfriend/girlfriend. What the adults at the time called “going steady,” which confused our generation because we had no model of casually dating from which going steady would be an intensification. We had three categories of people: just-friends, boyfriend/girlfriend, and hook ups. They were mutually exclusive, and I spent pages fretting over whether I might be relegated to the just-friends land of no return. I can read my journal only in short stints because, through the delightful hilarity of listening to my young self, the cringes make little stabs at my heart and they accumulate. I have no doubt my journal is very like the journal of any other smart, introverted fourteen-year-old girl writing mostly about her boyfriend, occasionally about math class. I’d thought I might find the early signs of the unusual profundity of our connection, indicators of how different it was from everyone else’s comparative paucity of emotion, but in fact, everyone who falls in love believes she’s the first, perhaps the only, person on Earth to do it. It wasn’t in its origins that our story was any different, or in the special chemistry in our brains, or in the fervor of our pledges. It was in what happened after. How we stayed.

In vet school, we learned a lot about how scientists had a learned a lot from knockout models of mice. I have a drawing from a class where I sketched a sexy mouse Jessica Rabbit style in a slinky dress with a high leg slit and the words “knockout mouse model?” above it. I passed my notebook to the friend beside me, and she wrote back, “Way out of my league. It’s like she doesn’t even see me.” The back and forth went on for pages. I took very little by way of actual notes in vet school, but I did glean that the real meaning of a knockout model is a clever one: find a region of DNA you think might be related to some function, remove or disable that piece of DNA, and see what changes about the mouse in its absence. If the heart malfunctions, then the missing piece had something to do with heart function. It’s a crude tool in a way, since the effects of each gene are entwined with so many others, augmenting, or downgrading, calibrating, interfering, catalyzing. When I tell people I am married to the boyfriend I had at fourteen, I realize I have told myself a story of our unusual maturity and advanced emotional capacity at the time, and we had those, but if I want to claim those parts of myself, then I have to claim the whole. I was probably the more typical of our age, between the two of us. Christophe’s maturity was preternatural, a level of calm and reason that only now is beginning to seem age appropriate, nearing forty. Lacking the ability to articulate my insecurities and genuine bewilderment that he loved me, I repeatedly pretended I was breaking up with him just to watch his reaction. I was running him as a knockout mouse model, able to understand the effects of my attention and affection only by rescinding it and seeing what happened after. I used to do something like it to my parents, once hiding for a long period at night and listening to them get increasingly agitated over my absence. It was self-absorbed, cruel, and typically childish. I would outgrow it eventually, and Christophe was still there.



I tried on the jeans the other day. They were always much too big for me, baggy, and with sedimentary patch layers of calico in the areas of heavy wear at the seat and the knees. I keep them at the back of the same closet where my old journals are stacked. They are unwearable for both their size and their style, impractical as an item of clothing, but with a meaning greater than the sum of their parts.

We were on a long trip this summer, listening to music for hours. There was a song that compared the singer’s lover to a firefly. I thought it was beautiful, but something about it bothered me, and sat in the back of my head for days. I thought about fireflies that, at that time of year, were still streaking through our yard at night. They use the light to attract mates, but also to obscure. They will blink their Morse code for a meter or two, and then go dark, sometimes suddenly changing direction at the same time so predators will keep chasing in a straight line and lose them. They balance all the time the need to catch the attention of a mate with the need to evade death, and, above all, their season is brief.

In my old journal, I record a question a friend asked me about Christophe—bemused that I reported not tiring of him even when all we did was “talk for six hours straight.” I, in turn, was bemused that she found it strange. Six hours easy. I remain susceptible to extended conversations: long, deep-diving ones that turn, and double back, and grow convoluted and threaded through with ideas on ideas. There have been others besides Christophe who have engaged my head this way, until, hours having passed unnoticed as the talk turned and burrowed and leaped subjects, I have recognized that feeling again, a synesthesia that makes me swear the lights in the room just pulsed brighter, and then know it’s the incandescent current in my own mind livening to another.

There are always people who ask the questions out loud, and the politer ones who ask it only in their heads: “Then, you two, you were each other’s first? And only? This whole time?” Never a mis-step, they mean, romantically, or sexually, never a vague period where we were sort of broken up and other people stepped into the breach of murkiness and lack of definition? There never was, but neither was there the presumption of step and mis-step, of toeing the line, of guarding against infidelity.

The meditation practice I follow ends with this convention: after watching the mind for a period, and not trying to constrain or control thought, but nonetheless noting when it wanders, we are finally invited to abandon all focus on the breath or any other work of meditation, and instead let the mind be free to do whatever and go wherever it wants. At those moments, perversely it seemed for a while, my mind would go utterly blank. It could not think of a thing to think. It was like gray static, emptied of all the anxieties, and lists, and frettings that had plagued it a moment before. The mind that had been straying, straining at its harness so hard that my neck muscles were tensed trying to keep it in the room, now slumped against the wall. Free to do whatever it wanted, it ceased to want anything at all. The questions people pose, about twenty-five years of what they suppose is a clench-jawed, white-knuckled monogamy, have at their core a model of fear, of scarcity, of loss. It isn’t that there have not been other desires, other longings, that there have not been dreams some nights of other people that tinge the whole day after that color, that there has not been melancholy, sometimes. But the acts I did not perform, the bodies I did not touch, the minds I could not fully know, were constrained by circumstance, imprudence, a risk of harm to others I would not assume. They were never constrained by fear, or threat of loss. And when there is nothing to strain against, you find the line goes slack, the mind slips the hook and goes free.

There have been some who have stitched a bright thread in the darkness, whose paths are luminous and beautiful, but whose seasons are brief. When I come home at the end of the day, a weary introvert doing work that requires my angled intellect to contact and be worn and abraded by the world, he patches the threadbare places again and again. He is not only his intelligence, his politics, or his love of Star Trek, as it turns out. He is more than any exhaustive list of virtues, though I could make one. He is no firefly, nor only a tailor making patient repairs. He is not to me what I thought he would be when we were fourteen, though the outline was already there, sketched with our simple implements in the space between us. What he has been, for decades now, is my gravity, my courage, and my freedom.


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