Now the things that I remember seem so distant and so small
Though it hasn’t really been that long a time
What I was seeing wasn’t what was happening at all
Although for a while, our path did seem to climb
That last line always sounded in my head like “though for a while our paths did seem to twine.” Bear with me for a bit, and you’ll see why.
In my early twenties, I had one of the strangest relationships it has ever been my privilege to experience. And I never could clearly explain it to anyone. In some ways, I was ashamed of it; in most ways, confused by it, and in some ways, proud of it. This is the first time I’ve ever written anything about it, because after last night, I have a way to at least start to analogize it.
Last night I watched a film from 1966 called You’re a Big Boy Now, featuring a young man (Bernard) who works at the New York Public Library, a woman who loves him (Amy) and another who wants to play with him (Barbara). The relationship with Barbara is my analog—she invites Bernard to move in, then yells at him and throws him out, only to call him back from her balcony as he walks away. And Bernard, fool that he is, returns to Barbara.
My relationship with MJ was a good deal like that, only it largely took place in my apartment, not hers. I knew MJ—vaguely—from a graduate course we had both taken. She had blond hair and striking, foxlike eyes—a sharp face. One night when we were both leaving the library, I walked her back to the apartment she shared, and asked her if at some point she’d like to have dinner with me.
The next weekend, she came over, bringing a bottle of wine, drank way too much, and ended up spending the night passed out in my bed. Nothing happened that night, but over the next few months she all but moved in with me, visiting her apartment less and less often.
I thought it was love. But MJ met any talk of love with absolute scorn. She was a Marxist through and through, a dedicated party member (or ex-member—this was never really made clear) and she was proud of her father’s steelworker (and hence proletarian) background, if not of the fact that he had given her a boy’s middle name (Jon).
Our relationship was tempestuous. She would question something I had said, storm out of the door, only to lean on my door buzzer for ten minutes if I was hesitant to let her back in. In time, she had her own key, but it was thrown back at me as much as used. One night we had dinner with friends of mine, and MJ drank—I seem to recall she drank because they were bourgeois—way too much and ended up throwing up in my bathtub while I kept her hair out of the vomit.
I thought it was love. She didn’t believe in love, at least not explicitly. But her approach to sex was a slow one, marked by the caution that I would later identify with love. For all the pain of the days, for all of the arguing about politics and religion, the nights were sweet.
I thought it was love, and when I left that summer for travels in Europe, I left her my most treasured possessions—a watch given to me at 13 by my grandparents and a fountain pen, and took with me her phone number and address.
I wrote constantly, and tried to call, but I never reached her by phone, for all of my efforts. When I got back, I called, and she came over immediately, handed me my watch and pen and key, told me that I looked much younger without my beard and that I would never have the letters I had sent back from her, and left.
About a year and a half later, I remember seeing MJ a block away, and then I never saw her again. I wonder sometimes what has happened to her, and to other people whose lives intersected with, but did not join with, mine, just as mine did not join with theirs.
One thing that stays with me though, a fond memory I have at the last. For my birthday, MJ took me to a fairly fancy restaurant on the north side called Geja’s (it served a three-course fondue meal in what I remember as a weirdly Dr.Seuss-styled interior. She dressed up for dinner, which, given her aversion to class distinctions, may have meant something. We were walking back to the bus stop when we passed a kid in a wheelchair, being pushed along by his mother. We walked a block farther along, and then she started yelling at me to get out my wallet. She grabbed most of what was in there, ran to a balloon vendor, bought everything we had money for, and ran back to the kid and gave him the balloons.
That left us barely enough money to get home, and as we got off the bus she started yelling at me again, that I had thought she wanted the balloons for herself, that she wasn’t a sentimentalist, that we were in a bad neighborhood. I walked with her to her door and then headed south the three or four blocks to mine, thinking how people can surprise you. Moments after I got home, the buzzer sounded.
I let her in, of course.