I was doing some internet stalking the other night. It’s a habit that falls somewhere between nail-biting and mainlining, in the sense that once I start I can’t stop, even though it makes me more and more depressed the deeper into it I get.
I was looking at Rob’s Facebook page – that’s his name, because when he was born they named children Robert as opposed to Wyatt or Dylan or August. I was looking at his page and saw pictures of him at a wedding, giving a woman away. Who was she, I wondered since I’d been more or less in his life—without him knowing, of course—for the last two decades. Then I did some digging and realized the Thai woman was marrying some guy named Ishmael, and I recognized him to be Rob’s mentee from when we were together, which was only five months but these things stick in my mind. Also, in the photos were his wife and kids. God, those kids are getting big. A word about his wife: she does not like to be photographed, and it’s very difficult to find a photo of her online anywhere, but there she was in a stylish aubergine dress. If I stared long enough – and of course I did – I could detect her hair thinning and some filling out in the mid-section since the last photo I saw of her, which I had to do quickly because she had her husband take it down immediately. Anyway, there they were at this wedding, celebrating the years Rob had this young man in his life, someone he began mentoring as a way to not only be a self-absorbed pothead but to give back.
All this got me thinking—not that I’ve ever really stopped—about my brief but profoundly impactful relationship with this man, about how he’s celebrating these lifelong relationships and I’m sitting at my computer late at night with a bottle of wine and some cheddar popcorn having my own relationship with him, even if he doesn’t know it.
We met on a train. He had a sleeping bag draped across his shoulders like it was a towel, and he’d just finished a pick-up game.
He was with a friend who was equally good-looking, but I was pulled toward the olive-toned guy with the pockmarks. I was reading an article about the poet Wallace Stevens in the New York Times Book Review, and I remember being fascinated by the fact that Wallace Stevens sold insurance by day and wrote poetry by night. I was a junior at Barnard College and looking forward to graduation the way someone doing prison time looks forward to the outside. My father had died just two years before. I had not mourned him, but had rushed back to school and was failing classes and wondering what it was all for. While my classmates were working their asses off so they could get jobs in finance, I searched for meaning in a Reagan-era New York, a city that seemed on the verge of something, and it did not look good. The one thing I loved to do, dance, I wasn’t doing; like the city, I was caught between two worlds—the creative and the corporate. Unlike the city, I was opting for neither.
I looked up from my article from time to time, and he looked at me, and I felt that frisson of something that made Wallace Stevens far less interesting. By the time the train had pulled into New York’s Penn Station, the three of us had decided to go for a drink. By the time drinks were over, Rob had asked me out on a date.
When I look at his pictures on Facebook, I see Rob smiling a close-mouthed smile, the kind that says, Here I am… shit. The Rob I dated had a sexy grin that devoured his face. The Rob I dated pulled everyone into a big, psychic huddle. The Rob I dated made people feel good. He made me feel good. After standing on the sidelines of the swingers resort that was college and having no part of it despite my best efforts, dating Rob was the biggest fuck-you I could have wished for. I’ll never forget the response he got walking around my dorm shirtless. In his jeans and ostrich-skinned boots, the shock of hair that fell over the eyes, he had a swagger that those college boys only knew about by studying in a film class.
He took me to his favorite Ukrainian restaurant in the East Village. We went to John F. Kennedy Jr.’s birthday party where we did ecstasy and lay on Indian cushions.
The fact that I was not doing nearly the amount of studying my courseload required and had lost interest in any semblance of a life-plan was beside the point. By the time he mouthed, “I love you” through the window at Kennedy Airport before I headed off for my semester in Paris—planned way before meeting him—I was, we were, madly in love.
This was pre-internet, so we wrote each other letters. His were beautiful—full of description and clever turn-of-phrase—and I in turn wrote him French poetry, which sounds so pretentious I’m almost embarrassed to admit it. But to be in love in Paris is the most wonderful feeling in the world because everything about the city nourishes that feeling. Everything I did and smelled and ate connected me back to him. When a friend of his came to Paris—to write his novel, what else—I hung around him because he was connected to Rob. The fact that we had sex after a Steel Pulse concert while my girlfriend Martha had stepped out of the room to go to the bathroom is something I’m not proud of, but the impulse that got me to that point was as pure as it gets.
Finally, Rob came to visit in April. I had it all planned: what we would eat, where I could take him—just like he had done for me in New York. And we ate, drank and fucked our way through the city, but when he left, I felt like so much had not been said. There had been few real moments and just a lot of me jamming my new city and my new French-ness down his throat.
The letters stopped. Finally, a call confirmed my suspicions: he had felt a “void” upon getting back and had taken up with someone else—who, by coincidence (or maybe not), was in my class at Barnard. But like when my dad died, I did not cry.
This is when the stalking started. We’re talking pre-internet, so I really had to get out there and do the work. I’d managed to figure out who his girlfriend was. It was easy. I saw her in the student union wearing one of his t-shirts, the very one I had thrown on to gobble up scrambled eggs on a lazy, sex-filled Sunday morning.
She was the daughter of a famous person and ran with other daughters of famous people and the way she fit in confirmed everything about the way I did not. I’d also get off the subway at his stop and lurk on the corner. The two times I did happen to accost him, here’s what happened: nothing. I had nothing to say. Of course, I had everything to say: I love you. I miss you. Why’d you hurt me? But I did not know how to say any of that. I didn’t know I could. My idea of love was to be admired. My idea of intimacy was nil. Like with my father in both death and life, I thought, if I can be perfect, everything will be fine. If I can look as if nothing is wrong, nothing will be wrong. My longing was intense and gut-searing, but I covered it with a pretty smile.
With college behind me, I was free to begin my artistic journey rolling around on dirty floors in the East Village. I was a modern dancer. I was happy. I had the feeling that Rob would never understand this world and my deep commitment to it. This made me see him less fantastical. Maybe even limited in a way. So I managed, one day at a time, to stop looking for him in every subway car.
Then, long after I’d quit dance and was doing temp work in Burbank, I got an email. I had never gotten an email from Rob. I had not spoken to Rob since I saw him at a party at my college graduation with his girlfriend. My hand started shaking just seeing his last name in the email address. He was going to be in L.A. Did I want to have dinner? The person in the next cubicle had to have seen my mind being blown into Andromeda. Did I want to make a million dollars? Did I want to breathe?
A few emails went back and forth. I dared not ask any questions, questions like, don’t you have a wife?
Because in a half-assed way I’d still been keeping a hand in his life. I knew he had a wife, a sort-of French woman named Ines. But I couldn’t NOT say yes. And when he walked into Pizzeria Mozza, he looked exactly the way I’d remembered him. We picked up a conversation that had started in the eighties.
He showed me photos of his wife and kids. I told him about my exes. I did not tell him about the plays I’d written or the TV shows I’d worked on. I did not tell him about how much I loved telling stories and was following my true path. And then, after we went back to his hotel and ripped each others’ clothes off and had drunken sex, after he put his hands on my shoulders and said goodbye, I felt the same gut-wrenching pain I felt twenty-something years before.
I felt it for weeks and months after. It was the pain of impossibility – I knew it all too well—of knowing someone you want badly will never come back, not in the way you want them to. I also knew that if he did so much as ask, I would be his girlfriend, mistress, or second wife—and no doubt leave myself behind in the process.
But then something crazy happened after. I thought about him daily for about five years: I moved on. Yes, there are the nights when boredom or loneliness or both drive me to have a rendezvous with his Facebook page, but the more I stare, the more the myth of him falls away. (Is it me or is he getting bloated?) The more I gawk, the more I fully understand how far I’ve come in my life. My life. I take that in, not as an afterthought, but as a fully-formed concept. And sometimes when this hits me, I start to cry.