Saturday, March 2, 2013
Lucid Memorie, Chapter Three: Why
That morning last October, the morning I walked out on Jack, started out like all our other mornings. He worked late and I had the day off so we hadn’t bothered to set his alarm. He woke first, rolling over to curl his smooth bare limbs around mine. When I opened my eyes he was looking up at me, like he always looked at me, like I was the only other boy in the world. I knew that look was on purpose, but that didn’t lessen its effect.
No matter how much we drank, smoked, had sex, or stayed up into the night watching Ingrid Bergman collapse into Cary Grant’s arms in old Hitchcock films, none of it showed on Jack the next day. He always woke up with that face of his, a face right out of an old Hollywood headshot. With his dewy dark eyes, full lips, caramel-colored skin and brylcreemed black hair, Jack looked like Latin version of a young Tony Curtis.
Often it seemed he intentionally saved those well-lit, sun-streamed morning close-ups to deliver his most swoon-inducing lines. “Michael,” he sighed on one such occasion, right after we’d woken up and had sex, “You’ve captured me.” Jack was a master of timing. But I was the one being held captive in those moments, and he knew it. All I could do was stare back at him like an awestruck fan.
Sometime before noon we finally got out of bed, staggered down the hall and sat side by side at Jack’s retro, Lucy and Ricky-style, aluminum-legged kitchen table. He placed two Lucky Strikes between his lips, lit both and passed me one, then poured inky thick coffee from his press into thin miss-matched porcelain cups. We smoked and sipped and tried to pull ourselves back up out of our mutual hangover. It was always an easier feat for him. Jack was a bit of a Dorian Gray. His abuse of time didn’t show.
No matter the time of day, Jack always had music going in the background. He kept the volume low, but the music was always there, as if no scene from his life was complete without just the right soundtrack. He prized his collection of old jazz albums; rare treasures he’d unearthed from forgotten dusty crates in the backs of used record stores. Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington. That morning he picked Billie.
With a lit Lucky Strike jutting out from between his lips, he slipped the record from its faded cardboard jacket, then old paper sleeve, and placed it on the turntable. He lifted up the needle and set it back down along the edge of the outer groove. The record began to spin, the music began to play, and Billie’s wistful, broken voice sang out from underneath the crackles in the thick vinyl:
The very thought of you
And I forget to do
The little ordinary things that everyone ought to do
I’m living in a kind of daydream
I’m happy as a queen
And foolish though it may seem
To me that’s everything . . .
I felt like shit.
I wondered how much longer I could keep this up, keep up with Jack. Before I met him I rarely drank. And never straight whiskey. Three years ago Melissa and I made good on our pact and quit smoking the day we arrived in San Francisco – yet there I was, leaning in as Jack cupped his hands around the end of my cigarette, held my gaze, and offered me another light. Jack made everything that was bad for me seem sexy.
“I'm jonesing for a danish,” he said, stubbing his cigarette out in his rectangular mosaic ashtray. “I'll zip down to the corner and come right back. You want anything?”
I needed to siphon in a few more cups of coffee before I could think about food.
“Go ahead,” I told him. “I'm not going anywhere."
He swept a strand of hair from my forehead and tucked it behind my ear. “You want me to trim this for you, babe?” I knew he was teasing. He’d told me many times if I cut my hair it would have to be over his dead body. He pressed his lips to mine, then grabbed his keys, slipped down the hall and out the door, bolting it behind him.
Jack’s intentionally placed mid-century modern decor filled every inch of his tiny apartment but without him in it, his place always felt empty. Like the star had left the stage and lights had gone out in the theater. I took another deep drag off my cigarette and sat there alone, just me and Bille, who was now singing an up-tempo, bathtub gin arrangement of “I’m Gonna Lock My Heart and Throw Away the Key”:
I’m gonna turn my back on love
Snub the moon above
Seal all my windows up with tin
So the love bug can’t get in . . .
I shouldn't have come here last night, I thought. I shouldn't have come back. Those few days away in Colorado, surrounded at my mom’s wedding by family, by people who seemed stable and healthy, people who were living in the real world, made me realize I couldn’t keep this going. Those few days away from Jack helped me to start to put myself back together.
As I flew back to San Francisco, I made a plan in my head to confront him, to tell him we couldn’t do this anymore. It was only a matter of time before one of us had to end it; maybe he’d be relieved if I was the one who decided to speak first. That was my plan. But that plan ended in a bottle of Old Crow and sex. No matter how I felt about Jack when I was away from him, no matter what I set my mind to before I saw him next, once I stepped into his apartment, once I was with him, my feelings were never a match for the pull of his attraction. Ever.
I stubbed out my cigarette and Billie sang her final verse:
I’m gonna park my romance right along the curb
Hang a sign upon my heart
“Please don’t disturb”
And if I never fall in love again
That’s soon enough for me
I’m gonna lock my heart and throw away the key . . .
The song ended and the needle slid into the center groove of the record, then clicked back into place on its stand. Jack’s apartment fell silent, the building too. Everyone else who lived on the third floor had real jobs and had left for work hours earlier.
I poked through the stack of Jack’s collected art books piled high to one side on his kitchen table. El Greco, Caravaggio, Kahlo. I pulled “Caravaggio: A Passionate Life” from the middle of the stack and out fell one of Jack’s notebooks.
Jack’s pads of paper filled with his unfinished drawings were lying around everywhere. He drew in pencil first then transferred his small sketches onto the large canvases he transformed into his oil paintings of rapturous religious martyrs and male nudes. He always had at least three paintings going at once, propped on makeshift easels, wherever he could make room in the corners of his tiny apartment. The piney scent of oil paints and turpentine always hung in the dank air of his apartment, just beneath the hazy film of cigarette smoke.
He’d shown me his preliminary drawings in the past but I hadn't seen this particular notebook before. This one wasn’t like his other art store sketchpads that I'd seen lying around. This was one of those lined composition books with the speckled black-and-white covers, the kind I used to pack around with me to my class in high school. I opened the notebook and turned through the first few pages, running my fingertips over a series of small, pencil-marked torsos, until I came to a page, three pages in, filled not with Jack’s art but his writing.
I didn’t know Jack wrote.
There's a date at the top: June 7, 1992. Four months ago. I realize this must be a journal entry but it’s too late, my eyes drop in a free fall down onto the first line: “I hate myself for doing this to Michael …”
My heart stops. I know what’s coming. Deep down, I’ve known for months.
Before I can make a frantic scan of the next the next sentence, I hear Jack's key sliding into the lock. My back snaps straight. The bolt clicks open. I slam the notebook shut and stuff it back into the stack.
Jack enters the kitchen, sees me and stops in a slight double-take. "Are you okay?"
I grip the sides of my chair beneath the table to keep my hands from shaking. I feel like I'm going to combust, like any sudden movement I make or word I utter will send his kitchen and the two of us up in flames.
I'm just tired, I tell him, looking down and away, hoping he'll buy my excuse for not moving or speaking – hoping I’ll buy myself the thirty minutes between now and when he needs to leave for work.
He sits beside me, pads my cheek with a small kiss and pours me another cup of coffee, then finishes his pastry. I sit next to him immobilized. Mute with rage.
After breakfast I walk him down the dark, narrow hallway of his apartment to the door. He hugs me tight, like he always hugs me when we say goodbye, like we’re standing on some train station platform in a cloud of steam as the violins soar. As he pulls me in for a last kiss, everything inside me stiffens into an internal barricade, trying to keep him out. As he seals his mouth over mine, I feel like he’s blotting my lips with poison. Inside I’m screaming.
I open the door and he steps out into the hall. “Stay as long as you like,” he says, as he always does, offering a last smile. I smile back, betraying every emotion I’m feeling, then close the door behind him and bolt the lock. I close my eyes, hold my breath, and press the side of my head to the door, listening until I hear his steps descend the hallway stairs. He’s gone.
As I turn to walk back to the kitchen my legs feel heavy, my steps slow and methodical. Now that Jack’s gone I feel oddly sedated. I sit back down at the table, pull the notebook from the stack and stare at its nondescript cover.
How long has this book been sitting here? How many mornings have Jack and I sat at this table with this book right here between us, its thin black spine poking out from the stack, daring to be noticed and opened?
I open the cover of the book and turn slowly back through Jack’s sketches, back to his writing. It's just one page but the confession is complete. Everything I suspected and worse. I read down through the list of names of all the guys he’s been fucking around with, and I know most of them; down through the list of drugs he’s relapsed back into using; down through the excerpts from the questions I asked him before I stopped asking questions, and down through his carefully crafted answers: “Michael confronted me last night about . . . but I told him . . .” “Michael asked me today if I had ever . . . but of course I lied and said . . .” It goes on and on.
As I read each word I feel like I’m swallowing something my body instantly wants to expel. When I reach the bottom of the page my stomach contracts and feel like I’m going to vomit, but I can’t move.
What should I do?
I glance across the kitchen into the living room and stare at the vintage 1950s lamp I gave Jack for his birthday last June. The base is a glazed porcelain figurine depicting two Chinese boys dressed in traditional gold and red jackets wearing matching conical hats, seated on either end of a canoe; a fiberglass lampshade stretches out above them to form the shape of a sail and conceal the light bulb fixture on the other side. We’d first seen the lamp displayed in an antique shop window on Hayes Street. We passed by it several times and Jack fell in love with it. It did look like something that belonged in his apartment, since everything he collected and prized came from a time long before he was born. Neither of us could afford the lamp, but right before his birthday I sold two grocery bags filled with clothes to a second-hand store and came up with the amount. When Jack unwrapped the lamp he lit up like a five-year old.
I stare at that lamp. Should I walk over, pick it up and throw it out his third-story bedroom window?
No. It’s too beautiful to destroy.
My eyes scan slowly back across the living room, across Jack’s paintings propped on easels, past his shelves of records, past his VHS stacks of old movies, back into the kitchen and down to the table and the pack of Lucky Strikes. Should I light one, drop it on his carpeted living room floor, and walk out?
No. Other people live in the building.
I decide I don’t need to do anything. I have what I need. I have proof. Proof that every suspicion spinning in my head and gnawing a hole through my gut, was real. I have it confirmed in writing, Jack’s writing. What if I’d never discovered this book? What if hadn’t discovered it for another month, or year? I’ve been dying to have this confession from Jack for months and now I have it. I can walk out knowing I’m not insane. That’s better than any act of revenge.
Don’t do anything, the voice inside me says. Just leave.
I pick up my wallet and keys and head down the narrow dark hallway to the door. As I place my hand on the lock and unclick the bolt, a last minute second thought stops me. Should I go back and leave Jack’s book out on the kitchen table, open to the page I read of his writing? Leaving that book out, open to that page, that would tell him everything.
Again, No. That’s exactly the kind of drama Jack loved. I walk out.
Later that night Jack calls five times. I don’t pick up. His messages start by him matter-of-factly asking when I’m coming over. A few calls later, he’s wondering where I am. A few calls after that, he’s drunk and confused. He calls every day, multiple times a day, for a week. His voice sinks further with each message. I’ve vanished and he doesn’t know why. Each message is more incoherent and pitiful than the last. Finally, at the end of the week, he gives up.
The night he stops calling, I grab my Walkman, lie down on my bed and cover my ears with my headphones. I can’t listen to scratchy old love songs anymore; I want to hear something new. I need present tense. I couldn’t afford it but treated myself anyway to a cassette recording of the new album by Annie Lennox. It’s her first record as a solo artist since breaking up with her ex-lover and former band mate Dave Stewart. I slide in the tape and press play, close my eyes and curl up inside the melody. This music is exactly what I’m feeling right now. I drop down into the song and, when Annie’s soulful voice turns defiant and sails up over the lush orchestration and into the crescendo, I press rewind, crank the volume and play that final verse over and over:
This is the book I never read
These are the words I never said
This is the path I'll never tread
These are the dreams I'll dream instead
This is the joy that’s seldom spread
These are the tears, the tears we shed
This is the fear, this is the dread
These are the contents of my head
And these are the years that we have spent
And this is what they represent
And this is how I feel
Do you know how I feel?
‘Cause I don’t think you know what I feel
I don't think you know how I feel
You don't know what I feel . . .