By Julia Ingalls
What’s odd about death is that it makes you aware of the ways you are unknowingly part of another person, like waking up with sore muscles you never even knew you had. Sharing a life with someone comes down to how we sustain our memories. The truth is that memory is a living thing, while history is just a crayon-rubbing.
My fiancé died from an aneurysm at age 29. Well, ex-fiancé–he had been getting hand jobs from a variety of panty-less sculptors and Canadians, and we had reached that point where we agreed to disagree on monogamy. Still, I assumed we would meet in our later decades and drink Scotch ruminatively together. The fact that he could just wink out like that took all the amelioration right out of me. Here it was, The End, and it was shitty and unfair no matter what perspective I tried to get on it. Once he died all the pizza nights and the laughing fits and the glow of the street-lamps sliding across the Volvo’s dashboard as we held hands en route to a party were abruptly halved of their resonance. I felt emotionally bankrupt.
It helped disguise the fact that I was a suit of armor masquerading as a woman.
I didn’t know how to move forward in my own life. I thought it was important not to stop seeing people. So, like an erotic census taker, I began sleeping with a series of wall-calendar-worthy men, noting their names and turn-ons, but having no interest in their souls. There was the flyboy from Hong Kong and the six-foot-plus Swedish swimmer and the massage-giving theater major from the Philippines. The fact that we usually didn’t speak the same first language was a bonus. It helped disguise the fact that I was a suit of armor masquerading as a woman.
And then one night, a friend of mine asked me to join her for a comedy show in the part of town where the shop windows are barred but the parking meters still blink. I nearly didn’t go; I had a massive headache. That was the night I met the Attractive Man. As soon as I saw him, I thought: There is no way I would ever fall in love with this guy. I had seen his personality type before in dozens of green rooms and penthouses. He was the kind of charmer whose own epic self-absorption acts as a social black hole: no one, not even celebrities, could resist his pull. But I was seasoned; his apparent charm was not going to fool me. I could skip all of the daydreaming and mooning and wondering if he was thinking about me phase, because obviously he never would be, and probably never had been, in love with anyone but himself.
To have an adolescent level crush in the age of social media was overwhelming. The damn thing had legs.
But as my friend and I prepared to leave that night, The Attractive Man was somehow standing directly in front of me. He looked me over, like an tailor taking my emotional measurements. I expected charm; I didn’t expect kindness. He opened his arms and said, “I’m going to hug you.” And I heard myself say, “I’m going to hug you back.”
It was a little like getting the flu; one moment, I felt okay, and then in an undeniable rush I felt something overtake me, hard. I hadn’t had a crush like this since I was a teenager, when my primary pressure-relieving options were doodling on notebooks and obsessing over yearbook photos. Back then, the internet was still a weird outback of clunky Geocities and interminable buffering. Now, to have an adolescent level crush in the age of social media was overwhelming. The damn thing had legs. Each time I thought I was getting over him, a new adorable photo or tweet would pop up and I would be smitten afresh.
But it wasn’t just the status updates. The Attractive Man was my opposite: his was a default mode of laughter, as opposed to my reliable broodiness. He was frivolous where I was accounted for; joyous where I was solemn. I kept seeing him everywhere, not just on the internet, but in real life, too. He was a part of the city, and just a glance or a gentle touch on my shoulder at a party made it all seem vaguely plausible, even though I rationally knew I was an acquaintance to him at best, a seat-filler in a 500 square mile venue.
If life is memory, if death is history, then love is vision.
I tried to shrug the crush off, but in all honesty, it was like trying to shrug off CPR. Whatever the hell this outsized feeling was, it was filling my chest with air. I drove to the ocean and cried because he was so beautiful. Or rather, I cried because I could see his beauty when for a long time men had just looked like undetonated bombs of pain to me. I imagined passion, I imagined kids, I imagined a hip living situation in Los Feliz. But most importantly, instead of an existence endured in the aftermath of death, I imagined life.
A few months after meeting him, when I was mostly recovered from the crush but still had stray thoughts of him like a lingering cough, I realized I could perceive people fully again, in all their idiosyncratic beauty. Better yet, in the full fever of the thing I had developed antibodies to sadness. I could do this now; I could open up to love because I had an idea of what it could look like. Shortly thereafter, I met and fell in love with someone who loved me back.
If life is memory, if death is history, then love is vision. Betrayal, heartache, false hopes, surprise endings: when we open ourselves to love, we can look back on anything yet still have the energy to imagine what’s next.