Gary Percesepe is in love with love, and that might be a problem.
“The artist’s job is to get the audience to care about your obsessions.” – Martin Scorsese
I fell in love at 15, before I was ready. I hadn’t been thinking of love, only basketball. The girl had hair of spun gold and very white teeth and I didn’t know her. She approached me on the dance floor in ninth grade and selected me, for no other reason than because a pretty girl can. Of course, it ended badly. I have always associated love with sorrow and disorder and trusted beauty more than love.
As a boy and then as a young man, I was attracted only to blonde women with blue eyes. I was uninterested in girls or women who were like myself, of Italian-American origin. This despite the pleading of my mother, and the silent expectations of my father, whose younger brother had married an Irish woman, to the family’s shock and disbelief.
“Never marry an Irish woman,” my father told me. “They can’t cook, they don’t keep house, and they drink too much.” This was the sum total of his advice to me about women. Not a word about sex, about protection, about the myriad mysteries of girlhood I was trying to negotiate in my singular way.
The effect of this advice on me was predictable: all my life I wanted Irish women.
But my first love was a German-American girl of 15. Let us call her Lulu. This is the name I assigned her in two short stories that I wrote, fictional attempts to work out my obsession with first love.
In time I came to understand the wisdom of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh: Your first love is not your first love, neither is she your last. There is a kung an in the Zen tradition: “What was your face before your parents were born?” Thich Nhat Hanh explains that this is an invitation to go on a journey. The invitation is to look deeply into the face of your true first love. When you met her, or him, the monk asks, it was not exactly the first time you had met, otherwise how could it have happened so easily? Every question is guided beforehand by what is sought in the question, which is why we have a vague sense of what it is we are searching for, a “pre-understanding.” How else to explain that feeling that settles upon new lovers, the feeling that from the first moment, we recognize one another, and recognize in them everything that we cherish? My first love is still present, always here, continuing to shape my life. First love is without beginning or end. First love is just love. It is one with everything. She is part of all that I love, and of all that loves me in the universe.
But on the night when Lulu came up to me on the dance floor, I looked at her with alarm, unable to decode what she was saying. What she was saying should not have been difficult to understand; she was explaining how she knew me, what classes we were in, how both of our sisters were cheerleaders, how she was a cheerleader, how she had seen me at basketball practice on that very basketball court, how she might one day be called upon to cheer my name, so how was it pronounced?
She may have spoken some of this, or all of this, but none of it mattered. My attention was elsewhere. I was trying to understand what it was about this girl who stood beside me on the floor of the gymnasium, how she could look like that—gold hair and blue eyes, a small upturned nose, a ready smile, with clear braces on her small teeth, her voice a light soprano. She was petite—five foot two or five three at the most, fine boned with tiny wrists, perhaps 100 pounds, and my arms could easily have encircled her waist and then they did, and we were moving together on the dance floor and she was blonde and blue eyed, and I was Italian, and I could not imagine how I was lucky enough to be holding her in my arms (I had never held a girl) except that she had selected me.
I didn’t understand how women could be so beautiful. I wanted to know: How did they do that? I understood that how girls moved was a kind of prayer, a different kind of power from anything I’d known.
I formed a belief that a woman selected a man, that women knew things that men do not, that it was best to allow your hand to be taken and to be led off to dance floors, to beaches, to cars, and restaurants, and to movies and bedrooms—that men appear to be in control in all areas of life but that the women actually steer things, because they knew what they wanted and surely this is wrong?—a large and comical generalization—but in my case it is what I came to believe. I was passive. I hadn’t looked for love but it had found me. I was not prepared, and I still feel that way.
It is possible to fall in love too early.
In the myth of the fisher king, a young knight in his teens is out on his errands when he stumbles into an empty camp. The knight is young, hungry, and impulsive, and the salmon on the fire smells so good that he reaches out to take some to satisfy his deep hunger. But the salmon is very hot and burns his fingers, causing him to drop it. When he puts his fingers into his mouth to ease the burn, he gets a bit of the salmon into his mouth. This wounds him so badly that he lies in agony for the rest of his life but for the last three days, when Parsifal, the innocent fool, releases the fisher king from his agony with one simple question: whom does the grail serve? The moment Parsifal asks this fateful question the wounded fisher king rises from his litter of suffering and is restored to health and strength. The whole realm rejoices at the return of their strong king and a springtime of joy and life begins.
There are variations in the story. Some say that the fisher king is wounded in the thigh at the taste of the salmon (which some take to be a symbol of Christ, as the king gets no relief from his suffering except when he is fishing, that is, doing his inner work, mindful of a power and meaning in the universe greater than himself). Other versions of the story say that one of the owners of the camp returns, sees the young knight eating the salmon, and shoots an arrow through his two testicles, an arrow that can neither be driven through nor pulled out. Yet another story tells of a wound by a poisoned sword. All of the stories agree that the wounded knight is wounded in the generative region of his being, and that the wound is connected to the loss of his feeling function. A fitting description of modern men’s suffering, and the cultural disconnect of sex from love characteristic of western culture (mythically challenged in such films as Twilight, where, seemingly, it takes a vampire to show the path of return. In the quest for wholeness, the dead can only be led back to the path by the undead.)
What is crucial in the story is the possibility that one may come to consciousness (“eat the salmon”) too early, before one is mature enough to support it.
“Love at first sight” can only be spoken of in the past tense, what Roland Barthes calls an “anterior immediacy,” preceded by a twilight state—with Lulu, it was as if my spirit was dreaming, not yet fully actualized, a person in waiting.
In Young Werther in Love, Werther describes at length the triviality of his life before he met Charlotte; it is a time of “wondrous serenity,” soon to be disturbed, shattered, ravished—no wonder they call it falling. It is a falling from one state into another, and the myth of “falling in love” is so powerful that one often speaks of “not knowing what hit me.” Something “falls over me,” without my expecting it, without my even wanting it, or in my narration of my encounter with Lulu, without my taking the least part in it—Lulu selected me.
Now, what Barthes calls the “image-repertoire” can begin. “What suddenly manages to touch me (ravish me) in the other is the voice, the line of the shoulders, the slenderness of the silhouette, the warmth of the hand, the curve of a smile, etc.” In short, what we have is a scene in an emerging narrative, a narrative into which we all wish to fall, with fear and trembling.
Stepping out of the carriage, young Werther sees Charlotte for the first time and falls in love with her, framed by the door of her house, cutting bread and butter for the children. A trivial act, consecrated and constructed into a scene, one of the most famous scenes in western literature. We are hard wired for stories, and every story requires an opening scene, with all due care in the arrangements of objects. Says Barthes, “I am initiated: the scene consecrates the object I am going to love.”
Poor Lulu. Something had been activated in me at 15, the cultural code of romance in the west, and I was about to assign to her a wave of oceanic feeling for which she was ill equipped. As much as I believed that I loved her (and I did), I was in love with love; she was love’s occasion and convenient container. In a sense, I am my own theatre, and she had been framed for the scene, a scene, which now inhabits me as a memory, from which, like the fisher king, it appears I can never be released. Struck by an arrow that can neither be driven through nor pulled out.
In the myth of Tristan & Iseult, those destined for torment and misery—that is, high romantic love—meet in deception, fall in love by magic spell, and pursue that romantic love in defiance of heavenly & earthly law, and to their own destruction. All love must end in madness, and after, death.
Rene Girard theorizes that there is a mimetic character to all desire; we borrow our desires from others, whether real or imagined. Everyone believes firmly in the illusion of the authenticity of their own desires, but a skilled novelist implacably exposes the tricks of desire—a web of lies, dissimulations, feints, and maneuvers of their characters—and seduces readers who then fall into narratives with the external (and internal) objects of their desire.
We do not know what to desire unless we are shown, and we are shown in our average everyday experience, closest to home. Somehow growing up I had been shown what to desire. Maybe it was growing up watching a youthful JFK and Jackie, so alive with hope and the recipient of a nation’s tragic yearning coupled with the realization that it had always already passed and was not to be had—the creation and doubling of the myth of Camelot—or the way I saw my two married uncles oogle girls with catcalls on the streets of south Yonkers in front of their tire business. I took Lulu to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and couldn’t take my eyes off of Katherine Ross, who had first come to my attention in The Graduate. I saw the impossibly lovely Catherine Deneuve in April Fools and then Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago and emerged from the Peekskill theatre in summer feeling frozen in another time and place, a Russia of the heart. I watched Robert Redford’s square jawed beauty in Downhill Racer and how even he could not escape the ruin of a misplaced and untrustworthy love, and saw how he turned to speed and snow and danger to find a place where he could hold himself apart on the slopes of Switzerland, and I learned to put icy distance between myself and the object of desire.
Much later, I watched the actor January Jones be scouted, cast, coached, blocked, directed and constructed flawlessly into Betty Draper in the first season of Mad Men and knew again how Beauty is socially constructed and understood why I had written of the woman who looked like Kate Moss when I was at the beach in South Carolina one summer and how my response to all of this was always the same: to lift my pen and try to write what I knew of the tricks of desire.
But always I wondered how it was that I came to destroy what I thought I loved and where all this had taken me as a man and as a writer, these strange obsessions, and understood finally how as a boy and then a man I wanted to be more beautiful than I was, and I wanted to be with beautiful women because I liked how it felt to be with them. In my insecurity and with my child’s heart I wanted what I thought they had, but then when I had it I had nothing at all and I began at last to understand that maybe what I wanted all along was myself, who continually eludes me. And this is why I write. At least, for now.
And then a friend said to me, I think the obsessions we have as writers will have their way awkwardly and powerfully. The obsessions will win, but by the time they win we will have formed our answer to them.
Of course, it ended badly.
Here is how I wrote our breakup it in a short story entitled, “Lulu in the Year of Gatsby,” the truth in fiction:
Breaking up had not been my idea. We were at Lulu’s house, in the breezeway, seated on the sofa. I had parked my parents’ station wagon in the long blacktopped driveway. We had talked earlier that evening. I called her every day (I was a good boyfriend). There was something in her voice. I asked, was she OK? She thought a minute, then said maybe you better come over?
The breezeway was the same room where she had often spoken to me on the telephone while watching TV or painting her nails or drying her hair. She had hair the color of Catherine Deneuve’s, shoulder length, parted in the middle. I had seen Deneuve for the first time that year, in a movie called April’s Fool. The film starred Jack Lemmon as a hard working stock broker whose wife is so busy as a an interior decorator that they barely see each other. Enter Deneuve, the boss’s stunning wife. They meet at a party of Beautiful People and fall madly in love. Will Lemmon throw it all over and follow Deneuve to Paris? Sitting next to her in the spacious Paramount Theatre in Peekskill, I looked at Deneuve on the giant screen and then back to Lulu’s hair, and then back to the screen. Lulu caught me looking and frowned. She rested her hands in her lap. Her skin was fresh and clean. She smelled of Sea and Ski. I thought Lemmon a fool if he didn’t go to Paris.
Lulu’s parents greeted me in the breezeway, then excused themselves. Lulu patted the sofa where she intended for me to sit. I took my time getting there. The TV was off. Her chemistry book lay open on the coffee table. The cat fled the room.
Lulu said it’d been a good year and a half. A good run, she called it. She said she’d cheer for me when I made varsity. She said some other stuff about what a good boyfriend I’d been, how I was always there for her, how I was reliable, steady. She’d learned a lot about herself by being with me, she said. I used to steal other girls’ boyfriends, just to be mean, she said. Just because I could. You didn’t know that, did you? (Actually, I had heard that, had heard too that she was a good kisser, and more than that; Lulu had not been a subtle person.) But you, she said. You never thought the worst of me, even though you could have, and you didn’t bother to track down rumors. And because you believed in me, I worked to make myself into a better person. She dabbed at her eyes, which filled with tears. She didn’t deserve me, she said. I cannot give you all that you want, and you deserve the world. She hoped I got what I wanted out of this life. She’d always be my personal cheerleader. I still can’t remember the best things she said.
She was saying we shouldn’t see each other anymore. I asked her why.
Lulu sighed. She sat on her hands and bit her lower lip. She wasn’t wearing makeup. A faint line of freckles bridged her nose. Her fingernails were bitten to the quick.
Joe, you’re just too serious for me, she said, finally. I’m not a serious person, OK? Listen to me! Don’t turn away! She pulled me by the shoulders and made me look at her. You might not like this but you need to hear it. I can’t stay this good, Joey. And you’re going off to college to some fancy school. We’re kids, for chrissake. Did you think we’d stay together forever? It would never work. You’ve got to let me go.
We sat there a while in the breezeway, not long. I asked if there was someone else and she said there wasn’t. I believed her. I said what was I going to do without her, and she said I’d go on, we both would. She said that was a lousy thing to say at this time, maybe, but it was still true. Then I got up to leave. She tried to pull me into a hug but I jerked away from her and fingered my keys. I walked quickly to my car.
Each spring, the students at Lakeland Middle School were taken into Manhattan on a field trip. In 1968 we went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s Nietzschen inquiry into the waltzes of the planets and extraterrestrial life. These were the years of Mayor John Lindsay’s Big Apple (mocked by Dick Schaap as “Fun City”). Times Square had yet to become Disney-fied. We walked two abreast on the street as hawkers tried to lure us into peep shows. Used condoms were tossed by the sewer grates, and colorful empty vials were strewn on the dirty streets. Our faculty chaperones—the men dressed in starched white shirts and skinny ties, the women in collared blouses—looked embarrassed and told us to look straight ahead without talking to anyone. There was an appealing seediness to the place, and I remember being pleased at the sight of the adult pleasures, which seemed a huge improvement over last year’s tame walk through the theatre district to see Mame. A gigantic Camel cigarette spewed smoke into the air above Broadway. I was 14 years old. It was after Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and killed but before our senator Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. I was coming to see the mess that adults had made of things in Vietnam, but also seeing something of their haplessness. There was a feeling of happy mayhem in the air.
An outraged parent must have complained about our gambol through Times Square, because the next year we were bused to the Upper West Side of Manhattan and taken to the Museum of Natural History.
I rode beside Lulu on the bus. It was the week after our dance. Her halo of angel hair she wore shoulder length. She smelled of Ivory soap and peach shampoo. It was a warm day and the bus windows were down. I felt the air graze my cheek and lift strands of Lulu’s hair straight up. She reached up to put her hair right, and told me to stop looking at her like that, a plea I would come to hear often from women, but in this case one that Lulu half meant and I playfully ignored. We pulled up in front of our destination on Central Park West.
We looked up at the massive museum, an exquisite neo-Romanesque exercise in pink brownstone and granite, with a sweeping stone staircase and an overscaled Beaux-Arts monument to Theodore Roosevelt. My eye was drawn to the 650 black-cherry window frames. Rusticated brownstone corner towers rose 150 feet into the air. It was a lot to take in. I reached for Lulu’s hand.
We walked through the tall doors and into a vast Roman basilica, where we were greeted by a skeleton of a rearing Barosaurus defending her young from an Allosaurus. I felt the ancient hospitality of dinosaurs, about whom I had read obsessively as a child. The temperature in the main lobby was considerably cooler than it had been outside. Our classmates clustered near the Information Desk while the chaperones inquired about our tickets. We spoke in whispers, as if in church. I held Lulu’s hand and tilted back my head in admiration of the golden ceiling, unable to keep from looking up, the surest sign of an out-of-towner.
Having entered that museum for the first time, I knew I would want to return again and again, and that each time I visited there would be another mystery, another diorama, another new exhibit, all there for me. I looked at Lulu beside me and was grateful that she was there to see it with me. This is the first time I had experienced that strange pleasure of seeing beauty in the presence of someone I loved, and I knew instinctively that museum-going was a pleasure to be shared, preferably with a woman. Women and museums were meant to be seen together. Put negatively, the absence of my lover puts me perpetually in the same place—I can never again walk into the lobby of the Museum of Natural History in the same way now. Something is always missing.
Missing, it seems, is what I do best. This absence is felt in only one direction, however—in the one who stays, not the one who leaves. The other is present for me as an aching absence.
Lulu is gone. The museum and I remain, where she left us.