In trying to figure out what love is, and whether or not he was in it, he become suspicious, confused, and noncommittal.
I often wince at the utterance of “love.” I am suspicious of the word. Its wide range of meanings. Its ambiguity. Yet I am also assured of its depth, its power to evoke strong feeling rooted in patriotism, blood, friendship, or, most of all, romance.
I feel almost embarrassed by this ambivalence about love, like it is some confession of my fear of intimacy hiding behind a mantle of Socratic legerdemain: do you love her? I don’t know. What is love?
How sophomoric it sounds!
Yes, love can seem like the most overused word in our language. I love that book! I love that show! I love this. I love that. If one can love anything, then what does it really mean to say I love her? It’s as if “love” is just a one-syllable sound so overused that it has ceased to have any meaning at all.
Or has it?
I am, after all, magnetically drawn to her smiles, her affections, her irreverence, her humor, her social gaucherie, her honesty when histrionics stir. I am moved by her romantic aspirations, which have cracked and teetered under the stresses of failed romances from which she has recovered, waiting for a love to last, not wondering the meaning of love herself, as I do, just wanting to love me.
I want to be that fresh hope in her life, but philosophic aloofness reigns in my heart, only slowly eroding with the growing awareness that I have no need to say what love is, only to know that I love her. But even though I love her, I am unable to stop wondering what this love entails, other than a special kind of affection and sense of attachment that, though perhaps ineffable, is exclusive, such that I hold no such affection or sense of attachment for another—the kind of affection and attachment that leaves a profound void if the person you love leaves you. The kind that makes you pine for her when you miss her or that makes you sad when you want to share something with her after she is gone and you then realize she is gone: the glorious times you cherished with her perished. Never again to kiss her or hold her in your arms. And to think that all the glorious times you shared with her were leading to this. The void. The loss. The aloneness verging on loneliness, until it collapses into the crushing blow of a long silent night without her, and no hope of her return.
Is this what love is? Is this what I feel for her? The fear of losing her? This is what I felt when I was younger and just starting out in my adult life, the son of a hate-singed marriage, without any guidepost in navigating the labyrinthine detours of love, and I craved love and intimacy with such ache and yearning, imagining myself swept up in idyllic love affairs and fantasizing about making love to a beautiful girl with a vibrant personality who could open my eyes to all that love has to offer.
I fell in love for the first time in high school. I fell in love again in college. And for a third time in my twenties while living in New York City. They were all short affairs but I ended up suffering terrible heartbreak in each case. When the relationship was over, I wallowed in the despair of pain and loss, not yet fully inured to the pangs of disprized love by the trials of past heartbreaks. I eventually recovered, moved on, met other women, fell in love, and just as quickly fell out of love.
Eventually, several years later, I met her. The woman I now love. She is the one: the woman who has tolerated so many of my flaws that no previous woman has been willing to tolerate; the woman who shares so many of my quirks, can relate to so many facets of my background, and supports so much of what I am about in life; the woman who wants to love me in the almost unconditional way I wanted to be loved when I was alone in the raw innocence of my youth.
And now that I have it, I find myself maddeningly conflicted about love. Hardened by past recoveries, I have arrived at a point of maturity where I suddenly wonder if love—giving myself up to another—is what I really want in my life.
I know now what a long-term relationship entails. It is not like what I had fantasized about. At least not the part about sacrifices and compromises, miscommunications and misunderstandings, about not always being able to do what you want, and about not being aloof and having to be constantly attentive to the needs of another person. After living much of my life alone, I realize how much I adapted to a life of living alone. Is it the case that I seek only the benefits of a relationship and wish to avoid all of the costs? To give nothing and receive everything?
Maybe that’s why she says she has more of a stake in this relationship than I do. She calls me indifferent, says I have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, like it wouldn’t make a difference to me if I’m in or out: the way I disappear for periods of time to do my own thing despite her protestations; the way I deny her sex when I’m not in the mood; the way I’ve come to understand, to the point of exploiting, that she won’t leave me, and so, if I just don’t feel like dealing with drama, I ignore her, sometimes even dismissing her feelings to the point of, however unwittingly, disparaging them. Have I really become so callous and entitled?
Do I really not care if she is right that I am indifferent?
She desperately wants me to deny it. And all I can say is I’m not convinced. Not the most ringing endorsement of the relationship.
But it’s not indifference. It’s uncertainty. Not about her, but about me.
I have lived my life always feeling like I’m on the outside looking in. The only time I ever feel like I’m “in” an experience is when I’m writing about it. Otherwise, I am an observer. An outsider. An outcast. When experience tries to reel me in, I recoil. I am defiant. It feels alien. A compromise I’m unwilling to make. There’s a profound agency of autonomy within me that refuses to enter “into” the experience. I am loyal only to my thoughts. I am rarely, if ever, fully present. My mind drifts around the perimeter of experience. Like I want to be in the audience watching the play, not acting it out, or I want to write the play, direct it, or rewrite another’s play. I am not happy acting it out. I want to see it acted out, free to interpret, absorb, drift off absent-mindedly, focus in or out. I want to be free to miss a key point in the story, to become distracted and mesmerized by some odd detail or character whim. My points of departure are my own. I make the story my own story. I drift.
It is the same in love.
To be present, or not. She complains that I’m not present when she needs me to be present. That my mind is never fully present in any situation. Always absorbed in something else. The writing. Other things.
Or the question of what love is.
She is right. It is the reason I am irresolute. About life. About commitment. About her. I think about how I might propose to her, and then about whether I am meant to be in a relationship. I think about how desperately I wanted to love when I was younger, and how love now seems foreign to me, a threat to my autonomy. I think about how desperately she wants to feel secure in our love, how much she sees me as her one true love because of our unique idiosyncratic chemistry of compatible personalities. How we met in boxing class, where I inadvertently jabbed her in the eye and she kicked me in the groin. Or how we enjoy reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest together.
What other woman would do these things with me?
And then there’s her tolerance for my faults, like when she rolled her ankle in boxing class and, instead of immediately attending to her, I carried on with my workout, letting others call the ambulance and stay by her side. She was definitely not happy, but was able to forgive me. She understands I was not being intentionally insensitive, only rigidly, obliviously, committed to routine, maybe shuddering at the thought of any public display of affection. And all she asks in return is that I love her. But though I do love her, I can’t seem to show her.
Because I go around asking myself what love is. Or because I don’t know how. Or because it feels so strange and so draining. Intimacy: it starts out in such a storm of passion, and then the romance fades and passion dissolves. Familiarity invades. The eyes of a lover look like question marks burning up from within: the bewildered fear of falling out of love, anxious for what Time has stolen since a honeymoon when love came with arms open and heart hungering, until it surfeited on intimacy and discovered the illness of growing fat on excess of passion; and the soul retreats into thin solitude, dieting on nostalgia for the Time gone by, having learned to feed on the future with a more modest appetite.
Is love doomed? Was Kramer right when he said to Seinfeld that marriage and family are prisons where you’re doing time? Am I just a self-indulgent Generation Xer who came of age in the self-indulgent 90s?
You have a choice, she says. But maybe choice is a discovery, I say.
I know she and I are right for each other. Why does that scare me? Am I in some kind of mid-life crisis, coming to terms with the fact that my youth is coming to a close? Am I in denial? Do I feel like I still have a few good years left of living the single life, or that I need to cast off all finery and pursue my writing without frills or distractions? Then why am I paralyzed by the sense I’m messing up my one chance in life at true love? I know what I have: a beautiful woman with whom I share the special quirks of compatibility, who cares about me, who has a lot on the line, who has a stake in the relationship.
But there is that longing in me for long periods of solitude, for sanctuary, for time and space in which to pursue other ambitions; to withdraw from her presence when intimacy enervates me like kryptonite, when her wanton covetousness of my attention and physical contact wears on me; the fatigue that comes with the constant presence of another person.
Even the woman I love.
Am I just an extreme introvert, crawling back into myself, a retreat in order to regenerate? Or is it aloofness and sadness from the contemplation of her disappointment? The contemplation of her sorrow over the absence of reciprocation? The memory of what I once said, quoting Dylan, that I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul? Is it simply the case I cannot bring myself to, or am unable to, feel the love of not being able to live without her, the letting go of something inside me and hinging my entire life and happiness on being able to share it with her?
Is the love I feel for her simply compassion? Is it sadness that I cannot give her the singular devotion she wants? There is something almost terribly self-centered about it, my constitution so rigidly independent that no remainder of a lifetime, or even the terror of being unable to love another, is sufficient to erode its impenetrability.
Is my love for her simply pity—for both her and for me? For her helplessness in the face of my lack of reciprocation and my helplessness in the face of my inability to reciprocate? It’s like love begins with such spaciousness and collapses into claustrophobia, a compactness of petty grievances, fears and worries, exchanges of suspicion and compromise, of private diplomacy and public debate, of all the elegance and idiosyncratic edginess of intimate relations. And you either find happiness in this loving combat of hitched personalities, or you do not. Is it simply the case that I do not?
And yet, even as I read this to her, she does not give up on me. A frantic and delirious conversation ensues, hours long, endlessly analyzing the integrity of the relationship, turning over every implication of this final salvo against the durability of the relationship. It ends in a calm weeping embrace and the best sex I’ve ever had, and I realize, after this honest outpouring of my heart, her understanding having reached deep into the fragility of my soul, I know for sure that I truly love her.
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