Romantic relationships are strange. You become privy to another person’s peculiar workings, the singular and inevitably bizarre ways they make sense of life — their body, family, time, health, sleep, money, the culture at large. Few things are as disconcerting as finding yourself intimate with someone so utterly, thoroughly different. In a flash, you move from impossible closeness to infinite distance. Why is she breathing so weirdly? Who is this freak in my bed?
The first time one of you gets sick is a great revelation: the role of self-pity, the knowledge of medicine, the entire architecture of the body in the world comes to the fore, poignantly. For instance, as a jewish (little ‘j,’ if you know what I mean) hypochondriac, I’m always surprised that she doesn’t know the difference between viruses and bacteria. Is she some kind of moron? Meanwhile, she’s thinking: Who’s this neurotic nutjob?
And we’re left staring at each other across an infinite abyss, heads cocked in equal parts befuddlement and horror. What do you do then?
You can, of course, cut your losses and get the hell out of there. I mean, if she doesn’t understand the difference between a virus and bacteria, is she giving me all kinds of icky things? And she’s thinking:Wow, I gotta run before this lunatic explains me to death.
Or you take a leap of faith across that infinite chasm and you accept everything she does, however demented. This is not a one time gesture in which you leap and suddenly you’re on the other side. Phew. No, it’s a continual internal movement you have to make. After all, her oddities are gonna keep coming. You’ll bristle, want to judge, mock, run. But you don’t. Instead you pause and think: So she can’t tell a cold from a sinus infection, so what? Surely there are greater sins.
Making this move is incredible. Doubt, anxiety, suspicion all have to be brushed aside. And with them, your ego, your deep down suspicion that only you understand the world, that the things you believe are true really are true — and that everyone else is a freak. Making this move is scary because your foundational beliefs go up for grabs.
Relationships, then, begin with this confrontation with otherness. But they live and die by your willingness to make this move, this move that defies logic, this move that is scary and opens you up to all sorts of risks — disease (says the hypochondriac) and humiliation and everything else that comes from welcoming the radically alien into your innermost sanctum.
Which means who the actual person is doesn’t really matter. I know, I know — it seems like a harsh thing to say. Especially after you’ve made that leap because then, wow, you see the absolute particularity of this person and it seems like you’ve waited your whole life for her — the way she gestures as she talks and swallows the ends of her phrases, the gap between her teeth, the curve of her shoulders.
But there is nothing special about her. Or, better, there is something special about any number of women. What makes this one different is that you — not her — made this impossible, incredible, internal movement towards infinite affirmation. There is no one true love. That’s an absurd, stupid, and dangerous myth. What there is is the leap — your leap. Leap towards anyone and it’s the same challenge, even if the particulars are always particular.
She, or he, is going to be strange to you, inevitably and necessarily. We are all distinctive nodes within this vast network of forces, desires, bodies, and needs all distributing the world, thinking, believing, making sense in extraordinary ways. In other words, we are all freaks. And accepting another freak, utterly and thoroughly, runs against so much of our training.
Just look at dating sites and the nonsense they proffer to help people vet their would-be lover: Does he share my interests? Is he from my home town? Does he like rock climbing? Nature? Yoga? (Every single woman on Match.com loves nature and yoga. Every single one.)
These sites do everything they can to reinforce the ill conceived notion that the right person is out there — the one who fits all your stupid criteria: the right education, the right salary, the right hobbies. None of these things matter if you’re not willing to make the leap across an infinite chasm. And, I gotta tell you, up close everyone is a fucking freak regardless of where they grew up or what they’re interested in. You’re gonna have to make that leap, even if he’s from Berkeley and loves rock climbing. Or else you’re gonna bail.
Sometimes, you make this internal infinite move and still come across something that you just can’t accept. It can be something crass and obvious — drug addiction, stank, vapidity, and such — but that’s easy: you bail. You leap back whence you came.
But sometimes what you come across is plain old annoying — she texts for too long, she chews salad grotesquely, she always interrupts your stories. I know many women in my past cringed at my social demeanor, the way I’d obnoxiously commandeer a conversation (in my own eyes, of course, I was just being charming). These things are why long time couples bicker non stop. It’s a build up of resentments and annoyances.
What is our infinite affirmer to do? He’s cast his arms and body and spirit wide open, welcomed all the oddities but, fuck, that chewing! Well, humor is quite handy. Teasing and jokes are a way at once to accept without accepting and critique without critiquing. Humor is essential to romance and is part and parcel of the infinite leap, of infinite acceptance. (Avoidance, too, can work and should not be underestimated.)
But what about that infatuation, that intense desire you feel for someone, that magnetic, chemical draw that turns you inside out (this gets rarer as you get older)? It’s a downright sublime experience, beautiful and intense. And it sure as shit helps you make that infinite leap — it’s much easier to leap into the infinite abyss when the other side looks good and is calling your name emphatically.
But this intensity does not preclude the inevitable appearance of the chasm. Oh, it can stall it — maybe even for a while. But the radical difference of this other person will come forth and challenge who you are. And then you’ll have to decide: do I bail or do I leap?
In a way, that infatuation is easy, even if it tears your life apart. It pulls you, leaving little choice. But face to face with the abyss, there is nothing but you and your fear. You have to make this move on your own, even if it’s a movement towards another. Bailing usually looks, and is, easier.
And maybe we don’t need these insane commitments that demand so much, such leaps. They’re not the only way to go. Serial relationships with one or many that ride the waves of desire have their own challenges, their own beauty and value. In fact, this serial mode may be a more flowing, more liberating and, finally, less tortuous way to go.
But there is something incredible — something interesting and compelling — about opening yourself completely to another and letting the freak into your life. It demands discipline and surrender.
And it promises something more than the other person for it does not, in fact, promise that. She may not open herself to you. But because it is an internal movement, you will be different. You will be less tethered to your ego, less sure of what you believe, what you know. You will be more generous with the world.