—Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
I used to dream about a certain person nearly every night. It has been a long time since we last spoke. But in the dream, we have been talking forever, as long as it takes for the sun to rise in the east and set in the west. We talk about our lives; we go for long drives out into the countryside. If it rains, they hold the other umbrella. If it is sunny out, we go down to the lake to talk more, and I would gladly lie there for the rest of my life. Washing my hair in the shallows. Letting the crabs scuttle over my bones.
When one of my friends cried because he had broken up with his boyfriend, I had no idea what to say, and I found I could not comfort him by indicating that there were “more fish in the sea,” as Poseidon might have put it. His tears confused and overwhelmed me.
Later, he said that breakups were difficult, emotionally speaking, as though he were explaining such a concept to a child. All I thought was, I suppose. But the last breakup I had was prompted by an inevitable separation, one we had both discussed at length. Neither love nor tears presented themselves—a level of even-temperedness that I think displeased him. We spoke on the phone a few times and eventually I decided that we had been terribly foolish, that we were completely wrong for one another and it was a bad idea in the first place. I am still fond of him, but I do not like being around him; it reminds me that I was once someone else. I decided later that I was being irrational and should try to stay friends. I scraped away at my pride. At one point, I told him that I had feelings for him—minimally, as one contracts a mild cold in the winter, though it is not the flu—but I think this was only a desperate attempt to get him to say something to me that was not about breaking up.
In the end, my efforts were a failure. I became irreversibly angry with him; we stopped speaking. Sometimes I look at the one photo I have of him, but only sometimes. It is irritating, to do so. He is extremely handsome, and this photograph reminds me that I am not.
When I say I do not think I will ever get married, I mean in the sense that I do not think anyone will ever fall in love with me, which is generally a prerequisite for going to City Hall and swearing to be together forever—a frankly terrifying level of commitment. But I must say I admire these people who are so willing to buy rings and host an expensive celebration to which they must invite people they dislike, perhaps held at a place of worship whose defining feature is its air of indifference. Bells are bells, and organs are organs, and neither of these things are love. Mendelssohn wrote an acceptable wedding march, but I confess I strongly prefer Wagner’s—the ultimate sin for a musical Jew.
The issue of marriage comes up occasionally when I am asked why I have not gotten on with my life and found a husband, because I suppose I will expire soon and become an unpleasant carton of milk one forgets at the back of the fridge. I also felt a particular irritation—and jealousy—when a man with whom I was once involved said he would like to have a family someday. As though a family was easy for him to envision, with the arrogance of someone who loved once and will do so again.
At the time of our conversation, he was in his mid-twenties and I had barely entered them. Perhaps that is why my conviction is so ludicrous—I am made bitter merely by the poverty of my imagination, which prevents me from dreaming in a major key.
I have polled several of my friends about whether they have been in love, and many have said, Yes, once, and a few have said, Yes, now. I have trained myself to be happy for them, and in my most wandering fantasies I suppose I would like to marry someone who can play the piano and will sing along to bad songs on the radio with me. I can think of so many small beauties of love, as all the poets tell me it must be so, and I have memorized parts of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. Yet when I try to think of a person who might love me, with the wild abandon of a heart caught by surprise, a hart shot dead in the woods, I come up with nothing. The closest I have gotten is an empty room with a high ceiling and white shades through which a small bit of light comes, but nothing more. I have constructed a house for myself and decorated it with emptiness.
The wind sings to me, but it is always singing to me; it comes to me through the open window and cards through my hair. It promises me so many things, but I cannot remember them in the morning.
What did Boreas promise Orithyia, in the upper air? Nothing, I suppose. He raped her anyway. They had four children. I hope to have none.
As I was sitting for the English Literature subject test for the GRE, I found myself all at once doing very poorly and also highly enjoying the fact that my favorite Shakespearean love sonnet and favorite romance novel had shown up on the exam. This did not prevent me from receiving a subpar score, nor my subsequent rejection from every single graduate school I applied to. But it did make me think about love, a love of literature that has not left me, and a love of writing that has.
What is there to say about love? I think it is a fundamentally vulgar concept; not vulgar as in lewd but vulgar as in banal. In the Symposium, Aristophanes claims that we used to be comically spherical animals, fused together with our life partner. We rolled about with our eight limbs and apparently had no emotional issues stemming from the fact that we were being dragged about by someone else for the entirety of our lives. But then we grew arrogant, and the gods cleaved us in two, so now we scurry about searching for our “other half.”
A dream I had: a woman with long brown hair, eating a bagel in the veranda. The hottest summer in years. So hot that it is unbearable to do anything other than sit in the veranda, picking crumbs off the table, to place inside her delicate mouth. We had been reading Aristophanes together.
You, you, you, the garden flowers say. It was always you.
Her golden hoop earrings dangling. When she looks at me, I feel like a newborn fawn, rising from the grass on tilted legs.
I feel as though I have read the wrong kind of poetry all my life, and if only I had discovered proper love poetry earlier, I would not be wasted away by the disease of cynicism. Most of what I read now is the poetry of violence: “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” “Ozymandias.” I neglect the Roman lyric poets due to my hatred of Latin. I once wrote an essay about the female erotic in Horace, with a central thesis that was only slightly convincing even to myself. O Horace, whose young men and women burn for each other in an endless passion, permanently fixed to the page. Like a stallion whose gallop is photographed in midair, with none of his hooves touching the ground.
Tecum vivere amem, tecum obeam libens. “I would love to live with you, I would willingly die with you.” What does this mean? I read this line and thought it dripped with the heady ridiculousness of youth, the delusional infatuation I have known but never called love. Do people honestly feel this way? They must be lying, I decided. But then, poetry tells me that one must not lie about love—it is a sacred matter of the heart. Yet I am profane, and will always be profane, like Charles Ryder before me. Like the naked Aphrodite Urania in Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, coyly turning her head away.
I’d like to have a family someday, he tells me.
I want to laugh and say, Family is an illusion, it has no meaning. But instead I say nothing except, It’s surprising how different we are sometimes.
And he says, No. It doesn’t surprise me at all.
I memorized that line of Horace, in the hopes that one day I might say it seductively. It is the same with Shakespeare and even some opera lyrics I will never sing. I had a friend mock me by texting me the opening lines of “Un bel dì vedremo,” as though I would subject myself to the pentatonic degradation of Orientalism; Puccini’s music is insulting not because it is racist, but because it is facile. His oft-criticized themes are merely a symptom of this superficiality, an approach to love that begins and ends by the sword.
Would I kill myself for my lover? I doubt it. I would be very pleased if he would commit suicide in my honor, though. It would save me the trouble of killing him myself.
I have neither seen the film adaptation nor managed to make it further than one chapter into Brideshead Revisited. I suggested this essay title to a friend as a joke. I am no longer friends with that person, and I have since lost my maidenhead entirely, and I suppose my entire head as well; what consumes me now is not British literature but eschatology, not the bleak homoeroticism suggested by Sebastian Flyte but the anxiety I feel about marriage, and the death of my hopes thereof. At thirteen, I told one of my teachers that I thought I would be a bad mother. This conviction has not left me.
What would I tell my children, so that they might emulate me? I have done very little with my life except read and write excessively. I do not want them to grow up as I did, or be old as I am, at such a young age. What would I tell my spouse, so that they might love me? I need to be left alone until five in the morning; I pace. I want everything to stay the same, to the point of destruction—I keep things I do not need and throw away things I do. I contort my body at night and lie awake, sleepless, thinking of all the things I have done wrong.
It is not that I have loved, or will love. Or loved once, in the aorist. It is that loving in the continuous sense seems like such an immense feat, done only for the very few. And there is no one among all of my friends who might become one of the very few. Not anymore.
Encyclopedias tell me that it ends poorly between Charles and Sebastian. I have ended poorly; I finish my sentences with whatever strikes me. I have no Sebastians or Julias with whom I might fill my life, only a few affections that pale in comparison.
When I imply to someone that I will miss him terribly when I leave New York, he says, Don’t worry. Most people find their way back here, eventually.
I’m not so sure, I say. I feel something opening itself up inside the void of my body, like a blood orchid—loneliness, or distance.
We will never be the same, he and I. Yet the way he says farewell makes me seem good, somehow. Not in the way I wanted, perhaps, but in the way I have always meant.
I do not mean to say that romance will save any of us from ourselves, or the disaster of our bodies; only that it may delay the collapse of the universe a little while longer, and we may thus remain delusional about the treachery of our appearances.
Of course, I have cried about someone in the past. I still see him, though not often. Whatever I felt for him now seems to be a mere imprint of itself, like how one sees Laocoön and His Sons and marvels at the statue, despite the knowledge of its missing pieces. The ones that will never be restored.