Sans X: [a catalogue of missed connections]
We wrote love letters to the ideas of each other for a season many years ago. You were living in the woods of Northern California, carrying out an Into the Wild existence as a park ranger and going to bed at sundown when the natural light went out of the sky. I was just getting started in the city, staying up late at night all over town and describing my apartment to you as a “gallery of lamps.” In school, you were a bit of an ecology nerd who had mostly gone unnoticed, but after a semester away in Big Sur, you had emerged from the woods as a chiseled Walt Whitman and had begun parading yourself in this newfound iteration. We went for a walk once when you came to town, saw a film in the village, a documentary about Chet Baker called Let’s Get Lost. It was largely a montage of black and white images showing beautiful women dancing on the beach in the 60s, riding beside Chet in a convertible as they drove along the coast, the sweet blue of his trumpet playing in the background. After the movie we strolled over the bridge to drink on a hill in the park. We lingered with each other as long as the day would last, until the sun went down and it started pouring. My dress was soaked through and we embraced at the top of the subway stairs utterly drenched. The whole thing was impossibly romantic, laughable even, like a scene from the black and white film, and yet somehow, at the end of it, neither of us took the plunge. The letters had started after that famous walk. I listened to Chet Baker as I wrote them to you. But one day, for whatever reason, we both just stopped writing. I still have the dress I wore that afternoon. In the film version of our story I wear it again, as we find each other years later and finally have the kiss at the top of the stairs. In reality, we reconnect ambiguously on Instagram, having both been through a roster of tumultuous relationships in the decade that has passed, still not available or anywhere in proximity. Still not knowing each other at all.
You are probably married or have a famous model girlfriend, but we’ve passed each other many times along the bottom corner of the park. I’m never looking my best when it happens, often coming back from a run or frazzled from doing errands in the neighborhood. You have swollen eyes like I do and there always seems to be a prolonged stare between us. But maybe it’s only me that thinks this is happening, like how it can feel like someone up on a stage is connecting with you during a concert, but they are really looking at someone else behind you or can’t see anything at all in the fog of pyrotechnics. Though the logic of experience might suggest otherwise, the more I’ve lived, the less I’ve been able to discern what is actually happening between me and another person. Our thing (or its nonexistence) began when I saw you on a TV show and was struck with this adolescent notion that you would be my next man. Then I googled you and realized you of course were rumored to have dated people like Katie Holmes and Michelle Williams etc. By some joke of the universe, I saw you sitting on a bench in the park near my house the next day. There have been many chance encounters since then, all nonverbal and the length of a passing moment. Last time we saw each other we were crossing opposite sides of the same street, as I struggled to carry a Christmas tree home by myself. “Of course I run into you now,” I thought, already feeling vulnerable about the spectacle of the tree in my arms without a partner or child in tow, wondering if you’ve ever even registered the repetition of my face.
THE GAUGUIN WOMAN, ON THE TRAIN
I rented a room from you years ago. We were strangers, but I lived in your space while you were gone, wondering about the things in your drawers. I wore your shirt one day and found a piece of film in your breast pocket. I listened to your records in the dark late at night. At the beginning of the rental period, I wrote my contact info on a page from my journal and ripped it out to give to you. I’d forgotten that on the back of the page was a sketch I’d made of a woman I had seen in the subway, the words “The Gauguin woman…on the train,” scrawled beside it. I got an email from you a few days later with the same phrase in the subject line.When the rental period was over, I decided to move to Paris. I left a blank postcard for you on the bedside table, a painting by Gauguin. We kept up a correspondence for a while, exchanging Gauguin paraphernalia as we both traveled through different countries. When I moved back to New York two years later and we finally met up for a real drink, I had smoked too many cigarettes out of nervousness and ended up fainting and having a seizure in front of you, followed by an episode of projectile vomiting all over the bar. The next night I fell in love with someone I ended up having a relationship with for six years. You and I lost touch, the exact nature of our correspondence having never been clear to me. A decade passed and things ended with that other person. During the pandemic, we ran into each other on a dating app. “The Gauguin woman, on the train…” I wrote to you as my opening line. We’ve been hanging out for a year now and I can’t tell if you’ve ever thought of me romantically, though it’s on the tip of my tongue to bring up every time. Now that we actually know each other, I’m not sure I think of you romantically either, or even if we’re always so compatible as friends. We disagree on politics and I don’t know if you’ve ever been in love—two potentially irreconcilable differences between us. But I still can’t help feeling somehow passed over, lost inside that confounding instance of deciding you don’t want a person, but still wanting them to want you. As I was thinking about this on my way home from meeting you for drinks the other day, I was prompted to look up when someone walked by me in the subway. It was the Gauguin woman, on the train.
You came up to me in the lobby and said I looked like the robot from Blade Runner. The robot who doesn’t know she’s a robot—Rachael, the epic replicant Harrison Ford falls in love with, frozen lake of a face and machine interior, body and hair shaped like an Art Deco building. Earlier that day, an astrologer had told me I was like an ancient glacier resting atop an active volcano. We met during your last weeks in the country, as you finished up a translation project of a famous detective novel. We misunderstood each other at first, me not getting you were trying to ask me out as I descended into the subway, as if slipping away from you down a rabbit hole into a lost vortex. I didn’t see your messages for a while. You were confused about the chasm of difference between “xo" and “best” when signing off in English. Because of this I didn’t know if you were reaching out professionally or for something else. I explained that you and I were probably somewhere between those two gestures, though inwardly, like you, I was leaning towards an XO. Finally, we had a single night together right before you moved back home to South America. You were about to turn forty and feeling very tender about your life. Something I said that night led you to an epiphany about your relationship with your mother. Halfway through the evening we discovered we both spoke French and this changed everything. “I like it better this way,” you said, as you ushered me up the stairs to your room. “Because now we’re both strangers,” I concurred, “étranger” being the word for foreigner in French, which was neither of our mother tongue. After you left New York, we stayed in contact for a long time, messaging each other in our own invented dialect, a fracture of three different languages which we used to devise riddles and poems, descriptions of dreams to be translated and decoded. I went to elaborate lengths to send you robot parts hidden in envelopes within envelopes, including a mechanical key like the kind to be inserted in the back of a vintage toy—to make the little monkey dance or the tin duck waddle. Mademoiselle Tristesse, you called me, and you were Monsieur Bonheur. Both personas eventually dissolved into an unreachable horizon—a long-distance one-night-stand stretched over a span of years by two people who never knew each other. “There’s no knowing,” someone said to me once, a notion which resonated, despite being uttered by a person who was simultaneously trying to get me to go home with them. I made a new friend not long after you and I met each other. It took us a while to figure it out, but eventually we realized we had both had affairs with you. We’ve often laughed about the coincidence, never admitting out loud that you are part of what has solidified our friendship, though neither of us is in touch with you now. As for Rachael the replicant, some nights she still plays her lonely piano, whether you are there to hear it or not. No XOs anymore, which is probably best.
We met in Tbilisi at a writing residency. You maneuvered me into a date the first night, though I didn’t quite know I was on one. We were in this beautiful ancient city, but you had been there before and wanted to spend all your spare time swimming at the Holiday Inn, having discovered a loophole that allowed you access to the pool, where you liked writing on the chaise lounge and taking dips between paragraphs. We ditched workshop once and swam in a mountain lake. There were families scattered around at the edges of the water, little Georgian children making sand castles on summer holiday. I emerged in my bathing suit and wrapped myself around you in front of all of them to complete the image. The image of having an old world love affair in Europe, of standing on the balconies of crumbling buildings and riding cable cars down from the theater over the city lights. You said I was gorgeous the first time you saw me naked (which seemed excessive, though I’ve had my moments) and anemically kissed me in the elevator once, a forced gesture that needed us to be more than we were. “There are things I want to say to you, but I’m not going to,” you said the last night we spent together, as if to threaten that love was the word on the edge of your lips. I hoped you wouldn’t say it, and it was the first time I had ever hoped a man wouldn’t say that word to me, though I had known lesser men. In all that time laid waste to that romantic landscape, we only slept together twice. I understood what that meant for me, but I don’t think you did. It was an incredible two weeks, every day of which I spent with you, for whom I wasn’t void of affection, but I was seeing someone back home at the time and didn’t know how to tell you. It was a complicated open situation I had never wanted to be in to begin with. Which is all to say there was no vacancy at my hotel, though I had let you in the window to visit one of many ruined bedrooms. That other person was never going to want the things you and I wanted. Meeting you made me realize I was starting to fall in love with him, and that I also knew he was the wrong man for me. At the end of the residency you changed your flight without asking me so that we could fly part of the way home together, even though you only had a layover in New York, where you would split off for your final destination. You got food poisoning before we left and were asleep for the duration of the flight, taking my hand at one point as your eyes fluttered open for a moment. I sat there in a panic most of the way, surprised to be sad about leaving you, but also not knowing what I was going to do when we landed and my other person would be waiting there to pick me up. I had given into your advances over a greater sadness for him. And you had blindly pushed for something that wasn’t there, driven by the fear of being alone in your thirties. By some miracle, your bags were late to come out in New York. So I kissed you one more time and left you at the baggage carousel, pale and effectively catatonic from the food poisoning, as I walked out with my heart racing to the man waiting for me on the curb. I hurriedly threw my stuff in the trunk and hopped in the front seat. “You don’t say hello?” he said, having no idea what I was walking out of. “Drive!” was the thought going through my mind, as though leaving a crime scene. “Let’s go to the beach,” he said once we were both in the car, ready to go directly there. I wasn’t sure if it was the rush of having somehow pulled off the airport shuffle or being back within the three foot radius of the electro magnetic forcefield around his heart, but when we got to the ocean I kissed him like I had never wanted to kiss anyone in Tbilisi, the way you do in an elevator when you’re having an old world love affair in Europe, the way you do when you’re about to leave someone you love. A month later he confessed to having been with someone else while I was away. We broke up shortly after and I never saw you again, though I did hear that you missed your connecting flight, and are now partnered with someone you met that day in the airport.
We were supposed to meet in the cemetery at 4pm. You were watching Blue Velvet the first time we exchanged messages, so you started calling me Isabella. The next time, you wanted me to come over and watch Hellraiser with you.“That’s too scary,” I said, having never seen it, but remembering the image of the bald guy with a million needles in his face as the epitome of a film my mom said I wasn’t allowed to watch when I was a kid. Instead, I sent you a picture of a woman’s foot wearing a high heel shoe, a band-aid over the nape of her bloody ankle. On the day we were supposed to meet I wore a blue velvet dress, a child’s dress I still had from when I was a girl, but the only thing I owned that fit the description. I draped myself across the grave adorned with the statue of a naked god, a tangle of sea creature women at his feet, which the plaque said were meant to personify vice. I waited all afternoon but you never showed up. Every few months you text me out of the blue. “Isabella,” you say, no matter how many times I don’t answer.
My marriage was falling apart and so was yours. You were a glass blower and lived a few houses down on the same block. We became involved, but hardly spoke to each other. It was like The Piano, a silent affair carried out in gestures. Your wife was away, teaching abroad for a semester, fading into the international distance of a don’t ask don’t tell arrangement so rampant among academics. My husband had been coming home with what I’d begun to call “dead eyes” for a long time now, a phrase that always infuriated him to hear from my mouth, at which point his eyes would instantly grow deader. I had been burying myself in yard work to avoid dealing with him, to dull the pain of seeing him come to life at the slightest chance to engage with anyone but me. You saw me pruning flowers from afar once, as you stood in your yard. The next day I found an empty vase on my doorstep. These messages continued—a shard of glass in the mailbox, a cut tulip in the grate of the door, an accumulation of seeds in the groove of your windshield wiper—small cries for help between two sinking ships. I supplied the contents and you the receptacle. These services were the opposite of what our genders might usually provide. Eventually, we trespassed further across the various lots of property between us, the bedraggled yards of other broken households. In time, I found myself climbing over the fence late at night to reach you, crawling into your bed while my husband snored through the dark of the room we no longer slept in together. Sometimes that’s all we did. Sleep. Sometimes we stayed up till dawn, doing everything but sleeping. “I’ve never done this before,” you said to me one night. “Me neither,” I responded, as we both stared at the ceiling, not knowing what this declaration meant for either of us. Your place was full of beautiful translucent shapes, hollow cylinders I sometimes caught my reflection in, my face a wash of remorse in the colored glass. It wasn’t a remorse for the infidelity or the marriage I was losing. It was a remorse for the fact that I had just lost. You and I weren’t ever going to end up together. Our story had sprung too close to the same ground where our lives were in shambles. But there was some refuge in our exchange for those brief months, a place to rest what could no longer be given to the people we were tied to, people we had exhausted all our words on, talked ourselves into empty vessels there was nothing left to say to. When both of our marriages ended, we didn’t go looking for each other. After the divorce, you sold the house and moved away. There is still a vase you made on display in my kitchen. I keep it up on the highest shelf out of reach. It is always admired by anyone who happens to notice it, but I've never said where I got it from or told anyone about our affair.
You looked at a room I was renting out once, but decided not to take it. You came inside and we chatted for a while, talked about how you thought it was important not to write in the same place you lived, but that I had something worth holding onto here. Years later, you didn’t believe me when I said we had met before, though we’d been connected by a mutual friend. We discovered our birthdays were a day apart. When we got together for drinks we had books by the same author in our bags. You dared me to guess what kind of car you drove. I had an instinct it was a Volvo, though you had the veneer of a beat up Cadillac. “Volvo,” you said, when I didn’t answer quick enough. You ordered a glass of orange wine. It was the same drink I had wanted, but you asked for it first, so I was afraid you thought I had no personality and was just ordering whatever you did. I made a comment about how you appeared to be a “tote bag man.” You asked me if that was worse than being a guy who wears cargo pants. “It’s a toss up,” I said. Then we both agreed that the worst was actually a person who wears those cargo pants that start out as pants but then unzip and turn into shorts. You said the reason it had taken you so long to meet up with me was because you had been tangled up in a chaotic living situation. I took that as a red flag that meant you were getting out of a relationship, or even, still in one, but you explained that in fact, you had recently been accused of stealing and had been kicked out of your apartment. Your landlords were two elderly Jewish ladies who were twins and they were convinced you had taken one of their kimonos, along with a Teflon frying pan. “Everyone knows Teflon is bad for you,” you said, as if grounds for there being no motive for you to abscond with the item, suspecting you had only been singled out for being Latino. You had written a play that was about to go up. When I told you I was coming to opening night with the mutual friend you didn’t believe had connected us, you said that I was great, but that you were getting out of a complicated relationship. You brought the complicated relationship with you to the performance and when you introduced me I realized you didn’t know how to pronounce my name. I tried to correct you but it was loud in the theater, so I don’t think you heard me. The whole thing was pretty humiliating, but I tried to make the best of it. When I got home that night my collection of kimonos bristled against my skin like the hairs of an electrocuted cat from where they hung on the back of my bedroom door. I felt like banging my head with an iron skillet. Teflon wouldn’t have done the trick.
“You can put your things down,” you said, as I clutched my jacket and purse like an old lady on holiday, “we’re all a tribe here.” We met on a dance floor in Paris during “Nuit Blanche,” that sleepless night once every year in October, when there are renegade art installations strewn throughout the city and no one shuts their eyes until sunrise in order to storm the cathedrals to see them. We danced sexy in the middle of the crowd and I let you kiss me in front of everyone. Later, you confessed you lived with your grandmother at the edge of town. We went on a date a few days later and had nothing to talk about. I had just read Anais Nin’s A Spy in the House of Love. So I brought you up to my chambre de bonne and had my way with you. It was my first tryst of this sort and I probably overplayed my assertiveness in an effort to mask being a novice at casual affairs. I had recently slept with a Parisian man, and being new at sex in French, had not fully understood all he had said to me during. I repeated those same phrases with you, as I thought I was supposed to, not knowing they were actually crazy things to say. “It’s always a little funny the first time with someone,” you said bashfully the next morning and I realized you didn’t know what you were doing either, despite your earlier confidence. Then we forgot about sex and just laughed in the obtrusive fluff of the comforter at how you were too big to fit in my room and never saw each other again.
I wrote to you when I was twelve, describing how the leaves were changing in autumn, even though they weren’t where I lived. I asked you what winter was like in Brazil. You were an exchange student our teacher had made us write letters to as a get-to-know-you exercise in anticipation of your arrival. I imagined you as some kind of magical Gael Garcia Bernal who was going to come sweep me off my feet and save me from the ennui of middle school and its barren landscape of romantic prospects. When you finally appeared in the flesh, you were a chubby twelve-year-old who barely spoke English. Of all the letters you received from people in our class, mine was the only one you remembered. “But I’m from Argentina,” you said. Years later, in the last summer of high school, we kissed once on the beach on the 4th of July. It broke my ex-boyfriend’s heart, who you were good friends with. He and I were mixed up in a confusing are-we-together-or-not-scenario. I was 17 and had only ever kissed one person, a secret not even he knew about me, as everyone had assumed the contrary. I kissed you because I had wanted to for years and he’d kept me away from other boys out of some tyrannical sense of ownership I had fought against since we were very young. I know now that it was also because neither of us wanted to admit we were still in love, both struggling with the fact that in a few months we would be going away from each other, having spent our entire childhood intertwined. After discovering us, he left a note at my front door in the middle of the night, as if a page torn from an Edwardian tragedy, saying I had fallen into a “living grave” from which I would never be resurrected. A few sleepless days of starvation and misery later, we realized we couldn’t live without each other, only to go our separate ways in the fall when we headed to different universities. Though that wasn’t nearly the end of our story, the loss I felt that day on the beach was something I had never known before. You and I haven’t spoken since then, but I heard you became an accountant and still live in the Valley. My ex is getting married in the spring and I imagine you’ll be there, though I haven’t RSVP’d. The only options on the invitation were to “joyfully accept” or “regrettably not attend.” While I’d just as well “regrettably accept” or “joyfully not attend,” I will most likely attend…with a mix of joy and regret.