It begins at an outdoor café while you’re working for a month in central Mexico. From one table away, you zero in on his brown forearm, the two black cuffs tattooed around it. You want to touch those cuffs, encircle his arm with your hands. Soon you’ll learn the word esposas, which means both “handcuffs” and “wives,” but today you know only polite Spanish, please-and-thank-you Spanish. You smile at him until he approaches. When he asks if you have a boyfriend, you start to cry and can’t stop. You want to explain something to him — that you loved someone the way a dog loves her owner — but the only available language is snot. He holds a cocktail napkin to your nose. “Blow,” he says. For a second, you think he’s serious. Then you laugh so hard you feel something shift, the way the sky shifts from blue to pink.
His socks never match. His clothes and his dog are splattered with paint. His mother embroiders designs on his guayaberas and does his laundry. At night, he crashes wherever he is — on a porch, on a couch, by the lake in his pueblo. He takes you hiking to see the bursting white moon. He takes you to meet the shaman who can erase your pain with feathers. He takes you to see pyramids and an eagle carved into a mountain. He knows how to build a fire. He knows how to prepare a sweat lodge. He knows how to get people to buy him drinks. He knows how to wrap your hair around one hand and undress you with the other. During sex, he says all kinds of things you wish you understood. By the lake, you get so stoned together he stares at your face and asks if you’re Buddha.
“If I were Buddha, I couldn’t tell you,” you say.
“You have the face of Buddha.” He takes a drag, exhales a cloud, leans back on one elbow. “But don’t tell me. You are right. It is better not to tell me.”
In this poignant, posthumous feature at The Atlantic, Alex Tizon tells the story of his family’s slave, Lola. An utusan (“person who takes commands”), Lola was given as a gift from his grandfather to his mother in 1943, when Lola was 18 years old. Lola worked, unpaid, for Tizon and his family for 56 years. During a turbulent childhood where his parents were out of the house for days at a time, Lola was a constant source of love and devotion for Alex and his three siblings. In this moving piece, Tizon attempts to understand his parents’ point of view and motivations, and reconcile himself with Lola’s life of servitude.
We landed in Los Angeles on May 12, 1964, all our belongings in cardboard boxes tied with rope. Lola had been with my mother for 21 years by then. In many ways she was more of a parent to me than either my mother or my father. Hers was the first face I saw in the morning and the last one I saw at night. As a baby, I uttered Lola’s name (which I first pronounced “Oh-ah”) long before I learned to say “Mom” or “Dad.” As a toddler, I refused to go to sleep unless Lola was holding me, or at least nearby.
Mom would come home and upbraid Lola for not cleaning the house well enough or for forgetting to bring in the mail. “Didn’t I tell you I want the letters here when I come home?” she would say in Tagalog, her voice venomous. “It’s not hard naman! An idiot could remember.” Then my father would arrive and take his turn. When Dad raised his voice, everyone in the house shrank. Sometimes my parents would team up until Lola broke down crying, almost as though that was their goal.
It confused me: My parents were good to my siblings and me, and we loved them. But they’d be affectionate to us kids one moment and vile to Lola the next. I was 11 or 12 when I began to see Lola’s situation clearly. By then Arthur, eight years my senior, had been seething for a long time. He was the one who introduced the word slave into my understanding of what Lola was. Before he said it I’d thought of her as just an unfortunate member of the household. I hated when my parents yelled at her, but it hadn’t occurred to me that they—and the whole arrangement—could be immoral.
“Do you know anybody treated the way she’s treated?,” Arthur said. “Who lives the way she lives?” He summed up Lola’s reality: Wasn’t paid. Toiled every day. Was tongue-lashed for sitting too long or falling asleep too early. Was struck for talking back. Wore hand-me-downs. Ate scraps and leftovers by herself in the kitchen. Rarely left the house. Had no friends or hobbies outside the family. Had no private quarters. (Her designated place to sleep in each house we lived in was always whatever was left—a couch or storage area or corner in my sisters’ bedroom. She often slept among piles of laundry.)
The woman who used to hum Tagalog melodies as she rocked me to sleep, and when I got older would dress and feed me and walk me to school in the mornings and pick me up in the afternoons. Once, when I was sick for a long time and too weak to eat, she chewed my food for me and put the small pieces in my mouth to swallow. One summer when I had plaster casts on both legs (I had problem joints), she bathed me with a washcloth, brought medicine in the middle of the night, and helped me through months of rehabilitation. I was cranky through it all. She didn’t complain or lose patience, ever.
Playing a silly game with myself, I calculated that in 1999 I would be thirty-six years old, which to my then-nineteen-year-old self sounded ancient, dusty as an old record. If I’d had access to a crystal ball, what exactly would I see in my future? Would I be a famous novelist chatting with Dick Cavett on PBS? Would I be married to my college girlfriend Denise and living in Long Island with our badass kids? Or who knows, maybe Prince was on some Nostradamus shit and the sky really was going to turn purple, followed by destruction.
In the real 1999, while the planet didn’t perish that year, for me and the small world I inhabited, it all came to a screeching halt on August 3rd, two months after my thirty-sixth birthday, when I was riding in the back of the ambulance with my long-time girlfriend Lesley Pitts. Lying on a gurney, she was being rushed from our first-floor Chelsea apartment on 22nd Street to St. Vincent’s Hospital, after she complained of a headache and shortness of breath. Leaning over her, I grunted something reassuring.
Jonathan welcomed Leonor’s adolescent children when she introduced them over video chat, and he in turn introduced her to his own children, who are in their twenties. Jonathan also gained favor by not asking for nude pictures or for Leonor to talk dirty with him, as Western men are prone to do with Filipina women they meet online.
As 2017 began, Jonathan and Leonor embarked on their plan to meet in earnest. It’s standard for the interested foreigner to visit the Philippines, because there are no tourist visa restrictions there for Westerners. But because Leonor wanted to settle in the West and Jonathan couldn’t take too much time off work, the pair decided that Leonor should visit England. Jonathan paid for a lawyer to get Leonor a tourist visa, and the British consulate asked her to submit all her personal correspondence and proof she had funds in the bank — most of which Jonathan had given her—to show that she wasn’t just a poor woman hoping to work there illegally. “He offered to also pay for my children to visit England but I refused,” Leonor said. “I don’t want to owe him so much if things do not work out.”
When the New York Times asked authors to share stories of love intersecting with travel, Alexander Chee recalls a summer in Granada, Spain, with M. — his boyfriend at the time — who betrayed Chee at a local hammam. “He thought I wanted monogamy more than him, and I didn’t. And I couldn’t forgive that I didn’t get to choose.”
I liked M. I was having my first summer in Spain and he was good in bed, funny at dinner, smart about books. Enjoying that was not a mistake. Hiding himself from me was. When I eventually discovered the truth, I was more offended that he wouldn’t tell me. He thought I wanted monogamy more than him, and I didn’t. And I couldn’t forgive that I didn’t get to choose.
Some things I remember very clearly from that summer: learning to love the feel of cold red wine in my mouth on a hot day. The beautiful boy on the bus the whole way to the beach at Carboneras from Granada, burning the back of the rubber and vinyl seat with a lighter, but slowly, never enough to catch fire, who stopped only to take pictures of himself on his phone. The man putting saccharin in his fresh orange juice. And the streets paved with stones taken from the river, smooth and shining in the dark, like the backs of fish.
M. can keep his secrets, I told myself then. I have this. That was my bargain. I still think it is a good one.
At Catapult, Noah Choruminates on why his mother, a “symbol of America, the homecoming queen,” was attracted to his father, a “barely-bilingual” Korean immigrant who came to the U.S. to pursue a career in medicine.
I’ve been thinking about how my parents met, and how unlikely it was that my Korean father caught the eye of my stereotypically “all-American” mom. Even now, forty years after they met, a partnership like theirs is still rare. The cutting remarks they heard have not entirely disappeared; queries my mother fielded about my father’s manhood from the white people around them still flicker in shows like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and in films like The Hangover. Korean ahjussis still grunt in disapproval over their sons abandoning Korean blood quantum in favor of people Not Like Them, and therefore inferior.
I never got the full story from my father, who died when I was thirteen. Even before his death, he was a man of few words and seemingly fewer emotions. I have only ever been able to understand their courtship from the perspective of my mother, a white woman in love with an Asian man at a time when a war in Southeast Asia raged and the only knowledge the average American had of Korea were fleeting memories of newsreels, battles of a forgotten war.
Once upon a time, seeing my father in the hospital where they both worked brought her the greatest joy. As the whirring of machines tie him to what remains of his life, he is handsome to her even now—no matter that the chemo has taken his hair and the cancer has taken his weight, his voice, his lucidity. She looks at him, still in love, still seeing something wonderful in his face, but she also knows she has lost him. I see her sitting beside him after the ventilator is turned off, holding his hands the same way she used to during their smoke breaks, saying goodbye. Thinking, Hopely I’ll see you again.
At Harper’s Bazaar, Joan Juliet Buck, a past editor of Paris Vogue and author of the new memoir, The Price of Illusion, has an essay about how her grandmother’s regrets affected Buck’s own romantic choices. As she was approaching her 70s, her grandmother admitted that if she had it to do all over again, she’d have been “fast,” which is to say “loose,” as opposed to being married to one man her whole life. Buck, who came of age in the 60s, considered her grandmother’s regrets and decided she didn’t want to be tied down — a choice that was much more radical then than it might be now.
While Buck was married for a few years, mostly she wasn’t — creating space not only for many love affairs, but also close friendships with men. In her early twenties, Buck met singer-songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen and almost accepted his invitation to join him on a Greek isle. Ultimately she turned him down; years later, the two became close friends. In the essay, Buck admits regretting turning down the initial invitation, and recalls spending time with Cohen, who passed away last November.
I married a fellow journalist, a fine writer named John Heilpern. A script took him to Los Angeles in 1978, and I joined him at the Chateau Marmont, where Leonard Cohen came back into my life. The man whose voice sang what I couldn’t say became a close friend; when John was away, and he was away often, I lay on the bed in Leonard’s room a few floors below ours, chastely discussing the mysteries of love through the night. I found my voice with him. We traded stories and smoked cigarettes; he called it “gossiping about the moral universe.”
After John and I divorced, Leonard became an even closer friend. It had been 10 years since we’d met, and by then we knew each other too well for mutual seduction to work. It was richer to examine love together than to play at it; this was the complicity I’d been waiting for. I did my game of being fast with other men; Leonard fell in love with other women, most deeply with the photographer Dominique Issermann. Now we could stay up all night talking: in New York, on the floor of his suite at the still-shabby Royalton Hotel while his children slept next door; in Paris, where I lived in a garret to finish my second novel. Sometimes we discussed his broken heart, sometimes mine. He’d consider all the evidence, and conclude, a little too often for my taste, “He doesn’t love you, sweetheart.” He’d leaven the verdict with a cheery, “It’s all a vale of tears,” and off we’d go somewhere dark to eat something Japanese.
I, soaking in the bath, O on the toilet, talking, talking about what he’s been thinking and writing — short personal pieces, for a memoir perhaps. He had brought with him two pillows to sit on and a very large red apple. He opens his mouth wide and takes a gigantic bite. I watch him chewing for quite a while. After he finishes, “Bite me off a piece,” I say. He does so, dislodges the apple from his mouth, and puts the piece in my mouth. We keep talking. I add more hot water. Every other bite, he gives to me.
There is a quiet moment and then, seemingly apropos of nothing, O says: “I am glad to be on planet Earth with you. It would be much lonelier otherwise.”
“Wait, so your ex called your boss and tried to get you fired?”
This is me.
This is Andy. We are on a break from German class, 15 minutes between the future tense and the subjunctive. He’s from Baton Rouge and I’m from Seattle, but we’re speaking German, for practice. We are not very good.
“Er ist ein … Fucker,” Andy says. “He told my boss I was reading ebooks at my desk instead of working—which I totally was.”
“So, did you get fired?” I ask.
“No, my boss already knew I was a super shitty employee. But then I called up my ex’s boss and got him fired.” Andy’s former boyfriend is in Amsterdam; he’s a mechanic. A few months ago he told a customer that her car was totaled, bought it off her for a few hundred euros, then sold it the next week for two thousand.
“Es ist nicht so gut,” I say, my German failing, as always, to reach the correct level of emphasis. We are both going through breakups. It’s been a week since mine and six since his. This is what we talk about every day, 15 minutes at a time.
Two weeks ago, Andy’s ex visited him here in Berlin. They had dinner, then sex, then Andy asked him to leave, told him he shouldn’t sleep over now that they’re not boyfriends anymore. Three days later, the cops called. His ex is filing charges for attempted murder. He says putting him out on the street in middle of the night in February is an act of violence. Andy has to be in court next week.
What we did was talk. For six hours, we talked about our feelings for each other, why we love each other, how we love each other. We talked about what we felt when we first met, how our emotional connection grew and deepened, how we might deepen it still. The best way I can describe it is that we were transported emotionally back to our relationship’s early and most exciting days, to the period of our most intense infatuation, but with all the compassion and depth of familiarity of a decade of companionship. We saw each other clearly, loved each other profoundly, and basked in this reciprocated love.
The feeling lasted not for hours or for days, but for months. Actually, the truth is, it lasted forever. We’ve done the drug since, every couple of years, when we feel we need to recharge the batteries of our relationship. Though the experience has never again been quite so intense, it has been a reliable method of connection, of clearing away the detritus of the everyday to get to the heart of the matter. And the heart is love.