Good Night, Mr. Knightley

star stuff

Toward the end of that summer Ross asked me to marry him. We had spent the spring and summer together more or less brilliantly, and he had simply turned to me one day in the car on the way home and asked matter-of-factly, “If I asked you to marry me, you’d say yes, wouldn’t you?” His sister was thrilled and started making plans, much to Ross’ amusement and my consternation. We initially thought of being married by a justice of the peace and having a small party at our house afterwards, celebrating with the Ohio contingent over the holidays, but Dottie wouldn’t hear of it. This was the first big social event in the family in a long while, so it wasn’t just ours to claim evidently. “You’re gonna have to stop her,” Ross told his alarmed fiancée. “She doesn’t listen to me.”

Dottie suggested pushing the date back to after Christmas so the thing could be done properly. I felt her meddling excessive, but Ross, seemingly floating on good feeling at my secured presence, presented an uncharacteristically tractable persona on the matter. “Look, we’re not going to do anything we don’t want to do,” he said to me at one point, which I knew was true. Our answers were amenable but vague. They didn’t stop Dottie from harassing us. Being the long-time married woman, the little sister took on the role of older sibling dispensing advice to the two of us.

These were our halcyon days. We used our intimacy as an antidote to the constant splattering from the world’s blood terrors. Against the backdrop of inhumanity we worked against daily, our acknowledgment of each other’s humanity was the key: we were secure enough, we were happy and connected enough to pull the label of “other” off each other and break down that wall. Barriers gone, commonality established, we could indulge ourselves. We stretched the limits during that period in every way we knew how. We made love as two beings of the same star stuff. We are all star stuff, as Carl Sagan would say.  This was sex with a human face.

When I was with Michael, I played “the girlfriend” to all around me; sadly, to him as well. There was no getting out of that box, my motivations automatically suspect, my concerns illegitimate, assigned a whole range of alien attributes whether I possessed them or not. I was seen as an agent of distraction, an extractor of energy, a thief of the important things. Struggling under this burden, I abandoned my femaleness. It was not a commodity held in high regard. But I missed it, the sensuality it afforded, and ended up receiving Michael grudgingly, often thinking of ways, quick on my feet, of postponing sex or avoiding it altogether. I was free to love only in my secret beau ideal world.

This was no longer the case. Once I had earned Ross’ trust, once I pushed open that gate, my true nature was given free rein. The reality of it disarmed him. Contrary to Tyler’s thinking, I didn’t want to fix Ross; I didn’t want to neuter him. Not at all. No . . . that much maligned masculinity . . . I wanted that masculinity, but not some media-driven cartoon version. I feared it was being lost to us, what it meant to be a man, fading out of everyone’s collective knowledge, but it was right there firmly entrenched in Ross, exasperatingly so at times, but I celebrated that fact, a high priestess officiating at the altar of his male sensibilities.

Oh, we had problems, a lot of them. We were both stubborn and strong-willed, and we were not always so nice to each other. We were also always short on cash. Why did I give away all my money to bunch of freakin’ cats, Ross used to ask, only half in jest.

And then there was the issue of securing peace and quiet. To sleep, perchance to dream nice dreams. There were the kids who would, with depressing regularity, speed around the corner of our property in their cars, the issuing bass rhythms of their music pounding so deeply and so loudly it made one’s brain vibrate against the skull, disrupting the fundamental wiring. At night they would ramp up onto the gravel lot across the street from the house, park with their radios booming and make out, looking for their heaven in action and sound. The next day the beach front would be littered with six-pack packaging and the occasional condom. I’d pick up the former; I’d give the latter a wide berth. That was outside.

Inside, Ross struggled for a time with nightmares—dreams of encounters with demons of unrecognizable visages. He would call out in his sleep as he fought to surface from these subconscious battles with the devils within. Jolted awake by his spooky, strangled cries, jerked up disoriented in the darkness, this was unnerving to his bed partner, to put it mildly. Sometimes I would have to shake him for several minutes before he would wake up apologizing furiously, and we never got back to sleep after that. That was our bedroom.

And when people stayed at the house, some of them victims of torture, I often heard them up during the middle of the night—that house at night held a lot of trauma repressed only for a certain amount of time. I didn’t try to imagine what was going on in their heads—the mind not in control of the memories, the brain racing without steering or brakes.

But we were better together; we were stronger, and we were unwaveringly sure of where we were going. We both blossomed in this world of ours—the silly, humorous boy could come out of the grave, wounded man; the strong woman could come out of the shy, overlooked girl. We made several road trips together speaking for HRI, during one eight-hour drive to Washington singing all the Beatles songs we could think of en route. When colleagues stayed at our house, we’d often all cook dinner together—congenially bumping into each other in the kitchen, usually short a key ingredient of whatever international cuisine was on for that night—and sit at the dinning room table (I had reclaimed it for its original use) well into the night, drinking coffee or wine, and talking, talking. We both worked hard, and when one couldn’t handle it anymore and would spin off into his or her own world for a while, the other would take up the slack.

Ross would go out running in the mornings; I was not an early riser. Coming home from his runs in the wintertime, he would bound upstairs, pull off the bedclothes, and throw himself on me, hitching up my nightgown, breathing in and nestling against my body nicely warm from lying beneath the covers, while I squealed and struggled against the sharp air he brought in with him, my face pressed against his frigid clothes. We seldom called each other by our given names anymore; it was always Benny and JJ, names taken from an old cartoon show. Benny and JJ. We’d lie in bed at night, our breathing deep and soft in the stillness. “Did you like that, Benny?” JJ would ask, but ofttimes Benny couldn’t answer because he had fallen fast asleep, and JJ was left to murmur, “Oh, come on . . .” under her breath.

Benny,  you really are the real thing. A confident captain. A wildflower in this modern age: intense, fundamental, pushing up through the earth past the worms and weeds. How did I end up finding you? Having been unlucky with the opposite sex, with oppositional sex, I was continually amazed I arrived here safe and sound. And I knew Ross felt the same. It taught us to trust our instincts. At times it was all hard to fathom. Oh darling, I’ll bend to your every desire; I’ll defend you from all attacks.

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