As I left my apartment to satiate my Friday night with a herd of Manhattan strangers, I witnessed this: my roommate, a musician in his early 30s, had invited his mother to eat Thai prawns and panang curry while watching Psych together on his laptop in the living room.
I didn't know this existed.
That image provided the context for the next 26 hours.
I exited the M train at West 4th Street to have a slice of margherita pizza with a psychology writer who told me he was crafting a book about contemporary love. I asked him if he'd ever been married. No. I asked him if he'd been engaged. Almost. The question cut him up, I could tell.
We hopped uptown to his billionaire buddy's high-rise condo, where the billionaire who made his billions from pharmaceuticals had hosted a dinner before we arrived. I sipped water from a plastic cup served by a hired girl at a long table swinging with strangers and wine. The strangers planned to gather the following week for a party at the UN. One wore a suit that cost five months of my Brooklyn rent. Several owned companies that had recently gone public. Among them were an actress who spoke mostly about the horrible people who'd probe her about her acting, and also a quiet, Canadian-born, non-fiction writer whose name sounds like Falcon Madwell, which you'd recognize.
The dinner party split, then five of us, including the writer who brought me and the writer whose name you'd recognize, shuffled to a wine bar in the village. Then another bar. Then a third. I sipped Perrier at the first. Soda water with a splash of lavender bitters at the second. I didn't drink anything at the last bar, and after what seemed like eons of contributing few words to endlessly meaningless conversations, I said goodbye to the strangers whom I knew I'd likely never see again, and walked away.
Normally, I would have been an effusive extrovert giggling down the sidewalk with my gait tilted with whiskey. I would have slipped new contacts into my smartphone, and I would have posted photos, blasting gorgeous comments on various social media platforms about my delightful new companions and dreamy evening.
But that Friday night, the backdrop to the evening was neither my lack nor my ordinary life. The backdrop was that image of my roommate, at home, loved by and loving his mother whose laughter rang while I shut the front door.
Pitted against that holy image, the evening was mediocre at best.
Expression blank, almost rude, I checked out of the conversations all evening. My mind was fixed on my partner David's mom, who'd barely enjoyed one glass of wine her entire life, yet was deteriorating because her liver hosted a swarm of surprise tumors.
I imagined David in Taiwan next to his mother's hospital bed. I imagined his hand caressing hers, limp next to her distended belly. I imagined his worn eyes shot with prayers, then wondered what he was eating. We had been sharing a whiskey root beer float at The Meatball Shop in Williamsburg when he received the call that his mom was dying faster than anticipated.
Barely a toe deep into my career, I observed the group of wildly successful New Yorkers, all of them born at least in the decade before mine. They drank expensive pinot noirs and laughed at gossip about other people. They were supposed to be it—the answer I give when people ask me where I see myself ten years from now.
I was in jeans. Plaid boots. My hair was in an unfortunate ponytail and I realized, that evening, that all those quotes and verses and gurus and prophets were right. No amount of money would make us happy. No amount of success would suffice. I didn't see their brand names and name dropping. Instead, I saw this:
A man I spoke to at the billionaire's apartment had started a company that went public and made him more money than he knew how to manage. His newest project aims to spread happiness. This man babbled in the endearing way children babble when they need you to verbalize your approval.
Every few minutes, the man made self-loathing remarks. He and a woman he'd loved had broken up recently. Here he was, talking about delivering happiness through photographs to Bhutan and Iraq, while occasionally referring to this woman who'd shattered him. She'd deceived him and sliced up his heart—a point he somehow managed to insert into an otherwise entirely unrelated conversation. At one point, he almost cried.
Another man in his mid-thirties later announced he took the hottest girl at his high school to prom. This was important, his tone suggested. Then he said she probably no longer remembered him. As the evening progressed, the quiet writer whose name you'd recognize shifted his awkward body closer to a dancing, laughing neuroscientist and divorcee with twelve years of therapy under her belt. We learned multiple times that her ex was now happily remarried. She didn't notice the quiet, famous writer. He walked home alone.
At the end of the night, the guy who introduced me to these strangers told me about the woman he loved—the one he almost married. He told me about her darling daughter, then showed me their pictures. One of the photographs was of a bathroom sign that said "family." He told me that after he maxed out several credit cards with couples counseling sessions, he realized the relationship was unsalvageable. The woman he loved had been scarred so severely as a child that she could never trust him.
It jarred me—how meaningless everything was. The book contracts. The profitable companies. The grants from the government to buy rounds of flavorful poisons for strangers because you want to sleep next to a woman who might one day wear your pajama bottoms as she makes eggs for a child with your frizzy hair while she tells you—really tells you—that she loves you.
The people who schmoozed, spouted their resumes and showed off their blonde conquests were no different from the orphans I met once in the Philippines. No different from the Brooklyn high school students who wrote poems about the guys who stole their girlfriends. They had everything they could need. Shelter. Food. Clothes. And more of it stored away in countless renovated closets. Yet here they were, hollow for affection.
When I told them David was in Asia, some of them laughed and joked about how this was my opportunity to cheat on him. I scrutinized the way they said these words. How harmless they believed they were. How insignificant love had become in their minds because they were safer that way with love so shriveled, small and unable to harm them.
I wish we could quantify and visualize our emotional wounds the way our faces shrink, our skin discolors and our bellies enlarge when the liver explodes and the kidney powers down. I wish an arm would fall off after a divorce. I wish our ribs would shatter or our necks would crack and that we'd stumble around with braces and bandages instead of button-downs and stilettos, pretending to be whole.
A few months ago, while David and I hung out with his family in the New Jersey house he grew up in, his nineteen month old niece fell down the stairs. David drove his sister, brother-in-law and his niece to the emergency room while I sat around the dining table with the rest of his family, including his mom. We don't know if she was sick at the time.
His mom, the gentlest soul I'd ever encountered, proceeded to tell me the secrets to loving David, a man who is similar to my younger sister—stubborn and porcupine-like around the edges, but deeply compassionate with a sensitive, sensitive heart of gold. I am different. I am compassionate and loving, and openly so. But when you dig deep, there is a black stone in my heart. The stone is hard-pressed to trust people. It walks back and forth with a rifle.
I loved the way his mom laughed. I loved the way nothing flustered her. She could see through people and into their hearts. She could laser through walls and flesh and find the true condition of someone's soul.
David called me four times while I was doing the dishes the following Saturday night. When I shut off the water, I heard the phone ringing. Fifth time. I ran to my room and picked up, knowing what I'd hear on the other line. The reception disconnected us, so I grabbed my coat, and in my pajamas, I ran down four flights of stairs and called him back.
The writer friend asked if she was dying. I said, "Yes, barring a miracle."
"But you believe in miracles," he said.
I told him I used to be like the woman he loves—the woman who screams, can't trust, then crawls back to say she's sorry. Sometimes, the same spirit who kicks inside the woman he loves still kicks inside me. I told him about David. He told me David sounded like a great guy. He told me he hopes I marry him.
This is a trite thing to admit on the Internet, but I realized that night that I could do without a billion dollars, but I don't know if I could do without love.
When she passed away, all of her adult children watched her body deflate. She was young, early 60s, with two granddaughters, one of whom was just born, the other who points at her baby sister's eyes and knows now to say "eyes."
The last time I saw her, she showed me how to make Taiwanese meatballs. She rinsed each palmful of pink meat under cold water before rolling it in her palms. She sent us away with bags of goodies, and even mixed up the packets of flavored hot chocolates so each of us adults could have a personalized variety box to take home.
I won't begin to wonder what kind of grief consumes David. What kind of grief his sister, with her two babies, might know. When he hung up, I stood outside my apartment with the phone to my cheek and wept. I kicked myself for having no good words to say to him. In my room, grief grew into a monster of sobs and I didn't stop it.
Some nights, all you can do is love and love from far away. Some nights, all you can do is weep, on your knees, in your bed, worshipful music blaring through your earphones. I expelled all the sorrow burning in me so I might be strong when I see David in Taiwan next week with nothing to offer him but my wrung-out faith and a few long hugs.
In Phyla of Joy, poet Karen An-hwei Lee writes, "If you / are a soul in two bodies / life is more complex / and we must labor / twice the field of sorrow."
Some people believe that's the caveat. You get love—something even billionaires can't buy, trade and sell—but you also get twice the field of sorrow.
Actually, that's the blessing. You have a man you love. If so, then when this man you love wades through his hell, where else would you rather be than next to him, wading also, cracking a joke, holding his hand and mostly staying silent except to sing a song he knows.