It's joy, it's misery, it's an ache that you miss when it's gone—what is it about desire that has such a hold on us? Patricia Stacey takes a tutorial on a subject as old, knotty, delicious, and confusing as love itself—though love has nothing to do with it—and discovers the real laws of attraction.
Late spring. I was in my first year of college. Big Sur and Monterey Bay shimmered through a ferny redwood foreground as my boyfriend and I sat in my college library social room watching a play. Daniel, my tall and beautiful admirer, leaned in close beside me, laughing and waiting for me to laugh with him. I lifted Daniel's long, expressive fingers off my leg, tilted my head away just so slightly, and crossed my legs into the aisle. I wished we could be like the other couples in the room, fingers entwined, occasionally looking at each other with shared mirth and recognition, but I couldn't do it. Especially not with a professor sitting behind us—watching our every move. And especially not this particular professor.
Bald, intense, white-mustached, and as old as my grandfather, the man I'll call Professor Bellagio taught psychology. He was known for his research on the subject of desire. Charles Bellagio was a legend, a hero. I often saw him strolling with his wife, a retired physicist, a silver-haired beauty. One day I mustered the confidence to visit Bellagio in his office and asked if he would sponsor me in an independent study.
"What do you want to research?" he asked. I suggested something rather dull.
"I have a better idea," Bellagio said. "How about desire? You know it's my field. Are you interested in the topic?"
Interested? The truth was I'd been fascinated by the subject for years. I nodded dumbly.
"We'll meet next quarter, once a week," he said. "Keep a journal until then and bring it the first day. I want you to define desire for me."
Bellagio was sitting in a corner of his large office in an overstuffed chair, smoking a pipe, when I found him that first official day of our independent study. He motioned for me to sit down directly in front of him. He crossed his arms and sat there staring at me. "What is desire?" he finally asked. Shy and panicked, I didn't answer right away. He pulled my journal from my lap and read the only sentence I had written there: "Desire is a joke created by a willful and perverse minor deity with a chip on his shoulder."
Bellagio flattened out the hairs on his snowy mustache and studied me. Then he said, "Were you afraid to be serious?"
"It's not that—it's just that I am not sure I'm going to be very good at figuring out what desire is. My relationships always end disastrously."
"We'll have to go to the experts," said Bellagio quickly. His speech was like lightning, his mind firing fast; his body was slower, an echo of that light. There were rumors that he'd had a stroke. He stood and, walking with a slight limp, made his way to the book-lined wall of his office and plucked out a volume.
"The Golden Bowl?" I asked. "This is fiction. I was expecting something by a psychologist."
Bellagio shook his head. "Compared with this writer, most psychologists know nothing about love." He sent me home with a stack of fiction and one philosophy book: Lolita. Remembrance of Things Past. Of Human Bondage. Being and Nothingness.
Each week Bellagio assailed me with questions inspired by the reading. At first I struggled.
"When we desire someone, what exactly are we desiring?"
"Someone else who desires us?"
"Yes...that's part of it. So what then are you desiring?"
Under his intimidating gaze, I tended to look away to the sea outside his window. In the foreground stood an elegant arbor. Round about it wound a gnarled and flagrantly full wisteria. That day, searching for an answer to Bellagio's question, my mind followed the branches that twisted so tightly around each other they seemed almost choked. In those gnarled branches I felt there might be a way of thinking about his query: an image. The branches wrapped around each other—twisted, misshapen, but ending in such exquisite lilac-colored exuberance. Was this desire? A twisted, ugly distortion ending in fruition?
"So what do we desire when we desire a person?" Bellagio repeated.
I thought about the book I'd finished two nights earlier, about the sensitive little boy living in 19th-century Paris in Remembrance of Things Past. Young Marcel lies in bed, awash in delicious anticipation of his mother coming to kiss him good night. Yet in a stroke of irony, the moment he hears the rustle of her dress in the corridor near his door, he trades joy for sorrow. Her coming reminds him that she will soon leave, and he knows he will be left longing once more.
My eye fell again on the gnarled branches. "Pain," I said finally.
Bellagio leaned his head sideways and lit up his pipe as if to say, Think again.
"Well, okay," I said, considering the little boy aching for the rustle of the dress that might signal his mother's arrival. "Are we desiring the person's desire... I mean desiring the person to want us?"
Bellagio's wrinkled brow unfurled. "So we don't necessarily desire a person when we desire?" he asked, intrigued.
I was confused then. I remembered that later in the book the aristocratic Swann, pursued by a woman not of his class, is indifferent to her until one day he realizes she is with someone else, and a panic of jealousy engulfs him.
"When Odette was after Swann, he didn't notice her. And when he grew interested, she stopped caring about him," I said.
Bellagio looked up at me, his face shining, eyes flickering fire.
Emboldened, I went on. "It seems that another person's interest in us can often make our desire for them flee."
Bellagio leaned way back in his chair, kicked his foot up onto his desk, and smiled.
I don't know what gave me the courage to tell him what was on my mind, but I did. I was standing at the door, and instead of leaving I risked a confession. "Not wanting someone who wants you. It feels kind of...familiar right now."
"What? Are you living out your own Swann in Love?" he said. I knew he wasn't going to let it go.
"Actually, it's my boyfriend. You met him two weeks ago at the play." I blushed fiercely. I knew I wasn't being clear. "It's just that he kept leaning against me.... he's..."
"Always around? Too attentive?" said Bellagio.
He'd nailed it. "How did you guess?"
"Law of nature, of desire, if you will," said Bellagio. "He wants you, so you don't want him."
"But why?" I protested. "It seems like such a cynical interpretation of human nature—that we can only feel desire when we're with someone who doesn't reciprocate! Are you saying it's always going to be this way?"
Bellagio sighed, looked off into the distance, then at me with something like compassion and sadness. I imagined I could see a thousand failed love affairs pass before his old eyes. "Maybe with this young man, it will always be this way," he said, "but at some time in life we all play all parts in love. It's inevitable." He flashed me an impish smile and lifted his two index fingers, parallel, not touching. "Let's say that when you sat at the play with your young man, you were leaning this way." Slowly, he tilted his right finger to the left. "He was leaning this way." Bellagio's left finger followed the other, tilting so that the fingers were once again parallel. "Maybe someday, if he leans this way," Bellagio pulled the original finger back, "then you can begin to lean toward him." The other finger rushed to rejoin its partner.
"I don't like being the one running away," I said. I felt regret, especially remembering my first month with Daniel: perfect. But I confess to feeling, along with guilt, a perverse pride in my growing indifference. Bellagio quickly put me in my place.
"One day you will play the other role. You will be the one wanting more from someone and he will be the one leaning away."
Dread rushed in to replace my egotism. As much as I hated being responsible for Daniel's anxiety that he wasn't getting enough from me, I felt a sense of relief that I wasn't the one lacking, out of control. "But real love isn't like that. It should be fair! It should be balanced!"
Bellagio smiled. "Love? Were we talking about love?"
After that night, thinking about Bellagio's theory, I began fantasizing about leaving secret notes under Daniel's door. Hold back. Don't give so much. I had a gnawing sense that all Daniel needed to do was pull a stunt or two, something calculated to make me jealous, and my feelings for him would awaken. At our next meeting, I told Bellagio my idea.
"There's one problem with that scheme," he said. "Another law of nature. We love what is scarce, but you can't make yourself scarce when you don't want to be. It's a psychological contortion. Like trying not to blush, or suppressing a sneeze. Desire, like truth, wills itself out."
Two weeks later, Bellagio dropped a book in my lap. "We're going to be looking at the greatest psychologists of all."
I looked down at the title. "Economists?" I was perplexed.
"Of course, economists. They study what people value. So tell me what people value. What do we value?"
Bellagio lit up his pipe. "Why do we value gold?"
"It's beautiful? Useful?"
"What else? Why is gold expensive?"
I said the first obvious thing that came to mind: "Because there isn't much of it?"
Bellagio brought his hands to his lips as if in prayer. "Exactly."
"So what you're saying is that it is those things that are scarce in this world that are most valuable."
"Yes!" he said, his calm, equanimous smile cracking into a childlike grin. "That's what makes the stock market go up and down. The stock market, like the market of love, is driven by an illusion."
I was only 20, still believing that money, symbolic as it may be, was inextricably attached to the real—labor, sweat, goods. I said something embarrassingly naive like "Aren't stock market figures due to how a company is doing? Quarterly reports and such?"
"No," said Bellagio. "Not really. The stock market is more about what's in our minds, what we think. Like the market of love, it's driven by our beliefs."
Another day, not long before the end of the quarter, sitting in Bellagio's office, I found I had lost my concentration. We were talking about supply and demand, but I stopped and looked pensively out the window at the wisteria. Eventually I said, "You know, I can't help thinking that desire has something to do with how we feel about ourselves. Have you ever heard the saying, 'I love you not for who you are but for who I am when I am with you'? Doesn't desire have something to do with wanting to be acknowledged?"
"Then you're saying that desire is a form of self-love?" He nodded, intrigued. "But, tell me, why not look in the mirror to find it?"
"We're all vampires?" I ventured.
Perhaps I was thinking about Daniel and me. We had finally broken up two days before that meeting with Bellagio. Daniel had come to my dorm and wanted to spend the night. Some people came by with blankets, flashlights, and guitars, on their way to the old caves in the mountains. I wanted to go; he wanted to stay back, together. We fought. In the end, we agreed it would be best to break up.
Outside Bellagio's office that day, the surf was choppy and white-capped. The clouds were closing in. I worried about my own failure—failure to make someone happy, to make things right, to attach. I asked Bellagio if the dynamics of scarcity and value still worked when you were older, married. He suddenly looked preoccupied and admitted that something unexpected happens when you get old: "You begin to desire desire itself." I looked at him for a long time. Then he opened his arms, and I moved toward him. It was the kind of act that, today, might invite censure, but I took it for what it was—a moment of tenderness from a man lamenting. There was something protective about his gesture, as if he wanted to keep me safe from all that might be lost to time.
The course ended. Bellagio asked me to write a paper on any aspect of desire. I chose the idea that in desiring we are in some ways loving ourselves, trying to find ourselves. What I discovered is that this idea—that self-awareness comes into being when we see ourselves reflected in another person's eyes—is a fundamental idea in much of Western philosophy. We are born, in a sense, in a process that involves other people's awareness of us.
I continued to take many courses in psychology, but none again with Bellagio. Yet his theory of desire—that desire is about what we can't have—consumed me as I began to have a spate of crushes. My teaching assistant in philosophy was a graduate student from Vienna I'll call Fabian. Of course I realize now that he was a guy on the make, but to me he seemed a romantic hero. Fabian had full, sensual lips set against skin so pale it seemed bloodless as paper, which lent him a slightly macabre cast (think Edward Scissorhands). With his greasy black hair falling into his eyes, his heavy brooding over tomes of philosophy, and a thick accent—which to my sophomore ears made the most banal of utterances sound as if he were reciting Goethe—he might as well have been Lord Byron himself.
One day at a philosophy class party, Fabian approached me as I sat in a wing chair. He leaned against it. In the background someone exclaimed, "This California beach town is a haven!"
"What is this haven? What does this mean, haven?" Fabian turned and bent toward me.
"It's a kind of...well...shelter, but a paradise too."
Fabian squatted, moved in close, and said, "Oh, I see. It is like..." He searched my face, staring intently, meaningfully, as if to imply "like love." It was a cheap and easy move, and I'm embarrassed that I fell for it. The truth is that it took me wholly off guard. I'd never met a man whose manner was so forward and suggestive. I was thrilled.
It wasn't long before Fabian and I were spending romantic evenings together—first we went to a movie, where he began kissing me during the opening credits. He kissed me throughout the entire movie, for that matter. Then I took him to the boardwalk and introduced him to the roller coaster. When I think back on those dates, they seem like an interlude in a corny movie—music plays, swells with emotion, the couple walk along the beach and kiss and kiss and smile into each other's eyes. They ride a roller coaster and laugh with abandon as they try to kiss and hold on to each other even as they are being rocked about.
That night changed the way I experienced the sea, the night air. It was as if someone had lifted a film from my eyes, my skin, my senses. I saw the realness of things, the very magic of existence.
"I can see why you like the roller coaster," Fabian said, as we sat on the sand. His cheeks were still flushed. He smiled into my face and studied me as if he had a new respect for me. I felt wholly other—seen anew. I felt admired, and that is what being with him was about, a longing to discover who I could be when I was with him (older, philosophical, European, cosmopolitan). It was as if, with him, I could walk into someone else's skin, or walk out of my own. I was leaving behind the college sophomore, leaving behind my hometown suburbs, leaving behind the depression and failure of those last months with Daniel. Oddly, the more I felt myself a new person with Fabian, the more differently I acted, as if his imagination was bringing me alive. I found myself saying clever things, teasing him, taking risks, and acting in a way I never had.
After our first date, I remembered Bellagio's theory about romance and the market, that we chase an idea. But this was no illusion. What I felt now seemed an attraction to a something so outside of myself. Fabian was no illusion. He was a current running through me, a force, a power, a necessity, like electricity. On our next date, he brought a thermos of martinis to Seacliff, where we sat on craggy rocks watching a swollen sun drop into the ocean. Afterward we made out in his car. He let me off at my apartment.
I wanted to call him to thank him that night, but I waited, hoping he'd call me; no call came. I determined to wait until the next morning. Well aware of Bellagio's theory about scarcity and love, I knew that I had to appear to be scarce—like gold.
My plan was to lie low for a few days, not answer the phone. The first time it rang the morning after our date, I nearly ripped it out of my roommate's hand. It wasn't Fabian. I sat in my room trying to read. The words skimmed the surface, wouldn't soak in. Thoughts of Fabian and his luscious lips (and what I imagined was "continental kissing") saturated my consciousness. I read page after page of homework without comprehension. I moved the phone into my room (back then, a complex negotiation). Unfortunately, the plan of appearing scarce grew intolerable by lunch; I was nearly shaking with anxiety. I checked the phone to make sure it wasn't accidentally off the hook. It wasn't. That's when I had an inspiration. Instead of waiting for Fabian to call me, I would call Fabian. Brilliant.
"But won't that make you look too eager?" asked Roberta, my roommate. I explained that I would figure out a way to make myself seem scarce, but actually get to talk to him. (Never mind that I was selectively forgetting the rest of what Bellagio had told me.) Here was my plan: I would make contact, but hang up quickly, thereby making myself look aloof, look scarce. In fact, I reasoned, I'd better call soon since acting nonchalant might make me so very desirable to Fabian.
After a brief greeting, I told him I'd had a nice time last night.
"Yes," he said. "Look," he added, "I'm grading papers, can I call you back?"
I hung up in humiliation. Not only had I not been able to prove myself scarce, but now I was the opposite of scarce. He could smell my desire. Desire, I thought. The bad breath of dating.
Day two: I abstained from calling Fabian. This was my diet.
Day three: I abstained again. A fast.
On day four, I saw him coming out of the library. A sheer coincidence, for which I'd spent several hours calculating. I had donned a stunning white sundress especially planned for this coincidence.
He approached, then spoke. "You look lovely—like a lovely white bird."
He eyed me carefully, searching my face for something.
I stood there. I tried to force myself to look away, tried to force my body to walk away, to turn, but all I could do was look back into Fabian's eyes like a simpering, longing kid...waiting...waiting and wanting.
Bellagio was right about hiding it. Desire is an open-mouthed fool. As much as forcing me to cry out: I am a smoldering cigarette butt. Walk on me. When you feel desire, you can't fake it.
Against all will, all intention, I looked up at Fabian with innocent, hungry eyes. I am air. Cheap as air. Free. Inhale me.
Fabian took a big breath. Was he nervous? Was he going to ask me out? He stared off into the redwood forest that surrounded our library. "Yes, you are so beautiful in that dress. A beautiful bird. Go ahead, bird," he said, "fly away."
Over my dating years I found that Bellagio's prophesy about playing both roles would be true. Sometimes I played the more uncomfortable part in that game of tag in the dark, being the seeker; other times I had the twisted privilege of wanting more freedom. But Bellagio had made me aware that desire sets up a dynamic, a game with rules that seemed to be invented in some torture chamber of the heart—all devised to make seeking real love, real connection, quite simply painful. We want what we cannot have—that is the strange irony of desire, of passion. And when we have it, often we lose that wanting.
And then I was married. I had always feared marriage as the end of those electric moments of discovery, of passion, that exquisite exuberance that comes with desire. If passion required scarcity, how can someone seem scarce if they use your bathroom every day? How can someone seem scarce if they become so common as to be almost invisible?
Yet marriage, paradoxically, set me free. It was the great equalizer. In marriage, it didn't quite matter who was leaning in which direction. Sometimes I was running away, looking for time to myself; sometimes my husband was the one who ran. The power struggle of desire versus freedom faded into the background as we got on with the business of making a family.
The Buddhists say that all desire leads only to suffering. Perhaps this is what Bellagio meant when he spoke of desire as an illusion. But what replaces that erotic feeling of aliveness that characterized my first dates with Fabian?
What we have lived in marriage, of course, is what countless people have lived: the realization that in giving, in truly loving, we actually stop wanting. In desire, we go from a place of need and try to satisfy ourselves; in loving, we leave our own needs behind and paradoxically find them met.
Still, there has been a way of capturing some moments of passion. I confess that my husband and I have stumbled onto a trick whereby each one of us is "the one who wants more," each one of us is the slave to love. The answer comes in having children (and, in our case, one with special needs).
The secret is in being so busy, so distracted, that we inadvertently make ourselves "scarce." Between balancing four separate schedules, driving to doctors' appointments, shuttling kids to lessons and playdates, and frantically making money to pay for them all, we rarely, if ever, have time for each other. We are usually too exhausted to think about desire. We no longer desire desire; what we desire too often is solitude.
Still, if some evening (or even some month or year) we find ourselves awake at the same time, and strong enough to hold our eyes open in dim light, we may look up and suddenly see each other, almost as if we had just met, and I feel again what I felt when we were first dating. Then intimacy becomes as illicit, as surprising, as fantastical—and even as surreal—as if we were making out on top of a roller coaster. Probably because we are.
Printed from Oprah.com on Friday, March 7, 2014
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