Stephanie Danler: On Losing Something Precious
Of Talismans and the End of Love
For a certain kind of woman, her biography is in her jewelry. I am aware of women for whom jewelry is an accessory. Their trinkets are purchased based on trends and are retired at the end of a season. I’m not talking about that kind of jewelry or that kind of woman. This woman is the opposite of superficial, as she over-invests her objects with meaning. A woman who wears talismans. From them, she starts to believe there are things irreplaceable.
* * * *
I was in Mexico for a wedding, in that prestigious enclave called Tulum with its baby powder sand and echoes of Bushwick and Silverlake. I don’t usually drink tequila. It was a wedding where the bride and groom were so in love that the ground glowed. Where clouds gathered as the ceremony ended and everyone danced in the rain, sweating, the humidity plumping away our fine lines. The last my friends saw of me I was running towards a dark stormy sea to swim. They knew I was alive later because I liked a slew of photos on Instagram.
It was one of those nights that bled into one of those flights the next morning. I’m a terrible flyer and I fly all the time. But when they announced that it would be a bumpy take-off from the hellacious Cancun airport, I doubled down on my Xanax. An hour later I was in tears and paged the flight attendant to my seat, ding, ding, to tell me that I wasn’t going to die. “Being in the air isn’t the most dangerous part of flying.” What a fucking answer.
The two ladies next to me wore matching sequined hoodies from Señor Frogs and were passed out. I cried silently in the window seat, hands braced in front of me. I couldn’t read, I couldn’t listen to music. My wrists were seizing up. The only thing I had left was to organize my purse. Receipts, mints, Nars lipsticks. I’m still alive, I said, sweating, look at my tools for living. I opened my jewelry bag that I always carry on in my purse. I wear eight rings, some stacked, on a daily basis. I’d done my best “beach causal” and only worn two for the weekend. I touched them all and came up with seven. The plane bounced and there were only seven rings. My wedding ring was gone.
The loss of a piece of jewelry is a specific grief, one that can’t fully justify itself. It is final. It comes with an aura of irresponsibility. And though we know that it is an essentially irrational attachment, it is weighty, financially or historically. Every time there is the slap of absence, the sense of incompleteness, when we lose these “things.” It contains a verdict—that we aren’t quite worthy. That none of us have the ability to retain.
A wedding ring being the most obviously devastating loss. A universal symbol of love. It’s supposed to bind you to your partner, mark your fidelity. It’s supposed to contain more than the sum of the metal and stone and more than the sum of our fickle hearts.
At the time of its disappearance, I hadn’t been married for years. But the band was from 1919, engraved with an Art Deco design, with little shreds of diamonds on top (the woman who sold it to me said it would bring light to my hand). It hadn’t cost much. After I separated, I moved it to my right hand, and when my eyes brushed over it I said to myself, We were really beautiful, weren’t we? Weren’t we.
* * * *
Once on a December night, I snuck out of my apartment mid-dinner-prep, abandoning my friend mid-kabocha-squash-chopping. I went to a dark bar and met a man for one beer. He was in another relationship with someone else, and I was in and out the city, but if we had even twenty minutes that month, we gave it to each other. Lunch breaks, runs in the park, drive-by hugs. Occasionally we met to ride the subway, side by side, untouching. He handed me a box and in it was a rose thorn, cast in rose gold, on a chain. Delicate, sharp. “Roses are bittersweet,” he said.
I wore it everyday for months, while our affair swelled and ebbed, while I booked more plane tickets away from him or he retreated into the silent, white box of his real life. I saw the necklace in the mirror, or in photographs, and said, Look how brave I am. Affairs do this to people. Pain becomes the barometer of love, instead of joy.
I lost that necklace for three hours in a nothing beach town in Sicily. I did not remember taking it off. It was—by far—the most panicked I have ever been about a piece of jewelry. My friend was with me. She watched me fly around the room, calling the front desk, thrashing through my suitcases, demolishing the bed sheets, and in that tentative voice that she uses when I am long gone from the world, said, “Maybe it’s a sign.”
“Of what?” I screamed at her. Rageful.
Significance is as mutable as wind. Barthes, writing about objects that get entangled in desire, said, “What does my reading of it depend on? – If I believe myself about to gratified, the object will be favorable. If I see myself as abandoned, it will be sinister.” We always receive the confirmation we desire. To be a writer is to be a reader of objects, of gazes, of houses, and it is a dangerous occupation.
A sign to leave him? A sign that I didn’t deserve love?
When I found the necklace I didn’t put it back on immediately. I waited ten minutes in which I stared at it on the sheets and thought, I dare you, I dare you to leave me again.
* * * *
I called my aunt, the jewelry oracle in my family, to tell her about my wedding ring.
“Why on earth were you still wearing it?”
“Well, I wear it sometimes,” I said, as if that explained something. “It’s a beautiful ring.”
“I’m not debating its aesthetic merit. It’s loaded. You have to look at your jewelry and ask yourself, why am I so attached to this?”
“I get it. I’m not hung up on my ex-husband.”
“I know you’re not. So what are you hung up on?”
It was a good question and I was silent .
“My first wedding was hideously expensive, at the Hotel Bel Air, and it still wasn’t enough for his mother, who made us have two receptions. I was one year out of law school, and Joel, my first husband, slightly hated me because I had passed the bar and it took him three more times. Not the brightest bulb.” She sighed. “That one I lost to the maid.”
“Were you sad?”
“You need to start taking Paxil. I wasted almost forty years wanting to kill myself, and life is short.”
“I’m not sure I totally understand,” I say. But I do.
* * * *
Do you remember the insanity of that trip to Venice? We were twenty. We went for Carnival. I know there was a group of us because they are in the photos but I don’t remember them. The trip was last minute (and your idea, all the trips were your idea). We had to stay on Lido because Venice was all booked up. We took the water taxis to the big island in the freezing February wind. A girl named Lisa asked to wear my cheap hoop earrings from Forever 21 and I said, Sure, we could switch. She pulled out her diamond studs, and I unclipped my hoops. We had a huge room with multiple beds. I stayed away from you when I was sober.
I remember you in the Piazza San Marco, you kicked a water bottle, it hit a cop and we ran. I remember needing to pee and running into an alley and while I was in the middle of it, the busboys of a restaurant started bringing out the trash. I was too drunk to stop peeing so I laughed, and they called their friends to come laugh at me, and you came down the alley and pulled up my pants. I remember a crowded Irish bar that was full of Americans, and you were in the booth behind me, you were directly behind me, and I laid my head back and looked at you, and you laid your head back, I was done trying to stay away from you. I remember you covering me with streamers. I remember the black shuttered windows of Venice, the fetid canals, the deadening facades, and I asked you where the real people were. I remember stealing wine from the closed restaurant of the hotel, I remember spilling red wine all over your bed sheets, I remember that you were too drunk to get hard, I remember coming when you went down on me, I remember thinking I shouldn’t come loudly because someone was sleeping five feet away, I came loudly, I remember you telling me to stay in your bed, but you remember me saying I wanted to stay. You held me the entire night and when I woke up I knew from the way we were tangled that it was serious.
I do not remember when I lost one of Lisa’s diamond earrings. I have no idea where that ended up. It had been her grandmother’s, who had passed away a few years earlier. I remember apologizing as she got into a water taxi to leave and I remember shaking with my hangover and anxiety. The day was bright. Then she was gone and I was back to thinking about you and me. But in the decade since I have thought of her often and with sadness.
* * * *
Like most writers, I live in fear of disappearance. I’ve been writing all of my life, and I understand my interests (presence, light and temperature, telling lies, the body, sex, how language obscures more than it reveals, etc.), but also what compels me to get out of bed in the morning: Fear. I’m terrified of losing the intensity of this world.
* * * *
A boy left salt-and-pepper diamond earrings on my doorstep once. He had made them. We’d stopped seeing each other at that point, but he let himself in with a key I had meant to take back. It was the same week I found out I had a lump in my breast that they were hoping was cystic but wasn’t, was nothing to be scared of, but also was nothing they could explain, and the same week that I vacated my apartment in Williamsburg and loaded my books on a truck headed for Los Angeles. The Boy-Jeweler wanted to see me and I said no. He was quite young, quite talented, and believed that the feelings we had when we were together (pleasant, warm, loving feelings) were all that mattered. Sometimes he made pronouncements like, “Change is our only constant,” and I would think, you have no fucking idea what you’re talking about yet. But he connected me to something I had thought dead—my younger self that had no concept of failure. When I found every difficulty an obstacle, not a life sentence.
The earrings posed a conundrum. Though I couldn’t possibly keep them, he knew I would keep them. I am not only fond of jewelry, I’m fond of jewelry given to me by men that have been inside me, or that I’ve penetrated, in my own less innocent way.
I forget that I’m Catholic because I’m not religious, but I was raised and educated in the church. Occasionally it’s reflected back at me when I decorate myself with these pieces, the pageantry, the penchant for self-recrimination. Do you see what you did? I ask myself.
Do you see that I’m wearing a collection of my failures? And while my body forgets, do you see how my jewelry reminds me that I survived?
Sometimes it’s as if keeping the pain present justifies the unbearable beauty of my life.
* * * *
I have small gold hoop earrings that were given to me by my grandmother when I was six-years old. They were “Italian gold” she said, like I knew what that meant, and like every object in her orbit, it came with a story. She and my grandfather had walked by them on display in a shop in Venice, Italy. My grandmother commented that they were a strange size, a thick small hoop (a size she would later deem unflattering to an adult and a better fit for a kindergartener). When they were about to board the boat that would take them to the train station, my grandmother became hysterical and knew she was supposed to have those earrings. My grandfather ran to buy them (I can see him much younger, with his dark mustache, holding onto his hat as he ran across the narrow bridges). The store was closing, the boat was leaving, the train was pulling out of the station, but he captured them for her. His eyes always teared when he noticed me wearing them.
The earrings were de-quired twenty-six years later, at 5am, somewhere between the bedroom and the shower of a cottage in Laurel Canyon, while I rushed to pack for a flight. I checked the mirror and my face looked wrong. I so rarely took them off that I noticed the unbalance immediately. I grasped at my earlobe, uncomprehending. I felt my grandmother’s watery, Scotch-scorched blue eyes on me, disappointed, receding in a gondola. You’re dead I said to her, defensive. Everything you left me is mine to lose.
* * * *
A few days after I got back from the Tulum wedding I was cutting lemons from a tree, wondering if I would ever write again, wondering if I would ever feel safe. My phone interrupted me. It was a friend who had been at the wedding.
“Did you pray to St. Christopher?” she asked. Cuca, their nanny, has been with her husband’s family since he was a child, and is often referred to as the St. Christopher of Santa Monica. Cuca is preternaturally calm in turbulent air. She knows how to cure a child’s cut with a slice of tomato. Back in Tulum, she was taking the baby off the beach, at a hotel I hadn’t even stayed at, and noticed something flicker in the sand (it will bring light to your hand, the jeweler said to me). Cuca put my wedding ring on her pinkie and forgot about it for two days.
When I got it back I put it in a dish on my desk. If loss is a punishment, return is an absolution. My relief had flooded the house. But not just relief, something more ambiguous. I was vindicated. As I had unpacked from Tulum, the ring never appearing, I said, It’s ok. Let go. And as I had paced the house in denial, I also said, I know it’s not gone. This is a misunderstanding. I will be better. I will be trustworthy.
“Do not put it back on,” My aunt said when I told her of its return. “It’s a sign.”
“It’s not,” I said, “It’s just a pretty thing.”
I spent a lot of time asking about lost jewelry after that. Every woman I know has a story, the ring in the garbage disposal, the earrings fallen through subway grates, the vanished brooch, that haunts them. When I asked them how long it took them to accept the loss, they often said, Oh I just can’t think about it. It was a month in which I also spent a lot of time staring out of a window. A time in which I touched all of my things nightly, guarding against a vague, persistent fear that comes when I spend too long inside, when I believe I am being watched over by someone, and not kindly. I want to not think about the losses. I saw them all: These solitary pieces that slipped into the ether, the diamonds shorn of power, the platinum that abandoned us. I don’t blame them, as I don’t blame anything that retreats to safety.
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