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Waiting for the Kiss of Life
Lloyd Cole: The Negatives
He is asking for a pen with which to list the things he can't remember about you. He is warning your new boyfriend away. He is giving up. He is unable to extract himself from a defeatist self-image. He is too scared to talk to you. He is dazzled by his own superficiality. He is hating you for settling for him. He is wondering what he's no longer capable of. He is watching his other selves walk through formula mistakes.
He lives in a small apartment above a failing Italian bistro that used to be, in rueful reverse succession, a failing coffeehouse, a failing creperie, a different failing Italian place, a handbag boutique and a moribund stationer that he loved to claim must have been a front. The curtains in his windows might have matched something if you saw them from the street back in the handbag era, but by now they've learned to lead their own lives, and asking him to change them would be a jurisdictional error. Between the books, the records and the loneliness, it's hard to see where you could even put down a folded sweater in his rooms without exacerbating its incongruity, so you would usually have kept it on until the last possible moment, until the point of no return was close enough to obviate explanations. You would have lived in an old converted hotel two or three neighborhoods away, with a sinecure concierge lingering more as atmosphere than servant. Your furniture would have been more adult, your kitchen more functional, your bed more comfortable. But faced with the choice between haunting his apartment and watching him hover an inch from every welcoming surface of yours, you might rather be a ghost.
He is nearly forty, nominally, but a forty somewhere on a seamless continuum from twenty-five to sixty, an ageless suspension that is infinite potential or aching nostalgia if you peer at it from the outermost angles, but a grey blur from anywhere in between. You are much younger, or he wishes you were, and you will learn to fill most silences by wondering why. He never talks about the others, and you've tentatively concluded that in a sense there really weren't any; he wants this to be either flattering or pathetic, but it's just a nuisance, giving you nothing against which to calibrate your intimacy. He so plainly needs an equal, but you can neither ask him why he wants to make one out of you, nor get him to itemize what that would take. Some days it seems all too clear that he's not waiting to meet somebody, he's waiting to have met somebody years ago, as if solving past solitude is more pressing than moving forward. But then, some nights, when the candlelight or the winter is just so, that history seems luminous enough that you're not sure he's wrong.
The hardest part, maybe, will be never knowing, from one day to another, whether you will be present or anonymous. If you let him plan, you get structure: clockwork expeditions, express trains, exhibitions the day they close, movies the day they open. The rare times he lets you drag him away to nowhere are more successful: directionless hand-in-hand strolls that pause at unfamiliar restaurants, cloudy reveries in abandoned parks, border-wall circuits, the surprise discoveries of movie locations, half-delirious pet-walk pantomimes. But what does it mean that whenever he plans, you could be anybody? You've learned not to have any argument with him you know you'll win. What higher compliment than being the one chosen precisely when any could have sufficed, he'd say if you forced him to. But you've secretly gone through his paperbacks and checked the yellowest ones out from the library, and when he jokes about High Fidelity you know that the correct fear is that his idea of solitude is Elric, and his idea of companionship is Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but neither of you are freaks, or fighters, or thieves.
So what will the elements be, of your dissatisfaction? Will you want to be his muse, sprawling in sunlit sheets? You're supposed to abhor the idea of being a prize, but he will always outlast you asleep, anyway, until you wonder if you might be better off mailing him a photograph, and you catch yourself wishing his attachment to you seemed more opportunistic. Will you want him to be your muse? That's probably more plausible, but less practical. Did he pick you intentionally because you're not ready for that, so he doesn't have to decide whether he is? Perhaps, perhaps, but so? Maybe, at a loss for any other strategy, you will simply try to surround him, to become the bridge to everybody else he holds himself apart from. But then you are merely interposing yourself into more of his reluctances, and one is bad enough.
So these will be your burdens: indefinitely deferred permanence; moments of heartbreaking tenderness in which you both become ciphers; treasures (both yours and his) that he doesn't realize how much he's hurting himself by declining to share; your family not trusting him, his family loving you even though they hold no hope for the pairing; wondering, until the day you finally find out, what polarity of breakup he will subconsciously engineer. And for whose sake, in the end, are you pretending not to recognize the inevitable? Yes, maybe his. But maybe yours, too. Maybe he is as much your temporary refuge as you are his. Maybe you are huddled together in the doorway of a vacant house, waiting for the rain to let up, basking in two minutes of cinematic romance until you make a run for it, carefully never noticing you could have turned around and moved in.
But you will stay, if you stay (you will have stayed, if you have stayed), because none of these doubts can remain wholly corporeal when he sings. Long after you leave, if you leave (after you have left, if you have left), his irresistible alienation will still shade your convictions. For someone so averse to heroics, he finds so much dumbfounding heroism in ordinary sounds. He talks, and his sentences seek out notes on their own. He sits on his couch, playing an electric guitar that isn't even plugged in, and the room spins at the exact speed of old records. A foot taps, not quite reaching the floor, and the boards that reach out under your shoes pulse like arteries. You forget why you ever had other favorites. How could they, or you, compete? What a haplessly misjudged, fatally tenuous seduction is sprawling neglected in sheets, against the exquisite frozen grace of being instantiated in irreconcilable selves? His downfall, at least, if not also yours, is that he has designed a tableau too compelling for either of you to turn down your parts in it. "Maybe she lies on the subway platform", he muses, and you're wondering what she should be wearing. You are walking away, snapping a picture backhanded so later you can see what his eyes looked like as he watched you leave. You are frantically trying to figure out how to construe "No more love songs" as redemption rather than resignation. You are regretting every time you didn't take him seriously, and even more every time you did. You are writing answers to the collection of absurdist personal ads he didn't take out to find you ("Rob seeks Harriet", went the quintessential reduction, and you were elated for a month until you realized he meant Fleming and Vane, and you are still a Welsch with a Cusack poster). You are trying to disarm his cynicism by elaborating on it. You are undressing, even though you know that once you're naked you'll be invisible. You are helping him make a catalog of his secret minor psychoses, diligently not pointing out that the catalog itself is both far more evident and far more telling. You are helping him trace the retreats of dreams you know he'll never chase. And now you are one of them, leaving, knowing exactly how his lamplight will play along your vanishing-line on his map, and along the edges of his hands, motionless on his table letting you.
Because make all the lists you want of reasons why he shouldn't, but if you've learned nothing else about him you know that he will let you open his door and walk out. All that artificial gravity pulls towards this. Accuse him of giving up, if you like, but you might as well hate nightfall. He started giving up the moment he crossed six feet of early-morning subway car, on a day neither of you had any clue how long you'd remember, and said the stupidest, most terrifying, most adorable thing you'd ever heard about an ordinary blue Gap T-shirt. You have exactly one chance, if you want that many. You have to invert his world onto itself. It ought to be possible, seeing how readily his world inverts onto everything else, and vice versa. You have to find the juncture in his logic where it's you walking away, and without undoing his paralysis, this time make it be him. After all these songs detailing his acquiescence, you have to pay attention to the end of the album. If it's him leaving, not you, then paralysis gives you one more chance. He is giving up, in all these ways, but then, at the last minute, as he defies you to still be listening, he is finally asking for forgiveness. And although he's out the door, he is in tears as much as in flight, torn between the consolation of a road and the last shred of hope that you'll wake up and roll over, sprawled in sheets and naked after all, in time to call him back.
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