This post is a response to the following writing prompt given to me by my good friend and writing buddy Hypotaxis:
In Anne Sexton’s poem, “Music Swims Back to Me,” Sexton writes, “And in a strange way/music sees more than me/I mean, it remembers better.” Think of a song, or an object, or a single word, that “recalls a moment” for you. Is the song or the object or the word more than a memory trigger for the recalled moment? Is it also, perhaps, an objective correlative of the moment itself?
Inside a wooden cabinet full of archaeological layers of CDs I can’t part with because each represents $18 I didn’t have but spent anyway when I was young and into Melissa Ferrick or rave mixes or – for some un-recallable reason – Irish dance, there sits a jewelry box of things I never wear. In that box is a small ring given to me by a woman I loved, seven months before she left me for the last time.
The ring box is black with small white polka dots and a vague floral pattern underneath; very 1950s. The underside says “C. Howard Daley & Co. JEWELERS Danbury, Conn.”
I googled it just now. It exists only in memory and old newspaper ads.
The ring itself is white gold; a slender band that bends into a square at the top. At the center is a moonstone, flanked on four sides by tiny sapphires.
She gave me the ring on a January morning; a month after we collided at a feminist-bookstore reading. I heard a faint beeping noise far off, telling me to care that she was married, but it was faint and thready like my pulse and after a little while I couldn’t hear it at all.
I wanted any scrap of her I could get. This was a time in my life defined by a compelling need to see what would happen if I didn’t ameliorate desire with any common sense.
I’d been the other woman before, and, like Henry VIII said about murder, “after a few times, it doesn’t seem so difficult.” Being the other woman isn’t hard. There’s a bravado to it; a fuck-you-ness. You find other things to do when she’s busy. You feel the longing. You yearn like a Disney dog and it’s oddly satisfying – longing as a weird source of fulfillment – and then hey, here she is at your apartment. Hey. Hi. I was just making dinner; come in. You shop at the same Trader Joe’s at the same time every Saturday, and when you run into her in the soup and rice aisle, you both go, Well, of all the gin joints.
“It’s just costume jewelry,” she said as we sat in her car, looking out onto a vast expanse of Sonoran desert; its friendly waving Saguaros hiding venomous mini-dinosaurs and herds of feral pigs. Everything here is beautiful and wants to kill you – Western Diamondback rattlesnakes; black widow spiders; the unrelenting melted yolk of the sun. I was born here. She was a New Yorker. Her accent went straight to my clit.
“This ring was always on my mother’s hand,” she said. “Throughout my whole childhood, it was a part of my everyday life. No matter what happens, I want you to have it.”
“No matter what happens,” rarely means anything good. What happened was a blur of fig perfume and long drives; blankets and thunderstorms; a fortune-teller at an Indian restaurant telling us we were “meant to be in this life and all the lives to come;” my blood on her fingers; the shape of her back as she left to go home, again and again and again. I forgot how easy it was to be the other woman. I forgot all about Henry VIII.
I was thirty-five; too old for crying when I threw away the fancy pink Himalayan salt because the only person who liked it was never coming back. Too old to rhyme “landlocked” with “heartshocked’ in handwritten poetry. I was a character in a story that was over, and I was sure it was the only one I’d ever be able to tell.
This is how I learned that if someone is able to walk away from you, you should let her; that love is irrelevant in the face of circumstance; and that if someone just…can’t do it, the Indian fortune-teller is WRONG. If someone says, “Let’s have a baby together” on Sunday but won’t return your calls on Monday, you need to get back on the old Curve personals horse and ride it into the sunset.
These things are obvious and simple. Just not to me.
Looking at this ring now, I remember all the things she loved. Like thrift stores. She’d pick up things that spoke to her – old glass jars; a hand-embroidered Mexican housedress made of clean yellow linen; an antique candy dish with pink French script. I used to say it was like watching a smart, fey little animal snag items to bring back to its den so it could curl up with them and feel safe. Once she brought me a blue-and-cream striped vintage sweater. For awhile I couldn’t bear the sight of it, but it’s still in my closet. I wear it every so often, with jeans. It only itches a little.
She loved for me to brush her hair. It was impossible hair – too thick; too wiry. It resisted my $300 flat iron as she closed her eyes and melted into me like a cat.
“It’s Jewish hair,” she said once. “It’s imbued with suspicious genetic memory. It’s seen much worse than your little iron, and it’s not taking any shit.”
She loved to cook. One night she made a red sauce that smelled so much like everything I’d ever wanted since the day I was born, I had to excuse myself to sniffle in her bathroom for a few minutes. In there, looking at her collection of thrift-store cotton-ball jars, I remembered something Nora Ephron wrote: “Show me a woman who cries when the trees lose their leaves in the autumn, and I’ll show you a real asshole.”
She loved the life she’d built – her small, wood-floored bungalow with its cabinets full of obscure spices from markets in New York; her group of friends who loved her as half of a longstanding couple. Compared to what she’d been born into, it was a safe and comfortable life.
She loved me too, I think. But in the end, when I came home and all her things were gone, I wasn’t surprised. She left the ring, though, sitting on my dresser in its polka-dot box. She wanted me to have it, no matter what happened.