The Window And The Tree

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As a Jewish, suburban, shy, physically and emotionally awkward teenager, my romantic prospects could be summed up in a short incident: One afternoon in my junior year, in some distant corner hallway on my high school, I chanced upon Billy B and Janie M in the hallway. Neither saw me. They were too busy staring at each other. His hands cupped her small breasts over her shirt and her arms were up around his neck. And she looked at him, not with scorn or hatred as I would have expected, but with a smile that made me ache.

I realized two things in that moment. Girls enjoy having their breasts touched. And I would never be the one to do it. Romance was for the Billy Bs of the world. Strong, tall, handsome. The beautiful people. Not me. 

My philosophy had merit, but it didn’t take into account some changes that would soon take place in my body. Shortness would become less severe. Untamable hair would transform into a wild Jewfro. Baby fat grew up.

About five years and 8 breasts later, I was with my friend Josh in his hometown of Greenwich, Connecticut, both of us lightly tripping on a weak dose of mushrooms. We made a stop at a movie theater where a friend of his worked. Her name was Susan. In the 2-3 seconds that our eyes met, several life-changing things happened. First, every stupid romantic song I heard growing up – songs about being ‘hooked on a feeling’, ‘this magic moment’, how love grows where some guy’s Rosemary goes – they were suddenly about me. Second, Susan and I were in love. Third, though I didn’t know it then, I had officially begun the remorseful phase of my life that would last decades and pay for more than one therapist’s car.

I was 22. Susan, a year younger. Yet she had already managed to drop out of college, get married and produce a baby, Benjamin, who was now nearly 2-years-old. Susan was a self-proclaimed alchemist, a changer of lives, a magician. She had an unswerving moral compass that was due, I was sure, to her direct access to the secrets of life. Above all else, she was a poet.

Within a few weeks, her marriage dissolved into separation and our single spark went nuclear. We had soulmate sex, which is like having regular sex, only God’s in the room wearing a cheerleading outfit, telling you to “go go go!” In Susan’s arms, somewhere between her breasts, I found the exact center of the universe. In her eyes, for the first time in my life, I saw myself as beautiful. I mean, Billy B beautiful.

You can see where this is going, right? Physically and emotionally awkward Jewish boys who later become beautiful don’t stay Billy B for long. You get a window. A month. A few years if you’re lucky. The Jewish body is a time bomb, with hair on your head set to blow at any minute. Features of youth hot-wired to balloon out grotesquely. One new back hair at a time comes up to remind us that the fields of medicine or, say, law where bodies are well covered, these are where we really belong. The Billy Bs, they are leading men. I’m genetically engineered to be a character actor.

Susan and I had a built-in expiration date to our relationship. And our shelf life turned out to be short. The perishable ingredient was her son. I don’t mean he perished. I mean, okay, that was a crappy analogy. I mean because she had a two-year-old son…  Because I was not ready to take on the responsibility of being a father… Because I couldn’t be both a starving writer and a provider… Because of all these things, Susan and I and our “most fantastic romance of all time” would last only a painfully short few months.

When it ended, we said good-bye and I ventured out into the rest of my life Susanlessly.

There’s a saying: “It’s better to have loved and lost, then not to have loved at all.” There’s another saying: “Suck the shit out of my ass.” You see where I’m going with this?

Okay, so imagine that you’ve breast-fed at the center of the universe. Shining eyes of love, such as you have only dreamed of, eyes that have bathed you with luscious adoration, are gone. Now what? You go back to dating? Talk about Elvis Costello’s next album? Kiss hard lips? Insert one genital into another, stir and hope for magic? Magic existed. I knew that now. Everything else felt lifeless.

So I began my quest for the next Susan. How hard could it be to find one? I found the first without even trying. So I began trying.

Trying, it turns out, is antithetical to finding a Susan. Trying is the step-sister to needing and needing is kissing-cousin to desperation. Susans – or even Donnas or Marys or Melindas – they don’t respond well to desperation. Seems that when it comes to finding love you can’t actually look for love because looking implies needing and people for some reason aren’t attracted to neediness. So the first thing you have to do is pretend you’re all right. Which means you have to lie. Well, how can you find the person you love when you’re lying? So you go to Plan B. Instead of presenting a façade of being all right, you lie to yourself to make the lie more convincing. So now you’re swimming in self-delusion and you go forth and look for your soulmate. But how can your soulmate recognize you if your soul is buried deep beneath your own delusion?

Then it’s onto Plan C. You get involved with someone sexually, even if it’s not terribly good. You do away with having to hide your need by filling your need with that person. Now you can venture out without the stink of desperation, the lie, the self-delusion. Only you feel bad for the person you’re fucking. And it seems soul-crushing to have Susanless sex. And you find no matter how hard you look, the next Susan isn’t there or if she is there, both your souls are too well hidden behind the dust that accumulates as you climb higher into your 20’s, dust that comes just from being in the dirty world. Worst of all, the pain of being Susanless causes the spark that Susan first saw to dim and lose its luster. So even if you come upon the next Susan, she won’t recognize who you are and you probably won’t recognize her. 

And I haven’t even mentioned the window. My Jewfro, peaking at around 22, was beginning to show signs of wear, like a carpet by your door that gets walked on too much. Chest and facial hair, once a sign of adulthood hope, now began to spread like weeds to places they didn’t belong, places where only old men had hair. The most telling sign of aging came from within, where eyes sparkled less and smiles came infrequently. Sometime around 29, a colleague offered to fix me up with a friend of hers who had been born a Thalidomide Baby. I assumed that meant her friend had no arms. That told me everything: my window had officially closed.

It was around that time that I was working the late shift at a video editing house, producing a promo for Showtime, when I had a sudden impulse to pick up the phone and call Susan. She was living in El Paso, TX. I told her I’d had enough of life without her. I asked, “What if we got together?” She wondered that too. So I flew down to El Paso to find out.

The trip would be life-changing, but for reasons that had nothing to do with Susan. At the El Paso airport, Susan greeted me with those shining eyes and I felt warmed as if by the sun. She showed me her home, a bit of her life, she made me comfortable in her guest room and then she left to spend most of the remaining time I had there with her boyfriend, who had grown jealous because my presence. The only real time I had with Susan was in the El Paso airport, during my arrival and the day I left.

On that day, in some Formica-covered restaurant, with planes taxiing outside the window, I sat across from Susan, the last time I ever would. She had chosen her present over her past. The boyfriend over me. That was fair. Knowing our time was done, I looked her in the eyes and I said I was no longer in love with her. It was a lie, a really big one. I would be in love with her for at least another decade. But she seemed satisfied to hear it. She was smiling when she said good-bye.

It’s hard to say exactly when I let her go. In which therapist’s chair, in the middle of which self-help book, or after which year of just living life without her. But it happened. When I was 22 Susan was the source of light and love and grace and because of that – or maybe I had this in me all along – I believed that light and love and grace could only be found in the eyes of someone like her. I spent 30 years searching for it, in women, in my work, in anyone, really, who might make it available. It took me that long to realize I would never find it. And that not finding it was actually a good thing, because it didn’t really exist out there. And because I could finally stop looking.

My window, which had shut in my late 20’s, seemed to find ways to keep shutting further. And yet recently, something funny has happened. This is just me talking now, but I think I’m beautiful again. I don’t mean in the way people are in their 20’s, or like leaves when they first bloom. But because I have survived and learned some things. Because I’ve grown into myself, like a tree; the kind of tree that’s got some heft and interesting crags and even offers some shade. I prefer this beauty and I’ll tell you why. Leaves are beautiful just by existing, because they’re new. That’s pretty awesome. But trees are beautiful because of who they are and what they’ve become.

And you can’t sit under a leaf. I mean, you can, but c’mon.