Later, in a private dining room at a bar called Del Charro with our classmates, he walked along the row of seats, putting his hands on people’s shoulders and whispering in people’s ears. He’s just doing that so he can whisper in mine. Again, it made me feel better to think this. I was the end of the row. He stopped, and put his hands on either side of my neck and began to rub. Then he leaned in and whispered, “I know you’re mad.”
Why are you touching me? “Why didn’t you come?”
He paused his massaging. I imagined his silent laughter. “Something came up.”
I hosted a party for my fellow January Freshmen, the people who started St John’s in my cohort our Freshman Year. He didn’t show up. I actually called him, almost drunk, to ask him why that night. I don’t remember what his response was. Maybe he didn’t come because he didn’t want to lead me on. Either way, it was unacceptable to me.
Later the night at Del Charro, I was sitting sipping the second half of a sweet, mild, watery margarita, my dress feeling too short even though it covered my knees. It was silky-satiny black, and was too large for me. He came over, his long legs moving like a cowboy in a movie’s. I half expected the jingling of spurs, for him to throw down a cowboy hat. He was too straight-laced to wear cowboy clothing, though I knew he liked Westerns. He sat down next to me, and then, before I knew what was happening, grabbed my chair and yanked it over so that our legs were touching.
That is not fair, I wanted to say. That’s my leg, not yours, you colossal fucking jerk! But instead, like a loser, I asked, “What came up?”
He turned his head toward me without looking at me, gazing at the long table and the people talking in the chairs. He did this when responding to my messages, too, the pausing. “I was walking someone home.”
Fuck you. Fuck fuck fuck. “Who?” The word was out before I could process what I was saying.
Again, the pause, but this time shorter. He looked directly at me, bending down and talking softly like I was three and he was cleaning up a booboo on my foot. “Are you sure you want to know?” His tone had all the gentleness of someone trying to sound kind but not caring if he really was.
The words rang around in my head as though he’d shouted them in my ear while I was sleeping. ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO KNOW, YOU STUPID IDIOT?! In that moment, like many moments before, I hated myself. I wanted to hide my emotions, my desperation, my hysteria, like him. I imagined, somewhere in the bowels of this tree of a man, there must have been hysteria. He drank a lot, much, much, much more than me.
“Yes.” Yes, yes I do want to know. Out with it.
He told me the girl’s name. She wasn’t someone I had anything against, but I had long suspected they might hook up. She was into knitting and farming and worked for Buildings and Grounds. She was what you might call bad-ass. She was also beautiful in a very unconventional way, and her waist was thinner than mine, even though my sister assured me I definitely had a waist now. Not enough of one, apparently. This girl won first place for poetry in our school’s contest. My poem was in the literary magazine, but it didn’t win an award. Shaking, I stood up and yelled, “Where’s Riley? He was flirting with me the other night.” Riley was the only person who shared all my classes, was intelligent and, though bald, he exercised a lot and was quite attractive. There was a crack in my voice, like a dry sob, but there were no tears in sight. I said the Riley thing to make that man jealous, not so I Riley would hear me.
Riley, it turned out, was behind me. “Hi Alma,” he said.
Oh no. Oh no. “Hi Riley. Uh.”
Jill, who lived with my cowboy friend, hugged me and said, “He’s not dating her. They’re not a thing.” She had, however, reassured me that he didn’t like me about 4000 times that year. I still went back and checked, with Jill, with him, with others, with God, and the best answer I ever got was that he didn’t like me. It seemed to be the truth. The uglier truth was that I didn’t myself, either.
When he said that thing, “Are you sure you want to know?” I wanted him murdered on the spot. It hurt my feelings and humiliated me tremendously. But I knew I was asking. I sat next to him. I stayed in my seat even though he touched my leg like it was a ham in a charcuterie store. It has been something like nine years since that happened, and that girl in me still wants to sob. She felt so had. Everything I did was so personal, and everything everyone else did was too.
Since then, I have been fired, become an heiress, have been loved and loved and loved, been sober and drunk but never quite as drunk as I got back then, rejected a little but never so bad as that (I thought and still think, but that might change, since so many things are changing), had a lost best friends, which I also didn’t have back then, been extremely poor without being homeless ever, have been hospitalized with severe depersonalization and dissociation as well as psychosis, and realized that there is a fish bowl full of beauty in my body I was looking for in other people for a while. I think of it as a fishbowl full of beauty but it is really my soul. I was told a relationship with God, which to me is just a relationship with reality, would help and I held on to that because I knew I had no other chance. I was patently insane. And through reaching out to “God,” which I barely believed in, I realized there was love in me for this person for some reason and that was not actually embarrassing, it was part of being human. It was one of the better parts of being human. It was one of the better things about me with respect to this person, unlike the grasping, the expectations, the insanity, maybe. I learned that if I loved him, I needed to accept he couldn’t love me back. I needed to accept that I couldn’t love me back, either. My job, if I loved this person, who shone a light on the beautiful fishbowl that was me, was to love myself. I didn’t know how. Hafiz says, “Ask The Friend [God] for love. Ask him again. For I have learned that every heart will get what it prays for most.” This line, from a Sufi poem, makes me feel like a born-again Christian who was saved by grace. Here’s my story: I asked to forget him. I asked to be loved. I asked to have that light shone on me when he left, and to shine it on myself, like one of those weirdos who dances like nobody’s watching. There’s always half an instinct in me to hate him, but my Buddhist practice taught me that if I hate anyone, in the end, I am only hating myself. I have not forgotten him. But I have learned to be grateful for what he taught me, which anyone can teach us, no matter how horrible they are: how to love, which, to me, is really how to be.
I wrote this story in March with jealousy, vengeance and pain in my heart. There was also a lot of confusion. I look upon it in July and wonder where that went. I don’t know what happened to me but I am not jealousy, vengeance and pain anymore. I am more peaceful than that. I can love this person like I can love all my fellow human beings, as someone who wanted to be loved as himself, given space to be free, and not hated in his weaker/darker moments. But my problems are not about him anymore. And I don’t have to wait for him to change to solve them, which was my greatest misstep within that insanity of obsessive love.
I knew even then, at 22, that love requires courage. Often it requires the courage to see yourself as you are. Often you cling to another person so as not to see yourself the way you think you are: ugly, horrible, irredeemable. That clinging keeps you from seeing that you are beautiful, wonderful, and never needed any redemption, but that is the sad, and miraculously beautiful thing about living: we are all so loving, beautiful, and loved, and we don’t know it, and that makes love for each other necessary and an unavoidable byproduct of our perceived unworthiness.
I spent a lot of time reading many perspectives on the spiritual, and realized God could only be one thing: what I needed them to be. That was love. And love was my disease, and my cure. Love led me to find a way to heal myself, and I learned that one requirement of love was forgiveness. Forgiveness didn’t mean the other person wanted to be forgiven. It meant they needed your forgiveness. It was your opportunity to be divine. I knew I needed forgiveness for many things. I also started to see that the ugly traits I saw in him and all his awful friends I saw so stubbornly because they were really in me. Those people were far away, where I could not examine them with a microscope, and the person I knew had faults like too much judgment, jealousy and the tendency to sow gossip was me. I was equally fake and fickle and unreliable and mean. At least, I had been at points in my life.
All of this was a process: a process of taking one poor person off a pedestal, taking all the power to fix (or ruin) my life away from them because that was apparently God’s job. Then, “God” gave that job to me and it turned out I was that poor person on the pedestal, the one I though too much of and who couldn’t do everything for me, especially not bearing that status of “God.” I became sober, joined Alcoholics Anonymous and I REALLY started to seek God. You see, my dad is an alcoholic who left when I was nine months old and never paid child support. My “God” was unavailable and drunk. Being surrounded by sober drunks, especially sober drunk men, was like being surrounded by diamonds that I owned after begging for food all of my life. It was strange, and I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t realize the person who was still supposed to change was me. I left AA, drank again but not in the same way, because I may not be that kind of alcoholic, or I may, I don’t know. But I knew what I needed was God, not doctrine, or dogma. AA was full of doctrine and dogma, as much as it tried not to be. Spirituality based on a fear of relapse, though understandable, was not the kind I sought. Fear, though natural on the road toward the truth we seek, should not be where we park and build our earthly homes. I’m aware that people have found their path in AA and I respect and love them for it, but it’s not for me. Maybe my fear of ending up like or with my dad makes me to prone to fear-based spirituality, which offers little room for me to grow.