She wasn’t actually Elizabeth--I knew that from the start. Mary hadn’t gone to college with me, and everything she told me about her personal history, from growing up in the Midwest, her pet rabbit, her recent divorce--it was all new to me. She had longer, straighter hair than Elizabeth. I recognized these differences when I met Mary at a party. And yet, with each passing glass of wine, the differences blurred to shades of gray and sameness. I recognized the same high pitch and timbre of her voice. That she was every bit as short as Elizabeth, peering up at me with the same wide, green eyes as we made conversation. That she had the same proclivity to stop me when I exaggerated the facts of an anecdote--weighing in with legitimate statistical information and citations. That much like Elizabeth, she preferred the phrase “back assward” over “ass backwards.”
One of the greatest compliments I ever received, paired with one of my saddest revelations:
I lay in bed with Elizabeth, forehead to forehead, right palm splayed on her left thigh, the knuckles of my left pressed air tight to the knuckles of her right, the backs of our fingers interlaced, sides of our hands resting against the mattress in the space between our barechests. We had kicked off the comforter and the blanket in the heat of the night. We stretched her paisley bedsheet over our heads. Shelter, but thin enough so the morning sun shone right through.
“I stopped writing after I met you,” she said.
“I always thought I’d be a writer. But when I met you, I saw how much more dedicated you were. How much better you were. And I realized I’d never be like that.”
“You’re a good writer.” All I had to base that on was proofreading a couple essays for her, but it wasn't untrue.
“I’m good at writing,” she said. “But I’m not a writer. Not like you are.”
No one had cited me--much less what talent I may have had--as a source of discouragement before. The thought that they couldn’t live up to my standard. Elizabeth was far better-read than I was. An incisive reader who could recall passages from Cather to Dostoevsky with remarkable accuracy and insight. And yet this woman would say that my abilities were prodigious enough for her to retreat from her own creative attempts?
I told her I loved her.
She kissed me, but she wouldn’t have to say it back. She drew me closer to her. All that skin on all that skin. She slid beneath me and breathed in time to the squeak of the bedsprings beneath us.
A year later, after I had graduated from the Master of the Arts program in writing at Hopkins, I returned to hear the next class read from their final theses.
She read about sailing. About her frustration the first time on the boat and how her then-husband and in-laws chided her for confusing starboard with port.
The essay wasn’t perfect. I heard the excess language, the moments she told when she should have shown.
But it was good.
And as Mary read from her manuscript, standing tall at the podium in two-inch heels, I saw Elizabeth. The Elizabeth who kept writing and who, in time, was unafraid of sharing her work with an audience. An Elizabeth who was older. Still every bit as beautiful, but no longer for the effort of eye shadow and carefully chosen sundresses, but rather for how sure she was of herself.
Hours later, I joined the graduates, my fellow alumni, and those who still toiled in the midst of the program at a dive bar within walking distance of my apartment. Halfway through my third double shot of Jack Daniels, I made my way to Mary or Elizabeth--whatever amalgamation of the two I saw through the lens of too much whiskey. We hugged. She laughed when I picked her up in my arms, squeezing her close to me. As I set her back down, I told her that she was amazing.