When I Saw His Essence

I walked home alone. Thirty-five city blocks in high heels. Guess What Happened Next?


What is it about him that you like so much? “ people ask.  I try listing his good qualities:  humor, kindness, warmth, intelligence. And yet, that isn’t it. They are words I used to describe a feeling that words couldn’t quite capture.

‘I resigned myself to not knowing. “ I can’t really tell you. “ I answer.

He translated a book I used as research for a project. I had written him about collaborating and we agreed to speak on Skype.  The camera on his computer didn’t work, neither did mine; so we just talked. His voice was warm, and embracing. I liked him but thought little of it.

When we found ourselves in the same city, we agreed to meet. The only image I had of him was a photograph. He was sitting in a chair, wearing a fedora, his back to the camera.  Beneath the hat, his hair was long and silver.  He was in town for a conference so I approached a group of men in the lobby thinking one might be he.  They all knew him but not how to find him.

I retreated to a table with a view of the ocean and a glass of wine when I heard his voice, “Ms. Livingston, I presume? ”

I saw his image in the window as he approached. Phew! I wasn’t attracted to him. Though there was that moment as he walked across the room when a current of electricity shot through me. But it was just an instant and I dismissed it.

We agreed to work together on the project. Trust came easy. Indeed, he frequently remarked just how easy. For months we wrote or spoke daily.

As planned, he came to visit to discuss the project. I found a place for him to stay at a friend’s apartment. We took her to a jazz club as a thank you. “ It was uncomfortable being with the two of you, “ my friend later told me. “You were both so intense. You either loved or hated one another; nothing middling.”

When we left the club, they walked off together. He blew me a kiss.  I envied her.

I walked home alone. Thirty-five city blocks in high heels. A friend from the neighborhood passed me on the street. I smiled.  ‘You look like you’re in love!’ she exclaimed.

I was startled by the observation, unmoored by the feelings. I hadn’t planned on  them and now I couldn’t rein them in. They had a life of their own. And there were consequences. The easy trust, the laughter, the comfortable confidences were freighted in ways they hadn’t been before.  Because now I wanted him.

The details aren’t unique. I yearned to be close to him, he retreated.  He sensed this and drew me back in. “When it’s all there, it’s over,” he told me once.   Funny, I thought, not for me. When it’s all there, it’s just beginning.

I was honest and told him how I felt, thinking the earth might swallow me whole. “You never really know what people are thinking,” was his response.    He dabbled in infatuations with married women, recently divorced women, women in distant climes.

Still, he’d insist, “ I can’t talk to anyone the way I talk to you.” Later he wrote, “There will always be something strong and deep between us.”

I bolted, more than once, determined to protect myself. My past had its demons too. But lessons demand to be learned. And until they are, attention must be paid.

I visited him in the southern city he called home. One summer night, standing by his wooden dining table with its fiery orange bowl full of lemons and mangos, the light  in the room changed without warning. I looked at him sideways even though I was standing close enough to feel the heat from his body.  He was talking, earnestly engaged in something that didn’t involve me. He was perspiring a bit. His hair, what remained of it, was still long and silver. His nose was sharp and surprisingly small for his face.

Suddenly, his features began to dissolve. Shapes, once distinctive, lost form and density.  The light in the room shifted again, softening. I had noticed earlier that his arms weren’t as muscular as when we met. The light in his eyes, not as bright.  All of it blurred until there were no distinguishing features at all.

A man past 60 without the rewards that by right were his due by dint of intelligence and charm, talent and will.  A complex man, confused by life and possibly lost but still curious. Still vibrating with vitality and sensuality.

The sharp edge of his nose, the contours of his belly, the arms no longer firm, the hair no longer thick and lustrous; the image of who he was – male, broad, strong—was gone. In its place was something else. Something other.

Luminous and without form, I had seen his essence.

I knew then that I loved him.  Pure. Direct. Unmediated by the facts of his life or mine. By history, failures, successes, unrealized desires. Free of expectation or the need for validation.

So, this is love, I thought. As if I arrived at a destination I hadn’t anticipated but found beautiful.  No pounding hormones or adrenalized yearning. Just one human heart beating uncritical witness to another. It didn’t matter how much he earned or what he wore.  Whether he was tall or thin or without self doubt.

He never invited me to love him.  And he may never love me in return.  It doesn’t matter.

What’s invisible is truer than what the eye can see. I had always known this but misplaced it somewhere in my personal annals of loss and disappointment.  How nice to be reminded.

Lesson learned.

When I Saw His Essence

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