By Elissa Wald
When I was in the eighth grade, a boy in my class (let’s call him A.) stopped talking to me. We’d “gone out” for maybe a week, which meant we’d couple-skated at the roller rink once or twice, and my mother was supposed to drive us to a movie the following Saturday, but I called it off before that could happen. I liked him but I felt squeamish, not yet ready to do things like hold hands or kiss.
A. was slightly pudgy with tinted glasses and listless blond hair. I’d known him for years. Even in elementary school he used words like “relatively” and knew facts like the speed of light. He could play “Another Brick In The Wall” on his trumpet and it was from him that I first heard of the game Dungeons & Dragons.
I don’t remember just how the breakup went, but soon afterward he stopped speaking to me altogether. He wouldn’t reply if I spoke to him. He wouldn’t even look at me. If I tried to badger him into answering, he’d look skyward or off to the side and start whistling through his teeth. If I called him, he’d hang up.
Soon I could think about no one but A. Sometimes I would console myself by imagining a chance meeting with him on the street in 30 years. I took a certain strange comfort in the idea that when we were in our forties, he would surely not still be holding onto this grudge from boyhood.
At that age it didn’t occur to me that reaching 40 was not guaranteed to us. I assumed we had vast swaths of time. I also seem to have assumed on some level that our connection would endure, no matter how many years or even decades it spent on ice.
As it happens, A. and I are in our forties now, and we talk – with mutual warmth – all the time. But by now I’ve come to understand just how far from a foregone conclusion this was. Just before our college graduation, his best friend from those middle-school years – a boy in our class — jumped off a bridge that spanned a deep ravine. And whenever I think of this, the same phrase always comes to me: no water under that bridge.
When I was forty-three, a man – let’s call him B. — unfriended me on Facebook. We had known each other a long time by then.
We’d gone out for maybe a year when I was twenty-one and he was twenty-six. The relationship ended badly and we didn’t see much of each other again for the next decade or so. He was angry at me and it seemed he meant to stay angry. He didn’t want to be friends
Then ten or eleven years after breaking up with him, I was in my neighborhood library when I saw a book he’d written on the “New Releases” shelf. It was a hardcover, deckle-edged and drenched in sepia. I checked the book out of the library, crossed the street to my apartment, and found his fledgling author website. In the event section, it said he’d be reading at a midtown pub later that month.
During our relationship all those years ago, we’d each had dreams of becoming an author. Secretly I’d thought of myself as the better writer. I didn’t think he was especially talented and I didn’t think he would do anything with what talent he had. When he was stressed out, he would lie on the floor of our apartment and crayon aimlessly and this – among many other things — made me squeamish in much the same way that A. had once made me squeamish.
Since that time, I’d published two books. The first one made a racy little splash and was generally — in its small-to-moderate way — well-received. The second one made a lot of the people who knew about it very angry and was a deep source of heartbreak.
B.’s book, on the other hand – his first serious book (as opposed to a couple of packaged ones he’d written for money) – seemed to have every critic in the country prostrate with adulation. The week of the reading, it was emblazoned across the cover of The New York Times book review.
I read this (very fine) book and wrote him a fan letter in response to it. I brought this letter with me to the pub on the night of his reading, wishing to keep a low profile until the moment toward the end of the event when he would be obliged to sign my book. One look at the crowd assured me this would not be difficult. B. was standing in a throng of people at the bar, deep in conversation. I began making my way past them with my head lowered and my face averted. Without a break in whatever he was saying, without even looking in my direction, B. reached out and grabbed my arm.
When I woke the next morning, an email from him was in my inbox. He thanked me for coming and for the letter I’d written him. He suggested that we meet sometime soon and catch up on each other’s lives. He wrote: I’d like to see what the last ten years hath wrought.
He added that as he’d made his way to the pub the evening before, he had a sudden and unequivocal conviction that I would be there.
“What do you think he meant by that?” a friend asked. “Do you think he’s implying you guys have, like, a deep mysterious connection that somehow survived ten years of estrangement and silence?”
I liked this interpretation very much but wasn’t inclined to put stock in it.
“No,” I told her. “I think what he meant was more along the lines of: I knew that little star-fucker would show up for my 15 minutes.”
I recounted this exchange to B. when we met at a bar the following week. I was pleased when it cracked him up.
We hung out quite a lot after that. We met at cafes and drinking spots and parties and parks. We had conversations of seriousness and depth. There was mutual regard and respect between us but I could tell he was still angry and would always be angry.
One day I emailed him and said I was getting married. He wrote back and said he was getting married too. I invited him to my wedding but he didn’t come and didn’t invite me to his in return. Soon afterward we each moved with our respective partners to the west coast (though not to anywhere near each other).
Within a few years, we were friends on Facebook. I gave birth to a daughter and then a son. His wife gave birth to a son and then a daughter. I had stopped writing altogether after the heartbreak of my second book. B. published his own second book, which won one staggeringly prestigious award after another.
We wrote occasional messages back and forth. Mine tended to be warm and congratulatory. His were on the cool side and included the occasional barb. He was still angry and would always be angry.
One evening he posted a video clip of himself in a swimsuit, walking out of a lake. In response I wrote: “Looking good, old man.” It was the kind of flippant comment I wrote all the time, that I’d write to anyone, but by the next morning, I was no longer on his friend list. His wife had thought I’d crossed an inappropriate line.
I was shocked by this information, blindsided by it. As with A., I tried to undo the damage, though I knew it was indelible, futile. If he had promised his wife that he would cut me off, he could hardly reverse himself, then or ever. In 30 years or so, it would somehow probably be all right, but we didn’t have 30 years anymore. That is, maybe we did, of course it was possible, but chances were that at least one of us would be dead before then.
Being unfriended by him was a blow. I felt awful about it. I still feel awful about it.
And yet… how can I put this? I also felt – as I’d always felt, as I continue to feel — warmed through by his anger, like a transient by a trash can fire on a frigid night.
Looking good, old man.
A moment ago, in the story of my Facebook break-up with B., I said I’d write that kind of comment to anyone. But to be truthful, I wrote precisely the same comment to many other people, including a different ex — a guy I’d dated in high school (we’ll call him C.). His wife did not get at all upset about it. In fact, soon afterward, she sent a present to my son.
The last time I’d seen C. was during my final year in college. I was in my hometown for spring break (C. was back after a stint in the Navy) and we ended up in bed together. We didn’t have sex; I crashed at his place late one night, more or less for the sake of convenience, and we did nothing beyond making out a little bit in a desultory way before drifting off on the futon mattress laid across the floor of his rented room.
Early the next morning, we were woken by the phone. A former classmate was calling with the news that A.’s best friend had jumped off a bridge.
A. of course was at the funeral, where we hugged, maybe for the first time in our lives. Afterward he offered to drive me to the airport for my flight back to New York and decades went by before I was in touch with C. again.
As with A. and B., Facebook was my means of re-connecting with him, though only online. He was married by then — as I was — and he lived on another continent. We had a wide online circle of mutual classmates and we exchanged direct messages every now and again.
C. had no residual anger toward me, not even secretly. His attitude toward me was kindly and it left me warmed through in a different way than B.’s anger left me warmed through. We didn’t correspond often but when we did, it was as if he were reaching across the miles and years – in a tender, steadying, comradely way — to cup the back of my head with his palm.
The gift his wife sent my son was in response to a story I’d posted about my children. I’d recounted the wishes each of them had made after tossing pennies into a fountain. My daughter wished that no one in the whole world would die. My son wished for a dragon’s egg.
As it happened, C’s wife had recently created a huge paper-mache egg and painted one side to look as if a dragon were hatching from it. She was now wondering (according to C.) whether my son would like it.
I told him my son would be thrilled with such a gift. “Now if you could just arrange for no one in the whole world to die,” I added.
C’s wife boxed up this egg and sent it across the ocean to us. Now here, I remember thinking, is a healthy, happy marriage, and a wife who knows she has nothing to worry about.
Less than a year later, C. wrote to tell me they were getting a divorce. Even more startling than this news was the way it opened the floodgates for the kind of conversation we never could have had during the previous several years. There was nothing but friendship between us and his separation from his wife didn’t change that. But there was also a raw intimacy that simply could not have surfaced within the confines of his marital commitment to someone else.
I considered suicide frequently, he wrote about the terrible last year of their marriage, which was new, although I never got farther than putting a knee and hand onto a bridge railing and staying there for 15 minutes or so before backing away in tears. Ah, here are those tears now.
In high school, a girl (D.) – whom I barely knew — became intensely devoted to me. She would give me money for no reason and I would take it. She would write about me in her journal every night and give me the pages to read the next day and I would read them. She would walk me home and once we were there, if I expressed an idle longing for something – like, say, Chinese takeout for dinner — she would walk alone to the Chinese restaurant and back (a round trip of four or five miles) and bring me whatever I wanted. I never tried to dissuade her.
This would have made many if not most people uncomfortable but it seemed I had a taste for it. If she were fawning or obsequious, maybe I would have kept her at more of a distance, but she wasn’t. She was quiet and self-contained. She sought nothing from me, not affection or anything else. She was tall and lean with blue eyes and high cheekbones and her handsomeness became stunningly apparent when she cut off most of her long hair.
The dynamics of domination and submission are a central preoccupation of mine and I had only recently understood this and been able to name it. In light of this, I believed I understood D. I decided that she was a slave and her craving was to serve and I was fulfilling her deepest emotional need. If her devotion was very gratifying to me in turn — well, I was less explicit about this, even to myself. At any rate, we didn’t talk about it, not back then.
Since high school, my contact with D. has been sparse. As with the others, Facebook resurrected it. On the rare occasions I’ve posted a plea for one fundraiser or another, she has sent money. She has sent letters and the occasional gift through regular mail. The last time I was in New York, she drove down to the city from her home upstate and met me at a coffeehouse in Harlem.
And a couple of days later, in the midst of a snowstorm predicted to be the worst the city had ever seen — despite the widespread panic, the cancellation of civic events across all five boroughs, the mayor’s pleas that city residents remain inside their homes — she offered to drive back into the city and get me.
Not long ago, we had the following exchange:
Me: “So, you know, I see everything through the lens of bdsm. And the older I get, the more riveted I am on that quaint point on the bdsm spectrum belonging to the service-oriented submissive. So this is my own lens, and I might be projecting, but that was the meaning I assigned to our relationship in high school. I didn’t treat you the way I treated other people. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t respect you. I actually had wild respect for you within what I saw as your chosen role. I thought you were great at it. You were so tortured but you never whined, you were incredibly tough and stoic in your way, intensely dignified. You would have bled to death before you’d call attention to your own needs. I’m not saying this is healthy or ideal, just excellent form in the alternate universe I lived in. Does this make sense at all?”
D: “Absolutely. I did aspire to that in high school and still have to be careful about it… I had a ton of energy to be stoic and serve others and you had a ton of room to receive it without being too uncomfortable, so it was perfect back in the day. You really helped me a great deal.”
I thought then about how outsiders would likely call these dynamics pathological, without an inkling of the deep lifelong comfort such bonds can create. When I saw D. through the window of that coffeehouse, sitting there in her butch finery, her tailored button-down shirt with the rolled-up sleeves, holding The New York Times with both hands, I was all but overcome. It was such a strange and deep relief just to see her through the window that I almost wept.
On another recent occasion, I wrote to her: “You know, I’m pretty much spiritually bankrupt in that I have no conviction about anything, but I do believe this: that there are people we are bound to (mysteriously sometimes) within a lifetime, people who keep showing up, coming back; connections that change shape and go underground for long stretches of time but never finally fade. I can’t help feeling we’re connected in that way.”
“I share your belief,” she wrote back.
If D. was my servant, I was E.’s. That wasn’t my official title, of course. E. was the blind CEO of a busy company and officially, I was his executive assistant.
My path to this position was unusual. One day, a friend asked whether I’d like to make some extra cash from time to time: her friend E. wanted a backup reader for when his regular one was unavailable. He needed someone to read him all manner of materials: contracts, articles, business correspondence, personal mail.
Reading to a blind person sounded to me like a charitable endeavor. It appealed to my sense of sanctimony. The fact that I could get paid for it was welcome yet incidental.
I went to his home in Brooklyn the first time. I don’t know who I was expecting to find there: someone hapless and grateful, maybe? E. was a surprise; he was suave and assertive with self-assurance to burn. From the very first moment, it was thrillingly clear that he wasn’t my good deed for the day. He was my boss.
He had a guide dog named Mr. Rogers. This reminded me of a long essay I’d just read about the real Mr. Rogers, one I suddenly felt sure that E. would like. I went home that evening and spent more than an hour reading this essay into my microcassette recorder. It was the first of ten thousand things I would decide, of my own accord, to do for him.
I was a very good reader: fast and focused and tireless and precise and willing to go on until my voice was gone. Soon I was reading for him on a regular basis and then I was working in his office as his full-time admin. I brought him coffee every morning just the way he liked it and got him whatever he wanted for lunch each afternoon. I came early and stayed late and showed up on weekends whenever he asked. I learned Braille for him so I could label his file folders and transcribe his memos in meetings. I did anything I could think of to make his life easier, more convenient and more pleasant.
During this time, my workdays were suffused with an erotic longing, not for physical contact but just to be of service. Serving E. gratified me more than anything else in my life at that time. I loved him ardently and the office was where I most wanted to be. In contrast to everyone else I knew, I felt forlorn on Friday afternoons and elated on Monday mornings.
Years later, after I got married and then pregnant, I moved from New York to the west coast and didn’t see E. for almost a decade. During a visit to the city not long ago, I asked if he’d meet me for coffee. He was standing outside the place at our agreed-upon time when I came up and touched his arm. “E., it’s me,” I said.
He turned in my direction. “You look exactly the same,” he cracked.
One night in New York City, when I was in my early thirties, I noticed that Mink — my tiny lilac-point Siamese cat — seemed listless, unresponsive. She wasn’t interested in her usual dinner or any of her treats. She wouldn’t even bother with catnip.
Neil was the neighbor across the hall. I went and knocked on his door. A woman (F.) I’d never seen before opened it. I later learned that she was renting one of his rooms.
“Is Neil home?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Can I help you with anything?”
“Well, I think something might be wrong with my cat. I wanted Neil to take a look at her. Just for a second opinion.”
“Would you like me to take a look?”
“Sure,” I said. “If you wouldn’t mind.”
F. followed me back to my own apartment, where she agreed that the cat seemed unwell.
It was ten o’clock at night, but I didn’t want to wait until morning, so I put Mink in a carrier, hailed a cab, and brought her to an all-night animal clinic.
It took a day and a half for the tests to come back and the results were devastating. Mink had advanced cancer and they did not recommend aggressive measures.
“But she was just fine until this week!” I sobbed to the veterinary tech. “If the cancer is so advanced, how could there have been no sign of it until now?”
She told me that this was a common scenario, that cats were very stoic and they tended to seem fine until they really, really weren’t.
I agreed not to subject Mink to futile and invasive treatment. I agreed to let her be put to sleep. The tech brought us to an empty room and asked if I’d like some time alone with Mink before letting her go. I said yes.
This tech was so patient and so kind. She told me she would come back in fifteen minutes. And when she did, her question was not: “Are you ready to do this?” Her question was: “Do you need another 15 minutes?”
Yes, I told her, I did need another 15 minutes. “That’s absolutely fine,” she said. “You take all the time you need.”
She left. She came back again. “Do you need another 15 minutes?” she asked.
This went on for at least an hour and a half. Whatever her private feelings, she didn’t reveal a flicker of impatience. Finally I held Mink gently in my arms as the tech gave her two injections: first a tranquilizer and then the lethal dose. It was as swift and peaceful as I could have hoped but I was inconsolable.
Afterward, we went through the same ritual all over again. It was illegal to bury an animal in Manhattan. The clinic arranged for the cremation of all pets who passed away in their care. She asked if I’d like some time with Mink before consigning her body to the staff. I told her I would.
She left and I stood by the window, cradling Mink against my chest. I had been at the clinic all afternoon and now the sun was setting. I stood there and held Mink’s lifeless body and cried and cried. I stroked her silvery fur. I pressed my cheek against hers. I crooned Ben Harper’s “Waiting On An Angel.” Every now and then, the tech would show up and ask whether I needed another fifteen minutes. I said yes again and again.
When I finally left the clinic, she showed me out the back door. She did not want me to have to walk, with my empty carrier, past all the people in the waiting room with their pets.
That evening, there was a knock at my door. I opened it and F. was standing there holding two cans of tuna.
“How is your cat?” she asked. “I brought her some very special fish. No cat I’ve ever known has been able to resist it.”
I had given myself over to one crying jag after another for the past 48 hours and now I felt flat, spent, my tear ducts drained dry.
“She’s dead,” I said.
“Oh,” F. said. She looked genuinely stricken. “Oh, I am so very sorry to hear this.”
We were silent for a moment and then she said: “May I hug you?”
I was taken aback. It was the kind of request strangers in New York did not make.
“Okay,” I said after a long moment. She stepped across the threshold and put her arms around me. I put a perfunctory hand on her back and then, after another moment, I gave her shoulder an awkward pat or two as a prelude to withdrawal, and when she still didn’t let go I finally put both my arms around her in return and we stood there like this for much longer than was usual or seemly. And that was that.
Later, after F. had become like a sister to me, we talked about how we would not have connected – not then, maybe not ever, and certainly not with the same intensity – if not for Mink’s abrupt decline and death. We trotted out the fanciful notion that Mink had somehow led us to each other. That our friendship was like a flower rooted in earth that had absorbed her ashes.
A conversation with G., from a few years ago, on Facebook Messenger:
G.: “You know what’s funny? My chat list is blank right now.”
G.: “I’m supposed to be talking to you and only you.”
Me: “Mine is blank too, I think FB is being wonky.”
G.: “Facebook and its wonky bugs are a direct expression of God. It’s not a coincidence.”
Me: “The manic interpretation is we are meant to talk only to each other.”
G.: “Yes. You can call me manic if it makes you feel better.”
This wasn’t G.’s first psychotic break. It was her third. As with the first two, she was in near-constant contact with me. And as with the first two, I was mesmerized by her mania.
Within in this altered state, she was wonderfully forthright, intensely self-respecting, ablaze with conviction: qualities that did not distinguish her in her regular life. She fervently believed in God (though in real life she was agnostic). She saw signs and connections everywhere; there were no coincidences and no accidents. Every chance happening held a message from the universe. If she was talking on her cell phone and the call was dropped, for instance, it was because the person on the other line wasn’t ready to absorb her truth.
She declared that the world as we knew it was an illusion, like in The Matrix, or Plato’s Cave. She spent a lot of money and gave more of it away. Money was nothing to her during these interludes; it didn’t matter. Privacy was nothing to her either. She would never again need to lock a door, or hide her journal, and if the weather were warm she wouldn’t even need to wear clothes. You could ask her anything – anything! — and hear an honest answer. She had nothing to hide from anyone, ever again.
And though she tended, when all was as usual, to need more sleep than the average person, while manic she needed none at all. She was willing, indeed eager, to talk late into the night.
She was brimming over with love. She loved even the people she disliked as her regular self; perhaps she loved them even more than the people she normally enjoyed. If I seemed to hold a special place in her heart during her manic interludes, it was in keeping with this inverse correlation; our friendship had been fraught with difficulty since high school. During our worst moments she found me bullying, manipulative, self-serving, and imperious while I thought her wishy-washy, passive-aggressive and somewhat of a Pollyanna.
All these vestiges of the regular G. vanished in mania, as did the aspects of my character that were the most hurtful to her. When she was no longer a patsy, I was no longer a bully. Just as a baseball is big next to a marble and small beside a beach ball, none of our defining qualities existed in a vacuum but only in relation to each other. And so we were both transformed by her transformation: a dazzling epiphany, on par with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Really just a different facet of relativity.
I felt guilty for enjoying the manic G. but it was undeniable that I did. I even wondered whether she could be onto something – if mania really were an exalted spiritual state, one that wasn’t tenable in the world we lived in but which might represent genuine transcendence nonetheless. Didn’t countless spiritual traditions rely on many of the same tenets that G. was now espousing? Didn’t most of them ask us to give away our money, love our neighbor, see God’s will as manifest in everything and believe that this world was just an illusion?
Not long before G.’s third psychotic episode, I read a New Yorker article about a bipolar woman, one that would precisely describe the “split self” G. experienced during her second and third bouts mania:
She seemed to accept the premises of two conflicting realities, a phenomenon known as “double bookkeeping,” in which psychotic patients who are able to distinguish reality from fantasy go on living and believing in both. Even the patient convinced that he is Christ will abide by hospital curfew and take out the trash. People rarely lack insight in an absolute sense… she kept away from anyone who could challenge her interpretation of the world.
The first time G. became manic, she had no frame of reference for the revelations and messages that were coming at her, so hard and fast, for the first time in her life. By round 3, she remembered having been in this cherished place before, just as she remembered being hospitalized and wrested out of it. She had become extraordinarily canny about presenting herself as grounded and reasonable while spiraling ever deeper down her own fantastical rabbit hole.
As a result, no one around her believed she was in the midst of a third break: not her parents or her friends or our mutual friend Jon who’d struggled with psychosis himself and knew the signs of it well. G’s husband was out of state on a months-long work assignment, but he discerned nothing amiss in their e-mail correspondence or phone conversations. Even her psychiatrist saw no cause for alarm. I felt it was up to me to draw her out and then ultimately, distressingly, turn her in.
And therein lay the tension always present during these manic episodes — the tension of inevitable betrayal. To take her up on her offer, for instance, to answer any question — to get her to reveal anything she would otherwise keep private: this would be a betrayal of the everyday G. Just as getting her to expose her psychosis — so she would be hospitalized and restored — was a betrayal of the manic G.
Recently G. – the regular G. – and I had this conversation:
Me: “One of the reasons I think you are so riveted on me while manic is that I split off into two, myself, in a way. You inspire and encourage a split.”
G.: “You mean, part of you comes with me? More than anyone else can? That is true.”
Me: “At those times, I half wonder whether mania could truly be a higher spiritual plane, one we’re not equipped to deal with here, and I just hang on your words, some of which are stark raving mad but some of which are true and illuminating.
G.: “I think mania is like childhood. It is a higher spiritual plane in so many ways, and yet you need adults to make sure you don’t get hurt.”
Me: “So I coax you out to play and get you to reveal yourself fully and then when it becomes alarming — like when you said life is like a game on a three-dimensional screen and if your kids died, it really would be okay because they wouldn’t truly be dead — I’m the one who takes the “evidence” to people like your sister, who can then make your parents get on the next plane.”
G.: “Yes, that was very helpful!”
Me: “I was protecting you but I also felt that I’d betrayed you. I betrayed the manic G. and my special friendship with her.”
G.: “Honey. I’m grateful for what you did, getting my family involved.”
The manic G. is a different friend from the everyday G., one I’ve only gotten to visit with every few years. I’m enchanted by her. Affected and moved by her. I miss her sometimes. And I hope I never hear from her again.
H.’s cardinal value is truth. She wants honesty at any cost, even if it means hearing you don’t like her favorite movie or whatever she was planning to serve for dessert.
Even – truly — if it means understanding that her husband and one of her best friends are hot for each other and harbor a mutual wish to get it on. When that happened, she said: “You know what? You guys probably need to ride out whatever is going on between you. I’m thinking once you do that, you’ll be done, but if not — if what you have together is honestly better than what we already have – then so. be. it. I’m not going to stand in the way of whatever needs to be.”
She was right. Very soon they were done, then and forever. Her marriage is still full of joy and going strong after 20 years. The other woman is still among her closest friends.
H. is wildly loved here in this world and yet she never entirely feels a sense of belonging here. She describes herself as having one foot in this life and the other in the next. She believes there will be a next; she believes in death as a transition rather than an ending; she believes in reincarnation; she believes in God (though not the Judeo-Christian God).
I don’t believe in any of these things. I don’t believe in a benevolent universe either. I don’t think everything happens for a reason. I don’t think we are here to learn lessons.
But H. and I share a dread of small talk, of safe talk. We share a love of the words she lives by: go deep or go home.
And we share a belief in souls. I’ve told her that souls are about the only thing I do believe in, though I don’t know just what I mean by that.
After we’d known each other for several months, H. and her husband invited my husband and me to take part in a wine ceremony, a private ritual that has been a regular part of their life together for more than two decades.
At wine ceremonies, they sit around a table with select family members or friends. Everyone wears a blindfold. Everyone has a glass of wine and access to more. They play recorded music they’ve prepared in advance: usually five hours’ worth at least.
The first several tracks on the playlist are wordless. H.’s husband leads a guided meditation. It’s easy to reach a trancelike state. After a while, anyone who wants to propose a toast can speak at any time.
Some of these toasts begin: “O my beloved God….” Some of them begin: “Oh, my beloved friends….” Any prelude is acceptable. Mine tend to start with: “My companions….” And by this I mean my true companions, my soul companions: something beyond friends, which H. and her husband have become.
As each person speaks, everyone else at the table repeats his or her words.
“Oh my beloved friends… ”
“Oh my beloved friends…”
“I speak to you with an open heart…”
“I speak to you with an open heart…”
“With love and trust…”
“With love and trust…”
“And no fear of judgment…”
“And no fear of judgment…”
…and so on, in a kind of spoken meditation on friendship or vulnerability or authenticity or the universe or love or trust or life or truth, until the message concludes with:
“…so be it.”
“…so be it!”
And then everyone reaches out and clinks glasses and drinks.
To encourage unbridled expression, and to create a sense of emotional safety, the others at the table echo each spoken fragment with as much intensity as they can muster. It’s hard to describe how gratifying this is, but the underlying message sent and received each time is: we are with you.
Another thing they sometimes do is to go around and around the table, asking each person to complete a proposed statement or thought. One of these is: “I have always been…”
These, too, are echoed:
“I have always been…”
“I have always been…”
“I have always been…”
“I have always been…”
H. and her husband usually fill in these blanks with words that affirm their worth and strength. I have always been free. I have always been powerful. I have always been whole. I have always been complete. I have always been enough.
I choose words that seem to go in a different direction altogether, but no one minds this. There’s no pressure to conform. I can say whatever comes to me.
I have always been tender, I said during my first ceremony. I have always been in search of mercy.
No spoken expression, no show of emotion is inappropriate in a wine ceremony. No display is too unseemly. People have keened and wept and howled and shouted and stripped off their clothing and stood on the furniture and leveled accusations and declared their love.
All this appeals to me much more than it does to my husband. After the second one, he was done. I came to the third one by myself.
I sat at the table with my blindfold on, listening to the words of a song called Utopia. In the singer’s idea of Utopia, we’d gather around… all in a room… and then do a lot of other things, essentially the same things that are done in a wine ceremony:
We would stay and respond and expand and include
and allow and forgive and enjoy and evolve
and discern and inquire and accept and admit
and divulge and open and reach out and speak up…
I sat there without seeing and listened to the music and thought about soul mates. I wondered if “mate” could be a verb instead of a noun, wondered if our souls mate with many people in different ways within a lifetime. And I also wondered — if mate had to be a noun – whether it was closer in spirit to the ‘mate’ in ‘playmate’ than to the version of the word that means a partner. I thought about this essay, which was in progress, and the fact that the people in it did not represent an all-inclusive list of intimates by any stretch. They don’t represent my innermost circle either. I haven’t included my husband. I haven’t included my wife (which is how I refer to my very closest female friend of more than 30 years).
At the outset I wrote about several others as well, who ultimately didn’t seem to belong in the essay for reasons mysterious even to me.
I tried to think of what the ones who belonged had in common and the words that kept coming to me were water under the bridge. It’s a phrase that’s used in a few different ways, but almost always it seems to signal forgiveness. Like maybe once you were angry about this or that, but now it’s water under the bridge. Or when explaining why you feel loyalty to an unlikely or difficult person, you might say, well, there’s a lot of water under that bridge.”
But when I hear the expression, I picture a floating bridge, one laid down on the water itself, one that’s always shifting underfoot. There’s the path we’re walking on. And there’s the current coursing along beneath it, mostly unseen but always there: the entire history of our desires and defeats, infatuations and attachments, exiles and silences, lessons and regrets.
It’s with this image in mind that I lift my glass.
And after I’ve struggled to put some of it into words, we reach toward each other. We bring our glasses together in the dark. And we drink.
So be it.
Elissa Wald is a freelance writer, editor, and the author of several books, including The Secret Lives Of Married Women (Hard Case Crime) and Meeting The Master (Grove Press). She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two children.
Soul Mate 101 and Other Essays on Love and Sex, an anthology of twenty-one essays edited by Jennifer Niesslein, showcases the range of where love can take us at mid-life: a divorced woman dates a younger man; a woman with a brain injury forgets her relationship is over; the perfect love song haunts a man’s life; a widow finds a new soul mate; a woman advises against marrying a soul mate, if you happen to find one. The stellar line-up of writers include Megan Stielstra, Elissa Wald, Catherine Newman, Dionne Ford, and Sarah Einstein. The paperback is available exclusively at Full Grown People.