“That’s Not My Name.” The cadence of that song, and later, the words, the significance of a girl yelling that THAT ISN’T HER NAME, rings in my ears as I pretend to dance on the asphalt with my half-drunk watery beer in a plastic cup. I am wearing a khaki skirt I got at the Goodwill and a dark green t-shirt, a little too tight, that bears the logo Pepe Jeans, a brand popular in Spain, where my aunt bought it for me. All I want is to be the center of attention. I think I achieved that in the past. I think I did, no matter what my mom says. I am not “quiet” when you let me be.
What I am these days is hopeful. The explanation? I am young, and I am experiencing the beginnings of freedom. I might be too quiet but I observe. I am smart. I think I watch my back pretty well, and avoid dumb decisions pretty well, too. But part of being young is making those key decisions that might be dumb, but might break your heart. Then, then you become something else. Some bigger thing. Someone who understands dumb people and all their dumb decisions. The dumb decision I’m contemplating is falling in “like” with an older man. Seven years older, which my sister says is not really a big difference. Twenty-six. He is in my January Freshmen class, a special cohort that started at our college in January instead of September. He is tall, polished, apparently kind, fairly quiet but the kind of quiet that still fits in in his own stunted party-boy way. He’s not interesting enough to be twenty-six, I think. He is pretty though. Tonight he is wearing linen pants and lilacs in his hair. He has given himself a hulihee beard that stresses his already pointy cheekbones so he slightly resembles Michael Jackson.
I am ignoring him, because that is what I do with the men I like. And I only ever like them. By that I mean I pick them as if from a catalog and try to run into them for six months, don’t talk when I do, and then move on. But he is so much older and so much taller than any boy I have “liked.” That makes this complicated. At least, I think it’s that. He wants to talk to me. Or maybe he doesn’t, and I just tell myself he does. If I can’t have a faux, dream relationship with this person in which I can control the situation, I might act badly. Because I would have to deal with reality, and the possibility that I am not in his life to change it, and be the love of his life.
So my agenda is to preserve this illusion, and I intend to do it. Except he is attractive. And seems more ready to talk to me than the other boys I have “liked.” So it might get complicated. But I don’t know.
At one point I am standing next to him and he says high to me. He has a presence like an acoustic base, huge and low and reverberating. His eyes burn, but not in an angry way. They are soft, the way I imagine the burning bush. For a moment, I wish I could reach in, take him out of that lonely place that causes him to drink every night like it’s his curse. His hair is curly, and brown-black, like some have called mine. When you really look at him, he stands out. Yes, he is beautiful, this instrument in front of me. But he doesn’t want to be played. He wants to be a human now.
As I look at him secretly I know one thing: I love him, in that way the gods love us. Agape. It’s impersonal, it’s big, it’s tragic. But it is love. And I wish him well, at the same time the grasping little girl in me wants to know him and run the other way at the same time. In spite of the way she wants to collect his goods and keep them in a vial on her night stand, take them out and somewhat creepily smell them on lonely days.
Who am I, and what am I doing? I am too immature for this guy. His name is Patrick, and I love him. But then he looks at me and, shyly, says, “Hi Alma.” I add “I love you.”
I think “I love you, too” and look away. I am not warm. He looks at me like he wonders what’s wrong with me. I wonder that too. There’s a lot wrong with me, right now. I tell myself, it is going to pass, the strangeness. My mental health will be good someday. This “love” thing, it helps. For a little.
I do this with/to/at him more or less constantly for the next few months. No wonder he stops trying to talk to me. The more distance is created between us, the more painful that agape becomes. I want to drown it with attachment. But it balloons out like water released from a broken tap and it drowns me. It hurts my stomach like wine. The brokenness of whatever this is, I don’t know what to call it. Is it agape, or divine love? Is it obsession? My experience with obsessions is you have to fuel them. This one has its own legs.
By now I have stared at every discreet part of his skin I can. Like his neck. It struck me one afternoon, the ruddy freckledness, the imperfection, and so tenderly beautiful I can’t stand to look at it for long.
Moments before, he sat at my table in the coffee shop, said hello to me with a scowl on his face (I told myself it was because I wouldn’t speak to him) and then we just sat their in silence, me working up the courage to say something that I never said, like “sorry I never talk to you. Really, it’s not your fault.” I’m sitting there, so excited he’s sitting with me and so discouraged by my inability to speak, when something strange happens. That balloon swells between us, like the pink bubble Glinda the Good Witch travels around Oz in, and I know that I know him.
That night, as lightning strikes too close as I sleep, I see his face in my mind, and my whole soul grins. This is agape. This is the love that doesn’t care what I think–it won’t go away.
Six months later, after neither of us is making much of an attempt to relate, I send him a facebook message. I tell him I am sorry for the way I have acted. I am inexperienced, and don’t know how to act, but I do like him, and I think he likes me. An hour or two later, he has responded. He tells me he doesn’t know what I mean, and he is sorry for anything he did that gave me the impression he liked me.
The balloon deflates, and my chest cavity fills with warm water. I can’t cry, but I know someone, somewhere in me, is doing that. I remember reading about a woman whose husband cheated on her and she sank to the floor in her walk-in closet, “keening.” I am keening. I am so ashamed. I am so embarrassed. I am so confused, because my mental illness led me to think a guy I “loved,” “loved” me back.
I was stupid. I was young. But it gets better.
The agape never leaves. Once the gods have made a hole in your soul it stays open. Like the entrance to a cave, the water flows in and out. Algae grows on the rocks and little fish nip at the cave walls. And you know you were brave enough to try for something that felt so big it would kill you. And you find out later, after years of pain and rage (because that extraordinary man turns out to be an ordinary cad, or something like that), that you survived. And you weren’t stupid. You weren’t young. People are like that sometimes. Not everyone will pass the tests that lead to your good heart.
But make sure you keep your good heart. Don’t exchange it for a mean person, you or someone else. Because humiliation can make it very tempting to believe you’re not worth it. And that’s just not true. Know that everyone has a good heart, somewhere, even that ordinary cad.
Even when he brags to his friends about how hooked on him you are. Even when he treats you like a thing at his disposal. Even when he talks to you like you haven’t even a singular feeling.
Sometimes your self-worth is buried so thoroughly in trash that it takes eleven years to remove it all. Sometimes you’re so lost you don’t have the ability to get away. Still, you’re worth it. Even if you were so young the trainwreck you survived seemed like a bad dream in another life, you’re worth it.
And when people tell you you two didn’t know each other and your feelings aren’t valid, you’re worth it. Remember. Eventually the story will come back to you, and you will understand your soft and tender self, caught up in dreams impossible to understand until one looks with the heart. After all, when you were hurt, you were looking with the heart. What you see, and what you become, when you look with the heart, no one has to know, or understand.