No guarantees, but this may be my last Leonard Cohen post for a while. I was saving it for last because it's a bit of an odd tribute. In 2013, I released a collection of short stories (Buddhist Catnaps & Broken Down Hymns). I wanted to write a story about Leonard Cohen for this collection, and I wanted it to be all the things he was: darkly funny, offbeat, sexual, spiritual, earnest, sardonic. It was a real undertaking to strike the proper tone. Three years later, I'm not sure if I did, but my heart was squarely in the proper place.
So, here's the truly tall tale of that time Leonard Cohen tried to steal my girlfriend...and then offered the kind of redemption that only he could. There are a lot of references to Cohen lyrics and songs in the story. A lot of non-fans won't get them, but that's okay. I didn't write it for them. I wrote it for Leonard. And for myself. And for anyone who ever took sanctuary inside his shimmering Tower of Song.
I’m Your Man
I should’ve known better, I really should’ve. Kirsten and I had only been dating for three months, a vulnerable phase in any relationship, as the sheen of newness begins to fade and you start to work at really accepting each other’s faults and consider giving it a real go. It’s the dirty socks on the floor, the bacon cooked too crisply, the need for certain rituals, be they comfort or merely habit. But we were showing real signs of promise. I’d met her mom, for Christ’s sake. Tests were being passed with each new sunset.
For the first time, I thought I might be willing to give up the freedoms that I’d always defined myself by to merge my identity with another. There’d been other women, sure, other chances to forge something lasting, but Kirsten was the first in too many years who seemed to be able to tug me away from my juvenile tendencies and demand that I be the kind of man who lived up to the expectations of a world outside of my own uncharitable thoughts. Still, though, something was missing. She didn’t yet seem convinced that I was capable of the kind of love that could sustain the dizzying heights and all consuming lows that such commitment seemed to insist upon. But I’d run out of ways to prove it to her. I kept professing how strong I was, but she seemed unassuaged. It was frustrating. We were standing at a crossroad, and decisions we weren’t even aware of were being made in the deep recesses. Each moment mattered, and that provided excitement and dread.
Given the fragility of it all, it was not the time to introduce an outside force. It was not the time to invite ambiguities. No, it was not the time to let Leonard Cohen come visit.
It had happened once before, and ended in disaster, but I wrote it off to circumstance. After all, I was dating a woman named Suzanne at the time. Of course she’d cave to the seductive lure of his trembling baritone trilling her name like some sotto voce Siren. When he left town, she began to follow him, city to city, watching him puppy-eyed at concerts as far away as London, Denmark, and Oberhausen. As she saw him more and more, I saw her less and less. The last I heard, she had rented a room at the Chelsea Hotel. A friend told me she never gets out of bed, never gets dressed. She just listens to his CDs, orders room service and puts it on Leonard’s bill, in hopes he will one day return to pay the tab.
Years had passed since then. Lifetimes, it seemed. Surely, Leonard wouldn’t come back into my world just to rob me of love again. He was too much a gentleman, too good a friend.
Leonard had just finished a winter retreat - a rohatsu - at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, where he and nineteen others sat zazen for twenty one days. He’d just renewed his bodhisattva vow to relieve the suffering of all other sentient beings in front of other students, his Roshi, and the Buddha himself. Surely, he could be trusted.
Besides, Leonard was in a pinch, bouncing back from the financial mess his unscrupulous manager left him in. He merely needed a place to bunk for three or four days before making his way back to Canada. “Friend, you won’t even know I’m there,” he whispered into the phone, a hypnotic sway to his voice. It’s that damn voice. I couldn’t say no.
Kirsten was less than thrilled at the prospect of an intruder on our time together, especially given it was Friday and she’d had an exhausting week trying to keep her 26 first graders focused on an unnecessarily grueling standardized test. “I just wanted to order Chinese and melt into the bed with you, make you rub my feet while we watch bad TV.”
I assured her that Leonard was the least obtrusive of guests, neglecting to mention that a woman named Suzanne had ever existed. “Besides, surely you’ve heard of Leonard Cohen,” I chirped, now for some reason eager to impress her with the stature of my friend. “He’s a very famous musician and poet.”
But she hadn’t. Kirsten was one of those people who knew the song, but never the singer, and while Leonard had devoted legions of followers, his tunes weren’t exactly piercing the airwaves on the local Top 40 station, where Kirsten’s tastes still resided.
I put on one of his CDs - “The Future”. Perhaps not the best choice, as the apocalyptic title track plummets the listener into a harrowed summoning of a bleak world Leonard seemed to summon up from a place far south of Hell. She winced at the growl of his voice, the darkness that seemed to envelope every murmured syllable. At first, I was disappointed that she didn’t appreciate his ability to embody every circle of Dante’s netherworld balanced atop a rollicking melody line. It was the alluring yet foreboding road where Satan met with the sublime, Pandora’s box in 4/4 time. But then I realized this was, perhaps, the best thing that could happen. She’d show him the distanced respect of being someone revered by our culture, yet not be drawn in by his charms. She’d stay on her side of a locked bedroom door and he’d stay on his. It would all be perfect.
But it wasn’t. I never should’ve let her answer the knock at the door. That was my second mistake.
“Ah, you must be Kirsten,” said a shadowed figure, bedecked in black, fedora to foot, save an indigo raincoat draped over his arm. It was that moment, as my eyes slid down to Kirsten’s bare legs, always a sight I drank in with joy, that I saw her left knee, and I’m sure of this, buckle. She regained her balance as quickly as she’d lost it, but there was no denying the swoon. A hit, a palpable hit.
He reached his right hand forward, as if raising a glass in toast, and her hand, a withering frond on a palm plant, seemed to move without her awareness, as if pulled by the unseen strings of a devious puppet master. He turned her palm up, gently kissed her wrist and whispered, “Entre deux cœurs qui s'aiment, nul besoin de paroles.” I didn’t have to speak French to know it couldn’t be good.
As her painted toes curled around the edge of our area rug, I swept in to break the trance. “Leonard, so good to see you,” I said.
“Ah, friend, your hospitality is so appreciated.”
“May I take your hat and...” I couldn’t believe I was about to say it, “your blue raincoat?”
He shook his head as if I’d just nibbled at low hanging fruit. “I ask for such things, I know,” he said, handing me his outer garments. “But I receive ten of these a week, gifts from admirers. What can I do? I donate some to charity, but I hang on to the odd one now and then. This one is a Ralph Lauren, tailored in Italy.”
I turned to explain the joke to Kirsten, sure that the reference was lost on her. “It’s the title of one of Leonard’s songs. ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’,” I said, before realizing she was in some far away city - Paris, perhaps - sitting at a little cafe, sipping warm brandy as Leonard wove a tapestry of Zen haiku, before mounting a wind horse together and racing across the countryside, her arms cleaving to his chest, in search of the Philosopher’s Stone. I might as well have been talking to a ghost.
“So,” Kirsten said, eyes locked on Leonard as he unpacked a solitary suitcase. “How long are you staying?”
“Not for long, my dear. Not for long.” Leonard removed another black suit from his bag, identical to the one he wore. He held the jacket aloft and a pair of doves flew from his case, grasping it by the shoulders and draping it across the bed in my room. My eyes followed them with evident suspicion.
“I apologize. They’re presumptuous little creatures. I can take the couch, of course” said Leonard.
Before I could speak, Kirsten said, “No, no. You can share the bed.”
Had she even realized what she’d just said? Did it matter? But I was determined that I wasn’t going to let this happen. I jumped in, hoping I didn’t sound too desperate. “Yes, Kirsten and I can sleep out here. The couch folds open. It’s quite comfy.”
“Ah, then,” purred the poet. “Everybody wins.”
“I hope,” I said. “Would you like some dinner? You must be famished.”
“I’ve been eating rice and miso soup for days. I’m happy with whatever your generosity will allow.”
Then I realized I had little to offer a man of such cultivated taste. Last time Leonard stayed with me, he was fasting, so it wasn’t an issue. What could a 38 year old bachelor have in his cupboard that could possibly satisfy the hunger of a man who likely feasted on tender lamb, fresh greens delicately brushed in Tuscan olive oil and vintage Percarlo each evening? As I stared into a cabinet, bare excepting a single serving of Campbell’s Homestyle Chicken Noodle Soup and a pyramid of Vienna Sausage cans, I was embarrassed I’d even offered, humiliated by who I was. The fridge was no better, a coffin for green things turned brown and brown things turned otherworldly.
“Um...I can order takeout. Italian sound good?”
When there was no answer, I turned to see if perhaps Leonard had nodded rather than spoken, no doubt saving his voice to woo Kirsten with a Lorca reading after dessert, but there was no one there. The Poet and my girlfriend were both gone, and the bedroom door was closed.
“Ah, Christ, not again.” I walked to the door. It was unlocked. There were no secrets here, but there was a challenge to be sure. My bed, my entire bedroom, in fact, was now perched some one hundred floors above, high atop Leonard’s storied Tower of Song, a rendezvous few could climb. It was akin to scaling Everest, infinite staircases teetering one on top of the next, but I wasn’t going to let Kirsten slip away without a fight. I began the hike, racing past floors inhabited by Yeats and Whitman, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell. The Velvet Underground bickered behind a splintered door on 58, Kristofferson burned copies of “A Star Is Born” in effigy on 66. On the 73rd floor, Henry Miller was scrawling profanity on the tower walls. I could hear Phil Spector screaming in well deserved agony dozens of floors below as I made a final, breathless pass through the uppermost hallways.
Situated on a floor that seemed to hover within reach of Cassiopeia was Leonard’s room, sealed behind a door cobbled together by spice boxes and still beating hearts. Two sleek snow leopards stood guard on either side, but neither took the slightest interest in me as I nudged the door open and stepped inside. There was my Kirsten, stretched naked on a bed built of stone and fire. She laid on her stomach, a single white dove perched on each wrist and ankle, the ankles I loved.
Leonard, fully dressed, had a nightingale’s quill, and was tracing poetry on her bare back, speaking it aloud as he composed. There she lay, under his spell, as helpless as if the doves were shackles, a hundred floors high and a thousand kisses deep.
“And I'll dance with you in Vienna,
I'll be wearing a river's disguise.
The hyacinth wild on my shoulder
my mouth on the dew of your thighs.”
I was doomed. I might as well have leapt from the Tower, past the floors of lesser muses and sonneteers to the rocky shore below. But I had to know if there was even the slightest possibility she could be lured back into my world, into the prosaic mundanity of our cozy lives. Perhaps, just perhaps, the spell had not been fully cast.
“Kirsten? Kirsten, can you hear me?”
She didn’t lift her head, but Leonard glanced up and smiled a humbled smile. “I’m so sorry, friend. I couldn’t help myself.”
“That’s twice now, Leonard.”
“We are born alone, and reborn alone. Please don’t deprive me the humble pleasures that reside between,” he pleaded.
“What possesses you, Leonard? Aren’t Buddhist monks supposed to take vows of chastity or something?”
“I sit. I face the demons. But the demons also face me. Besides,” he began to say, but I finished the thought for him.
“Yeah, yeah. There ain’t no cure for love. You know, you can’t recite your way out of every situation, Leonard. There are consequences.” I could feel something burning inside my chest, a heated blade boring its way through the chambers of that most overrated of organs.
“I’m acquainted with the concept of karma, friend. I’m also familiar with the unpainted walls of Sri Lankan monasteries, the taste of the dust on the shoes of the Christ, the heart of the meek, the sacrifice of blood, the sacred texts and the soiled linens of the destitute. I know how the unquenchable rush of sex roils like a pulsating river. I know how to part the seas with the utterance of a single holy word. I know precisely when the moon will capture the tides and what lines in the Talmud will stir G-d from His slumber. I know too much, and that is my burden. You know too little, and that is your good fortune.”
“OK,” I said, “that’s...what the hell does any of that even mean?”
“Precisely,” he smirked.
Flummoxed, my shoulders slouching in defeat at the utterance of his elegiac Zen koan, I turned back to the door and accepted my fate, my foolishness for ever considering any outcome other than this. My hand reached for the pulsating human heart that made up the door knob. It was a long way down from the Tower, and I wasn’t yet sure whether I would walk it or leap. Both seemed cowardly, both seemed a kind of death.
“Wait,” said Leonard. “I have one final question.”
I didn’t even turn around. “Yes?”
“Is your heart fully broken?”
Now I did turn, looking him square on, and for the first time in years, the first time in my memory as an adult, my eyes welled with tears. “Ravaged,” I said over a trembling tongue, my eyes now looking past him at flesh I would never again touch, lips that would now find mine foreign and somehow lacking. “Aching.”
What was the point of this exit interview? Why did he need affirmation of what was pouring so steadily from my sleeve, leaking out over the pierced chambers?
“What do you have left to prove, Leonard?” I said, my voice dry and crackling at the edges.
“What do you have left to prove? he replied. I’ll ask again, because the wind at this altitude may have kept you from hearing my question. Is your heart fully broken?”
I somehow found the words. “Yes, broken wide open. Is that what you want to hear?”
A wicked smile rose from his sunken jowls. “You lucky brokenhearted bastard,” he said.
Somewhere high above us, a bell rang a solitary chime. The doves released Kirsten’s limbs and gathered around the Bard’s head. From his coat came a mighty rustling, the piercing of fabric and the tearing of flesh. Two black, muscular wings emerged from his spine and began to flutter with so much might, I thought the entire room might be pulled into their wake. The doves gave flight through an open window. Leonard tipped his hat to me, and to Kirsten, who was now gazing up at us. No, not us. She was looking solely at me. I could see that. Her eyes were alive, and they looked only at me.
Leonard followed the doves through the window and disappeared into the darkness, another story higher, another vow fulfilled.