All These Quiet Days

Like any Gen-X girl who donned an ankle bracelet and twirled around at a Grateful Dead show during the summer of Touch of Grey, I have enjoyed my fair share of recreational drugs. It was never all that big a deal for me — I preferred the comforts of plain cigarettes and Diet Coke to the highs of more potent product. But drugs were a regular part of my life for a long time, so much so that I can make a bong out of nearly anything (including an apple), and yes I WOULD like one of the Percocet you have left over from your dental surgery.

The point is, I just said yes, and have never been one of these, “I won’t even take a Tylenol when I have a headache” kind of purists. Give to me your muscle relaxants, your pain killers, your antibiotics and anesthesia! But there is one class of drug I have steadily avoided, despite every good reason to give them a try.

Anti-depressants.

Depression is such a slithering monster. All tentacles, always reaching for you, always trying to pull you under into the dark. I’ve been fighting it, denying it, trying to find a way to live with it, trying to outrun it, since I was 11. And even that, admitting I was depressed even before I got my period, is so fraught with all of depression’s greatest hits: fear, shame, the immediate need to explain that yes, it’s true, and yes, a doctor even said so. Two doctors said so. Actually three, three doctors, OK, to be technical,  one therapist, one psychoanalyst and one psychiatrist (walk into a bar! Ha ha!) all agree that my history of depression started when I was 11 (triggered, in part, by a traumatic event that involved getting abandoned at a bus stop in Manhattan by my father, but that’s a story for another day), and that the times in my life when I considered myself “depressed” were actually heightened times of anxiety or crisis, and when these periods ended I retuned to a baseline of depression.

Baseline of Depression, by the way, is my fantasy band name.

About a year ago, I was in the deep end of one of these “periods of crisis.” This one showed up as an acidic, foaming rage that turned me into a scary, unpredictable, gimlet-eyed insomniac who cried all the time. And if that sounds terrible, consider the fact that my trusted therapist, Joe, who had seen me through more than a decade of my life — a decade that included changing careers, meeting and marrying Jonathan, getting pregnant and giving birth to Emerson, my father’s death, and my mother and stepfather moving away — had retired a year before.

I’m friends with quite a number of genuinely wonderful depressed and anxious people, and so I asked the most talented of my depressed and anxious friends, a stunning writer and photojournalist whom I had been a legit fangirl of before we became friends in real life, if she would give me the name of her therapist. And that is how I ended up seeing Mean Steve, a brilliant psychoanalyst who treats some of New York’s most accomplished and famous artists. So famous is Mean Steve’s clientele that he has a series of doors and waiting rooms you use to get in and out of his office, so you never see who has the appointment before or after you. (I should mention that he is not actually mean. I call him Mean Steve because I hate fucking going to fucking therapy because I should be done with fucking therapy by now I’ve been in fucking therapy for my entire adult life and fuck him and his stupid fucking mystery office I hate therapy. Fuck fuck fuck.)

The details of someone else’s therapy are uniquely boring, and this is not actually a story about Mean Steve and all the crying and yelling I do in his office. It is a story about Dr. Tapas (not his actual name).

About four months into my therapy with Mean Steve, I asked if he could prescribe drugs. This was at Jonathan’s urging, because I had a habit of nibbling at his Klonopin. (This is not a sex thing.) Jon also wrestles with the many-armed monster that is depression and anxiety, and has actual prescriptions for drugs that help him, which he takes as prescribed, because he is brave and good and also smart. I, on the other hand, seek out the dreamy, warm-blanket oblivion of benzodiazepine the way one might enjoy a good Scotch, so I was “borrowing” Jon’s pills, which annoyed him to no end, because those are HIS drugs and go get your own drugs, lady.

Mean Steve does not prescribe meds, because he is not that kind of doctor, but he did offer to send me to his “guy” — the psychiatrist he partners with for patients who need medications to support talk therapy. I was not gracious about this offer. In fact, I believe my exact words were, “Fuck that. I don’t need fucking drugs. Fuck off, Mean Steve.” And if you are observing the fact that I was TAKING drugs while claiming I didn’t NEED drugs, then you are correct.

I was 25 when Prozac Nation was published. I am now 48, and drugs have come a long way, baby. Anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication have been suggested to me before, by every doctor I have ever seen, including my dermatologist, who during an annual skin exam noted my ragged, bloody bitten nails and asked about my state of mind. I have refused even the idea of anti-depressants time and again, because I was scared.

I was scared that my depression was the key to my talent. That without it I’d lose the dark and twisty thing inside of me that sends up the words, that tells the stories, that holds the memories.

I was scared I’d become boring.

I was scared that without depression, I’d have to deal with all the things that made me depressed in the first place, instead of living from crisis to crisis.

I was scared that “troubled former drama major with a passionate temper” was who I was, and that I wouldn’t know who to be or how to be if I medicated away the thing that defined me.

And also, I secretly suspected that I wasn’t depressed, but just kind of an asshole, and they don’t make a pill for that. And if I took anti-depressants I’d not only have confirmation of this, but I’d still be an asshole, just maybe a calmer one.

But I had also just had a performance review at work that boiled down to, “Who exactly does this bitch think she is?” and I was tired. Tired of hearing I was scary, and angry. Tired of hearing I was unpredictable. Tired of staying up all night watching TV I didn’t like and eating food I didn’t even want. Tired of not trusting myself.

And so I took myself to Dr. Tapas, so named because he is Spanish, and handsome, and reminds me of Javier Bardem, but not scary No Country for Old Men Javier Bardem. I fully expected to recite my life history with my usual detachment, because I have told this story so many times, to so many doctors and men in bars, the kind of men who want to hear all about how broken you are on a first date, but instead I surprised myself and ugly cried for 90 minutes.

If it is possible to listen warmly and with charisma, that is how Dr. Tapas listened, and when I was done vomiting up my lonely childhood and frightening father and broken dreams and terrible relationships and self-destructiveness and everything I’ve done to try and fix myself, the doctors and Buddhism and meditation and exercise and eating more fiber and dry brushing my skin and all the books Oprah said to read and hypnosis and yoga and nutritionists and psychics (yes, even psychics) he said this (with a Spanish accent):

“Stefanie. You have worked so hard, and we are all so proud of you. You have done everything a person can do to try and be well. And now, you have earned, you deserve…Prozac.”

Well. Ok then.

I took the first one the next morning.

That day, the first day, I was thirsty and had a headache, and kept texting Jon to tell him all the nuances of exactly how I was thirsty and had a headache. He assured me I was doing great. The next day, I felt a little dizzy. And then on the third day I woke up and it was quiet.

It was quiet. In my head.

I have lived my entire life with a din of voices in my head, telling me all sorts of awful things about myself. That I am lazy. Ugly. Unworthy. A fraud. Untrustworthy. And on and on, from the time I was small, a discord of fear and rage and disgust, so omnipresent that I’d simply come to accept the cacophony as normal. And now it was quiet.

I explained it to Mean Steve this way: It was like my head was the Overlook Hotel, a haunted house, and I could never be sure what was around any corner. I could never be sure what might terrify me, or enrage me, or jump on me and try to kill me. And now all the ghosts were down the hall in one room, having a party. And I couldn’t hear what they were saying and it didn’t matter, because I didn’t need to go to that party. Not ever. And it was safe in my head, to rest, to look around.

It has been quiet for months now. And I am learning how to be a person.

I spent, no joke, all of my free time during the first couple of Prozac months lying on my couch looking out the window. Not reading, not writing, not watching TV. I just watched the sky change. And listened to the silence.

Lately, I have been trying to figure out what I like. Not what will make me smarter or more acceptable, what I ought to pretend to be to be interesting, to be worthy, but what I actually like.

I like succulent plants, apparently. But only tiny ones.

And making quesadillas.

I like the beach. More than the mountains.

I do not like the Grateful Dead, it turns out, but I do have an abiding affection for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

Yoga is not my thing, but I am a beast at pilates.

I will never be the kind of person who wants to go on a bike ride with you, but we could go on a hike.

I want to learn how to play the guitar.

And it turns out I am startlingly laid back. ‘A‘ole pilikia levels of laid back. Maholo.

It is so strange, meeting yourself at 48. But I am learning. I am learning the shape of my own desires. That I am more than my history, my ghosts, the ragged edges of my grief and fear. That redemption is possible. That it’s ok to accept the help I need. That depression is a monster but fighting it doesn’t have to be the only thing I do. That I am a work in progress, but progressing. That there is a party going on down the hall that I never have to go to.

I am learning how to live well in all these quiet days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Unexpectedly Expecting

About two years ago I performed at The Jukebox, a storytelling/karaoke series run by my good friends Steve JacobsMargaret Lyons, and Steve Heisler. The topic of the evening was parenthood, and while the story I told isn’t the kind of thing Hallmark cards are made of, it is a love letter to my daughter, and so I thought I’d share it today.

Happy Mother’s Day, no matter how you got there.

*   *   *

I found out I was pregnant in a bathroom stall at Nickelodeon. And I was FURIOUS.

And shocked. The word “gobsmacked” comes to mind. But mostly furious.

Here’s why: I was 35, I was a newlywed, and I was madly in love. At my recent annual gynecologist appointment, my doctor had told me that for a variety of reasons I might have a very tough time getting pregnant. I was a little concerned because I was pretty sure I wanted to have a baby…eventually. Not now, but, you know, later. Eventually. When I told my doctor this, she said, quite gently, “You do realize that 35 is considered ADVANCED MATERNAL AGE.”

WTF? Apparently I had run out of “eventually” and if I had any intention of having a baby ever, we had to get the ball rolling. So even though I had absolutely no interest in getting pregnant right now, she pulled me off the pill with the idea that she’d run tests and check my hormones, and I would feel my mucous (totally gross) and we would see what my cycle was like when I was off the pill. And then maybe I would get pregnant in a year or two.

The other thing you need to know is that I was about to quit my job. Yes. I had a great big job then, with an office on the 38th floor of 1515 Broadway overlooking Times Square and an assistant and a bonus every year…and I despised it. I was a contract negotiator, which is an exciting job if you’re into that kind of thing, which I was decidedly not. I’m not a lawyer. I don’t have a business degree. In fact, I have a degree in Theatre, and a minor in Religious Studies. What was I doing negotiating contracts, you ask?

I came to New York City after college to be a stage director. And I had a job at Manhattan Theatre Club I adored, but it paid almost nothing and then I ran out of credit cards. So I took this job at MTV Networks in the Business and Legal Affairs department when I was 25, thinking I’d work there for a year and then I would go to grad school. And it never happened, because every year they promoted me, and the salary got bigger, and the bonus got bigger, and then I started thinking, who quits a job like this, I have such good benefits. And every year I died a little more inside.

On the day I found out I was pregnant in the bathroom, I had finally gotten to a place where I was ready to quit. I was going to quit big. I was going to quit my full time job, and take a $30,000 pay cut, and I was going to work as a freelance writer. It wasn’t as completely crazy as it sounds, because I had a permalance gig lined up to be the editorial director for tvland.com and nickatnite.com, but even so, I wasn’t flying out of the nest so much as I was flinging myself out of it… blindfolded…while on fire.

I should also mention that my husband, Jonathan, was working at EMS (an outdoor store sort of like REI) but his real focus was on finishing and selling a screenplay. So we got a fantastic discount on fleece, and every night at our house was like a scene out of Shakespeare in Lovebut when it came to our income, it was all pretty much on me.

But we had talked about this, and he was completely supportive of me quitting. I mean he was all, “You quit that job! You quit it hard! Full steam ahead on the quitting!”

And now I was pregnant.

So there I am in the bathroom stall with my pee stick and all I can think is, I don’t want to have this baby. Never mind it’s basically a miracle I got pregnant without trying, totally by accident, WHILE using a diaphragm (and I put spermicide in that thing EVERY TIME, just saying) after all the talk of advanced maternal age and checking the mucous.

Nope. No thank you. Because if I had this baby, there was no way in hell I could quit my job, with the paid maternity leave and the sweet benefits and the big paycheck. No way in hell. I would have to stay there, negotiating contracts forever, until I was just a shell of the person I once was, and then I’d retire, and then I’d die. And my tombstone would read, “She had amazing benefits.”

You guys, I came up with this awesome plan. The plan was, I was going to hide my pee stick in the trash and then march back to my desk and call my doctor and tell her I needed an abortion. Right now. Immediately. I wasn’t even going to tell anyone. I was just going go and quietly have an abortion and never tell anyone and then quit my job. A stealth abortion. A Stabortion. And then, in a year or so, when things had settled down a little, we’d have a baby. Maybe. Probably. Whatever. I don’t know. Abortion. Right now.

I hid my pee stick, and I left the bathroom, but instead of going to my office I took the elevator down to the lobby and I went across 44th street to the Starlight Deli, because as much as I desperately wanted an abortion at that exact moment I wanted a coffee the size of my head and a black & white cookie even more.

The head counterman at the Starlight Deli is this robust, wonderful, gregarious, friendly Egyptian man named Abraham. On the day of the pee stick, he’d been feeding me breakfast every work day for more than a decade. He fed me through my South Beach phase, and half a dozen bad breakups, and then he fed me though all the time I dated Jon, and planning our wedding. We were pals.

I walked into the Starlight and Abraham hollers out, “Hello beautiful! Coffee time! Yes?”

And I said, “Yes. But decaf.”

I don’t know. I mean, I didn’t want this dream-crushing, soul-sucking, scary baby. But I also didn’t want to hurt it.

Meanwhile, Abraham lights up and does an actual double-take. Because ever since I’d come back from my honeymoon he’d designated himself my Jewish mother and had been pestering me about where his babies were.

He points at me, and he says, “Decaf!? You baby?”

And I burst into tears. Wailing. Snotty wailing.

Abraham comes rushing out from behind the counter, and he takes me by the shoulders and he says, “Why you cry? Baby ok?”

I tried to explain about my job and quitting and my dreams and being a husk and my tombstone. And he just shook his head and he said, “You have baby. It’s good. You’ll see.”

And I was like, noooo, you don’t understand. $30,000 pay cut! How in the world can I possibly do this?

He shrugged, and he said, “I have five children. A blessing, every one. Every baby brings its own blessing. You ask me how you do this? You do it. Have your baby. Quit your job. Be brave. You’ll see, your blessings are just starting.”

I stood there with him, crying, and he actually took me in his arms and started to sway with me. He smelled like sugar and salami, which for a Jewish girl from the Bronx is the smell of home. He made it sound so easy. Have the baby. Quit the job. Both. Say yes.

It dawned on me that I had been saying no to myself for so long, I’d forgotten how to say yes that way. All of my choices, from the day I left the job I loved at Manhattan Theatre Club, were based on being safe. All of them. Everything was an “or.” It didn’t even occur to me until that moment I could choose “and.” Have the baby, and quit, and have it be ok.

I pulled myself together finally. Abraham poured me a decaf, bagged me a cookie, and sent me on my way.

And here’s what happened next.

I did call my gynecologist…

…the next morning, after I’d gone home and told Jonathan he was going to be a father, and we called our parents, and I called my best friend.

And then I quit my job.

Our daughter, Emerson, is going to be 9 this summer. She is the image of her daddy, and the love of my life. And every single thing I was scared of that day in the bathroom, they all turned out to be nonsense.

I was afraid I’d be trapped forever in a job I hated. Instead, emboldened by the need to contribute to my family’s wellbeing and motivated by a cellular desire to be the kind of person my daughter can admire, I kept pushing until I found a career that rewards me richly for being an information junkie with a tendency to burst into song.

I was afraid I’d lose myself completely, and instead I rediscovered everything I’d ever taken pleasure in: making up stories, singing songs, living room dance parties, talking in silly voices, themed Halloween costumes, ice cream for dinner, laughing until you pee.

I was afraid I’d resent her, but instead, I am indescribably grateful, for her laughter and sweetness, how she helps me see the world as a place of wonder and goodness. For the ways she’s softened me, made me kinder, slowed me down.

I am absolutely certain that every good thing in my life started the day I said yes to her. As Abraham predicted, she has brought an endless stream of blessings. And they have just started.

There were a lot of people around the day Emmy was born — Jonathan and my best friend, Lisa, were in the delivery room, and our parents were at the hospital also. I didn’t get to be alone with her until about 4 in the morning, when everyone had gone home to rest. And that first night, with her tiny head tucked under my chin, I whispered the most honest thing I have ever said to another person. “I have spent my entire life wondering what I’m supposed to be doing, where I’m supposed to be, what my purpose is. And it’s so clear now. I am here to love you.”

I know it’s corny, but motherhood is a corny business. It is made of promises, of hopes that are larger than everything you fear, of saying yes, and yes, and yes, to the mystery of love, to the surprising hugeness of your own heart, to messes, to the unknown.

It’s also made of lullabies, and that’s what I’m going to sing you for now.

Where’s Waldo?

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Look, I’m going to tell you a story about tampons, all right?

I got my period today — hooray! And I mean that genuinely. I have always been glad to see my period. Back in my youth because it meant I wasn’t pregnant, and more recently because it means I am not in menopause. Circle of life!

And so it was with the satisfaction of a job well done right on schedule yet again that I went to the office drawer where I keep my tampons only to find that I had failed to restock last month. Not a tampon to be found. Luckily, I work with many women, and when I inquired about borrowing a tampon I was directed to the drawer of a lovely young woman who we’ll call L, who is tall and slim and possessed of a flowing mane of brunette hair so pretty it makes me want to learn how to do french braids, a skill I never mastered despite 7 years of day camp and three at sleep-away camp.

Her tampons were tiny and adorable, each packaged in its own pink envelope. They were the collapsible sort, where you have to pull the plunger out to deliver the tampon to its destination. I did so, and went about my business.

A few hours later I needed to use the bathroom, so I borrowed another tampon from L. And here is where our story takes a turn for the mysterious. I could not find the current tampon. Could not find it. And I looked. Trust me, I looked. Finally I decided to just insert another, to see if I could find the missing tampon with a new tampon. I think I was hoping they’d act like magnets, and the new one would pull the old one out? I don’t know, you guys, I panicked. I prepped the new tampon by pulling out the plunger and tried to insert it, but now this one wouldn’t go in. It’s not that there was anything blocking the way, it was more that I couldn’t seem to get my lady bits to grasp and hold the tampon in place.

‘What kind of crazy-ass skinny girl tampons are these???’ I wondered. ‘Have I reached the stage of life where my vagina is rejecting the cheekily packaged tampons of the youth market? Or worse, is the tampon rejecting me??? Does this have something to do with my not watching Broad City? Does the tampon know I have no idea who Jason Derulo or 2 Chainz are and I only know that one Lorde song and I think I’m pronouncing Lorde wrong? Has the tampon guessed that I truly want a pair of clogs, that my running playlist is filled with hits from the 90s, that sleep has become my new favorite thing? Stop judging me tampon!’

I was rescued by my friend P, who hooked me up with an old school Tampax Super, the kind with the pokey cardboard applicator. And it turns out the cute tampon hadn’t found me lacking, I just hadn’t pulled the plunger all the way out — it’s supposed to click into place before you use it. The tampon hadn’t rejected me. We just had a miscommunication. As for the lost one, it had never been there in the first place. Due to plunger failure, I’d been tampon-less all along.

I imagine there’s a deeper meaning here (heh), about aging and self-acceptance and the passage of time. Or maybe technology. But mostly, I thought this whole thing was funny as hell, and I am once again sort of surprised and amused to realize that I am old as fuck…for the club, not the Earth.

 

 

 

Books & Letters

For years, I have been talking about writing a book. Talking about it and thinking about it, and wondering if I could, and what it should be about, and if anyone would read it, and if people would be mad at me if I did. I’ve made several starts at this, taking classes and trying to publish stories, blogging (very) occasionally, reading out now and then. But I’ve never managed to get any traction on it, to make a commitment (which, if we’re being honest, is kind of a theme with me anyway). And the reason is, writing is  hard. IT IS FUCKING HARD. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it’s boring, and awful, and you hate yourself and all the words. Sometimes it’s OK. Sometimes it’s like a door inside of you opens and a thousand unicorns come flying out on a double rainbow that tastes like dark chocolate and smells like lilacs. But mostly it’s really, really  hard. This is not news to anyone who has tried to write, or has listened to anyone complain about writing.

But hey! I’m doing it. I’m writing a book. I made a commitment. I hired a book coach. I have pages due on deadlines, and I wrote an extensive outline, and character bios, and parts of it are actually written, which is sort of remarkable, that I can open a Word document on my computer and see the beginnings of this book that I’ve been carrying around inside my head for so long.

That’s not what this is really about though.

My book is not a memoir, not by a long shot, but it’s fair to say that it’s influenced by some things that happened to me once, a long time ago. And I’ve been struggling with that, with where the line is between what happened, what I think happened, and what I wish had happened. And then there’s the matter of how to write about it at all, because I still am worried that people will be mad at me, that I’ll hurt someone’s feelings, or tell a secret, or expose a lie.

Then again, I keep telling myself, it’s my story too. I get to tell it. Damnit.

Even that’s not really the point.

The point is this. I’ve been keeping a journal since I was 9. There are gaps, to be sure, times when I didn’t write because I lost interest or got distracted, or fell in love (I almost never wrote about my happiness, but the breakups I recorded in obsessive detail). And there are other, sadder stretches, where terrible circumstances kept me silent. But mostly, I have been keeping a journal for 34 years. This story I’ve been writing for myself arcs across 24 books — plain notebooks, beautiful diaries with artful covers and creamy pages, moleskines. Many of these journals were gifts from people who knew me well and cared about me, and those books are inscribed with notes from them, on the inside covers. I carefully dated and numbered each journal, and jotted down poems and lines from songs on the first few pages, as inspiration or to set the tone. W.H. Auden’s Leap Before You Look was a favorite for years, this passage in particular:

A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.

Sounds about right.

My old journals — everything that pre-dates Emerson, her sunny sweetness and my uncomplicated, ferocious love for her — have been stored away in a large tote bag in the back of my closet for years. Now and then I’d glance at them, with curiosity, and a little fear. I was pretty sure I knew what was in there, and most of it was nothing I wanted to re-visit, nothing I needed to go back to.

Except.

Except that writing is hard. And it hurts. And it requires a kind of courage I didn’t really expect. And somewhere between what I think happened and what I wanted to happen and what I thought happened, I actually wrote down what was happening. At least as I understood it. At least how it felt at the time.

So last Sunday, I pulled out the bag, and I started reading. I began in 1983, my freshman year of high school. I’ve read through, so far, to 1999, the year after my first husband left me and I was hell bent on recreating my entire lost 20s in a single year (with near disastrous results). It has been a bizarre fling through time, and incredibly surprising. It’s sort of like reading someone else’s story, and I’m alternately charmed by this girl, her bravado and depth of feeling, and utterly horrified by her selfishness, the way she’s dominated by fear and longing, so completely unable to understand, much less ask for, the things she so desperately wants and needs.

Still, I’m happy to see her again. Happy to see the old friends and loves that wave to me from the pages. Happy to remember these things, even the really terrible ones, because I know how these stories turn out. They turn out with me safely snuggled in bed in Brooklyn, Emerson napping next to me, Jonathan in the living room reading about some battle. That’s where all those journals lead. They lead straight home.

And there’s another thing too.

When I was a freshman in college, I was enamored of a certain professor. He was the kind of professor that a girl like me was made to fall for — bearded and brilliant, tall and lean, outdoorsy and rebellious. He taught in the English department (of course he did), and we had long, meandering conversations about The Book of Job, and the problem of suffering, about the hero’s journey and ancient goddess religions, about the Greeks and the Romans, and the power of words, and The Word. I’d show up at his office door in the afternoons, long after office hours were over (no appointment necessary for me), and curl up in his guest chair. After a few weeks he started bringing me a thermos of hot tea, sweet with honey, and I’d sip from it while we talked.

He never touched me. I wanted him to, and was petrified that he would. I had a boyfriend I loved, for one thing. And this professor, with his hard hands and easy grace, his intense thoughtfulness, was a man. Not a boy I could figure things out with, or a friend I’d known for years, or someone who was mostly like me. He was a wild, unexplored wilderness. I was utterly mad for him.

I ended up transferring schools after my freshman year, and here I will confess, all these years on, that he invited me for tea at his house the day I left school for the last time, and there was an invitation in the air, a moment to be seized, and I let it go. He did kiss me though, a single kiss that stands out, still, as one of the most delicious moments of my  life. And then I got in my car and drove away as fast as I could.

We wrote for a long time after that. Postcards, and letters that he would type on an actual typewriter and then doodle and draw on. I kept those letters for years, in an old tin box, and then at some point I misplaced them. I know this because in 1998 I went looking for him, ready, finally, for him, and discovered he had died, two years before. In a haze of grief I went looking for the letters and couldn’t find them.

Until one night last week, when I pulled out a journal from 1989. It was bulky, with a packet of paper tucked inside, wrapped with a rubber band to hold it together. I flipped it open, expecting to find a sheaf of poems or pages ripped from another notebook, and instead, there he was. All his letters, typed on his wonky typewriter, inked with his slanted handwriting, tied in blue ribbon. I unfolded the pages with careful, shaking hands. He was as present and visceral as he had ever been, his voice and his thoughts, his wisdom and his playful, questioning flirting, his vision of me at 19 as someone worth knowing, someone extraordinary.

When I think about that afternoon, when he invited me for tea and so much more than tea, it is always with regret. Regret that I let the moment pass us by, and also that it was simply the wrong place, the wrong time. Regret that I went looking for him too late. This is how it goes sometimes. And it makes me sad, in a wistful way, the way missed opportunities always do. The way losing what you never had always hurts; that particular, confusing ache of something that was over before it started. But I can still hold him in my hands, this part of him he gave me, in words, in doodles and ideas.

And that is something worth having, regardless of how it all turned out, or didn’t, in the end.

Why I Think Smash Is A Tragedy

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People want to talk to me about the TV show Smash all the time. Without preamble, they’ll excitedly tell me they saw one of the actors in the park, or confess they lurked while a scene was being shot on their street, or start singing one of the songs at me. It’s a fair assumption to make, that I know and love this show, given my obsessive love of all things musical theatre.

But I can’t watch it.

It’s not that I don’t want to, or that it’s not interesting. It’s a TV show about making a musical, for God’s sake. Throw in an iced coffee and a chocolate croissant and it’s the intersection of everything I love in this world.

But it also hacks me to shreds. It makes me sweaty and anxious and teary-eyed. It makes me crave slice after slice of thickly buttered toast, washed down with pudding.

I know, my theater major is showing, but here’s the thing. At the center of Smash, at least the episode I was able to sit through before I ran screaming from it, is the relationship between songwriter Julia and composer Tom, played by Debra Messing and Christian Borle. Julia and Tom are best friends who are also a creative team.

Julia and Tom are everything I had, once. Julia and Tom are everything I lost.

When I was a teenager, I had a friend. A best friend, who we’ll call ES. He was theatrical, smart and funny, with puppy dog eyes and a thick mop of shiny black curls. He was cherubic, mercurial, adorable. He was a straight guy who loved musical comedy as much as I did. It was pure pleasure, he felt like home from the start. We loved all the same things — Shakespeare, black Converse sneakers, Woody Allen’s movies, driving at night, pitching a fit over nothing. All those things that matter so much when you’re young. We spoke the same language. We sought the same talismans.

We grew up together. And in growing up, we first became creative partners, and then lovers, and then a married couple. We were a truly inspired creative team. We were an utter wreck at the rest of it.

Here is the kind of magic we did together: when we were still in high school, we convinced a local town in Westchester, NY to fund a summer theatre program and let us run it. I was the artistic director, he was the executive producer. Over the course of four years we successfully produced big musicals, straight plays in rep, and original children’s theatre — all by the seat of our pants, just making it up as we went along. When we moved to New York after college, we produced a series of shows and cabarets that were pretty good, even in retrospect. We were never happier than when we were working together. When we were working together, you could believe we were actually in love. We could even believe it. But really, what we had was what Julia and Tom have — the abiding affection and trust, the secret language and safety that grows around and between two people who are genuinely, platonically ideal for one another in the pursuit of a common passion.

And oh, how we screwed it up.

Looking back at it now, I think we just didn’t know how to separate the fire we felt when we were working together from the kind of sexual, romantic love we both craved so acutely. It would have been so much easier if one of us had been gay, but there we were, absolutely besotted, married really, through our work, and our dreams of the future. We were going to Broadway, to Hollywood. We were going to have an office overlooking Times Square, with a partner’s desk. Al Hirschfeld would make a sketch of us at that desk, and it would have 5 Ninas in it.

We were partners for 12 years. We were married for 5. I cheated on him first. He was the one who eventually left me. For another woman. With whom he’d been having a prolonged affair. Four days before Thanksgiving.

Like I said, theatrical.

And when he left, I wanted to die. I was so angry, so bereft, so utterly boiled and peeled, all I could do was howl like a wounded creature. Not for the loss of him as a husband, certainly, but for the loss of my friend, my partner, my creative other half. I couldn’t imagine how I’d work without him, even as he was blowing my life to pieces.

Remarkably, it passed.

The last time I saw him, he said to me, “You’ll see. We’ll be like a Woody Allen movie. Years from now, when all of this is in the past, we’ll be friends again. We’ll have lunch. We’ll laugh at each other’s jokes again. Maybe someday we’ll work together again.”

And I said, “You will never see me again. Ever. Say goodbye to me.”

I have been true to my word. He’s tried to friend me on Facebook, and I’ve blocked him and his entire family. He’s emailed, and I’ve deleted them unread. (That’s a lie. I read them. Then I deleted them.) I know it makes me look like a villain, a bitch. But it’s an act of self-protection, not agression. He was an elemental part of my life from the time I was 15, and when he left, I had to obliterate him to have any chance of surviving. He was so large, you see, so tremendous. He took up so much space in my head. For so much of my life, most of the things I believed about myself were the things he told me. I desperately needed space, even if it was my own little corner in hell, just to meet myself. To begin constructing a life that didn’t include him, his voice in my ear, his interests directing mine, his dreams weighing more. I couldn’t do that if we were meeting for lunch once a month.

It’s been a long time now, more than a decade, since that day he proclaimed we’d find our way back to each other and I called him a fool for it. I haven’t changed my mind; I don’t want him in my life. But I think I’ve finally gotten to a place where I can miss him.

Not too long ago, the Internet went crazy with a rumor that Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny were involved in real life. It made me nostalgic for the 90s, and while I walked to the subway, my thoughts were full of Hootie and The Blowfish, Pop Up Video, and The Real Live Brady Bunch, a stage show from the Clinton era that was exactly what it sounds like – comics acting out entire episodes of The Brady Bunch, saturated with sexual innuendo and Gen X irony. It suddenly seemed like the best idea ever — EVER! — to produce a Real Live X-Files, somewhere in the East Village or Brooklyn, with the audience waving around tiny flashlights and the actress who plays Scully singing that Bree Sharp song as a finale.

I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, and reached for my cellphone to call ES.

It was pure instinct. Because there was a time when I could call him, and he’d pick up and say “What?” and I’d say “Real Live X-Files!” and he’d say “I love it! Flashlights! And the tickets look like FBI badges!” and I’d say “Bree Sharp song!” And he’d say “Scully sings it! At the end! And the guy who plays Mulder plays guitar! And Skinner and Krycek sing back up! And Flukeman!” And I’d say, “I want to play Scully.” And he’d say “No! You’re too tall! You direct it!” And I’d say “I am not! She’s 5’3″, I’m only 5’5″! I’ll wear flats!” And he’d say “You’ll be a nightmare if you don’t direct it, you’ll just end up complaining and giving whoever we get to direct it so many notes that they’ll quit.” And he’d be right.

There is no one I can talk to like this anymore. There never was, before him. There has never been, since he left.

I started crying, in the street. Because losing that kind of friend isn’t just sad, it isn’t just terrible. It’s fucking Greek tragedy. It’s the end of Hamlet.

I don’t ever want to see him again. But I think it’s a good thing, to be able to miss him. To allow myself to think of him without feeling like I’m about to spontaneously self-immolate, or turn to dust, or freeze and then shatter. To cry a few tears in the street and move on.

I can miss him now, without wanting to die. But I just can’t watch Smash.

So This Happened

The first rule of Salad Club is you don't talk about Salad Club.

I am constantly telling people they need to read “The Gift of Fear.” I am a freaking one woman Gavin De Becker parade, to the point where I have to re-buy it several times a year because I keep giving it away. Until now, my de Becker immersion has been mostly theoretical, which is how you want it. But it all got real this afternoon, when some totally normal-looking dude almost punched me in the face at Chop’t.

Yes, Chop’t. The salad place.

If you’ve been to the 17th Street Chop’t at lunchtime, you know it’s a madhouse. The line is always out the door. Today at around noon, I was in line behind a woman who kept checking her phone and doing that bird head thing people do when they’re waiting for someone. We kept getting closer to the door, and I’m sure she was thinking about how to handle it if we got to the counter before her friend got there. Do you step put of line? Order for yourself? Go to the back of the line again? Ah modern life, you are so full of etiquette quandaries.

Just as we crossed the threshold of the restaurant, her friend arrived. Tall guy. Red hair. Jeans, button down shirt. Nice shoes. Like I said, totally normal looking. They greeted each other with kisses, and started chatting about … whatever. I wasn’t really listening. The line continued to move, and then, when they were next to step up the counter and order, she said to him, “Oh! What are we going to have?” They began debating various lettuces and mix-ins, perusing the menu on the wall. A wrap? A custom salad or one of the classics? Which dressing?

Look, I get it. It’s a high stakes game we’re playing in the Chop’t. If you don’t go in with a strategy you can get sucked into the abyss of arugula vs. baby spinach vs. mesclun mix. So I waited patiently for a few minutes, because as a Chop’t master I was willing to give them a little time to get their act together. Finally, when it was pretty clear they weren’t anywhere close to choosing between grilled chicken and bacon, I interrupted them with a friendly, “Hey guys?” They stopped discussing tomatoes and turned to look at me. And I continued, “Would you mind if I scooted ahead of you while you make up your minds?”

Now remember, the line is out the door, there are MANY salad makers waiting, and it is completely acceptable to move ahead at Chop’t if you know what you want and you are behind people who are still looking at the menu and making up their minds. This is not deviant behavior. It is the social norm of make-a-salad culture. In fact, most people don’t even ask, so accepted is this practice.

Apparently, these folks really don’t understand the Chop’t rules, because they lost it. She immediately got huffy and demanded, “WHY WOULD WE LET YOU DO THAT?” I tried to explain that I meant no offense, they just seemed to need a little more time, but of course they should go ahead if they were ready. She was dripping with indignation and overreacting, but I figured it wasn’t worth dealing with. He, on the other hand, went insane. Clenched jaw (I have never actually seen a clenched jaw before, not a look I recommend), hands in fists, red face, leaning forward into my space, and yelling that I was a pushy bitch and I should shut the fuck up.

Salad, people. We’re talking about who gets a salad first.

He scared the hell out of me. And he triggered all my de Becker warning bells. Because this was not the response of a rational human being who was having a bad day. This was the response of a furious, dangerous person who was just looking for an excuse to go off. You ask how I know that. I know because I was there. Because I could read it in his stance, in his smell, in the chemicals coming off him and his dilated pupils, in his twitchy fists. A big part of what de Becker teaches is that your good manners, your unwillingness to trust your gut, your fear of offending the lunatic in front of you, will get you hurt. Sometimes, it will get you killed.

I was about to turn tail and hijack it out of there (no salad for me) when the manager of Chop’t swooped in and asked if I was OK. I informed him that I most certainly was not. Meanwhile, Red’s temper is escalating by the second. At this point, the manager put his arm around me and escorted me to the very front of the salad station, leaving Red and his lady friend to work out their issues. He deposited me at the salad maker closest the the register and asked me what happened. I explained, and he said he’d watch to make sure I got out of the restaurant ok.

I ordered my salad, paid, and got the hell out of there, checking behind me to make sure Red wasn’t following. As soon as I was a block away I burst into tears (I regret nothing).

So I’m fine. My salad was delicious. I have an undying respect and affection for the manager of Chop’t at 17th street. But here’s what’s haunting me: the woman he was with. Yes, she acted like a real bitch, but I can’t help imagining her life. If this is how he rects to a stranger who wants to bypass him on the salad line, how does he react to her when she wants to do anything he deems unacceptable? What would have happened if she’d told him to calm down? What will the rest of her day be like? What’s going to happen to her tonight?

I wish her well, is what I’m trying to say. I hope she’s OK.

But my gut tells me otherwise.

A Petunia By Any Other Name

I don’t have a nickname (unless you count “Stef,” which I do not). I’ve been trying to make “Scully” happen for years now. Alas, just like “fetch,” it’s not going to happen.

But when I was very small, I was my father’s Sweet Petunia. And it suited me then, all chubby cheeks and giggles. I’m pretty open about the fact that my relationship with him was complicated, and this nickname represents a big part of that. Long after he lost any right to call me anything at all, he still persisted in using this nickname, and it infuriated me. When I finally cut off all contact with him, I dumped Petunia, too.

Enter Alice Walker.

This sounds far too hokey to be true, but I first encountered Walker’s poem “Revolutionary Petunia” painted on the wall of a building down the street from the office where I saw my first therapist.

Yes, really.

Painted huge on a brick wall, in purple, the words adorned with flowers:

The nature of this flower is to bloom.
Rebellious. Living.
Against the elemental crush.
A song of color
Blooming
For deserving eyes.
Blooming gloriously
For its self.

The first time I saw it I stopped dead in the street, gobsmacked, and I thought, “Oh yeah? Fuck you, Alice Walker.”  I gave it the finger every time I passed it, through 2 years of therapy. Then I switched therapists and didn’t have to see it anymore.

I think what made me so angry was that I couldn’t possibly imagine a time when I would bloom gloriously, least of all for myself. My whole life was elemental crush, and I had been lying there taking it for so long, I truly didn’t know that I had it in me to do anything else.

This past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about Sweet Petunia, 6 years old, with a curly mop of hair and tremendous brown eyes. Full of mischief, full of love. I know it has everything to do with Emerson being 6, and coming face-to-face with what 6 knows and feels. She fascinates me, this younger self, in the the same way photos of the Titanic before it sailed do. I want to yell down the years at her, and warn her where the ice is.

But life is full of surprises, and here’s what’s most surprising of all: somewhere along the line, I reclaimed her, this small girl with her heart and hopes intact. She used to be inextricably entwined with my father, but I’ve found a way to pry her out of his arms. She’s mine now, and she’s brought with her a fresh peace, pale green, with sturdy roots and the smell of rich earth.

When she wasn’t looking

I had breakfast with a girlfriend this morning, at a place in Chelsea called The Grey Dog’s Coffee. The Grey Dog’s is the kind of snug, romantic, fairy light-strung coffeehouse where it always feels like it’s raining outside. Chet Baker, or something that wishes it was Chet Baker, plays on the sound system. All the baristas are warm and attractive, and you absolutely would love to go see their play or hear their band, if they asked you to.

My friend is about a decade younger than I am, but between her old soul and my, uh, youthful vivaciousness (persistent adolescence? excellent skin? talented hair colorist? love of Mumford & Sons? carefully selected and terribly expensive foundation garments?) we hardly ever notice. But now and then, the conversation turns to the kinds of subjects where experience counts, and I feel compelled to swallow hard and tell the truth.

This morning, we chatted our way through work, and mutual friends, and apartments — my husband and I are buying one in Brooklyn, where she and her boyfriend are thinking about moving — and finally our talk wound its way to kids. My kid, Emerson, specifically, and her upcoming ballet recital and the school where she will go to first grade in September. My girlfriend loves kids, and wants some — you know, eventually. She has all the normal fears and reservations, but tells me that spending time with me, and listening to me talk about Emerson, makes her feel better about the whole thing. That she’s impressed by how I’ve hung on to so much of myself, how I still have interests and talk about non-kid things. How I still have a life.

While she told me all this, I kept glancing over her shoulder at one of the posters hanging on the wall.

The Time Has Changed When She Wasn't Looking

It reads “the time has changed when she wasn’t looking.”

The thing is, I still have a life, but not the one I used to. I used to hang out in places like Grey Dog’s all the time. Sometimes I’d sit for hours, reading a book or writing in my journal. I’d stay up much too late, and sleep in, and buy whatever I wanted, and make sloppy mistakes, and kiss the wrong men, and none of it mattered all that much, not really. There was time, time to get it right, to correct course, and I was accountable to no one but myself. And then there was Jon, my husband, and then there was Emmy, and now everything — everything —  feels too impermanent, too fragile, too exquisitely joyous and vulnerable, all at once.

No one tells you how it’s not so much that life changes, but you change in it. Because it’s too heartbreaking to explain, and anyway, you’d never believe it if anyone tried to make you understand. She wasn’t looking for advice really, maybe just some kind of reassurance, and  I felt I owed her something real. So what I told her is that, when you have a kid, it’s the end of the time in your life when you casually sit for hours in a place where jazz plays and you imagine you can hear rain on the roof, even on a sunny spring morning. It’s the end of late nights that edge into morning in loud dark bars, the end of reading for hours on end on a snowy Sunday morning. Not because of the baby, or needing a sitter, or money, or tiredness. It’s partly that, but it’s also because the time for that is done, and now you have other things to do, new priorities, responsibilities, people to account for, people you’re accountable to.

It’s just that the time has changed, when you weren’t looking.

Sign of the Times

There’s been a huge online kerfuffle over the changing of the zodiac, but I couldn’t be happier about it.

Until yesterday, I was a Taurus — stubborn, lazy, possessive, materialistic, self-indulging. But also, dependable, persistent, loyal, patient and generous.

In many cases, far too loyal, patient and generous.

But now I am an Aries — independent, optimistic, enthusiastic and courageous. Still generous. It’s not all up-with-people — my new sign also means I’m moody, short tempered, self-involved, impulsive and impatient.

I’ll take it.

Because the truth is, I’m a different person than I was just six months ago. This new sign feels like part of the package.

My father died last summer. My biological father. My abusive, estranged biological father, whom I hadn’t spoken to in almost a decade. The father who had shamed me, hurt me, abandoned me, all while telling me he loved me. The father who dated women so young, he told me their GPA. (Well, that only happened once, and for the record, my GPA was higher.) The father who had shirked his child support, who had cheated on my mother, and stolen from her.

He left me everything. Part of it in trust. And more than making me his sole beneficiary, he made me his executor, which gave me complete access to him — his money and property, yes, but also his papers, his photo albums, his diaries. The dishes in his cabinets, the shoes in his closet.

For these past months, I’ve been sorting through all of this, and the feelings I have for him. My mother and stepfather have been incredible, amazing, so kind and loving and helpful, I hardly know how to begin to thank them. Since July 0f 2010, with their help, I’ve buried my father, and dedicated his tombstone. I’ve cleaned out his New York apartment, and claimed the one in Florida. I’ve transfered his bank accounts, signed papers, dealt with lawyers and accountants. And I have begun to deal with him — with his broken dreams and loneliness, with his ambition and delusion, with his cruelty and vulnerability. It’s all there, in the songs he wrote and never sold. The love letters, all filled with lies, he never sent. The carefully kept scrapbooks. The photos he saved of my mother, so young and beautiful at 24 it takes your breath away, and of me, round and smiling at 6, awkward at 11, lovely but broken at 14.

He was a Leo. He’s still a Leo.

But I’m something new.

They say when a parent dies, something in you dies too. In my case, what’s died is my fear. My fear of him finding me, of him blowing up my life again with a cutting remark or a look that freezes me. And with it, my shame, my need to hide.

The day he died, I went home early from work, and that night, when I tucked my daughter into bed, I sang her the Beatles “Blackbird” for the first time. It’s since become one of her favorite lullabies, and we sing it together most nights now:

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
all your life
you were only waiting for this moment to be free

So why not? If I can be a sky-soaring blackbird, I can also choose to embrace myself as an optimistic, courageous, mountain-scaling ram.

Farewell, Taurus. I’m an Aries now.

Juliet at 41

balloon dog

This is a love story, which begins, as these things so often do, with a (paraphrased) line from The Fantasticks:

There is this boy.

He’s a man now, but when I knew him, when I loved him, he was a boy. We were teenagers, in the late 1980s, in a suburban town in Westchester, NY. He was good-natured and darkly mischievous, politically active in a parent-friendly way, with a goofy sense of humor and a talent with words. He wrote howling, non-rhyming poems and knew how to make balloon animals. He tangled his hands in my hair when we kissed. Let’s call him LL.

I was dramatic and intense, filled with longing, powerful and terrified as only a teenage girl can be. I was beautiful but didn’t know it, and dyed my black hair red. I drove a 1975 forest green Coupe deVille, smoked Parliaments, and worshiped Holden Caulfield. I collected original Broadway cast recordings and knew all the songs from Evita, West Side Story and Gypsy. I had a thing for singer/songwriters from the ‘70s and kept a journal. There was a Deadhead sticker on my Cadillac.

In the fall of 1986, I was a high school senior, LL was a junior, and my boyfriend had just left for college. I was lonesome and restless, and LL was intriguing and close at hand. Before the leaves were off the trees, we were making out with a vengeance in the TV room of his parents’ house.

I had intended for him to fill my time between visits from the boyfriend. Instead, I fell utterly, ecstatically, in love with him.

Here’s what I mean. Years after our relationship ended—and it ended, as these things so often do, with tears and cruelty—I was given a class assignment, to write a piece in the style of James Agee’s A Death in the Family. Here’s part of it:

But I am speaking now of the boy, of the spring I was 18. I am speaking of the rushing river filled with round stones that shrank to a thirsty trickle as that spring became summer and summer grew cold, and most of all of the bridge that crossed it in a most ordinary way, made of rough wood, never intended to be beautiful.

I could tell you how to reach this place, offer directions that would lead you from the Taconic Parkway to U.S. Route 202, tell you where to make the right hand turn that leads you into the park. I could explain the precise location of the tennis courts and the jungle gym, describe the running path you follow, and the smaller footpath that delicately splits from it.

You walk the footpath to reach the place, and on the first day he brought me there it was tentative, not yet full of summer-lush green and warm earth, not yet filled with hot air so moist it made me weep, not yet perfumed with lilacs and wildflowers and honey and something else too, the low brown aroma of animals and the yellow smell of pollen, scented so thickly my head would spin and I would want to run and stay at the same time and in trying to do both did neither, and instead would sit cross-legged in the center of that bridge and cover my face with my cool hands and listen to the insects roar, the droning and buzzing so loud and claustrophobic I felt as if I were shimmering with it, shimmering in tune and rhythm with that place, shimmering as if I had green and gold dappled wings.

I could tell you how to find that place, and you could pick your way among the rushes and weeds along the footpath and emerge at the rough bridge that crosses the river, and yet I cannot truly take you there, not even if I took your hand and led you to the center of the bridge, not even if I gently placed my index finger under your vulnerable chin and tilted your head back, lifted your gaze to show you the two trees whose branches reach across, high above, embracing from either bank.

I cannot truly take you there because though I still know the location as surely as I know the shape of my own pale body, I lost the place when I lost the boy who brought me there, to its heat and iridescence.

But I am speaking now of the time when I did belong to this place, when with a touch I could be turned languid gold, a creature that not only knew how to fly, but also never doubted her right to flight.

He wasn’t my first love, or my first lover—although I was his, which gave me a shivering, territorial thrill. We were in and out of each other’s lives for years, sometimes while I was unencumbered, and sometimes while I was involved with another man. For as many times as I swore I was done with him, I’d fall into his arms when he appeared.

The end came in two parts. Part 1: I got married in July of 1993, and cheated on my husband with LL in April of 1994. The marriage was a mistake. I knew it, but I refused to leave. Part 2: The marriage fell apart, as it was destined to, in 1998. LL emailed to say he’d heard from a mutual friend, and he hoped I was all right. He wrote of his wonderful wife, and his splendid marriage, and his growing career. Knowing him as I did, I understood exactly what he meant. He wouldn’t be back.

We never spoke again. And even though he wasn’t mine, I felt the loss of him acutely. I grieved losing the possibility of him for a very long time. Much longer than I should have.

I did the things you do, after a divorce and heartbreak—therapy, the gym, dating, travel, exfoliation. I didn’t permanently turn into Brooklyn’s version of Miss Havisham, wearing a tattered flannel shirt and listening to Harry Chapin’s Sequel on repeat until I passed out drunk (that only happened a few times).

It was never my ex-husband I ached for. Not once.

In the summer of 2000 I bought camping equipment from a writer named Jonathan, who was making rent working at Eastern Mountain Sports. He had hazel eyes and a hiker’s muscular legs, and I was so taken with him I heard the Pixies singing Here Comes Your Man in my head while he assembled my new tent. We got married in 2004, and I gave birth to our daughter a year later.

Once, over a bottle of wine, a girlfriend and I got to talking of lost love, and I told her about LL. She asked if I had looked for him online. I emphatically assured her I had not. I didn’t want to know anything about him, what I imagined to be his celebrated life and his many robust children and his faithful wife. But, I admitted, there was one thing I hoped. I hoped he thought of me. I hoped he pined. Just a little.

I never did give in to Google’s temptations, but I thought about him. It was hard not to, once Gen X discovered Facebook. People I thought long gone started tumbling back into my life. First came all the kids from drama club, with their charm and sweetness; then the kids from performing arts summer camp, with their many accomplishments; then the kids from college, with their productive lives; and then the kids I didn’t actually get along with but who had developed affection for all the people they used to torture.

And then, when I had truly stopped expecting it, came LL.

The message was brief, written in all lowercase letters. I immediately thrust my BlackBerry in Jonathan’s direction and choked out, “Old boyfriend! Boyfriend on facebook!” I dropped onto the couch and studied the message intently. All lowercase, like an ee cummings poem. Was this on purpose? Did he remember how much I loved ee cummings? He wrote, in part, “…still not good at…this. you know.” I do know. Of course I know. And I am gone again, just seeing his name. Driving barefoot on a hot summer day. The smell of lilacs and fresh cut grass. Cat Stevens on the stereo. A gentle bite on the back of my neck.

“You OK?” Jon asked.

I held the message up for him to see again, “What do you think this means?”

He shrugged, “Who knows?”

“But I’m married! It is clear on Facebook that I am married!”

“That’s never stopped you before.”

I glared at him, or tried to. He looked back at me, really looked at me, without judgement, without fear, the way he always has. Jon knows this story, of course. I told him this story years ago.

“You know what?” I said.

“What?”

“He pines. Just a little.”

“Oh honey,” Jon said. “Of course he does.”

Someone once said there are only two love stories—Romeo & Juliet and Antony & Cleopatra. The first is wildness, urgency and inevitable devastation. The second is a match of equals. It is wisdom’s embrace, an understanding between already-broken and healed hearts, sexual ferocity that’s forged in letting go.

LL is my Romeo. And Romeo, with his fevered desire and hungry poetry, dies young. Years later, when you have silver in your black hair, it’s impossible to casually call him friend.

It’s impossible.

And yet.

Knowing he reached for me again tears me up in ways I can’t begin to understand or explain. It makes me lonely, specifically lonely, for him. For his hands, and the taste of salt in the curve of his neck, for his voice in the dark. And the truth is, reaching back feels natural, as natural as entwined tree branches over a quiet bridge.

I won’t, though. I can’t. Because my life now is a good thing, made whole by promises kept and the comforts of home. So I’m not going to write back. I’m not going to click, “Add as Friend.” But I confess: I’m never going to delete his message, either.

Not ever.