12 March 2021

Although Then a Stranger

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” 
T.S. Eliot

"I want the beginning of you and the ending of you to myself." 

Her voice had an edge that I had only heard once before, but now it was much sharper, though a little more tired than the first time I heard it. 

She was jealous of women who had come into and left my life long before hers had even had a beginning and for a moment, I thought that her grudge might be with time, and in a way it was. Time, after all, was just as abstract as any of the descriptionless and nameless women I had written about: wine-lipped girls whose necks and bare breasts had perfumed linens that I no longer even have and whose sin, as far as she was concerned, was in existing before she did, in arriving early to a contest that she knew she was destined to win as soon as she appeared. In that way, it was with time: the entire premise was posited on a deceptively simple formula that discarded all other variables: if she had been there – and the "there" spanned moments in three decades of my life – she would have been first; although then a stranger, she would have been first and everything that followed would have been different. 

Her desire for me – for all of me – is such that she seeks to overthrow time, untie its lashings, and weave herself into my every beginning and ending. 

As she fell asleep, her voice softening to a murmur, her soft brown hair damp on my chest, I slipped in and out of sleep, dreaming of her replacing the various women who had passed through my life in one diorama after another. Every dream she slips into changes my life. My eyes meeting hers in Chicago the day before New Year's Eve in 2004 and suddenly kissing her - although then a stranger - and learning the mystery behind her bright, glowing face and the shadows of her moods that sometimes left her quiet and faraway. Finding her in Hollywood in 2013, perhaps poolside at the Roosevelt, and wondering how, although then a stranger, I could have lived so long without her. Or searching for what I would soon know as her silhouette in New York City two years later and realizing that, although then a stranger, she would change the entire way I saw the world. I dreamt of her in cities she and I had yet to share, in restaurants that have long shuddered, and introducing her to friends long gone. Would she have replaced those others, although then a stranger? Or would she have intervened, become the Jezebel, the seductress, the female friend who becomes something more? What would she have said when I was 20 and I thought I might have a chance – a real chance – at acting, but I would have to go to Hollywood? Had she been with me in 2009, would she have held closer to me as my life fell apart? Would she have issued the ultimatum that it finally took to break my decades-long drinking? Would she have stayed when others left? Would she have kept me when others didn't?  

Those beginnings and endings become waves charging and changing the shape of my life's shoreline and I dream. 

When I wake up, my hand is in hers. Eventually,  I'll make coffee and bring it to her in the blue mug that she'll sometimes joke was her first step in what she'll refer to as the occupation of my life. The coffee mug will stay and so will she. We'll have our own routines: our own poetry, our own way of finding meter and rhyme in the rhythm of the life we share, blending in our domesticity and never failing to find the unexpected absurdity at how intense we still are even without the promise of catastrophe. On the days she goes into the office I'll watch her dress as she floats between bedroom and bathroom, adding an earring here, some makeup there, and eventually a shirt or a sweater over the bra she resents having to wear, slowly gaining momentum as the time to catch her train approaches.  But today is Saturday and even coffee won't wake her for at least another hour and none of those things are true, at least not yet.

It is our first morning together. 

I wonder if she knows that she has the beginning of me. That it is mornings like these. That it is the fear that I'll never have her next to me again, that I'll never feel her fingertips caress my face, that I'll never look at her and wonder why this woman, why these lips, why this heart, these hands, this body, this breath on my neck, this love for me? 

The beginning of anything throws open the gates of possibility. So many of our firsts have yet to be had.

I wonder if she knows that she also has the ending of me, or at least an ending that she need only choose to realize. Leave a coffee mug or leave the country. To find herself wrapped up in me or find herself wrapped up in someone else. To seize whatever precious time we have together and, while not trying to prolong it, drink it to its dregs, revel in every first, and hope that Fortune smiles and refills us with each other.

An ending comes when the desire to find beginnings ends, when the firsts that have yet to be had become the firsts that are abandoned in search of a new beginning, consigning fugitive hearts to sip from Lethe and let the embers cool to ash in those forgetful waters. To begin with me would mean to bring an end to searching, at least for now.

As for those other beginnings and endings; those girls I never name, they live somewhere else, a distant shore, an undiscovered country, some dream of the past: lives polished with metaphors, retired, and resigned to memory while in the present. 

When she wakes, she notices that I have been watching her sleep. 

I ask her a question in the conditional subjunctive - “if... would” - the answer to which can only be known by the omnipotent narrator, the writer, or God.

If our beginning had started any earlier, I ask, would you still have loved me, although then a stranger?

She kisses me and answers. 

I have always loved you. 


Fever dreams