“If love did not contain the secret of life, it would be the most egoist of passions, or at best an agreeable pastime in somewhat debatable taste.” – Remy De Gourmont
When a person someone loves dies, you feel sad for them. You know they’ve lost something, something important, and you feel sad. Sometimes it takes effort – you really have to push yourself to feel. I know this, I’ve been there. You muster as much empathy as you can. You squeeze out a little sad, enough sad so it shows on your face when you say I’m sorry for your loss. We can’t mourn everyone and everything, we’d be seized with pain all the time, the world could not function.
If I could go back, would I do it? Would I rewind the tape and record over, return to being a 28 year-old full of promise and hopeful energy? Would I decline that first date, or would I leave him immediately upon recognizing his unquenchable thirst? Knowing what I know now, having kissed Kris’ stiff cold lips in the funeral parlour, would I still have chosen him? Was there ever a choice?
Falling in love is the best drug on earth. Kris and I were high on each other instantly, our brains lit up like Christmas trees bathed in dopamine and serotonin, our hearts hurtling toward each other at terrifying speeds.
There are the What Ifs and the If Onlys. What if I’d taken a different path? What if I hadn’t fought with him, what if I’d remained calm and dispassionate and tied him to a chair and exorcised his demons with love and music? What if I hadn’t pulled away? And if only. If only I’d recognized the madness earlier, the booze-drenched self-loathing, the wild coke-fueled pacing, the flights of ideas. If only I’d insisted he sleep with me that night.
It changes every day, this thought experiment of pressing rewind, fixing things. Today, if I could, I’d just go back to that day, December 6th. I would find him before he made the worst and last decision of his life.
For our first date, Kris suggested we meet at a coffee shop on Johnson Street. The details were arranged through a phone call that took place after a week of writing back and forth on OK Cupid.
I’ll call you at 8 after your daughter is in bed, he wrote, and he did exactly that. At 8 o’clock the phone rang and I stood at the kitchen counter and stared at it until it went to voicemail. I was hoping he’d leave a message. If he had a creepy voice I could just never call back, but he didn’t leave one. I paced about for ten minutes, then dialed the number quickly, squeezed my eyes shut and held my breath until he picked up.
That’s how he always picked up the phone. “‘lo”, he would say – a statement. And he always sounded annoyed. He seemed annoyed for that whole first phone call, which lasted less than a minute and contained zero pleasantries. No how are you, no thanks for calling back, just “‘lo” and straight down to business.
“Eight o’clock work?”
“Good. Okay, bye.”
“Oh! Wait, should I tell you what I’m going to be wearing, or?”
He had already hung up. All business.
I wondered why he would be annoyed when the phone call was his idea. I wasn’t sure about him. First of all, I could see in his profile pictures that he was balding. I’d never been attracted to baldies, but I figured I’d give him a shot despite the unmarked checkbox specifying “hair on head”. Actually the real reason I was giving him a shot was because he wrote so beautifully – clearly a clever and thoughtful dude, maybe too clever for me. Plus my friends chastised me for ruling him out because of his hairline and I wanted to demonstrate I was of decent character. “Baldies need love too,” said one, “and maybe he has a huge cock.”
When I arrived at the coffee shop it was closed. There was nobody in sight. No streetlights either, I was waiting in the dark, leaning up against a concrete trash bin and fidgeting, checking my phone. He was late, and late is rude, and I also wondered if I was possibly being set up for an abduction. Would the sex traffickers still want me when they saw my stretch marks?
The first thing I saw of him was his silhouette walking up the street from a block away. He was wearing a leather jacket that was far too big on him. It hung almost to his knees. Fuck, I thought, he’s some kind of D & D trencher. I stiffened, walked cautiously toward him. Hello. Hello. He went in for a hug, but I shook his hand. He chuckled.
We decided on another coffee place a block away, and walking under streetlamps, I got a look at his face for the first time, saw his eyes.
Kris wrote quite unlike anyone else I’ve ever encountered. His turns of phrase were unusual and poetic, and his writing was incredibly beautiful, though he put his commas in strange places. He overused them, his commas, he put them in places, like this, where he would normally pause, in his very particular way, of speaking. I had an overwhelming urge to edit everything he sent to me. Now I go through my emails, read his messages and imagine each comma, as him, taking, a breath.
Here is his response to an email I wrote where I was waxing on about how Daniel Johnston couldn’t have made his music without the scourge of mental illness. It’s a good example of his comma love:
From: Kris <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Sun, Nov 28, 2010 at 3:28 PM
Subject: Daniel Johnston
To: “Chelsea J.” <email@example.com>
I do love the song by Daniel Johnston about unrequited love. I think I appreciate him, for slightly different reasons, than you do. I appreciate his gentleness, which is a quality I like in others. And his yearning, which is something I know. Sincerity, I think, is something artists appreciate in other artists, because they need it themselves, to make good art. And I, am not an artist. I’m an appreciator of art. I don’t really care, I guess, where it comes from, so long as it rings true, and evokes something, in me.
My favourite song of unrequited love has to be “Downtown Train”. I know you know the song, but I’ll send you a link, anyway: http://www.youtube.com/watch? v=JuSZEBuDUC4
My heart breaks, whenever I hear it. It meant something to me, once.
I have to say I do love exchanging messages, with you. It satisfies me.
We ended up at Smith’s Pub that first date night. We drank beer, talked about our failed marriages. But mostly we just looked at each other. There was that feeling I’d only heard about and never experienced…
“You look so familiar.”
“Yeah, you too.”
“Maybe we’ve been in line together at the grocery store.”
“Yeah, maybe. That must be it.”
We’d seen each other’s pics on the internet, but the way Kris’ glasses reflected the computer screen you couldn’t see his eyes at all. And it was his eyes that were familiar. From the place outside of time and space, that soap bubble with the magnolia tree inside.
It was just the darndest thing.