On Being A Lover
I’ve always been a romantic.
It’s looking up your former lover while you’re in town and walking into his work unannounced— “Hello.”
It’s having sex with the boy you dated in high school in the back seat of his car, as adults.
It’s remembering that wordless interaction with the talented stranger on Governor’s Island, and finding out two years later that he remembers it too.
It’s the impossibly handsome man twice your age walking up to you while you’re working a summer job at an old-timey department store, and telling you he wants to take your picture.
Then you get to be the girl who tells the next older man, the one who drives you around Paris on the back of his vespa, “Don’t worry, I’ve done this before.”
Then you get to tell the next guy with a vespa, “Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing.”
It’s apple picking. With every boyfriend you’ve ever had.
It’s positioning yourself in the right place so that you can “discreetly” kiss your secret-work-lover at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Just like you did last year. And the year before that.
It’s the clichés, really. One string of silly-face-and-kissing photo-booth photos is cute. But looking at a stack of them with different partners starts to feel like looking into a hall of mirrors.
Because the juxtaposition of these rituals, the ones that are supposed to be so fun and fancy-free, inevitably evokes a transparency-style layering that makes me feel sort of muddied. Like a sketch that’s been traced over too many times. We can’t impose what is supposed to be impulsive.
But of course, that’s what we romantics do. We crafters of stories, architects of tales.
We see and speak the narrative as we live it. “You kind of want to kiss me, but you’re maybe not going to,” I said at the end of a date. “I’m not?” came his reply.
Of course he did, and of course it was sweet. But I couldn’t just let it unfold. Even my romantic “lines” sound like they’re describing the scene, rather than being in it.
One of my exes got back together with his ex-girlfriend. The one he cheated on. With me. I have long suspected that I was attractive to him because, at the time, I didn’t want a narrative. Or not the one she wanted. On the rare occasions that the Ex would discuss this woman, the exgirlfriend-girlfriend, he talked about how frustrated he was that she wanted to get married and have kids, because he didn’t think that was necessarily the direction he wanted his life to go. He spoke of that trajectory with a disdain that in retrospect I find deeply caustic.
But then I was twenty-three, newly out of a highly-domestic too-grown-up too-early relationship, and I had no idea what I wanted. Running around New York City heavily under the influence of black eye-liner and tequila was about all the story-planning I could manage. In fact I wasn’t planning any stories, I was chasing them.
Not needing the Ex to be my boyfriend was exhilarating, to me and him. For about three months. And then suddenly I was in love
So was he, but he wouldn’t admit it. I remember dramatically trying to break up with him on New Year’s Eve because he wouldn’t tell me he loved me, drunkenly twisting some Shakespeare quote to suit my needs. Probably because he wouldn’t kiss me in front of our coworkers at midnight. Probably because he had only broken up with his girlfriend six weeks earlier and we thought no one at work knew we were sleeping together (ha).
I had grown bored with the secret narrative. I wanted security. He had blown me off on my birthday over the holidays, and that had hurt. Mistresses don’t get to spend special occasions with their men. I knew that. I had liked feeling mistress-y when the ex-girlfriend-girlfriend was in the picture, or at least I confused the sensations of guilt and audacity with something you could call a rush. But by December they were definitely done, and I still felt awfully mistress-y.
So I cried and I guilted and I pressured. I thought, like so many have before, that I wanted him no matter what. Under any circumstances. That I would put up with his unspoken, unspeakable love. That he would come around eventually.
Of course he did. And of course, sometimes it was sweet. But when I “got” what I “wanted”, it really didn’t look anything like I’d pictured it.
Some people would say he gave too little too late. But it’s as much on me. I wanted too much too soon. I let my inner romantic get the best of me. I couldn’t just be a lover, because I was too busy feeling like a mistress.
He did make room for me in the narrative, eventually. I remember obsessing over a book of photos that his ex-girlfriend-girlfriend had made for him. Pictures of them. Mostly one or the other, arranged next to each other. Very few together. I pored over it like a fairy-tale I wasn’t supposed to read.
A year later, when he was trying to woo me back, the Ex made me a book of photos of us. Mostly one or the other— very few pictures of us together exist. He filled the pages in between with Shakespeare quotes he didn’t understand that he had looked up on the internet. I didn’t find this book enchanting, I just found it sad.
The hooks this man left in me are still there. He made me self-conscious about my ears in a way I will perhaps never truly get over, ears that I had never been self-conscious of before I met him. It took me a year to finally re-don the socks I love so much that he had mocked me out of wearing maybe a month into our relationship. For a long time he was still in my head when I got dressed, when I ordered food, when I went out with other men. But it got better. For awhile I was angry. Eventually I was just aware.
So when I saw the photos online, the photos of the Ex and his ex-girlfriend-girlfriend resuming the positions they maintained before some mischievous wide-eyed waitress made him think he could have his cake and eat it too, I felt hollow. It’s weird to feel like an interlude in someone else’s narrative.
While he and I were together, I realized that I did want to get married and have kids. Maybe not with him, but I started to see it as a distant part of my ever-nebulous future. So when we broke up I reminded him that, in the long term, we didn’t want the same things anyway. He said I had changed his tune. That I made him realize he did want those things.
I guess that means now he’s ready to give her the things she always wanted. They look happy in the new pictures together. There’s one of them on New Year’s Eve, at the ball-dropping ceremony, doing what romantics are supposed to do on New Year’s Eve.
Sharing these revelations with a friend, she told me that I was wrong. It wasn’t him getting what he wanted— it was him being too scared to look for someone else. I’m not sure that’s what’s going on, but I sure as hell don’t want to be scared.
I had a lover. To this day he remains a good friend. We were talking about The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I put on my bowler hat. He told me that he liked being my sometimes-lover. How he saw me as a Sabina.
But I have certainly been a Tereza.
If I could have been a lover to my Ex, maybe I could have walked into his work unannounced years later and said “Hello” and had it be romantic. But I couldn’t be a lover then. I was reckless with my desires, and I got hurt. So I got scared. Kundera writes about Tereza’s vertigo, how it’s the result of her desire to ascend to something higher. And of course, vertigo is not fear of falling, but fear that we’ll jump.
For years I was dating. I went on dates. With various individuals. And I sat at bars and restaurants and let the anecdotes unfold. I sounded like a girl who liked apple picking and vespas and Paris and Shakespeare. And I started to feel the imprint of all of the lines that had been traced on the sketch, rounding the same corners time after time. I felt heavy. For the first time, I got tired. More than once I’ve looked into the eyes of a guy that I could probably really like, and just told him— “sometimes when I think about getting to know someone really well, it feels so daunting.”
It’s a lot of pressure, being a romantic.
Especially after two years of no longer loving someone you live with, five years after you make the leap from lovers to romantics. And you have to face that what he had loved was the lover in you. The romantic was always so there and wanted things like promises and refused to put on the bowler hat.
I had only transitioned from lover to romantic because being a lover had started to make me tired. I felt I had earned a stint as a romantic. When I am “on”, I am fully on, and am capable of keeping pretty much anybody up talking about it-doesn’t-matter-what until three in the morning. But “on” for me is so on— off looks like dead. Apparently I don’t do moderation very well. I thought the life of the romantic had an earlier bedtime, that that would be good for me. But eventually I came to be off way more than I was on.
Many years ago I had what probably should have been termed a “lover” relationship, except the two of us spent so much time dancing circles around each other that our orbits only intersected once. This hit me hard as soon as he was gone— gone gone. He hadn’t died, but he was nowhere to be found. After four years with the prototype for those late night discussions, I had to make the decision that none of it had ever been that important. Intriguing, yes, like a lover. But always temporary. Four years worth of temporary.
I reevaluated our connection and filed it under expendable. I labelled this effort as conservative, taken in order to render a rejection palatable. In reality, it was a desperate act of triage. My cognitive tools were busy reorganizing mental drawers while denying the need to staunch a bleeding artery. In the end I just assumed I had bled out.
Lovers you can think back on. Wistfully, amusedly, surreptitiously— still, they don’t require an emotional shell game so that you can pretend they were never on the table to begin with. When lovers reemerge you smile coyly, you kiss on both cheeks, you shake hands with their new companion, and you glide away with grace.
When this one came back on the scene, once again we began circling— this time as animals that are as wary as they are ravenous. The story, though. I tried to keep it light. We had discarded any gravity attached to this relationship over a decade ago. But the story. I was defenseless against the narrative. My inner romantic emerged with a force so clumsy it precluded any elegant dance choreographed by rightful trepidation and emotional wisdom.
The lover is safe in all of her uncertainty, because uncertainty has no needs. But this man reminded me what it was like to be implicitly understood, to be seen before all others, to be a constituent element of something that is better than the sum of its parts. The romantic wanted it. She wanted it so badly she needed it. And when the romantic comes out, the lover leaves. So again, I was neither.
Fool me twice, shame on me.
I don’t want to be shamed. And I don’t want to be scared. I’ve rested long enough that I’m not tired anymore. I have a big heart. Like Juliette, my bounty is as boundless as the sea— the more I give to thee the more I have, for both are infinite.
That’s the trick: letting “thee” be more than one person. Otherwise I start to feel a little less than infinite. Like maybe I need another person to help replenish my sea. And I can’t let anyone else do that right now.
Being a lover means not imposing the impulsive. Participating in the moment—not constructing it from the past or the future or from some weird birds-eye view. Ascending to something above sea-level at a reasonable pace so as not to incur vertigo.
Today I am a lover— yes, of apple picking and Paris and vespas and Shakespeare. But also of winter and stolen glances and postcards and three a.m. discussions and a song called “Saturday”. I am a lover of many things.