The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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The first time we met, she didn’t say much but instead let her hair do the talking. Her hair had a lot on its mind. It went nearly down to her knees. This was in July, at a Hollywood Hills party thrown by the friend of a friend. There was only one person in the house we both knew. At midnight we sat on a couch with a cat between us. Pretty soon she and I started petting the cat at the same time. When our fingers touched, the cat’s hair stood on end, and I think mine may have too.
When she came to my house the next day, I tried to be a gentleman and not kiss her too soon, but after eating the mango she’d brought, I couldn’t refrain. For three hours we lay on my floor kissing — just kissing, which was more than enough. Never had I known lips so soft.
And her hair!
Her hair was unlike anything I’d ever seen. It straddled time zones; it lived and breathed, making deep exhalations down to her toes. Sometimes her hair seemed nearer the ground than her feet did. It blossomed like the fig tree growing outside my door, floated like the hummingbird that fluttered above.
Sometimes I kissed her hair instead of her lips.
Five nights in a row, after she visited, I curled up in bed with strands of her hair. I was like a boy who takes a football to bed, so deeply in love is he with the game.
“OK,” my friend Frankie said. “Seeing that you’re a man who’s never known love, how do you know that it’s love?”
“Your very question is the answer,” I said.
“Explain, but without any Zen nonsense.”
I stated several facts that Frankie already knew: I’m shy. I like quiet. I like living alone. I like to know everything that’s in my fridge. I like my clothes folded a certain way. I don’t watch TV or wear shoes in my house. I don’t talk in the mornings. I don’t like sharing a bathroom or breathing aerosol sprays. But this woman didn’t get on my nerves. We’d spent the whole day together, and I couldn’t wait to see her again.
“Well,” Frankie said, “if she can put up with all that, you two deserve each other.”
Soon it was August, but how could it be August if I wasn’t miserably hot? Each night for a week the woman with hair lay in my arms. To lie beside her was like resting on a pile of leaves. Mostly she slept without a sound, but one night her breathing was troubled; she talked in her sleep and said she wanted to stay. I had made a vow never to speak before 10 A.M., but at 7:30 I asked her to move in with me. I promised we’d be happy until we were gray. I told her all this without thinking and still didn’t regret a word. The woman with hair smiled as if it all might come to pass. Her fingertips consulted her hair. She never said yes, but she didn’t say no, and so I kept hoping, even after she and her hair had driven away.
“Hair! Hair! Hair!” Frankie screamed. “If I hear one more word about hair . . .”
That September she and I stayed in the Venice Beach bungalow of a friend who was in Italy shooting a film. Mornings I went to work while the woman with hair wrote poetry and walked in the surf. I didn’t like my job very much. In the afternoons I’d sneak down a stairwell and escape. I’d come back to the bungalow to find her reading Rumi in the shade of a tree, wearing a sarong. I looked forward to leaving for work each day, because only by leaving could I return. For the first time ever I entertained the idea of having a wife. In my daydreams I became “the man who married the woman with hair.”
That week at the beach we made love three and four times a day. It got to the point where I went to work mainly to rest. After lunch I’d do my Houdini act, vanish by the stairwell, and go home to that small cottage, where we would talk, laugh, read poetry, hold each other in silence, kiss like teenagers, walk around naked, and make love again and again like lost souls who’d finally ended their search. We wore each other out, barely stopping to eat. I’d never spent more than a week with a woman under the same roof, but for eight nights running we slept with our bodies intertwined, and it wasn’t enough.
Some nights we took walks hand in hand. I’m no hand holder, but now I felt lost if I didn’t have her palm against mine. I began to pity other couples when we went to restaurants and shops. These couples would see us and realize how little they had. They didn’t know what it was like to fall madly in love — to be thirsty for so long, and then to have that thirst quenched. I felt sorry for these other couples who would envy our romance and go home completely depressed.
I loved her so much I wanted to climb inside her head and swim around awhile. Mornings, I would fall into her eyes. Sometimes they were brown, but other times they turned green. When I told her this, she tried to cover her face.
“They’re not supposed to do that,” she said.
“They only turn green when I’m sad or in love.”
“Are you sad?”
“Not at the moment,” she said.
Our last morning in Venice she leaned against my car, tilting her face toward the sun. Her eyes became one with the light, and I knew I’d found all I’d ever wanted in life. I’d been with some wonderful women, women I’d cared about, but none of them had been the one. I’d hurt more than my share of women by not committing, and each time I’d been sorry, but I hadn’t wanted to settle or make a mistake. Now I felt lucky to have waited, because I was ready when the woman with hair came into my life.
She said she loved me and wished she could stay. We hadn’t talked much about what her life was like where she lived. I had been to her town once, long before we met — or, rather, I’d been through it, on a moonlit night, which had left a lot to the imagination. I hadn’t asked about it for fear I might scare her away, but now, I thought, might be the time.
“So, where you going?” I asked as casually as I could.
“Crazy,” she said.
I wanted to know more, but I just left it at that. Crazy might be a fine place to go. It didn’t matter where crazy was, or who would be waiting for her there. I watched as she backed up, pulled away from the curb, and vanished.
I called in sick, then drove from Venice to my apartment near the HOLLYWOOD sign. In a way it was true: I was sick. I just didn’t know the name of my illness or what would cure it. My apartment felt too big, too empty, too lonely; from every corner it called me a fool. I thought maybe I should paint the walls. Instead I sat down to write to her.
My plan was to send an e-mail before she got home, so that when she arrived she wouldn’t feel the same loneliness I’d felt when I’d walked into my apartment. But I never had the chance to click SEND. As if conjured by my thoughts, she walked in as I wrote the last line.
“Forget something?” I asked, trying not to seem so thrilled.
“Not exactly,” she said.
She’d driven sixty miles into the desert, she said, but she couldn’t go any farther. She wasn’t ready to go back, not yet.
I put out my hand but didn’t touch her for fear that she might fade away. “Is this real?” I asked.
“I don’t think I like reality much anymore.”
© Mark Townsend
Morning light caressed her face, and shadows of leaves danced on the walls. Through the open windows the scent of honeysuckle floated into our room. As she slept, I gazed at her naked body, which was graceful and willowy, as if an extension of her hair. Then I noticed that my own body had changed since the woman with hair had entered my life. Normally stocky and tense, my body now seemed to reach the end of the bed, and my hands and feet were more relaxed. It was as if I were growing, stretching outside of myself.
“I adore you,” she said when she opened her eyes.
“Marry me,” I said suddenly, surprising us both. I’d never proposed to anyone before, and when she closed her eyes, I was sure I’d done it all wrong.
When her eyes opened again, I saw that she had something to say.
For six years she’d been living with a man, she told me. At first they’d been a couple, but over the last two years he’d become more like a brother. They shared a large house and had separate bedrooms. They did things together; they did things apart. They loved one another, but she wasn’t in love. The man understood and accepted this. Their life together was so comfortable that neither felt the need to move out. She’d resigned herself to having a companion who would always be there, but who would never want or need more.
From the moment we’d met, she’d begun to feel her life was madness; it was all turned around. She hadn’t expected ever to feel this way again: like a woman, a lover. Now she wasn’t sure she could go back.
“So you’re leaving him,” I said.
“It’s not that simple,” she said.
She told me she was afraid not to go back. When she slept, she had visions. Things that happened in her dreams later happened for real: Bombs exploded. Buildings collapsed. Cars and planes crashed. Ever since she was thirteen, disasters had appeared first in her mind, and then on the news. Until recently, the victims in her dreams had always been strangers, but for the past year she’d had dreams about him. The man she lived with was a fireman, and night after night she dreamed of him dying alone on a mountainside, calling for help, and she would run or drive faster to get to him, but she was always too late. She was going back, she said, because she feared he would die if she stayed with me. I pulled her close, thinking I might be the one to die if she left.
After that we didn’t talk so much as hold one another and breathe. I knew time was running out when the scent of honeysuckle started to fade. When it was gone, we walked to her car.
“I love you madly,” she said.
But you’re leaving, I thought.
I started to tell her I’d wait for her, then realized that was the same as saying I would wait (and maybe hope) for another man’s death.
“Marry me anyway,” I said. “Keep living with him, and come to me when you can.”
“And you don’t think that would be strange?”
“It is what it is. We could elope tonight if you want.”
“You have no idea how wonderful that sounds.”
“Think about it.”
She nodded, then told me she had to leave and might have to stay away for a while.
I said OK, but didn’t ask how long it might be.
Our kiss was a shared breath. We held it for a full minute, and she smiled as our lips slipped apart. It wasn’t until she drove off and I glimpsed her hair through the rear windshield that I realized her smile had been an odd one. A smile that seemed to conceal dark thoughts. A smile, I decided, that may not have been a smile after all.
I didn’t see her for months. That fall was a season of weeping trees and creeping hours. I went to work, but I wasn’t there. I felt invisible, yet also exposed. I watched clocks, counted minutes. Day after day I sneaked away from my desk only to realize that I had nowhere to go. I escaped from one door only to return through another, like some absent-minded professor who keeps forgetting his hat. By Thanksgiving the receptionist had grown weary of my constant comings and goings and had stopped saying hello.
I didn’t see the woman with hair, and yet she was everywhere. I would find strands of her hair in strange places: my refrigerator, my coffee, my soup. At times I even found her hair in mine. It was as if the strands magically appeared. Once, I pulled off the road to remove a strand from my mirror, and an out-of-control truck barreled into my lane, narrowly missing me. Were it not for her hair, I would have been killed. I got off the freeway and took a walk to calm down. When I came back, a parking ticket beneath my wiper blade flapped in the breeze. I considered fighting it by throwing myself on the mercy of the court: Your Honor, I would have been killed had it not been for her hair.
She finally returned on Christmas Day. She’d called the night before to set a time, and in the morning I rose early to clean — not because my apartment was dirty, but rather to make time disappear.
At noon she arrived carrying two pale blue mugs she had made herself. I couldn’t help but be encouraged by the fact that there were two. I remember how hopeful I felt as we drank from those mugs. I pictured us living on an organic farm where she could fire her own clay pots and I could raise sheep. All I wanted was for her to stay so we could be one of those couples with matching sweaters and mugs.
As it turned out, she could stay just an hour and had other things on her mind. We kissed only once, and there was no talk of the future. We didn’t talk much at all really. Mostly we drank tea and held one another on the couch as we tried not to cry. Then, just before leaving, her green eyes started to tear.
We had shared seventeen nights. Now she was gone.
Four years later I found myself alone again on Christmas, having just ended things the night before with an Argentine woman who’d come to me on the rebound from a bad marriage. She’d fled after opening — and being disappointed by — my gift. She’d been expecting an engagement ring. After she’d torn away every last shred of wrapping paper in a mad search for diamonds and gold, she threw my present (a mohair sweater) into the fire and stormed out swearing she’d never speak to me again — but only after telling me, in both Spanish and English, exactly where I could go.
I didn’t go to hell, as my Argentine ex suggested. Instead I moved to the southern tip of Africa, because it seemed like a good place to escape failed love and my old shattered self. It was also the most distant point on the globe from LA. Soon after arriving, I settled into a small village near the Atlantic. And for the most part I’ve been content, living alone, far removed from my past. I own a cottage with an immense view of blue water, white sand, and wide-open sky. The sight and sound of birds early each morning is a tonic that protects me from feeling too alone.
These days I’m a consultant. Because of the time difference between here and LA, I work mostly at night, when I might otherwise think and worry over things I can’t possibly change. Mine is a solitary life. I am the only American in this village, and yet I don’t miss my countrymen, with their massive cars, their fast food, their insatiable need to consume and possess. If I’m in a shop and I hear an American accent, I’m careful to keep quiet until that person has gone.
It’s a wonderful thing not to have to sneak down stairwells during the day. It is also wonderful to have the first hours of daylight to walk on the beach. Lately I’ve been gathering driftwood and have piles of it in my garage. So far I haven’t done anything with the wood, but one day I hope the right idea will come, along with a strong dose of strength and resolve. For now these lost fragments of wood are like pieces of a puzzle yet to be formed.
I never again saw the woman with hair — not in the flesh, anyway. For almost a year I had visions of her when I slept. Nothing bad ever happened in my dreams, unless you count the time all the hair was shaved from her head. Lately the dreams have returned, and I sometimes wake from sleep wondering if I’m expressing a subconscious desire to return to a place that can never again be my home. Sometimes, to fend off these dreams, I try to stay awake.
Of course the trouble with not sleeping is you find yourself making desperate deals with the man upstairs. When it’s dark and cold and you’re weary, you find you are willing to lower your sights. Sometimes I convince myself that I might be able to find and be contented by regular love with a regular Sally with regular hair, a woman for whom I won’t feel the mad passion of youth and to whom I won’t propose by blurting out, “Marry me,” one morning when I’m swept away by honeysuckle and the previous night’s moon. On especially cold nights I stay under the covers, envisioning my regular Sally and me living in a regular house, working regular jobs. Even our wedding would be regular, taking place one fine summer day with violins and vows and old ladies weeping. Eventually we would have children — two daughters, perhaps — to raise and protect. College funds would be started, music lessons arranged. Evenings I’d read stories to our girls while my wife soaked in the tub. Years would pass, and I’d prepare my girls for what monsters lurk in the outside world. Of course I’d want the best for my daughters. I’d want them to immerse themselves in fulfilling jobs from which they would never wish to escape. And I’d hope that they would find people to love. I’d want for them a life no worse than mine.
But then morning returns, and I find myself wondering where lives and dreams join, and where they diverge. Daylight is like a wise friend, forcing me to call off any and all deals made with God during the night. But just before daylight I listen to what sounds like geese flying over, geese who honk uncertainly, as if they didn’t know where they were going, only that they must go. Strangely, their indecision somehow puts me back on course and fills me with hope. I am soothed by these geese — soothed to imagine them flying all the way to California, back to LA, perhaps taking up residence in the Hollywood Hills. They will be locals in my old haunt, pursue my old paths, live among my friends. But what I envy most is their splendid luck at each finding one true companion for life. Even after the sun has fully risen, I keep my eyes closed, imagining that there will always be geese in my life. As long as I keep my eyes closed, the sky will be forever filled with geese; and they will fly with sureness and grace, dropping from their mouths single strands of hair that, like lovers whispering promises in the night, always have something wondrous to say.