She told me not to tell anyone she was related to S—, a directive I disobeyed immediately and all the time. What’s new with you? friends would ask. Oh, not much, I’d say. I’m dating S—’s niece. I knew this bothered her, but I didn’t realize how much until we were having dinner with a friend of mine on a trip to Portland. She was bitching about debt from a credit card she took out when she was 16 to buy belly-button rings and chokers, and my friend said, How can you be broke? Aren’t you related to S—? The look she gave me was withering.
I’m sorry, I said when we got back to our hotel. It’s just a Fun Fact, like how I have double-jointed elbows and you have the word “dragon” tattooed on the inside of your lip. She pointed out that I couldn’t possibly understand, considering that my only family member who is even mildly famous is my Uncle Jimmy, a local celebrity known for having sex with a watermelon. Not to change the subject, I said, but if someone ever wrote a book about you, it could be called The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She sighed. Please don’t write a book about me, she said. And can you just keep your mouth shut? No, I could not just keep my mouth shut, but I was in love, and so I resolved to quit casually mentioning that my girlfriend was blood relations with someone you have absolutely, definitely, positively heard of.
Some of my friends were skeptical about whether or not she was really S—’s niece, but I never doubted her, both because I know how to google and because the first time I went to her house, I saw a mug from the Betty Ford Center with S—’s name on it, which was proof enough for me. Besides, I wanted it to be true. I imagined our wedding, which would be at one of S—’s houses. Who would we ask to officiate? Maybe Bill Clinton. Or, even better, Hillary. Further proof that they were related was a picture on her fridge of S— at a family reunion in the ’70s. With pursed lips and giant hair, she looks rather bored against the paisley wallpaper of the era.
My girlfriend came out to her famous aunt when we were dating. They were at Christmas dinner at one of her houses and my girlfriend waited until her aunt was stoned before telling her she was dating a woman. Well, S— drawled in that famous voice, as long as you’re doing it right. I pictured her wearing sunglasses at the dinner table, with lace gloves up to her elbows. Later, over dessert, S— told her niece, It doesn’t matter who you are with. No one will ever be as important as your work. You’re like me. Now that was true. My girlfriend told me over and over that no human being would ever be as important as her work, but I didn’t believe her. You say that now, I said, but just wait until I make you pancakes.
The pancakes didn’t matter. I don’t know if it was work or circumstance or something else entirely, but almost a year ago, my girlfriend disappeared. She didn’t call or text or email or even send a letter. She just . . . disappeared. Afterward, I didn’t shave my head or cut myself or cry in public, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I googled her incessantly, trying to figure out where she was and what had happened, not even sure that she was still alive. I tried to stop thinking about it, but everything reminded me of her; I’d see a dog with four legs on the street and I’d think, Guess who else had a dog with four legs, and a wave of a sadness would wash over me. The famous aunt didn’t help. I counted the daily references to S—, each one making my palms sweat and my heart pound. I’d be thinking about dinner or bills or weekend plans, and then I’d overhear someone in line at Whole Foods say she got tickets to see S— for her birthday. They were pricey, she’d say, but you only turn 60 once.
I’m not the only one S—’s niece left without explanation. She’s dated a lot of musicians, and after she disappeared, I found myself in the strange position of being able to listen to songs that were actually about my ex. Every other time I’ve gone through a breakup, I’ve turned to generic heartache music by Rod Stewart or Phil Collins for solace. This time, I could listen to songs that were tailored to my pain: there was the guy who rapped about how she couldn’t commit, the singer/songwriter who was so depressed she made Cat Power sound cheerful, the composer who loved her but hated her but loved her but hated her. I understood them all.
It’s hard to write about love without resorting to clichés (even that sentence sounds clichéd), but there was just something about her. She had it, whatever it is, and I had it too. We looked right together, like we fit. Our friends and family saw it, and even strangers could sense the palpable chemistry between us. Once, we were picking up Amtrak tickets for a weekend trip, and the porter asked if we were together. Yes, we nodded. Good, he said. You look like you belong together. And we did. Later that night, she looked over at me and said, You’re my person, and I felt right then and for months afterward that, yes, I was her person. That part of my life was decided. Jobs would change and homes would change and circumstance would change, but this would not.
I was wrong. There will be no wedding at S—’s house, no ceremony for the Clintons to oversee. The truth of this hasn’t been easy to accept, especially when her aunt’s voice is streaming from my radio, but, slowly, surely, I’m getting over it. I don’t google her or discuss her with my friends or even speculate about what happened much; I’ll probably never know, and I’ll survive without the answer because there’s no other choice. So I go about my life, cringing every time I hear her aunt’s name, half hoping I forget about her and half hoping that one day, she thinks of the girl who couldn’t keep her mouth shut and maybe, finally, decides to call.