Love in Bloom

Between 13 and 20, love seems to be what Joyce's Stephen Dedalus would call a necessary fiction. If you're lucky, you learn how to read it. First comes love, then comes marriage, goes one familiar narrative. Before that could happen, I had to bungle other scenarios.

My first misreading, shortly after my bar mitzvah, was of Maria, who lived a few blocks from me in Dallas and invited me over. Because I couldn't trust my own hermeneutical instincts, I brought along the goyish, better-versed Andy to check her out. "If she's fine," I told him, "scratch your head. If she's a skank, then cough." Soon enough, Andy scratched while Maria and I danced, the love theme from Top Gun blaring from her clock radio. Our faces mashed into a soft, sloppy kiss like the ones in John Hughes movies. At just that moment, Andy grabbed me by my mullet and lunged for her. I walked home feeling a mixture of exhilaration and disgust, learning, as my reading of Elizabeth Bishop would later confirm, that the art of losing wasn't hard to master.

Later, Maria called and promised that if I came over after her mom left for work, she would make it up to me. I rode my bike to her house and found her in only a Wonder Woman strap shirt and panties, giggling at a rerun of Family Ties. We repeated our kiss, and though it would be a few years before I learned that history begins as tragedy and ends as farce, I was soon doing a grotesque parody of Byron's Don Juan, kissing her hand before I doused her entire body with saliva. "Gee, you're really horny," she remarked. "You want a blowjob?"

"If she's fine, scratch your head. If she's a skank, then cough."

The question was, of course, rhetorical. She delivered, although I was too young for anything to, uh, come of it. By the end of that summer, she'd garnered a bad reputation and an even worse case of acne. When I bumped into her at the cafeteria, I pretended not to know her.

If Maria was my sexual primer, Julie was a crash course in Greek tragedy. I thought I'd found my Helen, but soon discovered she was Cassandra: She claimed to be a witch, said there were evil spirits living in my bedroom, and gave me my first fuck. Our final scene included an Aeschylean love triangle, a suicide attempt, and a stay in a mental institution. By the time I was 17, I lamented my hubris and fell for a high school choir siren who gave me the purgation I thought I deserved.

"Is that the end of the story?" Christopher Robin asks Winnie the Pooh. "No," Pooh replies, "there are others." A massage therapist, an artist who dabbled in Unitarian ministry, an aspiring actress who claimed to communicate with angels, and a graduate student in sociology who, when I wanted to date another woman, insisted on staying in the picture. "I don't love you for your fidelity," she said before we broke up for good.

"Perhaps they were right to put love in books. Perhaps it could not live anywhere else." These lines from Faulkner were taped outside the dorm room of that other woman. Before I met her, romance seemed little more than a literary genre to both of us. (One of her ex-boyfriends lamented, "I wish I was a book so you'd love me.") Yet when we took a graduate seminar with Harold Bloom, he saw that my love for the woman he called my "Pre-Raphaelite beauty" was worthy of canonical status. "You've done better than any man of your generation," he blurbed. "Not only is she a real stunner, she is wise and good."

One morning she woke up and said, "I just dreamed we got married." "Do you want to do that for real?" I asked. Her answer could have come out of one of those books: yes she said yes I will Yes.

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