Seduced By Words

My friend Rachel met Philip Roth when she was a university student.

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The book that started the seduction.

I was wildly envious.  He was my literary idol, inspiring a poem I titled, “Philip Roth Will Save My Life.”

She told me I shouldn’t be.

She said he was coarse, almost mean.  Not at all who she imagined him to be.  She had been seduced by his words.

Me too.  As well as Erica Jong’s, Charles Bukowski’s Anais Nin’s and a long list of other’s.

Most recently, I’ve been seduced by the words of strangers – men looking for love, or something like it, on OKCupid.

Clever words couched in a seemingly shared commonality, ending abruptly when moved from screen to voice.

I should not be entirely surprised.

I’d learned about the chasm between the written word and reality, online and real-time, this past fall when a friend, a man 12 years my junior, told me in no uncertain terms exactly what he would like to do to me.  Exactly.  And while he made good on his promises a few days later, the flirty simpatico we shared on screen was lost in real life.  All hands.  No heart.

I was reminded of this truth once again on Friday – my first, OKCupid coffee date.

We made plans a few weeks out due to Passover and my schedule.  During that time we exchanged several messages, but we never spoke on the phone.

I told him how to make fried matzoh, and made him promise to cover it with real maple syrup.  He told me about a cartoon character his kids like who carries a flask of the stuff.

While I wasn’t convinced this was a romantic connection, he seemed like someone I would want to know.

In person our conversation was clunky, awkward – made worse by bad acoustics and me having to lean in and ask “what?” constantly.

We didn’t talk about his children’s adoption.  Or mine.  Or even about maple syrup, cartoons or writing – which we both do.  We talked about our divorces (Hmm…) and our experiences on OKCupid.  (Mine being rather limited.)

I didn’t go into the date with expectations greater than a cup of Intelligentsia, decaf –as it was after 3.  And yet, I felt sad.

I suppose there is always some level of hope – What if? Perhaps?  Otherwise we would never meet strangers over coffee in the first place.

I miss my ex-husband.

He was solid.  I could trust him.  He showed up.  Period.  Even if it wasn’t always in the way I might hope.

I am also clear about what didn’t work.  Why we divorced.

Two years after separating, I feel like I am finally grieving.

I miss Mr. 700 Miles — my most recent romance — too.  Even though, I couldn’t trust him.  He wasn’t solid.  He couldn’t show up.  I miss the connection that cut straight through the internet, through phone calls, texts and video chats.  The feeling that I could talk to him all night and into tomorrow and we’d never run out of things to say, or ways to delight one another.

I am grieving him too.  Or perhaps the idea of him.  The idea of us.

I get into my car and head north toward Wicker Park, where I will meet my friends in a church basement.  Later we will have dinner at the Birchwood, where I will eat a green salad with warm lentils, squash and bacon and drink hot water with lemon.  I couldn’t be happier.

My mind wanders, thinking about the rest of the weekend.

Dinner with my girlfriends on Saturday night.

A Sunday morning dance class and performance.  And later in the afternoon a salon hosted by my friend Megan – my Artist Date of the week –where her friend Peggy will read from her just-published collection of essays.  In between, I will work on editing my friend Martha’s new novel.

I feel excited about my days.  About my life.  And grateful for it.  Grateful for its juicy-ness, with or without a partner.

I am not certain this is true for all people – looking for love or otherwise.  I feel lucky.

And a little wiser now too.

I know what I read, on the page or on the screen is only part of the story.  I need to listen, to hear it too.

What is being said.  And not said.

The sound of gentleness.  Laughter.  Banter.  Ease.

And my heart – beating just a little more quickly.

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Artist’s Date 19: We’re Only As Sick As Our Secrets

anne sextonI met Catherine Kaikowska my senior year of college, in an 8 a.m. poetry class.

She was all black.  Turtleneck.  Boots.  Leggings.  All hair.  Brown.  Shoulder length.  Wide and kind of frizzy.  She hiked herself up on the desk, crossed her legs in front of her and cracked open a can of Diet Coke.  “Fuck, it’s early,” she mumbled.

I liked her right away.

She liked me too, and invited me to meet her at The Peanut Barrel – an East Lansing institution known for good burgers, cheap pitchers of beer, and peanut shells covering the floor – where we sucked down Labatts Blues, chain smoked and talked about sex until closing.

She was from Ohio, and used to work the door at a club where Chrissie Hynde played before she made it big with The Pretenders.  The place she vowed she’d never return to until that time.

I haven’t thought about Catherine in a long time.  Until last Thursday, when I slipped a biography of Anne Sexton into my robin’s egg blue Samsonite carry-on bag, circa 1972, and boarded a plane bound for Nashville.

I was first introduced to Sexton in Catherine’s class, along with Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich and her mentor at Michigan State University, Diane Wakoski.  Yet my interests lied with the testosterone-rich voice of Charles Bukowski.  The beatnik fantasy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

I pulled the book out – a tomb, really, nearly 500 pages, hardcover and wrapped in acetate that is supposed to protect it – at Midway Airport, after checking my orange hard-case luggage and picking up a mediocre Americano.  Artist’s Date 19, surrounded by fellow travelers with faces tucked into ipad and smartphone screens.

If we are only as sick as our secrets, then Sexton was the picture of health – for she had none.  She was transparent, as I have been described.  Only more so.

Teacher and mentor John Holmes begged Sexton not to publish her darker, highly confessional poems.  Advice she ignored, and turned into, “For John, Who Begs Me Not To Enquire Further.”

And yet, clearly she wasn’t well, as she took her own life at 45, just two years older than my 43.

Sexton threaded the stories of her life through men – how they reflected her.  She was wildly flirtatious.  A presence.  And, at times, profoundly sad.

She tended to sexualize significant relationships.  She had fluid boundaries.

She felt, at times, in competition with her mother.  And was considered alcoholic.

She gave away her heart too easily.

In “More Than All the Rest,” a poem to her long-term psychiatrist Dr. Martin Orne, she writes:

“Oh, I have raped my inner soul/And give it, naked, to you,/Since my warm mouth and arms/might love, and frighten you.”

I saw myself.  I looked around the airplane to see if anyone else saw me too.

I felt sick, like the medical-school student convinced she has contracted each disease she studies.

But I am not Anne.  I didn’t suffer post-partum depression.  I didn’t hand over my children to be raised by my mother-in-law.  I don’t have children.  I’ve never been pregnant.

I haven’t been institutionalized.  I didn’t take my own life.

Sexton’s gift was making something out of her sick.  Creating art.  Allowing others to see inside the most shameful parts of herself and whisper, “me too.”  In the process, she found both “her people” and herself.

Me too.

The plane touched down.  I was 78 pages in.  I slipped an index card into the book to hold my place, on it is a prayer I had written.  My own words.  My own healing.