Dear you,

Well after all that monumental pressure to send you an email, I doubt any email can live up to all these expectations!  But you had best learn that you don’t tell a writer to send you an email that is in any way about memory and expect it to be something short, or simple…

Seriously, though, I’m not really sure what you want to me to say; a lot of my life was a blur for a long time, and my memory just isn’t all that great, and when I try to remember things I probably end up making half the details up. I mean, anytime you try to write something, to put a whole picture together from a long time ago or even not so long ago, it’s never really “true” anyway – it’s only ever one perspective, one incomplete perspective, and memory plays tricks.  And putting it in writing is even worse – all this other stuff leaks around the edges and involves itself. It’s nothing like a photograph at all, memory – and the things that stick probably stick only because they they snagged themselves on some signifier or other memory or emotion, got imbued with some larger significance somehow, for whatever reason. So half of what makes a memory a memory instead of something lost probably depends on things that weren’t even happening, but rather things that had just happened, or were about to happen, or were going on behind the scenes or in somebody’s head.

So it’s like I was telling you, on the phone, when you asked me what I remembered about you, and I didn’t even know where i was going to end up once I started trying to put things into words; I don’t think I realized until I tried to explain it that one of the best words I could come up with to capture something of what I remember of that night is “still.”  As in, being still, not running, not frantic.  I don’t mean to imply that I don’t remember anything except what was in my head, that I forgot everything else or anything that involved movement or nervousness, but everything else is scraps and flashes – kissing you, or your closet full of shoes and random detritus with a slice of pizza incongruously residing under an old jacket, or Jen and i kneeling at the end of the bed with you stretched out between us, shirtless but still in your torn jeans, or how keenly aware I was, even then, even that young myself, of our youth, for one long moment. I don’t think this is the weight of time and knowledge coloring in the lines from old memories – I think this is legitimate memory, the sense that would strike me every once in a while, even then, of how underneath all the gritty romance drama and punk music and hair dye and mosh pits and boots and broken teeth and broken hearts and endless bottles of cheap liquor, that people were so terribly fragile, that time was so mercilessly slow to a kid trapped in an untenable living situation but nevertheless just went too fast and took its toll before you even had a chance to grasp these moments in their immediacy.  I think I’ve always had that sense, that odd relationship with time, that sad/sweet sort of sense even in the middle of a moment that part of me was already turning it into a memory and mourning its loss. It isn’t getting any better the older i get.

But I know that there were many nights when I fell asleep with my cheek next to the fuzzy parts of Jen’s growing-out mohawk, aware of my having two different images of her in my mind or head or heart at the same time – one, of a smart, pretty, and much more world-wise girl who knew and had seen so much more than I had, sense-memories piled on top of each other, of seeing her in black velvet leaning against the wall of the Coffeehouse, of watching rob pick her up like she was a doll, of my amazing luck that she was paying any attention to me, of her telling Nick to go to hell and grabbing my hand to drag me out of his lap, of all her eyelinered beauty and courage and liquid-eyed soul and her tiny, red mouth.  But another aware of how unbelievably soft and vulnerable the skin on her belly was, of how nonchalant she was about warning me not to sleep in the same room as her father or let him get in bed with me, of how the medical bills were an ever-present worry, of how those blue veins under the white skin of her breasts made her look so fragile, so mortal, of how all the years of living she’d condensed into a few months were already taking their toll, even if it was hard to see yet.  I spent a lot more nights and days with her than I did with you, so I have a lot more disconnected images and sense-memories of her.  But I had the same sense of double vision, I think, for at least a few moments, with you, this almost incongruous layering of images and sense-memories that made my mind still, at least, that made me notice — when I felt the skin over your collarbone against my lips, when I felt your fingers on the small of my back, when I saw the way the skin crinkled a tiny bit around your eyes when you squeezed them shut.  It’s hard to describe, and it sounds wrong to invoke your fragility – that’s not quite right.  I’ve never gotten a sense of fragility from you, not from when we were kids (and I swear my mom was babysitting you one time and you put a pea up your nose, do you remember that?  Did I invent that?), not from hearing you had survived a gunshot wound to the stomach, not from seeing you in crowds and mosh pits, not from watching you interact with other people. And so certainly not when your skin was close, a reality, not when I felt the contrast between Jen’s small white fingers and your thicker, rougher ones, not when you stilled, listening, for a long second when she said “I’m not supposed to be doing this,” not when I knelt between your thighs and spread my hands across your stomach. It wasn’t exactly a fragility I felt when I felt the heat and the weight of you – but somehow in the tangle of limbs and hair and sweat and lips, it was a stillness, maybe even a sadness, certainly something of my own mortality and the never-satisfied sense that even in those moments when there was no way to feel more alive, it was always already ending.

Of course context matters, never more than when trying to put memories to words, and it would be dishonest to say that part of what made that encounter so hot wasn’t that it felt stolen, unrepeatable, even a little secretive, certainly an only-ever-once-just-this-one-night.  The novelty of being a homeless street punk wore off after about the first 48 hours, and things had quickly begun to feel sad and not a little desperate and I was most definitely tired of smelling bad and peeing in the woods and stealing french fries off dirty tables in McDonald’s and being broke.  The novelty of ditching the mental hospital with Shane and Shane had worn off when they both ditched me, a few hours after we escaped through the woods, and the novelty of keeping company with cute but dumb skinheads wore off sometime around the time he pulled out a little of my hair and bruised my jaw, forcing my head down on his cock in what passed for his idea of sex.  I soon came to realize that he wasn’t going to save me, that Jen wasn’t going to save me, that in fact nobody was going to save me, it didn’t work like that, and I was going to have to figure out what to do all on my own. I’d run away from my dad, who had gotten pretty good at terrorizing me and knocking me around; I’d run away from the bullshit hospital where the mind-fuck bullshit games were almost worse than getting knocked around; I’d run and I’d run and I’d run and I was pretty much running out of ideas and hope.  Sex very quickly went from being a fun, frequently casual way of passing the time to being something that was expected of me in exchange for favors (or something I had to be on my guard about, whether around Jen’s father or in the mental hospital or even around certain of my “friends” when they knew I had nowhere else to go and no way to get there anyway), and I was getting mighty sick of relying on other people for favors.  There were a few exceptions, a few times when I felt like I was not just a party favor but a person – Jen and Rob were exceptions. She spent time with, talked to, touched, kissed, all of me, not just the parts of me that were of immediate interest; Rob never touched me at all, not during all of this complicated stuff.  I don’t know why not – I would have slept with him, and in fact I did, later, down the road – but when things were starting to get screwy and both legally and emotionally exhausting, he drove us around and found food for us and found places for us to stay and I never got the sense that it was just a question of time before he’d make me pay for it.

So to be completely honest, by the time we got to your place that night, I was tired, and not just physically.  I know I’ve said that in retrospect, I’ve kind of wondered what it would have been like to have had you all to myself that night, but to be honest, if Jen hadn’t been there I probably wouldn’t have had any of you at all, so to speak.  I don’t know if I would have been capable of having sex with a man without mentally checking out of the entire situation, on my own.  I really doubt I would have made the first move; I was and am a fairly sex-positive person, and I’m not into mind games or manipulation, and I think sex between friends without all the Major Life Altering Accoutrements and Relationship Structures is a fine, positive, healthy thing if that is what everybody involved is on board for.  I liked you and I thought you were hot.  But I was tired and pleasure had fallen far, far down my list of priorities over the preceding weeks, and my sense of the future, my sense of even having a future, was fading fast. I was starting to feel like a toy, or a punching bag, and I was tired of being around people who weren’t even going to pretend that they’d remember my name later, from whom I didn’t even warrant the simplest of polite fictions.  I had an APB out on me and no good options on my plate, and I’d just about forgotten what it felt like to relax, never mind to sleep for more than 3 hours.

So I don’t know what it was – maybe that Jen had a keen sense of situations and people and so I felt alright following her lead, or maybe that my curiosity about you got the better of me, or maybe that you gave us something to eat and weren’t acting like you expected a blow job as your god-given right in exchange for a can of spaghetti-o’s, or maybe that for all I knew, I would be dead in a week or so and might as well, or maybe some combination of all that.  But what I do know, what I do remember, is that when Jen talked, you actually listened.  I don’t remember if I even said a single word, but I know that when I touched you, you felt it.  I don’t remember the order of events, but I know that you were interacting with us rather than directing the entire thing according to your pre-established script.  I don’t remember who took your clothes off, but I do remember you lying there, stretched out between the two of us, still for a moment, and that it was a strangely beautiful tableau even in the near-dark.  I don’t remember who kissed whom first, but I know I trembled a little when I leaned over you and took you in my mouth and Jen slid those quick little fingers into me.  I can’t remember for the life of me how the three of us fit onto your bed, but I know that even having felt the weight and strength of you, I fell asleep unafraid of you.  I can’t remember if I said anything out loud, but I know I was afraid you’d go too fast – for all the several self-deprecating jokes I’ve heard you make about penis size, you must know that you could really hurt a smaller woman who isn’t ready for you, right? Surely someone has told you this about yourself?  So I don’t recall who did what to whom in what order, but I know that you must have been attentive to my reactions, because I know you didn’t hurt me (though I know I could feel that you’d been inside me even longer than I could catch your scent lingering on my skin, the next day).  I don’t remember the sleeping arrangements, but I know I actually slept.  So while this all may be a long way of saying that what really sticks with me is that you were present, and genuine, and beautiful, it’s hard to explain *what that memory is like* or what it meant without giving you the context, from my perspective. Is that even making sense?

I’ve never been a champagne-and-roses type of girl – I’d probably laugh at somebody that showed up with champagne and roses.  I like sex, and I don’t need it to be delicate and coy, and I don’t need people to promise their undying love or even that they’ll ever call me again in order to have a good time.  I have been with a lot of people in my time (before becoming a mother drastically and apparently permanently changed my social life and sex life) – enough that I don’t tell people how many, because if they didn’t grow up in the type of scene that we did, they would not understand *at all.*  I like it sweaty and real and sometimes even a little rough.  But I do need it to be honest – even if honesty means it’s a one-time thing or even a drunken booty-call.  I don’t have any patience for drama or lies or head-games, and I think a lot of my willingness to be really blunt about that sort of thing was born in those weeks of my getting handed around and traded off.  I don’t think sex and love need each other to be.  But I do think there’s not much point in having sex with someone who isn’t really there, who won’t really look you in the eye, who doesn’t want to be looked in the eye, who can’t be aware and in tune and respond and interact at the appropriate level.  I might as well just do it by myself if that is all there’s going to be.  So when I say I need somebody to look me in the eye, to really be there and pay attention, I am not invoking any kind of romance novel bullshit. But I am talking about being with somebody who can be real, who can communicate, even if that communication is non-verbal, somebody whose touch is genuine.  And yours was.

And that has stuck with me, that with you, for a couple of hours, I had some stillness.  That you were real.  And that it was the kind of stillness that I could so easily miss, that I had before so easily missed so many times, in the usual chaos and noise and disorder of my life.  So I’m sorry I can’t really remember any long conversations, that I can’t really say I feel like we ever got to know each other all that welI. I can’t tell you it was the most mind-blowing sex ever, and I can’t tell you I’ve replayed it in my mind a hundred times – I don’t have enough pieces of that night in order to replay anything anyway.  I can’t tell you I’m sorry you didn’t ask me to stay another night; I’m not sure we didn’t go to New Orleans the next day, or whether you had a girlfriend at the time, or if you were still in school or had a job, or if I didn’t go back to that asshole skinhead the next afternoon, or if I was falling in love with Jen and afraid to let her go too far without me, or what.  Within a week or two of that night, homelessness and hunger and strep throat had beat my ass and I turned myself in and spent another six or so months in the nuthouse.  I never forgot about you, and I wondered over the years what had become of you —  I asked about you on the coffeehouse yahoo group in 2004, when I joined it, before my daughter went into the hospital and I ran into your dad, and I think Angel told me you were in Birmingham and married with a kid.  And I was happy to hear you were alive and well, and I figured we’d never talk again.  And now that we have, and now that you want me to unpack and put into words an episode from one of the darker and more unpleasant and complicated periods of my life, I have to say that I don’t really understand why I’m letting you ask this of me, why I’m responding.  To be completely honest, I’m not even sure why I keep on answering the phone when you call.  Obviously I answer it because I want to talk to you, but this whole thing comes pre-packaged with a bunch of layers and associations that make it a little more psychically complex than just friendship/drinking buddies catching up type of thing.  So part of me wants to ask, Why are you doing this to me?  And part of me feels a little guilty for having such an unkind and slightly unreasonable thought, and then another part is afraid you’d peg such a thing as a bizarre over-reaction, and then most of the rest of me is poised to get really indignant if you were to voice such an opinion and let you have it with both barrels.  So there you have it – this long, bizarre and totally one-sided conversation I’m having with myself, in my head, about you.  This is all your fault.  Happy?  You are free to be part of the conversation, but I’ll probably keep having it even if you don’t take part.

And to be honest, this isn’t all your fault.  Part of why my nerves are raw right now, in addition to just having spent a couple of hours typing this email-trip-through-memory-lane, is because I’ve been feeling pretty weird lately about other people’s memories of me.  It’s a fool’s errand to seek out any real image of yourself through the perspectives of others, but sometimes the dissonance is shocking.  Maybe it’s just from having known more than my fair share of poets and frantically creative types, but I stick to people somehow, sometimes, and it leads to familiarities that are painfully and utterly unfamiliar somehow.  My stalker cred went gold when someone out there, from a long time ago, changed his last name to mine, ten years after we’d even kissed.  People write poems about me.  I got five pages of blank verse in 1991 from someone who’d seen fit to walk up to me and punch me in the face at work in 1990.  I got him back by tricking him into letting me tie him up when he was fucked up, and I carved my name into his leg with a razor blade.  So maybe some of that is my fault.  But it’s not just from him, the images, the poetry.  Someone I had a class with five years ago sent me one he wrote about me last year, or rather about something I’d written, just this week.  Amazing, the tenderness in it. I never even fucked him.  It’s really about a poem I’d written, I guess, not about me, but the distinction there has never been easy either. The intimacy is almost obscene, enough to make my skin crawl.  Something about me, or my words, sticks to some people sometimes, but it seems to stick in such a way that it leaves marks, and splinters, and scars, maybe like fiberglass – you wish you could let go, you wish you’d never touched.  And it starts to feel like I’m only ever kept around as a relic, a memento, a strange stretch of anapest or a creased photo in the back of an old college dictionary.  I’m wrapped up in cobwebs and sepia tones and the dry-rotted fibers of old shadow box bedding, safe to hold on to through layers like that, but only through layers like that.  My skin grows thinner, drier, more like paper; faint blue veins assert themselves through a growing translucence.   In person, I am so rarely touched that a gentle brush of thumb across my cheekbone leaves a deep-bruise ache. I don’t know if it’s because, in person, I’m simply too much, or if it’s because, in person, I’m simply not enough.  Or maybe it’s just that my relationship with the past has never been quite… right… and the only thing wrong with me is my own perspective, my own memory; but it does make it complicated to be asked for that memory, because that sort of thing is never simple, and never easy, either.