Love & Sex

True Stories: After the Fire

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The first fifteen months after the death of my boyfriend.

He got up to use the bathroom and his sandy blonde hair, mussed and post-coital, sloped down his nude back. I popped out of bed, quickly opened my dresser drawer, and pulled on my new T-shirt, covering the double-D breasts he was so fond of. My dark wiry mess of hair looked even more kudzu than usual. 
 
I bounced back under the covers just before he returned and slid in next to me. He playfully stroked my thigh over the blankets and asked what kind of ice cream he should get from my kitchen freezer.  
 
“Oh, come on. Aren’t you going to mention the shirt?”  
 
“I see it. But I’m pretending I didn’t,” he volleyed. “I’ll just bring back all the flavors.” And he did, along with two big spoons and cloth napkins, and we had an ice-cream buffet in bed with the words, “NOBODY KNOWS I’M A DRAG QUEEN” emblazoned across my chest.  

I thought of him this morning when I dusted, knowing I was losing another corporeal part of him, however microscopic.

We were twenty-five in 1992, the year of drag-joke T-shirts and ice-cream feasts and persistent nakedness, living nearby each other in Seattle. When I see photos of that time, it’s impossible not to be amused by our multiple piercings (silver Thai hoop earrings in gradated sizes), Doc Martens, and all manner of torn and paint-splattered Levi’s. He had asked me out four years prior in a University of Washington creative-writing class, but I had a boyfriend at the time. We wandered in and out of each other’s lives in the intervening years, reconnecting when we bumped into each other in a bar while on dates with others — whom we usually proceeded to ignore. He knew I was a feminist and asked, “If I give you my phone number, will you call me?” — and then later admitted he was sure I’d take the “enlightened man” bait. Voracious readers with a deep love of film, we saw the documentary, Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse on our first date. When we slept together on our second, his mouth fit mine perfectly and we laughed as we slid my black turtleneck over my head and he unsnapped my bra with the gliding precision of an astronaut. 

I thought of him this morning when I dusted, knowing I was losing another corporeal part of him, however microscopic. Or rather, I should say, I thought of him more pointedly this morning, because since he died fifteen months ago — with his food in my refrigerator and his things scattered throughout my home — his image and voice have fluttered from my mind in no more than a few scattered instances. And in the early months, when the shock enveloped me like radon, we were as intertwined as ever because I was certain, sometimes literally, that I was dead, too. 
 
We didn’t romanticize our relationship when he was alive and in keeping with who we were, I won’t sand away the rough edges now. Instead, I’ll use an illustration he would appreciate: try counting the marshmallows in a dish of rocky road ice cream. That’s roughly the number of times he and I went out, broke up, and got back together again over the course of two decades. We loved each other deeply, trusted one another implicitly, and to paraphrase Woody Allen’s line about orgasms, even our worst sex was right on the money. 

Three weeks before he died, we were drinking iced mochas on a park bench and he told me he loved that we never ran out of things to talk about — and that each time he saw me, he wanted to have sex with me. He had relayed these sentiments a number of times throughout the years and I always responded in kind because there was never an instance it wasn’t true. Still, I’m glad we got it in once more under the wire.

Three weeks before he died he told me that each time he saw me, he wanted to have sex with me.

And so, it feels incomprehensible that if I’m to enjoy my life — as I want to and as he’d want for me — I have to meet someone new. And to do so, I have to start dating again, preferably before each potential suitor requires a handful of Cialis. Right now, I find this as appetizing as a bowl of gravel. 
 
I have CFIDS, a condition akin to M.S., and he used to say he was Eleanor Roosevelt to my Franklin, that he would be my legs. He’d always been an inveterate traveler, but in 1999, he was mauled by a Yellowstone Grizzly. Surviving — and the desire not to live in fear — intensified his peripateticism and he climbed all over the world. I have piles of letters and photos from Mt. Kilimanjaro, China’s Kingata Shan, the Italian Alps, Ecuador, Mexico and dozens of other outposts. He’d return with fascinating and funny tales of drunken Russian guides and scurrying pikas and why, much like the bear, he’d gotten used to shitting in the woods. We were frequently apart, but felt together. This held true whether we were a couple, “just friends,” dating other people, or a combination thereof. Or indeed, when he was very briefly married many years ago.

Months before he died, I developed shingles and — because my immune system’s arsenal consists of water balloons and Silly String — I was egregiously ill the entire summer. We lived within walking distance of each of other by now and he brought me homemade chicken noodle soup and stir-fry and burritos and spaghetti sauce. He bought groceries, cared for my pet rabbit, took out the garbage and recycling, and made me laugh through the relentless and searing pain. He told me I was beautiful as I sprawled on the couch in pajamas with hair unwashed for a record-setting time, and at the end of summer, he threw me a surprise party. 

In some ways, this stubbornness caused his death.

He said he was done climbing for the season, but the temperature unexpectedly spiked and Sunday morning, October 4, 2009, he left for the North Cascades. When we talked the night before, we were ebullient and goofy. I was finally starting to improve and we agreed that when he returned on Tuesday, October 6, he was going to nap, swing by my place and then we were going to attend my friend’s reading at Seattle’s Town Hall. Per our system, he gave me his itinerary — when he was due home and what time I should “officially” worry and start making phone calls if I hadn’t heard from him. When he didn’t arrive at my home, a faint buzz whirred in my head, but I wasn’t alarmed: he had returned past his scheduled time repeatedly over the years, always for benign reasons, and indeed, this was why he always instructed me to err on the side of patience. We were nowhere near the designated worry zone.

When we crossed that threshold the next day and I made the first call, I didn’t know that over twenty-four hours prior, loose rock had given way and he had fallen 1000 feet and died instantly. His body was found at two p.m. Saturday, October 10 and the sheriff’s office told me around six. That night, at the vigil his family asked me to hold at a pub across the street from his apartment, I had to excuse myself and go outside. Having overseen hundreds of phone calls and emails the previous four and a half days, I finally ruptured. When my brother came to find me, he found me doubled on the sidewalk sobbing. “Listen,” he said as he held me upright. “I knew him and I know how much he loved you. I’ve been married fourteen years and you two were as married as we are. He scrubbed your sinks, for God’s sake, and you didn’t even ask him to. No man ever scrubbed sinks for a woman unless he really loved her.”

His absence, though, remains as enormous as it is unfathomable

His evangelical Christian parents saw it differently and chose to exclude me from his obituary and memorial service. It was a deep cut but it has healed. They barely knew him, let alone me.

His absence, though, remains as enormous as it is unfathomable. Whether we were in love or barely speaking, there was no part of our lives we didn’t share. He described details of each climb. We shared hundreds of mochas. When two agents approached me about my nearly completed novel, he was ecstatic and paid for my trips to meet with them. I can tell you which women at his memorial he’d slept with and if I’d died first, he would have been able to point out the men on my list. I published four pieces about him when he was alive and he gave me carte blanche to etch him and the two of us as I saw fit.  

He’d been dead four months when the first guy asked me out. By month six, one of my friends had tried setting me up. Others have persisted on both fronts throughout the year and their intentions are as kind as they are laughable — I didn’t stop loving him, just because he died. 

And, for the first time in my life, I have no interest in sex. When I’m awake, that is. I had read Joan Didion’s masterwork on grief, The Year of Magical Thinking several years ago and have re-read it twice since he died. It’s a wonderful book, but nowhere does she mention you will have recurring sex dreams about your dead partner, just as you did when he was alive. 

When I masturbate, inevitably I’ll feel him again and as often as not, I end up crying. When I consciously try not to think of him, the opposite occurs; he’s the sexual equivalent of the elephant in the room and the alienation is intensified because he’s the person I want to tell: we easily discussed sex in ways graphic and dirty and sublime and ridiculous. He would understand, and perhaps be flattered by why it sometimes seems he’s about to enter me again. Though I’m sure my friends would listen, this is not lunchtime banter, and they couldn’t really get it anyway — as one of them put it, “Honey, you got here decades before the rest of us.” 
 
For months, I contemplated getting a tattoo with the digits of his birthday. But I know eventually I’ll view my body as more than a shell I cart, and I’ll want to be touched again. His literal marking would be the ultimate boner-killer for me and the man involved. And again, it’s bemusing, because he would apprehend this completely.  
 
At the start of 2010, I purchased an antique trunk to store his things. It sits in my living room, perfectly emblematic: rugged, handsome, slightly battered, and in no way matching the décor. I still have the “NOBODY KNOWS I’M A DRAG QUEEN” T-shirt, and when I occasionally glimpse it in the back of my closet I both smile and wince. After he died, I wrapped one of his unwashed shirts in mine to preserve his smell, and for most of this year I slept next to it.  
 
I recently swathed it in plastic and added it to the trunk. One day, maybe sooner than I think, my bed will become a place where I do more than read and mourn. It will stop being his side of the bed — maybe sooner than I think.