I don’t have any rational way to explain Oriel Laurent’s presence in my life, but I’ve got to chalk her up to something. When my non-religious friends hear the story, they tend to rationalize it as random chance, pure dumb luck. But they have the luxury of leaving her on the far side of their memories, an outlier best forgotten lest she disprove their hard-won atheism. I can’t do that. Alternatively, upon hearing the saga of Oriel, my religious friends tend to explain its meaning just as easily. They say, “Well, that’s quite a story. But everything happens for a reason, you know!”
But no, no, it doesn’t.
I can’t accept that everything happens for a reason. Everything happens “for reasons,” sure. I punch you in the nose, your nose bleeds. But one singular reason, one Grand Plan which dictated in time immemorial that I would be compelled (as a cue from the same stage manager who directed Cleopatra’s finger dive into the asp pit and Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland) to punch you in the nose? Nonsense.
Just imagine the ennui of an Almighty in such a universal diorama. One grand plan would mean that he, at the very beginning of time, made a wind-up toy of a universe and ever since has been watching from on high, alone and bored off his tits, muttering to himself, “And now they do this. And now they do that. And now they do this. And now. And now. And now . . .” Forever.
Yet, still, we need (or at least I need) a way to explain the inexplicable flashes of spirit that punctuate our lives, and so my mind drifts to a different cosmology, a different Creator, altogether. Now, before you laugh, remember that there are billions of human beans on this planet that take the truth of talking snakes and burning bushes quite literally. There are a billion or so more that believe we live hundreds of thousands of lives (as many as there are leaves on all the trees of the forest) with a final reward of never having to live again. Also, there are those who believe that heaven is hierarchical and filled with willing virgins (somehow recycled, one would imagine). There the purest of the pure transcend to a penthouse in the sky, colloquially known as “7th Heaven,” from where they can actually gaze upon the face of God.
In my metaphorical metaphysics, no one can actually see God. The room’s too crowded, and the Creator too crafty for such a thing. In my mind, the unseen universe is a grand old speakeasy with an infinitely long, elbow-polished oak bar. And God? He’s the most silent of silent partners, hidden amongst the revelers but watching. Always watching. Whoever he is — maybe tonight he’s that old man in the corner by the jakes wrapped around his dead-end whiskey, maybe he’s the high-roller in the banquette with the three dames from Chicago, maybe he’s your barman, so you might want to remember the tip — you’ll never know. Still, my God, he’s always checking out your action, watching how you treat the staff, seeing if you stand to greet both friends and strangers, eavesdropping on the stories you tell, and noting how much you pitch in when the inevitable tragedy comes to visit the bar.
And in this world, every once in a while, when he decides you deserve a buyback or little special attention from the house, he gives a wink and tips his hat to the manager, and for a while anyway, your world becomes magical.
Back in 1982, when I was a fifteen-year-old kid, so gangly and weightless that my friends described me as “squiggly,” a French exchange student moved to my hometown. She was eighteen, and after a few weeks, through miracles beyond mini-miracles, she moved into my house. She was exotic and brilliant, erotic and beautiful. Nothing at all like the girls I knew at Binghamton High School. One of the most important differences was that she liked me. She really liked me. Her name was Oriel Laurent.
Over the following months, Oriel was either my first or my damn-near first on just about everything, physically and emotionally. She was the first woman who let me linger in her eyes for hours. The first one who listened to my heart beating and told me her fears, her head on my chest. She was the first woman with whom I sensed the living pulse of it all and who showed me to look for beauty in the whole world around me. She was my first love. I fell for her in a way that, nearly 30 years later, I find difficult to explain. I was in tear-your-hair-out, shout-it-from-the-roof-tops love. And when she left, I was a mess of smoldering, emotional ashes. Something powerful had happened.
We promised to stay in touch. But after a few months, we failed. Despite it all, I was still a kid. But I thought of her every day and believed that I’d never love anyone again. I remember wondering if a day would ever pass during which she wouldn’t drop into my thoughts, if only for a second. And she did, for years, every time I saw the arc of a seagull or took a walk through Recreation Park, past the statue on the top of the hill, or smelled a clove cigarette. Much changed over the years, but into my twenties, Oriel was still in me. Deeply.
Years later, in the Spring of 1989, while walking home from the Ladbroke Grove tube station in London, I finally decided to give her a ring. I’d moved to London a few months earlier, landed a job at a West Kensington pub, and had been thinking for some time that this was the closest, physically, I’d been to Oriel since the early 1980s. Why not give her a ring? The day Oriel left, she gave me a piece of paper with her phone number, and I’d transferred it from one wallet to the next over the years. There was a phone booth outside a small grocery store near my flat. I went upstairs and emptied the pilfered pint glass that I’d been filling with pound coins on my dresser, took out her number, and sat on the edge of the bed, wondering if I should really do it after all. What if she’d forgotten me? We hadn’t spoken in nearly seven years.
I took a few deep breaths and went downstairs.
I dropped in the coins and dialed the number. The phone rang six times, and just as I was about to put the receiver down, she picked up the phone.
“Oriel?” was all I said.
She paused for half a second and said, “Mike? Is that you?”
The number I called was her grandmother’s home in Nice. Oriel hadn’t lived there in years but was visiting at the time. Within the frame of the ten-minute call, she’d convinced me to come to her as soon as possible.
I quit my job, settled affairs around London, and a few weeks later, I was on my way to Paris.
I won’t be divulging many details of that trip other than to note that it was a welcoming reunion. That, and how much I enjoyed poached eggs, cheese, and dark chocolate for breakfast nearly every day. I loved Paris, and for all the complaining I’ve heard over the years about Parisians, I was welcomed with open arms. During that trip, I also came to know Oriel’s roommate, Helene, a tall, stunning beauty with jet-black hair and piercing blue eyes.
It was a beautiful few weeks. During the day, Oriel and Helene worked while I knocked around town, drinking coffee in the afternoon on the Champs-Elysées, visiting museums, and then sipping beers in the evening in Pigalle before meeting two beautiful women for dinner, a few bottles of wine, walks up the Rue de Martyrs to Sacré Coeur or down to the center of town. And then there were the nights.
At times there is truth in advertising: Paris is one romantic city.
Oriel and I slid back immediately into a place of love and comfort, sharing intimacy and intimacies, memories, and dreams. I was happy. The feelings I’d had when I was a kid, I had even more strongly in Paris. Despite the better part of a decade, a few thousand miles, and an ocean, she and I were going to, somehow, be part of one another’s lives for the balance. Before I left, I promised to visit Paris again the following summer. Though, by that time, she’d fallen in love with someone else, and our relationship changed into a deep, open, loving, accepting friendship. It saddened me a bit at first, but just the thought that our bond had solidified eased my heart.
Only a year or so before, I had wondered if I’d ever see her again.
Shortly after returning home from the second Paris trip in 1990, I entered graduate school, and while attending a job fair at the university, I met the second great love of my life, Caitlin.
By the Fall of 1992, Caitlin and I were living together in a fifth-floor walk-up on the absolute fringes of Brooklyn Heights. It had a working fireplace, exposed brick walls, and a bedroom nook just large enough for a double futon. One Sunday afternoon in that futon, Caitlin put her head on my shoulder and whispered playfully into my ear, “Is there anyone in the world you would leave me for?” There wasn’t, but I wanted to wind her up a little bit. You know, make a joke out of it. So I whispered back, “Well, maybe . . . There is this one woman . . . her name is Oriel. The first woman I ever fell in love with when I was 15. But don’t worry, she lives all the way across the ocean in Paris.” Caitlin reacted as I expected. She hopped up on top of me, called me a bastard, tried to hold my arms down, and nipped at my ear.
Now it was my turn. So I said, “Baby, is there anyone in the world you would leave me for?”
She said, “Well, maybe Mel Gibson.”
Then I playfully knocked her off of me, we wrestled around, and for you, the scene fades to black.
The problem is, the next morning, Mel Gibson didn’t call and say he was moving to New York City.
Oriel was fed up with living in Paris. She hated her job. She hated the French. She hated her apartment. She had split up with her boyfriend. She was 28 years old, wanted to be an actor, and needed to move back to the United States, to New York City in particular, where she knew exactly one person — and that was me. She had no reason at all to doubt that I’d be there for her. It was to be a rude awakening.
The following months were difficult. I really wanted to see Oriel. I wanted to help her get settled. To introduce her to friends in the theater world. To take walks in the park, to have dinner with her or a few drinks. I just wanted to see her, to spend time with her. She was Oriel. I was completely in love with Caitlin and didn’t have any thoughts of leaving her, but given the situation, every time I met with Oriel, it was like driving a nail into Caitlin’s heart. It was an awful position for all of us.
One weekend Caitlin was out of town, and Oriel and I were able to get together. In the conversation over dinner, Oriel told me that the only way she could stay in America was by getting married, and while she never directly asked, it was clearly intimated that I should be the guy.
I tried to imagine that conversation when Caitlin got home: “Honey, you know that woman I told you I’d leave you for? The painfully beautiful one. Yeah, my first love. Well, here’s the thing: We’re going to get married, but it doesn’t mean anything. Okay?”
That was a non-starter, and Oriel ended up in a window-dressing marriage. To top it all off, she couldn’t stand the guy.
Things did not get any better. Caitlin and I began to have real problems. Our charming apartment with exposed brick walls and a fireplace felt more and more like a prison cell. Caitlin and I were always fighting, but I didn’t want to make it worse, so I blew off Oriel more regularly. She’d call several times a week, and I’d make excuses several times a week. I hated doing it, but Caitlin was my partner. Still, even with all the effort, we found petty nonsense to battle over. Just living felt like doing a crawl against a rip tide. I was exhausted all the time, and by the early Summer of 1993, Caitlin and I split.
Oriel called later that week. We hadn’t spoken in a month or so. I was free, and we set a date.
What followed was completely insensitive and self-indulgent on my part. I spent the entire night leaning on Oriel about my problems with Caitlin and whining all night long, not even pausing to ask her how she was doing. I didn’t ask about her new husband. I didn’t ask about her acting classes or her work. I’m embarrassed to remember it.
At the end of the night, Oriel pulled away from a kiss on the cheek, but I didn’t think much of it. Nor did I think much of it when I called her the next day, and she didn’t answer the phone. She was always there for me. Nothing to worry about.
When I called the day after, she did pick up, but upon hearing my voice, she put down the receiver without saying a word. I’d abandoned my post for too long. She couldn’t do it all on her own. I had hurt her one too many times, and she had cut me off. Completely.
Not that I didn’t try. I realized immediately what I’d done. Every day for at least six months (and I know I sound like a stalker here), I called and left a message on her answering machine. I called and told her that I understood my selfishness, my foolishness. And I’d ask for her forgiveness. From that day, whenever I thought about Oriel, it felt like I’d been shot through the midsection by a cannon. I know it sounds melodramatic, but I felt as if a part of me was just missing. Blown away. Gone. Every goddamned day.
I threw myself, as much as I could, back into my work and my life, lesson planning for hours and boozing around for hours more. Every day I gave of my substance and not only of my excess to students and barmen alike. I taught my classes with passion, drank with gusto, and danced my ass off on the weekends. But there were a few minutes every day when I’d sit down and make that call, and as I waited for the answering machine to pick up, I’d feel around the edges of that emptiness.
And I’d leave my message.
Four years passed, and my phone calls dwindled to, at first, twice a week. Then once a week. Then once a month or so. I knew Oriel hadn’t moved; she was still living on the Upper West Side. It was still her voice on the answering machine. Though there are eight million people living in New York, I’d keep my eyes out for her on the streets, but she had disappeared into the city. I had managed to screw up something utterly rare and absolutely beautiful, and I knew it. But part of growing up is accepting that, at times in life, everything just goes horribly wrong. And sometimes the wrongs you do can’t ever be fixed.
Four years later, in 1997, I decided to get out of New York for a while, and while planning my vacation, I headed upstate to my hometown of Binghamton, where my family still had a house, the same one that Oriel had lived in 15 years before. One afternoon my mother asked me to get something from the attic. While upstairs, I found an old footlocker filled with scrapbooks, letters, and photos. In there were also notes Oriel and I had written to one another back in ’82. I found old photos of us with the family, and I found the journal I’d kept on my first trip to Paris in ’89. I spent an hour or so walking through the memories before my mother reminded me with a shout why I was up there in the first place. I closed the locker and made a mental note to call Oriel again when I got back to New York City. I did. Again, she didn’t pick up the phone, so I left my message. Still, she was on my mind when I made my summer plans and decided to hop the pond and head back to the U.K. for a few months.
By early August, I’d made it to Ireland, and after a week in Dublin, I hitched a ride to Galway, where I’d soon found a second home at The Róisín Dubh, a pub that would make anyone’s “Seven Wonders of the Drinking World” list. The first week in Galway is rather a haze in my memory, much on account of the good staff at The Róisín, culminating in a celebration with some new-found friends at an apartment on the other side of the city. It was a great night, evidenced by the screaming hangover with which I awoke the following morning on a strange couch in an unrecognized home.
Once on the streets, it took me a while to get my bearings. It was early in the morning, the sun in the grey of the east, and all I wanted was my bunk at the hostel where I could sleep for the next few days.
After half an hour or so, I recognized The Wolfe Tone Bridge across the River Corrib. The city was still sleeping, and the streets mostly deserted, but halfway across the bridge’s span, a bicycle passed in the other direction. I kept my head down and pushed on. Then I heard the breaks squeak and a woman’s voice tentatively question, “Mike?”
It was familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Yet, distinctly, there was a lyrical French accent. I turned around and saw a tall, pale-skinned beauty with long black hair and piercing blue eyes.
“Mike, is that you? What are you doing here?” she asked.
“Vacation . . . Helene, what are you doing here?”
She explained that she’d been living in Galway for years. When Oriel moved to New York, she’d relocated to Ireland. We hadn’t seen one another since Paris in 1990.
After the first exchange, the meeting became awkward. I presumed she knew that Oriel and I hadn’t spoken in years, and I knew she knew how much I loved her, they were best friends. We stood on the bridge, looking at one another.
After seconds that felt like hours, I got around to it. I said softly, “Helene, I think you know that Oriel and I . . . that we haven’t spoken in years. Could you please, please tell her the next time you hear from her that I love her and that I’m sorry for everything.”
She didn’t answer at first. Then said, “Maybe . . . maybe you should tell her yourself.”
I replied, “Yeah, I know I should. I’ve tried. I can’t tell you how often I’ve tried. But you’re right. It’s my job. I’ll try her again when I get back to New York. I just was hoping that . . .”
While I minced and stammered, she reached out and put her hand on my hand to cut me off. Then she said, “Mike, she’s coming to visit. She’ll be here tomorrow.”
It’s not a movie. If it was, then Oriel and I would be married now with a few kids and a white picket. We’d be older, though still leading active lives, smiling as we looked backward over our shoulders at the children while the credits roll. The world turned differently and maybe a bit less beautifully than I would have hoped the following day when Oriel and I found ourselves swaying in the living room of Helene’s doll-sized cottage, whispering incantations of love, regret of lost time and promises that we’d never abandon the other again. We both knew something powerful had happened.
We traveled together for the next few weeks in the West of Ireland. The Burren and its flowers. The Cliffs of Moher and its gulls. The Aran Islands and their sheer drops of a thousand feet into the breaking waves of the Atlantic Ocean. We saw one another regularly when we returned to New York and have remained close ever since. We’re not lovers, but I’m not complaining. She’s in my life, and who am I to question what might unfold as we move from noon to twilight? Whatever it might be, I imagine that our story won’t be over until one of us puts the other one in the ground.
Over the past 13 years, we’ve drifted at times, but never so far as to lose a line of sight or allow the other to crest the horizon. These days, Oriel lives in Jackson Heights, Queens, with her daughter. I just heard from her yesterday. She’s well, and she misses me as I do her. We’re making plans to get together later this Spring when I’m back in New York.
And I’m down here in Antigua, looking back over the past twenty-eight years and wondering what exactly it was we did right so long ago. I’m trying to recall what might have caught God’s eye at the speakeasy, but I doubt I’ll ever really know. No act of love or decency I’ve ever felt or performed was greater than human or other than flawed. And yet, there she was in Galway, first cousin to a miracle.
So who knows? Maybe I’m right after all. Maybe one night, as he leaned on his elbows against the long oak bar, God just liked the way we looked as we danced to one of his favorite songs. So much so that he gave a wink to the manager, which silently said, “See them kids over there? I like them two. If they got any problems while they’re here, sort it out, would ya? And get ’em something nice on my tab.”
And if I am right, then wherever you are — with your whiskey over by the jakes, in the banquette with the dames from Chicago, or behind the bar — I’m raising my glass back to you in thanks for taking such good care. It’s one hell of a joint you’ve got here.
One hell of a joint.
Oriel’s name and some biographical information have been changed to respect her privacy. She is aware and happy that this story has been published. Ain’t she dreamy?