Heartbreak, Hair and Philosophy

My last year of college shared a rhythm with the earlier years. On weekends, my friends and I sat on Melissa’s carpet, watching TLC reality TV or Hallmark movies on her television’s tiny screen.

Though she studied economics, Melissa’s passion was hair. So as we watched agitated housewives or people with addictions, she would massage our scalps and brush our hair.

It calmed me.  As I listened to the sounds from the monitor I let myself regress to first or second grade when my mother shaped my hair into curls, bound them up with ribbon, and soothed me into beautiful emotional order.

That year I decided to write a philosophy thesis. I was not prepared. As an English major, I’d read Shakespeare but not Kant, I’d read Milton but not Hegel. But nearing the end of my educational journey, I kept asking myself for meaning.

In all the poems and plays and stories I had read, descriptions evaded definitions. I did not understand love after War and Peace or after Romeo and Juliet. I wanted to strip ‘love,’ and ‘faith,’ and ‘certainty,’ down to sounds and forms and elements. To know when I carried them in me; to know when they were real.

In those days, I awoke and carried my wide eyes across the faces of loved ones, looking for clues. I tried to isolate the love behind their expressions. And with the same intensity, I stared at the sky, at the school athletic fields and the little, dense patches of New England forest.

I wrote and I read and talked through my work with my thesis mentor, until the day that a letter came from the school. Curtly the administration informed me that my mother had not paid my tuition for the semester, and that if they did not receive payment soon, I would be evicted from the dorms, unenrolled from my classes.

With help from my advisor, I worked out a way to graduate early. She told me it was a shame that I would miss so and so’s seminar, and I saw her concern. She knew too how senseless it was to abandon what I had just begun, how senseless it was to pretend my way into adulthood.

In those days I still awoke with wide eyes so that I would not miss meaning if it chose to appear. I continued going to class, and working, and watching TV with my friends on the weekend, feeling childlike and comforted when my friend ran her hands through my hair, adding pins and hairspray.

It is always comforting to be around people with a sense of vocation. “Have you been called?” asked the posters at my church, and they showed self-assured faces, people of all ages who dropped their lives as construction workers or engineers or grandparents to be folded into religious order, into certainty.

My friend was no different. As she twisting my hair knowingly around curling irons, I asked her how she knew she liked hair. What it was about styling that drew her back. She hmmed. She said she didn’t know, but that it was nice to see people respond to themselves with wonder.

I read that semester about Lacan’s idea of meconnaissance, or misrecognition. The idea that a child recognizing himself in a mirror realizes he has been mistaken; that he is the small and vulnerable creature in the mirror, whom the outside world has always known. As my school kicked me out, my mother stopped paying, my work ground to a halt, I felt vulnerable. I realized that the world could place itself between me and my search for meaning.

My heart was breaking.

I loved philosophy. Studying and writing felt like standing before an ocean, like I drew closer to the water every moment, closer to the clean sure words of people who would tell me why love was not reflected in movies, or why rote memorization could not fill or satisfy my mind. But I could not continue.

I packed away my things, I applied for jobs in a state of pure confusion. I found myself on the floor in Melissa’s room. I remember the sound of the brush she moved through my hair. The pressure of the brush on my scalp.

Melissa reassured me. Because she knew what she wanted. Because she carried it with her in a number of cosmetic cases, making moments of sense from disobedient circumstances.

Post-sex cigarette

Ruddy-faced pictures of my friend at eleven show unkempt hair, a dolphin T-shirt, and over-sized board shorts. Certainly not glamorous. The contrast that exists, between my friend as she is and my friend as she was then, was irrelevant to our conversation.

My friend told me about her growing pains because she could see mine. In response to those first shocks of rejection, I’d adopted diets that led to acne. My haircut was awful. Because I was dissatisfied with myself, I lost too much weight. At one point, I stopped eating from anxiety. As she did my hair and make-up before a date she unfolded her eleven-year old images to me, confiding the slow creation of her image from raw, awkward, child material. I felt so comforted.

A few moments ago, I pulled the pins out of my hair and untangled the braids. I let it fall around my face, and I asked myself yet again if I was beautiful. I think this is a ritual question. Shockingly I had an answer a few weeks ago, after sex. He said, “you know, you are just so beautiful.” And I believed him. He was the first partner who shared my ethnic background. So how could I disagree with someone in whom I saw some shade of that same beauty?

I was attracted by our differences. His indigenousness, his proximity to my heritage compared with my isolation in the mixing pot. And he was older, understood more. And he’d seen the whole world and knew I was naive, despite my own travel. And he left.

I am not prone to much reaction. I don’t cry in public, I don’t chase people. I know that catching someone in a scene does not allow you to keep them. When he left, I kissed him goodbye, and grimaced when he said, “If only this were another place and time. I wonder what would happen with us.” As if he were interested.

Now when I stare in the mirror, I imagine I have control over the shape of my eyes or the pout of lips. And that in them – in the posing and posturing and applying of creams – some alchemy exists. That belief creeps in to override what he’d said about the vacation he’d planned, about his unwillingness to settle down “for, like, the next ten or twenty years.” It threatens the revelation I had that I am, in some sense, beautiful.

And it is not so painful to believe that my beauty, like the beauty in so many ordinary things, might be realized and let go, or simply go unappreciated. It is painful to think that my significance was dismissed or pre-empted, but because I only have control over my interface, I end up here, in front of a mirror. Critiquing my upper arms, for Chrissakes.

More damningly, I find myself closing the door. On opportunities, on events, and on would-be friends and the experiences we might have had. I insure myself against the possibility of rejection through an ascetic denial of the role I might play in other lives.

Sitting with myself, I find it easy to belief that another insider, someone with my knowledge of myself, would walk (or run) away. The way I ruminate. My maddening studiousness and my guilt over a thousand nothings. And the reality, the moments of rejection themselves are not so bad. It’s a mild pain. But like a bee sting, you can’t blow it off. It eats in, like the nihilism that comes afterwards for me.

I wish I could blow or burn it off. Maybe through a cigarette. Maybe I could delay whatever pain is there through the true indifference that more pleasure might bring. But I worry that these minor aches are part of some grander narrative that colludes to make acceptance sweeter. That fantasy is my post-sex cigarette.

Other Worlds.

My father claims my mother had numerous affairs. That some days, she would get up and leave our house, to go live entirely different lives, lives which to us were insensate.

I don’t know if this is true. Sometimes she’d take me to office buildings, or parks, or even grocery stores, and I remember her words running beyond my understanding. The impressions of advertisements, faces. But I remember no infidelity.

I am facing this adult chasm, with authenticity on one side and morality on the other, because it’s not ok to run away when you are monogamous.

My last partner tells me that when I left all those times I caused damage he only realized much later, and I believe him. I struggle too to know why leaving was necessary when return was so possible.

The only answer I have is a primordial vision, of a man venturing out of a cave. He doesn’t go to find anything, or anyone. He just goes to take the space, to consolidate his footing, and to feel slow exhaustion of mind syncing with body.

Affair.

So sweet. Sweet, but what a drag, getting to know yourself. On a date, even the silence is filled with you. This breeds indecision. I question every movie choice as I look into someone else’s eyes and think, “I don’t know what you want right now.”

In polite conversation, you can shrink yourself to invisibility. To teleprompter status. And you can keep the secret of your sentience as well as technology does.

Because I am traveling, this relationship has a built-in terminus. An end of the line when a distance of thousands of miles, when space will explode between us. For now things feel fresh and heady. He is outside waiting for me, smiling at me.

Yesterday at six am I got a phone call from Alaska. And I said messy things to an ex to give closure. And then this door opened, and He was there. I still don’t know what this is, this shining and temporary thing. As this affair washes over me, I worry that I am the only discrete thing in the experience.

The guards are up because there isn’t time to let them down. Our conversations, His and mine, have dips and grooves in them from where things were edited or carved out. And at first I rebelled against this dishonesty but now I adapting because I find things I don’t want to share.

After that call, I felt brilliant and solid. I cried. I saw my friendships hundreds of years from now, like iron bonds supporting the earth. I wanted to thank everything, every facilitating thing for the honesty that erupted between me and this ex.

Last night in a fairground over ice cream, I stumbled telling the story of my tattoo. Of how I chose the words I spend my life with. Wonderful, so wonderful, to have someone listen and wait for you and hold doors. But the problem is that you have to open in response, and when things are temporary, this is not easy. And maybe not advisable.

Sometimes I imagine that we’ll course correct, or converge later in life. He’ll visit the US and we will rediscover one another. And when the frame changes this trust, this attachment will be possible, or available, even if we don’t use it.

Off edges

She did not pause – ever. She kept going to the brink, even after I left. And when he left her, she no longer paused before agreeing to fall.

Celine became my roommate when I decided to leave my life and my job in New York. It was an incautious decision of mine, to throw away my life and restart it. But this urge ate away at me, burrowing in with each subway trip, each uninspired grind. And so I called her (Celine) and asked her to take over my job, my apartment. She became my roommate.

When she moved in, her presence interrogated my life. The city made me reclusive, and I saw it when she went out. And when she came back crying around three am, I knew I was calm. I made her tea. And then I moved out, and she took over my lease because she’d taken my job, and then a bigger job, in the city.

I left and started graduate school. I became competitive and voracious. And it ate into my relationships again, but ambition allowed it.

I knew Celine was in love. She would invite me to parties while I was a thousand miles away. I saw her smiling with her partner and I smiled for the both of them. We agreed we felt fond of one another, and of our oppositeness. And then I saw her relationship fall apart through her sudden silence. Through the photos of her alone, of her at home instead of New York.

She told me that she had bottomed out. And my heart broke for her, my dear friend. But I don’t know how to calm her down from a thousand miles away. She knows the dimensions of my life, the dirt in the corners. But I can’t see through the smallness of my life.

I am, alternately, in a rage at her, for being irresponsible. I am like a parent, yelling at a child who wandered into the road. Raging at my lack of control.

Or, I convince myself that I am not necessary. While I celebrate her ability to heal herself, I conspire with the hard world by failing to respond.

What can I say to an experience I don’t know?

Inevitable Sound

My musician friend compliments people’s voices. She comments on lower and higher registers, on properties of sounds I don’t listen to. I get caught up in words.

Words are doors and gates – always in the way. I fell out with my musician friend before she moved to California. I loved our friendship, but our connection fell apart over Facebook and so many messages sent without context or personality. Messages without the same weight or depth found in voices or laughter.

But now I know the importance of sound through her laugh, through her voice, which bubbles up from memory now and again, when provoked by the pitch or quaver of atmosphere.

She taught me what to look for by showing me how she played with frequencies and rhythms through her recording software. And in return, I gave her visuals, describing her different songs as waterfalls or hardware stores. It felt like adding substance to ambiance. But sound was always the stimulus or driver and it relegated me to a backseat in this kind of creation.

Sounds start and they don’t end. That’s why there are rests in music. Rests are punctuation. They do not change or increase the likelihood that sound or silence will follow and they don’t dictate whether or when or how relationships will be reinstated or terminated or put on hiatus.

 

When I fell out with my friend, I stopped writing. Because I failed at communicating with her, I wanted to stop altogether. To redirect my energies away from computer keyboards and notebooks and insensate visuals. Writing again, after a long hiatus, I can hear the words drop onto the page. My thoughts enunciate. I am so self-conscious when I hear myself. But this sound I can’t escape, I am. It’s a relief to find this susurrus alive in spite of pain and a thousand attempts at self-abdication.

Clean Sadness

Since I left my last partner, who loved me, I have been traveling a long corridor.

I did this as a child. The bones of my feet fell unevenly on the smooth wood. And I remember its shine.

When my parents divorced it was my chore to bathe the floors in lemon. And when it frothed, I felt sad in the bones of our house.

Michael was so gentle. And when I was depressed I could feel him tinkering around me, trying to alter some misfit piece of reality. He fixed my bike and my car. And when he did, I took his face between my palms and kissed him with my eyes wide open.

There are no hallways in the place I live now. Unless the whole place is a hallway and I live in the room at the end of it. Regardless, there is this running feeling of grief.