Light Breathing and Yet, Doubtful Longing
What should we be without the sexual myth,
The human revery or poem of death?
– Wallace Stevens, ‘Men Made out of Words’’
Once a week a friend of mine and I get together to play squash. Sometimes I think the game is only an excuse, a ruse, and that the real reason for our matches is to savour the post-game cool-downs wherein we discuss relationships, the battle of the sexes and our own confused desires when it comes to happiness.
She has a boyfriend in the Czech Republic, a man she sees once a month, and from our last conversation, she was unsure about her forthcoming trip to Prague. The main reason being that in an email, she shared more than her usual and in response received only his silence, and perhaps his indifference, to her outpouring of thoughts and feelings.
It is strange, this awkward dance between men and women. I often reflect on it and yes, after each game, my friend and I vent about love and relationships, without ever getting close to any feeling of satisfaction. What remains elusive is a sure outlook or a stable place of perspective. We express what we are tired with, we wonder about what doesn’t work, go off to our own lives then return for another week, our previous thoughts and discussions having shaken us up a bit.
For me, I recently confessed to loving women with tawny skin. My friend suggested it had to do with my childhood, with the Polish girls I knew in my neighborhood, girls I liked but never got close to. Because I had been too afraid or unsure, though, I continued to pine, long after that life had faded away. And I often wonder if our longings aren’t so much a foolish attempt to catch up with the future as a hopeless reclamation of our past, or at least some kind of amendment, a “putting things right.”
Yet at the same time, my friend expressed her bewilderment regarding men and their preferences. Why are we so objective? Why do we objectify women? Why are we so visual? Why black hair or red hair instead of blonde and vice versa? Why these physical ideals instead of enjoying what is in front of us? Or at least appreciating it?
I don’t know, but I sometimes feel as if we men start with the exterior before investigating the interior, that attraction for us must therefore have less meaning when we begin with our personal idea of beauty.
I told my friend I had tried to be attracted to women I hadn’t immediately been drawn to. When I was twenty, there was a Dutch girl who worked at a print and framing shop in the local mall. On a blustery and cold January afternoon, I went to apply at the store. Our conversation began innocuously enough until a tattered Penguin copy of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris slipped out of my canvas backpack. I knelt down to the floor to retrieve it while she curiously gazed over the counter, holding my CV.
“What are you reading?” And with that question, a three-hour discussion ensued. Elisa told me she was reading the letters of John Keats, also loved Alfred Lord Tennyson, admired the poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and pointed to the John William Waterhouse print, one which held pride of place on the wall of her apartment.
I would eventually see that print in my art history class and yes, in her apartment where we spent some lovely afternoons and evenings during that frigid winter.
Yet maybe it was because of her ‘no sex before marriage policy,’ perhaps based on her Dutch Reformed Christian values, that we did everything together yet not the things I wanted – I wanted to spend the night with her, take a bath with her, but she was afraid of what the neighbors would think, a Dutch couple who lived above her and went to the same church as Elisa. It infuriated me; I felt rejected, always forced to skirt her acceptance and this imposed propriety. I was twenty, too young to marry, but I was drawn to her without actually being attracted to her. There was this sensuous allure to her, which fit with a longing to love her and everything she loved.
But gradually, the initial and confusing chemistry died between us. One night in particular I stayed on late at her place and we slipped into her bed. We had done everything else that day but what I wanted more than anything was to spend the night with her, to wake up beside her. We didn’t have to have sex, just hold each other close. But no, Elisa had to drive me home. She gave me twenty minutes in her bed and I slipped into a light sleep, my forehead against her naked shoulder before she bitterly roused me; I put on my clothes, she hers, and we climbed the back stairs out into the snowy night. There were two different kinds of cold I felt that night.
If religion hadn’t controlled her, where would we be now? Looking back, I know it was a kind of nymph quality to Elisa that drew me to her. She had long brown hair, her eyes were set wide apart and she possessed this kind of pale, Pre-Raphaelite beauty as if the paintings she deeply admired reflected worlds she no longer belonged to.
Yet during that time with her, I was taking a writing class and in my Wednesday afternoon seminar there was a blonde girl with tawny skin. I didn’t want to like her because she was a physical education major and in my arrogant early twenties, I regarded anything she said as ridiculous or dim-witted. Maybe it was a dichotomy of tension; she represented only physical prowess without thought and I regarded myself as the paragon of ideas, the life of the literary mind with no real physical abilities.
The attraction though… and the longing.
And yet, why is it I find that women who are great to talk with I’m rarely, if ever, attracted to? Or if I am, they are already married or in a serious relationship? Yes, a limiting complaint, so I should buck up and brush up on my David Hume, the philosopher who basically said that just because the sun rises today doesn’t mean it will do the same tomorrow. Just because I’ve had to fall out of love with the taken ones doesn’t mean they all are. There has to be someone for everyone.
Meanwhile, I feel this longing and wonder, though sometimes the longing feels dark and even a bit repellent.
For one, reflecting on my situation with Elisa, I think of the other end of the spectrum: I have never been able to understand the idea of ‘rape’ or forced and manipulative coitus. Why would anyone want to have sex with another person who outright refused them? I think of erstwhile soldiers in war time, pillaging villages and towns, and along with theft and marauding, often rape.
My squash friend says it is a matter of control. Indeed, men as an entire gender are perhaps considerably less developed emotionally. While a woman can nurse life, bring it into the world, it seems to me that men only understand the physical urge to procreate. They also seem to lack the ability to analyze their urges, to be able to put it in its proper perspective. But maybe there is hope, for when I look around Leipzig, I see countless men with baby carriages, a generation of male nurturers out there; yet a student of mine, despite having a child, still longs for women outside his non-marital relationship. You can sense and even feel the urgency of fatherhood although it seems the longings, the what-ifs, remain.
Let me address the issue of daily hints in men’s minds. I was on the tram a weekend ago, paying for the ticket onboard, and right beside the massive dispenser stood a girl, talking on her cell phone. She had long brown hair, long legs and a nice chest. Across from her, her slender, blonder, shorter friend wore a black halter top and ripped black jeans. Having no place to stand, I decided to surreptitiously observe the duo and their effect on the men around them. There were two men sitting on a nearby seat; the larger, round-faced man rubbed his chin and looked continuously in the girls’ direction. The other, slender, with meek brown eyes, merely glanced over at them now and then.
Then, when a double seat was made available, the two girls rushed to take it. I sat beside the ticket dispenser and again, looked around the tram for hints of desire. I noticed an older man looking their way, sneaking glances, and a gawky teen, equally confused and curious, holding his skate board close to his chest.
I, too, found the girls attractive but I have always had a problem with women who know they are beautiful. The blonde perhaps less so, but the brunette held in her eyes a sharpness, a kind of coldness.
Beauty in our society is this wild thing, precious yet only preserved in pockets. The beautiful are in that exclusive realm, and seem to hold themselves above the rest knowing full well what they can attract and reject. The fate of every trend seems to begin because the beautiful elected decide for the lowly. And those who feel undeserving or confused or frustrated to an extreme by beauty not responding to them, not looking their way, either spurn the unreachable grapes as in the infamous Aesop tale of the fox, or try to destroy that which was once held dear.
I thought of a story by Ivan Bunin called ‘Light Breathing’. A teenage girl, a tease, is shot by a jealous and jilted lover at a train station. It made me reflect on what could drive someone to such depths of violence. It is not only about control but it is also about deep insecurity.
To give some more detail regarding the Russian story: Olga Meshcherskaya is a girl coming of age, young but already eclipsing her friends in terms of looks, physical maturity and stance. While she is emotionally young, her body has blossomed early and her response to the world of men is to develop an element of the callous and arrogant in her sexual precociousness. It was Olga’s description of her experience with her first lover in her journal that pushed the desperate, jilted lover to fatally shoot Olga. Yes, shortly before shooting her, Olga had given the officer her journal to prove she didn’t love him, that another man had taken what he dearly desired.
Earlier the girl had talked enthusiastically with a schoolmate about the discovery of a book in her father’s library, one to do with ‘what kind of beauty a woman ought to have’:
“’Eyelashes that are black as night. A slight flush that plays tenderly on the cheeks. A thin waist. Arms that are longer than usual… Delicate legs. Large but proportioned breasts. Calves that are symmetrical and slightly rounded. Sloping shoulders. Knees the colour of a sea shell. I learned a lot of it by heart… but do you know what’s most important? Light breathing! And I have it – listen to me breathe – it’s true, isn’t it.’”
I will admit, it was a near-description of the girl on the tram.
Our world is made up of wounds and our longing for beauty is a longing for wholeness through healing, recognition and love. With that said, an immature pretty girl on a tram is not going to offer us any of that, not by a long shot. And if one is spurned by her or filled with desire, it is foolish to believe she is more than what men drape her with in terms of desire and expectation. She is a human being, not a savior, not an answer. We worship and revere but it leaves us feeling foolish. Beauty clouds judgement and as men, when it comes to longing, no matter how eager and smug we feel, we are often left bereft in its wake, imposing our ideals like afterthoughts; and our attempts to heal alone are basely frustrated.
I feel beauty offers us significance, making us reverent. When the beautiful look upon us, we feel present and real. The ancient Greeks regarded beauty as the presence of the divine, that it was a reflection of the gods.
Sometimes I hate longing because I feel less self-reliant, that instead of controlling myself, I feel the pull and influence of another. Maybe it is the Dutch arrogance, that in allowing myself to feel human, vulnerable, I feel strangely and ironically inhuman. Something to do with my father’s side of the family, this remote attitude and way of being.
I hate the envy I feel when I see couples, for I think of my teens and the Polish girls lost and gone, of the chances lost and gone, no hope to actually experience them. Then my years of illness, at least seven specifically where I went about in survival mode, passing through summers where pretty girls slept with other boys while I didn’t even know if I was going to live through to the end of the year. (I think of the Jean Genet line in The Thief’s Journal: “I could not take lightly that other people were making love without me”). To survive emotionally, mainly on these peripheries, I tried to take the focus off the outside world, to regard the longing as ridiculous and feel content with my own interior. But the world insidiously edges in, and so it is difficult to ignore the parts that bewilder and seemingly tease.
But what can I say… I still love the ladies with the tawny skin.
Helplessly but I hope not… hopelessly.