Before We Were Strangers: A Love Story: Chapter 18

We Were in Love


The last weeks of the semester passed by, and with them came more pressure from Tati and Dan to join the orchestra. I always said no.

They were set to leave for their first stop in France in early August, so at least I had Tati for part of the summer. Matt would be leaving in the beginning of June, right after graduation.

One day, while eating sandwiches near the fountain in Washington Square Park, Tati said to me, “If Matt stays in South America longer than the summer, you should join the tour.”

“First of all, he’s not gonna stay down there longer than three months. And second, I’m going to grad school and that’s the reason I’m not joining the tour. You know that.”

“How are you gonna pay for it?”

“I’m staying at Senior House for the summer for cheap while I get some paying gigs.”

“Dan said we’re going to be making good money. You could always save up and go to grad school later.”

“No, I can’t. I can’t just leave and go cruising around Europe with you guys for a year and a half. Why do you always bring this up?”

“Calm down, Grace. Shit, you always get bent out of shape over this. You can mess up your life for a guy all you want to,” she mumbled.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I got up and walked away.

She came running after me so I gave her a little piece of my mind. “You think I’m bent out of shape? Because I don’t want to run away and join Dan’s circus? May I remind you that you couldn’t stand him before? And since when do you call him Dan?”

“I’m sorry Matt is leaving and that you’re going to be miserable.”

“That’s not it at all.” Though that was totally it.

“Dan really cares for you. For all of us. He bought that picture Matt took because he knew you guys needed the money.”

“What?” I stared at her in shock, my emotions spinning out of control. “Why do you want to hurt me when you know I’m already hurting so badly?”

“I don’t. I just want you to do the right thing for you, not for you and Matt. It sounds like he’s doing what’s right for him.”

We were standing at the entrance to the subway. “I gotta go, Tati.” I ran down the stairs and took the next train that arrived, riding around for hours to clear my head.

By late afternoon I was sitting in front of Orvin’s closed shop, wishing I could talk to him, when Dan passed by.

“Grace, Orvin’s is closed on Sundays,” Dan said.

“Yeah, I realize that.”

He was staring down at me with his kind smile. “Can I sit?”


“Something you want to talk about?”


“Have you been practicing?”

“Of course.” The last thing I needed was Dan with his professor hat on. I turned and looked at him pointedly. “Why’d you buy that photo?”

He didn’t miss a beat. “Because I liked it.”

“That had to have been the highest price paid for a piece of student artwork. Ever. In the history of college artwork.”

“Honestly, Grace, you know I’m a straight shooter. It’s a beautiful photograph and I think Matt’s work will be worth something someday.”

“You didn’t buy it because you knew we needed the money?”

“Not at all.” Little white lies. “Will you tell me what’s bothering you?”

I shook my head and looked down to his lap, where he was holding a few folded sheets of paper. “Is that new music?”

“No, actually, this is the paperwork to get my last name changed. Believe it or not, I could handle it as a professor, but as a composer and conductor, I need something new.”

“So you’re changing your name? Just like that?”

“Yeah, I even ran the idea by my father, thinking he would be offended, but he told me he was happy to have the name end with him. I’m making a small adjustment from Pornsake to Porter.”

“Daniel Porter. That has a nice ring to it.”

“Why thank you, Graceland.”

Hot wind blasted my face from a passing bus. I felt a tinge of nausea and closed my eyes.

“You okay, Grace?”

“I feel like I’m gonna throw up.” And then, just like that, I was heaving the pastrami on rye I’d had in the park with Tati into a nearby trash can.

Dan was rubbing my back and repeating nice things to me. “Get it all out . . . that’s it.”

I stood up straight. “Jesus, that was gross.” I wiped my mouth. “I better get home, I feel like crap.”

“It’ll be okay, Grace. Whatever you’re going through, you’ll figure it out,” he called out to me as I headed toward my dorm.

“Thanks, Professor.” I held up my hand as I walked away.

“It’s Dan!”

AS THE DAYS careened past me in a rush, I tried to memorize every moment with Matt. When I wasn’t with him, I wished I was. One day, he brought a betta fish to my room after class. “I bought him to keep you company while I’m gone. His name is Jeff Buckley.”

I laughed and then leaned up and kissed him. “Thank you, you’re sweet.” But, really, I only wanted Matt to keep me company.

I spent graduation day with Matt and his dad and stepmom. After the ceremony we had dinner and went back to Matt’s dorm, where he and I stayed for the next few days. He wouldn’t let me out of his sight.

On June fourth, the day before Matt left, while he was at the doctor getting necessary inoculations for his trip, I stopped into my favorite café in the East Village for a coffee. I was sitting at the bar, looking out the front window, when I overheard the café owner’s daughter, who worked as a waitress there, mumbling about an “utter tragedy.” She was crying to her father as he held her. An older, hippie-looking woman came over and wiped down the wooden bar top. “Did you hear?”

I shook my head.

“They found his body.”

I didn’t know what she was talking about.

She sighed heavily. “Poor guy, used to hang out around here all the time.”



I put my hand over my heart. “Jeff Buckley?”

“The very same. Handsome kid. So talented, gone too soon.”

Her eyes crinkled as she shook her head mournfully.

“What happened?” I could barely speak.

She stopped cleaning and stared out the window in a daze. Her voice was low and wobbly, like she was on the verge of tears. “Drowned in the Mississippi with his damn boots on. He’d been missing, and they just found his body on the shore. Used to see him walk by here all the time.”

I melted into sobs, feeling such sadness for someone I didn’t even know but had felt intensely connected to for so long. It was the first time I really thought about how fleeting it all is. Was this life? I wondered. You can spend hours upon hours engaged in meaningless, arbitrary bullshit, and then die while taking a dip in the river, your bloated body washing up onshore like discarded trash, only to be buried and forgotten?

The first time someone young and vibrant dies—someone you look up to, someone you relate to—it blows you back, right off your feet. Oh, fuck, we’re all gonna die, nobody knows when, nobody knows how, you think. And in that moment, you realize how little control you have over your own destiny. From the time you’re born, you have no control; you can’t choose your parents, and, unless you’re suicidal, you can’t choose your death. The only thing you can do is choose the person you love, be kind to others, and make your brutally short stint on earth as pleasant as possible.

I left the café in a blur of tears, too sick to finish my coffee. The waitress wouldn’t let me pay, probably because she didn’t realize how much the news would affect me. “It’s on me, hon.” I nodded gratefully and ran all the way back to Senior House. When I saw Matt standing outside the building, I slammed right into his chest and dissolved.

“Grace, what is it?”

I rubbed my tears and snot all over his shirt and broke the news through sobs. “Jeff . . . Buckley’s . . . dead.”

“Oh, baby, it’s okay.” He rubbed my back and swayed with me. “Shh, don’t worry, we can get you another fish.”

I pulled away and looked up at him. “No. The real Jeff Buckley.”

His face turned ashen. “Oh shit. How?”

“Drowned a few days ago. They found his body today.”

“That’s terrible.” He held me to his chest, and I could hear his heart beating fast.

“I know, I can’t believe it,” I said through tears.

But the truth was, I wasn’t sad for Jeff Buckley as much as I was sad for Matt and for me. For us. For the short time we had left together.

If I asked, would you stay?

He knew my thoughts somehow. He bent and kissed me once on each cheek, then my forehead, then my chin, then my lips. “I’m going to miss you.”

“I’m going to miss you, too,” I said through my tears.

“Grace, will you do something with me?”

“Anything.” Ask me to go with you. Tell me you’ll stay. Tell me you’ll marry me. For real this time.

“Let’s go right now and get tattoos.”

“Okay,” I said, a little stunned. Not exactly what I was expecting, but I would do anything he asked in that moment.

We each got three words in wispy script. Mine went across the back of my neck, just at the base, and Matt’s went across his chest, right over his heart. We each chose the words for the other, writing them down on a piece of paper and handing them to the two tattoo artists. We didn’t know what they would be until the ink was pierced into our skin. It was like our version of a blood oath.

While we were getting tattooed, we stole glances at each other and smiled. I wondered what he was thinking. All the times he told me that he cared for me still wasn’t enough. It was never enough when I knew he was leaving the next day.

My tattoo was done first, and I used a mirror to read what Matt had chosen. The type was small and looked cute and feminine, and I loved it before I even read it. I looked closely and saw the words: Green-eyed lovebird.

“It’s perfect!” I squealed. Matt watched me, smiling happily, trying not to look down at his own tattoo.

When his was done, he stared into a handheld mirror with curious eyes. “ ‘just the ash.’ Is this Leonard Cohen?”

“Yep. You know it?”

“What’s the whole quote again?”

I swallowed hard and tried not to cry, but my entire body was betraying me. The tattoo artists walked away and gave us a moment. Matt stood from the chair and wrapped his arms around me carefully, tucking me against his chest on the opposite side of his bandaged tattoo.

“ ‘Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.’ ”

He buried his face in my hair. “My life is burning well.”

Yes, but for how long?

Even though it was still healing, I must have kissed the words over his chest a hundred times that night. He’d kiss the back of my neck and tell me how much he was going to miss his green-eyed lovebird, and then I would call him a cheese ball and we would laugh and then I would cry.

The next morning, Tati left to borrow her dad’s Chrysler to take Matt to the airport. Meanwhile, Matt rushed around trying to pack everything that he wasn’t taking with him so he could ship it back to L.A.

“Why are you sending all your stuff back? You can just leave it in my room.” I was lying on my stomach across his bed, watching him scurry around frantically.

“Because I don’t want you to have to deal with any of my shit.”

“I want to deal with your shit.”

He stopped and looked at me. “It’s better this way.”

“But you’re coming back?”

“Yeah, but I hope to have a job by then so I can live in a real apartment. I’m not coming back to New York to live in Senior House.”

“Senior House is for undergrads. I’ll be in a new dorm by the time you’re back,” I mumbled into the pillow.

“All the more reason. I don’t want you to have to move my stuff when I can easily ship it to L.A. and get it later.” He was frustrated.

“You’re only going to be gone for a few months, Matt. It’s a lot of hassle.”

“Right, but you never know.”

This was not a good time for phrases like “you never know.”

“Come here,” I said. I rolled onto my back and held my arms open to him. I was wearing his favorite dress. He glanced over his shoulder and his eyes turned soft. Stalking toward me, he smiled his sweet, sexy smile. As he bent to kiss me, I stopped him right before his lips touched mine and whispered, “Would you stay if I asked you to?”

He jerked back and crossed his arms over his chest, cocking his head to the side. “Would you ask me to?” Frustration could be read in every line on his face.

Lying there beneath him, I felt more vulnerable than I ever had before. I wanted to ask him to stay, but how could I be so selfish? If I asked him, would he love me less, if he even loved me at all? I couldn’t take his dream away to make mine better. I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t destroy what we had created.

“Answer me. Would you fucking ask me to turn this down?”

I didn’t want him to, but I just needed to know if he would. “Would you stay if I asked you to?”

His jaw clenched. He was breathing heavily. Through gritted teeth, he seethed, “Yes, but I’d hate you for it. So ask me. Go ahead.” It felt like he was taunting me. I began to cry. “Ask me to fucking stay here and work at the PhotoHut while you go to grad school. Do it.”

I shook my head but couldn’t form the words.

He bent over and gripped my face hard, glaring into my eyes. “Fucking Christ, Grace, this isn’t good-bye. This is ‘see you later.’ Tell me you can handle that, please. Say that you can handle that.”

I was hyperventilating now. He was angry but his expression revealed love beneath the ferocity.

“We made no promises to each other,” I whispered. “I’m sorry I brought it up. We’ll just see how things go, okay? This is just a ‘see you later.’ ”

He nodded. “That’s right.”

You told me I was yours and you were mine.

Sniffling, I said, “Make love to me?” And then he did, sweet and tender and so full of emotion that I cried as he held me for a long time after, though it wasn’t nearly long enough.

A few hours later, we drove to JFK. Tati stayed in the car while I walked Matt to his gate at the airport.

“I’ll try to call you as soon as I can.”

“Okay. Where will you be?”

“Northern Bolivia at first.” He had a duffel bag slung over his shoulder but set it down and stared at his shoes. “Grace, I don’t know how remote it’s going to be down there. You might not hear from me for a while, but I’ll write to you and we can figure out how to call each other.” He squinted into my eyes as we memorized each other’s face. “Grace, Pornsake bought the photo.”

I blinked. “I know. Why did you wait to tell me until now?”

“I just thought you should know. He’s a good guy.”

“How nice of you. And how nice of him,” I said, sarcastically.

“I didn’t want you to find out that I knew and didn’t tell you.”

“Okay.” I understood. Matt was trying not to leave loose ends.

An airline worker announced final boarding over the speaker. “It’s time.” He opened his arms and I rushed into them with such force, like I was trying to jump inside of him so he could take me along, a stowaway inside his heart. He squeezed me hard and for a long time. “I’ll see you, Grace.”

We let go of each other and stepped apart. “I’ll see you later, Matt.”

He smiled and walked away. Just before he reached the Jetway, he turned back, pulled something out of his pocket, and held it up. “I stole this, just so you know!”

It was a practice tape, a recording of me playing the cello. He laughed and then he was gone.

The love of my life was gone.


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