Dear Lily June,
Sacred in my mind is the person you first give your heart to. That is the person who shapes your life as it were made of clay, the one you will find yourself stalling for months on bringing up to your daughter (if you have one) because there is so much–probably too much–to say. For me, this person was a guy I’ll call Brett. The memories of his time in my life will always be multiple meanings of the word tender.
In some respects, I do wish I had waited to meet your father before beginning on any love journey (be it of the body with Nathan, the mind with Eddie, or the heart with Brett), but that isn’t the reality of what happened. I know that if I met your dad before the others, I wouldn’t have been ready to give him my soul. When I was with Brett, I was crazy. And the sure bet for how I know that was the case was that, back then, I was so certain I was sane.
I thought I was fine when I most certainly wasn’t fine. And I fell for Brett in part because he didn’t seem to see how not fine I was, and fell for me anyway. I knew that kind of love was built with all the fragility of a ceramic’s body, just as I knew my love with your father was built to last because he not only knew how not fine I was–he wasn’t fine either–but he accepted what wasn’t okay in me, what was still so jagged and raw, without trying to force me to feel or to be better.
Learning to heal and humble myself alongside your father, just as he learns to do the same with me, is going to take a lifetime’s worth of lessons, every day, in every small affection and interaction. But that, my darling, is a love story for another time. For as long as he’ll have me, your dad has my heart’s plot from now until its ending. But once upon a time, there was a very amateurish beginning…
There are many techniques in use for throwing ceramic containers, although this is a typical procedure:
It’s hard to know quite where to begin, especially since you weren’t born in the 1980’s and probably won’t get my references. (Thank you, Internet, for preserving everything forever?)
Brett was a combination of what would happen if you crossed the body type and dark, crude humor of Kevin Smith with the defiant attitude and complicated wardrobe of Judd Nelson’s character in The Breakfast Club, John Bender.
I’d met him through friends of friends several times, but when he started writing for an underground magazine I was editing, I paid attention. He wrote a poem based on a Kevin Smith movie I hadn’t seen at the time, Chasing Amy, and I partially fell for him when he loaned it to me and I fell for that movie.
It’s funny because near the start of the film, the main love interests, Holden and Alyssa, are chatting over a game of darts when they notice that a couple is making out on the hood of a car belonging to Holden’s friend, Banky. Holden says that he respects that kind of affection; Alyssa says that it isn’t love, it’s fleeting. That single word being The Daily Post’s prompt of the day, I could help but remember the scene before anything else, and it triggered an avalanche of memories.
If anything, with my first “boyfriend,” Nathan, we’d had that rush of passion that burns through itself like fire through the head of a match. We had been fleeting. But with Brett, things had been different. We’d started as friends–the kind who just loan each other movies. How could I have known there’d be such foreshadowing in the scene when Holden confesses to Alyssa the feelings he’s slowly been building and harboring, especially when, like Alyssa, I was in an impossible situation. While she was gay, I was dating another guy when Brett pulled something similar to this on me:
The friendzone wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
A round, moist lumpy clump of clay body is thrown at a wheel head or a bat attached to it.
I was a poet, and Brett was a potter. It takes a particular kind of high school rebel to pursue a dead art, the kind who isn’t hunting down sex or wealth or glory. A sonnet and a vase are not, Lily, electric guitars. Our respective chosen mediums were instead ways to vent our angst into twisted lines and spinning clay, to channel our WTFs and FTWs into something beautiful for beauty’s sake.
Sure, I might revise until the poem disappeared from the page; and he might take a pot he’d thrown and throw it to the ground, shattering it into useless shards. But those felt like concrete metaphors, somehow, for the social meat grinder high school runs you through, trying to turn you into something palatable, consumable, on the other side. We felt incorruptible. It was one of our first mistakes.
And how could I resist his romantic entreaty when, instead of speaking it, Brett had written his case into a note he’d stuffed into a vase he’d handmade, carved all around with this Shakespearean sonnet:
The lump or clump is made even and forced to the centre of the wheel by applying pressure with the hands.
We started by flirting with disaster: I’d give him a kiss if he beat me at a certain video game (he did so I did); he’d take me to a dance if I wore full-length gown and corsage to school all day (I did so he did, although I cheated by wearing the dress under the enormous JNCO jeans I owned at the time which were large enough not just to have smuggled my formal wear underneath, but also to hold all the dance decorations in the entire gym).
Eventually, I broke it off with my rebound guy, Eddie, to devote myself to Brett-worship full time, losing a number of friends in the process. (It was a bad time, and if you learn no other lesson from your mother, Lily, I’ll reiterate it again: Never lose yourself so completely to one person–love interest or otherwise–that you’ll abandon every other shoulder you’ll need to cry on when that kind of dangerous isolationism eventually and inevitably lands you alone.)
A relationship built on the back of another is risky enough, Lily, but I had stars in my eyes, falling for everything that Brett loved. His favorite band being Smashing Pumpkins, I listened to them endlessly to the point where I couldn’t sleep without them becoming the soundtrack to my life. (That I loved Ani Difranco was largely ignored or occasionally tolerated by him at the time.) I believed, as the band told me to, in Brett each night:
His interests, after all, were always cooler than mine. He took me to all the quirky venues in Pittsburgh, introducing me to strange acts like folk-goth singer Voltaire,
or local hip-hop duo Grand Buffet, the members of which he was cool enough to smoke with after their sets, at a time when, with my Cinderella curfew, I was expected to be back home:
On the whole, though, even if I was less varied in my pop culture tastes than he, and better versed in books and poetry, we were members of the same weirdo class together, and rejecting the river of school spirit and popularity that flowed through our senior high meant clinging to each other more desperately like one another’s life rafts.
When you add that I was Brett’s first, sexually, and that I was the first to confirm a love for his body that he’d never experienced mainstream, it meant that I held as much sway over his opinion of himself as my opinion of him held over me.
With but a gentle pressure being applied, I would eventually become an empty vessel Brett could fill with bits of himself, and I let him fill me willingly. Lily, despite the feminist that I always thought I was, I am ashamed now to say how much of myself I let fall by the wayside. It was one sure sign that this relationship wasn’t meant to be a forever love.
The thrower finds the centre of the clay by moving a thumb across the lump until no more friction is felt.
Though Eddie had introduced me to the comics world, Brett was obsessed with none other than my favorite comic character even before he seconded it, Batman. Over the years, I would pay hundreds to slowly ink this image into his arm:
Brett thoroughly initiated me in (or indoctrinated me to?) all things Dark Knight, making me start with the classics like The Killing Joke and Year One before moving on to stuff at the time that would have been more modern.
It is from those lessons that I learned this quotation, spoken by The Joker:
“Remembering’s dangerous. I find the past such a worrying, anxious place. ‘The Past Tense,’ I suppose you’d call it. Memory’s so treacherous. One moment you’re lost in a carnival of delights, with poignant childhood aromas, the flashing neon of puberty, all that sentimental candy-floss… the next, it leads you somewhere you don’t want to go. Somewhere dark and cold, filled with the damp ambiguous shapes of things you’d hoped were forgotten.”
While it’s hard to remember now, it was Brett who was with me as I went through the hell of diagnosis after diagnosis in my early college years. As a freshman, I was practically living out of his basement despite paying for a dorm room where my hair fell out in patches. And a year later and half-bald as a college sophomore, I ditched the dorm altogether and moved in with him full time.
From there, there are things more painful to remember, like the fact that he was at a strip club with his buddies the night I got the diagnosis of interstitial cystitis, explaining the neverending pain I’d been experiencing in my bladder. I never thought, as a strong, independent woman, I would tolerate such behavior from the man I called mine.
And I did, indeed, treat him like a possession, Lily. I used to demand he jump through hoops to prove his devotion, scolding him for not reading everything I wrote online; aching when he didn’t call me by certain times. My obsessive-compulsive personality disorder was rearing its ugly head before I even knew I had anything wrong with my mental health, or what to call the thing that was wrong with me.
The friction built and built until I can imagine we were like the two guys in the joke delivered in the comic above by the Joker:
“See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum…and one night, one night they decide they don’t like living in an asylum any more. They decide they’re going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moonlight…stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend daren’t make the leap. Y’see…y’see, he’s afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea…He says ‘Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!’ B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says… he says ‘What do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was half way across!'”
We were both a bit nuts, Lily, though I couldn’t tell you, between the flashlight holder and the building crosser, which of us was which.
The thumb is pressed into the centre of the lump, stopping about 5 mm from the wheel head. The hole thus made is widened.
From there, we went on to really hurt one another. When our younger siblings both–his sister and my brother–got engaged to their respective partners after being together years less than we had been (five in total), the gap between us grew wider and wider. He told me he wasn’t ready to marry; I heard that he wasn’t willing to marry me.
The sides thus defined are pulled up and made thinner by pressure between the hands.
I stretched the sides of our relationship further by moving to another state for graduate school, where I could study poetry, something he wasn’t really even into, exclusively. I didn’t mean to, Lily, though I would eventually end up studying your father there, too. I wanted someone to want the same things I did–and that meant the marriage and the family that Brett just wasn’t ready for. I don’t know, even if given more time, that he ever would have been ready for that with me.
The vessel is shaped, and the mouth is smoothed.
And so, I did the only thing I knew how to do, given that I lived hundreds of miles away and didn’t want the pain growing between us to get any harder to bear. I made a clean break. I told him in no uncertain terms that it was over. I told him I expected, once I left Pittsburgh, to miss him and that I hadn’t. Of course it was a lie, Lily, one as painful for him to hear as it was for me to utter. I refused to cry until the phone was hung up, and then, I didn’t know whether I’d ever stop. Or want to eat. Or sleep. Again.
The poet Lord Tennyson was only able to say,
“‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”
because he had clearly never fallen in love with his best friend.
The vessel is cut from the wheel head with a cheese wire and left to stiffen.
In any love story where the parties are no longer with one another, you’re getting a hardened version of what they must have been together, Lily. There were times when I introduced Brett to things I liked and he shared my interests, despite the fact that the pattern usually worked the other way around.
He could make me laugh so hard; he held me often when I cried. He made me feel beautiful and loved and wanted in a time when my own family felt like it was shattering. Once, I called the police on my own father and fled because, in an alcoholic rage, he’d strangled his then girlfriend at the time in front of me. I was terrified to go back to my dad’s house the next day to get my things, afraid he’d attack me, too, but Brett took a Louisville slugger and carved the words “The Cops” in it. “Don’t worry,” he joked to lift my heartbroken and horrified spirits. “We’re taking ‘The Cops’ with us.” I got my stuff without a hitch.
But those kinds of moments, with the pain and the sweetness mixed, are the hardest of all to remember. A memory like that is like a ceramic chunk of a shattered vase with petals of the flowers it had held still clinging to it. You don’t know whether to look in awe at the lost beauty or just sweep the whole mess from your mind so you don’t end up getting hurt more on it.
The vessel is dipped in glaze, fired at incredible temperatures in a kiln, and once it eventually cools it will be ready to use.
Lily, you may find your first and truest love are one in the same person. You may find that neither of you is a vase at all but a field of flowers growing wild and limitless. Here’s the trick, though: You’ll know it’s the right person if you don’t grow apart over time, but are instead able to grow together.
For Brett and I, we were better friends than lovers. We wanted different things over the course of our lives, though I have since heard that he found his own true love and married her. Believe me when I say, Lily, that I still want him to be happy, happier than I knew, with all my issues, how to make him at the time.
I am grateful for the lessons he taught me about who I did and didn’t want to be, about how I did and didn’t want to treat your father. In that sense, the vase was complete and always will be. But pottery was never my art. I fell in love forever with the man who made my life not a vessel to carry, but a poem to recite.
And of the many words your dad and I have shared between us in the lines that make that verse of our relationship up, one of the most important ones we’ve ever uttered is “Lily.” May you find your own art, niche and love in this life, daughter dear. And may they all three remain vulnerable but unbroken.
- All bolded text comes directly from this Wikipedia entry on a “Potter’s Wheel.”
- Moore, Alan. The Killing Joke. Burbank, CA: DC Comics, 1988. Print.
- By Enora Gandon, Reinoud J. Bootsma, John A. Endler, Leore Grosman – Gandon E, Bootsma RJ, Endler JA, Grosman L (2013) How Can Ten Fingers Shape a Pot? Evidence for Equivalent Function in Culturally Distinct Motor Skills. PLoS ONE 8(11): e81614. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081614, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29944372
- Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17253253
- Original file placed on DC’s site for promotional purposes., Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2872092