Write me: [email protected]
<span class="dquo">“</span>My Companion’s Scent Seeped Into Me” — National Sa’di Day
Today is Nation­al Sa’di Day, and I’ve been think­ing about one of my favorite bits of verse from his Golestan:

I held in my bath a per­fumed piece of clay
that came to me from a beloved’s hand.
I asked it, “Are you musk or amber­gris?
Like fine wine, your smell intox­i­cates me.”

I was,” it said, “a loath­some lump of clay
till some­one set me down beside a rose.
Then my companion’s scent seeped into me.
Oth­er­wise, I am only the earth that I am.

In con­text, Sa’di is talk­ing about how the praise of the ruler for whom he wrote Golestan will only serve to increase the qual­i­ty of the vers­es with­in the text, but these lines in par­tic­u­lar have always con­jured for me a truth about human rela­tion­ships and how the “scent” of those we love inevitably seeps into us, becom­ing part of who we are. Late­ly, these lines have been mak­ing me think of the girl who was my best friend in high school: Adri­enne. I don’t remem­ber how Adri­enne and I became friends, only that I very quick­ly came to depend on her pres­ence in my life as part of what made liv­ing mean­ing­ful.

Like I said, I don’t remem­ber exact­ly how it hap­pened, but once we start­ed talk­ing, we didn’t stop, and soon I was walk­ing or bik­ing the few miles to her house, some­times on Shab­bos after­noons, just to hang out and some­times to stay for din­ner. I remem­ber a nar­row room with a piano and, I think, a mir­ror on the door, and a day bed where we sat while I poured my heart out about every­thing, or almost every­thing, that was going on in my life. I like to think that I was as good a friend to Adri­enne as she was to me, but the fact is that I don’t know. I was a des­per­ate­ly needy kid (about which more below), and, in open­ing her­self and her home to me (with her par­ents’ per­mis­sion, of course), Adri­enne gave me a safe space in which to be needy and to accept the suc­cor and sup­port of her friend­ship. Whether or not I gave back to her in kind, I can­not say.

When I think now about how dif­fer­ent Adri­enne and I were, it’s even more remark­able to me that we became as close as we did. Adri­enne and her fam­i­ly lived in the next town over from mine, in a house with a man­i­cured lawn, sur­round­ed by oth­er hous­es with sim­i­lar lawns, among peo­ple who, to me, might as well have stepped out of an episode of Hap­py Days, except that they were mid­dle and upper-mid­dle class Jew­ish fam­i­lies liv­ing in the sub­urbs of Long Island, not the Cun­ning­hams. I, on the oth­er hand, was the old­est of four chil­dren being raised by a sin­gle, moth­er in the mid–1970s, a time when that fam­i­ly sta­tus still car­ried some sig­nif­i­cant stig­ma. My life out­side of the yeshi­va high school where Adri­enne and I formed our friend­ship bore lit­tle resem­blance to the rel­a­tive­ly safe and priv­i­leged lives she and most of our class­mates led. My friends drank and did drugs, cut school and failed class­es, clashed over infrac­tions, minor and major, with the neigh­bor­hood par­ents and with the cops and, in gen­er­al, got them­selves into (some­times seri­ous) trou­ble.

Very lit­tle of my life, in oth­er words, fit neat­ly into Adrienne’s world, and very lit­tle of her life fit neat­ly into mine. Nonethe­less, we became friends and that friend­ship con­tin­ued after we grad­u­at­ed from high school and went off to dif­fer­ent col­leges. We saw each oth­er when we could, but what I most remem­ber were the phone con­ver­sa­tions, one of them in par­tic­u­lar. I was alone in my dorm room and I just felt emp­ty. So I called Adri­enne and we talked for a long time. When we were ready to hang up, I felt so much bet­ter that I said, “I love you, you know.” In my mem­o­ry, I say these words with the kind of jok­ing affec­tion friends often use with each oth­er, and I did not expect Adri­enne to answer. To my sur­prise, though, she did. “I love you, too,” she said, and I could tell from her tone that she meant it, real­ly meant it.

I was speech­less. In that moment, I under­stood that I didn’t just love Adri­enne, I was in love with her, and I want­ed, I need­ed, for her to love me back. Every time I tried to get her to talk about it, how­ev­er, she refused; and then, she met the man who is now her hus­band. I remem­ber when she told me she was going to mar­ry him. I was angry and I was jeal­ous; I felt betrayed and I felt cheat­ed. How could she decide that I was not the man for her with­out giv­ing me a chance to be that man? I start­ed behav­ing like a petu­lant child, refus­ing to ask how her fiancé was when I spoke to her, refus­ing to say any­thing more than Is Adri­enne there? if he answered the phone when I called. I arrived at their wed­ding too late to wit­ness the mar­riage vows, and I walked out of the recep­tion less than halfway through with­out say­ing good­bye. After that, Adri­enne and I didn’t speak for ten years. When we did, it was because she reached out to me in a let­ter she sent to the cam­pus where I work. (She found out I worked there because one of my col­leagues was a mutu­al acquain­tance.)

We met for din­ner in an Ital­ian restau­rant in Man­hat­tan, and we talked for a long time. Even­tu­al­ly, of course, she asked me why I walked out of her wed­ding the way I did. The answer I gave was not what either of us expect­ed, but it was a truth it had tak­en me ten years of not see­ing her to learn. Actu­al­ly, now that I think of it, there were two answers, the first one, though was to a ques­tion she didn’t ask: Why did I not make it to her wed­ding in time for the cer­e­mo­ny?

For most of the time that we were in school togeth­er, I told her, I was being sex­u­al­ly abused. I nev­er told any­body, but, like most peo­ple who have been vio­lat­ed, I felt dirty and ashamed, unwor­thy of respect and, most of all, unwor­thy of love. With­in the sphere of our friend­ship, however–the fact that she liked me sim­ply for who I was, that she didn’t judge me despite the fact that we were so different–I felt clean, whole; and when she told me she loved me, I felt wor­thy, as if love real­ly were some­thing I deserved to have in my life. When she chose anoth­er man to mar­ry, how­ev­er, that rejec­tion felt like a con­dem­na­tion, proof that I did not deserve her, and if I did not deserve her, then I did not deserve any­thing. At least, I said, that’s how it felt back then, and so I con­trived not to have to see her actu­al­ly get mar­ried.

As to why I walked out, well, that was a much eas­i­er answer to give. I might not have want­ed to wit­ness her mar­riage, but I did want to wish her hap­pi­ness, and I had come real­ly want­i­ng to do that. Dur­ing the recep­tion, how­ev­er, when­ev­er it looked like she was start­ing to head towards my table, her hus­band would appear at her side and guide her towards anoth­er part of the room. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me. I didn’t feel strong enough to walk up to her and say what I want­ed to say, so I just got angri­er and angri­er each time it hap­pened, until I couldn’t take it any­more, and I left. I told Adri­enne as we wait­ed for our food that I was sor­ry for hav­ing been so self-cen­tered. She smiled and told me not to be, that I had in fact been right in think­ing what I’d thought. Her hus­band had been quite jeal­ous of the fact that she and I had been so close before their rela­tion­ship began, and my refusal to accept him as the man she’d cho­sen to mar­ry had made him feel–I wish I could remem­ber her exact words, but it was some­thing along the lines of “like he had to shut me out of their lives.”

It was a very sad con­ver­sa­tion, filled with a lot of unfin­ished busi­ness. We might not have seen eeach oth­er or spo­ken dur­ing the pre­vi­ous ten years, I told her, but I’d thought of her often, and, at some point, had made a promise to myself that I would ded­i­cate my first book of poems to her. Adri­enne had been the first per­son to believe in my writ­ing as some­thing worth tak­ing seri­ous­ly. As the edi­tor of our ninth grade year­book, she pub­lished the first poem I ever wrote, and she sup­port­ed my aspi­ra­tions to write through all the years of our friend­ship, read­ing and com­ment­ing on things I sent her, and even try­ing once to con­nect me through a friend of hers to the edi­tor of an impor­tant poet­ry pub­li­ca­tion of the time. More than any­one else in my life at that time, Adri­enne accept­ed my sense that writ­ing was what kept me whole, that I had some­thing to say, and that it was worth devot­ing myself to learn­ing the craft of say­ing it. I might very well have become a writer even if I’d nev­er met her, but I became the writer that I am in no small mea­sure because the gift of her friend­ship helped me believe that I could. For this rea­son, my first book of poems, The Silence of Men is ded­i­cat­ed to her.

I some­times won­der if my sto­ry with Adri­enne would have a dif­fer­ent end­ing if I’d wait­ed to send her an inscribed copy of The Silence of Men rather than the book I did send her, Selec­tions from Saadi’s Gulis­tan, my first pub­lished book, from which I’ve tak­en the two vers­es I quot­ed at the begin­ning of this post. Adri­enne respond­ed by writ­ing to tell me that what she’d learned about me from this book had end­ed any pos­si­bil­i­ty of a renewed friend­ship between us. “I was struck,” she wrote, “by how dif­fer­ent our lives have become, that you have become involved in a whole dif­fer­ent world, one so removed from my expe­ri­ence and knowl­edge. And yet I must say, it is one that I have not looked to be involved in and one that is at odds with my beliefs.” She went on to talk about how her old­est daugh­ter was “enter­ing the stage of meet­ing peo­ple who will have a pro­found effect on her life and her world­view or who become life­long friends. She has met and become friends with chil­dren of my col­lege and high school friends”–not, telling­ly, our high school friends, since we had gone to high school with the same peo­ple, but her high school friends.

Clear­ly, in Adrienne’s eyes, I had left the world where we shared friends, where we shared a past, far, far behind, and she did not see how I could ever be a part of it again. This made me sad, but it did not sur­prise me. The “whole dif­fer­ent world” Adri­enne referred to was almost cer­tain­ly my mar­riage to an Iran­ian Mus­lim woman, which I wrote a lit­tle bit about in my intro­duc­tion to Gulis­tan, and per­haps even the realm of thought I had to enter, that of Sufi Islam, in order to make my trans­la­tions in the first place. I had indeed trav­eled quite far from the world of the yeshi­va where our friend­ship had begun, and I actu­al­ly didn’t blame her for the way she felt about that. What tru­ly hurt me in Adrienne’s let­ter was the way she tried to min­i­mize what her friend­ship had meant to me. “All I ever was,” she wrote, by way of explain­ing that I was giv­ing her “far too much cred­it” for my own devel­op­ment as a writer, “all I did, was be your friend and lis­ten to you…. Please take cred­it for all your hard work. It is yours and, because you are a sur­vivor, you should know that you would have achieved this no mat­ter what.”

As if I did not know that. As if the fact of her being present for me when I need­ed her was not an immense thing in itself, deserv­ing of my grat­i­tude, even if being present was, for her, a sim­ple and easy thing to do. As if, because I am a sur­vivor of sex­u­al abuse, with all the bag­gage that sur­vivors bring with them, my grat­i­tude could nev­er be sim­ply what I thought it was, an attempt to hon­or the friend Adri­enne had been for me; as if it had to be, also, fun­da­men­tal­ly, an attempt to gain her approval–which she also told me in her let­ter was some­thing I should know I no longer needed–and to get from her the feel­ing of whole­ness that I used to get when we were younger. As if the true, under­yling rea­son I sent her my book, even if I hadn’t been aware of it at the time, had to have been to recre­ate the friend­ship we’d had in high school, before either of us ever said “I love you,” and before she fell in love with some­one else and went off to build with him the life she could not see her­self let­ting me into.

I felt, frankly, patron­ized and pitied. I sent Adri­enne a sim­ple note of thanks and farewell, and didn’t think much about her for a very, very long time. Then, a few days ago, I picked up my Gulis­tan and hap­pened to turn to the lines I quot­ed above, which I will quote again here. When I fin­ished read­ing, Adrienne’s was the face I saw before me:

I held in my bath a per­fumed piece of clay
that came to me from a beloved’s hand.
I asked it, “Are you musk or amber­gris?
Like fine wine, your smell intox­i­cates me.”

I was,” it said, “a loath­some lump of clay
till some­one set me down beside a rose.
Then my companion’s scent seeped into me.
Oth­er­wise, I am only the earth that I am.

When I was in eighth grade, at a time when I thought of myself pre­cise­ly as a loath­some lump of clay, life set me down beside Adri­enne, and over the years of our friend­ship, her scent did seep into me. She did not make me who I am today; nor am I a writer because of her. My accom­plish­ments are most def­i­nite­ly my own; but if I know how to be a good friend, to lis­ten with­out judg­ing, to nur­ture and sup­port with­out an agen­da, it is in large mea­sure because I first learned from her exam­ple. I will not say I miss her. It’s been near­ly thir­ty years since she was that kind of friend for me, and I cer­tain­ly do not need her now the way I need­ed her then; and, as her let­ter showed, she either can­not or will not be that kind of friend for me again. I do wish, how­ev­er, that things could have been dif­fer­ent, or could have end­ed dif­fer­ent­ly, between us.

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: