It has been seven years since I hung up on R. and never called back. Since then I have moved a thousand miles from where we lived together, stopped avoiding the dentist, bought a sofa and some decent china, learned how to drive on black ice. My credit limit has quadrupled, though my income hasn’t. I helped a baby llama to be born and dyed my hair blonde. A man in Alabama ran a red light, causing my grandfather to be fatally stabbed by his own femur. Two weeks later his wife, my grandmother, ate one breakfast in her new nursing home and simply stopped breathing. I was married that month in a small Michigan inn. The minister invoked the Elephant Man in his remarks—I still am not sure why—and in my daze I confused my David Lynch films and thought he was talking about Eraserhead. My father had melanoma and my mother had a face-lift and I had my gall bladder pulled out through my belly button. The dog turned seventeen last month, though this may very well be the last week of her life—I am waiting for a phone call from my parents, which I may or may not answer. I returned to the town where R. and I met and wondered how it was we never noticed we were living in a slum.
It has been seven years since I spoke to R. and I may never speak to him again, yet if I had my way he would know these things about me. R. and I don’t speak, but I am relieved when I open The New Yorker and see new poems by his grandmother. We had dinner together at her house once, us and R.’s grandparents and an elderly male couple. One of the men was a novelist and the other one had written for The Alfred Hitchcock Show but had apparently been blocked ever since. “Whatever you do, don’t ask Whit about writing,” we were admonished as they walked up the driveway. There was lots of scotch and wine but not much food. R. starved when he visited his grandparents and said that at a certain age they must have decided they’d eaten enough for one lifetime. That was my introduction to one kind of writing life: a house in New Hampshire for summers only, cocktails before almost any meal, a nervous hired cook who spilled the asparagus. It seemed hilarious that we slept in separate rooms that night, and for months afterward we wondered what exactly would’ve happened if one of us had asked, “So, Whit, how goes the writing?” A few years ago the novelist who accompanied Whit to dinner died, and when I read the obituary I wanted to know if R. still thought about that night. But R. and I don’t talk, and we may never talk again.
At my last office job, someone put on my desk a CD containing millions of addresses and phone numbers. It obsessed me for days. I looked up old boyfriends, girls who were mean to me in high school, my beloved first grade teacher. I looked up my cousins and my parents and my in-laws and myself. The fact that my own listing was inaccurate didn’t bother me, because I had no intention of calling or writing any of these people. If there is an opposite of a stalker, it’s me. I feel guilty about calling back people who’ve asked me to. When my old therapist (who had abandoned me to move to Chicago and be near her fiancé or some such nonsense) called to see if I had completely dissolved into craziness yet, I worried that returning the call would earn me a Patient Who Won’t Let Go notation. All I needed from the names on that CD was to know they were there. I’m not sure why it matters so much, any more than I know why I look up the name Coulter in every motel phone book I encounter. When I decided not to take my husband’s last name, I had a list of good solid defenses: feminism, continuity in my writing career, blah blah blah (as it turned out, no one really cared). But the true, selfish reason I kept my own name is that I want to be traceable. If someone I knew in the tenth grade is feeling lonely or dislocated, or is just thinking about the girls she listened to “Darling Nikki” with in her parents’ basement, I want her to be able to see my name in black and white and know that I’m still on the earth.
Last year I sent a letter to a man, a music writer, who’d been my lover for a funny, fluky weekend and my pen pal for years afterwards. We’d fallen out of touch when I was in my early twenties—actually, it was during the years I was spending all my energy on getting R. to love me and on being as thin as possible, also so that R. would love me. Cleaning out my file cabinet I’d come across an extraordinary eight-page letter this man, who was old enough to be smarter than me but younger than I am now, wrote me after the weekend we spent together, a letter full of faith in me and my future. Rereading it last year, I was overwhelmed by its optimism and generosity. I could also finally see that he’d been right, and I wrote to tell him so, taking great pains to explain who I was in case he’d forgotten. To my amazement he wrote back immediately. Of course he remembered me, he said. In fact, he still had the brown sweater we’d burned a hole in, and whenever he looked at it he wondered if I was still alive and if so, how my life was going, and what was really funny was that he’d just visited Ann Arbor on a quest to see the house Iggy Pop had shared with the MC5.
After I’d spent a constructive afternoon ruminating on the ways I might have been dead at twenty-seven, I started to think of my friend walking the streets of Ann Arbor in his “Iggy Pop Changed My Life” t-shirt (everywhere he went, he later wrote in an essay, women told him stories of one-night stands with Iggy) while I bought my groceries and returned my library books not five miles away. I believe in coincidence and the near-miss; I am the sucker who takes movies like Red or The Double Life of Veronique as gospel truth and squints hard at everyone she meets for days afterward. The chances that we crossed paths that week in Ann Arbor are practically nil, of course, but it could have happened and we might never have known it. It doesn’t even matter. I just like it that for a little while we bumped around in the same sphere again.
R. and I have friends, a college, three years in common, but even sharing a house we lived in hopelessly separate spheres. I dream about him, though, and in that way he’s part of my life, like a splinter covered over, or dry cleaning I forgot to pick up. In one dream I see him in a theater. Someone in his family has died, and I pick my way across the rows to tell him I’m sorry, and he looks at me with enough contempt to jolt me awake. In other dreams we stand next to each other at a company picnic, of all things, and chat about the weather, the movies, the potato salad, and he seems like a pleasant enough guy. I wake thinking how easy friendship is when you mean nothing to each other.
There’s a moment near the end of Angels in
America where Harper Pitt, the timid Mormon wife, sits up near the sky
and imagines that the souls of the dead make a net which keeps the rest
of us on the earth. But I don’t want to float that far to know that
I belong here. So I look up strangers who share my name. I
play Six Degrees of Separation on car trips, and feel guilty and thrilled
to learn I’m three degrees from the Unabomber. I send my dog a get-well
card and hope she’ll tear it apart, because that’s how she reads her mail,
and a dog who still reads her mail can’t die. And I wake up wondering
how R. would feel about being in my dreams. Smug, I think, but maybe
not. He is seven years older, and maybe he also needs a net of souls close
by, even the souls of people he never really knew.