At a moment when the mire of my grief threatened to subsume me, I made the decision to seek delight. I set about entangling myself with a dazzling iconoclast whom I had known and admired for many years. He required no convincing. The beauty of the thing was that it fit into the cracks of my life and of his: lunches and late nights and weekend afternoon snacks. The awfulness of the thing was that it turned out we were very fond of one another. Awful mostly in that I was still married. He was also not single. And this relationship was never intended for the realm of fairytale endings. In its effort to escape the sad morass, my grief-bound heart had reached for distraction and instead found itself in the gulag of an infatuation so all-consuming, my world rang with the song of it like the white noise of the ocean in a shell. If love is a mixtape, infatuation is a broken record; a single song played at a deafening volume. When things get star-crossed enough, you start to live inside the lyrics, and sometimes, it seems not half bad. This is how it went with my iconoclast for a while. During these months Neko Case sang “I’m an Animal” and it echoed everywhere.
“I do my best, but I’m made of mistakes…I’m an animal. You’re an animal too.”
Much of my time with the iconoclast was a bubble of Peter Pan hedonism: champagne cocktails, giggling, marathon naps, bootlegged 1980s TV comedies, and ohdeargod sex. I relished the chance to hide in the surface with him and not apologize for the joy I found there. Sometimes, we’d lay awake at night and drop our diving bells into the deep sea of sadness and longing and existential terror. We were godless and fearless and certain only that there was nothing more than this. We fought intensely about his intractability, my selfishness. He lectured. I pouted. Neko Case again:
“This Tornado Loves You. This Tornado loves you. What will make you believe me?”
When I found myself crying in bed with him a week after Lev’s funeral, I knew my first attempt to break it off with the iconoclast (after he had forgotten my birthday) had not, in fact, been successful. I began to search earnestly for something to distract me from my distraction. My casual dalliance with the iconoclast had become real and challenging and I found myself wanting something less; someone new, something other, but nothing more. The Blond Poet was (until he wasn’t) a welcome diversion fueled, in part, by my drive to erase my desire for the iconoclast (whose siren song I was able to ignore in favor of the poet’s for a brief while). Post-poet, I resisted the easy comfort of going back to Neverland. Instead, I took Joss home to my parents’ house in Albany and walked the blizzard-paralyzed city. I walked my parents’ neighborhood at night and watched the snow shine in the halos of streetlights, listened for the familiar squeaks and pops as my feet pressed the fresh-fallen powder into the texture of Styrofoam on the sidewalks under my boots.
On a late December afternoon, with the tinsel-bloat of Christmas still clinging to everything, I hovered outside a store in the mall while my mother and son shopped, busying myself with my phone as contemporary folks do. After weeks of nothing, my iconoclast had texted to tell me he wanted to take my photo. He’d discovered one last roll of Kodachrome—the iconic slide film, now discontinued—he’d need to shoot in the next 24 hours and send for processing before the last remaining lab in the country quit developing it at the turn of the new year. My heart swelled then broke a little. I was nowhere near, nor would I be for days. That we’d be star-crossed yet again was no bolt from the blue. It was just as well, really. No happy ending.
“You’ll be a hard act to follow, A bitter pill to swallow, You’ll be tough, you’ll be tough to replace.” — Rolling Stones “Plundered My Soul”
After the poet, there was a flirtation with a recent Brown graduate with Vampire Weekend sunglasses and a Harvard scarf. He’d battled cancer and was about to enter medical school. He picked me a flower on his way to our first date. He wanted me to be impressed by these things. But I was not — my ex-husband graduated from Brown; my son died of cancer; I work in a hospital simply lousy with doctors. What else have you got, sir? He told me I made him nervous. And he gave up. Next, there was the PhD candidate from out of town with whom I thought I was developing a friendship founded in vocabulary and misfit snobbery. I thought him quite lovely on our afternoon at the museum, but he turned out, in truth, to be a gloomy misogynist who seemed to feel the principles of eminent domain were valid reasons why his tongue kept ending up in my mouth. After that debacle, I caved, went back to the well. I felt not the slightest bit distracted, but I kept on trying. In the spring, there was the lawyer, who on the strength of his looks and kisses lasted the longest, but was not in fact, well suited to me at all. My description of him prompted the iconoclast to ask: “Will you fall in love with him and stop coming to see me?” Obviously not.
“The storms are raging on the rolling sea, and on the highway of regret. The winds of change are blowing wild and free. You ain’t seen nothing like me yet. I could make you happy, make your dreams come true. Nothing that I wouldn’t do. Go to the ends of the earth for you, to make you feel my love…” — Adele (singing Bob Dylan’s words) “Make You Feel My Love”
In my experience, stemming the tide of one’s own brooding infatuation consists mainly of not continuing to sleep with the person who reduces you to a quivering mess. At this, I was a failure many times over. All manner of poet-shaped and other distractions served as evidence that perhaps my destiny, for a while at least, lay in this relationship that had begun as a distraction from the day-to-day slog of my crumbled and crumbling life and had come to be a security blanket I wasn’t yet ready to give up. Perhaps it was not love or lust that would save me from my sadness. Perhaps I needed another outlet. I contemplated taking a group sewing class, but thought something more physical was probably in order. I looked into ballet. Once, I ran with my dog. But I got winded and felt like an asshole and promptly gave up. The nightlife was more my comfort zone, but what in the hell could I do there other than meet new boys to break my heart worse?
On one of his visits to town, I brought the PhD candidate to a comedy festival. I was friends with the guy who ran the thing so we had great seats and got to schmooze a bit and feel important. I had attended the same festival the year before and fallen head over heels in hero-worship with one of the comics. He was on the bill again this night and I was positively bursting at the seams to watch his new material. His set brought me to tears. Not tears of laughter, actual overflowing soul-deep tears. His work was insightful and reasoned and philosophical while simultaneously being biting and hilarious and moving. I laughed too, of course, as hard as a person can laugh and still take in enough oxygen to stay conscious. Listening to this comedian kill made me as happy as I had been since Lev died. This. This was bliss.
I had been contemplating for a while the concept of trying stand-up comedy. Making light of the worst life had to offer was my one and only effective coping mechanism and my tendency toward dazzle camouflage made me unafraid of putting on a show. At one point, in passing, I had bounced the idea off the iconoclast. Should I try stand-up? He reacted immediately. His eyes got wide and he told me I shouldn’t. Changed the subject. I was so stunned, I didn’t ask why. Regardless of the reason, I had held it in the back of my mind, felt maybe I needed to prove to myself that I was cut from the cloth of my idols. But could I do it? Could I own the room? Could I even get my shit together enough to do three minutes at an open mic? It would be a new kind of writing for me. It would take pathos and sincerity and boundless cynicism. And patience. I would be able to focus on very little else. And I would keep it from the iconoclast. I would do it for the first time in St. Louis where I was headed for work in the spring. I had two months to plan and write. Fucking perfect. Done and done.
I had all of these thoughts and made the decision to venture into comedy in a fog of punch lines and endorphins during some wisp of a second between comedians. The PhD candidate and I went for a drink after the show and geeked out about the amazingness of what we’d just seen. At the end of the night he surprised me by trying to make out with me in a parking garage and we didn’t see each other again. I didn’t tell him about my plan to tell jokes onstage. I didn’t tell anyone for a while. I was all jacked up with frustrated energy, which I poured into joke writing. And I was more than tenacious enough to get up on stage when I had the jokes to fill the time. I didn’t care if I was awful (though somehow I knew I wouldn’t be). I would be better eventually. And someday, I would kill.