In high school we called them the Jenkins brothers: Peggy and Alice aka Piggy and Malice, twin sisters with grievous acne, lank hair and the highest grade point averages in class. Today, Googled, middle-aged, they’re prettyish and elegant, college professors with smooth skin, expressions suffused with contentment in the life that intelligence led them both through and to. Back then, their (outward at least) indifference to the cruelty their teenage looks evoked suggested that they knew those looks would be a but not the factor in their future fulfillment, that high school would end, more minefield than sinkhole for two who appeared to have lost at what I once heard an uncommonly self-aware supermodel call “the genetic lottery.”
Whenever boasts about bed partners get bandied about and I inflate or withhold my own meager count, I realize I don’t know how sex without love works, how breast to breast and ankles entwined could not breed tenderness. My one-night stands were drunken and few, but I remember a provisional love being conferred upon us by the occasion, one that we neither brought nor took away; it met us there and saw us through.
Looking at old people I don’t see insecurity any more, don’t think of them getting nervous about houseguests or dreading much of anything except death, which makes me wonder at what age the truth of life’s-too-short and it doesn’t matter finally convinces. At fifty, I’m still waiting. Not that I can imagine ever being easy in my own skin, but life keeps tempting me in the person of old folks who shake their heads as if shaking off every damned waste of time. I’m afraid that I’ll get there and regret how much too late my morsel of nonchalance arrived, or that the me that feels that way will feel like a stranger. I’d settle for a morning version of what I’ve lately managed to win for myself before sleep— that is, some progress in the argument that whatever’s accelerating my nerves tonight will tomorrow give way to a new terror, so the whole lot’s wasted worry. Otherwise, I’m resigned to moving through my days as the same emotional wound I’ve always been, unless age earns me the leverage to say fuck that to that as well.
He’s got a story to tell and backs me up against the kitchen sink to tell it as the other guests edge away. Glancing over, my wife must be thinking, poor Michael, he hates these things, he’ll never come to another, while his wife thinks, lucky Michael, getting to hear Larry’s story, touched with the drama of war, lives endangered and lives saved, and I try through careful questioning to abbreviate it, but it’s no use, I’m blown back by verbiage just as fifty years ago he was blown back by enemy fire, until he gets to the part where it comes down to rescue or death. I envy his options.
There’s an argument to be made, and the long married and the mis-married make it persuasively, that love is a mirror, and if what we see does not shine our best self back at us, we’re not long for it— think of your worst first date or the slog toward divorce. I don’t see what’s wrong with someone supplying a view of ourselves that ought to be the way we love ourselves— that gift of reciprocity bears no questioning. Oh, I suppose there exists a selfless love, but it’s hard for me not to think of it as a matter of idealization or patronage. The key to I-love-you- for-loving-me working is if it runs both ways, turning narcissism into mutual regard.
Michael Milburn teaches English in New Haven, CT. His writing has appeared most recently in New England Review, Poet Lore and Poetry East. His book of poems, Carpe Something, came out from Word Press in 2012.