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Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
I’m a novelist who has put great faith in introspection and self-knowledge. Recently, however, I am blinded, disoriented and unable to interpret my feelings. It feels almost like an illness.
I’ve had a boyfriend for the last two years with whom I have shared a great love. He is also a writer. Our habit has been to live in rotating European cities. We spend a few months here, a few months there. I have a home in one of these cities to which I often return. I get exhausted if I stay too long away. He on the other hand stays on without me in the other, distant cities until we are reunited, often somewhere else again. I would say that in contrast to me, he does not have a home — he does not feel the dominant pull of a single place. He is a strange, idiosyncratic man, with a constantly surprising, brilliantly perceptive, but also counterintuitive interpretation of life. He has very few friends, and both little ability and little need to form ties with others. Maybe for that reason, when he does form a bond, the intensity of his affection and the force of his powers of recognition are overwhelming. I am speaking in terms of my own sense of homecoming in finding him.
I am 34. About a year ago I told him I thought he and I should marry. You might say that was my first mistake. But I did want to marry him! Both because I can’t imagine loving anyone more than I love him, and also because I was 33, 34. Is that crazy? I look off into the future of my life, I consider the prospect of not marrying, and it makes me sad. I imagine it as a series of love episodes, a bunch of starts, rather than a progressive deepening toward a middle and an end. Also I would like to have children.
It is probably not hard to imagine his reaction. Surprising, given the kind of life we lead, he does not like to gamble. He structures his life around very small, controllable ventures. His fiction is much sharper and more precise than mine, and also more perfect. His days are disciplined in his own way: around his hours spent on a park bench, his hours reading through the coupon inserts from the supermarkets (he can find those in any city), his hours spent observing the seagulls, his hours spent writing and reading. He has some qualities of the classical engineer — a kind of brilliance that is not necessarily always able to pick up on human motivations. So the talk of marriage was incomprehensible to him. To the idea of children, in particular, he objected violently. He insisted that he did not want to be integrated into society, any society, and children, he knows, bring about integration. He also takes the two of us for granted. He seems to think that he has me, I have him, and marriage is a barbaric ritual invented by the others.
But I did not take him at his word on this. Regardless of all that he claims to want and believe (and in that subordinate clause alone, you can probably foresee Mistake No. 2, he is not always able to see very far ahead, erring on the side of caution and control, and I have played the role in his life of the visionary, the invisible spring in the lake, bringing moving water into the still. (In return, I hasten to add, he helps me with precision, with the careful execution of daily tasks, which I, excessively dreamy, tend not to focus on.) In any case, I thought if I pushed him to something new, as I have often done in the past, I would be leading him to good things. Also, there was the matter of my own powerful need. I couldn’t let it go. It would have been unfaithful to myself. Maybe all other reasoning was a rationalization for this one overpowering motive.
So finally, after much talk, one night in Greece we became engaged. And in fact, despite all that I’ve said of him, he was glowing, as though the step meant something to him. Soon after, I went home. I was nervous but overjoyed. He stayed on in Greece. I told my family about the engagement. Everyone was very happy for me.
But in the weeks that followed, he stopped getting in contact. Finally an email came from him in which he said no. He would never be able to offer me uninterrupted love. He said that the talk of marriage had been a sham, and that, in fact “all of [his] commitments to [me] were bound to be contingent, and all of [his] promises fragmentary.”
The email was all that he gave me. Otherwise he had disappeared, no phone, no Internet connection, and I was obsessed by the emptiness. The uncertainty was horrible. I lost my head, really. I became unable to sleep, unable to write, distraught, fearful, crying stupidly each day. At the same time, I understood that I was at fault. But that did not make the pain any less. In fact, it increased the pain, because I knew that I could not take back what I had done — I really did need to marry him. In this almost delirious state of pain and uncertainty, I flew to Greece, convinced that I would only understand the situation if I saw him.
The time in Greece was not good. I almost don’t want to write about it. He was warm one day, cold the next, constantly reversing his position, unable to decide, although slowly, one truth was arrived at: He could not give me a definite yes.
I should emphasize that I am, as a person, far too sensitive. But even I was surprised by the manner in which I became physically undone. Twice I tripped and fell down hard in the street, out of exhaustion — an extreme form of “frayed nerves,” I would say. Beforehand, if I had read about someone falling over in the street as a result of frayed nerves in a novel, I would have considered it histrionic and overdone. But the reality was: scraping my knees, sitting down heavily in parks to cry. I went to the airport alone — he did not come with me. He did not get out of bed the morning I left. The final message from him was that he loved me, but that he felt we had to go our separate ways. We had different visions of the future; we were doing harm and injustice to each other.
Back at home I started rebuilding my life without him, which meant learning to work without the person who had given both my emotional world and my artistic life so much meaning. Half the time I was in misery. The other half of the time, I launched new projects. I looked to find a new, more social way of being in the world. Having lived with such an extreme introvert, my own introversion had been emphasized for some time. So I started trying to turn myself out. I tried to integrate with society, finally, absolutely and with a vengeance. I wrote more vigorously, I contacted people — editors in particular. A new kind of life started to come together for me, although I was still, maybe every other day, knocked down by a wave of pain over losing him.
Two months passed. Then one day a couple of weeks ago he showed up here. He came back contrite, carrying gifts, full of apologies. And nowadays, he is capitulating totally. He has a hundred ideas how we can make it work, how we can make everything work, he wants to marry me, he says; he wants to marry me, yes, and he now thinks he can even find his way to having children.
At first I was so moved. I went along with it. I agreed to try again. I was in love with him for two years! But I got sick with an extremely bad cold right after his arrival, and everything since then, on a hidden, subjective level, has been a blur of fear and bitterness and pain. The new life I had begun for myself starts to unravel; the old happiness I had with him previously does not return. I feel afraid of him. I feel like I’m losing myself. I’m in such a quagmire I don’t know how to write to you about it. I am spinning and unable to concentrate. I have lost my agency, lost my will, lost my sense of what I want, what is important, the orientation points are gone. I had found myself in this love, first it was all my joy, then it became a source of enormous pain, and now the very thing that I long for is the thing that I hate.
I have to interpret my depression; I have to make a decision whether to be close to him to see if I can cross the bridge of it, or make a definitive break so as not to prolong what must certainly be identified as hell.
Cary, I know that in the end it’s just love problems, and all caused by my pushing of him. As Alice Munro says in one of her stories (and I’m paraphrasing), the problem with love is that while it may be fatal, it’s not serious.
I know only two things for certain. One: At the time I got engaged to him, I loved him truly. I was prepared to make a life together with him despite all our differences, knowing what it meant. I am a person who falls in love only very rarely and with difficulty, so the love I shared with him previously was a treasure worth all my kingdom, something I had been seeking in vain for many years before I found him. He is a man of brilliance and a man who dignifies what I do: the work of literature. The second thing I know, although I don’t know why, is that despite this, I feel awful now. I’m not feeling any joy over this new chance. The joy is gone. When I think of marrying him or having a child with him, I feel a wave of agitation and dizziness. Last night I dreamt that I married him in a wedding ceremony — we were declared husband and wife, the bells rang — he, however, was absent (a soldier gone off to war?).
What is going on? Why do I feel so bad, although he is here? I don’t know anything about myself anymore. I’m so disappointed in myself. Did I create this unconsciously? Did I, in some mysterious way, never unequivocally want him, and force the engagement in order to precipitate an exit? That would make my current ambivalence and lack of desire for him comprehensible and consistent. Or was the love the thing that was real, and the desire to make things work genuine, and I’ve simply suffered a shock to the system of trust? Or is the problem a crisis within me, a matter of disappointment in myself, having pushed for a marriage in which I must have known I’d be alone as I was the only one of the two of us who was going to enter into it voluntarily — and now I’m unable to trust myself to act any which way at all?
Cary, I have never missed a single one of your columns since you replaced Mr. Blue. I cherish your way of expressing yourself and your wisdom. I know you will be able to help me.
The Artist Formerly Known as Self
Dear Artist Formerly Known as Self,
You fell into a well. It isn’t important how you fell into the well. It’s important how you get out. It’s important to get out safely and completely and in a way that doesn’t leave you longing to go down into that well again out of curiosity or nostalgia.
Actually you fell in love with someone who was not ready for you. It’s the same thing, basically. There’s cold water at the bottom and it’s a long way out.
You have to shout. You did shout. You shouted to me, your old friend.
So before we lift you out of the well in the ingenious harness device, we want to make sure this doesn’t happen again. So let us tell you a thing or two about this well.
It can’t love you.
It doesn’t know how. All it knows how to do is be a well into which you fall.
Falling is OK. If you’re going to fall, though, wouldn’t it be nice to fall on a warm, loving, supportive surface that is sturdy and dependable with no trap doors and buckets?
That bucket is the weirdest thing. You only get so much water from the bucket, and it has to be cranked down to the water very slowly. You can see right there all the water but you can’t get at it without the bucket and the bucket is slow. Maybe that’s why you fell in — because you became impatient with the bucket and wanted all the water right away.
Recovery from such a fall means learning to stand admiringly behind the wall, with both feet on the ground, not leaning over the wall too far to peer into the depths. Don’t lean too far over the wall. Just know the depths are there.
Now we move from the well to the city street, where you collapsed. As you found out when you collapsed in the street, certain things have remained true for a long time. That doesn’t mean they are clichés. You are fragile. We are all fragile. I am fragile. We all need protection and care. You need protection and care. He is not ready to give you that.
He wants the fascinating part of you. But there is another part of you that is fragile and simple and human. He does not want to be with that person. That is very sad. That means he does not love you completely. He only loves the clever artist person, not the one who wants to have a baby and stay no matter what. Staying no matter what is big. It’s the whole deal right there. But he is not ready for that yet. He may think he is. He may have had an inkling. But I have my doubts, as you do.
Besides, it isn’t all that important whether in truth he has changed. He has already done the harm. You have already lost your trust in him.
He does seem to have changed in one sense: He misses what he had. He misses that sweet, lovely romance. But you are not asking for a resumption of the romance. You are asking for someone to say yes, forever, OK, I’m in for sure.
He does not sound like he is saying that. He is saying please come out and play with me some more.
You can end this now. I think you should.
Maybe he will come back in a year or two, changed, wiser, strengthened, grounded. Maybe if you have not found someone by then, maybe your magical connection can reignite and mature. But right now you need to break this off and heal.
Problems of the artist in a relationship:
1) The psychic demands of art are such that not much is left for anybody else.
2) In return for the artist’s services, we sometimes allow the artist to remain a child.
3) It can seem to the artist that any sacrifice of his time or energy is a loss to the art.
4) Another artist can seem like the ideal audience but he is not.
5) The ideal audience is us.
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia
Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, U.S.
Eiffel Tower, Paris, France
Colosseum, Rome, Italy
Taj Mahal, Agra, India
Siena Cathedral, Siena, Italy
Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France
Lost City of Petra, Jordan
Read it on Salon