Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 7.2]

Friday night I had dinner with a friend at a café downtown. We shared a bottle of wine and around 10 p.m., I got into my car. I had been thinking of Jonah pretty much nonstop since our chat earlier that afternoon. He’d given me his number to text him, but I hadn’t yet. I sat in the car for a good fifteen minutes thinking of him. But instead of thinking of specific things we’d talked about that day, I felt an intense closeness to him. I felt his presence in the car with me. I entered his number into my phone and sent him a text.

Me: Hi. Are you there?

Jonah: Hi! I am. How are you?

Me: Umm. I’m not sure actually.

Jonah: How so? You okay?

Me: Yes. I really just wanted to say hi, I think.

Jonah: I’m glad you did. How was your friend?

Me: Really good. But, Jonah, can I tell you something?

Jonah: Of course. Anything.

Me: I just want you to know that you mean a lot to me, like really a lot, okay?

Jonah: That makes me happy. You mean a lot to me, too, Michelle.

Me: In fact… I think maybe you might mean TOO much to me.

Jonah: I’m not so sure that’s possible.

Me: It’s strange. I’m having a little trouble breathing even.

 Jonah: What do you mean? Like how?

Me: I think it’s because of my attraction to you.

Jonah: Seriously?!

Me: Jonah, I can’t stop thinking about you. I haven’t been able to eat. Too amped up, or something. And, my stomach feels fluttery and warm all the time. Sound crazy?

Jonah: No. Not crazy at all. I’ve been feeling something…similar.

Me: Really? I’ve never felt anything like it before. Right now, my hands are trembling, and the butterflies are insane. Honestly, it’s a little hard for me to get air.

Jonah: Sweetie, are you okay?

Me: I don’t think so. I don’t know. I mean, I’m sure I am…I’m sorry. My feelings for you are just very intense.

Jonah: Michelle, I have intense feelings for you, too.

Me: Really?!

Jonah: Yes. I can’t stop thinking about you either. It’s very powerful. My hands are trembling, too.

Me: Jonah, I’m afraid I might die if you touched me. I’m not sure I could take it. But, I want you to touch me desperately.

Jonah: Michelle, you’re too beautiful for me to touch.

Me: No. I’m not. I’ve just never WANTED anyone to touch me before. Ever. Just the opposite in fact.

Jonah: Touching you would be the most amazing experience of my life.

Me: Jonah, I may just die if you DON’T touch me.

Jonah: I’ve never wanted anything so badly, Kid.

Me: Me either. Seriously, I had no idea I could feel like this.

Jonah: I didn’t either. I’m not sure what it means.

Me: I’m going to drive home now, that is, if I can get my breathing back under control and the trembling to stop.

Jonah: Okay. Please drive safely and good night, Michelle.

Me: Thank you for listening and understanding, Jonah. Night.

It’s very difficult to explain to anyone outside just what was happening between Jonah and me. It was so unexpected and so foreign to both of us.

I feel the need to share the following email exchanges for a few reasons. Firstly, because Jonah is a beautiful writer, I have difficulty paraphrasing his words; it feels disrespectful to him as a writer somehow. Secondly, you must remember that our relationship was a virtual one. Ninety-nine percent of our relationship took place via phone, computer, and what we came to call some kind of “mental place where we met up in the universe.” I realize a “good writer” should paint a pretty scene and give the reader “context,” but in essence, Jonah’s and my connection was “contextual-less.” Unless you count us sitting in a room on our computers or texting every possible place we went everyday a real context. So, what follows is a small, yet representative, sample of our correspondences that began the affair of a lifetime.

 To: Me

 From: Jonah

 Subject: Reflections so far

So okay, here I go. Well, first off… I’m trying to resist the temptation to overanalyze, theorize, or anything else that might kill whatever this is. But I will say that this sort of thing doesn’t happen often to me—when I run across someone who just completely bowls me over, knocks me off my feet, and, well, gives me the fluttering stomach that I experience when you and I interact.

I’m an extremely lonely person, which sounds like I’m asking you to feel sorry for me, which I am not. I don’t mind it. I live my life pretty quietly and very much on the square—husband, father of two, suburban homeowner, more or less dutiful son, respectable taxpayer, and holder of a sometimes interesting, generally frustrating job. I don’t make it to concerts or exhibits much anymore, I might have a drink once a week, and I might get high once a year.

There is, however, an inner self, and that’s the self that continues to write books that probably no one else will read, one that continually wrestles with the concept of god, what life is supposed to mean, and one that dreams and longs for adventures of lots of different kinds. There’s an inner life there that probably two or three other people on the planet know about, because what’s there would probably shock or repel most people.

I realize that I am, by no means, alone in this, but there are damned few times in the course of my life when I’m able to interact with people who are also in that sphere—even fewer times when I connect with someone on THAT level—a level where you just kind of intuitively get that person. Which is, I think, where you and I are.

I think a lot about a plane of existence not bound by time or space where minds interact, and where those of us who don’t generally fit in (not that we’re freaks or rejects or anything like that—people who are perfectly able to get along in everyday life, but who just have a feeling that they are far from home) would actually feel comfortable. Mine has Mark Twain, Leo Strauss, Joseph Heller and a few others in it. Now you’re there, too.

Not sure if any of that makes sense, but I gave it a shot.

To: Jonah

From: Me

Subject: Reflections so Far

I want you to know the feelings are mutual. It’s come as a complete surprise to me. It’s different than anything else I’ve experienced.

You know I can relate to your loneliness. But, you’re better than me, I think, in that you seem to be more at peace with your marriage as it is. I feel like a withering, trapped, starving animal in a way. There’s been such an absence of love. I’m not sure I can do it anymore.

To me, the most beautiful, fascinating part of you is your ability to think and feel so deeply. I have no one in my life that knows me…or has ever cared to open me up and see what’s inside. I almost feel different to myself somehow. I think there were parts of me that could only be unlocked by another person. I think you are the first person with a key.

I am also blown away by the intensity and ease of the connection. You see things in me I didn’t know existed. And, comparing me to those people I know you love is a compliment for the record books. Those guys are my Somerset Maugham. Jonah, although you may share their “outsider-ness,” I think you have an ability to open yourself up and connect with another person in the flesh, which I wonder if they ever possessed.

What I feel with you is like nothing I’ve ever felt before. I can only describe it as pure pleasure or bliss, maybe rapture. It’s beautiful of you to say you’re happy I exist. You have no idea how much I appreciate your email.

To: Me

From: Jonah

Subject: Rambling

Hi. Good morning. I am thinking about you and am marveling at how someone I haven’t physically seen in, what, twenty years, is now so goddamned real to me.

This doesn’t happen very often to me. I don’t like emotions, and I’m not very good at them I try to be as left-brain as I can, and I try to ignore the heart, but it doesn’t change the fact that the heart is there, and it wants… things. I’ve had this feeling all along that I’m waiting for something to happen—I dream about the time when I don’t live in the Midwest, when I’m more famous than I am, when my life isn’t as boring as it is now, the time when I live somewhere where there’s water, palm trees, the sea, a boat, when my life is more than just a template, when I don’t have to be polite or feign interest in the small doings of people’s lives when all I want to say is, “Christ, you’re boring.” I suppose all the normal daydreams.

And I can’t help but think that you’re the thing I’ve been waiting for.

I know what you mean about confusion and being rattled and, well, for lack of a better word, shocked. And I don’t want to do anything foolish or rash or intemperate, or god forbid, anything that would mess up my family or yours or hurt my kids, first and foremost, or my wife, whom I do love and to whom I do have responsibilities, obligations, and all the rest of it, but who really doesn’t have the whole of my soul, and who, I think, doesn’t have much interest in doing so.

One of my favorite books, “A Certain Finkelmeyer,” by Feliks Roziner, has this magnificent quote in it: “Male friendships are largely dependent upon what’s going to happen next.” This is absolutely true—men are geared toward thinking about what’s going to happen next. I’m trying very hard not to be manly right now. I’m going to savor this, and you, right now, try to live in the here and the now, and just be grateful that you’re HERE—not in terms of location, but a part of my life, and be happy that I’m not the only inhabitant of that place inside me that, for lack of a better word, I’ll call a soul.

There are certain things—a painting I saw in our art museum which, again, for some reason, just sucked me in, houses I’ve seen, etc.—that I want, but that I know I can’t possess. And in a way, that’s okay, because on some level, I don’t need to own them. I’m just glad to know they exist. Don’t get me wrong, Michelle, I want you in so many ways it hurts—I want you physically, to taste you on my lips and feel your warmth against my side, I want to wake up next to you, I want to see your clothes hanging in my closet, I want to call you up at weird points during the day and ask you what you think of this or that, go places with you, and all the rest of it. But in a way—a painful, but endurable way—it’s sort of horribly okay that I can’t. In a way, it is, for right now, painfully all right that you—not just someone like you, but you, specifically you—exist, that you’re out there, and that, for lack of a better word, there’s an intangible part of you that is mine.

Oh, just watch him ramble. Isn’t it cute?

Sigh. The really painful irony is that, years ago, I don’t think either of us would have been ready for the other, and now that we are, life and intervening events have made things difficult for me to have you in all the ways that I want. But goddamn it, I’ll take what I can get, I’ll savor every text message, every chat, every email, every trace of you that wings its way to me via satellite across the electronic landscape.

To: Jonah

From: Me

Subject: Resonance

Wow. Your words are powerful. You say you aren’t good at emotions… like hell you aren’t! They are brilliant, and cut me to the core. Thank you for letting them pour out of you so truthfully.

I know you never want to hurt anyone. Jax is my number one priority and I couldn’t do something I thought would have a damaging effect on him. If so, I would have run away a long time ago. At this point, I’m just trying to triage my marriage and cling to the parts of me you’ve helped me see are still very much alive.

I greatly appreciate the line of restraint you’ve found to walk. You’re giving me so much of yourself…but hopefully neither of us will ask for what might make that impossible in the long run. I’m not talking about the physical now, but the logistical. I’ll starve for you physically, before I mess up your life.

I have no idea how this will play out. But, I don’t want it damaged in any way. It will be challenging and interesting to live in two separate planes, though.

Oh…and the part about you wanting my clothes in your closet is just about the cutest thing anyone has ever said to me! For real.

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