On my first date with Michael, we met at a coffee shop in downtown Portland, where I was living at the time; I was 20, newly sober again, a student. Self-conscious. We talked about all the things you aren’t supposed to talk about on a first date—religion, politics, previous relationships—and we talked about how we were talking about those, and how taboo that was supposed to be, but how natural it felt. He rode his bicycle, I think, because he was wearing a sporty windbreaker that felt terribly Portland and I remember thinking about how I used to date men in suits in New York, how those days had to be all gone now that I’d escaped to the damp Pacific Northwest, with its grand old western red cedars and its quiet nights, its restaurants where drinks were always served out of mason jars. Portland, where everyone rode bicycles, like some picturesque European idyll. Michael was taller than I was, unusually broad-featured and athletic, handsome in an old-fashioned sort of way. Jon Hamm handsome, maybe a little goofier. Although he was 37, or 38, and very much an adult, he did not remind me of my father, and I was grateful for that. Later, when my best friend’s mother met him, she took to calling him Super-H. He looked like a superhero, she said.
It was complicated. Michael took me back to his house, a two-story Victorian in a gentrifying neighborhood, the kind where crackheads still ambled the streets late at night but the streets were clotted with chic restaurants, rustic decor and prix fixe menus, cocktails with muddled blackberries. We laid on a brown leather couch that smelled like tobacco and the woods and my pulse throbbed in my ears when he kissed me. We made love. We ate hors d’oeuvres naked in the kitchen. He read me his favorite passages from his favorite books. We talked about Tobias Wolff, Frank Conroy, Vivian Gornick. He was an English teacher. It was a big house for a single man, but he wasn’t single, I learned, not really, or at least he hadn’t been, because it was the house he had shared with his wife and son. The marriage was over, he said; it had been for a long time, but the divorce was taking forever. The house was on the market. He had custody of his son some evenings and every other weekend. He’d gotten sober for his son, he said. I knew instantly that I would never meet him, the child that was a product of a marriage that predated me, this tousle-headed, apple-cheeked kid in photographs on his dresser. I imagined his laughter streaming through the walls, his footsteps on the hardwood floors, haunting as a horror-movie ghost. I put my hand on Michael’s heart and it felt unimaginable that he could have made another person. We spent the weekend together in that house, and when I left, I felt so hysterically full of feeling that I cried in my car as I drove to meet a friend. I smoked a cigarette anxiously. My breaths were short and panicked. “Is this how it feels?” I asked. “Is this how it’s supposed to feel?” I stayed with him for nearly a year.
We had been together for about six months when my father came to Portland from San Francisco; he was in town on business and it happened to coincide with my birthday. We were not on good terms, but we were not on bad terms, either, and I appreciated that he was there at all. My older brother, who was in graduate school in southern Oregon, came up for the day. The three of us had breakfast and then drove out to the coast. I was wearing a maroon sweater that hugged my arms too tightly. The sand and ocean were all washed-out gray, a hazy saltwater taffy dream. My father took a picture of my brother and I standing on the beach, and in the photograph, I am squinting at the light, and I look like a little boy, but more than anything, I look like my father’s son.
That night, the four of us went to dinner—Michael, my brother, my father and I—at a restaurant in Portland with an outdoor garden. It was a clear, bright autumn evening, and the sun was going down. Michael was nervous, and he didn’t say much, but I loved him for being there, even though things had been difficult between us. Those lusty nights and indolent espresso mornings had yielded so quickly to a temperate, sexless familiarity, and he had been drinking in secret and lying about it, and that terrified me, the alcohol hot and sweet on his breath, how badly it made me crave a drink even as I loathed him for his recalcitrance, resented his willingness to anesthetize the often-excruciating clarity of sobriety, and the fact that I wouldn’t. But he was sober at dinner and my father was graceful and inclusive, considering that Michael was closer in age to my father than he was to me. I held Michael’s hand under the table. His leg was shaking. I put my palm on it, felt the smooth texture of his jeans on his knee, the vibrations of his muscles, the anxiety that rippled through his body, and my heart ached that he cared enough to be afraid. (Later, I asked my father, “What did you think of Michael?” There was silence on the other end of the telephone. “I don’t know,” my father said. “He seemed like a good guy.” He probably hadn’t really been paying attention, I realized. It didn’t matter.)
And so, in the interest of reciprocity, a week later, I went to meet Michael’s son for the first time, at a pizza place. I tried to connect, tried to bond over school and dinosaurs and what else? I don’t know. He mostly ignored me, which I didn’t mind. I never knew how to talk to children, even when I was one. It was all overwhelming and strange, to be 21, with my boyfriend who was twice my age and his son who was half my age, and I felt in that moment that there were so many roles I had never learned how to play: I was no more deft at playing a father than I had ever been at playing a son, no better at playing an adult than I had ever been at playing a child.
Eventually, New York called me back, and so I left Portland and I left Michael behind there. Michael couldn’t stop drinking, anyway, and the relationship was going to die because of it; the ship had flooded and there was only room on the life raft for me. It broke my heart, even as it felt inevitable. But there was an instant at that dinner when I was somewhere between a child and an adult, grown-up enough to try but still young enough to not know how foolish it all was, where the amber sunset glow of that affection felt like all the nourishment I could have ever craved. Fathers and sons, all of us tall and virile and failing. All of us trying.