Nonfiction / Amie Whittemore
:: Ten Scenes of Not Being in Love ::
1. Sitting on the front porch of a dive bar in Nashville with a man on our first Tinder date (he drank rail whisky on the rocks; I nursed a local IPA), two very drunk women approached us. Having heard our discussion about poetry, they asked to buy copies of my book, they asked to bum cigarettes from the man. I walked back to the gravel parking lot and pulled two copies from my trunk, signing them in the dark, amid the cigarette smoke, on the sour-smelling porch.
Two years later, one of those women found me on Instagram and, since it’s a pandemic, told me she painted lines from one of my poems on her window. That man? We went out twice more. He kissed like saltwater, pale and thirsty. Not my thirst. Sometimes we wish each other happy birthday.
2. In college my friends and I were very into Björk, so we went to the art theater twenty miles away to watch Dancer in the Dark. The haunting, tragic film filled me with restless energy, as if the spring air had stuffed me with lilac buds, as if the night had threaded its wings through my ribs. I walked past my favorite coffee shop and a man I barely knew called out to me to join him and his friends. It was the kind of night where you say yes to strange things, so I said yes.
He and I took a long walk around campus, ending at his efficiency on the other side of town. We drank cheap red wine, listening to Mazzy Star, and he asked if he could kiss me. I said yes.
In those days, I wore my hair in twisty buns, like Björk, like hummingbird nests, held together by bobby pins. They fell around us on the bed like metal rain. After a while, his toothy kisses tired me out. It’s late, I whispered, his head pillowed on my chest, and he offered to drive me home.
Home, in the bathroom mirror, I saw he’d left bruises on my neck, my breasts: lilacs unclenching their watery violets. I ran into him once more, weeks later, between classes. He said he still found bobby pins in his bed.
3. The night after yet another Tinder date, I dreamt my date and I were riding in a self-driving car; the dream turned lucid and I made the car fly, told him we could do anything. I woke ecstatic and texted him in the morning. I was in bed with the Sunday Times, my cats. It was June, the air balmy with promises. Sometimes that summer, he’d bite my thigh and leave such brilliant flowers there, blue and crumpled. Sometimes his kisses were black holes I didn’t want to leave. He talked and talked and never asked me anything. The last time I saw him I left a period stain on his sheets and felt embarrassed though I had warned him I had a body. I had a body I could barely control.
4. My first girlfriend asked me if it was important for both partners to orgasm and that’s how I learned I wasn’t giving her orgasms. This made me try harder, though it also made me wilt and turn toward the blue light that streams from TVs left on in empty living rooms overnight.
My second girlfriend called our sex-life “clitorific” at a sex toy party. I blushed. I still feel like someone who doesn’t know how to give anyone orgasms.
5. At his cousin’s wedding, my husband and I were recovering from one of our—I wouldn’t call them fights. It was less that we fought and more that we retreated, like waves at low tide. Still, the moon swung us back again and again; we too often found ourselves on familiar beaches, exhausted and hurt. We kept touching the parts of the other person’s body where the bruises bloomed, crumpled blue flowers.
The priest didn’t mention the riptide of marriage. Only that the bride and groom had found “not the person they could live with, but the person they couldn’t live without.”
For weeks, my husband and I chewed on that phrase, spat it out like gristle. The tide turned again. I have lived without him for as long as I lived with him: six years.
6. The woman I was dating invited me to join her and two visiting friends for a Nashville bar crawl. Their names, occupations, the way they wore their hair: unimportant. They were a straight couple and the woman loved Anne of Green Gables as much as I did. We talked about Anne on the roof, Anne in the woods, Rilla by the lighthouse in her green dress, poor, doomed Walter. The woman I was dating and the visiting man looked at each other, bemused outsiders to an unfathomable intimacy.
Later, at the woman’s home, we kissed on her bed as she tried to talk me into spending the night for the first time. Her friends in the next room, playing with her dog. Something blue haunted her—I imagined a broken kite caught in her ribs. I wanted to go home, to my cats, to my bed. What she didn’t know then is I had learned how not to feel responsible for the sad things I found in people’s chests—torn kites, wilted bouquets. Keys to nowhere.
7. Taking free yoga classes in a warehouse in Portland before Portland was Portland, I met a white woman named Saige. She had short black hair and two perfect circle tattoos on her inner wrists. One circle had a frog inside it, the other something else (a moth?). I was not good at talking to people I desired then, nor am I now, but somehow I invited her over so I could teach her to knit. And somehow I ended up at her house one evening, for supper, where I learned she and her roommates were eliminating processed sugar from their diets. I thought this was stupid (this was before sugar-free diets were trendy) and I led them through a meditation my first yoga teacher taught me. It involves a forest, a lake, a bear. A key, a throat with a stone lodged in it, if you’re me.
We lost track of each other; I moved away. Returning for a visit two years later, a friend and I saw her at the food co-op. I had to look at her wrists to recognize her.
In the parking lot afterwards, my friend said, damn that girl likes you, and it felt like a drought-thick afternoon, where it feels like it’ll rain but it doesn’t.
8. My first boyfriend was 19; I was 14. Sometimes we sat on the couch in his parents’ basement and took turns running our fingers through the other’s hair. Sometimes he drew sketches of my hands or turned us into cartoons. After he kissed me for the first time, my first kiss, which was wetter and fuller than I expected, he told me he loved me and I said it back not knowing if I meant it, which is the same as knowing I didn’t. But I did feel powerful and worthy when he showed me the blue and broken toys he kept in his chest, and I held them carefully as if doing so could mend them. I thrilled knowing no matter how he touched me he could never touch the stone in my throat, the one that hadn’t learned how to sing yet.
9. Some people want your whole hand inside them. Your whole hand. As if you could cup their swallow-nest heart, the mud and weeds of it. As if then nothing would be empty.
I don’t want anyone’s whole hand inside me. I don’t want to put my whole hand inside anyone else.
10. Two days before the pandemic shut everything down, I went on a first date with a woman. We visited the Frist Art Museum, where an exhibit inspired by the Voyager Golden Record was on display. Images and sounds were pressed onto the record for the aliens so they could understand what it is to be a human on earth, the blue and salt of it. The music quietly played, the images flickered in a dark room. I love the golden record and the woman let me go on and on about it.
Over dinner, she asked questions. Over dinner, I handed her a piece of the gray stone I carry inside, and she handed me a cloth fox in need of mending.
After dinner, we walked in nervous time-stretching circles until we passed our cars twice and had to admit the date had ended. She gave me a succulent. We hugged. We pulled away from each other, the desire to kiss lingering in the air like the promise of rain. I thought about pulling her toward me, making it rain. I thought there would be more time.
She ghosted, or perhaps more aptly, the pandemic’s thick gravity kept her far from my shores. I listened to the songs the aliens might be listening to for days. Sometimes I look at her paintings on Instagram and her palette echoes something inside me—the lilac and blue of them, the green spring of them. The rowdy, manic pink. Something bright inside of me calling out, reminding me of what I want.
From the writer
:: Account ::
At the start of quarantine, I found myself feeling both lonely and with more time than I usually have. I often think about writing creative nonfiction but get intimidated by the scope of it; as a poet, I feel much more comfortable working with a few hundred words rather than over a thousand. This means I often have to trick myself into writing a personal essay, usually by making it as much like a poem as possible.
I have read many lovely vignette-driven essays by writers (who are also often poets) and have long felt the form might get me over my fear of creative nonfiction. Works like The Crying Book by Heather Christle and Julia Cohen’s beautiful lyric essay “Geniuses of Love: To be held at arm’s length is not to be held at all” served both as maps and lighthouses for me—offering both direction and assurance.
I also, in my quarantine loneliness, found myself thinking about past romantic encounters, how some of them held a lot of emotional heat but were not actually moments of love. The moments catalogued here all occur on love’s peripheries—outside it, after it, before it, alongside it. Through writing this essay I have found that these boundary waters have taught me something about how and why I love, what factors can lead me into love’s strong currents or nudge me back to shore.
Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press, 2016). She is the 2020 Poet Laureate of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. Her poems have won multiple awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and her poems and prose have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Nashville Review, Smartish Pace, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She is the reviews editor for Southern Indiana Review and teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.