Sometimes all you need in order to move on is to distinguish the real from the intangible.
This post first appeared at Good Vibes Magazine.
“Starfish and Coffee” was the song that was playing on a record player the first time I saw him on a dark autumn night. He lived on Boulevard in Athens, in a home of peeling white paint, dying jasmine and wisteria tangled in the fence, the smell of dank pine needle scent. Boulevard, one of the oldest streets, homes passed down for generations, filled with history, old stories and Southern legend, impressions of each of their past residents, if you were sensitive enough to feel them. Boulevard was home to the hip young things renting over-sized historic dens of what passed for iniquity.
His beauty was angelic, inhuman. Not quite of this world. He was friendly, but I couldn’t make myself say hello. Tall. Slender, willowy, a slip of a boy, nearly not there, even though he filled a room. Blue eyes, a deep blue, like seawater in the Gulf, blond silk crowning his head. A writer and poet, he was gorgeously odd, much like the Prince song playing that night.
I have no memory of how we got together. Odd, but the first fragment in my mind is me in his bed running fingers down his legs, seeing stretchmarks there, like scars from quick and sudden pubescent growth. Trailing my hand over his chest, smelling the frighteningly familiar sweetness of his skin, I was overcome by a feeling I’d not yet experienced.
I’d had lovers before, but the first ones were simply people with whom I’d perform sex. I’d never had any that aroused in me that amazing and overwhelming feeling that is desire. Lust. Hunger. I was unprepared for that hunger, like an uncoiling snake in my belly that filled me out to each limb, each limb itself a snake with hungry mouths wanting for him.
He became the perfect boyfriend. Attentive, romantic, silly. There was only this absolute mirror of pleasure. He was whatever I wanted or needed. That enough. But there was the sex. Sex was, just like the books said, exquisite.
Kissing. Sliding into me. Exquisite. His hands, his breath on me, mouths on silky parts. A nearly piercing pointed pleasure at yes, the very center of me. Beyond exquisite, it was addictive. I would have done anything he asked. I did do anything he asked. I offered more and more, opened more of me to him every time we were together. I was shameless, but so naive as to think there was no shame, no limit to any of this, no end to the feeling in my heart and between my legs. Lost in passion, I was high and innocent and absolutely utterly obsessed. There was only hunger, and I did everything I knew to do to please him, to love him, to possess him the way I felt possessed.
As the months wore on, we talked about moving in together. I met his family. He seduced me daily. We spent every moment together. And then suddenly, he was distant, hard to reach. I saw him on campus with another girl.
It was nothing, he assured me. He was stressed, he said. She was in a class with him. They had a project together.
On my birthday, he made love to me in his room, naked and panting, candles flickering our shadow puppets on the white old wall, kiwi fruit and our clothes strewn. Tangled in sheets, we made plans to vacation on the coast.
A few nights later, he came over. He looked strange, no emotion on that beautiful face, and he said, simply, that he didn’t love me anymore. Disbelief. He didn’t love me anymore. I argued. He didn’t love me anymore. I think I actually might have begged like a child. He didn’t love me anymore.
It was Athens in the late spring and the heat and humidity began. Yards filled with azaleas and dogwoods, storms at 3:00 p.m. sharp, water flooding the ancient streets. The wetness of the air mixed with my tears unhinged my mind a little. The bed sponged up my sadness. The air stuck to my skin, filled up my mouth, like the rotting smell of wisteria and jasmine. Insects pregnant with heatbuzz swarmed till they drowned in the electric whine of air conditioners and the cheap chardonnay I drank, as I sat outside on my mother’s porch all night, alone.
The next month he’d call me on Tuesdays and try to see me, try to get me to sleep with him, and by Sunday he didn’t love me again.
I went to his house to finally end things and found him, naked and panting, candles and kiwis, clothes strewn, in bed with the girl. Of course. He stared at me, a lightly mocking smile on his face.
I never spoke to him again.
A year after that I moved to Seattle, leaving my childhood home due to too many memories, not just of him, haunting me as I’d drive down a street or sit at a cafe. (This Place Was Where We Had Coffee. Here.) But every road, every house, every lamp post or street sign showed the psychic residue, patterns of conversations, drives, feelings that layered on and on from school, from friends, family, my mother, our escape here after my father died, so much layering that when daffodills bloomed, there was a pall under their cheery gold. This Place Was Tinted With Shadow.
It was a town that tried to shed like a skin, and I ran filled with a fear of myself I couldn’t comprehend at the time.
Seattle, which was curved and tall and dark, glinting wet rain and unending darkness, took me in hard and silent, and not six months into my stay there, at a time when I had begun to think of him and my old home with a touch more forgiveness, I got a call that he’d killed himself.
He had leapt to his death, into a quarry, wrecking his beautiful body on the rocks. He left notes and notes for everyone, including one saying, “Tell Julie, I did love her.”
The rationalist in me knows that he was suffering from depression and a possible personality disorder, that his great skill was being who everyone else wanted him to be. He was the perfect son, friend, lover until he just couldn’t be anymore. He hurt a lot of people, but he was the one aching, without a core.
But my darker side (because sex and death are brother-and-sister twins, and I am prone to darkness) often wondered perhaps he was a ghost from the beginning. A shade, an incubus of sorts filling my body with the utmost pleasure but taking pieces of my heart away with each of my trembles, shivers, sighs. Perhaps each girl he went through, even the one after me, and the one after her, was selected to fill something up in him, something that was needy, empty, alone. Darker still, perhaps I’d offered him not love but torment, perhaps I wasn’t a girlfriend but a succubus, drinking my desire out of him until there was nothing left.
Darkest of all, and perhaps my deepest fear, was that sex itself was the daemon, that the overwhelming desire and longing I experienced came from an untrustworthy source, malevolent, tricksy, cruel.
Seattle let me heal. The city was glossy and black at night with neon, like glass blown by rough men with callused hands, creating a salty, delicate sea creature, vaginal and open. That city brought me grit filled cobblestones, salmon, the sideways shadows of fall, and the cherry blossom snowstorm of spring, and journals, and theaters.
And love. Real love.
I did not love easily at that point. I was unsure of how to trust myself to know the difference between the real and unreal.
I found that the beginnings of that difference, though, with my husband. I let him in me, full of light and love and the most resolute realness, a depth of sexual maturity and understanding of pleasure that floored me then and still does. Neither angel nor ghost, but fully human and ready to grow with me, support and confront me, despite how hard times might become, despite how easy things might seem.
How lucky I was to find him and even more thankful that I possessed the courage to let him enter me softly like rain on forest moss, to let him tangle me up in his strong arms, which, like old growth forest, fragrant with life, covered me in nourishing fronds. His persistence and stubborn love like blackberry vines brambled their way into my heart, sweet fruit and thorns, to sit a spell. Beyond exquisite. Real.
Ironic, for a sexual advocate, I still have the deepest longings for desire, lust, love, pleasure, but I haven’t often allowed it, unless I had the most precise trust in the person I was with. Perhaps the lesson of the ghost, that time, those dark wonderings, remains marked inside me like scars from a quick and sudden and heavy growth.
My lover, my ghost, died long ago. He’s visited in dreams, though, mostly, he’s come to say goodbye. We hug and he’s so entirely beautiful, angelic, he asks my forgiveness, I ask his. And as he walks off I know he’s free, and I know that it may not matter what was real to him, so long as it was real to me. And it was real, what I felt, how I loved. And how I’ve learned to love because of him.
When I wake, in those moments, I feel lighter.