“It’s impossible to speak love.”
Thus my lover. It was late summer in New England and we were sitting on his deck overlooking the White Mountains.
“What I mean is this,” he said. “Love is immediate. But ‘I love you’ – that’s not. It’s propositional – something added.”
“Is that why you never tell me you love me, Roger?” I asked.
“You personalize everything,” he said.
I smirked. It struck me, as I looked beyond his graying head to the mountains – he was sixty-eight; I was seventy-one; we were each other’s second – that a “good life” was (pardon the reference; it’s a professional affliction) a utility curve: increasing dramatically at first, with every new deck and mountain view, then adding only in falling amounts, as if the new stimuli had failed to touch the senses.
I suppose it’s the same for drug addicts.
“What you call ‘personalization,’” I said, “‘is just another name for confronting theory with facts.’”
“You’re a woman,” Roger muttered.
“Besides,” I said, ignoring this, “‘I love you’ isn’t just an afterthought. It’s an emotional peak.”
“I hate the term ‘emotional,’” he replied. “It’s clinical.”
I rolled my eyes. I knew why he was in such a foul mood. His friend, Virgil Peterson, was arriving in the morning. They hadn’t seen each other in forty-five years.
Roger and Virgil had lived the classic story: Two Midwestern boys, both uncompromising, make friends in the feverish intellectual atmosphere of the University of Chicago. One graduates a businessman, the other, a philosopher. After college, they find their paths incompatible, so they break off. Then – the contemporary twist – they meet again on Facebook. One invites the other to visit; and so we have – grouchy Roger.
But that’s not quite it.
Roger is the one who broke off with Virgil. The ostensible reason was ethical: Roger was a socialist, while Virgil believed in laissez-faire capitalism. Society works best when each looks after his own. This basic paradox (which, incidentally, is true, as I know not only professionally, but personally, because I’ve been forced to look after others my whole life) felt to Roger, especially after Virgil’s marriage to a beautiful and thoroughly engrossing woman, like an excuse to be ignored.
“I love you too much to be half-ass,” Roger had said.
Virgil didn’t respond. Roger had worked up the scene to elicit a declaration of love. Virgil took it like an experienced driver does a downpour: He slowed down, switched on his wipers, and proceeded.
“What are you mulling over?” Roger asked.
“Your life,” I replied.
“I’d better get another drink, then,” he said. He retreated into the house.
Roger lived in a sprawling Cape, built on over the generations until it had become an accidental Gehry. I liked to hide there, away from my children. (Ever since they were born, they’ve been hot on my scent.)
Roger came back with a glass of wine.
“For you,” he said.
“Are you trying to make up with me?” I asked.
“First we will make up; then we will make out,” he laughed. It put him in a good mood that I was thinking about him.
The sky faded to indigo. The stars came out, one by one, while frogs croaked in a marsh nearby.
“Are you worried about tomorrow?” I said.
“Yes,” he said simply.
“It was excellent of you to invite him, Roger,” I added.
“I didn’t think he’d accept, Jean,” he replied. “People don’t accept such things. It was a crazy offer to make.”
“But you’ve been waiting all these years,” I offered.
“That’s right,” Roger agreed. “But what do we do? He’ll stay for the weekend; then he’ll leave. The whole point of breaking off was to avoid this kind of wishy-washy, end-of-life dalliance.”
“You’re very judgmental,” I said.
“Ditto,” he added.
I’ve always thought that murder would be the worst crime to commit. One can’t be forgiven because one’s victim is dead. When we divorce, too, we’re abandoned: It’s those we loved the most that we can’t ever speak to again.
“You’ve got to let people change, Roger,” I said.
“My ex-wife,” he growled, “changed in a million ways. But she wouldn’t admit them to herself, or to me. I had to tell her what was what. She’d been divorcing me for thirty years – and I’m the one who had to file!”
I didn’t like his tone. “So you’re taking credit for the divorce,” I said sharply, “but blaming her.”
This brought him down like a lion. “You always personalize things,” he muttered.
“Yes,” he added, “yes, yes, yes, yes. . . .”
After a few minutes, he got up and went to bed.
Virgil’s plane was due to arrive the next morning. We drove to the Manchester airport to meet him.
Roger’s mood was artificially hilarious, as if nothing that could mean anything to him. The only way around it was to suggest that something was amiss, at which point he’d snap at you like you’d stolen his breakfast.
I was nervous, too. I’m not the sort of person who slows down for accidents – and I wasn’t sure how Roger and Virgil’s meeting would end. I also had the bad luck to be neither at the center of the meeting nor at a safe distance from it. I was stuck on stage in a supporting role. I retaliated with solicitude.
“Is everything all right, dear?” I asked Roger more than once.
“Yes!” he snapped.
“May I do anything to help?”
“No!” – and so on.
I should add something else. Virgil was the CEO of a major investment bank. Roger and I lived, as I’ve mentioned, a good life; we were tenured faculty at Dartmouth College. But we were employed by people like Virgil; our sushi rolls dropped from their tables. So Roger was envious of Virgil. He was also outmanned: Roger was sleeping with me, and Virgil was going on forty-seven years with his wife.
“It’s all very cliché,” Roger said, turning off at the airport exit.
“Yes,” I agreed.
He smiled at my frankness. “I’d like to think it’s cliché, though,” he said, “not because it’s obvious, but because it’s true.”
“What do you mean, ‘true’?” I said.
“I’ve been thinking about Dostoevsky lately,” Roger explained, “and about a Russian student I had recently. She said it would be awful if she never got to see her old lovers again. That’s Dostoevsky’s claim, too – that human beings, such as they are, couldn’t go on living unless they believed in a final reconciliation.”
“So you’re on your way to heaven,” I offered.
“Maybe,” he said. “But it’s one thing to want it to be true – even to prove its psychological necessity – and another for it to actually be true. Most of us don’t get to see our lovers again, or our friends. There is no heaven.”
“But you’d like there to be,” I said.
He looked over. “What I’d like there to be,” he said (and his voice was shaking a bit), “is the desire for it. It would mean we’re not such nasty people after all.”
“Just pathetic,” I said.
He laughed a bit uncomfortably. “You’re a cynic,” he said.
“Not at all,” I replied. “I just don’t believe in phantoms; nor do I believe that wanting to be a good friend makes you one.”
“What do you believe, then?” he asked.
I thought for a minute. “I believe that a few hundred years ago, one way of life ended. The new one lets a girl think straight.”
Roger snorted. He navigated us into the airport complex and parked the car in the short-term lot. We made for the baggage claim, where we’d agreed to meet Virgil. We were a bit early, so we sat down to wait.
I’m not sure if any of Roger’s colleagues has ever written a philosophical treatise on airports, but I think they would benefit from one. Airports are like econometrics – or imagist poetry – lifting us out of the everyday mess of traffic and language, but only by narrowing our options. An efficient idea survives; a jet is streamlined; and the Manchester airport has only one exit. The higher a person goes, it seems, the less room there is to maneuver.
I watched the passengers emerge, their eyes wide at the ordinary surroundings. I wondered if they’d seen Dostoevsky’s heaven up there, and gotten quite enough of it. I’ll bet most of them hadn’t looked out the window. Now that they were on the ground, searching for their possessions, they were all attention.
“I don’t see Virgil,” Roger said. He was looking around, too.
I saw an elderly woman pushing a stroller. Then I saw a young man dragging a large suitcase.
“My God,” Roger started, “what if I don’t recognize him?”
“You found him on Facebook,” I said.
“Right,” he affirmed.
“But they don’t always have photos on Facebook,” he continued. “Sometimes they obscure them, too.” He was patting his knee nervously.
“Why do they do obscure them?” I tried.
“They don’t want to be seen, I guess.”
“Then why be on something called ‘Facebook’?” I asked.
“They have to be,” he said.
“I’m not,” I offered.
Roger laughed. “That’s because you’re not ‘with it,’ my dear. Do you remember television? At some point, the ‘pro’ and ‘con’ were pointless. It was the new technology – the new reality – and you got it because it simply was.”
“You’re depressing me,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” he replied.
Roger was briefly distracted by teaching me a lesson; but he tensed again. No one else was coming from the exit. Virgil’s plane had surely arrived – the flight number was posted; the suitcases were rotating – still, no Virgil.
“Where is he?” Roger said nervously.
The claimants dwindled to a few stragglers, like a bag of microwave popcorn cooks down to a few burnt kernels.
“Where is Virgil?” Roger asked again, despair in his voice.
Suddenly I heard a man behind me.
Before I could register that Virgil wouldn’t be calling my name even if it were him, the young man whom I’d seen dragging a large suitcase approached me. I hadn’t recognized him; it was a student of mine.
“Oh, Zach!” I said.
“Hi!” Zach said. “How’s it going?” He was tanned from the summer and newly clean-shaven.
“I’m fine,” I said. “How are you?”
“Great!” he said. “It’s crazy to see you here.”
(I’m not sure if my students believe I’m installed in the classroom, but they’re always shocked to see me outside it. I feel approximately the same way about them, which is probably why I hadn’t recognized Zach.)
Roger was staring.
“One moment,” I said to Zach. “Try your cell phone,” I suggested to Roger.
“Cell phone,” he repeated. “Good idea.”
I turned back to Zach. “Please continue,” I said.
I tried to follow the two men at once – one heralding his future, the other chasing his past. It gave me a headache.
Roger snapped his phone shut. “He’s not answering,” he said.
“Is there a message?” I said.
He shook his head.
Zach sensed that something was wrong. “I need to catch the shuttle,” he said. “My roommate is waiting. I haven’t seen him all summer.” (I winced.) “Nice to meet you,” he added to Roger.
“Oh!” I said to Roger. “This is my student, Zach Wright.”
Roger scowled; then he remembered his manners. “Good luck at Dartmouth,” he said. “I’m sure you’ll like it here.”
“Thanks,” Zach said, a bit confused. Then he left us alone.
Disappointment is a relief, but one which keeps the original anxiety intact. When I was looking for my first job, I interviewed at a department composed entirely of men. And boy, they let me know it. I didn’t want the job as a result; but it was a good job, for money, at a quality school – and in any case, most departments were like that.
When I didn’t get the job, I was relieved, but still nervous. I had to support my lifestyle, which included two children. By postponing my harassment, I was simply postponing my life. People wonder why women get so “cold”: Well, when you’re looking forward to a career of being dismissed and you’ve already pushed two objects from your body (the “miracle” of birth), you learn to be a bit callous.
But I sympathized with Roger. I knew from his dismissive rant (“To hell with Virgil! I don’t give a damn to see him anyway!”) that he was badly disappointed.
“Roger,” I said, as he opened the car door for me, “I’m sorry, honey.”
He gave me a sour look. “Sorry?” he said.
“I sympathize,” I explained.
“Sympathize?” he snarled. “It’s my own goddamn fault.”
If Roger could believe that everything was his fault, he could avoid feeling vulnerable. If he could punish himself, he would close the circle.
“Sympathy isn’t pity,” I said. “It’s sympathy – what one shares.”
“Is that so?” Roger said.
“Yes,” I replied. “I don’t know why you’re so loathe to share things with me. You do in a way: You inflict them on me.”
Roger looked at me coldly.
“I don’t care for therapists,” he said.
“Oh, to hell with you, Roger!” I cried, and went silent.
Bad events, as the cliché goes, are like stones thrown in the water. There are ripples. There was nowhere for Roger’s disappointment to go, so I got it. I didn’t want it, so I threw it back at him.
“Do you want some lunch?” Roger asked after a few minutes.
“No!” I snapped.
And so on.
By the time we arrived home, it had become a lovely afternoon. The wildflowers were blooming and the clouds were forming and reforming like puffy Mandelbrot sets. I didn’t feel up to it.
Roger didn’t go into the house. He clambered across the yard, ostensibly to fix a broken feeder. I went inside and saw a light flashing on the kitchen counter. It was Roger’s answering machine. I pressed “play.”
It was Virgil.
“Uh,” the message began, in a slow, tired voice, “this is Virgil. I cut myself shaving. This goddamn shaver, it’s already busted. I don’t know why I threw away the old one. If I had any – ”
The message was cut off by a beep. (Roger’s machine recorded for only a few seconds. I’d been cut off by it several times myself.)
A second message began shortly after.
“It’s Virgil. I guess I was cut off. Well, give my apologies to Jean. Okay. Before it cuts out again.”
A few hours later, after Roger had listened to Virgil’s message and gone off alone for a while, he rejoined me on the deck.
“The bastard could have called me,” he said.
“He did,” I replied.
Roger looked at me. “You know, Jean,” he sighed, “this is where you could be less of a bitch.”
The pain was still there. Even when you want to, you can’t. You can’t.
“It was too soon,” I said.
Roger was silent.
“You can write him on Facebook,” I added.
When I paint – I’m an amateur – I balance bright colors against a static figure (say, a square). It’s the only way I can achieve any pictorial movement. If I could draw – if I could “take the line for a walk,” as Paul Klee puts it – I wouldn’t have to do that. The colors would move along by themselves.
“Is the feeder broken?” I said.
“Yes,” Roger replied.
Roger and I are bad draftsmen. Each of us holds a yardstick to life, slightly ahead of the curve. Our emotional calculus invariably fails. So we take up a new position: one extreme or the other.
“It was too soon,” I repeated.
Roger remained silent.
Then he turned toward me. “Would you have come, Jean?” His eyes looked strangely despairing.
I was shocked to see him.
“Of course,” I said.
He was silent for a moment.
“I love you, Jean,” he said quietly.
Oh, Roger. Roger, Roger, Roger.
“Darling,” I said. I went to him and held him.
I stayed with him for a few minutes. The sun had settled behind the mountains, leaving only its blush, the embarrassed smile of a senior who still plays hide and seek.
“What do we do now?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” He was twirling my gray hair.
“It’s not very pleasant.”
“No,” he agreed.
Stories – the ones we tell, anyway – are like a bedroom messy enough to suggest lovemaking, but not so cluttered as to be gauche.
“Do we still like each other?” I asked.
“Maybe we don’t.”
“Do you really think so?”
“E contrario,” I whispered.
“What?” Roger said.
“I said, ‘I love you,’” I repeated.