I am 24. It is winter in Iowa City, and I am back to what I was doing before I left this town last summer. I did what I’d promised myself I wouldn’t do, which was come back to this same smoky coffee shop where no one leaves and no one really stays.
This was where I was when I first saw you. I’d just moved back from a botched attempt at living in Portland, Oregon, where I’d hoped to reinvent myself, to start over. But I came back to Iowa after only a few months and no luck finding a job. Portland was far from immune from the recession, and I was just another twentysomething who thought rain was the worst that could happen. So, I called up my old boss and landed again in the middle of the frosty, dormant plains.
Up until now, and for another few years, my decisions will be made on the excuse of finishing my deferred college education and wherever friends or lovers decide they wanted to bring me. I hoped to lay low and disappear into a cloud of smoke and burned coffee until I figured out my next move.
When you walked in, you were wearing a faux leather motorcycle jacket and blue jeans, when I first saw you I tried not to notice your eyes, they were so blue, lashes long like a girl’s–you were so beautiful I couldn’t look at you for too long. You weren’t a badass, not a James Dean type, but for that I loved you. Later, I’d learn that you had newly escaped from Jesus culture—you lost God in a shower stall you used as a late-night reading nook at the oppressive school your parents made you go to, to get right. I didn’t want to be broken anymore, and I knew you wouldn’t hurt me, or at least it would be a long time before you did. Two months later, you moved me into your apartment. I took your orderly life and I moved everything slightly out of place and for that reason, you loved me.
Bradley Soileau appears in three Lana Del Rey music videos—“Born to Die”, “Blue Jeans”, and “West Coast”, the first single from her sophomore album Ultraviolence. You’d know him if you saw him. His last name is perversely pronounced like ‘swallow’—which is exactly what he seems to say as he slides his tattooed fingers into Lana’s open mouth in the music video for “Blue Jeans”. But he is not her puppeteer. On the contrary: Bradley is just a conjuring of Lana’s tragic California dream.
A quick web search provides information that does nothing to disprove this. He was in prison, was once a drug dealer, has a tattoo on his head that reads ‘War Inside My Head’, a reference to the song by Suicidal Tendencies. It also conveniently echoes a lyric in the chorus of “Ride”—”been trying hard not to get into trouble but I, I got a war in my mind”. He is Lana’s animus, a shadowy other to her glittering, cocaine white light. At the end of both “Born to Die” and “Blue Jeans”, Bradley holds Lana’s lifeless body in a perverse pieta. In one, the lovers are consumed in fire, in another, water claims them. Bradley remains alive, but Lana is gloriously dead. The deaths in these music videos are the sort that make death itself feel seductive: glamorous, dangerous, American. Gatsby facedown in the swimming pool. Marilyn Monroe naked in bed surrounded by her vices, her attending angels. Jim Morrison in the bathtub in Paris. Lana performs death as she performs all her other personas. She is born to die not once but again and again. Death is indistinguishable from love. In “Blue Jeans”, she dives into a pool in black and white, albino alligators weaving through the shadows. A war in her mind.
Our love began when I told you how much I loved poetry, how if you didn’t like it you should probably stop trying to be with me. Our hours are married to shadow, you said, quoting Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song”, but shadow would be a difficult thing to marry, wouldn’t it? It is always moving, it depends utterly on the whim of the light. In the beginning, we’d stay up late into the night because we couldn’t get enough of each other. I can never say that I did not feel love in my life, a love so strong and so real that two people would manipulate themselves into thinking it could last forever.
I spent nearly every day with you for six and a half years, and now I can hardly recall your face. Now, we live in separate countries, separate continents, and an ocean is the final manifestation of the divide between us. I wish I could say I still loved you, that I was holding out for you to realize you love me back. But I know that isn’t true and never will be.
That is possibly the worst part of it, that I struggle now to remember how much I loved you. Maggie Nelson writes, in Bluets, “To try to forget how much you loved someone, and then actually forget, is like witnessing the death of a beautiful bird who, through nothing short of grace, chose to make a habitat of your heart.” When I think of you now, you do not occupy the same space as a lover, but rather the way I felt when I read and reread a favorite book, the familiarity of the characters and the places I was when I read it, the way a sentence will sometimes circulate in my head like eels in a trap. For a love to feel like a great love, perhaps it doesn’t have to last forever.
Denise Jarrott is the author of NYMPH (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2018). She is also the author of two chapbooks, Nine Elegies (Dancing Girl Press) and Herbarium (Sorority Mansion Press). Her poems and essays have appeared in jubilat, Black Warrior Review, Zone 3, Burnside Review and elsewhere. She grew up in Iowa and currently lives in Brooklyn.