Going back to school at my age has been helpful on many levels, most of which I could never have anticipated. The obvious reason for this is to gain the means to an end - in this case, a career.
When I was in Ohio for the gathering in July, one of the highlights of the entire week was meeting up with a man who meant worlds to me back when I first got married, when I first became a member of E2. He was - and still is - one of the most talented writers I've ever had the pleasure of spending time with (because if a writer is anything, he or she should be excellent company).
At the time I met him I was married, so frissons of any kind whatsoever were sublimated in witty banter and the occasional veiled entendre, but a mutual respect for one another's talent was evident from the first communication I had with him by /message. So later on, after I'd been to several gatherings and was at last comfortable with the idea of meeting all these strange "internet people" (as though all of you exist only in a mythical realm, as though you all breathe ether and eat binary code), meeting him face-to-face was thrilling in the way that safe thrills always are.
I may not have been a good wife. I may not have been a low-maintenance wife. I may not have been an easy wife. But I was always a faithful wife.
So years ago I met this man. I laughed with him, I drank with him, I spent many hours with him - always in the company of other people, people who amounted to chaperones, who are witnesses to the fact that nothing untoward happened between us. We met in warm cities during sultry months under innocent circumstances, and we platonically admired one another's assets.
But the most amazing thing he gave to me (aside from the reminder that - regardless of what my rapidly deteriorating sex life within my marriage was telling me - I was attractive, that I sparkled when the light hit me just so) was that he saw me for who I am...he saw me as a writer. That isn't to say that he pumped me full of delusions. He never once told me that I should write a novel, that my poems rivaled those of Sharon Olds's, that I should write the Great American Anything At All. What he did was remind me of how I was built and what I was built for - I was created to write. I was put together that way - by the universe, by God, by whatever shapes us from stardust and spit.
So it had been years since we'd met body to body. We'd made a concerted effort to keep up with one another above and beyond the confines of this website. Both of us were involved with other people, so any and all communication between us was above reproach, but we did speak over the phone occasionally. Before I wound up out here through circumstances beyond my control we'd kept in touch in as many ways as are possible in this digital age - postcards, phone calls, irc, messages on e2. But life intervened, and the bond between the two of us ruptured.
But I'd heard that he'd be in Ohio, and though his life was still complicated by other wonderful relationships, I was looking forward to seeing him in person again - to see his eyes when he spoke to me.
So he came in and hugged me, and it was good - it wasn't weird or sexual, it was warm and relieved, relieved for both of us, that we'd made it this far as artistic souls in a world bent on destroying our kind. The hug was an affirmation of mutual survival, and it was good.
And so, after the hug, we held one another at an arm's length and wiped tears from one another's faces and laughed. And then we each let the other go and commenced with the catching up.
And I won't pretend to remember the particulars, but I will always and as long as I am breathing remember the look on his face after he asked me what I was planning on doing.
...yeah! So. I'm starting classes this fall. For nursing.
His face didn't fall. There was nothing nearly that dramatic about the exchange. He just watched me for a moment and his eyes were unreadable, the color of water. His silence was a lubricant to what he said next. The stiletto words slipped in just so; sharp and oiled.
Ashley. I never saw you that way.
And since that night, since that moment, I've slid through more permutations and scenarios than I choose to remember.
Ashley, I saw something different for you.
Ashley, I never saw you that way.
Ashley, I saw...
...what did he see?
I won't know, because I didn't ask.
Why didn't I ask?
I didn't ask because even though I know what I'm made for (Jesus Christ, of course I know what I'm made for, as surely as I know the color of your eyes) I have no earthly idea how to fund it. I'm too old to be a mistress. It isn't 1872. I have to figure it out on my own, and no one is going to buy my food for me while I toil away at My Art (save us all).
So I didn't ask, because I know.
I know that I am a woman and that I am a writer, that I love men in general and one man in particular at any given time, and that everything else I do is incidental. I also know that I have to eat, that I have to pay rent, that I have to provide for myself, that to ask someone else to do that for me while I gently peck away at My Art is more than self-indulgent, it is self-defeating. More than that - and most importantly - it is (in this day and age) cruel to the one I most want to adore.
I kissed him, I know that. I chastely kissed his cheek and I whispered into his ear, Yeah, I know, neither did I, but it's a different world now, isn't it?
I remember that much.
I also remember that the reproach in his eyes was ugly and bitter...but even so it was sweeter than the outmoded desire to be - essentially - a Kept Woman.
Whatever I earn in this life will be on my own terms. The treasures I share with the man of my choosing will be mined from my own heart and wrung from the compensation for my own work, slick with my own blood and drenched in my own sweat. I want, above all, a companion...but I don't want a caretaker. If it takes me the rest of my life, I will be self-sufficient.
(I fucking dare you to take care of me, I want to say to the next man I love, through clenched teeth and pillowy lips. Have I got a double standard for you!)
I want a man. I want him in my bed. I want him in my body. I want him at my side when I travel to new places. I want to watch him sleep and write indulgent trifles about him in my little spiral-bound notebook. I want to fuck him blind in the palazzo we're sharing...the palazzo we've rented together on our shared salaries.
I wish money wasn't an issue, but it is. Marriage is negotiable, but money isn't. Money alone isn't quite what makes the world go around, but money on its own brutish terms is what makes the world safe for women. If a man leaves - if he (understandably) decides that he belongs elsewhere - he should not be tied to a woman by strings as demeaning and arbitrary as money. If a woman is left (or if a woman chooses to leave), she should not be destitute after the storm clears. If a man (or a partner, any partner) isn't willing to be faithful to a fasted partnership, he (or she) should never feel compelled to stay for a fistful of green reasons. Mammon is a revolting landlord.
I wish I could have told this to my friend, to this man to whom (under different circumstances, under different finacial situations, under one another) I might have been a lover, a confidante, a mistress.
If the room wasn't full of loved ones I might have been able to tell him that my pretensions were never higher than to - on occasion - write something pretty. To - on a daily basis - taste and touch someone warm, someone accepting, someone who is glad to be exactly where he is: in my arms, in my body, in my life. To be a lover. To Choose and be Chosen.
To be - dare I say it? - a wife!
But instead, I laughed. I kissed him again on his beautiful cheek and silently cursed the Victorian era and A Room Of One's Own in equal measure. I shed a single tear for the death of traditional sex roles.
I reminded myself that this was a man who has had the luxury (and the handicap) of defining me by the few hundred bouquets of words I've carefully picked and arranged to display for public consumption. I remembered myself - a woman he never truly knew and would likely never know.
Then I drowned that single perfect tear in tequila shots and had a good night.
After all, it is the 21st century.