I never knew that loss had a taste: like lavender-sage tea, strangely sweet, but tart and long-lasting.
Also, I never knew you could lose things you never even had.
Like when I lost Wes a year ago, in November, even though we were never together.
We had just made love after not watching The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Ten minutes into the film, Wes put his head in my lap, and I could feel him closing his eyes, trying to tune it out, his back tensing as Catherine Deneuve danced down the Parisian cobblestone street, singing in her bright yellow cardigan, hair pulled perfectly back in a half-ponytail.
“It was my favorite film when I was 16,” I said, downplaying my sentimentality. “Don’t hold it against me.”
He lifted his head from my lap, “Maybe I should.”
I didn’t detect any sarcasm in his tone, so I shifted gears, “Let’s watch something else.”
Alphaville was the film he chose, starring the more alluring and mysterious, Anna Karina. I guess she is more his type, I thought, as I quietly endured the two hours of black-and-white torture that was this supercilious art-house film. Wes didn’t like anything light.
He liked the dark, the disturbing, the gloom.
He painted sketches of monsters and naked women with horns sticking out of their heads. Unsettling images with no artistic merit (at least not to my untrained eye), sketches by a mad artist, strewn all over his floor. They reminded me of a teenage boy acting out, who didn’t want to go to school.
He once took me to his art studio and got white paint all over my floral tank-top.
He didn’t even apologize or offer to buy me a new one.
Always working on who knows what, he had no concerns about money, having made it as a modern artist years ago. He lived a life of luxurious vapidness, with only one occupation; to keep himself entertained, the boredom at bay.
No wonder I found out, a few months later, he was sleeping with an assortment of tatted goth girls. A girl online tagged him in a post saying what a jerk he had been. I reached out and asked when she was dating him. She said, November.
A tall, dark brunette with a full-chest tattoo on top of her impressively large breasts, letter tattoos on each of her lanky fingers, donning dark eyeliner and bright red lipstick, she couldn’t have looked more contrasting to me.
She wore bulky rings and hoop earrings. I saw one lying by the side of his bed once, which I chose to ignore. Maybe it was there from a few months ago, I rationalized to myself.
“Are you dating anyone else?” I asked.
“No. Just you.”
In the beginning, I dreamt he was with another woman, one with tattoos. She was also a brunette, but from Iceland. I’ve always been a little psychic.
The real goth girl said Wes was awful to her, and one day she left him saying, “If you want a whore, you should pay for it.”
“Good for you,” I said, secretly wishing I had been so bold.
I was the exception for him, a moment of lapsed judgment. A nice wholesome, aspiring comic was exotic compared to the rocker, leather-adorned chicks he juggled like pocket knives.
Maybe he thought it would be amusing to date a funny girl, who gets up in front of a crowd and tries to make people laugh, something he never had the guts to do, but admired in me.
“I don’t usually like comedians, but with you it seems somewhat heroic,” he said to me once after a show. A small club in Chicago where I got a few polite laughs, but no real ones. He sat in the back, making me nervous, with his quiet, discerning eye surveying my every move, knowing when I was forcing it, pushing for a laugh.
“You’re funniest when you’re just being you,” he said after.
“Are you saying I wasn’t being me?”
“No, but just be you. You’re funny as you are.”
My friends think I should date a well-adjusted guy in a polo shirt, with a cheerful smile, a lawyer or accountant, not a narcissistic artist. But I secretly like a guy who might sometimes call me a “greedy, little bi***” like Wes did, who will bring out the wild in me, let me break free from my good-girl persona, who sees my dark side, as hard as I try to mask it with my eager-to-please laugh and chirpy voice.
Maybe that’s why I fell for him so hopelessly. I thought he saw the real me. The side I don’t think people want to see, that’s disturbed and lugubrious, too.
No woman wants to be underestimated, overlooked, like a harmless puppy. I can bite, too. I want him to know. (Some of us wear our tattoos on the inside).
“You’re a pirate, an artist, a freak,” he told me once over the phone, “Just like me.”
“Why, thank you,” I said.
I once asked him why he didn’t compliment me more.
“I tell you how smart you are and how attracted I am to you all the time. But you don’t say much to me,” I said as we were finishing dinner outside at a quiet, Italian restaurant.
He looked at me, paused for a good minute, and then said,
“You’re ... fluorescent.”
“Yeah. Like ... you glow in the dark.”
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is my favorite film, because it reminds me of falling in love at 16 with a Russian violinist named Lev. He came home after a year abroad at the Rotterdam Conservatory, telling me he didn’t love me anymore, that he met someone else, someone who looked like me, but wasn’t me. That’s how I found out how replaceable I could be.
I demanded Lev put on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I watched, teary-eyed, as he drove away in his vintage grey Volvo. I thought I might die, and I didn’t. I still think of that first heartbreak with survivor’s nostalgia.
I was hoping Wes wanted to know about 16-year-old Sam. But he didn’t. Nor did he really care to know 36-year-old Sam.
I wanted to know everything about him. Wanted to know his fears, his dreams, his deepest desires.
He was a fascinating enigma to me, full of unpredictable contradictions.
Sometimes he even seemed soft, sweet. When he talked to me, his deep voice calmed my anxieties, soothed me in a quiet way. The world is an echo chamber of voices that all sound the same, so when one stands out, you pay attention. This one isn’t like the others, you think. This one is speaking to me, on my level, on my plane. He gets me.
One morning, when we were lying in bed together, he made a shadow puppet face with his hand, which my Dad used to do when I was young. It made me laugh genuinely hard, as he matched his hand with a goofy voice, talking about how he wanted his morning coffee. “WANT COFFEE!” his hand shouted, in a playful puppet voice, his voice cracking a little for comedic effect.
I looked at Wes’ face, while I was laughing, and for a split second, he looked like he could love me. Just for a moment. Despite his best efforts not to reveal a sliver of vulnerability. There was a flash of love in his dark, almond eyes. And I saw it.
A few glimpses of sweetness were all he could give, though.
The rest were questions. Does he like me? Does he care? Will he be there in the morning?
In the last 15 minutes of the brutal French black-and-white film, he touched my thigh and asked if he was doing better at showing affection.
“You don’t really show much affection,” I said earlier that day as we rode his Vespa down the streets of Chicago, the cool, fall air sharp on my cheeks. He reached back and squeezed my thigh, but it still didn’t feel like love.
Toward the end of Alpha-boring-ville (or was it the beginning? The film felt so long), he touched my thigh again, and we made love. He had a way of kissing me that made me feel seen, felt, almost loved. Like a drug. I wanted the high of closeness to go on and on. But when it was done, he slipped back into his own morbid world of self-inflicted brooding, texting compulsively on his phone.
“You’re still not that affectionate.” I answered, bluntly.
“Well at least you found someone you connect with physically and intellectually,” he said.
Maybe he was right, but the moments of connection were so fleeting, so far between, I wasn’t sure it was worth the agony of constant uncertainty.
“You should probably pack. Your flight is so early.”
“OK ... yeah.”
He followed me, and I thought maybe he was going to wrap his arms around my waist, pull me in for a hug, but instead he reached out his arm, “Here’s your sock.”
It was a thin, little grey anklet sock with white polka dots.
Heaven forbid I leave a sock for one of his goth girls to find. Heaven forbid, I leave a trace behind at all.
“Thanks.” I politely grabbed the sock from his hand, packed all my clothes, sad sock included, and never saw him again.
“It seems like life is just a series of losing things and finding things,” my mom said as I picked up one of her gloves from the ground, I had lost on one of our previous walks.
“Wow. It’s like it was just sitting there waiting for us.”
I was staying with her in Boston for a month since my dad died.
Every day, we went on walks on the same wooden trail, crisp fallen leaves crunching under our boots. Passing the occasional woman wearing a mask, walking her dog. A father with his boys, raking leaves in the yard. A couple jogging in matching track suits.
At night, we binge-watched "The Crown," "The Undoing," "The Queen’s Gambit."
The days faded into one another, especially because we were mid-pandemic with not much to distract us. She, a classical violinist, with no pending concerts, and I, a comedian with no road dates. Two performers with no outlets, no real escape.
We grieved quietly, trying our best to navigate this new, empty world, without my father in it. Seeking solace in little things: our walks, cups of tea, pumpkin bread the neighbors dropped off, overly dramatic TV series.
The last time I saw my dad sitting upright in his wheelchair, he was wearing socks I bought for him while touring in Alaska. They were thick, brown socks with the Alaskan moose prominently displayed. They looked pretty hipster.
“It would be cool if you got me socks from every place you performed,” he said.
“That would be a lot of socks, Dad.”
Now I wish I had done it. I wish I sent him all the socks.
It’s been a year since my short-lived romance with Wes, though he still sometimes crosses my mind. I wondered if he found any other items I left behind. Perhaps a stray hair made its way to his pillow, or a bobby pin fell between his sofa cushions.
A few days after the sock incident, I wrote him asking to send my favorite green sunglasses I left in his Vespa.
I bought them on Melrose Avenue from the most passionate salesman I had ever met. He waxed on and on about the different shades, and the lenses, and I was hypnotized by his passion for something so seemingly trivial as a pair of sunglasses. He convinced me to buy the green pair for $200, that fit my face perfectly, and I was surprised I didn’t lose them for two years.
Wes sent them without so much as a note. Just a basic, brown cardboard box with the sunglasses.
I went to church with my mom and after the service, I reached into my purse and the green sunglasses broke in half. As my mom was bragging about me to her church rector, “Sam was just in The Washington Post Crossword Puzzle,” I pulled out my glasses and said, “My sunglasses just broke.”
Without hesitation, the rector said, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”
“Indeed-eth,” I smiled.
The days dragged on. My mom played the piano for hours, while I sat around reheating my coffee ten times a day, staying in my pajamas until 3 p.m. I’m sure she wished I’d be more productive, write some thank-you notes for the flowers, or read a book. But I was oddly complacent sitting around, drinking my coffee, watching the time slowly pass.
It is disorienting going back to your childhood home as an adult. You see that things change, but also stay the same. The ceiling feels lower, but you still have the same blue, morning-glory wallpaper in your bedroom. How different the house was without my dad in his usual spots.
The mornings stung the most, because I used to bounce down the stairs every morning, knowing he’d be waiting cheerfully in his wheelchair to hear all about my latest career updates.
“Where are you off to next? What’s happening next? What’s next, next, next?”
Sometimes I rolled my eyes and said, “Dad, nothing. Nothing is happening, really.”
“This career thing is taking too long,” he teased lightly.
Now I know what he meant.
I started sleeping in the living room, on the fold-out couch. That way I didn’t have to come down the stairs every morning. My mom came downstairs at 8 a.m. every day, loudly opening the blinds. I pulled the covers over my head and kept sleeping.
As a month went by, the clouds of grief gradually lifted. My mom busied herself more with church activities, and I started going on jogs, trying to work off the pumpkin bread I felt in my thighs. (I had no idea how much bread people baked when someone dies). I was hoping to lose weight in my grieving process, but it was quite the opposite.
“I don’t think I want to live alone,” my mom said on one of our walks.
“Well, you get used to it,” I said, realizing I’ve lived alone for almost ten years.
Despite a few short-lived romances, the majority of my life has been alone. Preoccupied with pursuing the unattainable, the emotionally distant, the unavailable. That’s what my mom did, too, though, and she won, eventually. My dad being the only man not impressed with her wit and charisma. She was smitten and waited, until he dropped his guard and finally surrendered to her charms.
She loved him madly, caring for him through years as he battled Multiple Sclerosis.
In his final days, his body so mangled, he needed a nurse to move every limb. As he cried out in pain, my mom looked at him and exclaimed, “I’ve never seen him look so beautiful!”
I’m not so scared of dying alone, as I am living alone. That seems a rather sad affair, to go on and on for most of life—alone.
Though, there are worse things than being alone, as Bukowski pointed out. But nothing worse than too late.
As I was packing to go back to L.A., my mom found a sock under the dining room table. “Don’t forget your sock,” she said, as she handed me the same little grey polka-dot sock. That sneaky little bastard, I thought.
“I’m just going to throw it away.” I picked it up and threw it in the trash along with the broken $200 sunglasses.
Then I turned to my dad’s ashes, “Bye, Dad,” walked out the door into the fresh fall air, took a deep breath and let it all go.
When I got home to L.A., as I was unpacking, I found the other grey sock, all alone without its partner. I looked at it, then put it in a box with a note that read ...
“Hi Wes, I forgot to leave this. Please, keep it safe. It’s the only one. Thanks, Sam.”
*Feature image by Cristina Bernazzani (Adobe)