The boy I fell in love with was waiting outside my favorite diner in a jacket too thin for the cold. This was before I fell in love with him. I was 35, available, and always on a diet. I was a regular at this diner. I went for banana-strawberry whole-wheat pancakes, which sounds worst than it is. Brian had seen me before, once, with a group of nice kids from the Iowa Workshop. I remembered his name because he’d taken our orders, and when we told him we were in the Workshop, he told us a story about the diner being haunted which he’d made up on the spot. But today I was alone, and Brian, even though he barely knew me, greeted me with a nod, like he knew I was coming and had been suffering the cold just for me.
He opened the doors of the diner, but I said, “No, I have to buy a paper, first,” and shook the coins in my fist. Brian jammed a cigarette between his teeth and kicked the door open, then, balancing on his other leg, he leaned forward and dropped a quarter in the newspaper dispenser, his body posed like the flying warrior pose in Yoga, balancing one leg straight back, stretching his arms out in front of him. I said thank you. I was impressed. I grabbed my paper. “Get me one too,” he said, his lips still tightly wrapped around that cigarette he’d been trying to light up before I got there. He waited until I slipped past him, out of the cold; then he walked in after me.
He waved me towards a booth, and while I settled in, he grabbed the coffee pot and a mug. He placed the napkin-wrapped silverware in front of me and sat down across from me, his arms folded.
“So,” he said. “I meant to ask you. You look exotic. Where are you from?”
Now, the only thing exotic about me was my brown hair, which, granted, in Iowa City was a little unusual, but he said, “Hey, I know what it’s like. I’m the only black guy in this town,” which wasn’t true, but I knew what he meant. Before I moved here from Florida my friend had warned, “In Iowa, even the black people are white,” and then he and his girlfriend laughed like this was a joke between them. Brian waved at somebody in the doorway before I could say a word. He got up, taking his coffee pot, and said, “You weren’t shittin’ me that day, you’re really with the Writers’ Workshop?”
In Iowa City the Workshop is the one claim of pride of a little town that would otherwise be known only for its pooping pig dolls and its football team. The town folks made a big deal about the Workshop. I didn’t feel like such a big deal, though: all I had to show for my talent, besides my acceptance here, was a stack of pre-formatted rejection letters of editors who told me, in the nicest possible way, that they didn’t like my writing. Brian wagged a finger at me. “I wrote some stories I want to show you.”
I nodded dumbly: every time I tell some perfect stranger that I write, I have to talk my way out of having to line edit a novel, like all I want to do is work for free. Once, a man I didn’t know, except from a one-time-at-a-club situation, handed me a seven thousand-page screenplay he assured me was going to make us both rich. When I tried to tell him the screenplay was too long, he squealed, “When I took creative writing in college, I had an A!” I didn’t want to read Brian’s stories. I was a teaching assistant, for god’s sake, a synonym for migrant laborer, and I had freshmen papers to grade, a whole stack of them. I had counted on occupying this one booth until dinnertime, until they kicked me out, until I got through half of my papers and had to go somewhere else for a warm place to work. My apartment on the upper floor of an old Victorian had chinks and cracks so thick a squirrel could have squeezed through them. I’d moved here from Florida; it was fair to say I wasn’t adjusting. The only warm place in town was this diner. All I needed was spare change to buy some coffee and I could stay here for hours. A pushy waiter was better than shivering under piles of old blankets, poised next to a creaky, propane stove trying to get warm.
Brian came back to the booth with my pancakes, which had a smile shaped out of pieces of strawberries and bananas.
“Do you like this? I made it.”
“We make this for the children on Sundays. I was practicing.”
I pulled out my freshmen rhetoric papers and my red pen, but Brian just shook his head. “You shouldn’t use a red pen, you know? I can get you a green pen from the office.” When he came back, I’d finished the first paper. Brian looked over my shoulder at my comments. “C? You’re going to give that guy a C?” He took the pen from my hands and bubbled in a B in place of the C. “That’s better,” he said. He blinked at me. I think I blinked at him. “Aren’t you annoyed with me yet?”
I should’ve said, “Quite.” I should’ve said, “Please leave me alone: I need to work,” but I just wasn’t raised that way. My mother is a small-town Italian. In small-town Italy people are greatly concerned with manners, much more than they’re concerned with drawing boundaries. I shook my head, no.
“I’ll keep trying,” he said, but he left me alone.
It was already March and it was 2002 and the world had fallen around us barely a few months before. We were still trying to make out what it meant that the nation had been attacked, that we were at war with Afghanistan even before we could figure out what had happened. At the Workshop especially, this confusion dominated idle talk: in a town snowed in on all borders from the miles of pig farms spreading across acres and acres, it can get pretty claustrophobic, gossip revolving around the same parties, thrown by the same people, or about the stench of dung that pervades the town on days when farmers fertilize. Our small town unimportance was now being tallied against the enormity of a world event most of us could not begin to fathom; yet we talked about it: we were addicted to NPR, and to the New York Times, which we could only get if we were willing to rise up from bed earlier than the doctors at the University hospital. Already then we had cut the Bush jokes. Even the staunchest liberals were referring to Mr. Bush as “Our President” with a ring of solemnity that measured up to a church vow. But we were writers. We had given up law schools and MBAs, families and cushy jobs to arrive here, in Iowa City, what we thought was the hub of the American literary world, and we didn’t really know what it meant now that we had a war on our hands, an attack on our motherland, a festering of racism and a willingness to surrender privacy in the name of safety. We were undoubtedly as scared as anybody else, but we had come to Iowa City already scared: writers can’t see their own future past their next publication, and that publication is usually misted by the clouds of writers’ block, a fancy name for fear. If you think it’s easy to give up an MBA, a good job, a law practice, go ahead and try it, trade it all in for the smug stamp of satisfaction on a colleague’s lips when he points out to your writers’ group that you’ve used your adverbs incorrectly in at least three of the 18 pages of your story, and that your used a metaphor inconsistently on page 16, demonstrating infallibly that you were not in control of your symbolism. When your professor confirms, in private, that “…if we didn’t have to read this for workshop, nobody would have gotten past the first page,” try not to see yourself and your whipped ego as the court jester in the writing workshop court, and coax it back to your writing table into a little trick of a story; try to assess your irreversible decisions to turn down job offers you cannot now ever hope to receive again as the necessary sacrifices to a narrow path that some poet, who ought to have been shot long ago, called “the one that made all the difference.”
What we found out, one year into our path, in addition to all the things writing students find out about their talent when they are amassed in a room of fifty or so of their better peers, was that the country had changed. We could not measure exactly the extent of this change, only that it seemed to be shifting with alarming constancy away from what we had grown to expect. Over night, our stories about divorces, infidelity, dysfunctional childhoods, ethnically mixed confusion and gay romance became obsolete. We didn’t know, exactly, what was acceptable writing-matter. The country was still trying to cross t’s by prohibiting plastic knives on international flights. Were we expected to do any better? Some of us called for a meeting, where we intended to draft an anti-war statement. We fell into disorganized discussion, some taking sides with Our President, others pontificating on the subtler points of a democracy under threat. Somebody wrote a poem, equating the war in Afghanistan with the rape of a virgin. There was offense, indignation, and the veiled accusations traded on the Internet, dressed up in elaborate metaphors. Then someone said, “I’m too busy with my thesis for this bullshit,” and immediately thereafter the meetings, the emails, the discussions ended: we had confirmed our intellectual effeteness.
So, there I was, stranded in that slice of country where life is as predictable to humans as it is to cows, with nothing to do but ruminate on the disaster of a war in the Middle East, and all I could think about was a boy who made pancakes with banana smiles. I did what any Catholic, single Italian 35 year old would do in my shoes: I went to church. Because it was warm, but also because there were people, because there was singing in place of the obsessive-compulsive analyses of the rhetoric of war, because the people who sang held hands and knew all the hymns and smiled and looked forward to something, because the priest kept his sermons short and the list of anonymous prayer request long and full of details, because the church was more packed since September 11, and because on Sundays hope brimmed as we lifted our hearts to the Lord and offered them up like the innocent lambs we all hoped we still were, in spite of Osama Bin Laden’s terrifying perversity. This spell lasted an hour; then it was time to be lonely again, cold, unemployed and confused while the country was busily and purposefully at war. At the end of Mass, I winced when I heard my anonymous prayer requests, written in the third person, warped by the priest’s voice: “Pray for Angela who….wants…and …. I can’t read this. Lord, grant her prayer. Go in peace.”
Angela wanted a clue from the Divine; more than that, she wanted a partner in love, someone to go through the Apocalypse with her; someone to hold at night while smart missiles explode into granite Afghani caves, sending goats scattering and blood sputtering. I prayed to find someone to share my Sunday pancakes with me, while Afghani children gathered under parachutes of US care packs, praying to Allah for the packages not to be bombs. Judgment Day, I was sure, would be more bearable with a partner. Dear Madonna, is it so much to ask? I said a rosary every night. I asked God in my own way for the right man. I left elaborate prayer requests on the prayer request registry book at the front of the Newman Catholic Center. To be 35 was acceptable; even to be in school and unemployed, but not to be alone, so hungry, dear Lord, so cold.
I had bought a pretty spell book with a blood-red fabric cover, a look of old witch magic about it. It said something about burying a love wish in the earth bed of a budding rose, and I went to the organic co-op to plant my wish into the redolent brown earth of a potted rose. That is how I’d slipped, ever so dreamily, into witchcraft. Since childhood, my nonna had taught me to shell beans to predict the number of children I would one day have, to slip a potato under my pillow to dream the name of my future husband, to match dreams with numbers to play in the lottery, and to read the lines in my palms for clues of the future: all while lighting votives to the Madonna, and reading special prayers to St. Jude, who makes the impossible possible. It was no big deal, once in a while, to go that extra length for a wish. With the Lord’s prayer, and the Madonna’s blessing, a little magic is excused.
And when Brian sat before me, again, at that same booth a month later, I had already finished my tempe burrito, the only full meal I’d allow myself to eat for the day. I was picking at cold fries and going through my last folder of freshmen Rhetoric. He had been filling my coffee cup for hours. He hadn’t asked me once yet if I wanted the check. He said, “I write children’s stories. I’d love it if you’d read them and tell me what you think. Would you have a look at them sometime?”
Brian slipped the ketchup bottle in his coat pocket and an unlit cigarette in his mouth, until I nodded an assent. He waited, straight face, for me to stop giggling. Then he got up, bussed a few tables. I’d almost forgotten about his request when he came back and dumped a stack of hundreds of pages where my plate had just been. He offered a pot of fresh-brewed coffee. I had already drunk past the bladder test, but I accepted the payment. “All this, huh?” I adjusted the pages.
“I’ll be back later,” Brian said, suddenly shy.
The curious thing was that the stories were good: the protagonist was always the same child, a little girl I’d find out later was Brian’s daughter from a previous marriage. She wandered through magical forests and had Socratic conversations with glowing pink monsters, but the lesson she learned was always the same: her father loved her more than anyone. When Brian came back, I gave him my critical review, pointing out the lines that needed more clarity, the paragraphs that needed development.
“What are you doing tonight?” Brian interrupted me.
I looked at him for a while trying to figure out if he was asking me on a date. My impulse was to tell him I was busy. I thought maybe he was angling for a booty call. Besides, I am a white Catholic Italian who loves her outdated, old-fashioned parents very much, and Brian was a black, stick-thin guy a few years younger than me, a kind of guy my parents would not accept as an in-law without a tragedy of Puccinian proportions: “What will the family back home say about your being with a black guy!!!!” I would have braved this kind of tragedy for a true love, but I had to measure carefully if this guy sitting in front of me, with those thrift-store clothes and pierced nose, this guy who talked to me (and to everyone who came in the diner) as if he’d known us always, I had to consider if he was the kind of person to fall in love with a 35 year old, seriously minded Italian woman looking for true love. The answer, I could see right there, was no. But somehow I said yes. I said sure. I said why not, I’m not doing anything.
I could blame it on my wish in the potted rose, I could blame it on the Madonna, or I could blame it on the practiced way that Brian had planned out our evening on that unusually mild Iowa April night, waiting for the restaurant to close down, then cooking me Buddhist delight, just me and him in that cavernous candle-lit diner, the sound track of the Virgin Suicides playing on the speaker system. I could blame it on a lot of things, but mostly people do stupid things because they’re brought to the point where it is either the stupid thing or spending the night in a cold home, eating bread cooked unevenly from an old propane stove and trying to get warm by breathing under blankets.
Only a few days later, Brian and I were in bed. He did not wait until I was dressed again to tell me he had an ex-wife and a child, that he was in love with a poet in the Workshop and also with another woman who was married; moreover he said he was a recovering alcoholic…and he apologized, and thanked me, for being so nice to him, as if rather than sleeping with him I’d given him a haircut. He spilled it all out right there on my naked belly, his fingers still tracing the curve of my inner thigh. I kicked him out of bed, but he seemed so surprised. He didn’t think I would care, seeing as I was leaving as soon as the semester was over to go back to Florida. And the way he said all this, with such raw sincerity, I thought that maybe it was me who had been manipulative, me who had plotted all along to fall into bed with a young guy who was obviously too hip to be tied up to an older woman with old fashioned ideas about love at first lay. He was being pragmatic; I was being romantic, and maybe even a little weird.
Then graduation time rolled around, and my sister came to visit from Rome, and I went with her to Chicago, and later we drove around Iowa, seeing nothing but farmlands, ducks, rabbits and assorted birds. We caught up on gossip about our relatives in the old country, skipping Brian, skipping my loneliness, skipping my addiction to banana pancakes. Finally she went home, and I went back to my cold, cold house, two pounds heavier with Chicago-style pizza and feeling even less lovable than before. Even though it was late spring it was cold at night, temperatures dropping to the 40’s, and I couldn’t help it when Brian called to answer the phone, and to listen, even after he told me he woke up in the hospital in the mental health unit with an alcoholic blackout.
“All I wanted was to call you,” he said. “All I kept thinking about was you.” I probably shouldn’t have taken this as a compliment, given the fact that he’d tried to flex his biceps, but he said, “You were so nice to me. How could I think of anyone else?”
When we hung up, I went to get all the newspapers I had collected since September 11, and spread them out on the wood floors. I could make sense of nothing in the political world and even less of my life. I was supposed to pack my things, make arrangements for ending the lease, confirm my arrival to my tenant in Florida, and most of all, get all the paperwork in gear for my graduation, but instead I made a carpet of news right there on the floor, the photographs of Iraqis, Afghanis and Pakistanis lying in the distilled perfection of a captured moment, the faces of protesters and victims staring up towards me as I sometimes stared at the ceiling of a cathedral, without much expectations or distraction from the drama surrounding me, but still, all the same, looking up.
What I had been saving these newspapers for, I wasn’t sure: a moment when everything would come together and make sense, a moment where we could gather all the pieces and begin again, but the number of papers folded under my bed had turned into a small pile, and things didn’t seem any clearer than they had on September 11. So I went out to the art store and I bought the biggest sheet of poster paper I could find. At home, I got out my scissors and I cut out all the pictures I liked best: the mountains of Afghanistan in the backdrop of a perfect sunset; Pakistani soldiers kicking protesters in the head, their muscled legs stretching high in ballet-like poses; the gigantic carving of Buddhas just before the Taliban exploded them, confirming the impermanence the Buddha had warned us about; Americans in spacesuits storming a post office contaminated by anthrax; families of the victims of the World Trace Center holding hands at a memorial. And so on. I glued them on poster paper of a color like skin, and I collaged the pictures together without any pattern other than their hues and shapes. It was a beautiful chaos of violence and hope. So I emptied out my too-often-over-drafted account to have this new creation of mine framed in Plexiglas.
When others saw it, they didn’t ask what it meant or what it was. They only asked, “Who made this?” and I knew, by how their eyelids wrapped tightly around their eyes, that they understood.
When my lease was up, and all my possessions packed in my station wagon so that only the driver seat was free, Brian asked me to move in with him. Like the Buddha, we never talked about permanence: he had followed the advice of his father and made arrangements for rehab in Minnesota, and I missed my lush, sticky-warm Florida. Still we kept postponing my departure with those casual phrases that experienced lovers know how to exchange through mundane guises of coffee cups and laundry piles. Just one more day. Because I hadn’t gotten an oil change. Because Brian needed my car. Because there was no sense in my leaving right now when his lease wasn’t up until next month. So a few days of breathing on Brian’s skin turned into a few weeks of clothing myself from the backseat of my car. We ate in restaurants that served organic foods, and drank virgin Bloody Mary’s, and Brian talked to strangers at nearby tables, acting like the therapist of anyone who didn’t feel harassed by his intrusions. We watched Iowa explode with red buds and dogwoods in the warm breath of spring. He wasn’t drinking, and I wasn’t eating. I allowed myself to believe we could work out.
Brian’s apartment had no kitchen so we romanced ourselves on the sidewalk in quaint downtown café’s. We bought sandwiches that we couldn’t finish: me because of my permanent diet, Brian because he was too impatient to stay put. If the homeless guy was around, begging a cigarette from table to table, Brian would call him out by his first name, an intimacy in his tone of voice that bespoke of a long-standing friendship. I watched him and the man as they slapped their high-fives, Brian un-cringing from the man’s odor of booze and unwashed body parts.
“It’s just a shame to throw all this good food away,” said Brian casually, looking at his uneaten sandwich. “I’d take it home, but we don’t have a fridge, so it’s just going to spoil.”
“Well, if you’re not going to eat it…” said the homeless, who seemed relieved to have a pride-saving reason to accept the food. “I’ll take it off your hands.”
It was Brian’s mission to feed the world, whether the world needed it or not. He crashed frat parties and the get-togethers of near-strangers just to sneak into their kitchen to bake banana bread, or cook brown rice with curry and chopped chestnuts. I was his lookout. If someone got near, I was supposed to seduce them by standing sexily against the doorpost, making love to a beer bottle with my lips. Brian would have us stay only as long as it took to set up the food in saucy swirls and leafy apostrophes, then he’d leave the party without taking a single bite.
He liked to be a riddle; if someone figured him out, it launched him into mean, childish pranks, like a bully child upset for having his secret hideout discovered, and so, sooner or later, I was to find out how pungent his vulnerability could be. One morning as I woke up I found him gazing at me lovingly, his eyes glowing with the peaceful distention of a sated lover. I said good morning, and he winced, caught in the act.
“I’ll tell you something that black men say about white people,” he said, quickly. “When you white people are wet, you smell funny. Sometimes we black people go in a subway car or something, and there’s a wet white guy, and we brothers look at each other like… what the hell?”
Only a week before, Brian had overheard me talking to my father on the phone. My father wanted to know why I was delaying my return to Florida, where I was living if my lease was up, what was I doing in Iowa when he knew how much I hated it. I rattled on my little lies, my car, my lease problems, my graduation documents held over, but Brian overheard. He paced, pulling long drags from his cigarette, pretending he wasn’t listening to my one-sided conversation. Later, with a mock expression of hurt, he said, “You should’ve told him you met a guy.” A casual observer would have thought there was no connection between that event and the sudden focus on race issues in Brian’s conversations, but I was starting to know Brian. Since then, it was white people this, and white people that. “But I’m white,” I’d complain. He’d look away and say he didn’t think of me as White People… probably like others had told him that there was black like Brian and then a different kind of black. That morning, cut with the shards of a shattered moment, though, I felt no sympathy for his racial war scars.
“Are you trying to tell me something?” I said, gathering the blankets around me.
“I’m giving you an in. I’m telling you something most white people don’t know.”
“Are you seriously expecting me not to get offended?”
I stomped off with a pillow stuck to my chest, heading for the shower, banging things around too gently not to hear Brian whisper his typical “White people…”
Around that time, he began to leave poems for me to find, on the refrigerator, or on my computer screen, coded notes of his mixed feelings:
Arched above your mouth,
I plunge into your unspoken.
I feed you our daily hurt.
The body does not hide
digging trenches for its wars.
I offer out to sacrifice
the shivering of sex.
Then one night, it all came to a head. He asked to borrow a dress. I didn’t understand. All that I knew of Brian, besides that he loved his two year old daughter, that he was one exam short of a law degree from Iowa, that he wanted to be left alone to what he called his peaceful poverty, besides all these little things I knew about Brian, I didn’t know him. He spilled out details of his life in torrents so profuse that it was impossible to chart him. I only understood that I didn’t understand him, that his thinking, his way of living and loving, was as puzzling to me as his poetry. I could cut pieces of him and paste them together into a construction of Brian, something beautiful and chaotic, but would I ever get it?
So, that dress, flowing black lace and cotton that he wore over his combat boots that night: it was a long gown stitched of glamour and romance. It barely fit, stretching tight around Brian’s muscular arms. Did he want a purse, I inquired, pretending to be in tune with his madness. Nah, it’s too gay, he said.
He wanted to go out on the town.
“I just want to see if anyone will say something.”
I remembered the reactions on my Workshop friends when the boy I kept talking to them about once walked in on us at the coffee shop, surprising us mid-cappuccinos. I had not told them that Brian was black; it hadn’t seem relevant, but I remember the tense impact of silence, the strained niceties that exploded to overcome the earlier, silent shock of Brian’s blackness. So I went along with Brian, his combat boots and dress, without another question, trying to be the solid, hip, edgy kind of girl he could love.
We strolled on the main piazza, sat by the fountain across from the lighted coffee shop, gazing at the dressed up gaggles of grad students, fraternity and sorority girls and boys pouring out onto the streets on the way to the many reasonably priced beer-havens of Iowa City. Brian had grown up here: it seemed as though everyone knew him in some context or another, from the diner, from law-school, from high-school, or from having a meal or a conversation interrupted by his unsolicited advice. People high-fived him, said whatsup, too embarrassed to mention the obvious. Some pretended not to see him, some asked, “What’s with the dress?” some tried to be in on the joke, said that they had worn a dress, too, for a party or for Halloween, speaking with that high-pitched enthusiasm people only adopt when they’re embarrassed for you. Then a pride of drunken bullies stalked out of a club, its leader roaring a “look at that clown!” as he spotted Brian. He unclenched fists only when I wrapped my arm around Brian’s neck and locked lips with him; again I was the distraction, the lookout. Or maybe I was the sidekick. The drunks stared at us, at him, a doubt like a pick etching the corners of their down-turned mouths. And that’s when I got it: I was the dress, fitting too tight, and ridiculously girlish and old fashioned. The joke was on us all.
Years later I’d remember seeing photographs of Al-Quaeda men posing in lipstick and high heels, embracing semi-automatics, the contrast between their tender femininity and their weapon-clad machismo turning them into fragile things to behold, strange, deadly flowers of humanity. As I read about the artist who collected those photos, who recognized the beauty of the terrorists’ perverse violence against their own most delicate desires, I remembered Brian, and the riddles he posed for others to answer about themselves.
I fell in love with a boy, but the boy didn’t fall in love with me: what did you expect of a recovering alcoholic and a lonely, serious-minded Italian? When Colin Powell held up his vial of anthrax to an audience of stunned Americans, I was alone in my bedroom, clutching a pillow, and Brian was in Minnesota, trying to sober up. Afghani children were still hungry, and I was feeling less loved than before. After only two weeks at Gateway, Brian, in his customary raw sincerity, told me he’d mistaken dependence for love. I learned my lesson about wishes. But after a few months of my return to Florida, after all the boxes were broken down, and all the books placed on their shelves, I discovered that I’d managed to lose my framed collage of newspaper photographs. I forgot it in the closet of Brian’s old apartment, now leased to someone new, someone who denied ever having seen it, someone who may have found it occupying too much space in that back closet, and who might have given it away or thrown it in the trash for someone else to find, someone else to puzzle over it, someone else to ask, “Who made this?” and wonder.