Telluride Daily Planet Sunday, July 22, 2012
The other thing that happens in D.C. the summer of my 20th year — in addition to losing 1) my heart and 2) my faith in the system — is that the East Coast parents of a sophomore who has been stalking me (there is no better word) at my West Coast college show up at the front door of our hippie house off Dupont Circle.
Long before cell phones or the internet, they have somehow tracked me down, rung me on the house phone, and arranged to meet me, the person responsible for the descent of their son into the lava-like topography of his incipient paranoid schizophrenia.
These are coolly wealthy and conservative people. Couched in Connecticut manners, they politely demand that I cease all communication with their son, who has, until this point and at least on paper, been a brilliant student with sights on the Foreign Service. Who is now spiraling down a dark hole after flunking out of school. Who has recently somehow managed to arrange for the Seattle police to knock at my bewildered parents’ door with this message: that he will stop chain smoking if I marry him. With whom I have not recently corresponded, only been corresponded with.
Clearly, he is out of control. He has burned through reality using me as a match, and now, ash all around, it’s just a thin blue flame, gassed on fantasy and obsession, that feeds him.
How has it come to this?
I meet him at a dance during the second term of my freshman year. He is standing alone, close by — not a quiet solitude, but the screaming kind that sends lonely-soul dendrites out like signals into outer space. Because I have felt this alone myself, I approach him, ask him to dance. Without thinking. Just casually trying to be nice.
We only dance a single dance that I can recall. He asks me my name and where I live, and a few other questions, and with that exchange — that single solitary conversation and slice of time — I become the pinpointed target of every one of his unfulfilled desires.
It begins with a letter, typed on the onion-skin bond we used back then. Single- spaced, probably five pages long. Its brilliance – use of language, scope, rhythm, fictions, descriptions, language cartwheels – are mesmerizing. It’s almost as if this boy-man has walked out of 19th century Russian novel speaking perfect English, and, scorched by fever and dip pen in hand, is determined not to stop until his yearning, aching, pining soul is cataloged.
I don’t really know what I have on my hands. As the letters progress and get longer, and then longer, he spends less and less time in class. He writes a 400-page novel that shows up one day at the dorm front desk, inscribed to me. Then he is asked to leave school.
Back in Connecticut, he is put on medication, presumably for bipolar disorder. In the months that follow, he writes me letters, much less brilliant. Then another novel, half as long, painfully therapeutic. He asks for his first novel back, as if frantic not to lose the filigreed part of himself not waxily filled in by the drugs. I send the only copy of it back. Some time after his parents’ visit in D.C., he is institutionalized, and the case – on a certain level – is closed.
Then, years later, in New York, I receive a call (I don’t know how, but at my job) from his nurse, wanting to verify — for herself — that I exist, since I continue to be this isolated soul’s eternal muse. I remember staring down Broadway from our offices and thinking of the hologram of myself he has made real, and the real me he has never known anything about.
I ask her what he does all day, and she answers that he lives in a fantasy, altogether severed from reality. “Please tell him,” I say slowly, “that I am real. Flesh and blood and living my life. That I exist and that there is a real man in my life. Can you tell him this for me?” She is quiet, then whispers that she has to go. Of course she can’t tell him. Of course not.
Our conversation, however, affords us each uneasy closures. She hears my voice and verifies my flesh and blood. I assert, to whoever will listen, that I am not the ghost whose smoke and mirrors he controls.
In our lonely hearts, sometimes we seek things so desperately that we rename what it is we actually find. And this can be dangerous, can’t it.