Who said love was easy? Writers shed light on the gorgeous complexity of what it means to swap hearts with another human being.
"Not Now You Idiot"
By David Sedaris
Every so often I'll come across my boyfriend, Hugh, rewiring a lamp or taking a nap on the sofa, and I'll find myself gripped by a sudden, almost furious urge to cherish and protect him. A wire dangling from his mouth, a 19th-century cookbook sliding off his chest: He's just such a dope that it melts my heart, even now, after 15 years together. So I'll shake him from his sleep or sneak up from behind him, only to be swatted away.
"Leave me alone," he'll say.
"But I love you."
"Great. Go carve it onto a tree."
Other times the situation is reversed and it is he who suddenly can't live without me. This happens most often when I'm engaged in a long-distance call, and the person on the other end is crying.
Beside the phone is a notepad, its pages reading "Get lost" and "Not now you idiot," antivalentines, and all in my handwriting.
I once believed that the god of love moved with efficiency, striking his targets almost simultaneously. ("You want me? Well I want you even more!") He was Johnny-on-the-spot at the beginning of Hugh's and my relationship, but as time passes he's become increasingly unreliable, and this, I think, is the hardest truth I've had to learn. Cupid draws his bow and after shooting me through the heart, he decides to visit relatives for a couple of weeks.
"But what about my boyfriend?" I ask, "Doesn't he get an arrow, too?"
Cupid looks into the next room, where Hugh is either taking a nap or rewiring a lamp. "Some other time," he tells me, and then, in a poof, he's gone.
My Learning Curve
By Walter Kirn
First comes love, then comes knowledge. And that's the whole problem: You feel before you think. You drink from the glass before you know what's in it, and you only begin to taste it once it's down.
What I've learned about love is that I never learn.
I should have learned the first time, but I didn't. I was 17 and she was 20. She was a dancer, or wanted to be a dancer, and I fell for her when I first saw her perform.
The song was something stupid by Tom Petty, but her outfit was as tight and bright as the shine on an apple. We spoke after the show, but what we spoke about I don't remember; all I remember is wanting to wedge my hand between her spandex and her skin. By the time I got the chance to do that, it was clear that we had not a single interest in common except for our interest in each other. Which wasn't enough, as it turned out.
Then I did the same thing again, with variations, and made the same old mistake in a new way. This time it was a picture that caught my eye and dragged my brain along after it—a book-jacket photo that I came across while browsing in an airport bookshop. I liked her looks but I also liked the fact that we shared a vocation: writing novels. No more inarticulate dancers for me. No more thick silences in cars and restaurants. I wrote a letter to the woman, and when, against all odds, she wrote me back, I flew thousands of miles to New York to take her out. Our first date was a mere formality, though, because I was already in love with her and particularly with the long talks about art and life and so on that I'd never been able to have with the cute dancer but knew that I'd have with the lovely writer, and did have.
The last of these talks took place in couples therapy when the woman and I decided to part ways. I asked the therapist what I'd done wrong. "You acted without deliberation," she said. Her answer baffled me. If I'd deliberated, I felt, I might never have acted at all. Still, I took her words to heart, and for several years I deliberated thoroughly every time a woman piqued my interest. The result was...nothing. I did nothing. The moment I felt an infatuation start, I argued myself out of it by thinking ahead to the ways that it might end. But then someone grew infatuated with me, a possibility that I hadn't counted on, and I, undeliberately, decided to let her.
Fooled again. It never stops. First comes love and then comes knowledge. The problem is that it's new knowledge each time and it doesn't accumulate into lasting wisdom. It seems to, but it doesn't. Indeed, in my experience, applying the lessons from a past romance to a present romance is the surest way to ruin it. I know this because I've tried. And always will.
Till Death Do Us Part
By Jo Ann Beard
Someone once said that all happy marriages end in tragedy. Someone else once said that love is blind. The banal version of love being blind, of course, is that you can fall in love with a short man you think is tall or a miserly man you believe to be generous. But the true, majestic, incandescent blindness of love is its willful refusal to fully acknowledge that even the most perfect union ends in sorrow.
I walked in my house once carrying bags of groceries and saw my partner sprawled on the living room carpet, between the sofa and the fireplace. For just an instant, everything went into high relief, like a scene in a 3-D movie: the bags heavy in my arms, the throw rug bunched underfoot, the wall of bookshelves, the red sofa. My whole life, bathed in January light. In the brief terrible space between that moment and the next, when he stood up and walked toward me, I got a glimpse of grief as it would look in this new incarnation.
And perhaps, for those who have had that glimpse, it is partly the encroaching darkness that makes the light so vivid. Artists in the 17th century understood this very well, depicting it in paintings of luscious fruit and game, a blushing peach next to a hare so carefully wrought that a single drop of blood can be glimpsed along one slender whisker, and in chiaroscuro studies of faces that seem to emerge from layers of golden varnish, the curve of a cheek revealed gradually, the glint of light on a helmet or the avid, secret gleam in a woman's eye.
Someone else said the first cut is the deepest. Another living room, 20 years before, when my mother was alive but fading, I came home to a different house, with shadowed corners and tall windows, in the town where I grew up. I returned from her hospital room each night to collapse on the sofa, sometimes falling asleep still in my coat and gloves. Losing my mother seemed impossible—she was never so alive as during those months when she fought to stay that way. But she died nevertheless, young for her age, and for mine; buried on a day so cold that even her staunch midwestern family couldn't stay to watch her lowered into the ground. Buried with her was my belief that certain things are too bad to happen.
They can happen.
In Eric Rohmer's witty comedy Claire's Knee, a middle-aged woman holds forth on heroism as she stands before a painting of Don Quixote, his eyes covered by a tattered white handkerchief, his expression beatific. He's on a wooden horse but thinks he's flying.
The heroes of a story are always blindfolded, the woman explains. Otherwise, they wouldn't do what they do.