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.
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.