February 20, 2009


When my daughter turned thirty-five—a beautiful startling woman whose mind is full of wonder—she suggested that I look for a man I might have known when I was single: either before I married her father or between my marriages, before I married D. “You never know,” she said, “who might still be single or divorced or widowed.”

That day I counted the months. My daughter was born in February, my sister’s birth month. January, when my mother died in 1990. March, when I turned 63. June, when my sister died in 1993. She was 53.

I am discovering what it is not only to age but to live a decade longer than my older sibling. My sister would have helped through heartbreak. She knew it well. That knowing I have now learned is a gift.

My daughter is a philosopher. For this reason and others, I find her advice worth sleeping on.

I dreamt that I’d taken my first Philosophy class with Jacques Derrida. My daughter is an expert in this philosopher who died in 2004. I was taking the final exam and could not answer a single question. The test was full of quotes from philosophers I should have read but had not and from some I had read but still did not recognize what they had said. The key was to match the quotes with the names, no list of names provided. Others taking the exam seemed to be finishing but I left every question blank with the exception of one guess: Nietzsche, who said, It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.

I am learning the meaning of that sentence and perhaps more important the meaning of heartbreak.

Perhaps I should call j., a man I’d “dated”—I thought he was single—after my first husband and I divorced. I dated D. during this time as well—he was single. And I did call j.

Then I slept and dreamt: His eyes in the dream were cloud-white blue, the color of D.’s eyes. When I woke I knew that that my memory of who he was or might have been was a vision of him but not him.

J.’s eyes are brown. I’d describe those eyes that once electrified me if I could see him in real life, but he had never been totally real. He was not possible. I’d met him before I married D. and fallen madly for him only to discover later to my horror that j. was married. The serial adulterer I’d often write about in my stories, the man I’d always believed had broken my heart before I knew what breaks a heart. That I learned from D., the man I would always love even if I could never be with him again, even if I could never sleep with him again—all the things I was certain of and this from a woman who is certain of only one thing: the meaning of an open heart. And this term “open heart” is one I can’t define. So even that certainty is surrounded by uncertainty.

Definitions are not my strong suit.

In the dream j., an attorney, was on trial and I had inexplicably been chosen to be his attorney. But I had not been to law school. I was patently unqualified but there was no way out. He had been accused of stealing cigarettes kept in cartons in the office of his closet, kept under lock and key so that no one in the office could smoke them. J. used to be a chain smoker and a self-claimed alcoholic (I never believed that he drank enough to be one, but he had a coin in his pocket, a five-year coin he’d shown me that alcoholics carry after being sober for that long). We were in the courtroom. I was trying to figure out how to solve the case. I decided, perhaps because of too much television, that lawyers must be detectives, at least criminal lawyers did. I was only interested in crimes of passion and anger. Crimes of need fell into categories that covered the global realm of the human psyche while crimes of passion and anger were primal. Or so I thought. I was not certain of this or anything but the open heart.

I concluded he was innocent of the crime of stealing the cigarettes because that crime was not one of need—not for him anyway. It had to be a crime of anger or passion against him. I knew he was having an affair with an Asian beauty, a young attorney in his office.

I had learned this while awake—a phone call, a drink with j., the man I thought I’d once loved. And of course he was still married but told me he’d left his wife. Left his wife for someone other than me? How could he?

But, as in the dream, I would defend him.

Open heart, open heart, open heart.

His wife is a beauty in her own right, a beauty whom he said he didn’t love. But what did he know of love? This I was concluding about myself so I say it about him. Most people come to such conclusions through their own clouded lenses that lack the clarity of cloud-white blue.

Nietzsche says, He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.

J. had not joined the Asian attorney though he was still sleeping with her: “The sex is amazing.” That’s what he said when we met for the drink. That was the sort of thing he said out loud while I drank red wine and he drank water, the sort of thing he should say only to the woman he was having sex with, the sort of thing that made me see that he’d not been the one to break my heart, that there is a difference between disappointment and rejection and that irreparable break in the beating organ at the center of our chests and minds and souls—the metaphor for who we are: human and alive: open heart, open heart, open heart.

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