You never cared for Salinger, but for me, his books are my religion and my ballast. I return to them again and again when I feel lost in circumstances. You must’ve watched me re-read them at least a hundred times while we were together…Me curled up on your bed, knees folded up to my chest, balancing the little white paperback with the stripes in the corner, licking the sweet spice of the clove cigarettes that I smoked back then off of my lips. I don’t know if I ever told you, I’m guessing I didn’t, but one of my favorite things written by Salinger is a paragraph where the main character talks about how he is scarred by touching people he loves the most or items associated with these loved ones. The too long, yellow dress of a girl he loved leaves a lemon mark on his palm. Marks from lovingly touching his siblings’ heads when they are little also leave souvenirs on his skin. I come back to this passage again and again because, in some ways, it is the same for me…my skin permanently tattooed by heartfelt or significant moments with those I love. I don’t know if you would have understood this about me–perhaps that’s why I kept it for myself to know. Unsullied.
I haven’t dreamed about you in months, but you were there last night.
In my dream, I was preparing to meet MC for a date…performing the well-practiced choreography of Getting Ready that I’ve perfected over the years, perfected so well I can do it all in 30 minutes. Shower. Eyeshadow, copious amounts of eyeliner, mascara and highlighter. Hair. Only, I hadn’t gotten to hair, because as I delicately dotted the highlighter on my cheekbones with my middle finger-you appeared behind me in the mirror.
You. The you I remember. The you I married. I am so overcome with joy at the unexpected sight of you and whirl around to hug you, crying. “I thought you were dead! Alex, they told me you were dead! I wish I had a better word than overjoyed to use right now! I’m going to have to invent one…” You grin, “What, are you happy to see me or something? Bunny, it was all a mistake. Obviously, I’m not dead. Pinch me.” “Pinch you? I don’t want to pinch you. I want to hug you!” My head is still buried in your chest. You smell the same, even after all this time. The familiarity makes me ache.
After you disengage from my hug, you ask what I want to do. For a minute, I remember with a pang that I had made plans with MC—but I hear myself think, “MC will understand…I mean…I thought Alex was dead.” I shrug and tell you that you’re the one back from the not-actually-dead, that means you choose. You dramatically purse your lips, drum on them with your fingertips and then point up at the sky & say “a-ha!” like you’ve had a brilliant idea. Like you used to do in dizzying moments of silliness during better times. Minus a lightbulb turning on in a thought bubble above your head, it is pure Looney Toons material & I laugh. You used to do similar melodramatic overtures where you would twirl an imaginary handlebar moustache and gleefully exclaim, “Penelope! How quickly you have fallen into my trap of words!” anytime you walked me into the setup of a punchline. It’s amazing the kind of absences you can learn to grow around…but most you never really fill.
After your comical charade of thinking big things, you tell me you want to go to Domenico’s. A coffeeshop. Our coffeeshop. How many hours we hung out there writing, reading, arguing…The best parts of our coupledom were probably spent there, left behind in the little alcove at the top of the stairs…We loved to sit up there in what we dubbed “The Nest” because we were surrounded by postcards of great writers & jazz musicians. You would point and name all the jazz musicians…Chet Baker. Oscar Petersen. Sonny Rollins. Ornette Coleman. All those poets in sound. Meanwhile, I would name all the authors, the only ones that stumped me at times were the Russian writers…because…well…all those beards, those piercing eyes, intense with suffering…brilliant lookalikes. I never realized how similarly your eyes looked to theirs till now.
I agree that Domenico’s would be the perfect place to go, a poetic choice—but, no sooner are the words out of my mouth, then my dream turns into a comedy of errors. The door to my place flings open and my parents barge in…I sense a stiffening in you and hide you away in the bedroom. I am able to sweep them back out of my place by acting manic and unhinged. In my nervousness to hide you, my eyes naturally dart & a litany of words roll around in my mouth like pebbles, gathering shine. After their hasty exit, I retreat to the bedroom to check on the stowaway. You are laying on the bed, looking up at the ceiling, hands clasped in repose. In your stillness, I sense that old frustration & I apologize. You turn your head towards me and groan, “Bunny, we gotta get going if we’re going to go. There’s not much time.” I try to soothe you, “I know.” You’ve focused your attention back on the ceiling. “There’s never enough time,” you mutter, angrily. I’m not even sure if you’re talking to me anymore, but I still agree.
I go to grab my purse & my children bound through the door, 2 Labrador puppies. I look nervously at the bedroom door, and, after much finagling, I manage to corral them back into their father’s car before they get too far past the threshold of the front door. I convince their father to take them for a bit through a furious tap dance of lies & omission.
I hurry back inside to find you shaving your head. I am confused by the sight. You always were so proud of your hair, let it grow wild & curly. But now ,your shorn head is patches of close-shaven velvet with a few tufts of longer hair sprouting out of the places you missed with the razor. You are crying. You ask me to finish the job. I run my fingers over your head one last time, then gently run the electric shaver along the skull of my Samson and take the rest of your curls. Your closely shorn scalp makes you look like a prisoner. I tell you it’s done, we can leave for Domenico’s.
“I don’t think I can, Bunny. I’ve run out of time. There’s never enough time. I have to go back.”
“Go back? Back where? You just got here.”
“I know, but I have to go.”
Dismayed, I try to convince you to stay, but you won’t even look at me. You’re busy gathering yourself up, grabbing your coat & your wallet,…you push past me. I realize you’re still crying. You pause at the door, say, “good-bye, bunny” and you are gone. There’s a feeling of finality in the moment, the air heavy with all the things between us we never resolved & never will. I sink down to my knees in the hair clippings and begin to pick them up by the fistfuls. I let the hair drop from my fingers and land on the floor, a soft hill of your detritus. I don’t even try to stand up, unsure if I even can.
In the morning, I wake up to a world where there is nothing left of you, but what’s left in me…I can still feel the silk of your locks in my fists so clearly, that I look down to make sure my hands are actually, really empty. As I turn my hands over, I half expect to see a couple stray hairs–instead, I am greeted by the smallest royal blue thumbprint on the inside of my wrist. At first glance, the blemish looks like a bruise, but, unlike a bruise, this kind of mark never fades and no one else can even see it.
Salinger excerpt that I referenced…from Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters…
“I have scars on my hand from touching certain people. Once, in the park, when Frannie was still in the carriage, I put my hand on the downy pate of her head and left it there too long. Another time, at Loew’s Seventy-second Street, with Zooey during a spooky movie. He was about six or seven, and he went under the seat to avoid watching a scary scene. I put my hand on his head. Certain heads, certain colors and textures of human hair leave permanent marks on me. Other things, too. Charlotte once ran away from me, outside the studio, and I grabbed her dress to stop her, to keep her near me. A yellow cotton dress I loved because it was too long for her. I still have a lemon-yellow mark on the palm of my right hand.”
Written in 2021