17 March 2023



J left for two months, returned for a week, then left again. She was as good at leaving me as she was at loving me, though after the first few times, it no longer hurt the way it had the first. I missed her, but I learned that missing her came with the territory and, as such, I came to accept it. J’s leaving was — and is — simply part of how she loved me.

We had, once again, gone from talking every day to not talking at all. When she came back, it was as if we had shifted our places on some grand game board and were unable to articulate how we had landed in the spots we were in. Our attempts at catching up were colored by the fact that we were still rather painfully in love: that while parts of our lives had moved on, other parts had remained exactly where they were.

Relationships with lovers rely on an intimate continuity that doesn’t really take place anywhere else. We ask our spouse how their day has been as a force of habit because habit both requires and perpetuates continuity. What I missed most in J’s absence was the minutiae, the banal details, the in-jokes: all the things that form the secret language of friends and lovers. This language, like all languages, must be practiced with another speaker if we are ever to gain proficiency. This, too, requires and perpetuates continuity: the more you learn, the more proficient you become.

J and I immediately found fluency in each other. At times she knew my voice — in writing, in speaking, in not-writing or speaking — better than I did.

I wanted to ask her about the things I had missed, but I was fluent enough to know that she wouldn’t tell me. “It was nice catching up,” she said shortly before she left again, but I felt like I hadn’t caught up with her at all: aside from news about a pending promotion, she volunteered nothing, though a birthday and vacation had both passed in that two months of silence. At one point she alluded to shame, noting that I was unable to see the “idiocies” that she was convinced would alter my view of her. I didn’t bother pressing the issue because doing so would have made it an issue and, candidly, wouldn’t have had any effect on my feelings about her whatsoever.

The reality is that my reaction to whatever these “idiocies” were, had she chosen to disclose them, would likely have been too generous for her to endure. There’s nothing worse than having someone who is too understanding when you’re trying to engage in some deep-seated self-loathing. When you’re harshly judged, you can at least mount a defense — indignant, self-righteous — that is often enough to jar you from your existential rut. That’s not an option when someone takes the broader view — as I try to — and recognizes that people do all kinds of things and rarely have very little insights into why they do them, though the answer usually has to do with fear or the pursuit of whatever model of disappointment to which they are most accustomed. That kind of understanding — especially in the absence of an emotional reaction — can look a lot like indifference.

No one voluntarily confesses anything because they want to be met with understanding. Sometimes they confess because they want to relieve themselves of a burden. Sometimes people confess because they seek to comfort. Some confess because a confession — the divulgence of a secret — is a way of initiating intimacy: every seduction begins with a confession. Others confess because their disclosure will catalyze a conversation, highlight a problem, or generate a revelation. And sometimes people confess because they want to be punished, banished, sent away, and otherwise cut off.

But J made no such disclosures. Instead, she left only the hint, then spent most of that week checking in on me in various ways as I struggled to find things to say that wouldn’t send her running again.

J once said that she was afraid we’d end up hating each other and I never felt safe in telling her that I shared the same fear, as if expressing that fear might somehow catalyze it. Familiarity, especially in the form of proximity, can breed contempt: it doesn’t take much reflection to recall the ways a lover’s quirks can become tiresome. My understanding of this — and dread of it — has always been complicated by my fear of abandonment. Curiously, J’s departure never felt like abandonment. It felt like a kind of preservation. I sometimes speculate as to whether or not we’d have ended up hating each other or worse, boring each other, but I have come to no conclusions. We loved each other wildly and at times our passion bordered on terrifying. Would we have incinerated each other, become lost in the other? Or would that passion simply fade, as passions so often do? Would we have been able to grow alongside each other or would we come to resent each other because of the limitations that relationships place on individual lives? I am reminded of Andre Aciman’s essay “Counterintuition,” in which the author contemplates his relationship with a woman with whom he likely spends less than two weeks in total over the course of years, but whose presence lingers in the spaces in between those meetings. She reappears in various forms throughout his books and essays, under different names, but always recognizable to anyone familiar with his work. She left, but she never left him.

J left citing the same reasons to which I had grown accustomed, just as I knew she would, leaving me to try to fill in the blank spaces in our conversations and map the paths to the places we landed. Perhaps it was our closeness that did us in, perhaps we were ill-fated from the start: these were two of J’s favorite stories about us. But as I thought about it, I came to realize that her leaving and coming back also demonstrated a kind of continuity: that of a lover who has found someone to whom they can always return. There is no reason to catch up with such a person: love’s continuity is enough to overcome whatever time passes, even after you think you have moved on.

Some people enter our lives as anomalies. They are incongruent with where we are and what we are doing, but somehow create a space that doesn’t affect the rest of our life, even as it brushes against it or changes the way we see it. It can be overwhelming: at once electrifying and terrifying. The fear is that we will lose ourselves in that space or that it will expand and displace everything that contributes to our sense of self that populates our world. While it might be possible to integrate them into our lives, we realize that part of what makes them special is that they occupy this very particular space, known only to us, that allows us to live a kind of second life that is only accessible through them. The stories that you create become like a book that you never want to end. To savor it, sometimes you have to stop reading for a while. You leave and come back. Sometimes you just stop reading altogether, long after you’ve committed it to memory, long after it’s been inscribed in your heart, long after the writer has left his words imprinted on your lips.