I feel like a fraud when I read my love poems. They’re spun out of thin air and imagination. From a lifetime of reading romance novels. From watching friends fall in and out of love. From TV. And movies. I feel I should read a disclaimer before I read any of them: “I know not of what I speak. Enjoy the poem!”
By writing about my father I have written my way into looking at him with tenderness. Perhaps by writing love poems I’m writing my way toward falling in love? Am I writing my way toward openness? Toward vulnerability? Or am I merely writing about the love story that might have been If I’d had a different set of wounds? Will the poems ever be more than the made-up stories I tell because I don’t have any of my own?
I think that’s why C crosses my mind every so often. I want to be able to say, “Yes, I’ve been in love. His name was C— and he played soccer.” It feels so aberrant to not be able to declare that authoritatively. Not having been in love can make me feel like I’m broken. It can make me feel even worse than you feel when you get picked last for the team.
It makes some conversations so uncomfortable. The kinds where over a couple few martinis you’re dishing with your girlfriends about the boys, the men (or women) you’ve loved and lost. I resort to talking smack about my celebrity crushes (Hi Armie Hammer!), hoping to get a laugh, hoping to disguise the fact that I have nothing to say and that my lack of romantic history is my sunken place, and the outside me who smiles benevolently at happy couples is just a facade.
That’s why nearly 30 years later it still feels so important to put a name on what I had with C. It hardly matters now, and also it matters terribly.
Please don’t misunderstand: I know I am beloved. I know I have many people in my life who I love and who love me right back. I expect that unless I outlive everyone, there will be people at my funeral who will wish desperately I was still around and will feel a little empty in all the places I used to be.
I also know that I don’t need a man to complete me, that I am a complete person in and of myself even if I never have a romantic partner. I won’t die alone. I won’t die unloved even if I may die with the world’s record for celibacy by someone who’s not a Catholic nun or the Pope.
I’ve known longing. I’ve known hunger. I’ve known exactly what Lenny Kravitz meant when he sang, “I just can’t get you off of my mind.” And yet I still don’t know if I’ve ever really been in love.
I’ve been thinking a lot about C, a man I knew in college. At the end of Call Me By Your Name—the novel, not the film—thirty-something Elio visits forty-something Oliver, and I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to run into C again, how he would see me, how I would see him. He’s not on social media at all, but I have seen one recent photo of him and he looks like a man on the verge of 50 tends to look, though he’s still recognizable as the handsome young athlete I last saw roughly more than a quarter of a century ago. I think I could still spot him in a crowd. I imagine I’m fairly recognizable too—fatter, less outwardly drenched in neediness, but still the same round face, the same cheesy smile, the same childlike voice.
It feels odd to write about C though I haven’t told you much of anything at all. It feels somehow indiscreet as if I’m roping him into my tell-all without permission. No, that’s not exactly right. It feels indiscreet because I don’t know how to accurately describe who he was to me, and by writing about him, it feels like I’m implying we were something to each other, that I left marks on him, the way he’s left marks on me. And I just don’t know if that’s true with any certainty. I just don’t know if he’d recognize me in a crowd, or if he did recognize me if he could put his finger on who I was or if he’d even want to.
I’m babbling. Cause I don’t want to write what I’m really thinking about: Did I love him? Did I even know what it meant to love someone then? (Do I know now?) I know that he made me feel my emotions quite powerfully—jealousy, anger—emotions that I was used to tamping down inside me. He disturbed the numbness I cloaked myself in like a security blanket, like a wall. But I don’t know for sure that I ever disturbed anything in him.
I hungered him. I craved him like a drug. I liked the drama of dissecting with my friends every look he ever gave me, every conversation we had. I liked martyring myself in the feelings of unworthiness he triggered in me. (I should say here that those feelings of unworthiness and martyrdom were self-generated; C was never anything but kind to me,)
What the film Call Me By Your Name gets exactly right is the way in which the late teens and the early 20s are a time of gestures. Though we have accrued hundreds of words by the time we hit that age, we rarely use our words when it comes to crushes and infatuations and even love, depending instead on how we interpret or often misinterpret each other’s gestures. And we don’t have the capacity it seems to distinguish between the intended gesture and the accidental gesture, each of which sends its own (supposedly) soul-baring message.
Like me walking down a hill toward campus with C and his friends one day. He tried to put his arm around me and I pulled away for a moment, just to change my purse to my other shoulder so I could comfortably walk him, and then of course he pulled away from my pulling away and… And I wanted to say, “Oh, I was just switching shoulders…” but that series of gestures had spoken so loudly—with the wrong message, of course—that the conversation about us wanting to be close to each other was effectively over.
Or when I saw C several months after we graduated and he reached out to give me a hug, and I froze in his arms and he felt it as a rejection. If I’d known how to use words (and if I’d been courageous), I might have told him that my tension was not a reaction to him exactly, but that I was shocked by how powerfully good it felt to see him again and to have him hold me and I’d simply short-circuited a bit.
I realize these stories do nothing to answer the question of if I loved him. I know he was capable of short-circuiting me, I know I had to numb myself against him, I know I was decades away from being able to be openly vulnerable in the face of someone who made me feel so damned much. But surely, given that this post is populated with “I’s” and “me’s” mean I couldn’t have really loved him. Thinking through it as I write this, he seems more like an object to be acted upon than a love interest. But can someone who was merely the foil for your one-sided romantic drama mark you the way he has marked me? To borrow from myself, what do I name this things between us that left me with “shocky fingerprints?”