Living For Love Alone
by LUCY MORRIS
At that time he had been satisfying a sensual curiosity in discovering the pleasures of those who live for love alone. He had supposed that he could stop there, that he would not be obliged to learn their sorrows also.
– Swann’s Way
I have forgotten many things already, but I do remember this: to be in love in New York felt like an homage to the city itself, a kind of tribute paid to your surroundings. Shoulder rested on someone else’s on the end seats of the R train, hands entwined on the Coney Island boardwalk — these gestures were a kind of offering, the love for where you lived manifested in your love for the person beside you.
I was often in love in New York. The first time it happened it was springtime and the trees were blooming a bubblegum pink and I had a new polka dot dress to wear. I was headed to Russia the following fall, which meant nothing really mattered, nothing beyond the mornings my boyfriend awoke me with croissants and whispers, or the afternoons he read aloud to me in the small park adjacent to Union Square, not the main event but the little refuge beside it.
Most of what I remember of this period is that I was young: so young that the coffee I drank was more cream than espresso, so young that when the strawberries I bought turned out to be rotten I was too shy to return them myself. I was so young that boyfriends were really boys and I sat with friends debating the terminology of sex like it mattered and staying up all night was an achievement, not a drag. All of these pieces, the late nights and arguments and bodega coffee and moldy berries, were then tinged by the fact of being in love, heightened by it to a terrifying degree: a dawn was not just a dawn, a berry not just a berry.
There were other things, too, in the years that followed that were not limited to their appearances, objects and occurrences with whole lives beyond what they seemed.
A certain lace dress I owned was not just a lace dress — it was a symbol of something I thought could be conveyed by what I wore, because I was too shy to convey it in speech, a trait that I believe to be not uncommon among the young.
“You could crash at my place tonight,” I offered up to a guy with the same glasses as me one night over fries on First Avenue, and it was just one line, but it was also an entire story.
There were keyrings and subway lines and paperback volumes from the Strand dollar bins, a gold necklace and Metrocards and Film Forum ticket stubs, and none of it was what it seemed. How could it be? I was then someone who could offer up with no shame, no embarrassment, no doubt: “I’m in love,” exclamation point implicit in its declaration. I can probably pinpoint the moment when I stopped being someone who could say that with enthusiasm, who came to feel the sentiment belonged to a younger, past self, but what would be the point?
One important March, the boss in the all Russian office where I worked gave me a red rose for International Women’s Day. I thanked him, “Spasibo bolshoye,” and carried it in my hands most of the way home. I thought about taking it all the way but ended up throwing it away into a bin at Atlantic Avenue, because the relationship with the bubblegum tree boyfriend I was going home to was disintegrating at a speed that was somehow both unbelievably fast and startlingly slow, and it seemed impolitic to show up with a rose from someone else, even a boss. I want to say that when I threw that rose out I knew it was over, unfixable, but that knowledge is of the kind that can only be applied in hindsight.
When you are twenty-two and shy and not particularly empowered there are not very many transgressive things you can do, but saying goodbye to someone who loves you is one of them. The first time I did that may have marked, in a meek kind of way, the first real adult thing I did — certainly it was more adult than the job, the moving in together, any of that illusory adultness that sounded good when you informed people of it but didn’t require much courage because it was not altogether unexpected.
It is hard to trace lines from theres to heres, hard not to get caught up in detours along the way––the minor romances, geographical diversions — but it is almost certainly true that if I had not thrown out that rose, thrown in the towel, I would not be where I am now. Wherever exactly that may be.
Lying in bed, swollen with Sunday night sadness, I think of when I instructed an old boyfriend to meet me at Tile Bar very late on a Sunday at the end of summer when all other possibilities and excuses had been exhausted. I wore a teal dress of the kind that could pass as casual but which I had in fact purchased expressly for the occasion, gone on that heatwave day to Forever 21 and emerged with the yellow bag, certain convoluted intentions.
I think of intentions a lot lately, and all the years I thought I had none when I very much had ones I was merely afraid to voice, and I think in equal part of the years I thought I had many that were really empty intentions, vague hopes of the kind of person I wanted to be with no course of action behind them.
That night at the bar we fed the jukebox all our ones and the old boyfriend gave away two cigarettes and late, near close, we went around the corner to the ATM. In my memory we were holding hands, swinging the V of our attached arms back and forth, taking up all of empty Second Avenue. Back at my apartment I offered him the only beer in my fridge, a leftover party Sam Adams, but the beer wasn’t the point; that was never the point.
But goal posts move, meanings change. It was not actually the end of summer, it was early in July, the fifth or sixth maybe, but it was near the end of what would be my summer, in the time I had left in New York. The beer was not the point at the time, but later it was very much the point. I recall then wanting that old boyfriend to miss me when I wasn’t around, but later I would just come to settle for him talking to me.
For a while after that I was afflicted with bad dreams, by the memory of a pale stretch of neck I used to know, by a stinging silence that seemed to spread in the darkness. I was trying to put an end to my preservationist instincts, the desire to record, but the details I refused to write down merely migrated to my dreams: the exact nature of someone’s stubble, the precise route of a walk once taken, the setting and wording of a conversation once had.
When my brother announced his intention to get married I stopped speaking to him for four months, despite the fact that I adore his fiancé and love him in the way that you love siblings, painfully, more than anyone else on earth. But intertwined with the love I feel for my brother, for everyone, is the knowledge that they may not always be there, and that knowledge is so intolerable that I have come to loathe the love attached to it. The berries were as much about loss as about love, the arguments too, the ticket stubs, the Sam Adams, all the rest.
For a while when I was twenty-two and twenty-three — far too young for the fear I felt — I would tell my mother I was scared of dying alone and she would say, “We all die alone.” I did not find this comforting at the time but now I very much do.
Everything I describe comes to me now only in detail, not sentiment. Things I once lived now seem dangerously remote from my reality. I check sometimes to see if that first boyfriend is married. I am not married and I no longer live in New York and the springtime conviction in love has been superseded by rolled-eye allusions to limerence, which is coincidentally a kind of cynicism it turns out men seem to favor, although not necessarily the right kind of men.
I used to believe that the markers of adulthood were checks to the IRS and taking the garbage out, that all the other manifestations of maturity that my friends bemoaned their lack of were basically bullshit. I now think there are no markers at all, just slow evolutions, quiet forfeitures of what you once felt sure.
This spring I lie awake a lot and think about love, in the context of some remarks I’m to give at a wedding, and on certain nights when I can’t sleep love comes to seem an inseparable sentiment from doom and on others it seems so soaring in its expanse that there is nothing to say about it all, and all the Tolstoy and Proust and Pushkin I’ve read on the subject mere attempts as futile as this one.
All I can think to mention at the wedding are the meals eaten at my friends’ table, the nights they took me in and cooked me greens, showed me in their small gestures to each other how to untangle love from loss. One evening I watched them feed their sick dog medicine together and I sat humble before them on the couch, awed by their coordinated movements. Later, I gathered my things and went home, to a bed that is different from the one I sleep in now, to thoughts so separate from the ones I harbor today that I can hardly believe they are of the same mind. When I say that goal posts move and meanings change, probably what I mean is that we all do too, inevitably, without any say in the matter at all. This change is its own kind of loss. It is also its own kind of marvel.
As it happens, I am headed once again to Russia, for the first time in five years. But I have learned by now that you cannot discount meaning just by announcing that you plan to do so. In the end, all of it adds up anyhow.
Lucy Morris is the contributing editor to This Recording. She is a writer and translator living in Iowa City. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about the inverse of pleasure.
Photos by Blake Fitch.