These days, I find myself writing the imaginary more than ever.
The quarantine has turned my attention especially toward loss, especially toward what I no longer have, except in memory and imagination. What I’ve lost in the past looms heavier, now, compounded by what I’ve lost in the present. There’s something about repetition of the word “distance” that reinforces—paradoxically—its presence.
For one, there’s my ex-husband. I don’t long for him. We haven’t spoken in years. But now, I wonder where we’d be if we were still together, what we’d be doing if our sense of being stuck together was even stronger than it was when we were married. I had stopped thinking of this years ago, until now. He posted on Facebook a live recording with his gypsy jazz band, everyone six feet apart in someone’s back yard, a half-country away in Chicago, where we lived together for many years. He still plays the same way, cradling the upright bass like his dancing partner, closing his eyes as he presses his strong fingers on the strings, tapping his bare foot on the grass. On his left hand, there’s a wedding ring.
Four years ago, almost exactly, on May 25, 2016, I went on my first-ever real date with a woman. She wasn’t the first woman I’d been with, but remains the only one I’ve ever loved. After nine months living in New Mexico, I’d mustered the courage to ask her out. After two drinks and two hours of conversation, we were together. I have a memory for numbers, so every month and day correlates to something we did four years ago. Thai lunch at a little A-frame joint on Central Avenue in Albuquerque, our first kiss in her kitchen, running at the base of the Sandia Mountains, the time she told me to close my eyes and hold out my hands, and pressed into my palm a pewter charm engraved with the word “love.” I reassure myself by saying that, even if we were still together, we couldn’t do any of these now. Of course, that’s not true. We could still kiss in her kitchen. We could still wake up at dawn and drive east to the mountainside trail. We could still fall asleep together, two dogs at our feet, and think we were in love. But that thought, too, gets called into question in the absence of everything normal. Or is loss as normal as love, its necessary counterpart?
Last night, as I finished sewing a quilt for two friends who recently had a baby, I listened to Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt live-stream together over Zoom. Lyle took a break to tune his guitar. He was apologetic about it. But that sound of someone tuning a guitar brought back my first year in Missouri, when my husband, Pete, and I had just moved there so I could do my Ph.D. Pete would tune his upright bass at twilight, when moths pressed against the window screens and crickets sang their high notes. He’d stand in the middle of the living room and play, feet bare on the carpet, fingers pressed against the instrument’s long neck.
Missouri was our new home, and we missed Chicago. For years, we’d gone on weekend nights to Ravinia, an amphitheater on Chicago’s North Shore, taking the Metra train with its green-tinted windows. We packed picnics—fancy cheeses, wine, olives. We lay on the grass, atop a quilt I’d made expressly for these night concerts. Lyle Lovett was a perennial favorite, returning to Ravinia each summer. I remember the way the trees glowed at dusk, the way Pete would say, “Let’s go for a walk,” and we’d stroll the paths crisscrossing the grass, get as close to the stage as we could. In Missouri, Pete was our only night music, but wouldn’t be for much longer. He would return to Chicago, leave me—a choice I took years to realize was right, a choice I realized allowed me to come out. Nonetheless, I harbor a nostalgia for our time together, a nostalgia that’s amplified by wondering, imagining, where I would be without that loss.
So when Lyle Lovett, last night, plucked the first notes of “If I Had a Boat,” I imagined myself at Ravinia: There, too, the sun setting. There, too, the trees illuminated by dying light. There, too, the clouds rolling in, threatening rain. But I couldn’t ignore that, here, I was still alone.