We are excited to share with you our New Voices selection for today, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by Rosemary Harp! When Caitlin flies to San Francisco to visit Theo, her gay ex-boyfriend and longtime friend, she’s running the risk of missing her daughter’s birthday party. But Caitlin’s love for Theo, as Caitlin describes it, is “tenacious, insistent.” When things go awry, will Caitlin be able to tell Theo no?
Theo fiddled with a shirt button. His hands were as familiar to me as my own. I could map them. Here, the scar from a burning chunk of log at Boy Scout camp when he was twelve; there, a glossy red bit of dried boat paint from the wooden dinghy he was rebuilding on weekends. I raised an index finger to touch it, then let my finger fall. Axel expelled a sad little hiccup in his sleep and I settled deeper into the cushions with him.
When Dermot asked me how I could have risked missing our daughter’s tenth birthday party to spend time with my gay ex-boyfriend, I told him he had to understand that there’d been a legitimate emergency. What I didn’t tell Dermot was that performing acts of self-negation for Theo was a kind of muscle memory I didn’t always know how to override. I didn’t taxonomize the kinds of love or explain to Dermot that ours is the combing lice out of the whole family’s hair together at 1:00 a.m. when someone wakes up itchy kind of love—and that’s the best kind. Still, there are other kinds and they’re tenacious, insistent. I also didn’t tell Dermot what he already knows about me: I’ve never stopped loving anybody in my life.
* * *
I met Theo when I was almost eighteen, working as a counselor at a summer program for middle school math prodigies. Theo had no patience for the mathies, hated the way they chewed with their mouths open, trailed around with their shoes untied, argued about Fibonacci until somebody cried. I thought they were sweetly helpless. I reminded them to tie their shoes. I braided their hair.
I was journaling in the cone of light from a plastic desk lamp in the dorm where I lived with the young geniuses when Theo appeared at my wide-open door, backlit by the institutional fluorescence of the hall. He smiled as he watched me write, like he understood about girls and their journals, like his name appeared in their pages all the time. Then he leaned, left shoulder against the doorframe, and I thought, “Beautiful hypotenuse.” My heart kicked my sternum hard.
Theo asked if I wanted to go running with him. I hated running: The thump of my own feet made me desperate with boredom. Plus, I was on duty and obligated to stay put and supervise my mathies.
“What about the boys on your floor?” I asked.
“I told them to calculate pi until I got back. Come on. You’re the only person here worth talking to,” Theo said.
I was already lacing my Nikes. In my hurry, I didn’t bother with socks although I’d had bad experiences with blisters in the past.
The streets were lined with linden trees that threw off a scent like lemons only thicker and sweeter. Shoulder to shoulder, Theo and I talked over each other and around each other until everything else fell away. It was as if we’d invented talking. Theo’s favorite movies were my favorite movies: A Room with a View, Rushmore. His favorite music was old British stuff from the 1980s—The Cure, The Smiths—just like mine. Theo’s favorite opera was Turandot. I didn’t have a favorite opera, but I could hum a couple famous arias and resolved to learn more. I could feel the skin on the backs of my heels ripping and almost savored the pain.
Over the years of our elaborately doomed long-distance relationship, it got to the point where Theo and I spoke almost in code, knew what each other would say before we said it. It was less conversation than transmission, as if our minds were thrumming at the same frequency. When I thought about calling him, my phone rang. We hit send simultaneously.
But wait, back up, I know: Merchant-Ivory films, E.M. Forster, The Smiths, opera. All I can say is that I was a seventeen-year-old Boston girl who’d gone to Sacred Heart. Besides, when I lost my virginity standing up under the prickly spray of a dorm shower at the math camp, almost fully dressed because neither of us could wait, Theo didn’t appear to be suffering any sexual confusion.