“This poem made me think of you, our relationship.”
He spun the book around and pushed it across the table. I read it twice but I did not hear it. I pushed the book back with a look of cautious despair. He read it to me, something about love sitting out to spoil like rotten meat.
Trust me when I say that I have devoted more hours to looking for that damn poem than I have spent pining over any man I have ever loved. I wanted the poem to bring closure to a relationship that never began, but I never found it.
• • •
Later in the semester we sat on the grass outside the English building and you understood why I loved Joyce and how Baldwin wrote about who I am. You let me read the German poet that made you write the strange poem you quoted to me. My hand touched your arm and I apologized, face flushed.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to touch you.”
“You can touch me anytime you want.”
He laughed. I smiled, then laughed, then knew that this was too dangerous to enjoy, but I did not move from where my back was flattening the grass until the clock chimed three for my meeting.
“See you later, boy.”
• • •
I saw him one more time before he graduated and moved to China, before I married the love of my life. I ran into him in the main academic building, and we were both surprised. I gave him a hug, and I meant it, but I needed it more than I wanted to give it, and we both felt the strain and the shame.
“Make sure you say goodbye to me before you leave, okay?”
He nodded. “I know.”
He did not say goodbye. I cried with sorrow, relief and an anger that I was too small to handle. I had prayed to the Lord that He would not let this dream run dry. He had blessed me with rare consent, so I drank it dry instead. My fascination with what I wanted to be and to have through him was too heavy for me to express and too hopeful for him to allow.
• • •
Sleeping with him ruined what he was to me. I wanted to cradle him in my palms, to watch him self-destruct with a freedom that I envied. Had I watched him from a distance, we both might have lived, but my greedy human nature craved that closer look. I looked and I took from his glow everything that I could. He was my life-size Stephen Daedalus, my living, breathing Kerouac.
The angry freedom that governed his being was too intriguing for me to resist. I burned my hands in that gleaming fire. I feel shame knowing the flame of his freedom was too much for my weak soul to bear. Sometimes I look at him now, looking for that fire, yearning for more of the freedom I tasted in his pretty writer’s eyes.
• • •
Maybe he burned as darkly and as freely as I remember. Maybe his rage and poetry and laugh were as true as I believed. But now, as I look back with my matured, conventional eyes, I do not see fire. I do not see freedom. I can barely see the rage. I see a young man who is still trying to grow into what I am most attracted to now.
Maybe I ruined him for me when I had to have all of him, or maybe he was never what I wanted him to be. I blame myself for having sex with a dream, with an ideal, and for killing that dream for myself forever. Years later, maybe it does not matter whether he ever burned at all. I put my face too close to the fire and I crushed it in my jealous hands.
• • •
I want to be a Stephen. I want to be a Sal. I want to take this world by the throat and know that it is mine. I want to come of age by testing God, tasting prostitutes and traveling to towns worth writing about. I want the freedom to find adventure. I do not want to have to dip my fingers into the freedom you already have. I do not want to have to find my own freedom inside all of you.
A modest, timid temper and a desperate need for structure, routine and convention are my most shameful qualities. Without them, perhaps I could live as you do, as he does. I would not have to settle as a bystander. I could be one of you. Sex would not have to be the closest I could get to a dark, consuming fire. Maybe I, a timid little woman, could burn with rage and passion, too.