Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Suit Yourself

I'm attached to this identity, perhaps because I can't detach myself from the familar pain it brings me. You know that passage about the toothache? Well, I'm the sort of person who doesn't mind having something to focus on. I remember it well. I was meeting you in the City for that movie Suture of all things -- by the directors of The Deep End, interestingly -- and, because it was at the Lumiere, decided to take the cable car up California Street. And I was in agony.

It must have been that tooth that ended up breaking into tiny pieces on a Heath bar. The break itself happened right before I gave my first conference paper, the one on noise where I was on the panel with Jonathan Sterne and Josh Kun. I kept probing the emptiness with my tongue as I drove through Illinois, further west than I should have been and wondering how I would manage on no sleep. When the news came on the radio that the speedskater who kept losing had finally won the gold medal in his final race I cried. I almost never cry. But I cried that day.

Sitting here in Houston, the hours I have to wait unfurling like a sleeping bag pulled from its stuff sack, I realize for the first time that the tooth must have had something to do with those tears. You see, I'd already turned it into a metaphor. At the time, I hadn't yet read passage or any of the commentaries on it. Maybe I had understood something of that talk in the Maude Fife room, when I was flush with all that vodka from upstairs at Larry Blake's and crammed into a narrow space by the rear door, right next to the Graduate Chair. I'd been out with Greg, Seth, Kristin and others. Danny and Jen, perhaps. Or Mauri. perhaps even Fred.

It's a blur. I was so happy to be included, finally, without Annalee having to be there to legitimate my belonging. So I drank more than I should have and paid the price of having to stand next to a professor who wanted to exchange ironic facial expressions with me, when I was simply trying not to fall over. And yet, that may have been the perfect way to take in the talk.

I'd been there once before drunk, for Annalee's poetry reading with Tom Clark and Gary Soto. That time Hummer had brought in a bottle of something -- Jack Daniels, I think – and we'd passed it around until I could barely tell what was happening up front at the podium. But it's reasonable to assume that some part of me wanted that sense of oblivion, the distance between myself and that world of graduate school I hadn't yet decided to enter artificially enhanced by our naughtiness.

I know, I know, you're wondering what this has to do with you, with us. I guess I'm just trying to show you that there were decisions even then that left their mark on my body. I don't want to be dramatic about it. But the same burden of choice I feel now was already descending on me like one of those giant balloons from the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, a confusing mass of risk and absurdity. I needed to cut my way out, somehow, yet ended up cutting my way in. Where was I? The tooth. As the cable car headed up Nob Hill the pain was so intense that I could barely see. I had no idea how I would manage to sit through a film.

"Especially a European film," John Waters just added. The thing is, it wasn't a European film, even though it felt like one. Here's what I need to convey. As I walked up Polk to meet you at that café, I was telling myself not to say anything about my tooth. You could tell something was wrong. I made faces sipping my tea. But I didn't confess my situation. And that's why I'm thinking about that day, the strange reversal of black and white in the film, the role that pain plays in confirming one's sense of self as I sit here across from a Starbucks in George Bush International Airport. I didn't really understand the concept of suture back then. Sometimes it confuses me even now.

What I'm starting to realize, though, is that the term provides a way to think about the way I relate to myself through my feelings for you. Or not. I could go on forever without getting any closer to the point. Still, it helps to recount, to check my sums. We saw Suture in 1993. That was a hard time for us. But there were good things too. Your Dennis Cooper interview. My piece on Seattle, which was the one where I found my voice. Our trip to Glacier and Canada. Those day trips to Marin and Sonoma. One great concert after another. The movies.

I think it's easier to remember pain than pleasure. "History is what hurts," as Frederic Jameson writes. In spite of that, we have the dates to remind us that there was good to go with the bad, if we try to see past those points of injury. I still have a hole where my tooth was. Until I started writing this, I hadn't thought about it for years. I just ran my tongue over it.
Tags: autobiography, love, memory, nostalgia

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