Grace Note (or: Love In a Time of Constitutional Crisis)
This story could only have taken place during the month when our country was without a leader. The 2000 election recount was the national theme, and it filtered down to every level. I’d grab my coffee at the bodega, I’d be on the bus home, I’d be in line at the bank, and I would hear “recount recount recount”, a staccato refrain through the air. It was a country-wide refresher course in 8th grade civics class as all eyes remained riveted on the events in Florida. A strange hush befell the nation, despite the incessant “recount recount” chatter. We paused. Even the most absurd situation can become normal if it goes on long enough, and so we got used to it. We had no President. It could go either way. The days dragged on as we all squinted at hanging chads, but there were moments when I would forget that we were un-moored.
An unprecedented time.
I was unmoored then, too.
I was living in Hoboken, New Jersey. I had moved to New York to go to grad school, and graduated a couple of years before. My life upon graduation very quickly settled into a rigid narrow shape. There were a couple of career disappointments that I took particularly hard, and my love life was stagnant. As long as I was been in the cloister of grad school, I could justify my strident single-ness with, “Well, I’m just really busy right now.”Once that structure disappeared, there were no more excuses, and the men weren’t knocking on my door anymore. I used to have to bat them all away. Not bragging, just spitting facts. The couple of crushes I allowed myself ended badly. The whole situation reminded me of high school when I would harbor intense white-hot imaginary relationships with the Band President for six months at a time, quivering in an agony of unrequited feeling. But here I was a grown woman apparently unequipped to navigate adult romantic relationships. In my 20s, I had a series of powerful love affairs with men who “got” me. They seemed to “see” me. Was whatever it was those guys saw no longer there?
The men I met in my 30s liked me as a pal, but, on the whole, they were able to turn me down with zero regrets. I didn’t seem to make an impact. Something shifted.
I tried online dating. I’ve never been good at small talk, so I could sense that I was not “showing up” on these dates, and whatever person these guys were meeting over a happy-hour cocktail, it wasn’t me.
I look back on that whole autumn of the recount as a particularly unreal season. Nothing seemed to have substance or tangibility. I couldn’t grasp onto anything and I couldn’t hold onto whatever I did grasp. In October of that fall, I developed a crush on Kieran, an Irish bartender at a pub I frequented. I knew I was behaving like a cliche, but I couldn’t seem to help myself. I didn’t even know why I was drawn to Kieran, beyond the fact that he had a buzz cut and an Irish accent. Did that warrant all the private melodrama?
The loneliness was beginning then, the loneliness that now dogs my every step, chafing away my peace of mind. During that fall when everything seemed to hover, taking a breath, a deep breath, I didn’t realize that I was choosing a path. It felt, vehemently, like not choosing. My life seemed to be about what wasn’t happening, as opposed to what was. Of course, looking back, I know now that absence is, indeed, something, and loneliness has as much substance and tangibility as that imaginary partner I so yearned for. In 2000, I was starting to get my first real taste of loneliness. I thought it was a phase.
Serious Times were coming. They were already on the march; it was just that they were, as yet, out of sight during the dreamy fall of the recount. Which is why I believe the party I went to in early November, 2000, an extravaganza of charades, Trivial Pursuit, and love-at-first-sight could only have occurred when it did. Serious Times had not yet arrived. Frivolity was still a possibility then. Possibility was still a possibility then.
My crush on Kieran crashed and burned (predictably) and I was at the point in my grieving process where I staggered through the streets of the garment district weeping in public. A friend of mine suggested that I write down everything I was looking for in a man.
“Don’t worry about being practical,” she said. “Be imaginative, be silly. If you want him to wear Birkenstocks, write that. Have fun with it.”
This sort of Oprah-inspired behavior is anathema to me. “Ask the universe for what you want and watch it manifest!” Please. I’m Irish Catholic. We don’t do that. However, I was feeling particularly hopeless at that moment, so one night I found myself starting my list. Four pages later I emerged, elated.
At first I stuck to my essentials, my dealbreakers:
has strong family ties (good to his parents)
great sense of humor (can laugh at himself)
knows the difference between “their” and “there”
But soon I veered off into items like:
adores Foo Fighers
prefers old movies
It was silly, but yes, something was released in me in the mere act of writing my list. It was a distraction, turning my focus away from the brogue-drenched bartender of my current inappropriate dreams. It was fun. And a little bit stupid. It is my favorite combination of energies, fun and stupid.
I dated the list. 11/9/00.
On November 10, my friend Allison threw herself a birthday party. Her boyfriend was a photographer with a studio in Soho and the party was held there. Not a huge bacchanalian bash, just a group of close friends. I was coming out of my staggering-around-in-the-garment-district stage and didn’t feel up for it. I wore sunglasses at work to hide my puffy eyes, making me look like tabloid photos of my own scandal. But Allison pushed. “Oh, please come! Please!”
I rode downtown on the subway. I wore no makeup. Why bother applying mascara if you will just cry it off. I was wearing hi-top sneakers, jeans and a dark grey long-johns-henley-type shirt. Way to dress for a party, Sheila. I sat on the N, rattling along through the tunnels, trying to get myself together to be social, to be a good sport, extroverted. All around me buzzed talk of the recount. It was surreal. I wondered what would happen. I cast my vote what felt like a decade earlier. It wasn’t that apathy set in, it was just that I grew accustomed to the state of affairs. I took the pause to re-read The Federalist Papers and the Constitution, to try to get clear on what was going on. I reviewed the electoral college, which seemed a shadowy entity, mysterious, like the Knights Templar, with rituals and secret membership all of which was totally incapable of addressing modern political concerns. There was a certain amount of freedom in having to wait so long for a result from Florida. It dovetailed with my own sense of waiting in my own life for something to happen, to break. I couldn’t impact the process, I couldn’t make events move quicker. Nothing to do but sit back and wait.
When I walked into the studio, I was enveloped in dim soft light. There was a line of tea lights around the edges of the curved white cyclorama, giving the space a whimsical fairy-like atmosphere. A long table was set out in the main space with plates gleaming and dark. Allison, in glamorous black, stood in the kitchen, cooking up a feast of quesadillas. People milled around drinking wine, chatting. Soft music played. I immediately relaxed. I didn’t have to “come out”, or be merry and gay. I could pour myself a glass of wine and join one of the groups and there was already a space for me there. It was my kind of party.
There is no other way to describe what ended up happening that night: I fell in love with someone; it was my only experience (to date) with love-at-first-sight, and the extraordinary thing was that the feeling was mutual. I shook hands with him, a big humorous bear of a man, and felt a thud inside of me. An “uh-oh” kind of thud. He shook hands like he meant it. When he looked at me, he really looked. We gravitated towards one another naturally, an automatic magnetic pull. If I made a joke, I felt him react, his energy tugging towards me. He didn’t just talk about himself, he tried to draw me out.
Our first big conversation was about the recent release of Sylvia Plath’s “unedited” journals. I said, annoyed, “Yeah, but they still don’t have –” He interrupted, finished my thought, “Those last two years! Exactly!”I asked him questions about books he liked. He was eloquent in reply, but he knew the art of conversation (he is a dying breed), and he knew that much of it has to do with listening. So often you ask someone a question, they answer voluminously, and then — plop — the conversation dies because that person does not say to you in reply, “So what do you think?”He made none of those gaffes. He understood give and take. I was not alone in my conversations with him.
We went through the full spectrum of a relationship in the course of one night. We got to know one another, we talked constantly, we were glued to each other’s sides, we even got into an argument at one point. He pointed out something I did and asked, “Why do you always do that?” Always? In the three hours you have known me? In anyone else this would have been aggressively obnoxious, but in him it was insightful. He was right. I did always do that. Why?
My appeal is not universal. I realize that. It’s like that line in As You Like It: “Sell when you can; you are not for all markets.” I am misunderstood. I seem to be one thing and on deeper investigation I am revealed to be another. This leads to disappointment. But with him, I was not misunderstood. The night was like Luke Skywalker having to hit one particular teensy spot on the enormous Death Star, and succeeding. Gears, long rusty, clicked into place.
We sat at the long table on the cyclorama. Dinner was over, and the party dispersed, breaking up into smaller groups, leaving the two of us alone. If you told my tear-streaked tabloid self earlier in the day that I would fall in love that night, that I would sit across the table from a man and tremble at his nearness, I would have thought you were speaking to me in a Druid dialect. Look at my outfit. Long-john-henley? Love? Get outta here. But there it was, a two-way current of unmistakable attraction back and forth across the table. The silence went on long enough I was able to relax into it, and almost enjoy it. It wasn’t awkward, sitting with him in silence. I didn’t scramble to find something to say. I relaxed into it. Jeff Buckley’s Grace was playing. I hadn’t listened to the album in a while, and it suddenly occurred to me (for the first time, amazingly, since Grace was on constant rotation for a full season in chez Sheila) there was not a song called “Grace” on the album. Sitting quietly next to my new crush, I suddenly wondered about it. Why that title?
And then, from nowhere, came the question: What is grace? Strange. I never asked myself that question before. He sat across from me, quiet, in his own space, smoking. I thought, Why not? and leaned across the table to him, saying his name. He looked at me. There was an openness in his face, a receptivity. It made me brave.
I asked him, “What is grace?”
It didn’t seem odd to him that that question came at him from out of nowhere, asked by a girl he just met who also happened to be wearing long-johns. He didn’t blow me off, he didn’t fire back a too-easy answer, he sat back and really thought about it for a while. He finally said, “You know, I know what it is, but I can’t describe it. I think everyone has an idea of what ‘grace’ is, but I don’t know what it means, for you, for me, for anyone.”His answer suited my floating mood, the mood of that Strange Time, where nothing was settled yet, nothing could be nailed down. What “is” was still up for grabs. The chads were still hanging, the votes still being counted.
The recount in Florida was the joke of the night. People would ask you to “pass the bowl of hanging chads” down the table. Any small disagreement would involve people calling out for recounts. Example: “Radiohead kind of sucks.” “I WANT A RECOUNT.” I went to pour myself a glass of wine and came back to the table, only to find him, my new love, annoyed. “What, you didn’t get me some?” he said, as though Sheila being clueless to his needs was well-trod ground in our “relationship”. I started to plead my innocence, “Oh, did you want some?–” He cut me off, bellowing, “I WANT A RECOUNT!”
He regaled the dinner table with a story about a phone conversation with an English friend, where he found himself explaining the electoral college and its function, and his Brit friend interrupted, sneering, “God, your system is so antiquated.” He said, “And I was like, ‘We’re antiquated?? You guys have a fucking QUEEN, okay?'”
Over the course of the night, the whole party (as so rarely happens) coalesced into one. We started off by playing Trivial Pursuit (even though we didn’t have the actual board, we made up our own questions), and finally began a game of charades at about 11 p.m. We did not stop playing charades until 4:00 a.m. One guy left the party at one point to go to another party, came back 2½ hours later, and we were all still playing charades. “Wow …” he drawled. “You guys are — kind of losers, actually.”
Eventually, the party dwindled down to the diehards, and we lay all over the dimly glowing cyclorama, shouting out our guesses at the individual in the middle. We gesticulated wildly, we screamed, we acted out entire movies in 20-second periods. At one point, I made him laugh so hard at something I did on some invisible frequency perceived only by him he literally collapsed on the floor.
Love — cracking through my carapace — cracking through the commonplace — love, as natural a process as breathing. I was so weird in my dealings with Kieran and other men. I was awkward and self-deprecating to the point of making myself invisible. But at the party in November of 2000, it felt like I could do no wrong. For that brief night, I was funny, sexy, provoking, smart, desirable.
At around three in the morning, the two of us left the studio (and stepped out of the charades game, which was naturally still going on when we returned). The Soho streets were deserted, dark, cabs jolting along the potholes. He wanted to go get cigarettes and asked me to come with him. By that point we already could not bear to be apart. Separation felt unnatural.
We started to cross the street, but I was aware of a cab hurtling our way, and held back. He launched himself out into the street, held his hand up at the cab in a “STOP” command, and when the cab obeyed, he called out to me, “You’re safe now!”
He understood the appeal of the big gesture. It pierced me. We got cigarettes but we didn’t feel like going right back to the party so we walked around the neighborhood talking. We talked about religion, our upbringings, music, our fathers – his dead, mine alive – poetry. Gerard Manley Hopkins came up, because of course he did, and my new love shouted at the cobblestones in a thundering baritone, “Ah! Bright wings!” Nothing was quite real.
The party reluctantly broke up at four a.m. People fell asleep on the floor, mid-charade-game. I got my coat. I was in a state I rarely found myself in, and have never been in since that night. I was walking on air, jazzed, and nothing needed to be done about it. Yet.
As I put on my coat, he came over to me with his arms opened, and I went in for a hug. He clutched at me in a manner that tore at my heart. He said into my ear, “We have to keep in touch. I won’t be able to stand it.”
Man I just met.
There was something exquisite in letting him go. I did not feel I needed to grasp at the romantic opportunity. It was what it was: perfect. A perfect night, a perfect man. I knew it would change, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps next week, but I felt that would be okay, too. He didn’t waltz into my life wielding a bowl of olives, quoting a Foo Fighters song, and praising Warner Brothers movies from 1932, but it did not escape my notice that a mere day after writing my list, someone, indeed, appeared.
I walked to the PATH Station on 9th Street, quite a hike, but there was so much leftover energy coursing through me I needed to burn it off. The feeling in the New York streets at that hour of the morning is tired, with frayed edges. People are drunk. The night is over, and yet for many, they are not ready to let it go. They look around, eyes glazed over yet sharp, full of regrets already: the phone number they didn’t get, the argument they lost, the sex that now isn’t happening. It’s over. In an hour or two it will be dawn. I was drunk, too. All I could see was the sheer hilarity of him trying to act out Middlemarch during charades. And his face when I asked him about grace.
It felt like something was going to happen.
The PATH station was bleak, fuzzy with fluorescent light, and people lay asleep on the floor using their backpacks as pillows, waiting for a train (which at that time of the morning comes only once every half-hour). The air was exhausted, drained. I slid my back down one of the columns, sitting at its base, my mind’s eye crowded with snapshots, newsreel footage from the night. There were moments when I could tell that I was starting to assign meaning to events, like when he called out to me, “You’re safe now!” Was there a deeper meaning to that? Assigning meaning means expectation. That was what I just did in my crush on Kieran, reading too much into things, making things mean something — I blew the whole thing out of proportion.
Lying there in the train station, I counseled myself out of meaning. “No, Sheila, don’t do that. Don’t ruin it. Just let it be.”
Could it be that, in some cosmic way, I invited him into my life by writing my Perfect Man list? Was Oprah right all along? But something in me resists that A to B philosophy: life is ephemeral, chaotic, cruel, capricious. By trying to assign meaning to the love-at-first-sight (and, by implication, an expectation of a specific result), I would diminish it. I would reduce its magic.
I may not know what grace is, either, but I recognize it when it arrives.
My eyes kept falling shut in the PATH station, and yet, simultaneously, I buzzed with electric current, similar to how it feels after roller-skating for an hour, and your legs keep vibrating for a while when you stop. I wondered if I would ever calm down.
As I lay there, half in and half out of sleep, in love but un-worried about it yet, I overheard a guy in a sleepy group to my right say, tiredly, a propos of nothing, “Do we have a President yet?”
He didn’t seem to particularly care about the outcome. He just wondered if there was anything new to report. “Has the rain stopped? Do we have a President yet?”
At the sound of his words, a telescope opened in me, backing me way way up, and I thought, I will never forget this night.
It was historic. “Do we have a President yet?”It was collective: he said “we”. Americans. But, more distinctively, it was also bored. He spoke what we all felt. The beauty and complexity and frustrating nature of representative democracy. I did not find his question or his tone disheartening. I found it beautiful and odd.
I don’t know why I suddenly loved the whole world in that moment, but I did. It hurt. Of course it hurt. There are a lot of people in the world and one can’t love them all, but for about ten minutes, in that echoing PATH station at 5 a.m. one morning during the recount, I did.
When I got home to Hoboken, the sun was up. Before throwing myself onto my futon mattress, I signed on to check my email. It was rote behavior on my part rather than anything involving a specific expectation, so I felt a jolt to my toes when I saw he already emailed me. His subject line: “I want a recount.”
Crouched in my cold dawn-lit kitchen, I started laughing out loud, tears in my eyes. I am usually the first to acknowledge a new connection. “So nice to meet you,” I crow, “Great to hang out last night!” But here he was the first. Wherever he lived, I didn’t even know, he stumbled in, just like I did, in the dawn’s early light, and the first thing he did was sign on and email me. I read his words, a pretty standard “so great to meet you” message, but it filled me with molten gold. He shouted at me across the street, “You’re safe now!”I believed it. I felt it.
The hovering strangeness of that fall continued, but not for long.
Events reached a conclusion in Florida. It was less than a year before our whole world changed.
“Do we have a President yet?”
Yes. We did.
And after a concentrated email exchange with him over the following week, I could no longer contain myself and asked him if he wanted to go out sometime. I wrote, “I felt a connection with you. I don’t know your situation, hell, I don’t know anything about you, or even your last name, but I do know I would love to see you again.”His reply was immediate and blunt. “I admire your style,” he wrote, before informing me he was “seriously involved” with someone.
He closed the email with: “Here is a poem you inspired.”
A splendid redhead from Ireland or Chicago,
leaned across the table, being what she is, always,
asked me if I understood grace. I said I believe in it,
But I don’t know what it is or what it can be to us.
She smiled and shrugged her breasts toward me,
And I was gone from this world, like smoke or air.
The Serious Times are now. They arrived with a vengeance. Such a night, with its insistent buoyant lightness, could not happen now. I sometimes think, in darker moments, that he took with him things like possibility, frivolity, the “bright wings” of grace, that those things, too, like so much else, are now “gone from this world, like smoke or air”.
I want a recount.