Last year, upon reading about her in Mistresses: A History of The Other Woman by Elizabeth Abbott, I bought Lillian Ross's memoir Here But Not Here: My Life With William Shawn and The New Yorker. I thought that perhaps I could learn from Ross how to go about loving a brilliant, powerful, larger-than-life man, to live in a parallel world to the official, recognized, lauded, recognized one, and to do so without resenting anyone or anything. I thought that Ross could teach me some secret that seemed to be eluding me, some way of existing in that crazy world that would allow me to live in that privileged space, to welcome its unconventional nature, to revel in it, even.
I wound up putting the book down, now somewhere buried alongside other book carcasses I've abandoned but that phrase, "here but not here," is one that makes sense to me. I so wanted to be there, to be wanted, desired, special, and I would be lying if I said that I wasn't as certain points. I was, and that feeling was even better than being high. It was its own high, one that, indeed, made me hallucinate. I would look out a window and swear I could see us there, the images so vivid in my head, so bright and alive, I actually experienced disorientation.
The "here" part I didn't have trouble with, when it applied to me, when I got the full force of that attention, got swallowed up in it, at whatever hour, wherever and however it happened. I love it when I was "here," or rather "there," with him. It was the "but not" that tripped me up, that still does, the but not of walking through the cherry blossoms, such an extreme blaring of nature's beauty, the ones I was told were waiting for me. If they were, they were the only ones who were, and the emptiness of that "but not" pulled at me.
I think I put Ross's book down in part because I realized early on that while she may have had things to teach me, none of them were an exact roadmap on how to live that life, how to live with all the "but not"s, the silences, the empty spaces, literal and figurative. The gap between fantasy and reality, between greed and selflessness, between me and her. I was so hyperaware of their "here"s, which assaulted me at every turn, so bright and bold and in my face. So oppressively omnipresent that they couldn't help but overshadow any momentary claim I could make, any foolish, fleeting notions I had about what I could offer. The answer, it turned out, was nothing, and it's taken me a while, and I won't say I'm even all the way there yet, to realize that maybe I couldn't offer a single thing to that relationship, but that doesn't mean I can't offer anything to another one. I kept trying to retrace my steps, to figure out my fatal flaws, the things I could work on to become more solid, more real, more "here."
I will return to Ross's book, to her defiance of all that we're taught to believe we should want, in favor of something so pure it becomes its own kind of "here." What I did take away is her pride, her power, her insistence that they shared something no propriety or judgment could deny. I still want to learn from her example, because I got the loudest possible wakeup call that if I don't grapple with that, if I let the "but not"s crush me, they will. They will make any scrap of momentary comfort, the beautiful devils waiting to welcome me into their open arms, so tempting, so inviting, I will be useless to resist.
The other night I was so over winter that I wore one of my favorite summer dresses, one that ties around my neck, dips low in the front, bares my entire back. I covered it with a sweater that I bought to ward off the chill of another "but not" time, a night when I needed some kind of armor to wrap around me, something warm and soft to play with as I entered into the unknown. Now I wear it because I like the way it hangs along my arm, its edge ending mid-ink so if I angle it right, I can see "art" on my arm. I wear it and try to infuse it with new memories, new meanings, which is what I'm being forced to do with so many aspects of my life in order to move them forward into the future, into the here, away from the "but not." It slipped down my back while I maneuvered around in the passenger seat, the warm air greeting my bare skin for a moment before I pulled it up and I was so grateful to be only there, completely present, no "but"s.
My life seems to be a constant grappling, balancing, weighing of the "here"s and the "but not"s and some days are easier than others. Some days the latter wins out, fills me up with that sense of loss, until that is what I hallucinate, and when I let that loss overpower me, I really am not here, I'm nowhere, in some space that I only wish existed. The good days, though, or rather, the good moments, are the ones I'm trying to focus on, the "here"s so strong and intense and real and solid.