This piece is very different from what I usually write; it is inspired from the NYT Modern Love column, which I read avidly, and from my own life – for one can speak generally and universally only to a certain extent.
When my mother told me about love, she always mentioned Paolo, her high school sweetheart. When I asked why it ended, she confessed that she was dating someone else, an older guy; when Paolo found out, a fist fight broke out, and two relationships were broken up. I always found myself amazed at the fact that they didn’t punch her, as I wondered how is love compatible with deceit, fist fights and lies? My mother would quickly add that Paolo was too immature for her; it would have ended anyway.
My mother and I grew up to be very different when it came to love. It wasn’t so much a discrepancy in character, as the distance that age, broken hearts and the certainty of motherhood had interposed between us. “The only true love is that for your children”, she said. A mercurial, poetry-loving Latin teacher, she ended up meeting my dad while he was working in a bookstore: they fell in love, made me and got married. About the order of these three steps, I am not so sure, except for the fact that the bump under the ivory dress in their wedding pictures confirmed that I was there before the vows. But so was a type of love much different from the one I know: strong in silence, poetic, irreducible to everyday talk and domestic scenarios.
My sentimental education and old-fashioned take on love is the failed product of the example given by two bookworms who had learned to lead separate lives, had yet to learn to let go of things, and had found an equilibrium of brief phone calls, different interests, affectionate constancy and patience, and unconditional love for my sister and me. However, there was another example in the family, one that seems the direct responsible for my fantasies of eternity. My maternal grandmother had met her husband at age 17, when she was on vacation. She, a frail, limping girl who I imagined emanated the same strength and stubbornness that I know from her incredibly small frame; he, the typical beach boy, tan and shrewd, ultimately victim of a feeling for which he wrongfully believed that the long, thoughtless summer nights could serve as an antidote. When my grandmother went home, they began their correspondence, a long distance relationship that didn’t know instant messaging or prenuptial sleepovers. My grandfather died a few years ago, and she is still in love.
I thought that this was the love I should aspire to, in spite of my love for Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. I like to think that this was the reason why I was the last, among my group of friends, to kiss, but it could have been the matching jumpsuits and a hint of acne. My senior year of high school, after he had gained several inches and muscular arms and I had stopped dyeing my hair an unnatural blond, I started dating my best friend.
If one, like me, spends five years of high school studying the mysteries and grammatical unruliness of ancient Greek, believing in fate is somewhat inevitable. To entrust our lives to the notion that things that are meant to be will happen, to tell ourselves that what Plato really meant with the whole androgynous thing is that our other half is out there, a soul mate who can and will complete us wholly, perfectly, entirely. So, as fate would have it, my high school romance soon became a long distance relationship, just like the one my grandmother had (minus the absence of Facebook and prenuptial sleepovers). I applied to colleges in the US with the levity of my age and of my firm belief in the fulfillment of our romantic destiny. I knew we could make it work, I thought it would make us stronger.
It did not go as planned. Don’t get me wrong: during our 3 years apart there have been tearful surprises at the airport, very long kisses, vacations to Paris, white beaches and crystalline seas; there has been the pure joy of being together, the ability to suffocate fights and idiosyncrasies in virtue of the limited time we had. There is a line of an Italian song that says that distance, like the wind, puts out the small fires and makes the big ones even bigger. But there have been other things too, things my grandma hadn’t warned me about: there have been long silences, angry Skype calls, resentment for a choice he kept calling selfish; we knew the void of experiences told and not lived, the anguish of unanswered texts, the powerlessness in front of something drifting away. He grew hostile, and refuted the life I was living in college, in the United States. He didn’t ask about my friends, my classes; when he asked me about my plans for the future, he said they weren’t compatible with us.
Over the last year, I experienced a sudden change in me. While I had always felt like my heart remained at home in Italy, I started to feel the weight of the body of water separating me from him. I always thought of me as having one life – that was the one with him, not the one in Ithaca, at Cornell. My college experience was surely a huge part of me, but it sprouted from an already well-formed life that spoke another language and only entailed one home. As my relationship started to deteriorate, I felt my American life start to exist as a separate entity, populated by different people, with another place to call home in a different idiom.
My life was splitting into two, just like Plato’s androgynous. The ocean filled the interior split in me with salt and doubts. My divide was harmonious, the duplicity felt whole. I didn’t really feel torn, but I felt at peace – I thought the crack that ran across me were filled with starlight. It was a disastrous bliss.
However, reality caught up quickly, illuminating the unraveled ends of my relationship. By that time, I think I preferred the life I had without him. The intensity of first times had vanished in unanswered texts and missed skype calls, light and happy reunions had lost the battle against selfish resentment and sharp disheartening. Yet I couldn’t let go. Dust of light was left on every piece of furniture of my life, the humor we shared and the nicknames and all the notes and promises I saved from the ocean when I dropped my wallet in San Juan, and I kept safe in a new one. It ended at the beginning of June, when I went home for the summer, after a concert and a train ride holding hands.
I never paid attention to whether our heart beats were synchronized. I never thought it meant anything, or maybe I just assumed they had to be. I definitely did pay attention when they weren’t anymore, while we were watching the last movie we would see together, sitting on my couch, not touching, and we had the house all to ourselves but he wasn’t touching or looking or speaking to me. I tried to hug him and he froze but did not push me away, and put his arm around me – our heartbeats were way off time, the tempo we had was lost and I had known for a while, I had heard the glass breaking, no gold in those cracks.
The end was very anticlimactic. He told me to choose a café where to meet, and I chose one that is close to my house but where I never go to, because it is antiseptic and metallically clean and chic, and because their ginseng coffee is powdery so I would never have wanted or needed to go back there. When we sat down, he started to talk as I lowered my sunglasses, with my shoulder tense and four years ending with the ground coffee at the bottom of my mug. I didn’t agree with what he said; I told him I did. I didn’t think I could win this fight, and I let it go. He didn’t cry; I held him and told him I would miss him terribly. He said he would miss me too, and drove away on his scooter.