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All about love, nearly

If not mistaken, then deluded? Ask around, and people will give you their reasons for loving this or that person: he or she is kind, smart, funny, caring. Good in bed; good-looking. Good at things they themselves enjoy, in other words, good companions. Many of them things that can be said about other people as well, people they do not necessarily love. Press them further, and you will get different, more fervent answers. Contrary to what is sometimes assumed, however, the delusion involved in believing a person is one’s other half or destiny lies not in the belief as such, but in thinking that this circumstance arrives on its own, without our willful complicity. Something ignites and catches fire, and then we stoke it, heap anything we can find onto it to keep it burning; we hold our hands out to the blaze as we watch the deep orange glow on each other’s skin flicker with the flames. Now that you have my undivided attention, you tell me your story, and I listen closely as the subtle play of light leaps lithely across your face. But perhaps my attention isn’t entirely undivided; perhaps I am listening to your words and silently criticizing the way you tell your story: perhaps I don’t find it imaginative, or brilliant, or humble enough. Or before I have even listened properly I am comparing it to my own, and point out the notable similarities. Or perhaps, just as you tell me something particularly important, particularly painful, my head jerks away in a kind of reflex, or I ask an inappropriate question, or suggest we change location, go to a movie perhaps. I fail to register the shift in expression on your face, brush away your flummoxed protest; I am thinking about something that concerns me now: I am hungry. Or turn it around: we are sitting somewhere outside when you suddenly feel chilly; the gravity and import of what I’ve just told you do not hold precedent over your need for me to stand up and collect my plate and glass so that we can move to the indoor section of the restaurant. Or something I’d like to buy has suddenly come to mind, and I recall that the store closes at a certain hour and that I will have just enough time to go there and be able to browse comfortably, but only if we leave now or very soon. It’s my choice, really; in the end, it is what I do with your story that determines my degree of delusion. I only dimly realize that the occasion may never repeat itself, but fool myself over this easily enough. There are a thousand things to distract me from the momentous event of your vulnerability, and you from mine; a thousand ways not to rise to the occasion and to betray each other’s trust.

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I begin with mistaken love, then hesitate. Is love ever mistaken? You love a person, and then circumstances change or your perception of circumstances changes, or the person changes or seems to change or, more likely, your perception of that person changes and then suddenly you find yourself either unwilling or unable to love any longer. But does that mean you were mistaken? And if you discovered that you were mistaken, would you, if you could choose, go back in time to unlove that person? Or would you seek to alter the circumstances responsible for the inauspicious change, rearrange them in such a way that the outcome would be different, that is, conducive to the continuance of love as opposed to unconducive? If, that is, a change in circumstances has been responsible for your unwillingness or inability to love any longer. Perhaps it was merely your perception of circumstances that changed, or your perception of the person. Or perhaps it was that person’s perception of circumstances that changed, or perception of you. In any case, like a drop in air pressure, or the silence in a room after something has been said that can no longer be unsaid, it immediately becomes clear that something has changed, something love-snuffing, love-obliterating, and that it is no longer possible to go back to the time before the change, and there is no way to prevent it from occurring, because in some way you understand that everything has been leading up to this, every marker along the way has reliably announced its eventual arrival. But this is still not to say that the love you felt was mistaken. The attributes you loved may or may not have existed, you may or may not have loved a phantom partially of your own making, but love is seldom a mistaken emotion and in any case preferable to indifference. 

Different kinds of love: mismatched, reciprocal, asymmetric, seasoned, unrequited, deluded, eternal. Love of a particular person’s minor flaws. Love of blondes or brunettes. Puppy love, blind love, true love, parental love. Infatuation. Starry-eyed, sober, tear-blinded, short-lived. Mistaken love. Pre-ordained love. Love of humanity. The love one feels for a pet. Love of life, of good wine and fine clothing. Love of God. Love of travel. The love one can have for a particular image of oneself. A love for risk-taking, for collecting, for change, for challenge. Love of money. Love of one’s country. Love of the French language, of a particular season, of spinach and feta cheese, of the ocean. A love of one’s destiny. Love of suffering, of sacrifice. The love in forgiveness. Love of war and violence. Love of power. Love of plaid tartan, of tweed, of silk. Love of spiders. Love of ancestral heritage. Love of the unknown, of temptation, of subterfuge. A love for a particular color. Love of words, love of rain, love of the soft sound of rain trickling through autumn leaves onto a cobblestoned street. 

Each time the same awkward gesture, like the tail end of a flourish fueled by a sudden impulse gone askew. A burst of resolve tightens the muscles, focuses the will: a move to begin that falters halfway. We hesitate, the cipher the mind writes wavers, a wobble in the curve. Once again, the momentum trips and we are forced to begin again. The jump rope slapping the pavement of our childhood, the mesmerizing regularity of its beat: we observe, but we already know that we mustn’t linger: swaying with the rhythm, the ropes’ sharp loop too quick to follow, we relinquish control to our limbs, execute a neat leap, and we’re home free.

Again and again, the empty page. The empty page with the number 53 at the top left, and the words Again and again. But the mind is not empty; the mind is never empty. At most, it becomes numb, or perhaps alarmed at the emptiness of the empty page, like a deer frozen in the headlights of a car. Best to smudge something over this empty page, something to mitigate the alarm its emptiness induces. Anything will do: a fragment of a dream from the night before; a list of worries lurking at the very edge of consciousness at all times; a to-do list for the day. Or further concerns: the dentist’s appointment that is continuously postponed; the veterinarian’s appointment; the unfinished second novel. We could try that: the unfinished second novel. We smudge the empty page with the words “Unfinished Second Novel” and see what happens. As in painting, where we smudge the empty canvas with something to mitigate the alarm its emptiness induces, the smudge is merely designed to help us begin. Does smudging the empty page with the words “Unfinished Second Novel” help us begin? We’ll see. (to be continued)

There is an old woman who lives in a shoe. There is a woman who lives in a sock, an old sock. There is a woman who lives in her own environment, and the intimacy of it makes her think it feels like living inside a warm, damp sock. Is it better to incubate in one’s sock, she wonders, or is it better to get dressed and go outside? Are there rare cultures she can cultivate in this warm dampness, mushroom-like thoughts that can blossom into valuable ideas, or will she merely grow moldy, a bit of damp in the ears at first, blackening gradually and creeping up her cheeks like a ghoulish blush? Such fruitless thoughts, when what she should really be doing is completing her income tax return.

How to describe it? A shift in disposition, a fall from grace; like being banished from a magic kingdom. Not everyone seeks this from love: an ongoing state of reciprocal perception, attunement to nuance, an unbroken thread of communication in which the subtlest allusion is registered with the keenest, the humblest attention. To pay tribute to another’s unique existence, to memorize each path taken, each injury incurred, a repertoire of recollections and the chimera that go unspoken. What was your life really like, I wonder as I listen to your story, a distillation of narratives that have been arrived at through hours of introspection, sifted through and mingling now as the past funnels further away and the future plods obdurately past, as silent and invisible as another uneventful afternoon.

And what is the story I tell myself? I wake up and find myself alone in bed, with a cat to either side of me. There are the facts: the countries I’ve lived in, the course of education and employment, the crises and indecision and meager savings. Dental records and tax returns and a constellation of small surgical scars; years of childrearing, parenting, falling prey to despair. And in between, the actual work: interrupted again and again, maddeningly and to the point of stupefaction, by outside forces and internal storms. Is it wrong to make that a reason to go on? And where does another person fit in?

A lonely business—and yet when you pare it down, when you strip it of its particulars, it resembles everyone else, in a way. What we seek from love—a commingling of perception and emotion, a verification of objective existence. The permission to communicate internal processes and the joy in recognition, the echo of understanding. There is no symbiosis; the mother’s love lures the infant out of his solipsism, but what follows is the gradual recognition that he is alone and without witness to his internal reality. We are astronauts floating in outer space, bubbles of being connected to life by a tube: all the more incredible when my story overlaps with yours, when the superimposition yields a pattern that seems to have meaning—one we invent, perhaps, but that is the nature of the thing.