Walking around the cemetery where the Black Dahlia’s buried, my friend and I talked about romantic love again. I’d revived the topic with him because it’d been poking me and he is one of the few who can remain earnest and uncynical in the face of themes so large, so muddied, so prone to platitudes, and so unresolvable they threaten to turn anyone trying to talk about them dumb from embarrassment at the ridiculousness of their efforts.
I got to the question right about when we made it to the vista. The bay and all the cities spilling up to its edge lay around us like some cosmic throw rug, but I barely saw it all. With that question in the air, I wasn’t seeing much farther than the inside of my skull.
We both broke out into the hook of Haddaway’s dance anthem, and I pictured Will Ferrell and his Roxbury posse jerking their heads to the beat in their Miami Vice getups (irony made its way in reflexively, but, as usual, sheltered within it was something tender and true and timid). Then, briefly, we were distracted by the turkeys on the hilltop. “Look at the way they walk. It’s creepy,” my friend said. The turkeys jogged their heads forward and back with the vacuity of pigeons, but below the neck they moved with the stateliness of peacocks. “Or maybe they’re graceful,” he said, “I don’t know.”
Turkeys considered, I launched into a jumpy preamble about why the question in the first place. “My parents are songwriters, and they’ve written all these love songs and been together forever. But I know how hard it’s been. And having been with someone now for almost eleven years straight, someone I’ve known for going on eighteen years—almost half my life now—most of these love songs aren’t quite borne out. But we get that kind of romantic love all the time in song and TV and writing and movies. It has so much—to use a crap term—cultural capital. It’s one of the prime movers like sex and greed. Yet when I hear my parents tell some of the stories of the romantic relationships of the people they know, there’s so much shit going down. Real bad shit.” “Yeah, but for some people that’s part of it,” he said.
I felt the ground beneath my unformed argument fall away, and I knew what I’d said about love songs and stories wasn’t right as soon as the words hit my ears. My life had shown these likenesses of romantic love, when they weren’t advertisements for a product (including the work of art itself) or disguises for bogus mores, did get parts of it right, big parts, and, put together, they covered a lot of the territory I’d been through, and more. The few qualities of romance these representations couldn’t get at, mostly because of their inherent limits, were the feeling of duration, the hours slept, the weather together; the touch, taste, and smell of it; taking in a lover—my lover, my blessed puss in boots, with the head of a Roswell Gray and the body of Michelangelo’s David, plus tax—from my physical position, in which what I see and hear hasn’t been engineered by someone else, but is more a fact of my eyes, my ears, and where I move them.
I was coming out of a rough patch with him: a case of mutual moody blues. So, I might’ve been hoping to shoehorn romantic love into one compact definition and disavow huge bands in its spectrum of experience to gain dominion over it. I was tired of being at its mercy and whim.
My friend and I sat down in the shade of a tree, and I changed the course of the conversation toward a special case of romantic love I felt I could describe honestly: “I’ve seen this artist I like, this performer, broadcast his love to a room full of people, and take their love back. His love when he performs is nonspecific—it’s not for anyone in particular in the audience or even the subject of his love songs, whether the subject be real or imaginary, one woman or different women over time—but it’s romantic, even if it’s just the effect of a collection of practiced techniques. Also, the love he makes while he’s performing is coupled to a love that isn’t romantic—except in the capital-R sense or in the sense of being impractical—and is highly specific, a love he can only feel for his art in progress. His heart belongs to everyone who’ll listen and no one at all but creation. And the love he gets back, with its romantic buzz, seems to feed his love for playing. I don’t think I could do that: send my love out to a room of people, and gather up the crowd’s yield. I can only imagine one-to-one. That and hiding under a rock.” I should’ve mentioned, too, that what he offered and could take had certainly benefited from a heaping helping of mother love—mamas, and mamas’ mamas, and surrogate mamas giving their manna. Thanks should be given to all those mothers making the great lovers out there.
My friend and I followed the theme of one-to-many love, touching on teachers we’d had that’d spread their love to entire classes, and polyamory, but neither of these fit the bill of the love of and for this singer during a performance. The first is more like familial love, and the second is usually one-to-one or one-to-few but in succession and, in my opinion, is much more weighted toward the erotic, is clinical and complex in its hierarchical organization of partners, and is less likely to be enduring for all involved.
Anyway, my thoughts were more focused on another enviable ability of this artist. In his songs and his shows, he seemed to sidle up to a skittish, heaving bundle of emotions—his own and those of the crowd—like a horse trainer to a horse, and soothe it into surrender with his quiet authority. Meanwhile, that bundle is still a half-ton, muscle-bound, hoofed beast.
His way recalled for me a teacher I’d had when I was around eleven or twelve. For a period then, I’d adopted my aunt’s obsession with horses. My ever-accommodating, loving mother helped me pursue my interest by enrolling us both in courses in the evolution and anatomy of horses and beginning horseback riding at Pierce College. She’d drive us all the way from Inglewood to Woodland Hills, I think twice a week, and be right there studying with me.
The teacher for the classes was a petite, scarecrow-looking fellow. He had a terse, thin-lipped, half-smile wit. The crow’s feet at the outside corners of his eyes were echoed in the sunburst of sun-bleached folds around the crotch of his jeans. He had not one lick of time for screwups and complaining, but you knew he had a big, bloody heart in that little frame of his, rigid as much from a manly rectitude as from the wear and tear of working with horses.
In the riding class, he exercised total control over the animals, not to mention the students. He showed us how to approach the horses, more from the side or front than from the back, talking calmly, so they could see and hear you coming, and without making any sudden moves, so you wouldn’t give them a fright. He taught us that once you got up to them, it was good to establish contact, steadily, somewhere along the neck or trunk, and keep a hand on them as you moved around their bodies, especially toward the rear end, so they knew where you were when they couldn’t see you. He took every opportunity to remind us that a small mistake—a sharp move or sound—could mean broken ribs, limbs, and backs for us, could mean our paralysis or death. Knowing this, he impressed upon us, you still had to make the horses, whether bridled or not, feel their reins were firmly in your hands.
When he demonstrated all this to us on a horse, the beast’s body became restful. All that muscular power harnessed, in a fragile contract. The teacher’s body, too, was controlled by the dynamic, but his influence couldn’t be replicated by miming his stance and movements. Its source was metaphysical. He was sure.
Once he’d driven home the risks, he tried to build up our confidence that our comparative smarts would help give us the upper hand. He showed us, for example, how a horse will believe it’s tied to a post even if you’ve only thrown its rope or reins over the post without tying it. I could already see the problem, though: if you didn’t believe the horse was tied, the horse might not either.
The students’ freedoms in the class were few. We mostly just curried and saddled the horses, and sometimes we got to ride in a small arena, nose to ass, no faster than a trot above a walk. I itched for more slack, but I understood our constraints: My aunt had taken my brother Paladin and I out riding on rented horses in Griffith Park a couple times. During one of these outings, as I was cantering my horse, the horse tripped on a rock or in a dip and lost its footing for just a few seconds. I could feel its massive body beginning to buckle underneath me. Fear lit me up and split me, shot a sick, sweet electric ache from gut to throat. Then it caught itself, with no help from me but a hope and a prayer, and kept going until I gently pulled back on its reins.
We went about the usual grooming, saddling, and nose-to-ass routine in riding, but for once for me. I got into the good graces of the teacher, because I was an assiduous student not a natural. So, one class, he singled me out to stand at the opening in the corral and make sure the horses didn’t escape.
I was wearing one of the shirts I’d nicked from my mom—either the one dyed to look like clouded sky or the purple-fuchsia ombré with feathers drawn on, fanning out from the V-neck. I put myself in front of the open gate, and waited. Some of the horses stood around and others milled. Gradually, the thrust of the milling brought one near to me. It walked up to me casually and turned its head a smidgen to point its sideways slit pupil in my direction. Then—no fuss, no muss—it leaned its shoulder into my chest and pushed right past me. Most of the rest of the herd followed, without fanfare. There was no need for bucking, biting, or running with me.
I broke down in tears while the others wrangled the horses back into the corral. I don’t remember the teacher scolding me harshly, or even at all. The shame I felt wasn’t because of any reprimand the teacher might lay on me. It was because of what the horses found out about me. What they just knew.
Cover of Irving Berlin’s “I Never Had a Chance”
- I changed the quoted speech in this entry more than I usually do.
- The images are close-ups of two reproductions in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. The first is part of Magritte’s The Key of Dreams. The second is of an advertisement for whiskey.