122 / 365 – Pictures of the ocean

SARAH BERGMAN

That day I remember, it started off as one thing, and by the end of the day, the end of the night, it had become a completely different thing. And I thought, You didn’t have any idea about what was going on, that whole time. Now I look back and think, that’s the story of my life. Especially at that age, in your twenties, you go along, and you’re trying to make smart decisions, figure out what’s going on. Everybody is always hitting you with questions. What are you doing to do with your life? How are you going to make any money? When are you going to get married? Especially when you’re in a graduate program, spending all of this money to get a Master of Fine Arts. And you’re doing poetry and photography and you can’t decide which. (So like me, that I can’t decide which, between two things.) You go home for the holidays and your parents’ friends say, “Can you really make enough money photographing weddings. Or people’s babies?” And you say, “I’m not doing weddings. Or babies.” And they look at you like you just mumbled something in Spanish. Or worse, they’re looking at you and thinking, You’re spending all that money for … poetry? 

So maybe I had a reason to be confused in those days. Maybe it would have been nice if I could have been a little smarter.

Erik was doing poetry, so that’s how we met. I had seen him at parties. Yeah, he caught my eye. He had a smile that would draw you over. I remember a reception at the department lounge, one of those wine-and-cheese things they did where there was never enough cheese and too much wine. I was talking to someone and I mentioned my friend Lies, who I had come with and who they didn’t know, and so I was looking around the room for her, not seeing her immediately, and my eye caught Erik. He was talking with a couple of people, one of them was a visiting professor, a quite-good poet actually that we were all excited to have a workshop with, and it was his smile. He wasn’t looking in my direction at all, but it caught me, just for a moment. And I totally forgot what I was doing. I turned back to the person I was talking to and my mind was suddenly a blank. Like I had suddenly entered my body from somewhere else and had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. She smiled and said, “Your friend Lies?” And I said, “Oh, yes, sorry, I just spaced out for a second.” And we went on talking. But I looked back over his direction again.

We didn’t actually meet until second semester. It was a workshop. I remembered him from that reception, and I decided to sit near him, although that first day, he was working so hard to get the two women sitting on either side of him to laugh and I thought, My god, leave it alone already. He always wanted to make people around him laugh. I don’t know if he’s still like that. Usually when we see each other now, he’s mad about some imagined thing I’ve done. I only see that smile when it’s turned on Leah. But at least he still does it.

I didn’t realize then how much this clown act of his was masking this deep sadness he carries around. I think he’s been dragging that around all his life, but it wasn’t OK in his family. Around here, I’ve been learning, people are kind, but they work hard. They expect you to drag yourself out of bed and get to the day, whether you’re up or down, whether you’re feeling good, or not. And his family just takes that to some warped degree. If you’re feeling something, they just don’t want to hear about it. So he learned to mask it by making people laugh. Because nobody ever minds a laugh. It makes the hard work go faster.

So, by, I don’t know, the second or third class, I had given up on sitting near him or talking to him. I mean, you could listen to him, be a part of this hilarious monologue he had going, but it wasn’t talking. But then, though, it was his day to read. I think he only read two poems, and they were both pretty short. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was having a hell of a time, just practically killing himself, to finish anything, to finish just one little poem. Kind of the story of his life, although I didn’t know anything about the story of his life. Just the monologue version of it. Anyway, one of the things he read, it was a guy waking up in a hospital room after a terrible accident. He doesn’t even remember the accident or what’s happened. Then he remembers that he was on his way to ask his true love to marry him. He remembers because the nurse says there was a ring in his pocket. He’s feeling around for his feet and his toes and his groin and he can’t feel them at all. He realizes he’s more awake than he’s ever been in his life. But he’s paralyzed.

It probably sounds kind of trite, summarized like that. I remember, I was just stunned. It was so brief, so perfectly put together, it just kind of slammed you. The whole class was quiet when he finished that one. I should recite it, to do it justice, so you’d understand why I was so moved, why the whole class was. I think I’ve blotted it out, though. After all the stuff that happened.

A bunch of us went out afterward, a big circle around him. It was his moment. For a little while, while people bought him a couple rounds of beers, I think he enjoyed basking in it. But then I could see it sort of leaving him. Somehow we ended up peeling off and walking home together, through the streets of Boston. We didn’t take the straight path. We wanted to talk. Everything opened up. He was not like any guy I had ever met.

We didn’t start seeing each other that night, but it wasn’t long after. I don’t know why I didn’t. It’s not as though I never jumped into things. I think I was just too awed by home. And maybe it was him, maybe he didn’t want to yet. He was trying to see who I was. He was really awake with me, like that guy in the poem, really paying attention. But I don’t think he trusted that his legs would work if he needed to run.

You have these little fragments about a person, and you think you know something about them. I just had these little things, the smile from across the room, the guy who talked on and on, keeping everyone laughing. The feelings those two poems brought up inside, all of these feelings and memories that now seemed shared.  And a few other things he had written, which he let me read when I finally went to his room. I thought to myself, How could someone have written something like that if he wasn’t like me? You put these fragments together and they make a sort of a picture, and you look at that picture and you decide if you like it, if it’s safe, if it’s somewhere you want to be. But really, falling in love with someone is like letting yourself fall into the ocean. You’re completely submerged. It’s not a picture, it’s a whole world, surrounding you. And with a current that will pull you where it will. But you don’t see the ocean. You keep thinking you’re in that picture now.

We became lovers but it wasn’t a big public thing at first. We were both in the program together, so that made it complicated. You’re with this small group of people all the time, and you’re competing with each other but trying to be supportive of each other and you see each other too much and you sort of know the worst things about each other. And then two of you hook up. You feel like it’s going to mess everything up and maybe you should just keep quiet about it. Maybe that was what was going on, I don’t know. I question everything now, can’t you tell? We saw each other a few times a week and I was completely swept away by him. But we still had our separate lives. And that’s why I could have fallen so hard for him and had no clue.

It was probably two months later, he called me and asked if I could give him a ride somewhere. I had a car, one of the few people who did. It was really stupid in Boston, having to move it around all the time, having to look for the one parking space in the whole neighborhood. I had it because somehow we had thought I should have a safe way to get home late at night. When actually most of the reason I was out walking the streets at night alone is because I was walking back to my apartment from some distant parking space. Anyway, people would ask for rides from time to time, since I had that car. But this was late in the evening, and kind of out of the blue.

He didn’t say where we were going. He said it was complicated and he’d just give me directions, and somehow he made it funny and I laughed and I didn’t worry about it. I didn’t know the part of town where we were going, but as we went further in, I could see it was getting worse and worse. I was panicking. He could see that, he tried to make a joke, but I could see he was tense, too, although I didn’t really understand what was going on with that, either. We were driving down a really narrow street and a lot of the cars looked abandoned. Finally he says, “Right here.” There wasn’t really anywhere to park but he wanted me to wait there, in the driveway. There were a couple of lights on and the window was covered with a deep red fabric. It did not look welcoming. The street was dark and I thought I could see someone in the shadows. I suddenly realized what this was: he was there to buy drugs. I was so frightened and angry, I said, “What the fuck are you doing dragging me out here?” And he got quiet and said, “Don’t leave. I won’t get back. This won’t take long.” I said, “Don’t you ever fucking ask me to do this again.” But he was already out the door and heading up the stairs.

I don’t know how long he was inside, but I was so crazy with fear and anger. I suddenly realized that nothing I had thought about Erik or our nights together was true. I didn’t know him at all. Whoever I had thought he was, he was someone else. Sweet and funny and strong but obviously shy with himself and — someone who needed drugs enough that he had to call up his girlfriend and get her to drive him to the worst part of town, late at night. How would I have known that? He barely drank. I had no idea he was using drugs. I thought, All this time I’ve been so taken by this guy and I didn’t have any idea who he really was. I didn’t even know what kind of drugs it was. I didn’t even ask him that night. He tried to talk to me a couple of times. I said, “Just tell me how to get out of here.”

I didn’t see him for a few weeks. I avoided him. I avoided the whole poetry group. But then I ran into him outside the photo studio, where the darkrooms were. There’s no reason he would have been over there except to look for me. I don’t know, I guess it was the right gesture at the time. We went out to a cafe. He was contrite. He apologized. He was hooked. Later in his room he cried. It had power over him. He wanted it to end. He wanted to be with me, to be with what we had. I believed him. I think he believed it, as much as he could.

He took a leave from the program. He got treatment. I tried to keep a little distance, to see if I could trust him. But of course, inside, I probably didn’t. I had no idea where this was leading, but I was in the ocean, in the current and it was taking me somewhere. And, you know, we had some good years. Ten good years, at least. It depends on where I stop counting them. He tried. He made it for awhile. This was a different adventure than what I’d thought when we’d started, but I thought it was a good one. I don’t know if I ever quite trusted him all the way — we never had a joint bank account, for example. But I was with him.

And my god, if I had really understood what was happening. If I had understood what the story was, I think I’d have locked the door and kept him away forever. If I’d known I was going to end up in a dying town in North Dakota of all places, I’d have stayed away.

I say that. It’s just another story. Because then I look at Leah and I think, If I hadn’t stayed, if I hadn’t let him back, I would never have her. And I would go through all of this again if that’s what I had to do to have her. I try to remember that when we’re in court, fighting our way through the details to end the marriage, which is worse than even that drive through the worst parts of Boston. And sometimes even scarier. I try to keep Leah in mind, because I don’t know any other way to get through it.

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