(Inspired in part by Chris Adrian’s story
“A Better Angel,” The New Yorker, April 3, 2006)
“Does everybody get an angel?” — Chris Adrian
The day my husband left me in our yellow house with the pretty flowers, I asked him to buy me a bottle of Jägermeister and a pack of cigarettes before he went, though I hardly drank and never smoked anymore. He went to the corner of Melrose to the liquor store and bought them and a bag of pretzels for me, too. “Eat those. So you don’t drink yourself sick,” he said in a superior, disgusted tone. It was always his way, to criticize my shitty reactions to his shitty behavior. I should have been glad to see him go, but as it was, I was without mooring. “I’m going, Daisy,” he’d said, scornfully, as I sobbed. “Please don’t, David. I think I might die,” I said, meaning it. “Not my problem,” he told me. At first, I tossed the bag of pretzels in the trash, but later that night, I took them out and set them on the counter. I wanted to remember what he’d said, how he’d convoluted the word sick.
Los Angeles is especially lovely in October. While every place else in the country is getting ready for the winter, Southern California, like Florida, shows off a bit, waving its warm elegance and crumbling grandeur just a bit harder than usual. If you’re from back East, you’ll miss the leaves, but over in Beverly Hills they have trees on streets named Oak and Maple that do turn color. You can go adore them, tell yourself you don’t miss New England, until the private security guards give you the eye. But I didn’t want to see them, didn’t want to feel the sun or admire its clever tricks. Turned out, that corner liquor store delivers and they started to, every other day, one bottle of Jäger and two packs of cigarettes. I sat on the steps of our 1924 Spanish Colonial bungalow and smoked. Numb enough from the alcohol to be upright. I was 45. I had been married before and left that husband, and hadn’t been very sad about it. But David, I thought David was forever. I loved him as I never had, and now I was wondering how I had let that happen, if it had been based on anything real or just things I wanted to believe. I wondered what would happen to my life, if I would ever have lasting love, if I had what it took to sustain such a thing. David has issues — nerve pain, back pain, knee pain — and it had made the sex intermittent. He refused to speak to doctors or me about it and then I was too angry to have sex with him anyway, so it just stopped. After that, I gained weight. I was hungry, starving really, for love and affection. I had settled for crumbs in my marriage — not that I hadn’t committed a list of sins a mile long, I had — and now I was still starving and heartbroken and hated my body, too. I had a book due to my agent in December; David was going to leave me broke, knowing I wouldn’t fight about it. We had a mortgage the size of Alaska on this house. My heart was ripped out; I feared dying alone. I was in L.A. without a car. I was vaguely — more? less? — suicidal. Maybe more. I wrote suicide notes. I ordered the “Final Exit” kit online. I figured out how I could work it out so that it was EMTs who discovered me, so that no one who wasn’t in that line of work would be traumatized. So that a friend wouldn’t find me. I didn’t eat at all. All I did was cry, walk Sam, my 13-year-old rescue lab, to the corner and back a few times a day, drink, smoke cigarettes and sleep. On the eighth day after David left, I opened the door to walk Sam while I was on the phone to Abby, a friend back East. I had texted her that David and I were having problems and that I was upset. I needed someone to tell something, too, but I was not ready to talk about it in any kind of coherent way. It didn’t make any sense and I couldn’t cobble a narrative out of the shards. When I cracked the door, a man tried to force himself inside. He kept looking at Sam, and I shoved back, and between Sam and me, we scared him off. Abby says I screamed. The police came from the Wilshire Division and lectured me about all of the things we — I — needed to do to make the house more safe. While we stood outside, they told me about the petty crime in Fairfax and that I had nothing to be scared of, “probably.” Sam took a shit while the officers were there and I didn’t have a bag and so we all just stood there, the shit smelling. I cried the whole time and just before the officers left I threw up, splattering a little on the shiny black shoe of the youngest one. When I went inside, I called Harriet.
I should have been glad to see him go, but as it was, I was without mooring.
Harriet was my best friend in L.A. I had known her for years, though David and I had just moved to town nine months earlier. Like me she was a writer, but she supported herself waiting tables two nights a week and working as a stripper two nights a week. It was hard for me to call her and ask her to come; she wasn’t keen on drama and I feared she would think this was that. I texted her that it was an emergency and she called me back two minutes later. I told her what had happened with David. I told her about the man at the door and the police. I told her I felt suicidal. I told her I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to me and that I was lost and scared and could not spend one more night alone. I sobbed. I threw up in the middle of the call. It’s possible, I howled. I told her I was afraid she was going to think I was just being dramatic. I told her I’d never hurt like this in my life. I’d never been left. Never loved anyone in a way that it would have wrecked me if I had been. Never felt like I’d fucked up so much. Never felt so scared about my life — this book due, a writer’s finances always uncertain, the house would need to be sold, debt, where would I live, should I tough it out alone in L.A. or go back east? — I needed to buy a car. I had never felt alone in that deep, soaking way before. When I finished getting everything out to her, I threw up again. Bile. I hadn’t eaten anything in eight days. She told me to sit down on the couch. I did. She told me she was going to tell the club manager she had to leave and that she would call me from her car in 15 minutes. Twelve minutes later she called; an hour after that she arrived and she stayed a week. She never left, not for one minute. It’s lucky everything can be delivered in L.A. When the “Final Exit” kit arrived via UPS, she called Abby to come from back East. Abby stayed five days, then she went back to Rehoboth Beach, the town David and I had moved to L.A. from. It was a tiny beach town where I’d gone in the summer since I was born and where I had lived after I moved from D.C. half a dozen years before. David had moved there from D.C. to live with me a couple years later, after we’d met in the city at a wedding — a feast of love. A year later, we were married. Two years later, we’d moved here, to L.A., and now, less than a year later, he was gone, back to D.C.
After Abby went back to Rehoboth, Harriet came back to stay indefinitely. We all agreed I wasn’t ready to be alone, at all. I wasn’t drinking my daily Jäger haul anymore, but I was still drinking a fair bit, still smoking, still not eating, still depressed, and while I had agreed not to kill myself, understanding that I could always do it later, I did have a hard time seeing why it wasn’t a good idea. Everything else seemed insurmountable – not just losing David, which was enormous all by itself — but rebuilding my life. We’d come to L.A. together to build a life in the sun and now he was back in D.C. as if he’d never met me, as if the last several years had just been a mirage. Maybe they had. I was depressed and spiraling in my own head, convinced I’d never forgive myself for the things I had done wrong in our marriage, convinced I’d never know love again, convinced that I had to make it in L.A., even though most of my friends were back east and I’d had a life I more or less loved there. I was an only child and an orphan — my parents had both died when I was in college — and alone was a country I had traversed. In Rehoboth Beach I had never felt alone. But I was certain that if I went back there I’d be a failure. I was also convinced I already was.
October had become November. A thick envelope had arrived from David’s lawyer and I tucked it away under the silverware tray so I didn’t have to see it. The bag of pretzels still sat on the counter. Harriet was still saying with me, though I was able to be alone for a few hours at a time now. I was thinking in little bits about writing again, thinking about a therapist, thinking about where I should live. It didn’t take much to overwhelm me and make me cry for hours on end. I had never been sad like this in my life. I wasn’t sure of anything. I wasn’t sure I would get better, but I was pretty sure I wanted to.
I’d never hurt like this in my life. I’d never been left. Never loved anyone in a way that it would have wrecked me if I had been. Never felt so scared about my life — this book due, a writer’s finances always uncertain, the house would need to be sold, debt, where would I live, should I tough it out alone in L.A. or go back east?
The first Thursday in November, I heard a knock at the door late one afternoon, the week after the clocks had changed so it was already getting dark at just a few minutes after 4:00, which made everything that much worse. “Who is it?” I asked, a bit frightened, though Harriett was with me. We weren’t expecting any deliveries. “Open up, Daisy. It’s me, Harp.”
I don’t believe in angels.
I hadn’t been expecting Harp.
Harp’s full name is Harper Hill Maddox. You expect him to be some Protestant or another, but he’s Catholic, or was, like me. It sounds like he should be working in a big, fancy law firm, and all of his brothers and his father do, in Pittsburgh, but Harp is a chef back in Rehoboth. He’s smart and a reader — which right away made us friends in Rehoboth, a beach town where there’s about as much talk of ideas as you might expect. I liked him right off the bat, with the dreadlocks and the Johnny Cash T-shirt and the black jeans on the beach during the day in August. We’d been friends for eight years; we’d met on his 29th birthday, when I was the age he is now. Lifetimes ago.
I was furious that he’d come to L.A. He’d gone to see Abby in Rehoboth the day she got back. “I insisted she tell me how you were. Insisted! You weren’t responding to my texts. There was no sign of you. You weren’t doing your column. I knew something was wrong,” he told me. “You didn’t need to worry,” I said. “What did I ever do to make you think I wouldn’t worry?” he said, bellowing. His arms waving, his chest out, his big voice filling the house. “What did I ever do to make you think I didn’t care about you?” he thundered. I admired him for pushing back against what I said. Everyone else was treating me like the fragile thing I was right then, but Harp wasn’t having it. “Have I ever done anything to make you think I wouldn’t worry about you when you needed worrying about? Of course I’m worried. Of course I am worried,” he said, raising his voice even more, pulling at his long beard. “I should be worried.” Then, he came over and hugged me. “I want you to be OK. I don’t want you to feel like shit.” He was nervous, too. I remember thinking, Why is he nervous? He went to the kitchen, a kitchen he’d help me remodel, long distance. He picked all the appliances after we’d moved in, talked to the contractor. I’d texted him zillions of photos. “This is weird,” he said. “Actually being in here is weird.” He went to the fridge, the cabinets, closed his eyes, shook his head. “I’m going to the grocery store. I hope you’ll stop being mad at me when I get back.” He kissed the top of my head. “And take a shower, your hair smells funny.”
He took Harriet’s car, came back in with bags and bags and bags and bags of food. I knew his restaurant, Water Table, was closed, as it was every year at this time, until Christmas. Remodeling, a break, painting. He didn’t have to be back for seven weeks. I could tell from the bags he was planning to stay a while.
Harriet took her stuff and left.
I sat on the couch while he puttered around in the kitchen. I went outside to smoke. I walked Sam. At midnight, I walked through the door after smoking and he stood in my living room, held his arms wide, inviting me in, and said, “So?” I started sobbing. He walked right into my body. He pulled me in and wrapped his arms around me, and I sobbed harder. He held me so tight, and up until that moment I hadn’t known that was what I needed. I soaked through his shirt. He held me and rocked me. “I’ve got you, I’ve got you.” He dragged me into the kitchen, lowered the flame to nothing on the soup he was making me, walked me back to the guest room and put us both in bed. “Sam has to go out,” I told him. “I know, don’t worry, I know,” he told me, kissing my head. I cried while he held me until I fell asleep. In the morning, I woke up and he was still holding me, having wrapped me in a blanket. Sam was sleeping in one of his beds Harp had moved into the room, right there next to us on the floor. It felt so good to be in bed being held. I missed David so much. I pretended to be asleep for another hour and a half, just so I could feel Harp holding me. When eventually I had to get up to go to the bathroom, I started to move away and even in his sleep Harp pulled me back into his body. It was the thing I wanted most in the world right then, to be held like that. Other than my husband, other than my life back.
Women — usually twentysomething girls with tiny knees like billiard balls — came and went in Harp’s life like mosquitos among the shout of the summer crowd and beer and fireworks, so I wasn’t surprised over breakfast when he told me Oona had left him. I had met her last summer when David and I had visited Rehoboth. “What happened?” I asked. He stretched his tall frame out. “Oh, what always happens. I’m inattentive, they get pissed. They dig my insides but they want surfer boy. Maybe they don’t really want to have sex with me, but they do, because I’m a nice guy and I make them laugh and then after a while they go back to thinking about surfer boy and start acting like sex is a chore, then I get mad and more grouchy and then eventually they leave.”
He pushed an enormous plate of food in front of me. “You have to eat, it’s my only rule,” he said, matter of factly. “It’s not like I’m wasting away,“ I pointed out to him. “No, you’re not … but you have to eat.” He kissed my forehead, he whispered, “I’ll make bread, carbs, bland food, soups — I’ll make your grandfather’s pasta e fagioli, whatever … but you have to eat.” I shrugged.
You want to think grief is going to abate in nature, on the vista looking over the clear Pacific or something poetic like that. But really grief starts to lift a bit when you are wearing a sports bra and a ratty old Carson McCullers tank top, watching “Gilmore Girls” reruns on Netflix, while Harp sits next to you in bed eating an enormous plate of Chinese delivery from Genghis Cohen, reading The New York Times. It might have been Sunday, it might have been Thursday. I’d lost track, but I knew Harp had been there nine days. Moaning the whole time about ever having to go back to Rehoboth. He loved his restaurant, but a beach town in winter is lonely and a beach town in summer is hard work for the people like Harp who feed the tourists. He was not in love with his life. But L.A. has great takeout and Harp was having fun augmenting his own cooking, testing kitchen meals for the menu for Water Table when it reopened — a new menu for the coming year is introduced every December — with delivery from Canter’s and Genghis Cohen and half a dozen Indian places. “Lorelei is an idiot,” he said, taking another dumpling in his mouth. I shake my head. “They don’t let women do the smart thing in shows like this. They need conflict for the audience and the audience likes to see women make mistakes, so they have women make the same mistakes over and over,” I told him, not stopping to think about what I knew were the same mistakes I made over and over in love. “You all need to revolt,” Harp said, honestly bothered by women not stepping up to ask for more. He pulled his beard and I noticed gray in it for the first time. I smiled, happy in the bed we had been sharing this last nine days, Harp holding me all night. I had started eating again, a little bit, and running again, too. Not a ton, but a little, slowly.
I hadn’t thought of Harp as attractive or not before, but suddenly I noticed how handsome he is. One of those men who can pull off handsome and cute, depending on what he’s doing. “Those girls are idiots if they want some blonde, young, buff surfer dude,” I told him. “You’re a feminist,” he said. “You’re supposed to respect the choices your sisters make.” His face broke out in a smile. “They should choose you,” I said. He scrunched up his face. “Naaaaah,” he said. Smiled, shrugged.
You want to think grief is going to abate in nature, on the vista looking over the clear Pacific or something poetic like that. But really grief starts to lift a bit when you are wearing a sports bra and a ratty old Carson McCullers tank top, watching “Gilmore Girls” reruns on Netflix, while Harp sits next to you in bed eating an enormous plate of Chinese delivery from Genghis Cohen, reading The New York Times.
At some point right about then, Paris blew up. Bombs. 120-some people dead in the explosions. It was then I remembered the world was bigger than me.
A couple days later I said, “Let’s go out tonight.” Except to walk the dog, I hadn’t left the house in the five weeks since David left. Harp lit up. That night we went out and got drunk in a bar on Melrose, three blocks from my house. It was a start.
Harp started reading “Love in the Time of Cholera” out loud to me. “Why are you making me listen to this?” I implored him. He just looked at me. I knew. Love is temporal. Love is forever. The king is dead. Long live the king. Love lasts and if it doesn’t maybe it wasn’t love. I knew. “I don’t love you anymore,” my husband said. But I knew when he said it that he never had.
Harp kept reading me the novel. I lay on the couch and he sat in the window and pulled his beard and read. I lay in bed and he sat next to me, one leg tossed over mine, reaching over to rest a hand on me, and read. I sat on the front steps and smoked one cigarette after another, and he read. We sat on the back deck under the palm tree and he read. I lay on the other couch and he sat at the end, his long legs stretched over the coffee table, my feet in his lap, and he rubbed my toes through my socks and read.
We established a pattern. At night we went out. To bars and clubs and concerts. We went to see L.A. landmarks. We went to all the places in the Michelle Shocked song. We went to Venice and Malibu and Compton and Beverly Hills and the Valley. We went to dive bars all over. We went to indie shows. We went to eat and eat and eat. In the morning he walked Sam, went to the markets and wandered around to thrift stores while I slept. At a vintage shop on Hollywood Boulevard he found a little tan record player, the kind we had in every classroom in my Catholic elementary school. The kind that packs up into its own suitcase and can move from place to place. Harp came home with that and a bunch of opera 78s to play on it. I couldn’t listen to music with words I understood yet … the lyrics killed me. In the late morning Harp cooked, came in to nap with me around noon, then we would both get up around 2:00. He would cook and read. I would lie to my agent and tell him I was working. I would cry and check in with the people who wanted me to check in and tell them I was OK. I tried not to lie to them. Sometimes I would go for a little run and shower, sometimes I would walk Sam. But always, Harp would read to me, and then we’d go explore the city.
It’s stunning what you can learn when you’re supposed to be living your life.
On Thanksgiving morning, near noon, I woke up drenched in sadness about David. My husband, the husband who had left me, David. I heard Harp then, in the shower, the sound of him letting out a fast, grunting moan, and for the first time I thought of him sexually. I thought: This is my good friend Harp who has come all the way to Los Angeles from the East Coast to stay with me, to make it so I am not alone. And now I’m listening to him jerk off! I should stop!
But I did not stop.
I was transfixed. It wasn’t sexual between us and never has been. We knew we’d mess up a good thing if we went there. We had quickly become the sort of friends that mattered, and in a small town like the one we had shared, you don’t mess that up with casual sex. And there was nothing casual about us. I had loved him intensely since the beginning. It would have had the intensity of a love affair, but it could have only been casual; it wouldn’t last. He’s too young for me, I’m too old for him and we are not compatible in 183 other ways.
But there I was thinking about it in Los Angeles, after all these years. There were so many reasons not to, not the least of them the fact that I hated my body and didn’t want anyone to touch me. I was too much almost everyplace and not enough other places and while I knew that my body was changing and believed I would be happy with it again by summer, it was only November. I did not want to fuck anyone at all because I was too sad. I was in mourning. David, David, David. And I knew that even if I had wanted to have sex it would not have been with Harp just as I am sure that for Harp it would not have been me he would have wanted to take to bed. I told myself: It’s just not like that between us. There’s no spark, no heat, no secret lust. It’s not there. And Harp, well, I think if he wanted to have sex with me, he’d just tell me, “I want to have sex with you, Daisy.” And I would do the same.
Yet hearing him coming, hearing him make himself come like that, I started thinking about him, his tall, beautiful body that he thinks is too schlumpy because some idiotic women who want a certain kind of pretty boy have left him. I thought about his hands, his strong hands from all the cutting and chopping and this-ing and that-ing. I thought about him standing hard in the shower, stroking his cock, making himself come. I wondered about the look on his face. I wondered.
Everyone wants to make these stories sexual. If my agent were here, he would want to make it sexual, too. Sometimes things just aren’t that way. Can’t the story be, they were such good friends? Can’t they just hold each other at night?
* * *
OK, here it is, the sex.
A few nights later, the end of November, we were getting drunk again at a bar on Melrose we liked after we’d been to see Patti Smith at the Ace Hotel downtown. I was asking the bartender for some hot tea with my Jäger. Harp was grinning all Cheshire cat; it was nice that he was smiling on the regular again. Meant he wasn’t so worried about me. “Oh shush. I’m still hardcore,” I said, and Harp and I both laughed. We were sitting knees to knees on the barstools, leaned forward, curved like swans, our foreheads nearly touching. His sinewy fingers reached, found that tense spot in my neck and he did away with it. I reached back and covered his hand with mine and said, “If we were back east, we’d walk outside now and it’d be snowing. Your beard would be catching it, the snowflakes would be stars there … and we’d go home and you’d make me hot cocoa with marshmallows you made and I’d drink that in front of the fireplace while you read me ‘Love in the Time of Cholera.’”
But we were not in Rehoboth Beach, this was L.A. It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cuttin’ down trees. Santa Claus was on a gilded sleigh in Beverly Hills, eight perfect reindeer carrying him over Wilshire, and that meant Harp had to leave. Just a few more weeks until he had to reopen Water Table with its fresh paint and new stove. He had to go roast a Christmas goose and feed other people, not me.
Harp’s look turned angry, then wistful, then matter of fact. “No,” he said, and I heard cranky Harp again. A Harp I hadn’t heard in a couple of weeks. Grouchy. A little disgusted with the world. “No, that’s not how it would be at all. If we were back east, you’d come into the restaurant while I’m working, we’d talk for a minute, I’d send some special something out to you from the kitchen. You’d leave with whatever friend or whatever guy you were with and I’d either go home and get high and beat off to porn or go have sex with whichever Mindy-of-the-Moment I was hooking up with.” He took his hand off my neck and we both leaned back. “Maybe it’d be snowing, but there’d be no home together, no hot cocoa, no García Márquez.”
And there it all was, on fire between us now. How we are, how we are not.
We were sitting knees to knees on the barstools, leaned forward, curved like swans, our foreheads nearly touching.
“Well, that’d be OK, too,” I said, making a statement. “Good even, our own lives.” “Yes, sure, of course,” he was quick to agree, add emphasis. I believe we both meant those things. This rich interlude fantastic, but temporal. Our real lives waited, and that was a good thing, even if I wasn’t sure what my real life was, even if he was not completely in love with his.
The people walking past us were drunk, talking about David Bowie, about going to visit him, apparently he was sick. Harp smiled again. “Things you don’t hear in Rehoboth,” I said. David Bowie is sick. “Floating in a most peculiar way,” repeated in my head over and over. We were both laughing now, drinking shots and joking. I played the jukebox, brought Joni and Bowie and early R.E.M. and Joy Division and Johnny Cash and Aretha and Dylan into the room with us. And now that we’d established that this was surreal, a space oddity, not real life, Harp touched me easily and I him. His hands touched me here, there, the small of my back, my hip. I rubbed the outside of his thigh, he rested his fingers on my spine, I reached into the pocket of his black jeans for dollar bills for the jukebox, I fluffed his beard.
We went home and we were facing one another in bed, the bed we’d been platonically sharing for weeks, and the liars we are was revealed. He rubbed the soft of my shoulder and said, “Someone should be really nice to you … you don’t even know how great you are,” and I told him that he didn’t know how great he is, and then, never taking his eyes off mine because he was nervous, he kissed me. I kissed back, hard. He cupped my breasts and rubbed his thumbs over my nipples and I murmured yes over and again. “If you don’t want my cock, I like to do lots of other stuff,” he said. I was bewildered. I was stunned. If I didn’t want his cock? Did women sometimes not want his cock? Did he feel like I would not want him, all of him? I found his eyes, whispered, “I want your cock. I want all of you,” and then we were kissing and he was hard in my hand. I made him come in my mouth; I gave what I hoped was the best blowjob of my life. I’m pretty sure I liked it even more than Harp did, though. I was so happy to make someone else happy after years of feeling like David didn’t even like me and certainly didn’t want me. We were very drunk, I know, but the sex was fun, and urgent. After a point in life, urgent sex didn’t happen too often and I was not too drunk to appreciate it. After a while, I started touching him again, whispering, “I want you to fuck me.” I knew after the blowjob and the jerking off in the shower, which I’d heard him do again that morning while he thought I was asleep, it would take him a long time to come then and that is what I wanted. I wanted him hard and slow. My cunt was swollen and ready to be fucked. It’d been more than a year since I’d had sex, I suddenly told Harp. I didn’t tell him that more than a year was really closer to two. His eyes grew wide for a second and then he kissed my forehead and now his mouth was all over my tits yes and my neck yes and my legs are spread yes and now wrapped around him yes as he enters me yes and I loved the feel of his cock yes as I rubbed my clit, watched him fuck me hard. When I came I pushed him gently back out of me so I could roll over. Then he fucked me slowly and deeply from behind and started talking dirty, which I love, while I fingered my clit. “Your pussy feels so fucking good” and “I love being deep in your cunt” and “I want to feel you come again” and this time when I did, without saying a word he stopped moving in and out of me. I knew it was effort for him not to come at this point … delicious effort. I whispered, “My ass,” and he groaned, then said, “You sure?” “Yes, do you want to?” I asked. “Oh God, yes,” and with that he pressed into me slowly. I knew he would be gentle with me until my body told him he did not need to be. I knew that even drunk he’d take care not to hurt me. He was moaning guttural sounds and working his way into my ass, I was again rubbing my clit and moaning. “Daisy, Daisy, oh my god Daisy, your ass is so tight. Daisy, Daisy,” he said. He started to come; I heard sound catch in his throat as he thrust one last time deep and hard into me and as he did, I started to come, feeling him ejaculating in my ass.
He slid out slowly, which makes a difference at any age, but to a woman in her forties it’s just unacceptable any other way. I like when men make the condom disappear without me ever knowing about it. Maybe that’s sexist, or squeamish. Maybe, but also: fact. I liked that my panties were mid-thigh the whole time, my black camisole T-shirt I wear to sleep never came off, my lacy mesh bra still on, though disheveled, and my tits were out. I liked feeling fucked. And fucked. And fucked. Harp offered me water, whispered, “Are you OK?” kissed my forehead gently, was shy-ish, which made me shy-ish. I kissed him then for a long time … I wanted to kiss away every hurt we’d both ever felt. I wanted him to know that I was smart and kind and loving and sane and fun … though I think he already did and that really it was that I wanted me to know those things about myself. And in kissing him, with his long, patient arms around me, holding me pressed to him, I found some of it. I wanted him to know that he was wonderful and I would work to make him know that. “I wish you’d stop being so weird about your body and take your clothes off,” he said. I laughed. So Harp, so, so Harp. “I’m not weird about my body … I just don’t like it …,” I said. “OK, but I like it,” he said, and smiled his 9-year-old smile. Sweet. “Though I know your feelings about your body aren’t dependent on what some guy thinks,” he said, earnestly, as we both drifted off to sleep.
The dreadlocked angel, though I don’t believe in those, came bearing pasta, and made my grandfather’s soup and baked bread and whispered … and fucked me until I was sore. Fucked me so that I stayed fucked, as Henry Miller said.
And then he fucked me some more.
I should have paid more attention to the care a man who roasted pork cheeks for three days would take, how patient he’d be with my body, how he’d tell me to take my time, tell me there’s no rush, that he wasn’t in any hurry and for the first time in my life, at 45, I’d believe him. I should have known this about him, this patience in bed, but I did not. One night while we were fucking, him on top of me, I started to rub my clit and he pulled out of me, said, “Stop, let me. Please, let me,” with so much urgency. As he settled two fingers to work on me, he whispered, “I’m in no hurry, take your time, relax,” and touched me, perfectly, like the angels were directing him, for 20 minutes until I came, hard.
At some point we looked at each other’s baby pictures. Mine in thick albums, his online. Little Daisy, little Harp. “You’re already who you are,” he says, tapping photo after photo of me. I looked at Harp when he was 4, 7, 10 — all baby fat and smooth skin and short hair and happy eyes. So different from his rugged looks now, the crackling beard, the mess of dreads, his eyes pools of questions. Was he already who he was going to be back in those fresh-faced photographs? Do we become broken and bitter or not based on who we were all along?
The dreadlocked angel, though I don’t believe in those, came bearing pasta, and made my grandfather’s soup and baked bread and whispered …
The crazy-good sex continued. Ideas of who I was and how any of us become or unbecome who we are were everywhere. I felt like writing again. I wanted to be the source of someone’s pleasure and, with Harp, I so clearly was. I wanted someone to be interested in my pleasure, and Harp was devoted. He went around smiling a lot and in bed he let me know, constantly, how much he loved what we were doing. I wanted a man to take pleasure for his cock from my body. Yes. I wanted a man to take pleasure for his cock from my body.
I’m a feminist, of course. I wanted to feel immense pleasure, too, of course. Yet, more than anything, I wanted a man to take pleasure for his cock from my body. It’s as simple and complicated as that.
It was the words between us that did me in. “Give me your cunt,” he’d say. “Take my ass,” I’d say. “Take my cock,” he’d whisper. The way we ordered and begged at the same time. The way we both wanted the other to offer their willingness after we’d demanded it. Sometimes I cried after, I felt so much. Harp had bought me tiny wooden spoons and fed me ice cream he’d bought from a Santa Barbara creamery, McConnell’s. It wasn’t as fine as the ice cream he made at home, in Rehoboth, but it was good. One night he smashed the salted caramel ice cream gently on my nipples and sucked it off, then rubbed the melting confection into my pussy and went down on me. The salty and sweet, hot and cold, all mixing into sublime. I came so hard, with such total abandon, that when he said, “I love you so much Daisy,” it made perfect sense. By then he was hard again and we had sex, fucked, made love, lovefucked again until there was nothing left to say, nothing left to express.
I loved him, too, of course.
There’s no one answer to these questions about angels.
Why do we always leave the details of the sex out? Why do we think we need to set the scene with the details of place or the way two people drove along a country road, but think we shouldn’t say too much about the sex? Let’s remember how much we can reveal about character when we show the sex in exquisite detail.
Harp and I lovefucked. A lot. He said “Mmmm,” over and over again when we were having sex, his murmurs devotions of pleasure. I tried to remember if I’d ever made my husband this happy in or out of bed. If he’d ever enjoyed fucking me this much. If David had ever enjoyed me this much, period. If David was capable of this kind of joy. Listening to Harp as he moved me and as he let me move him, I thought about whether or not I’d ever been attached to this much feeling. I realized what was happening right there in that bed: I was having a good time. There was joy. I took Harp’s mouth and I kissed him, kissed him like I was savoring the last blackberry that would ever grow, and I said, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” He laced his fingers through mine, whispered, “Come with me Daisy, come with me baby.” I loved the baby more than I should have. His eyes were holding mine, “I’m going to come inside of you, I’m going to come in your sweet pussy right now … Daisy, Daisy.” And with that we both came.
My sweet pussy. And here I thought I had a case of vagina dentata.
Why do we always leave the details of the sex out? Let’s remember how much we can reveal about character when we show the sex in exquisite detail.
The sun was nearly up, I lay on his chest and he curled long strands of my hair around his fingers while I didn’t cry. My husband had been gone two months, exactly. The sun was coming up. Harp turned on his side and folded me into his crumpled wings, pressing my body flush against his. We were mashed in sweat.
Some of the most extraordinary substances can serve as glue.
Harp was going to leave soon, and I knew I had to get out of my house. I couldn’t live there, couldn’t half afford it on my own. David would want to sell it or rent it. Harp and I drove to the small town of Sierra Madre half an hour outside the city one afternoon to look at a guest cottage for rent. It would have been perfect for Sam and for me. Charming, so much like the sweet cottage I rented for years before David and I bought a house. Sierra Madre itself reminiscent of Rehoboth. We walked around and I said, over and over, “It’d be like I was back, kind of. It’d give me some of that.” Harp was silent.
Driving back he said, “I think if you want something like Rehoboth, you should come back to Rehoboth.” “Are you asking me to move back?” I asked, teasing, not meaning anything by it. He tilted his head, groaned, “We both know it wouldn’t matter if I did, but, no, I’m not asking you to do anything. But I think you want to come back. I think you have an idea that you can’t come back. But you’re wrong.” And then, quietly, “And of course I want you to be back. You’re my best friend, Daisy.”
I believed I had to stay in Los Angeles. I had to make it here, even if I didn’t know what making it was. I came here with my husband and now my husband was in Washington, D.C., prosecuting bad guys for the Feds. But I had to stay. I had to.
Who decides who the bad guys are?
That night I took Harp for sushi at Urasawa. A thank you of sorts. Harp looked at me straight across the table and said, “Why do you like it when I fuck your ass? I mean, is it the power I have over you at that moment, is it the feeling, is it the vulnerability?” I nodded, I knew. “I like it for a lot of reasons, I like it for all of those reasons, but I mostly like it because I know you won’t use it against me, and that feels good. It feels good to be so wanton, so lustful, so desirous of being completely taken, and to express that, and know you’ll give that to me, that you’ll take me and that you won’t turn it into a machine gun in our dirty war.” He stared, his eyes showing his bewilderment. I shrugged, but my eyes filled with tears that surprised me. “Men do it, David did it … You tell them you want to be fucked this way or that way, you tell them you want them to fuck your ass so hard you feel totally base, and the next time you’re having a disagreement about some recurring issue, they cop just the tiniest bit of attitude at your boundaries. You say, ‘I’m concerned that you never do your part of the housework unless I remind you, it’s not my job to remind you.’ And they nod and say they’ll do it, for the millionth time, but there’s a part of them that is thinking, ‘Don’t stand up to me with the boundary bullshit, because you let me take your ass, begged me to. Begged me to come all over your face.’ Maybe they don’t even think it consciously. But they wield it in some way, if you’re as dirty as you want to be with them. They do. And then you stop wanting to be dirty with them. And then the sex bores you because it’s not the sex you want, and they still aren’t doing their part of the housework, or paying the car insurance without you reminding them or whatever little petty ways they are turning you into their mommies instead of their kinky sex partner, and then you don’t want to have sex at all.” I stopped. “And that is why, Harper Maddox, I love when you fuck my ass, and why I love to tell you just what I want, why I love to talk so dirty to you, because I know that the next day, there’s no war. You won’t use it against me.” Any other man I’ve ever slept with would have riffed on power and gender right then, just to show how emotionally literate he was, but Harp just said, “Tonight, I want you to tell me everything. I want you to narrate what’s happening for you in bed. Tell me how good your tits feel, how your pussy feels with my cock in it, tell me how it feels to have my cock pushing into your ass.”
So I did. After he jerked off onto my face and my lips and my tongue, after I told him while I was waiting how much I wanted him to do just that. When we finally went to sleep, just as the sun was creeping up, he said, “Don’t sleep with any more men who are going to use who you are in bed against you. You’re the same person all the time. If they can’t see that, fuck ’em.”
A few days later, he left. I told him, “I wasn’t going to kill myself, but I’m glad you came.” Harp scrunched up his face and gave me a look that screamed, “Do you understand nothing, woman, nothing of who I am?” He leaned over, kissed the top of my head, “I didn’t think you were going to kill yourself. I thought you shouldn’t be alone while you were so sad. I didn’t want you to be alone.” He paused, “Your hair smells really good.”
He was gentle with me in ways I didn’t yet deserve.
The last night he fed me pasta he had made. Bite by bite, he delivered it to my mouth. I gave him grief that it was linguine, that he’d never learned to make cavatappi, my favorite. He shook me off. “I love to feed you when you’re hungry,” he said, in his deep voice. And that night, the sex, like putting out candles, we extinguished one another. We were electric. Floating.
Finally I was full.
“It’s possible you’ve been with the wrong women,” I told Harp when I drove him to Burbank to catch his flight. I thought of him and all the nights he’d said my name like it was the holiest prayer, of all the nights he’d warmed lotion in his hands before rubbing it into my breasts, my thighs. Of all the nights he’d kissed me gently before he entered me. Of all the nights he’d said my name as he was falling asleep. “If you aren’t attentive to those women, I think it must be that they are the wrong women.” “Maybe you just bring out the best in me,” he said as he smiled. “Maybe you need to find the right woman,” I said, and he just laughed. “The right woman,” he repeated. He pulled me in one last time. “The way you want me is the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me. The way you eat when you’re hungry …” he trailed off. “You’re the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me. And you know what? David’s a coward. Maybe no one wants to say that about Saint David, but I will. I don’t care what you did or didn’t do — the guy’s an asshole and you’re better off, I hope you know that.” I did know. Almost. I almost knew.
And then he left.
I sat alone all day in the house I owned with my husband. I thought about Harp flying east, imagined the plane’s wings as his very own, his strength propelling him back to Water Table, back to Rehoboth and its lonely winters. I loved Los Angeles — its vibrancy and how everyone is connected to making art or a better life or both. I thought hard about that small cottage in Sierra Madre. I imagined Sam and me and the beautiful weather. I thought of David, my husband. I thought about what makes a team. I imagined the perfect snapshot we had been. I thought of how lonely I would be there in Sierra Madre. I had plenty of friends and Harriet, the best of friends. But I knew I would be horribly lonely in Los Angeles, in Sierra Madre. I knew I needed to go east, home to Rehoboth, to regroup. Even if it was admitting I’d failed at this city and that marriage and maybe my whole life. Even if the house David and I had bought and historically renovated, taking it back to its original majesty, stood in town like a monument to every failure of my life. But sometimes going right back where you started is exactly where you need to be.
Harp had said to me, in the first few days he was in Los Angeles, “Sometimes it’s all I can do to bake bread and whisper your name.” It was such a Harp thing to say, a Zen koan, an expression of wanting. He wanted me to be okay again.
“You’re the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me. And you know what? David’s a coward. Maybe no one wants to say that about Saint David, but I will.”
I texted him, “Is it going to be forever weird between us now? Are you home?” All he said was, “We’re cool. We’re always cool. I’m home.”
The next day, I rented a car for the drive east. Cried in the long holiday line at Budget at LAX as Quincy Jones came singing “Just Once” over the tiny speakers. I took boxes to storage, I packed the car full with the things I really needed, and I made a bed in the backseat for Sam. I would have to hurry, long days of driving, but I would make it home by Christmas by way of Santa Fe and Oklahoma City and Memphis. Sam and I would see the Christmas lights on the square in Santa Fe, the bombing memorial in Oklahoma and then Graceland. We all will be received.
You want a happy ending. Isn’t that it?
I didn’t know much, but I knew that I wanted a man with Harp’s combination of strength and gentleness and challenge. It was a start.
You wanted a hero.
The morning I left there was a man who looked like Iggy Pop dressed all in white, right down to his white lizard shoes with the pointed toes, walking in front of my house as I stepped outside just before 7 a.m. He was singing Lou Reed’s “Rock & Roll”: “Despite all the amputation/You could dance to a rock ‘n’ roll station/ And it was all right/It was all right.”
We all want to be heroes of our narrative, but you can either want that or want the truth; the two are always wholly incompatible. I didn’t want to be the hero of this story. I wasn’t. I knew I had done plenty to screw up my marriage, that it wasn’t David’s fault entirely. I didn’t want to be the hero. Harp was the hero. I was just a woman who was trying to put the broken pieces back together, who was trying to figure out who she was now and who she would let herself become.
I looked in the rearview mirror as I turned left on Sunset, headed toward Hollywood on my way out of town. There in the reflection the morning haze was burning off the mountains and I knew that L.A. would always be a love story to me.
I headed east. When I made it to Santa Fe, I texted Harp that I’d be home the night of the 23rd. He was worried about me driving, he was worried about Sam, but he told me I could do it. He got mad that I hadn’t told him I’d been on the road for a full day. “You don’t live alone in the world, goddamnit. You need to tell me this shit.”
I looked in the rearview mirror as I turned left on Sunset, headed toward Hollywood on my way out of town. There in the reflection the morning haze was burning off the mountains and I knew that L.A. would always be a love story to me.
I worried about Harp and me the whole way, about whether or not we’d fucked it all up, our magnificent friendship. Anyone who has spent a winter in a small town will tell you to be careful about who you take to bed between Halloween and Easter. I remembered Harp in my kitchen singing Dylan, “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Easter time, too.” I didn’t want to lose Harp. I could not stand the thought of losing him. I remembered the filthy beautiful dirty gorgeous sex we made and had to remind myself that had been some divine interruption to our regularly scheduled lives as friends.
I imagined a better me, a better me to offer Harp. He was such a good friend to me. I made a list somewhere between Little Rock and home: I will read more about the Civil War, he loves the Civil War. I will go see the awful movies he likes and stop asking him to sit through French New Wave cinema with me. I will find some appreciation for that cat of his, who is really a great cat, the Louis cat. I will be less snarky about those women in his life. I will find the restaurants he most wants to go to and plan excursions. I will drag him away to Europe and go to places like Lichtenstein, that he wants to go.
It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
I imagined driving into town, texting Harp from a few minutes out and him standing out front of Water Table, despite it being during service. He kisses me, takes Sam out of the car, heads off to walk him and tells me to hurry inside, that he made cavatappi for me. He takes Sam down the street and turns around, knowing I’m watching, hollers out, “We’re fine, we’re good, we’re great. It’s not weird.” Then I imagined the same scene, me, this sad, almost broken woman with her old dog, needing a meal and a place to crash, driving into town, being met with a shrug, a metaphorical punch in the arm.
I found a crooked heart of glass in the driveway in Los Angeles a few days after David left. Or did I? It seems a detail too good to be true. I lost it though, somewhere between Los Angeles and the Atlantic, if I ever even had it at all. There’s no telling what’s a mirage in all that light in L.A. What’s real and illusion, what’s simply a reflection of all that trapped sun.
On December 22nd, driving through Appalachia, I realized the nights were getting shorter, the days were getting longer, we’d already made it through the hard part, the darkest dark. I remember the first big cry I had the night Harp first got to L.A. The way he lowered the flame on the soup and held me, like we were the only people on earth. He let me cry and eventually took off his T-shirt that I had soaked through with my tears and handed it to me to blow my nose. How he held me and how the sexuality of our bodies was irrelevant. I wonder if it could be irrelevant between us again, knowing what we both knew about the other now.
I imagined us, bittersweet friends, lying on the beach, the roar of the ocean, us looking up at the sky. All we can do is count the stars. “We should learn the constellations,” he says. “Teach me,” I murmur, a whisper.
This is how we navigate.
* * *
Dreadlocked, Dirty-Talking Angel Playlist
“Strange Angels” — Laurie Anderson
“Come Pick Me Up” — Ryan Adams
“Carmen” — Paula Cole
“Astral Weeks” — Van Morrison
“London Rain” — Heather Nova
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” — Bob Dylan
“Folsom Prison Blues” — Johnny Cash
“Like a Prayer” — Madonna
“Rock and Roll” — The Velvet Underground
“Look It Here” — Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
“I Wish I Was a Girl” — Counting Crows
“Graceland” — Paul Simon
“Valentine” — Fiona Apple
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” — Kesha
“River” — Joni Mitchell
“Disorder” — Joy Division
“Valentine Heart” — Tanita Tikaram
“Anything We Want” — Fiona Apple
“Creep” — Melissa Ferrick
“Come a Long Way” — Michelle Shocked
“Strange Currencies” — R.E.M.
“Space Oddity” — David Bowie
“California Stars” — Billy Bragg & Wilco
“California” — Joni Mitchell
“Life in a Northern Town” — The Dream Academy
“Nightswimming” — R.E.M.
“All Your Way” — Morphine
“Every Day I Write the Book” — Elvis Costello
“Lucky” — Kat Edmonson
“Understand Your Man” — Johnny Cash
“Now That I Know” — Shannon McNally
“The House That Jack Built” — Aretha Franklin
“Ditmas” — Mumford & Sons
“Taste of Danger” — Jonatha Brooke
“Wonderful Life” — The Felice Brothers
“Let’s Forget All the Things That We Say” — Julia Stone
“At My Most Beautiful” — R.E.M.
* * *
Anna March’s essays, fiction, reviews, reading lists, interviews, poetry, playlists, diaries and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of publications including The New York Times Modern Love Column, New York Magazine, Tin House, VQR, Hip Mama and Bustle. She writes regularly for Salon and The Rumpus, where she also has a weekly books column, “Anna March’s Reading Mixtape.” Unlike a lot of writers, she loves her agent. She frequently writes on topics in the political/popular culture related to intersectional feminism, sexuality and gender. She is co-founder, with Ashley Ford, of The Lulu Fund, founder of LITFOLKS, a literary hosting organization in L.A., and on the advisory board for Angels Flight • literary west and Literary Orphans. She has completed a novel, “The Diary of Suzanne Frank,” a memoir, “Happy People Live Here” and is at work on an essay collection, “We Can Do It: Notes from a Feminist Killjoy.”
Photo Collage: Lindsay Rosenberg