Dodecahedrons of color and flavor and sound. Synesthetic sensations, startling when you realize that smells don’t have a sound, though in the next instant you recognize that, now that they do (they do!), it’s somehow more proper like this, it’s somehow fitting that the aroma of coffee emits a long cool orange tone (the sound is cool and composed, even though the smell itself is warm in your nostrils). And you lean back in your seat, one of those high stools that perch invitingly before a granite-topped counter, beyond which lie the bright French windows that lead out to the back garden of an Islington walk-up, whose exact street address you won’t remember unless you dig through a hundred journals to find out if you bothered to write down the address of the house where you lived for two months, one summer, years ago…
These sensory confusions only toll on the edge of consciousness. They will not be parsed. Elusive, like the more refined pleasures (which don’t enjoy being named), they dart away like little fish when you’re not looking. So that, then when you stride forward mentally, with the purposeful intent to feel them? You are left disappointed, and not remembering exactly why.
There are many things that toll this way, on the edge of consciousness.
How, for example, do we learn the habit of abstraction? How do we come to this tendency to flick away the bright world? To dismiss it as so much noise and color and blurs of motion? To say, oh yes, synesthesia, how diverting. To say, oh yes, I remember when I was 23 and had fallen in love with a British man I met in Portugal. We spent two weeks traveling through Spain together, then he headed back to England to work in a seed factory in his hometown of Framlingham. Two months later I took a train and then a ferry to England, too, ostensibly to meet my mother, who was touring with an American choral group. Eventually she went back to the U.S. (a miserable visit; she was more interested in flirting with all the surprised-looking Englishmen she met than in talking to me, the daughter she hadn’t seen in over a year). And I headed north, to visit Stuart in Framlingham. And soon found myself sleeping with him in the small bed he had slept in years ago, when he was a child. His mother called me “Pretty Face”; I took her out for tea, and on our way back to the house she kissed me on the cheek.
When I wasn’t staying with Stuart in Framlingham, Suffolk, I was living in Islington. A man I had met––Max––was renovating his mother’s house while she spent the summer in Aix-en-Provence. He lent me an empty bedroom on the top floor of the house and a set of keys. I came and went; sometimes, in the morning, we’d have coffee together. At times, then, we’d look at each other in the pauses in the conversation, considering. I was in love with Stuart, of course, so I didn’t consider it seriously. And I liked living in London, coming and going, without complications.
Stuart was jealous, living in Suffolk, working at that seed factory before he left for New York, where he would be starting his graduate degree in political science. I liked the irony: he was a self-professed communist (in the way that one could be a communist, in England, in the eighties, before the breakdown of the USSR and opening of Eastern Europe). But Max’s mother had been an actual communist, in Mexico, with Che Guevara and Fidel. She was one of the girl comrades. I asked how it happened that she now owned a house in Islington and summered in Aix. Max told me that she had turned on the communists because they (the male leaders) claimed that, in the spirit of rebelling against bourgeios notions of property, all the women had to sleep with any man who desired them. This was sexual communism, emancipation of (male) desire. And so Max’s mother ended up leaving the group, and marrying a rich London banker, many years older than she. Layers and layers of irony. But that is not this story.
Eventually, Stuart left for America. I went to Morocco. We were apart for months, and I marveled at the ache inside me. “The physical manifestation of feeling!” I said, marveling. And four months later, found myself in New York also.
The intensity of our feelings, when we were face to face with one another, startled both of us. Stuart and I loved each other in a way that completely eluded both of us. In what I will call an unconscious way. We had no idea what we wanted from each other, no sense of our effect on one another. Needless to say, we made each other miserable.
He didn’t know how he knew me, what it was that he loved or recognized in me. It made him angry and full of desire, at the same time. That much I understood. But it was all complicated by the fact that I too wanted to know what I knew. I too wanted to be in control, to understand and feel comfortable (read: secure) in my self-knowledge. It’s so hard not to want that!
He didn’t know, and I didn’t know. We got married. We said we did it to get him a green card. We were young, early twenties. We had crossed oceans to be together, we had made arrangements. But at the same time the world had been obliging to us, it had carried us, again and again, to a series of different places, together. Our meeting in Lisboa? I saw him three times, the day I was leaving Portugal for good, in three different parts of the city. There were enough coincidences bringing us together, keeping us together—that when it came time to make choices we simply didn’t know how. We lacked the crucial experience of choosing to be together. We didn’t want to admit to wanting to make it happen.
It implies weakness, to feel desire of that sort. It means that you are dependent on someone else for your sense of yourself. It is terrifying. That much Stuart and I agreed upon. I loved him, but I was not going to follow him from New York to wherever he did his PhD. He loved me, but he wasn’t sure enough about how he felt to be willing to compromise, to talk seriously about the best place for us both to do PhDs.
Later he was sure. Later, when it was too late. Because then, of course, you can afford to be sure.