We’re not all shits and giggles but we’re not all business either. At first it’s a tight hug, then the jokes about coffee and the need for early morning caffeine. Then there are the who’s and how’s of daily life. Then we get down to business.
“Do you love her?” I ask Cass over a cup of coffee in downtown Portland. A bus pulls to the curb not ten feet from our table, exhales a sad breath from its compress brakes.
“No,” she says. She zips her hoddie, pulls out a cigarette. I light her cigarette for her as she shields the match flame from the wind. Once she’s taken a drag, I let the flame extinguish in the wind – so simple a gesture and so suddenly, the flame is out.
“Are you happy?” I ask. I reach across the table and extend two fingers, motioning for her cigarette.
Cass raises her eyebrows, takes another drag, hands me the Camel Light (menthol). “Ok. I’m ok. Content, I guess” she says. She cannot look at me when she says this.
I take a drag off her cigarette – something I haven’t done in, gosh, five? Eight years? She looks surprised. “Maybe I wanted to taste you,” I say, exhaling. She’s a poet. She’ll get the metaphor and the punch of this and I know it. As if love were but a sensory detail, as if it could be passed back and forth, shared so readily, as if love were an old friend that’s burning out before our very eyes. She sighs. I hand back the cigarette, already high from a single drag.
I knew the answer to both questions but I had to ask. It was my way of hearing her say that she chose someone she doesn’t love and who doesn’t understand her fully over me, who loved her and knew her bones better than most lovers she’s ever had. Only five months as a couple and I can say this with authority. Women give love fiercely and take it back ferociously. Put two together and god help us.
Once when we were in Atlanta together, we had a disagreement. “You’ll never know me because you’re not broken,” Cass had spurted at me. I knew it was a line from the author she’d just heard give a panel talk at the AWP Conference but still, it stabbed. It stabbed because she was wrong but because, if she wanted that to be the case, then I never would know her because she’d never let me in.
Today, I recall that pang of that argument and act spontaneously. In other words, I corner her with my heart-brain:
She is two-thirds of the way through her coffee (grande house blend with one pump of hazelnut and cream to the color of a brown paper bag – usually – thought today it was a shot in the dark). I lean across the table and cup the side of her face in my left hand. I look into her ice eyes and don’t flinch. I am maybe five inches from her face. People walk by us on the street but they are streamers in the wind, trailing voices, ghosts of the world we’re putting on hold.
“Where is Happy Cass?” I say. “Where is she in there? That’s who I miss.”
Her lower lip trembles, she leans into my hand, presses her cheek into my palm with ease. “I don’t know.” Her voice, a whimper.
“That’s who I believe in,” I say, still holding my gaze firm.
She closes her eyes, exhales, fights tears and that is it. I have done what I need to do. She knows I do not condemn her as a person but that I believe in the best person she wants to be…that I can see that person somewhere in there and that I also understand how hard it is to make that person come out. It’s the bi-polar lover all over again and this time, at least for a moment, I do not let this make me feel helpless.
“I find it interesting that even though ‘I’m not broken,’” I pause, hesitant to finish. Cass looks at me; waits for me to finish. “I know how to break you.”
“I know,” she says, and that is confession enough.
Today’s pic (the desk I’ve set up at the house I’m working from for the next week)