No Fear of Flying: Kamikaze Missions in Death, Sex, and Comedy
2011 COLUMN CONTEST
Michelle Mirsky is strong but not tough. She hates being told no. She loves to say yes. She’s always in love. She likes whiskey, listens to fortune cookies, and collects knee-high boots and classic modernist chairs. She’s probably a good mother. She lives in Austin, TX where she works an earnest 9-5 job and sometimes tells jokes on stage—kind of like a superhero with a secret identity. Only not super. Or secret. This column chronicles the year following the not-unexpected death of the author’s son. It’s mostly deadpan. It’s sometimes funny. It’s rarely hyperbolic.
“A Hail Mary pass in American football refers to any very long forward pass made in desperation with only a small chance of success, especially at or near the end of a half… The term ‘Hail Mary pass’ has become generalized to refer to any last-ditch effort with little chance of success.” – Wikipedia
I am a teenager in love. Even nearer to 40 than 30, this remains a basic truth about me. I thrive on the wet-eyed breathlessness of the beginning, on daydreaming about the moment when we’ll next be together, the sensation that the air has been sucked from the room when things go sideways, the mental machinations of trying to right the wrongs—to fix it. These things take over my life when I’m in their grip. This teenage feeling is as much a part of me as the triangular scar on my knee from where I fell, otherwise uneventfully, when I was three. This is the heart of me.
A dozen years ago, while living in L.A., I came down with a terminal crush on a blond, tattooed, like-minded boy. I was 25. He was 26 and hard partying but romantically 15, just like me. As it happened, we had a short affair that turned alchemically into an enduring friendship. When we’d talk after one or another of our relationships flamed out, he would tell me: “I’m waiting for the fairy tale. It’s out there. I know it is…” After I’d gotten divorced, after Lev was gone, after I’d fallen in love again, I traveled to California to attend this blond boy’s wedding. His hair was gray by then, as was mine under the mahogany dye. Over the years he’d nursed my broken hearts, supported me, played with my kids, and drank whiskey with me at my kitchen table. On the day of his marriage, I wondered if he’d found the fairy tale or if in the end he’d committed to something more earthbound. He wouldn’t say. He would never kiss and tell.
I’d never much longed for the stuff of fairytales. Everything in love felt imaginary to me anyhow. The solipsist in me had written both parts of entire relationships that ebbed and flowed and raged un-tempered in my head, the actual relationships being far less important to either of us than I’d imagined them. I wrote open letters to the men with whom I was entangled. Nothing I wrote would I ever send, of course, but I’d keep writing in an effort to discern how in the hell to end the storyline of a thing that had never really started. I didn’t want a literary love. I was in search of something scientific, a love as stable as the noble gases, the most reliably calm section of the periodic table. I imagined a love as light as helium and bright as neon; a love based in chemistry, not children’s stories.
The first summer after the last with Lev was my undoing and my remaking.
At the end of the last summer, we’d taken the children to Montauk. Shambled marriage and cancer be damned, we would take comfort in the yearly ritual of our trip East. We ate oysters and lobsters plucked straight from the water. We drank wine in the garden and closed our eyes against the bright sun. In the photos, Lev eats fresh blueberries from a metal mixing bowl and smiles big at whoever’s taking the picture. The boys played together on the lawn in the dry-docked kayak and in the sand at the rocky bay beach. We suspended the inevitable; believed everything was okay, would be okay.
The summer after, we brought our only boy to the beach again. Like before. Like always. For Independence Day fireworks; for swimming in the ocean and cordial games of Scrabble, we furloughed our sadness. We slept in separate bedrooms. We got drunk together and discussed the demise of our relationship in fancy hotel patio bars. Everything was okay. After the holiday, I left for Texas while Joss stayed behind for a long vacation with his father and grandmother. On the Jitney to the airport, I re-read Gatsby.
I spent the flight home from Long Island to Austin contemplating all of the messes. The smallest of which was how I would get back to my house from the airport. As of my layover, there were no takers. None had yet materialized by the time the plane landed. I stood in baggage claim, marshalling my cargo for a cab ride when in came a text from the iconoclast. He was on his way to fetch me. This kindness was, in itself, all kinds of unprecedented. Our relationship fit between the cracks and so, that’s where it lived. The nature of the thing was arms-length and low-maintenance. We didn’t do many (or any) favors for one another. Asking him for a ride from the airport had been a last resort. I hadn’t expected him to oblige. Had I? I don’t know if I was exactly happy that he had. Or perhaps I was elated. I put on lip-gloss and dragged my suitcase to the curb to wait. Back at my place, in the quiet, air-conditioned afternoon, I took my mess to bed. It was a Wednesday. Eleven days before Lev’s birthday.
Of all of my messes, the iconoclast was the most teenaged of all. I had been first infatuated with the iconoclast for years. And then I’d thought I’d loved him. He loved me back, I was pretty sure. Or I thought, maybe. It was complicated. I’d known him forever. He’d had held sway over some part of me since long before I’d met my husband or the blond tattooed boy. He’d once described his feelings for me in the way I’d described the ticking of a woman’s biological clock. Like baby-fever. He couldn’t stop himself, no matter how inconvenient, no matter how ill-advised. He was compelled. Compelled by biology. But no matter how much affection there was between us, he would never say he loved me. Perhaps he didn’t love me. He never once said he did.
I’d never asked the iconoclast for anything. I’d never wanted anything more than what we had. But in the summer, it became not enough. Or it was too much. He felt the change coming; tried to head it off. He insisted everything could stay the same. That his place in my life could stay the way it was no matter what, even if there was someone else who became important to me. He was wary. Bordering on jealous. I sighed. Kissed him. And explained. I explained to him that in matters of love I had always been intense and single minded and that my grief had distilled these qualities, made them even more so. That I was all or nothing now, and that there wasn’t space for anyone else with him taking up so much of me. I couldn’t break away to figure things out yet. I wasn’t ready. But I needed to figure things out. I was all or nothing. And this was almost all and almost nothing at once.
I spent the night before Lev’s birthday, out with friends, happy. There was a dog at the bar. I danced. And there was a kiss. A kiss it would take me months to figure out. It knocked me into someplace new; calmed me made me want to stay quiet and listen. I listened. One night, on my way to tell jokes at an open mic, I heard. I heard it over the sound of myself singing at the top of my voice. As I sang I knew. It was love. I was giddy. I was dumb. Stupid love. I was in love. Irrefutable love. I had never felt anything approaching this feeling ever never in my whole life. Oh man, love.
Five days after Lev’s birthday, the iconoclast and his girl left for their summer vacation, during which he would celebrate his 40th birthday. The day before they left, we lay on his couch and made out a while. He cried when he read the birthday card I wrote him. I cried a little too. For his trip, I left him a mixtape, my final awkward stab at explaining—using other people’s words—exactly how I felt about him, about us, about all of it…
The Hail Mary Pass
Track 1—This Tornado Loves You (Neko Case)
Track 2—Flying On the Ground Is Wrong (Neil Young)
Track 3 — “Shell Games” (Bright Eyes)
Track 4 — “It’s Late” (Queen)
Track 5 — “Brass In Pocket” (Pretenders)
Track 6 — “Crazy About You” (Ryan Adams & Whiskeytown)
Track 7 — “Pick Up The Change” (Wilco)
Track 8 — “West Coast” (Coconut Records)
Track 9 — “Animal” (Miike Snow)
Track 10 -– “I Want You Back” (Jackson 5)
Track 11 — “St. Elsewhere” (Gnarls Barkley)
Track 12 — “Hurricane Glass” (Catherine Feeny)
Track 13 — “White Blank Page” (Mumford & Sons)
Track 14 — “Skinny Love” (Bon Iver)
Track 15 — “Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood” (St. Vincent)
Track 16 — “Make You Feel My Love” (Adele)
Track 17 — “George Michael” (One More Try)
Track 18 — “You Don’t Know Me” (Ben Folds)
That afternoon would be the last time for us although I didn’t know it then. By the time the iconoclast returned from his trip, I had found the distance I needed to break orbit.
I fell in love for the first time when I was 36. Of course, I thought I had been in love before. But I don’t suppose I had. When I finally fell, I had been married for a decade and divorced. We’d lost our tiny son to a devastating illness that took three years to kill him. My marriage ended in that way where everything just melts and fades like it’s been left in a hot car, the destructive force too relentless to fight and exhausting in its certainty. I’d had my heart broken so many times I had been rendered unafraid and fully divested of hope and faith of any kind. And then: love.
I know now what I want. I want the rightmost column of the periodic table, elementally calm and bright and lighter than air. I want this thing I have now. I want to make it coffee and talk about France. I want to get up and write about it all day. I want to make more of it. Build a nest for it. Keep it safe. I want nothing to do with expectations. I want everything to do with love. Love is what I want. And I have it. I have all that I want right now.
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