Sunday, June 9, 2013

Rattling the Bell: The Last Night of Residency

The last night of residency came fast. Towards the end, you find yourself skipping lectures you circled on your agenda to take a nap or slurp soup in the middle of the day. You lay around like a sea lion, hoping someone will throw food in your mouth so you don’t have to flop around anymore.  Caffeine can’t help you anymore. Nothing can but the end. You just want it to end.

Rescued Sea Otter

But you kinda don’t want it to end at the same time.  Cat would go back to Oregon. The Silver Fox back to Chicago. Another to Paris. Another to Claremont, not too far away but far enough to never see each other over a semester. Collide then let go. Huck would be back in Baraboo and I would be back to dogsitting, car trouble and a rocky start to a promising relationship.

We were all just hanging around one late afternoon. The alcohol supply was dwindling. We were googling Yoko Ono performances and exchanging book recommendations. Michael stopped by. I always was excited to see him but our meetings were strained. It wasn’t unusual with couples. Another roommate had a similar experience when her boyfriend came to visit. It is hard, but I am not quite sure why.

Michael sat on a stool and stared at me with tears in his eyes. We were talking about the car I picked up a week before. The transmission blew out on it 10 days after I bought it with cash. “It’s bad,” is all he could say. “The lowest estimate I can find is $2500 and they said it isn’t even worth saving.” All my money was put into this last vehicle. I can’t tell you how much air squeezes out of your lungs when someone tells you all your savings wasn’t worth saving. Michael could barely speak. He just stared at me with those glossy, puppy dog eyes. He was going to rent a car until we decided what to do. For a guy under 25, that proved to be financially crippling. After one leg was shot out from under us, the other one would slowly crumble.

“Stop looking at me like that,” I said, coldly.

“Sorry,” he said, looking away. Why does he make me feel so bad? Most men don’t express any feelings of weakness. Michael is free with it. He will tear up. He will look like he was slapped across the face. And then he will cry. I have never had a man in my life like that before. It makes the connection all the more intense. The more I cared for him, the more frustrated I was in his moments of stress, hurt and weakness. There was no way to protect him and there was no cure.  I wonder if that is how men feel in relationships most of the time?

The Silver Fox offered to drive him to the airport for a cheap car rental. Michael bussing over the greater part of Los Angeles was like taking blood by the quart. He was worn down from all the rushing, the scrounging of change and the long waits on dirty buses. One to the next to the next. Some buses don’t stop. Some don’t show. On foot in the urban jungle with only a dying cell phone and a pocket full of change, you are vulnerable.

LA Bus

After we dropped off Michael, the Silver and I made plans to hang out. It would have been quiet, just the Silver Fox, Cat, My Flower (a beautiful female writer who was graduating) and me now that the others had either gone home for another night or moved to another couch in another house. I mucked it up a but by inviting Huck over. It was our last night and I really thought we would have a good time. The Silver Fox is a distinguished, older poet. The type of guy with a nice car, a nice home and a nice wife. He drove my boyfriend to pick up a car rental, drove down to pick up my ex-lover, then took us to a liquor store to buy more beer and wine for the house. The poor guy.

We walked into a Venice liquor store and a slinky, black guy accompanied with a much more sophisticated (and rather beautiful) black woman beat us to the refrigerated beverages.

“Whatever you want is on me!” he said.

“That bottle of Chardonnay,” I said, pointing.

Everyone laughed while I waited patiently. Silver picked up his choice. Huck his.

I gave up and grabbed my bottle. “Is it naive that I thought he was really going to buy my Chardonnay?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the Silver.

Then we hopped over to Subway for a few sandwiches. We were all hungry and the Silver was buying. I was worried that he was annoyed. I really pressed my luck on this orchestration.

While waiting for my lettuce, avocado and tomato sandwich, I looked over at Huck to check on him. He wasn’t hungry and he was sitting alone by the front window. His glasses slipping down his nose and his perfect Rockwell haircut. He was smiling at me. That smile was Gatsby-esque.

Pick Your Poison

Back at the house, we came in with booze and cheap sandwiches. I drained my bottle of cheap Chardonnay in one sitting. That was the first mistake. Filling up my wine glass with whiskey … that was my second.

The Silver Fox suddenly decided that doing (on-line) work would be more productive than watching us slap and pinch each other over musical selections. All the on-line demand strained the wi-fi a bit, so that created more quiet stress.

Huck started with the White Album then switched over to Amy Winehouse, “You Know I’m No Good”. How transparent. I begged for “Back in Black” (Winehouse). He only had the one song by Amy. Then I switched to funk. Some James Brown … yeah, things get fuzzy around here. Real fuzzy.

The next thing I remember is screaming at Huck in the street outside the house while he hailed a cab.

What got us there? I can’t say for certain. Moments were briefly recreated for me the next morning:

   -Cat told me at one point Huck said, “You know Michael is just a rebound, right?”

     -The Silver Fox said I turned. Something in me switched to the dark side.

  - Cat said Huck would leave, open the door, turn around and sit back down at the table, declaring, “[StarFire] won’t let me leave!”

What a fucking mess. So much so the neighbors called to complain to the owner of the house. My poor roommates could only respond to the complaint with, “Yeah, we have one of those in the house.”

Here we were. The last night of residency. The mist was rolling down Venice Blvd off the Pacific Ocean. The streets were nearly empty, it must have been after midnight. I have no idea. What were we fighting about? Feelings?


I remember throwing one last zinger at him as he finally got his cab. He stopped at the car door and turned around to speak to me. I walked away.


Later, I would describe this night to my therapist. “What is funny is I never argue with Michael. I can’t stand it when he is mad at me so I just shut down. I don’t speak.”

“And what do you argue about with Huck?” she asked.

“It isn’t really arguing. It is more … like playing a part,” I said.


The rest was like a dream. Inside the house, was I crying? Somehow I texted Michael. Then Michael was there and he took me home in the rental car. I said lots of things to him, everything I remembered at the time, which is more than what I know now. I can’t ask him what I said now. I am burying these feelings here in my computer.  Unearthing them today would burn, at no great benefit to this blog. The argument was stupid, whatever it was.

I was back home, with my stolen IKEA bed, and my three dogs, and my forgiving boyfriend who was realizing I was more than a handful. Whatever joy, stimulation, adrenaline shook me during residency was softened and grounded at home, like a rattled bell that finally stopped swinging. I got my head back. The house in Glendale I was avoiding put new roots in me and I was ready to let go of residency, my friends, my messy, expired love affair and all the validation and doubts passing through.


For the first time that next morning, I was hungover. Michael drove me to school and Huck offered a half-sincere apology via text. “Perhaps a bit rash.” I tore into him and he was quick to defend himself. The argument escalated and I threw my phone on the floor of the car.

“Just please stop texting him,” Michael said. He played it cool but he was smart. He was waiting for the storm to pass before really talking to me about what a detriment Huck was to our relationship.

At school, I smoked a hangover cigarette and felt the beginning of a migraine. If I didn’t hydrate and avoid bright lights, by 3pm I would be inoperable. 3pm was our final workshop. Each workshop is divided first within genre, then in smaller groups of approximately six writers with a Workshop Mentor. God, I looked like shit. I felt like shit.


“[Starfire], we have your panties and wallet!” Cat shouted from the parking garage.

“I am not sure they are yours. They aren’t really your style,” The Silver Fox said.

“Let’s see them,” I said as Cat pulled out my blue and white gingham panties with ruffles around the seams. “Yup, those are mine. I hope they are clean.” (They were)

“My love, you turned last night!” The Silver Fox said. “My love has a switch!”

“Was it bad?” I asked.

They both nodded. “You need to avoid whiskey or avoid Huck. Whatever you do avoid Huck with whiskey.
  Last night was just … not healthy.”

Cat described moments of Huck and I slapping each other’s legs. She said Huck wouldn’t let me listen to funk. Then she described how toxic our relationship was. My head was like soggy oatmeal at that point. I had no idea what to do with all this information. Cat’s voice tends to carry too, so whenever she said Huck’s real name, I heard it bounce off the building and roll back through the clusters of other students. Sometimes a head would turn to listen in. I hung my head.

“Just stay away from Huck,” John said.


That was, of course, around the time I texted Huck that I wanted to say goodbye before he flew back from Wisconsin. I was angry at him, God knows why, but I did want to say goodbye to him. His flight was leaving at 5pm and he needed a ride to the airport around 3 or 4pm. Around the time of the last workshop. Around the time my hangover would really take hold. Our goodbye would be rushed.

Just before we all broke apart to go to our different assigned workshops, I met him at the wall with the schedule. “Walk and talk with me,” he said, in a mock-teacher voice, smiling. I was holding a small cup of coffee that was quickly growing cold.

We walked down the hallway. “I am sorry things went bad between us and I am sorry I overreact and whatever, argue with you or push your buttons or whatever I do.” We reached the end of the hallway and stopped. “I acknowledge that drunk people are annoying. Ok, there,” I said, exasperated.

“I am sorry …” Huck started, then looked down.

“It’s ok, just say goodbye.”

We hugged. I had one arm around his shoulder and the other holding the small cup of coffee, now dripping down my coat sleeve. It was a good hug. Better than sex would have ever been.

“Goodbye,” I said, crumpled in his arms.

Then we let go. Until next residency.

crossing paths

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Infidelity and The Talking Streetlight

Here I was wrapping up the semester, working my ass off, making money and now another residency is upon us. In 8 days to be exact. I know, despite my body and mind begging me to daydream, to sleep, to watch TV and catch up on everything I can’t when school and work merge, that I can not fall behind on this journal.

Residency was a becoming a rapid collection of beaded memories, each tapping into the next as I dropped them on a long string to hold on to, at least until I could write it down. Drinking. Huck. Michael. Friends and students in a house in Venice, all exhausted, all laughing, a kiss here or there from one gender or another. The house was cold but I was so eager to be close to the conversation, the music, the clips and text we shared with each other. The stimulation was not just rich in mentor-lead conversations at school, not only in the brilliant faculty readings of poetry and fiction, but in the hanging cocoon of comradery.

Michael, my boyfriend of almost two months, was not a writer. And he was without a car on the other side of a sprawling city. He felt isolated but didn’t complain. There was friction. There were brief visits and misty eyes. Long silences and growing irritation. He was my other life. There in Venice, some other part of me was living through a world not too far from the Bloomsbury Group. I didn’t want Michael’s reminders of the broken car, the dogs now urinating and defecating in the house during my absence and his own suspicions to cloud me. That was real life. It didn’t melt into the dreamers world.

Bathers by the pond

Another person isolated from the group was Huck, my lover from the previous semester, now a friendship  taut sexual tension. If I disappeared for a night, everyone thought I slept with him. I would come home to the Venice House and announce, “I didn’t sleep with him!”

“That’s a surprise,” my fiction writer Cat responded.

Exhausted from residency, one morning I asked to crash in Huck’s hotel room for a few hours to nap. The Venice House was a drive away and I didn’t have my car. Michael was taking it from shop to shop to figure out how much it would cost us. I brought Huck a sandwich and asked to just lie down there until the lecture later that afternoon. He said yes.

When I arrived, he was watching Stephen King give a lecture on his laptop. I peeled off my skinny jeans and put on Huck’s shorts so I could breathe. Then I crawled under twisted sheets and a blanket. My eyes were closed. My leg exposed. I was truly exhausted but still acutely aware of every sound in the room. I pushed my mind off the dock and felt my leg twitch. Finally, I could sleep.

A pop of the vodka bottle at his desk. The crunch of plastic as he discarded the sandwich container.  I was awake. He gave me his critical paper to read. He showed me some clips and photographs of Bukowski and the women he loved. My head was swimming in fatigue and I knew I was crossing a line.

Huck got on the bed a few times. We replayed some karaoke from the night before on my phone and laughed. Just as I felt close he would get up and cross the room. That afternoon I wrote this in my notebook:

He gets up and walks to the bed sometimes.
He lays next to me, hiding behind a wall of pillows.
Sometimes he stands at the edge of the bed, staring down at me.
“What did you think of my paper?” he asks, as I gently fold each page face down.  
“I am only on page 6,” I said.

He changes shirts.
He pours more vodka.
He hunches over his computer,
Occasionally glancing at me through the mirror on the wall.

“You can’t stay here,” he says.
I feel a little blood trickle into his shorts.
I think its blood.
Maybe not.

He looks tired but the sunlight makes the blue rise.
The blue of his shirt.
The blue of his eyes.

“You can’t stay here,” he says with his back turned.
I don’t move.
The sheets smell like him.
I smell like sweat.
He farts.
We stay unmoved in our own filth.

Huck at his Desk

I got up and dressed. He stayed at his desk. It wasn’t the same room from last semester. Our room was on another floor.

I kissed him on the lips, soft and quick. “Bye honey,” I said in a mocking housewife voice. He looked at me and I kissed him again. This time he closed his eyes. Maybe it was just a second longer. He looked at me hard when I opened the door to leave and I knew he was capturing me in his writer’s eyes. He would remember how I looked. He would remember the moment and maybe write it down. Maybe he would throw it away. But I wouldn’t be back.


I did think about sleeping with him. I would be lying to everyone who reads this if I didn’t admit that.There were moments when I wanted to. Outside, I sat on a familiar curb in Venice smoking a cigarette. Just one block deeper in that neighborhood was the apartment where I married the wrong man almost a decade ago. This neighborhood was where I drifted deeper into the streets and parked my car with a bottle of wine and a handful of pills. I was obsessed with another man and leaving my husband was the most difficult thing in the world at 25. Hurting him was more than I could bear. I like to think I was young and stupid then. Here I was, on the same winding streets, juggling two men in my mind. Again.


Three of us writers discussed infidelity in a bar one night earlier that week.

"Is it so wrong to sleep with someone else? Would it really ruin a relationship?" I asked.

"Yes! It would do irreparable harm!" said one writer, a man.

"No! Why do we have to expect one person to be our everything? There can be different people who appeal to different sides of ourselves. One person can not fill all our needs," said another writer, a woman.

"It is a lot of stress to be someone's everything," I said.

"And impossible," she said before sipping the foam off her beer bottle.


I was alone now. No one was there but my buzzing phone. The streetlight across from me turned off and on. It didn't flicker. It had no rhythm. I wanted to believe it stayed on when I was thinking about the right man. The streetlight would give me the answer.


Michael stood by me through one of the roughest transitions of my life.
Streetlight on.

He was good to me. We were fine before all of this. He handled my temper tantrums, my drunk antics, my casual flirtations with other people. He loved my dogs. He loved me … in a way no one had before.

But we just started. Our relationship was young. Was it right to be monogamous now? Would it mean anything if I slept with someone else right now? It is only sex. It isn’t my soul or my life. It is just a moment. People have moments all the time with other people. That doesn’t mean they love them. That doesn’t mean they sacrifice something greater for the moment.

What if I had sex with him and pretended it never happened?
Streetlight off.

Then what was the point of doing it at all? Do I have to have sex with Huck? Why? Why was my mind driving at intercourse with someone I already had sex with, already cared about and who already hurt me. What was the point of reliving it? The adrenaline. The titillation. The false satisfaction. It is recycled mistake.
Streetlight on.

Streetlight off.

He already hurt me. He would hurt me again.
Streetlight on.

And I would hurt Michael. Michael. Someone who only ever treated me with kindness, forgiveness and affection. Am I only not doing it so he doesn’t get hurt? Is that enough of a reason not to do something? Was he just like my ex-husband?
No. He wasn’t. Not at all.
Streetlight off.

No, it is different.
I can’t lose Michael.
I can’t lose Michael.

Streetlight on.
I can’t lose Michael.