It hadn’t occurred to me beforehand that when you go out for Chinese food in Montreal, your fortune cookie will be in French. But there it was (and still is, tucked inside my wallet from just a few nights ago):
“Something sparkly is in your future.”
Sparkly. It’s the word I use to describe a crush⎯the effervescent, fluttery feeling in your stomach, the extra boost of energy, the anticipation, the sense that your vision seems more vivid and crisp than it did yesterday. The world itself dazzles, becomes a place of hope.
I have a tendency to confuse inspiration and attraction. It all gets mixed up in the “sparkly” category. That’s one of the reasons traveling to a new city is so exciting: the sense of limitless potential, the unfamiliarity that’s intriguing, yet slightly frightening. Wanting—no, needing—to explore. To discover. It’s like having a crush on a place.
Then there’s conference travel, which involves converging on a single hotel with a couple thousand people who spend their days thinking about the kinds of things you do (e.g., the Renaissance Society of America). Only in such conditions can you fall into a conversation with a friendly lady on the Montreal city bus, only to learn that she studies Byzantine-era Cyprian altarpieces, and has a million ideas about the significance of Shakespeare setting Othello in Cyprus. (You happen to know a few things about Othello and Cyprus, too.) In your parallel reality, the one that only exists in your head⎯and in scattered North American cities a few weekends a year⎯riding the bus is always this magical.
The future can be sparkly, but the past has a way of taking on a crystalline quality, as well. I’m not talking about nostalgia, nothing so banal as that, but instead the realization that certain moments of your life could not have turned out any other way⎯moments that, even though you may have been too nervous or sad to notice it at the time, were perfect.
So, conferences, intellectual affinities, travel, and crushes. For me, the best one was another inaugural trip to a French-speaking city: New Orleans.
Several years ago, a breakup left me feeling ragged and incomplete, like I was missing a limb, with no idea how to proceed through the world as myself. I felt compelled to tell everyone I met, “No, you don’t understand, I used to have two arms.”
It seemed like a miracle to make friends who hadn’t known me in my former life. For so many months, music didn’t sound good; food didn’t taste good. It seemed like nothing would offer basic human pleasure ever again. Then I met them: gorgeous, hilarious, charismatic, whipsmart Southern girls, with a thousand enthusiasms to share. All of a sudden, I found myself picking up the phone, mixing festive cocktails, going to midnight movies. No tears in sight. Of course I got this mixed up with attraction. It was hard to keep your eyes off them⎯they looked kind of like this:
My feelings were troubling. Inappropriate! I told myself, listing the reasons my crush should not have been taking up all my mental real estate. After all, these girls were:
1) Identical twins
3) Nineteen years old
4) My students
(Looking back now, I see that I had ranked the list exactly backwards. Gah.) So I kept the crush to myself, and simply felt grateful to them for bringing me back to life.
Around the same time, one of my best friends died. He was only forty-three years old. It was acute alcoholism that got him. He concealed it pretty well. I saw him growing frail, but he stayed his basic self⎯cracking wise, buying too much crap from QVC, zipping around the neighborhood in his white Mini. He rebuffed all inquiries about his health⎯“Never tell a gay man he’s not looking well!” (He had long worn his louche lifestyle as a badge of honor. Several years earlier, he had completed the Minneapolis-Chicago AIDS ride with an ashtray Krazy Glued to his bike’s top tube, chain-smoking all 400 miles.) God, how I loved him.
John bled out in his apartment⎯at night, in excruciating pain, alone.
All he could talk about in the last weeks was a vacation he was planning to New Orleans. The culminating event would be a dinner at Brigtsen’s, his favorite restaurant. I must have heard a course-by-course exegesis of every Brigtsen’s meal he’d ever enjoyed, until it assumed mythical status in my mind. He had called to announce his visit, he told us. The chef was expecting him.
(Dinner with John could easily take four or five hours, what with the cocktails, the appetizers, all the tall tales, and going back into the kitchen to meet the chef. We always had to meet the chef. At one of our favorite places we’d always lamented that the main course left us too full for dessert, so one night we went and ordered nothing but desserts. For about three hours. This guy devoured life, with countless outsize appetites.)
He was already dead by the time his vacation week rolled around. I was going to be in New Orleans for a conference. Some of us decided to fly down and keep his dinner reservation.
Spring 2004. Even though it was early April, the night felt humid. The open streetcar provided a welcome breeze as we glided down St. Charles. A light evening rain glistened on the asphalt. Stray Mardis Gras beads from a few weeks before still hung from the magnolias lining the avenue. Our mood was a mix of revelry and grief, both for our departed friend. I had been in conference paper sessions all day. It had been completely cerebral⎯this bathwater night was purely physical.
At Brigtsen’s, upon our explaining who we were and why we were there, the hostess gasped and ushered us back into the kitchen, where the chef wept for John and promised us a dinner worthy of his friend’s memory. I glanced over to a framed photo on the wall. It was the twins⎯the ray of light in my recently dark life. More like a lightning bolt.
“Hey, I know these girls. They’re friends of mine.”
The chef swooned. “You know [The Gorgeous Twins]?! They waitressed here all through high school. They’re family. Oh, it makes me glad to know they have people in Chicago.”
And just like that, we were their people, too. We belonged. The room was hardly big enough to hold all the love.
How to tie up all these connections into a neat conclusion? Not sure. But I can tell you, based on past experience: keep your eyes open. You may not see it coming, it may speed past you in a blur, but something sparkly is in your future.