June 1, 2001
Or did we not try hard enough?
by Annie Leyson
e have not fallen in love, my lover and I, and now I suspect we never will. In the place of love a different emotion, more subdued though also more enduring, has grown. And in place of the typical relationship of my past, something else has emerged: an understanding, or perhaps an arrangement. I struggle to explain this arrangement. For example, to call us lovers, in the narrowest definition, is to amputate the spirit of our relationship, although we are indeed lovers and my bed is our home. Likewise, to call us friends, girlfriend and boyfriend, or significant others, circumscribes unnecessarily.
Many times I decided that only when this liaison died would I be able to label it. A few months' space would provide the objectivity to deconstruct its cadaver and single out its salient features. I even considered whether the ending itself would provide a helpful clue as to the nature of this perplexing affair: a rabid breakup, or a listless, tortuous estrangement, or a careless drifting off, or my brutal and hasty departure to a faraway country or another hemisphere.
Twice I thought we had closed down and parted, but our highly civilized breakups did not succeed. The relationship revived on both occasions, spurred by the throbbing yearning born of our physical separation. We revived it in bed, under the same sheets where we contrived our vain finales, in the same fourposter sanctuary where we conduct all the important businesses of our arrangement: the sex, the midnight readings, the sleeping, the sharing of dreams, the inventions.
In the fertile intervals that precede sex, in the sluggish moments that conclude in sleep, we have devised a gallimaufry of fantastic thingamajigs. We have conceived clever radios capable of identifying and skipping the frenetic voices of advertisers, uber-trees engineered to grow apples and pears and oranges, digital picture frames programmed to display any number of interchangeable partners or spouses, and roving sushi delivery trucks to satisfy our late night cravings. We've accessorized our secret world with such creations, and when we're tired, we fall back on these childlike diversions.
By tired I primarily mean bodily fatigue, though we also have experienced a boredom that has crept in along the seams, and might have threatened a more tightly woven coupling. But our arrangement has never been constraining: no obligatory phone calls, no compulsion to plan weekends jointly, nothing to bring us together except need and habit - and when habit becomes tedious, or we begin taking each other for granted, he simply waits, or I wait, until the impulse arises naturally again.
Instead of restraints to keep us from wandering off, we have gradually, and probably unintentionally, built boundaries to prevent us from becoming too interdependent. After the first few months, when we actually dated as ordinary couples do, our weekday evenings and Saturdays and Sundays moved generally off-limits. We planned our vacations separately, our groups of friends stayed largely unconnected, our work and our lives proceeded normally, and there has been no desire or attempt from either of us to change this.
Even as our everydayness has remained unchanged, this thing between us has become extraordinary. In our secret world he disrobes to reveal a hidden self so intimate, so unspoiled, I would sin in wasting it. He seduces me with his humorous, voluptuous language; he asks the most naive yet penetrating questions; he presents his body to me like a gift, without fear, brazenly showing off his insecurities - and I am enervated by the privilege of all this.
On a night of little consequence he reads me poems borrowed from the vaults of his memory. He starts with Shakespeare and Yeats and Frost and e. e. cummings, then he recites Neruda in Spanish and Rimbaud in French, and Apollinaire too. Other nights I light candles and he reads erotica out loud by the flickering flames, one set of fingers holding the book open and the other drawing delicate circles on my thighs. He brings me Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham, and I also read him his favorite Barbapapa adventure, the one where countless Frenchmen trapped in a burning hotel are saved when Barbapapa turns its back into a pink fire escape.
Many mornings, especially in the quiet of his departure after a night of poetry, I wonder why I don't love him, or why he doesn't love me. We first divulged this mutual lack of love about ten months into the relationship. I felt relieved that our emotions were symmetrical, that no imbalance threatened to derail us. Yet I also felt terribly sad - this wasn't ironic, as he suggested, but tragic. I never imagined I could feel so close to someone, physically and intellectually and in every possible way, and not be in love with them, and not experience the pressure in my chest, the mixture of acute fear and ecstasy, the fever in my blood scalding muscles and bones...
Instead, when we're together we float aimlessly, like ethereal bubbles in a river of sweet wine. We seal out our real lives: his consulting job, my nursing position. We flee from the city, from the concrete, the metal, the noise and the air - and the threads of breath that escape our kissing lips act like a gas that makes us lightheaded, innocent and playful. We lie at peace here: safe from the expectations of love and from each other, safe from betrayal, disillusion and hurt.
We care deeply for, and respect, each other. We are highly combustible and compatible: we share a passion for dancing, a taste for lingering naps on sloppy gray afternoons, a tendency to cynicism and disregard for social conventions. And we have enough differences to keep the wires taut: he's grown bored of my party-hopping, I've tired of his married friends. He makes fun of my feng shui and I of his obsessive organization. He leans right while I lean left, he's an introvert and I'm an extrovert.
Perhaps our biggest disparity is that he accepts our lovelessness as a matter of fact and I often despair of it. He seems to enjoy what we have without questioning it; I enjoy too but in the middle of the day I can't help wondering if something went wrong. Did we skip a step along the way, did we deviate from the correct path? Or did we not try hard enough? Is it possible to add up all the right components and still finish short? Or maybe we are in a different kind of love, one we're too immature to comprehend? I only hope the problem is not that we didn't allow ourselves to fall in love, that we didn't somehow repress the symptoms of love as we waited for the other to display them, and in that repression lost our opportunity.
This anxiety over our missing love was one of the reasons I lobbied for our separation. Another reason: the concern that we had grown complacent, happy to continue a dead-end relationship simply because it proffered so much pleasure. If nothing else, I expected that a complete halt to our sexual activity would stir us out of the inertia and into the dating mainstream. I wanted to meet another man, have another chance to be in love.
We ended all contact abruptly and two months hence, when we had dinner together for the first time, he could hardly stifle his jealousy as I related my dating exploits. Only later, after we relapsed, did I understand the jealousy was purely, or at least principally, sexual. Again and again he asked pointed questions about the lover I had taken, even as we lay tangled in my bed. Was he good? How many times did we do it? Where? In this bed? Not in this bed, please.
He was mocking me to some extent, but I still reassured him that my fourposter was a lesser bed without him. My fourposter is the place where he has relinquished his most personal carnal fantasias and confessed me of mine. I asked him to tie me up, to dress up like Zorro in a black cape and mask, to find me one day in my flowered cotton apron and nothing else. He fancies surprise entrances: the creaking of his door one morning after he's slept alone, me sliding into his bed surreptitiously. He conjures up covert sex in public locales: a hand sneaking under the table at a restaurant, an arm vanishing below water in the pool, a quick toss in a hospital room before I run to my next patient.
No question: sex has been at the core of our relationship. He is the most sexually driven man I have known. Though his appetite is not insatiable, it is relentless. He comes to my house on Tuesday nights at 10 P.M., or on Saturdays at 2 A.M. after my date for the evening has dropped me off, or at noon on Thursdays on a lunch-break whim. He has achieved a mastery of my body so thorough that I often resist his advances only to better savor the euphoria of finally giving in. In the two years we have been together, he tells me, he has experienced the best sex of his life. And I tell him that he has most likely ruined sex for me, because I don't know if I will ever find another man like him, so selflessly dedicated to my sensual satisfaction.
Our pattern now is mainly nocturnal. He works and then dines with friends, or with a woman, or he meets people at bars or parties and when the urge fills him he speed-dials, or his phone rings, and he asks me what I'm up to. I'm on a date, or at another party, halfway across the city or three doors down. I say this and he pauses, and laughs, and asks me to call when I'm on my way home. Which I do. He arrives then, at eleven or midnight or one, with his heavy brown shoes, his thick belt, his torn jeans, and I undress him while he massages the small of my back.
An hour later I swing my leg over his and we dream of being young. We dream of traipsing across the desert in Morocco, making love under a tall white canopy, absolute emptiness outside except for the dozing camels and the cold bright night. We speak of renting a motorbike and riding from Barcelona through the French Alps and into Switzerland, wearing only goggles and no helmets and our hair whipping in the wind. We consider moving to a small Caribbean island and setting up a juicy offshore corporation, waking up every dawn to go diving, or jogging, or breakfasting to sumptuous croissants and black coffee. We dream romantic dreams and I smile to myself, as maybe he does too, because I know we will never do these things, because these are the things you do with the man, or the woman, you love. Thus we recognize the limits of our arrangement.
Love has spared us, and we are lucky in a sense. For some time I worried that only one of us would contract the illness. As much as I wanted to be in love with him, I hoped I wouldn't be the one to fall while he remained healthy and aloof. I knew if this happened, he would have killed the relationship. The first hint of affliction, of undue seriousness or excessive attachment, would have set off his alarms, or mine, and the arrangement would have unraveled in a matter of days, or hours.
So we look for love elsewhere. We date others, we meet them and dine them and lunch them, then we reconvene late at night. He debriefs me: this is also part of our understanding. He collects my date's vital statistics, he inquires about the evening's festivities. He points out the flaws in my suitors before I see them, or sometimes he simply nods, and I know he is not concerned - concerned that our liaison might end if I found someone else, as it also would if he did.
Although I've often imagined that our arrangement may continue even if we each find another mate, even if we marry. He says he's more afraid of cheating now, more conscious of the specific pattern of circumstances (an unhappy marriage, a lousy sex life, a temptingly short distance between us) that might lead him away from his marital niche and back into my bed. I try not to imagine what would happen if I was married and he wasn't, or vice-versa. Could I willingly forget his phone number... or would I be remiss?
I keep expecting our secret world to collapse. Early on, I persuaded myself we could end it by decree. Later, I decided one of us would succumb to love and make the arrangement untenable. Now I hope it will end when I meet a man I can truly love, though I also worry he will come across a woman who will steal him away, leaving me without friend, boyfriend and lover all at the same time.
I keep expecting an ending, for how can two people endure so long without love? And yet, perhaps it is this very absence that permits us to commune so uninhibitedly, that frees us to play and invent and dream. Ultimately - and here is what most scares me, and elates me - our relationship may survive because, unburdened by love and secluded in its own alternate reality, it will not interfere with, nor undermine, these other loves we so idealistically anticipate.
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