So, let us begin with a little background. Enter one Lyralen Kaye, raised upper middle class in the suburbs of one city or another, mother a housewife for the first 14 years of Lyralen’s then young life, father an outgoing, charismatic salesman who sang in the church singing group, arranged neighborhood barbeques (or, more likely, suggested them and got other people to do the work). Lyralen’s mother had been the homecoming queen at her college. Lyralen’s father, the president of his class and halfback on the football team at Notre Dame. Lyralen’s mother dressed her children in red, white and blue. The girls (eventually there were 4) wore not only patriotic colors, but matching outfits, though none of them were twins. A leitmotif derived from the Brady Bunch, one might surmise. A keeping up with the Joneses, a commercial for Lux detergent, a smile-for-the-camera-we-are- Americana-at-its-best.
In other words, like many upper middle class families, the family looked perfect. It was all about image.
Let me be perfectly clear. It was about image, image, image, image, image, image, IMAGE!
Now, dropping the antiquated usage I can honestly say that those people DROVE ME CRAZY. I know, I know, everyone drives me crazy, but they were the first. I mean, this metaphysical bent I have? I didn’t learn it. I was born with it. I came out of the womb consumed with a desire to talk philosophy and meaning. I believe my first word was, “Nietzsche.”
So here I am, 7 years or so past birth, watching these adults, (all members of the Catholic church) cocktails in hand, laughing, the women in pumps, the men with loosened ties, the appetizers–the cheese balls, the cantaloupe balls–that I sometimes passed around. A woman leans closer to my father, laughs up into his face. My mother’s tight smile in a group of women who chatter around her while she says nothing. The way she changes when she turns to the men, the ease in the muscles of her face under skin that is peaches and cream. Her blue eyes, frosted blonde hair. And afterward, as she takes apart the character of each woman, the way my father drinks the 4th drink too many. I’m watching this and I’m thinking, I will die before I have a life like this!
Of course, no matter how much I resisted, I also internalized some of those values, mostly in the category of looks. My first two girlfriends were femme and gorgeous. They both had eating disorders, but, you know, who doesn’t if they look like that? It costs to be a Jody Foster look-a-like (that was my first girlfriend, who I not-so-affectionately refer to as the train wreck….or at least I have, but now I must say metta for her and be all Buddhist).
Enter one Lyralen’s-Partner-To-Be, circa 1987. Rocking and blinking when overwhelmed by social situations. Her face revealing every passing emotion, including and especially anxiety. Who loves her white Fiat so passionately she keeps trying to fix it herself, climbing under the car in a man’s winter hat, climbing back out covered with grease…and beaming all over her face with pride. Who gets so anxious about the first fight that she goes and sleeps in her car. Who sings atonally in the shower, plays her guitar and sings loudly (also atonally), who claims the laundry room as her special space (it’s the size of a large closet) and moves in there when intimacy gets too much for her, piling in the guitar, some big books and a nest of pillows and blankets. Who wears boy’s cords and old t-shirts, who literally puffs out her chest with pride when she links her arm with mine at parties. Who holds my hand on the streets. Who goes and buys poetry books by Adrienne Rich just because I mention I like her work.
* * *
It is, in fact, 1987. A quick learner, I sit next to my partner on the single bed mattress and box spring we use as a couch, watching her wipe her greasy hands (from the Fiat) on her jeans, hoping she doesn’t get any on the carpet. I listen to her talk about how she got the starter in, but it kind of hangs down away from the rest of the engine, held in place by 2 wires and maybe she should take the car to a mechanic if she can’t get it up and staying up. And I realize, for the first time, how much easier it is to love someone so radically and emphatically herself, so imperfect, so openly anxious…than it is to love the physically beautiful trying to live up to an image in her own head. My partner teaches me, in that one moment, what it means to be real.
Of course, over the ensuing 25 years, the lessons in individuality and permission continue, though she did stop rocking and blinking, grew more confident and slightly less anxious, became an IT geek (so socially acceptable in the world defined by Steve Jobs and Bill Gates). But privately, in our home, she walks around in men’s underwear and t-shirts from the 80’s (because it’s summer), her hair standing on end, lifting up her glasses to squint down at Siri. She still spills food on every shirt she owns (all 30 of them, the same style in different colors), still asks me how to get grease out, still repeats the last three words of any conversation in a mutter as she walks away, thinking about who knows what.
I mean, look at the material! I can write comedy about us forever!
And I can look at her, her slightly turned out feet, her unbrushed hair, the 40 books piled next to her bed (she’s read 10 pages of each of them), and feel my chest straining to get big enough to hold my heart.
I recognize that my partner is neurotic and idiosyncratic, while I fall more into the category of completely whacked. It makes for an entertaining 24 hours. One after another. For 25 years.