Five Breeds of Love
What’s in a Name: Raven
My name is Raven. That is what it says on my driver’s license and on my Barnes & Noble nametag and on the check I get every other Friday. But somehow Eli wouldn’t believe me. “You’re lying,” he said with a big smirk not forty-five minutes after we met. A friend of Josie (she works on magazine mostly), he came in to buy a writing journal. The two of them were talking and Josie introduced me. “We have some journals with really cool designs,” I told him because the one in his hand had just a plain black cover, when there’s this one that’s blue/black with a full moon in relief and a red rose in the foreground, but it’s not sweet. The rose has thorns. He said he likes the black one because it’s about how you fill it, not about how good it looks on its own.
So I took my break and met him in the café and learned so many cool things about him, like how he’s mostly been living in Prague since he was nineteen. That he comes back from time to time to visit friends in the States and to take a few courses, but mostly loves Prague. He’s got all these friends there with names like Maxim (the ‘i’ makes a long ‘e’ sound – Maxeeeeem), and Lubof (the ‘f’ sounds more like a ‘v’ – translates to ‘love” which is a burdensome name to carry, no?), and something that I couldn’t pronounce right because it’s got this like ‘z-d-t’ consonant combination that few Americans can manage. These friends are all poets and painters and novelists who work, right now, for newspapers or they brew coffee in Internet cafes. But he said I’ll know their names in ten years. They’re the new Hemingways. The new Prousts. The new Picassos. New Pound-Eliot-Joyces.
But I’ve digressed. He called me a liar. He said Raven cannot be my real name. I asked him why this can’t be true. Why Raven can’t be my given name and he said, “The name doesn’t fit you.” This amazed me because all my friends say that I’m such a ‘Raven.’ But then he said, “The name doesn’t fit you, you fit the name.” So I knew that he was not just like any other guy, because to most people those two sentences would mean the same thing. I picture him in Prague discussing the difference in a coffeehouse with his friends, smoking filterless cigarettes. So he got me, and I said, “No, it’s not,” and he asked my real name. But I caught him off-guard, and I think I impressed him when I asked him to tell me a lie first, in exchange.
“You mean, make something up right now?” he asked, but I said, “No.” I wanted to know a true lie. Something that he tells every day. Something about himself that he fabricates for everyone he meets. Something he strives to believe himself.
“There’s nothing,” he said. Honesty is part of his credo (he used that word, credo, like it’s any ordinary word, like, I don’t know, like coffee or blood or kiss). I asked if there’s even like an embarrassing high school story that he has to continue to deny when his friends tease him. But no. He is the sum of his experiences, he claims, and he weighs them all equally, good or bad. And he said it is his being attuned to this balance that helps him notice inconsistencies in other people, like my name not fitting. So he said he’ll never lie. I asked if he was thinking about taking me out. He said yes. I can’t wait for our first date. I’m already thinking of naughty questions I can ask this little George Washington of central Europe.
Studies in Hatred: Eli
Here are the things I hate: Europe, poets, and truth. When you’re in college everyone tells you how wonderful Europe is and how you really ought to go there, which is ironic because this advice comes from the same people who tell you that the literary canon is too Euro-centric. But whatever. I went on this interim Art History trip that tackled London, Amsterdam, and Paris in fourteen days.
So the wonder of Europe is how people aren’t strangling one another in those miniscule but profoundly expensive hotel rooms where you have to share one bathroom with the entire floor. And everything is dirty and infested with pigeons. And those are the prosperous countries. Can you imagine what it’d be like in Hungary or Latvia? I’d never want to go to any place like Prague where you can’t plug in your razor because the outlets have, like, five holes. And even though the beer only costs 27¢ a pint, it’s not really beer but something fermented from bread and rutabagas and gooseberries.
And poets. The problem with poets is that they’re always looking for poetry. I mean, you take a little tumble off your bike and a poet’s going to say, “I could write a verse on that.” And they think it’s all “true” because they “feel so much more” than you. I’ll admit, I’m bitter because I got burned by a poet. Kimberly and I were both working at this inn in Pennsylvania. Flirting with one another for a while. So I ask her out and we have the requisite dinner and go to the requisite movie and then she says she’s got this aquavit up in her freezer that she got from – where else – Europe. I go up anyhow and we take icy cold shots, which leads to good things.
But then post-coitally — and now I’m blaming this on the aquavit — I start talking. Because there was this time, one Christmas break when I was in Jerusalem. Not that I really wanted to go. Mom was born there and is always talking about Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall and all that, and she was willing to spring for the whole ticket, for me and this Lila I was seeing, so okay, I went. While waiting for a bus I saw this guy who looked confused, so I asked him if something was wrong. “I’m lost,” he said, but didn’t look at me, and a second later there was the flash and the noise, and then the smoke. Never saw him again. I suspect he didn’t make it. But, talk about last words. I’m lost. Maybe he was lost literally, but I can’t help but wonder if it might have meant something more. Maybe it referred to the state of his life, like he lost track of who he wanted to be, or what he wanted to do, or who he wanted to love. Or maybe it was prophetic, or maybe he was the one who placed the bomb in that bag on the bench and knew. But there was something beautiful in his words. Such quiet resignation. And it made me cry. I cried like a baby, right in front of Kimberly, thinking about that concern that hinted at sublime pleasure that marked this man’s face during the last moment of his life.
And three days after my telling this, Kimberly invites me to coffee house that has an open mic and she gets up and reads this poem about a guy who witnesses a bombing and witnesses another guy who says “I’m lost.” Which is bad enough, but she doesn’t recite her poem with the proper solemnity, so some of the audience begin to chuckle. And this brings me to why I hate the truth. The one time that I am my most honest this poet comes along and makes a mockery of me. When I told her to fuck off she defended herself, invoking the name of capital T, truth. So screw her and screw poets and screw the truth. I’m never going to be honest with a woman again. I’m gonna lie and I might as well lie about Europe, because everyone I’ve ever met who’s been there is pretentious, especially the ones who have been to Prague. Why else put up with near third-world sanitation except to hang out in cafes with other pretentious Americans and assemble pretentious novel manuscripts or pretentious poetry. So if there is a woman involved I’m bound to invoke every ounce of creative license, and if the woman happens to be a poet, heaven help her.
Phantom Pains: Lila
Waking is the worst. That’s when the phantoms come. People with injuries always have phantoms, I’ve read. People with loss. The veteran with the war wound complains of itchy toes on the leg he left in a sandy crater. For me they are phantom noises. In the misty half-light of dawn I hear the air-conditioner kick in. I hear street traffic. I hear the creak of bedsprings and believe for a moment that it is the sound of my lover renegotiating his posture. I hear footsteps and a door and fear my lover’s making a pre-dawn escape.
And then I remember that I have no lover, and I remember the last one I had, and soon it follows that there can be no footsteps, no creaks, no traffic — only phantoms. Ian’s was the last voice I heard, or the last I remember distinctly. The general murmur of voices in the bus stop was suddenly interrupted by that amazing noise. I’ve never legitimately heard a voice since, but obviously there is still a sector of my brain that is wired for sound and often fools me in that time between sleep and waking. There’s a phantom “good-bye” slipping off the lips of my now long-phantom boyfriend, words he might have tried to say as we disembarked the plane from Jerusalem, but I wouldn’t have heard. Both in college, yet we both wanted to go home to our respective parents after the bombing. I had a string of doctors and specialists to see. He made it back to school and earned his degree and ended up in New Hampshire maybe. Maybe Vermont. Working some B & B.
In addition to coming home deaf I came home pregnant, but couldn’t bring myself to tell him right away. I wrote him letters and invited him to my parents’ house. He grew cold and distant so I decided not to share our son with him.
James is eight now and he has never heard his father’s voice. I’ve never heard James’s voice. Now that’s a phantom I could live with, but I just can’t conjure. Instead there’s the phantom of a father. I know that James feels the phantom too, even if it’s only by proxy, that void accentuated when he hears me crying in the early morning and he crawls into bed to comfort me. Too dark to read his hands, but I know he signs, “What’s wrong, Mom.” The answer is too complex for an eight-year-old, no matter what grammar you use.
Don’t Make Mom Sad: James
I took pictures of three dead things today, but now I wish I hadn’t. They were a bird, a squirrel, and a kitty. The bird was in the park. Just in the grass with its feet up in the air and its toes or claws or whatever curled like it was trying to grab something. We didn’t think it was real at first. The squirrel was dead on the street in front of my friend’s house and didn’t look much like a squirrel anymore. And the kitty was in the little space between a pile of firewood and someone’s garage.
My friend thought we needed the pictures as “evidence.” So we took them. It started with the kitty. Then we went out looking for other dead things, but only found the bird and the squirrel. There’s a park on the other side of town that always has dead fish because the river is there, but you have to take the bus to get to it and we can’t do that on our own. I know about the fish because my Big Brother takes me there a lot. Usually in his car, but once we took the bus.
Which is what makes me wish I hadn’t taken pictures of the dead things. Because I was thinking that it would be cool to go to the other park, but we would have to take the bus and Mom doesn’t like the bus. Once the car broke down and we walked a really long way to get home even though the bus kept going past us. And thinking about how Mom looked upset watching the buses made me think that maybe she won’t want to see the pictures of dead animals. They’ll probably make her sad because a lot of things make her sad. And when she brings my film to the store to get the pictures she’ll want to see them.
Maybe I can get my Big Brother to take the film to the store. He bought me the camera anyway, and he loaded the film because it’s tricky. He’s not really my big brother, which is what my friend keeps telling me, because he has a real big brother, the kind that lives in the house and has a bike and video games and that. My Big Brother is this guy that does stuff with me because I don’t have a dad. Which is cool, because he takes me to football games and to get pizza and horse riding and stuff, and my friend’s brother never does anything with him. He wants me to call him Leon and wants Mom to call him Leon, but Mom always calls him my “Big Brother” so I’m used to calling him that too.
I hope he doesn’t tell Mom about the dead animals. I don’t want to make her sad. He seems like the kind of guy who wouldn’t tell Mom everything, especially if I say I don’t want to make Mom sad, because he’s asked about her being sad before and says he doesn’t want to see her sad either. Which makes me think he is a really great guy.
Jokes About Lawyers: Leon
“What do you call a thousand lawyers on the bottom of the ocean?” Ian leans close to the waitress. “Huh? You know this one. I know you do.”
He’s flirting. Been doing it all night. Probably thinks it’s working. Leon can tell she’s just a good waitress, trained to foster the generous tip. You don’t actually need a lawyer’s training in reading people to realize this. But Ian sees people… well, let’s analyze how he tells a joke.
“A thousand lawyers? This is an old one.”
He wants the listener to know the punchline. He’s a bit like a teacher. Wants people to feel good about themselves, to feel smart, funny.
“I’ve heard it. I know I have,” she replies with a county-level beauty-queen smile.
“A good start,” he tells her. “Thousand lawyers. Bottom of the ocean. A good start.”
She laughs. Touches his arm. He thinks his flirting is working. Leon notices her eyes go to the pile of bills on the bartop.
Most people telling jokes want to tell the punchline. They want to be the source of entertainment. But Ian thinks she feels included, valued. He is not altruistic. He is at least semi-aware that he does this specifically to make her feel good. Read into that, he does it because he knows if she feels good about herself, he is in a position of power.
“Leon here is a lawyer,” Ian tells her, “and yes, he’s absolutely one of those types.” Everyone laughs.
Leon doesn’t protest, because he is the type of lawyer who fits those jokes. He’s not the type they make movies about, not the kind who stands up for the little guy. He is not the kind of lawyer who does benevolent pro bono work. He is generally not going to have a “crisis of conscience.”
Friend or client? The line is blurry. Leon contemplates whether he will consider this meeting billable hours or just social. Either way, Ian is a good connection for Leon to have, because Ian’s an advocate for human rights. Mostly third world labor, keeping American corporations in check. Not Leon’s area of expertise, but he draws up a document here and there, and in turn looks good, like a caring, responsible human being. People remember that. Leon’s probably indirectly responsible for a few hundred people having fuller stomach and less disease and fewer injuries, but, let’s be honest, he’s never used his juris doctorate for a single altruistic deed.
“You seem out of the groove,” Ian comments at Leon’s lackluster reception to the waitress. “Love life okay?”
“Been concentrating on work,” he responds at a level of conviction that should shame any attorney.
A few months back Ian got into this auto accident. Completely his fault – beer, Blackberry, inattentive driving – but still a breeze to fix. It was snowing. Accidents happen. Why does it have to be anybody’s fault? But the lady he hit, her back was messed up pretty good and Leon knew her insurance company would want to make something of it. He goes to talk to her, to save them all a lot of trouble, right? But then something about her really got him. It wasn’t her looks, because Leon worked against some fine looking ladies. Ian’s first wife was a fine looking lady, but that didn’t prevent him from winnowing her down to a miniscule alimony. And it wasn’t the kid either. Let’s face it, he’d screwed a thousand kids out of comfortable upbringings. Was it her deafness? He didn’t think so. Either it was the combination of these things, or it was something completely unseen. But he just felt the need to protect her. He gave her the card of a guy he knew, best lawyer in town, and told her that if she wasn’t treated right she ought to give him a call. Don’t mess with those ambulance-chaser guys with their t.v. commercials. When this lawyer came at Leon he’d roll and no one would think the less of him.
“There’s a woman.” Leon feels happy to tell someone. Can’t let Ian know who, though. “I met her through work.” Just that once as an attorney, and she didn’t remember him, thankfully. A little snooping around informed Leon that her boy, James, was waiting for a Big Brother. So he pulled some strings. Good kid. Bright. Fun. Leon offers the vaguest approximation of this tale to his friend/client.
“I think she’s really happy with what I’m doing for the boy. But she always receives me so coldly. Even her smiles are hesitant. I don’t know why. I’m rich, good-looking, great with her kid.” And for the first time, I’m doing something undeniably benevolent, he adds in his mind.
“She knows. Knows something.” He’d been hinting toward the two of them getting together. The boy flat out told Leon his mom hasn’t dated anyone, ever, that he remembers. So Leon starts mild and safe. “I thought the three of us could have a picnic, or catch a baseball game,” he tells Ian. “She says she doesn’t want to intrude on the ‘big brother’ relationship.”
“Intrude away,” Ian commands the absent female.
Leon chalks it up to some kind of intuition and fears the deaf woman for it. Though she won’t give him the time of day as a suitor, she never suggested terminating the Big Brother arrangement. Because honestly, he likes the kid, and enjoys their time, and really, honestly doesn’t want to upset James. Her sixth-sense says he won’t, ever, but deciphers his ulterior motives pretty easily.
“It’s ironic,” he tells Leon. “She could be very good for me. Some movie I saw years and years ago: ‘You make me want to be a better person.’ That’s how…” he almost said her name. Ian might remember it from the accident. “That’s this woman to me.”
Author’s commentary: This project evolved after my son was born and I found it more and more difficult to find time to write. I bought a blank black book and told myself I’d write every day. To keep from staring into space, I cut photos out of magazines and glued them down. Write that person’s story in a page. A lot of them ended up as character sketches or monologues – not real stories. But others showed promise.
After a while these characters began to inhabit the same space. I found them walking about the same town, going to the same stores, working for the same boss, and I knew I ought to allow them to interact. There’s a good Emily Dickinson line that goes, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” I decided that would make a good organizing rule for this world. Everyone gets their say, but if you check out someone else’s perspective you’ll see things in a different light.
The original book I bought had 96 pages. I made it my goal to write 96 interlocking pieces. Not there yet. I’ve written many more than 96, but some aren’t that good. Some just don’t fit with anyone else yet. But they are all about love, that wonderfully abstract, plastic word. In the end it will be 96 Breeds of Love. For now, here are five. Five Breeds of Love.