I was hot and particularly horny when I thought of you. The heat always does that to me. So does the smell of early morning dew. Weather like this means sundresses, tiny spaghetti straps and free-falling breasts. It means high heels, flip-flops and bare feet. Weather like this means we are already several layers closer to each other. There is less to discuss. Things feel simple. I always loved the smell of the sun on the back of your shoulders and neck as much as the taste of it on your stomach or thighs. In an hour the grass will be dry. The air will be too hot to breathe. Cleveland is perfect throughout the dawn when the soil is just waking up.
If you were there we could have taken a day off and gone to the Metropolitan Parks, followed the creek off the trails and spent the day submitting to the powder blue sky. We could have headed downtown to wander around or visited the library. But you’re already long gone from this town like so many others. ‘Cleveland isn’t sexy,’ you’d said. ‘It hasn’t been a city since the 40’s. I’m not sure it ever even was one. I know why people call it the mistake by the lake.’
We all knew why Cleveland has that name. It isn’t called that just because the Cuyahoga River caught fire back in 1969. That was merely the event that stabilized the myth and fertilized its legacy. It’s not called that due to the collapse of industry or rock and roll, and it didn’t receive the name simply for its series of triumphant sporting failures (The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Interception, etcetera). Despite what others say, it isn’t the weather either. Cleveland has four seasons with strong personalities. What makes the reference appropriate is the sum of all of these things: the legacy of constant anticipation and eventual disappointment throughout all types of natural change. Cleveland is always about to be great no matter what the sky is saying (or the bookies for that matter).
You weren’t wrong. Cleveland isn’t sexy, but like all depression, it has sex written all over it as long as there is still hope – and there is plenty of that. A patch of grass is sexy in Cleveland and so is a well-painted store wall or a sign that still has all its letters and lights. Full room carpet is sexy in Cleveland. A hot dog with stadium mustard is sexy in Cleveland. Blisters are sexy in Cleveland. The nuclear power plants are sexy in Cleveland. There are more than a dozen shopping malls and they are all horribly sexy in Cleveland as pure white snow turns to tragic brown slush and ‘hello’ becomes a series of car horns come December.
The city is insatiable as it perpetually waits for its crowning. Cleveland produces an uninterrupted want and endearing sense of aspiration. Like the morning dew, she is damp with potential even if the rock stations still play the same songs twenty years later and classic overrides contemporary at every fallen corner. You thought if you left, you wouldn’t have to witness the next great loss when it happened. You thought you could outrun desire’s slush and the inevitable mistake hiding in the shadows. It was an idea that somehow terrified you. I was never sure what we had to lose and brown never bothered me. It contains all the primary colors.
So I tried to persuade you that everything would be OK, that the mistake wasn’t contagious or part of our DNA. I tried to show you the beauty in it and waited for the songs to change as we drove all the way down Cedar Road when there was still more than fast food joints, strip malls, churches and pawn shops. We ate ribs, drank local beer and stuffed the pool table and jukebox full of quarters at the Grog Shop. I painted the ghosts of Squire’s Castle and pointed out that big city lights don’t blind the stars here. I appealed to your adventurous side, worried that your resentment had removed your sense of home. For a few weeks I even tried reading you comics about Cleveland from Robert Crumb before bed. I whispered as I told you how their thick-thighed buffer between hope and depression remained an enduring illustration of the city’s tensions. I called the images erotic. I wanted you to smother my face and lock me in with your knees. You didn’t get it. ‘That is exactly why I want to get out of here,’ was your response. ‘This town turns you into a pervert. Superman doesn’t live here any-more.’ I could feel your disgust growing as you pulled down my trousers, warmed me with your mouth and climbed on top of me ignoring the first few passages to Harvey Pekar’s ‘American Splendor.’ I continued to read as you stretched your wrists up and down on my chest until the book fell out of my hands. Not a chapter had passed as finally we kissed as you rolled off of me. By that point, kissing rarely came first with you.
How could you of all people not find Cleveland sexy? You were Cleveland. You called me a pervert for finding Crumb, Pekar and the nuclear power plants sexy, but you liked me to follow you into the changing room at the mall where you’d assert your power and at the very least hoist your nipple to my eager mouth. You liked us to excite each other in places where we couldn’t climax, like the library, the stadium or watching movies with friends. Bus stops made you particularly horny. I used to think it was because we were usually the only white people there. Later I found out that color had nothing to do with it. Tennis courts turned you on even more, and to this day I try to recapture the sort of attentive disinterest that allows me to look back and count my lucky stars we never crashed the car. I’m not complaining. You were both drug and dealer. You wanted me to want you all the time and everywhere. You warmed on the build-up to what would happen later and wettened as we submitted to the thought that nothing else mattered right now. The mistake couldn’t happen if we weren’t paying attention.
Once, I came here knowing you would taste me…
Cleveland, and her constant state of anticipation was exactly where you wanted to live. Who was I to argue? Right now was great, back then. So of course I didn’t believe you would actually leave.
By lunchtime it was too hot for my liking. I walked over to the mall where I knew the air-conditioning would make everything more than comfortable. But I wasn’t comfortable at all. I bought an iced coffee and pretended not to be people watching. I pretended to try and not stare at the young couples flirting, the young mothers pushing their strollers and licking their yoghurts or the young girls in push-up bras asking everybody who entered their store just what they could do to serve them. I went into the Victoria’s Secret and said I was shopping for you. I tried to talk that particular young woman into trying on a few bras. Her breasts, I’d said, were exactly the same size as yours. We laughed together for a few minutes, but who was I kidding? Maybe you had a point about Crumb? Once, I came here knowing you would taste me. That day, I came here knowing only that nostalgia is not healthy, especially not in Cleveland and definitely not on a day as hot as that one. The air-conditioning left my throat dry. I wanted to be turned on.
I sat in the food courts and ordered nothing. Instead I delighted sadly in the disgusting combination of perfume, sweat and the symphony of fast food odors pumping through the ventilation. The mall is a castle of sensory overload. Without you it only tires me. I got anxious. I got out.
I went back to the car and headed down to Coventry to pick up a few books for a pending assignment and was in the local history section reading about the Cleveland Orchestra when my stomach knotted up and dropped like an anchor. I’m not sure why, but bookstores always make me have to shit. I sat in the john, read 80’s blowjob graffiti and reminisced for the time when girls in this neighborhood didn’t shave their armpits or pubes. ‘No one likes body odor or a pubic hair on their tongue,’ was your opinion. I agreed with you, but there was something about the raw stench I couldn’t deny. I thought it was the smell of empowerment. You linked it to apathy. After I’d gotten my books I sat in the parking lot for a few minutes. I agreed with you more now, though this is a question of texture and not straggling hairs in the watery jam. Empowerment, I realize, doesn’t necessarily have a thing to do with nature.
The assignment was to write about what the opening of a new contemporary art museum means to the city, its cultural legacy yet to be written. Looking at the empty parking meters, faded white paint on the worn asphalt, and the rusty chain-linked fence, I thought of our visits to the museum, and had no doubt that when it comes to art, erotics trumps hermeneutics. Interpretation is what comes after. Thinking begins when you catch your breath and step away. You taught me that without teaching, like you taught me how to trust without being trustworthy. The museum was like the mall to you. It wasn’t much different if I was interpreting a jacket, a painting or a text. I remember you drawing me away from my books as I studied. Sometimes you’d do it subtly, appealing to my ears or my eyes and jerking at my imagination. You’d strip down to your bra and underwear and move to the chair in the back corner. I liked your game. Like fasting on Yom Kippur, I took it as a willpower test. You would amuse yourself until you got so wet that the noise of your finger puddling distracted me as it set the beat for your small moans and gasps. Other times you’d do it through tenderness, kissing my neck, ear and mouth while running your fingers and palms down my chest and past my belt buckle. When you didn’t have patience to play, you’d simply pull the book away, grab my hand and lead me to somewhere we could both lay down as you told me exactly what you wanted. In all cases, interpretation was effortless and unnecessary. Something I knew without ever knowing.
And then it occurred to me, this is what the museum might hope to deliver: evidence of the greatness that was there all along, of the success in failed romance, and all the stories that make those old songs able to carry us to new places. Things we knew without ever knowing. How could I write about that as honestly as I feel it? If you were there we could have spoken about it. You are Cleveland. You never actually left. I never actually posted this letter home.