November 27, 2013

Jessica Jacobs

THE DOUBLE IMAGE

“I, who was never quite sure/ about being a girl, needed another/ life, another image to remind me.”
—Anne Sexton, “The Double Image”

I was invited to Hannah’s party by one of her friends, a woman I thought I wanted until I saw Hannah. Her summer house was a stunner, all wood and glass, prowing its very own Hudson Valley hill. “Her other place is a condo in L.A.,” the friend said proudly, as though knowing Hannah granted her equity. “Mary’s heading back there next week.”

“I’m shooting a documentary,” Mary added, leading us into the house.

Mary was Hannah’s girlfriend, yes, but that didn’t stop me from looking at the woman leaning against the knife-scarred kitchen island: Hannah was my height, blonde hair only glancingly tamed—the word leonine came embarrassingly to mind. Her skin glowed against the white of her men’s dress shirt, sleeves cuffed to reveal toned forearms and hands so large they seemed to belong to a woman a foot taller. She looked not only like someone I wanted to know, but someone I already knew.

As Van Morrison’s “Moondance” blared from a room off the kitchen, she handed me a beer and half a pot brownie from a neat stack of them on the counter, and walked me into a room flanked with floor to ceiling windows, dominated by an antique postal desk. In its center was a manuscript. I was about to ask what she wrote but, then, there was Mary, squeezing the back of Hannah’s neck as though corralling an errant pup, leaving with the presumption she’d be followed.

On our way out, Hannah behind me, I reached up as though to stretch and did a quick pull-up on the doorframe, my arms strong from a season of climbing. Even then, I knew that move was more fourteen-year-old boy than what I was, a nineteen-year-old woman, a girl really, awkward and more serious than my years. I wanted so badly to impress her.

* * *

Jessica Jacobs Rock ClimbingSix years earlier, at a summer camp ropes course with a pine tree laddered to the top by small boards, I was introduced to climbing. I made my way up, crying as I death-gripped the brusque bark, crying with every scuffling movement toward the top, until my tears were snuffed by an adolescent epiphany: I’d been terrified and embarrassed the whole way, but I’d made it. The next time I did something that frightened me—and the adrenaline thrumming my body insisted there’d be a next time—I’d keep that fear to myself, find a way to use it like fuel.

Obsessed, I returned home to the flats of central Florida, pored over climbing magazines, and began to swim and lift weights. Two years later, Orlando’s first indoor rock gym opened and I talked my way into a job, cadging climbing road trips from patrons and staff whenever possible. It was the only sport I’d done that pushed my body to failure, where I’d commanded my hand to grip something only to watch it spasm open instead; felt my leg pump wildly of its own accord, Elvising my foot off a ledge. In a life privileged with safety nets—supportive parents, top-shelf education—with climbing, my safety and survival were assured only by what I brought to it. It left me bloody-kneed and bruise-dappled, exhausted as I was exhilarated. But, from it, an image took shape: a self-reliant woman who not only didn’t avoid the things she feared, but sought them out.

That was what I was doing the summer I met Hannah: living in New Paltz after my first year of college, working in a gear shop, trying to stretch myself to fit the outlines of that ideal.

* * *

In the living room, Hannah bent over a small stereo and, from the speakers, another voice joined the fray.

Music pours over the sense, it graveled beneath the din, I mean it remembers better

“Anne Sexton,” she said, a beat before I could.

I nodded and breathed, “I know,” too softly for her to hear, took a long sip of beer that made my head eddy and purl. Anne Sexton: beloved poet of my angsty childhood, the first to make me feel there might be a place for the kind of life I wanted, one driven by passion and poetry … The night I came I danced a circle and was not afraid … I was handed darts and threw them in quick succession, each striking like magic. “Brava!” Hannah cried from astride Mary’s thighs … So it has come to this … Mary stood, spilling her to the floor … The business of words keeps me awake … the friend’s lips were suddenly on mine, my back to the wall, enveloped in her pressing weight, insistent bass, and the words, Hannah and Sexton chanting together, I am drinking cocoa, that warm brown mama.

I pushed my way outside, breath coming in shallow pulls. The heat had finally broken, the air laced with the summer scent of apples and sour of spilled beer, with strains of music from inside. Drunk and high, what could I do with this world I’d stumbled into, one of assured older women who were everything I wanted—to be and to be with. And Hannah. I’d known I wanted to write as long as I’d known I preferred women. She seemed to have already lived out the life I’d imagined.

“Where are you, kid?”

She appeared in the doorway, clutching an armful of long-sleeved shirts, the others behind her. Garlands of lights came alive in the branches. “There you are.”

I reached for a shirt from the pile, but she handed me the one she’d been wearing earlier. We all sprawled in a circle on the lawn, twinkling trees hemming in the night’s prevailing surrealism.

I took the moment to finally ask what she wrote. “She’s our famous neighborhood screenwriter,” the friend answered. While she named the films, Hannah crooked an arm over her eyes and said, “You haven’t seen them. They’re kind of obscure.”

* * *

My boyfriend in high school was a sweet, gangly boy. This was the dial-up era of the internet, before instant access to online queer communities, before Madonna kissed Britney to sell albums, before straight women gloried in saying they’d be gay for Ellen. The one out guy at my school had his ass kicked often enough he transferred. There were no out lesbians, and I wasn’t willing to wait for intimacy until one made herself known. So came a string of disposable boys. So came the boyfriend, the last and best of them. We spent our days biking and wakeboarding, easy access to water one of the few perks of living in Florida; our nights watching movies and having sex—if and when I felt so inclined. Three months into our relationship, the night he told me he loved me, I told him I was gay.

“But what does that mean for me?” he asked, face buried in his hands. “For us?”

“Well, I mean, I care about you and think you’re attractive.”

I paused, not really knowing how to finish a sentence that lamely inadequate.

“So I guess it means we can stay together until I leave for college.” And can date women, I added silently.

How I had the nerve to say this to the face of a poor boy who had just confessed his love is beyond me, so I’ll blame it on the lingering effects of too much Ayn Rand. But, as I was his first, in love and sex, he accepted this meager offering. Together for my last two years of high school, in contrast to the cynicism I’d bricked up to guard my differences—liking girls, liking sports, reading the OED for kicks—he was so kind, so ready to be surprised by what the world and I might offer him. I had moments of wondering if I were making a mistake, if being with a man might be easier, might, eventually, be something even approaching enough.

Then a TV movie kept me up until the small hours. A woman who did everything expected of her—married a man, had kids, held down a household but no job—suffered a breakdown and “went away” for a while. Upon her return, she fell in love with her children’s nanny, her feelings culminating in a rain-drenched kiss that made my stomach ache and hollow. By the end, she found herself but destroyed her family. Watching her movie-husband weep as he repeated over and over, “But I love you so much,” I cried with him. I saw the hopeful look on my boyfriend’s face each time I moved against him, the resigned, downward-eyed acceptance when I more often moved away, and vowed to myself I would never do that to anyone.

That was Hannah’s first film.

* * *

On the way out, I remembered I was wearing her shirt. I began to unbutton it, but Hannah reached out and stilled my hand. “You have an honest face. I’m sure it will find its way back to me somehow.”

The next morning, I drove to the mountains.

Climbing is, by necessity, a clarifying act. Think about anything other than the task at hand and there is the very real chance you will fall, be injured, possibly die. Yet with each move up the rock, with the burr of sediment and slick of quartz, I was distracted by how her broad palms might fit to my back, how her hair might trail my skin as she kissed her way down my stomach.

That day, self-reliance was a piss poor bet.

* * *

Two weeks later, Mary was gone and Hannah invited me over for dinner. Afterward, in the study, as I reclined in a white wicker divan, she drew her chair against it, brought her knees to her chest and tucked her toes beneath my thigh. I tried not to startle at her touch, tried to seem more experienced, more sophisticated than I was.

She asked about my family, what I wanted to do after school. Traced for me the outline of her life: farmed out to boarding schools at twelve; drove to L.A. at the bequest of a girlfriend (who promptly dumped her the day she arrived); worked in restaurants and slept on couches until a friend suggested she turn a short story into a screenplay. I watched as much as I listened. Her strong jaw and cheekbones as she leaned in an out of the light, eye color alternating between the shadows that haunted the corners of the room and that narrow stretch where ocean meets shore, sunlight refracting through the blue.

Pressing her shins more firmly against my leg, she told me she’d finished a novella the day we’d met. Its protagonist was a girl just out of high school—an idealized version of herself at that age. “That’s why I was so startled when I saw you, like I’d written a character so real she’d come to find me. The whole night, I watched you and, each time you talked, a part of me protested, ‘But I didn’t write that.’”

Then she took my hand and pressed it to her lips, her breath pooling in the hollows of my palm. I brought my other hand to her cheek and that was all it took. In a swift movement, she knelt above me, mouth sealing mine. Nearly twice my age, she knew exactly what she wanted, while I simply knew I’d never desired anyone or anything so badly. With boys, I’d kept myself at a remove, in a place of cool observation. With her lips to my neck, I was completely present, open. If she wanted to think she created me, fine, I could go with that. I traced her back, her face. Her skin, lacking the factory-sealed smoothness of girls my age, was instead weathered and pulled taut by years and experiences I wanted to understand. Eyes closed, I ran my hands along her body with the same concentration I brought to the rockface, awareness in my fingertips, feeling my way toward the next best hold. Could she feel that? I held her as though letting go would be the same thing as falling.

* * *

My real climbing education had begun only months earlier, when I met Carl, a man with big-wall, Yosemite experience. He practiced the old-school method of placing and removing anchors in the rock as he went, climbing with only what he carried. I apprenticed myself, belayed as Carl led, dutifully followed him up each route and retrieved the gear he’d left behind. On our last climbing day of that season, we stood midway up the route High Exposure, far above the treetops. Autumn blazed at our feet. Beginning up the second pitch, Carl fumbled at what local climbers had dubbed “The Move”: with left hand clinging to the underside of a massive stone shelf, feel blindly behind with your right to grip a ledge, then let your feet cut away into space, all your weight suspended for a moment from that single right hand.

After ten minutes, I began teasing him. After ten more, in a moment of teenage bravado, I said, “Come on, Carl. I could lead this one.”

He looked at me, face sheened with flop sweat, and said simply, “Fine.”

Retreating to where I stood, he lifted the gear sling from around his shoulder and hung it over mine. It was heavier than I’d expected. But that old epiphany was an exhortation to finish what my words had begun. I scrambled up the short slab and thrust my hand beneath the shelf, knowing if I paused too long, fear would have a chance to effect its heavy paralysis—the promises we make to ourselves often the easiest ones to break. With my other hand, I groped back and around until I had a lip of rock flush against my palm, a rough edge firm beneath my tensed fingers. Closed eyes. Deep breath. Letting go. Then out into the air, one move closer to the person I wanted to become.

* * *

I spent nearly every night at Hannah’s place, parking my car out of sight to avoid word getting back to Mary. It was an arrangement I didn’t question—I wanted to be with her; she wanted to be with me; we were together. Perhaps I thought that was what it meant to be an adult: to take from life what I wanted, when I wanted it.

She bought a small television and VCR. When rainy days kept me from the mountains, I lay in her arms and watched films like Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence and My Life as a Dog. Her commentary through each was equal parts fangirl, technical observation, and masterclass.

Nights, I’d perch on the stool she’d bought for the kitchen so I could sit with her while she cooked, breathing in the heady scent of slow-roasted garlic and red wine whisked into simmering sauce. Cooking was something I’d previously disparaged as “girl stuff,” a fact she found unacceptable. “Anyone who’s smart and creative can cook,” she said, sliding a pan of pine nuts into the broiler. “There’s power in being able to invite people into your home and create an experience—for them, and for you.”

By the end of July, when daylight hours had begun to recede and breezes now and then pierced the summer heat, I led her along the gravel carriage road, where cliffs towered above the trees. She threw her head back in childlike wonder to take them in, just as I’d done to look at skyscrapers my first time in New York. Watching her made my chest hurt.

I spotted the split pine that marked the turn-off to Easy Overhang. At its base, I helped her into the harness and shoes I’d borrowed from my shop, went over the climbing rudiments I’d demonstrated earlier with a rope slung over a branch in her yard. Then I pulled off my shirt and finished my preparations in shorts and a sports bra. I was proud of the body I’d built that summer—the new definition in my arms and back, the deep brown of my tan. I thought then that I took her climbing because, after all she’d shared with me, I wanted to share something, too. But I see now I also did it to show off, to let her know there were areas in which I was the one who had knowledge and power.

Halfway up, she kissed me nervously, but said she was happy she’d come.

Jessica Jacobs #2Yet sixty feet up the next pitch, just as I lost sight of her beneath an overhang, I heard a garbled string of words lost to the distance and wind. I called down, leaning out to hear. All I could make out was, “Can’t.”

A climber appeared on a nearby route. “Your mom—” He saw my eyes narrow and started again, “Your friend’s kind of freaking out. I don’t think she’s going to make it up.”

I down-climbed as quickly as I could, an act far more difficult and dangerous than ascending, especially because, in my cocky self-assurance, I’d worn sneakers instead of climbing shoes. I found her wedged against the cliff, as far as possible from the edge.

On the drive home, Hannah said she figured the scare was caused by the vertigo she sometimes experienced. She said this in an attempt to make me feel better, but it just made me apologize more—even though she hadn’t mentioned a word of vertigo before I’d led her, and myself, away from the safety of the ground.

* * *

Mid-August, we walked from room to room, closing the storm windows. Having grown up in Florida, I’d never done this before and marveled at the weight of the extra pane, at the way the shuttered rooms—defined for me by their airiness and light—felt immediately stifled.

The next day, we stood outside in the cool morning air and kissed goodbye, Hannah on her way to L.A., I with a long drive to campus. I watched her in the rearview and remembered a few things I’d forgotten at her house. But I didn’t bother turning back, knowing I’d see her in Boston that October and spend the upcoming millennial New Year’s Eve with her—in New York or L.A., we hadn’t decided.

* * *

I started classes; she broke up with Mary. There were nightly phone calls, an exchange of letters. Then it was October. My fall break. I picked her up at Logan and we spent a night in Boston before heading to Cape Cod. Pulling up to the massive, marbled entrance of the Four Seasons, I tried not to gawk. She guided me through the steps of turning my keys over to the valet, even handed me a buck to tip him. The next day, she settled the bill: one night and room service, $500. I thanked her politely, as I’d been taught to do as a child when a friend’s parents took me to dinner, but sensed she wanted me to make a bigger deal. I’d been raised that it was rude to talk about how much you’d paid for something, but the deeper truth was I had no idea how expensive that was. It was the first time I’d been to a hotel with anyone other than my parents.

From the city, we made a quick pilgrimage to Anne Sexton’s house. We sat idling on her street, staring at the garage in which Sexton killed herself. “That crazy old kook drove these roads,” Hannah said, more to herself than to me. A strange diversion to begin a romantic getaway, but one that felt writerly and important. As with most things she suggested, I went with it.

Driving the meandering arc of Highway 6, she told me about college summers spent in Provincetown shucking oysters, working on a whale watching ship where the announcer had a pronounced lisp (“Look starboard and you can see what was once called a wight whale!” “Why did they call it that when it’s black?” “Because it’s the wight whale to kill!”), and dating like a fiend.

We parked and walked Provincetown’s main drag, which was thronged with middle-aged women in loose jeans and cableknit sweaters, with men whose ensembles ranged from burly lumberjack to spangled Speedo. A hot girl seemed to be on every corner. It was the gayest place I’d ever been. Weaving our way through, she continued telling stories. Half-listening, mesmerized by the crowds, it occurred to me that if we stayed together, I’d never have the types of summers she described.

This thinking only deepened during our week there. Removed from the protective bubble of her house, precocious as I might have been, I was still nineteen. Countless cultural references flew swiftly over my head. I was moody. She was tentative. I sensed I was entering a time in which I would be free to make bad, fun, wonderful choices; in which I would be too naïve to do anything other than expect the world to give me what I wanted—and so sometimes it would. But no matter how troubled I was by how staying with her might change and restrict me, the thought of losing her was still far worse.

Listening to a band our last night there, one of Hannah’s friends mentioned she liked the drummer’s shirt. Hannah, being Hannah, walked onstage in between sets and asked the woman for the shirt off her back, waving a twenty. The woman agreed. Show over, the drummer ignored the friend who’d been flirting with her all night and walked to where Hannah sat on a bar stool. She peeled off her shirt, revealing a filmy tank top beneath. She stood so close she was nearly between Hannah’s legs, and asked how long she’d be in town, if she wanted to get a drink sometime. All this despite the fact I was sitting there holding Hannah’s hand. It was as though I were too young to even be seen, let alone accounted for.

Back in our room, I fumed over the way I’d been treated, about how things couldn’t go on that way, until she pulled me into bed and surprised me by agreeing. Stunned, I lay beside her while she ended us, saying things like, “You’re nineteen. You need to be with someone your own age, and I should probably be with someone closer to mine. You’ll miss so many things if you’re with me.”

I curled into a ball, sobbing and not letting her touch me, though her touch was all I wanted. Despite my own doubts, I met that moment with complete disbelief. It had somehow never truly occurred to me that the future I had imagined for us might not play out.

“But I love you so much,” I said, ashamed to hear the movie-husband’s words leave my mouth. Yet I couldn’t help but add, “And you said you loved me, too.”

She took a long breath, her hand hovering above my shoulder before saying the words that marked the end of both my long-held romanticism and dreamy adolescence, “I know. That’s true. But sometimes that’s not enough.”

I drove her back to Logan the next day, dropping her off a full four hours before her flight. She kissed me and I tried to be stoic, forcing myself into the car, pulling away without looking back. A mile down the road, I caved: took the next off-ramp and sped back to the airport. Sprinting to the information desk, I asked after the flight to L.A. My doubts were gone. I was going to find her, along with the words I would say to change her mind.

In those pre-9/11 days, an unticketed passenger could go right to the gate. Suspecting she’d found an earlier flight, I ran for it, getting there just as the final passenger was boarding. I stood, hands curled into useless fists as the jetbridge door closed. I knew Hannah was on that plane, unquestionably, but I still went and looked in every wing of the terminal. I was right, though. She was on it. I never saw her again.

It’s the kind of thing you can’t put in a story because no one would believe it.

* * *

What I did not know as I drove back to school, weeping as though a family member had just died, was that upon graduating I’d write a letter that began, “I’m not even sure if you’ll remember me at this point …” and she’d write back a letter rife with questions and exclamation points and then never write again. I did not know that, for years, having learned just her outline, she would be for me Proust’s transparent envelope to the nth degree, a vessel into which I could imagine whatever was lacking in my partner of the moment. Or that I’d one day look out at a classroom of eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds, unable to see them as anything more than smart kids just past childhood, that I’d struggle not to question her too much on that score, attributing what happened between us to a beautiful fluke, a midsummer’s night kind of a thing.

I know now, through friends, that she’s married, that her wife is beautiful. But, still, I wonder if Hannah ever thinks of me.

I do, of her. Not as a long lost love—not anymore, but because during that summer she helped me find a way into my life, to not just imagine and plan, but to act. Images from that time stay with me, indelible. Like the night the summer’s final full moon rose above the cliffs and I returned to High Exposure. Full-moon climbing was a local tradition and, in full observation of that tradition, I climbed wearing nothing but shoes, a harness, and a headlamp. For the first fifty feet, my visibility was limited to the headlamp’s thin beam of light, making the surrounding trees and sky seem vast in comparison. The rope trailed down to a ground I could soon no longer see. Topping the treeline, the moon finally found me and I snapped off the light. The rock glowed gray-green, flashing with traces of quartz. Each hold was still warm from the day, redolent with the rich smells of earth and pine. I could hear only my breathing and the faint music from a hillside home. It seemed just minutes before I reached the first ledge.

Pausing to re-secure my harness, its heavy waistband dug into my bare hips, my thighs, making me aware of all that was left uncovered. But unlike my first time on that route, as I climbed toward The Move, I felt confident and strong. I reached back and caught the wide lip of rock, released my left hand, and swung into darkness. Bringing my left hand up to partner my right, I hung there for a moment and looked around. The moon was so big it looked like it could swallow the sky. I heard Sexton’s voice, that moon too bright forking through the bars to stick me with a singing in the head, and felt the air sheathe my skin. I thought of her then, of how being with Hannah allowed me to glimpse a future in which words mattered, in which a life with a woman was possible.

Then I pulled in my feet and began to climb, wishing every moment could be half as real as that one.

__________

Jessica Jacobs teaches literature and writing at Hendrix College and University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She received her MFA in Poetry from Purdue University, where she served as the Editor-in-Chief of Sycamore Review. Her poems and essays have most recently appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, CALYX, Rattle, and The Los Angeles Review. (jessicalgjacobs.com)

Photos of Jessica Jacobs courtesy of author.