Artful Living

Source: Ryan McGuire/Gratisography/wikimediacommons

Annie emails me in the middle of the night with an update about Lenny.  He is back from the poetry slam in Quebec.  She really likes him, and so has sent a message via Messenger, since that’s what he prefers, laying out her feelings for him. 

As I’m reading her email, I find I’m holding my breath.  Annie’s account of her life, or perhaps her life itself, is artful.  There’s plot, including dramatic conflict: she wants him, and he is remote.  There’s character development: a financially poor but emotionally rich improv comic and a Yiddish poet.  There’s setting: the bustling college town where they live, and their various forays into cities.  There’s point of view: Annie’s first-person narrative crackles with humor, quivers with questions, erupts with emotion to further the plot and deepen the characters in her life. Throughout, there is Annie’s artistry: she temporarily withholds information to create suspense; she ranges from elevated diction to quaintly old-fashioned idiom; she fleshes out sweet, engaging, but not-quite-fully-present Lenny.

Her email tells the next chapter.  Lenny has been back for a week, and Annie hasn’t heard from him.  No big surprise: this is how Lenny is, enthusiastic and focused when they are together, and then utterly absent when they aren’t.  Annie tells me that after waiting a full week for him to follow up on his promise to contact her when he got back, she decided to end her agonizing anticipation and message him.  And because she really likes him, and really doesn’t like the silence, she decides to be frank. 

She sends me the message she sent Lenny yesterday.  In it, she declares that she really likes him, she knows that they have a strong connection, she wants to spend time together, and she feels awkward messaging him without reply.  With humor that is so quintessentially Annie, she tells him that if she is bothering him with her messages, and if for some inconceivable reason he isn’t interested in spending time together, it would be good for her—and for him—if he would tell her so, and she will desist.  “I want to be someone you want to hear from, not someone whose name on your screen makes you cringe.”  As I finish reading the message she has sent, I find that I want to coat Annie in chain mail to keep her safe.  She has made herself so vulnerable: what will Lenny say in response? 

Annie ends her email to me by saying, “I think I went pretty far in the soul-baring ending.”  I agree to myself. “I hope I won’t have embarrassed him.”  I think it’s possible the message will have had just that effect, and I love Annie for knowing that. “I’m just so tired of waiting and wondering and feeling alone.”  Oh, Annie, where is your armor?

The next evening, Annie forwards Lenny’s reply, with a brief message from her: “Food for discussion!  Talk to you soon.  Annie.”    

I read Lenny’s message with an unusual sense of trepidation, which doesn’t surprise me since I know I feel very protective of Annie, whom I have now mentally coated in steel. I take a moment to wonder if I feel protective of Lenny as well, because she has made him so vivid, so present in our conversations.  But I don’t think it’s protectiveness for him.  I realize, startled, that I feel like I want to protect myself, in that way we do when we’re reading a really good book, or watching a really good play, and are afraid of what we suspect is going to happen. That moment in Romeo and Juliet when we realize they’re going to die.  That moment in Jane Eyre when Jane leaves Thornfield.  That moment in Rebecca when we realize that Max DeWinter is more than a little emotionally stunted:  I don’t want to lose this romance.  Countertransference, yes.  Also, Annie’s extraordinary ability to make her life a work of art. 

“Oh, my dear Annie!” Lenny’s message begins. “It is a very great honor to be really liked by you, with all your wit and sensitivity and humanity. I relish the time we have had together, and I feel bad that I haven’t been more responsive to your queries.”  So far, the courtliness isn’t turning me on, but he’s the object of Annie’s affection, not mine.  He continues: “I haven’t been sure how much to say.  You see, I am still in love with someone I grew up with, who is married and not really available.  We aren’t involved with each other romantically, but my heart remains dedicated to her. Plus, I have always anticipated that I would marry someone Jewish, have a Jewish family, teach my children Yiddish at my knee, all that stuff. She’s not Jewish, either—so that’s another reason it didn’t work out with her, and another reason I haven’t responded fully to you.  I’m sorry, but that’s who I am. I’m also super-busy at work, trying to get a project done before my grant runs out, and I’m going back to work at night to get some quiet time there to finish the project. I want to get together with you, it’s just that I’m really busy making up the time that I was away for the High Holidays and at the poetry slam. I hope you are doing well, and that we will catch up before too long.”

Annie forwards her reply to him, with this comment to me: “I can’t believe I sent this.  I hope he doesn’t think I’m a desperate, forty-year-old woman approaching The Change.  Even though (gulp) I am.” 

The reply reads: “Dear Lenny, Thank you for your honest reply.  Of course, I was sorry to get it, and care enough about you to feel that I need to reply back.  Then I promise I truly will stop sending you messages if that’s what you want.  First, however:  oh Lenny, to be in love with your married childhood sweetheart—that’s so hard!  I was surprised since it seems like such a long time to be focused on something out of reach.  I had a phase in my life when I wasn’t open to dating because I had been hurt so badly, as we all have.  But even as I was in the midst of that phase, I felt time rushing by.  Partly my biological clock, I suppose, but not just that.  Life is short, and it’s better with a loving partner.  Second, I do want a family, and people do convert to Judaism.  I do really like you enough to contemplate converting, Lenny. My Lithuanian ancestors may even have been Jewish for all I know. Third, I think that your working so hard on the project at work, and your feeling you have no time for a social life may be about anxiety, a bit of avoidance because you feel stuck and want to change.  Listen to me sounding like a therapist!  Good gravy!  I guess those years and years of lying on the couch are resonating.  I’ll stop now.  Let’s meet for pie soon.”

When I finish reading Annie’s message, I hear the nearby church bell chime.  It is tolling the hour, and is, I fear, a knell.  Can a man who avoids feelings as effectively as Lenny does respond to that message?  Or is he the one wrapped in armor?

Source: Center for Jewish History, NYC/wikimediacommons


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