Several years ago someone broke my heart into a million pieces. I’m not exaggerating — I think I am still trying to locate some of the fragments that exploded in every direction. (Some of them remain lost to this day.) The end of that relationship sent me into a deep depression the likes of which I hope never to feel again.
But as these things go, I eventually got over it, and I know he wasn’t entirely at fault. Yes, he did some terrible things to me. Yes, he lied and treated me poorly and all around did me wrong.
But as we are all ultimately responsible for our own feelings, I didn’t have to fall apart so badly when all was said and done. I did, though, for a lot of reasons. There were other losses in my life at the time — the deaths of my mother and my ex-boyfriend, the latter still my most significant intimate relationship, book-ended the time in which I knew the man who broke my heart.
At the time I was in love with love (I still am, I think, a little bit), and set my expectations so high for this man and our relationship that there was no way either could ever have met them. I realized I was as much to blame for what happened as he was, and after a time I stopped feeling sick to my stomach when I thought of him. I stopped blaming him for my own inability to make a relationship work. I felt no more ill will toward him and in my heart wished him happiness.
So time passed — two and half years, to be exact — and except for some emails and text messages, we did not speak.
I had other romantic entanglements — skirmishes, I like to call them — but no one ever really affected me the way he did again. Or maybe I just wouldn’t let anyone affect me, so protective I was of the sanity I worked so hard to reassemble during that time. Except for one person last spring, who in too many ways reminded me of him, i didn’t meet anyone I wanted to have a relationship with, not really.
One morning in late October in Portugal, as I was hurrying to catch a bus from Aljezur to Lisbon so that from there I could catch a flight to Morocco, I got an email from this man, J. By now we were Facebook friends, and a couple of weeks earlier he’d wished me a happy birthday. I’d emailed back, and it was his response to that I read just before dashing out of my little house to catch my ride to the bus station.
He asked me for a poem, a love poem to be exact, for a piece he was to cast in bronze for a show that asked artists to combine text and visual art to create “books” of love. The sculpture itself would be a book, and my words would be typecast into it.
I was a little hungover from drinking too much wine the night before, so didn’t think too hard about the e-mail beyond being excited at the notion of collaborating on an art project. Even during our worst times, we shared the same aesthetic, and were a good team creatively.
So I sent him quite a dramatic poem about love and longing and distance that I’d written about him about seven or eight months since the last time we physically spoke, which incidentally was the conversation that more or less ended our intimate connection with each other. It was pretty emotionally raw stuff. There were direct references to our time together, and where he lives (which was never where I lived), and events that took place during our relationship.
The photo at the top of the page is the work of art that came out of our collaboration. It’s called “One Lexington, Two Cities” after the poem’s title, and it is now appearing in the show The Art of the Artist’s Book that opened last Friday at the Oakland University Art Gallery in Detroit.
In some ways, it’s a miracle this piece was ever cast. Emotionally, this person and I (and I hope if he reads this he will agree) went pretty deeply with each other; I am not sure if I would dare to ever go that deep again with someone. We knew each other pretty well, even the darkest parts of ourselves, the parts that I’m pretty sure now that we should never show anyone. Some things should be kept secret, I think.
There was a time I thought I would never get over our relationship and how I felt about him. Of course I did, and now I am glad we are in touch, even though we still have not actually spoken to each other — only through e-mail, text message and now art have we communicated.
I feel as if this work of art was a gift. So bereft I was at one point about the end of our connection that I doubted it was even real. I doubted that this person had ever cared for me at all, and I thought I had somehow created in our head this connection between us. At one point I even feared I was delusional and had made the whole thing up
Somehow collaborating on this piece set right any lingering misgivings I had about our relationship. Even before he asked me to work together, I had pretty much come to terms about why it didn’t work out, and I sincerely did not have any bad feelings toward him nor did I want to be with him anymore.
So it surprised me how much it meant to collaborate, and when I saw photos of the finished piece, I was thrilled. I felt validated in a way I never had before. And best of all, I felt free — free from any lingering doubt about my own ability to judge the feelings that exist between two people.
In 11 days I will leave New York, possibly for good, to start a new life abroad. I’m really looking forward to it, and I feel that finally I have learned to trust myself, to be who I really am without shame or remorse, and to be proud to wear my heart on my sleeve, no matter how painful it can sometimes be.
And while I’ve been flirting with the door to this new place of self-confidence for some time, this collaboration more than anything else helped me turn the knob and cross the threshold.
So thank you, J, for this gift. Thank you for respecting me enough as an artist to ask me to collaborate. Thank you for respecting me enough as a person to let me share my deeply personal work with you — something that I know could not have been easy for you to read.
Finally, thank for giving me the experience that allowed me to write these words, the ones that are cast on your beautiful work of art.
One Lexington, Two Cities
Tonight the hair on the back of a man’s neck
drives me to deep longing in a city that
never lies nor easily gives up its
borders . I am alone these long nights
it’s just turned winter, the season’s first snow
a sign of things to come. Long
months since I’ve held someone close
the way I held you, since we put our foreheads
together in the shower and something moved
between the thin skin separating our gray matters.
Oh, what you did to me that day, that hotel in
St. Charles, Missouri, things the river outside could carry
for miles if its ancient tongue could wag.
A dog that river is and dogs were were—
it’s been seven months and still can’t shake it,
you haunting me in same defiant dreams:
I beg, travel long miles over dark land and waters,
get the same story from you every time.
Go away, now. It will never work.
There was a time I thought it could.
Now I inhabit a new concrete world,
me without you. Only meant to be an experiment,
this big city, but has turned, surprisingly, into something
that looks like life. Pity me, pity the four
seasons that change and limp along gasping for air
amid exhaust and vermin. Back now again to winter,
the trees that are scantily clad even
in the best of times now bare, the dark
slush of morning snow chill my feet in twilight.
These are not the days of true love,
not even the days of like, and certainly not
the days of intimacy–your big hands encircling my waist
as I wash dishes, the way you shift gears, know
the history and country of people who
sing your favorite songs. I would give it all up
for another week–no, another day alone with you,
however and wherever you want me, your mind, mouth
and thick fingers mapping your beloved
Red River across my body.
We’re an old story, true. Lamenting you is
a habit I thought I lost but forgive me,
it was a day full of reminders lighting
like flies on decay–the poet in Brooklyn
told tales of the state where you live,
where I have traversed with you, your captive.
When stripping tobacco leaves came up
I thought of that day in the cold with your tall father,
his patient hands showing me how to pull leaves,
grade them into piles according to desire.
I worked beside poor Junebug
looking for the green that would make us all sick,
wanted your father briefly that day, a comfort
knowing it meant I would also want you
when you are old. I thought I would get that chance,
beside you old on some piece of that tobacco farm,
ghosts of ancestors wandering through walls
as we slept in our ancient bliss.
But you are long gone now, my lost Kentucky home.
Somehow today these memories–
visions of those windswept hills, farmhouses
and barns rolling far out to the horizon–
don’t drive me to tears. Today I am
grateful for having loved you, even
for a short time; for having sat in the warm
Kentucky sun holding a coffee cup, a beagle in my lap;
for miles on an old, tired bicycle, those lazy
country roads with you, my love,
beside me. I am grateful for horses against cerulean
and last bonfire sky of day; for falling-down milksheds,
their cows out to pasture; for slipping snow
at Red River Gorge and soil of an uncommonly
warm February marking territory on new shoes.
All of these live somewhere inside of me,
are turning from painful to fond. Been told
time would do this, turn you into a poltergeist
nuisance that can do no real harm, not anymore,
no more than noise can travel through mountains
and make new history between us, give me
back what I lost. About time you haunted me proper,
reminded me of love I was lucky enough to find,
not foolish enough to have lost. Now
rattle me to sleep, you old and tired memory.
I will carry the earth under your feet as my skin,
keep you alive somewhere in bones
where my past lies dormant like cancer,
silent, waiting for its chance to surface.