A place in my body

“This violence, and the constant betrayal Lucy describes, I can feel it in the pit of my stomach.

This place inside me, it seems to hold memories that don’t belong to me. There is rage here, deep in my cells. And fear, too, for what it means to be a woman in this world.

Sometimes, when Lucy talks, there is a place in my body that knows.”

~ Maggie, The Memory of Stars

Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

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Aware

I can’t say when I am first aware of her.  When she stands out from the crush of people I navigate every morning on the way to work. Perhaps it is when I return to a five-day week, when I heal enough to attempt a routine. Once you notice someone, you can’t remember when you didn’t. It is this way with her. With the woman who stares at me from over the coffee she tentatively sips each morning. Always the slight grimace with the first taste, an odd little reaction when others seem to sigh into their first hit of the day. Maybe this is what I notice first, the way she drinks her coffee. And then, of course, the way she stares, the way she smiles and looks away too fast. How can you tell if a smile meets the eyes, when the person looks away too soon?

It is clear that she knows who I am. People have no idea how unsubtle they are. The little nudges, the whispers that really aren’t. It is far easier to manage the strange boldness of those who come up to me directly, who say I saw you on the TV and make no secret of their agenda. These people, I can hold their gaze, or drop mine, as I let them stake their claim. I saw you on the TV, and – the story is different for each person who accosts me. Some want me to know what happened to them, some want to offer their god or advice. Others want to scold, and then offer god or advice.

But she does neither of these things. This woman with dark hair who watches me every morning, who bites her lip as she stares down at the table between us. Whoever this woman is, she is sad. A sadness like this – like ours – it announces itself on a person, it walks them into every room. I can see this ache, this unwanted companion of hers, right from the start. Before I know her name. Before I know Maggie Valentine. This woman who is weighed down by her sorrow, and, I will soon discover, her secrets.

That’s the other thing about people, Ben. They think if they don’t look – you won’t see. But at the same time there they are, desperately wanting to be found out. It’s obvious, once you know. Every one of us silently saying – Come on, look a little closer. Look a little closer at me. Please. Not even knowing that they’re asking. Not yet understanding that we only hide the things we most want someone to find.

When Maggie Valentine cries and tells me you were her friend, I am not surprised. I see her sadness and her secrets, and I know this is just the beginning of a story that has been waiting to be told.

#

My insightful little Lucy, the wounded philosopher of The Memory of Stars. Still working out if what she says makes any kind of sense …

A conversation between friends (revisited)

“When the two people who thus discover that they are on the same secret road are of different sexes, the friendship which arises between them will very easily pass – may pass in the first half hour – into erotic love.”

– CS Lewis

Here, now, at a hotel bar. The transience of this place, a living in the moment when the rest of your life carries on outside. Talking through the wine, a gentle teasing, discussing hot-headed reactions and how the battles of two people are so finely played. Trying on friendship, letting it settle on the skin – this is your new thing. As lovers the relationship was a series of ellipsis, a trailing off when words were required. And now a chance to finish your sentences, to speak in the honest and open way of allies. You have put down your swords.

The room glows amber as you raise your glass to this new found alliance. You are friends. You are feeling your way and you are careful not to touch (though your knees list starboard).

“Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; friends hardly ever about their friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.”

– CS Lewis

You want to understand his views on God and family. “What did your mother teach you?” … “Do you fight with your wife?” “Is being a dad what you thought it would be?” … endless and earnest words flowing… “Venus came up out of the ocean, you know … and the problem with religion is it tells us men and women are fundamentally different, and don’t you want to fuck your equal?”“See, I’m not the same as you but I’m trying to understand a little”“Can I see a picture of-” … “How many times do you-” …

(Endless and earnest, yes – though some, still, are hard to say out loud).

He answers carefully, aware of this fragile accord. You are friends. You listen with a frozen smile. As lovers, you would have stopped his mouth.

Because the real question, the one that aches, comes last. You tell him you don’t have a ballast. An essential truth about who you are together.

“Tell me please” you ask, and the smile liquefies, “Tell me when you were most true with me?”

His answer is in moments like this, just sitting at a hotel bar together. It is all right here. And the physical, the times you leave the bar and move upstairs – it is just a manifestation of this feeling. This travelling down the same secret road. Two friends, side by side. Absorbed in each other.

And it’s lightening quick. Acknowledging the confluence of friends and lovers, before he orders his last glass.

You ask him to drink slowly. He assures that you will see each other in this way again. You say “grazie destino” but you are lying, because it will never be enough to meet at a hotel bar and drink slowly these one or three with a friend.

Who used to be your lover and moves upstairs, alone.

***

This isn’t fiction. Sometimes you just feel like telling the truth. When I first posted this, I left out the last line from the original piece, how it’s a lonely walk home when you don’t have anger at your side. I remember that walk, and how it wasn’t the last one I took with this man. Some lessons take much, much longer to learn …

Overture

It takes me three weeks. I can’t find the words, not even a single sound to encourage introduction. The closest moment was also the first, when I saw her there stirring the coffee a little too long. The rhythmic turning of the spoon, sleeves pulled down low over her hands, she never once looked up as I let this new reality sink in. Pale to the point of translucent, her skin was barely covering the cracks. I could see the blue of veins in her temple and the strain of neck when she took off her scarf. I couldn’t breathe. I should have just said hello right then, but I kept silent and came back every day.

She’s beautiful, Mack. In the way of an artist’s sketch, all lines and shading and the mere suggestion of form. Revealed beneath layers that would come off one by one as the weeks passed – the lowered cap, the padded jacket, the dark glasses finally removed. I kept coming back to find her. I survived the memorial at work and the slowing of stories in the news – the little pieces of you slipping away, because she was there, this woman on whom your whole life turned. We sat across from each other at this city café every morning and it was the only thing that slowed my heart to a tolerable beat.

Once, she looked up and I offered a smile, but we both looked away before it was finished. I might have never managed a word, there isn’t a single one I could make fit until the day they accidently bring me her change.

I’m sorry this isn’t for me I say as the waitress sets down the plate and coins, I mean thank you but

Lucy Mason looks up from the next table. That’s for me, I think – she reaches over and holds my gaze a second too long before flushing red and looking down. I feel as if I’m about to fall. It is the look of somebody who knows.

A minute and then softly, without looking up – Do I know you?

What? Oh. Ahhh. No. I – and still I have no idea what to say.

When she finally looks up I am fixed with an inscrutable stare. Cerulean eyes – is that the last thing you saw? I can feel you all through me as I take a deep breath and hold out my hand.

I’m sorry if I have been … well I didn’t know what to say, but I’m sorry if I’m bothering you. It’s just …

Lucy’s expression has not changed, she is betrayed only by a pulse at her throat. My hand stays suspended between us and she does not move to take it.

I don’t want to cause any trouble, I promise. I’m just … it’s just … Benjamin Mackintosh – Mack – was my friend.

And then of course I burst into tears. My friend, my lover, what kind of truth could I say right now to have this woman understand? This woman who has been through a nightmare that sits right at the heart of mine. This woman you died trying to save. I have no idea what the fuck I am doing as she finally reaches over and takes my hand.

***

The other central relationship in this book of mine. Lucy in fact sits at the heart of everything.

Recognition

Our friendship is a triumph over suspicion. We’ve both been building barriers our whole lives and we court each other in kind. She forgives me for how we met because the relief is too strong, it hits us both, the immediate understanding that we are both connected and somehow in this, less alone.

All that we do not ask in the first tentative weeks, all that we do not say because the words are not yet ready to hit the light, will define it. We continue to meet every morning, we sit side by side and share the paper and pass the sugar. We barely speak. Shoulder to shoulder, the occasional leaning in. If we start to talk something will be broken. We both have too much locked up inside to risk the breach. But we sit together every day and the barriers start asking to fall.

By the time we get there, when we are finally ready to tell our stories, they will arrive as recognition, as reminders of what we already knew. We will trade histories that wind and weave through different tracks, occasionally coming close, sparking off each other before heading off in a different direction. Two lives in a city of millions that ran parallel at times, and the ignorance of each other’s existence until one morning when Lucy Mason goes for a run and I drop the coffee jar with a crack on the floor.

Here our lives stop and turn. We are oriented toward each other in this irrevocable moment, the gears changing on both of our lives, as her love and mine collide.

It will take months for the stories to surface. But for now we show up for coffee every morning before work, and on the weekends there is a type of longing until Monday swings back around. Thirty minutes that become the sanctuary of my day, the only place where I can hold you close, and feel that somehow, someway you are mine to keep.

You belong to both of our secrets now, Mack.

(An excerpt from the beginnings of the friendship between Maggie and Lucy – the woman Mack was trying to help when he died)

A conversation between friends

“When the two people who thus discover that they are on the same secret road are of different sexes, the friendship which arises between them will very easily pass – may pass in the first half hour – into erotic love.”

– CS Lewis

Here, now, at a hotel bar. The transience of this place, a living in the moment when the rest of your life carries on outside. Talking through the wine, a gentle teasing, discussing hot-headed reactions and how the battles of two people are so finely played. Trying on friendship, letting it settle on the skin – this is your new thing. As lovers the relationship was a series of ellipsis, a trailing off when words were required. And now a chance to finish your sentences, to speak in the honest and open way of allies. You have put down your swords.

The room glows amber as you raise your glass to this new found alliance. You are friends. You are feeling your way and you are careful not to touch (though your knees list starboard).

“Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; friends hardly ever about their friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.”

– CS Lewis

You want to understand his views on God and family. “What did your mother teach you?” … “Do you fight with your wife?” “Is being a dad what you thought it would be?” … endless and earnest words flowing… “Venus came up out of the ocean, you know … and the problem with religion is it tells us men and women are fundamentally different, and don’t you want to fuck your equal?”“See, I’m not the same as you but I’m trying to understand a little”“Can I see a picture of-” … “How many times do you-” …

(Endless and earnest, yes – though some, still, are hard to say out loud).

He answers carefully, aware of this fragile accord. You are friends. You listen with a frozen smile. As lovers, you would have stopped his mouth.

Because the real question, the one that aches, comes last. You tell him you don’t have a ballast. An essential truth about who you are together.

“Tell me please” you ask, and the smile liquefies, “Tell me when you were most true with me?”

His answer is in moments like this, just sitting at a hotel bar together. It is all right here. And the physical, the times you leave the bar and move upstairs – it is just a manifestation of this feeling. This travelling down the same secret road. Two friends, side by side. Absorbed in each other.

And it’s lightening quick. Acknowledging the confluence of friends and lovers, before he orders his last glass.

You ask him to drink slowly. He assures that you will see each other in this way again. You say “grazie destino” but you are lying, because it will never be enough to meet at a hotel bar and drink slowly these one or three with a friend.

Who used to be your lover and will move upstairs alone.

Friends and Lovers at body, remember