Sexless in the City

Sometimes reading romance novels doesn’t quite prepare you for a love life...

For this 30-year-old urbanite, love is always a misadventure: The Harvard Lickwit, Hippie the Groper, the 5% Man, and the Ad Weasel. These and many other men wander in and out of her life — but never her bed.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The pain that lingers so sweetly

Memoir-writing’s an interesting way to rediscover those stories you quit telling five years ago. One thing I’d forgotten was just how much Etta James informed my letter-writing to Musical Man. In fact, I’m convinced she basically taught me how to pine. No one in those romance novels I read had to do it; their loves all worked out in the end. But when I listen to her album again all old emotions are gone. The songs don’t transport me back to high school; they just surprise me with how powerfully the lyrics must have shaped a suggestible mind.

It isn’t always like that with music I’ve played oft enough to earn some rhino love. Sometime in mid-college, I used Jars of Clay to help me recover from a boy — this another musician, my crush on whom went through me like food poisoning. I barely remember what it was I liked about him, or how the pining went, I just recall recovery. “I will never,” I vowed at the time, “like someone like that again.” Today I could probably play that Jars album, and no feeling would resurface. But one day in college I gave it a spin and was shocked how all those old feelings, so wedded to tune, came back to haunt me. One play, and suddenly I was transported back to that broken emotional state.

I vaguely remember the songs that got me through the Married Man. There was Barenaked Ladies’ “Baby Seat,” and much Fiona Apple. But neither that song nor her albums have much trace feeling when I play them now. And I don’t think it’s just the time that’s passed, or having pressed other emotions into those tracks (which sometimes reclaims the music like time does). Somehow all that pain has passed right through me.

The night after my return from California, Guy Friend #1 and I braved the rain driving down at 45 degrees to take in a Johnnie Walker whiskey tasting not far from the Holland Tunnel entrance — right about the same neighborhood where the Captain’s car was robbed one night we all tried to take in a swank art party. During the tasting, our brainwasher — erm, tasting guide — instructed us to splash some whiskey on our hands, rub them quickly together, then smell the scent that remained, now the alcohol had vaporized.

In a way, that scent-free-of-alcohol is much like how I remember those 18 months when I had such misery over the Married Man. It’s actually almost a struggle now, reminding myself how intensely I felt and how dark that season was. At the time I remember it tasted just like the sharp, bitter tang of an alcohol almost like bile. But now there is just the warm, oaky scent on my hands of the lessons I learned because of that pain; the good seeds that sprang up precisely because they were sown in a massive pile of shit. With that first crush the suffering hardened me — and haunted, through the music I’d infected with that pain. But with Married Man, I just let the pain pass through me until that storm of suffering (emotionally) was over.

My pastor often says this about forgiveness — when pain is inflicted and wrong is done, someone must pay the debt. Either you make the wrongdoer pay (through revenge), or you make others like that one pay (through prejudice toward that class of person), or you pay the debt yourself (which is forgiveness). In the first two cases, the poison that hurt you infects you and tends to harden, embitter and stop up the flow of life. The reason forgiveness hurts so much is you’re taking the poison into yourself so your body can break it apart and dismantle the death.

That season of liking the Married Man was 18 months of agony, and sometimes I really saw why one might escape it all in suicide. At one time, perhaps, it might seem I could only recall such pain with the lubricant of much alcohol. But now I am almost glad to retell that story — not because I’m a masochist, but because of the growth that sprang up in the soil of such agony. I can’t separate the sweet scent on my hands from the alcohol it started with. The growth is so intertwined with the pain that I can’t wish that suffering never happened. Without it I would have never had this sweet smell on my hands and in my life — and the fruit that resulted is more precious to me than a life lived with fewer wounds.

That’s how love has been revenge in my life: Oh whiskey, where is your alcohol? Oh pain, you have scarred but not marred.