When we first met I had just learned how to swim. I’m glad he didn’t know me before then, standing at the edge of the water watching everyone else, too afraid of what was beneath the brown surface, much less how to stay out of the depths. I stalled in learning the skill because I’d nearly drowned at age three in the same place he learned to swim. It took me nearly another decade to conquer the fear, or the lack of enthusiasm. I am this slow at many things. I am this afraid. But he found that out anyway. He didn’t need to see me sink in the ocean to learn it.
I think: this can’t be real, this series of choices and accidents that have led me here, hundreds of miles away from him. Whose book am I living by, and why? Once I mapped the distance between us, seemed satisfied to know it. But it remains endless and insurmountable anyway.
One recent night, after too much thinking along such lines, I convinced myself that I was not in love but depressed, afflicted. I researched alternative treatments for depression on the Internet. In a forum, someone had written a day-by-day account of their first two weeks on St. John’s Wort. The person frequently described feeling within myself. That sounded like a clinical term but also an idea I was familiar with. Yes, tonight, and yesterday, and all these sullen days leading back to last month and possibly a decade ago, I have felt within myself.
Love is not the answer, unless it is.
I wanted him to do something to me. Pick me up and throw me. Pinch me. Elbow me. Anything. A line thrown. If I’m scientific about this I can say that what I was looking for, am looking for, is oxytocin: the “love drug,” the hormone that spills forth with the help of eye contact and touch. It’s why when I first saw him again I felt nothing: his eyes were shielded behind sunglasses, so dark I couldn’t make out anything about them, that they were even his eyes. I would see them later. I would see too much of them. I would see them looking at me in a way that suggested that drug was coursing through him too. They seemed to glow sometimes, to pulsate, as if I’d just shone a bright light on him. But it would never be enough for me. I found myself withdrawing from him, from his eyes, from his presence, because I knew no amount of the drug of him would suffice.
I think of him in the car now, hour after hour, controlling us at the wheel. Directing us. He could have killed us at the speed he’d been going and I think I would have been fine with it, fine to go out that way. Could that possibly have been our end? Accidents are accidents, but he and I aren’t reckless people. I, particularly, am not a reckless person. But he’s given something reckless to me.
Now he’s alone again, a free agent, and I think too much of him skidding off his motorcycle into a ditch, and those little white crosses adorned with fake flowers on the side of a knoll to mark the spot of a fatal accident. It’s impossible for me to see that he could crash and not die. Impossible for me to see that he may never crash. Is this love? Or is this anxiety manifested on behalf of somebody else so as to look acceptable, noble? I think without me there to watch him, he falls, he withers, he disappears, he dies.
I can’t remember what day it is, which was a suitable feeling to have on our island of deferment, but not here, in this large city illuminated by a scalding sun. Life rolls on, so quickly and terrifyingly in this place I’ve chosen as my home. I inhale bags of marijuana vapor, an inherently antisocial activity, and I turn my love into projects, verbal and musical. I dump words cut with frequent line breaks onto a page and hope to eventually sculpt them into a narrative, deleting the egregious things or saving them for some future purpose because they all seem so precious, really. That’s not love. That’s not even depression. That’s some perverse form of narcissism.
I bought the perfume that I always put on before I’m leaving the airport, his airport. I tip the tiny bottle onto each wrist as I walk down the street. He’s never smelled it but I imagine the smell somehow becoming significant to him in the future. For now it’s the scent of him, the scent of seeing him and not-seeing him.
I spend too long concocting music to give him. He thinks it’s just entertainment but to me, it’s a mode of communication, enhanced, superior to the other methods available, psychic. It’s supposed to mean something great, grand and great. It’s supposed to endear me to him. It’s supposed to reinforce the connection, strengthen it. And I don’t know what else. Seduce him. I want him, at least, to drive too fast while fast listening to it. Then I think too fast and my stomach sinks. Does he act that recklessly alone? I think it’s just for show. When no one is watching except the truckers and the commuters on the highway he goes easy.
And a million years ago in the back of his first car, a hand-me-down, crimson, diesel. I was folded into the back, asked him his favorite song by the artist playing for lack of anything better to say. He wouldn’t remember this or most other things that I remember. That feeling, of desperation, of an inability to connect to him, is as ingrained in me as a scent. I practice it. I reinforce it. It’s a bad habit.
It seems outdated now, part of the ’80s propensity for highlighting the alleged differences between the sexes, but in exploring the connection between depression and love, or at least fraught love, stifled love, impossible love, I came across a review of Unfinished Business, Pressure Points in the Lives of Women, published in 1980, that still resonates somewhat today. “The terrible bargains that are made in the effort to avoid confronting ‘aloneness’ are in fact at the source of much female depression,” wrote the author Maggie Scarf. Men, she argued, are more likely to become depressed about professional achievements than romantic isolation. Or at least, they were in the ’80s.
“Women who fail to do the inner work of separation and attachment at key points in their life cycle remain ‘stuck,'” wrote Maya Pines in a review of the book in the New York Times, “very much in risk of depression. Their ‘unfinished business’ is bound to exact a cruel payment at a later date.”
Unfinished business. Instinctively, reading such things I find myself saying that I have no problem being alone. But that isn’t exactly true. I enjoy aloneness, space from a partner or friends, but I don’t enjoy being without a partner or friends entirely. I think I enjoy it – until a subject appears in my view, alluring and distracting, a muse, a star around which to orbit. When I was young, far too young to love properly, he appeared, and the absence of him, previously seen as freedom, as just life, became painful.
When we’d had the chance we should have run away, like the pair in Moonrise Kingdom, to fray our big toes on the barnacled sandstone on the beach. But there would have been nowhere for us to go. There was nothing to run from. We had run to this place. So instead I would run away when I had to, back to another kind of life. It was that push and pull, wanting then not wanting, togetherness and aloneness, that cut like a lightning bolt through my childhood, changing my chemistry so that I became more delicate, protean, uncertain only until he or someone like him could provide some bit of certainty, real or imagined.
Now: I occupy myself with people and action and movement but my heart’s not in it. I wish I could live a parallel life, to follow him through the rest of his days and follow myself, too, through the rest of mine, as they intend to go now, occasionally decisive, mostly just happening, no more remarkable to me than the ticking of a clock. I don’t want to choose. I know we won’t overlap enough unless I make the leap and tell him everything. So maybe magic, splicing myself down the middle, would be enough. A friend said to me: It’s time to put on our big-girl pants. I’m not, but I’m not sure why I’m not.
It’s not changing myself for someone else that I’m after; it’s doing whatever I need to to be able to get in a car and drive, to have nothing inhibiting me, to have nothing caging me. I want to be the type of person who’s too busy to be sad and lonely, so busy the sadness evaporates. That’s him. He talks often about keeping busy. That’s something only my mind is good at. Just, for example, the number of ways I can think about the same 45 minutes, minutes that have drifted far back into his past now, insignificant, or at least pushed to the side, good as gone, to make room for the present.
That the familiar music sounded different, better, in his car. That I nearly started to cry, as prone to tears as my grandmother, about the inevitably of the end of the ride, though it wasn’t nearly over yet. I want to still be there and forever there. It angers me not to be there. I make myself deaf listening to the same music in the hope that it could somehow make me believe that I still am there. Adapt, I tell myself. Adapt away from him. But as long as I have my brain for a brain, I’m still sick with him.