There is a devastating gem of a story by Jeanette Winterson, called “All I Know About Gertrude Stein” in “The F Word” issue of Granta. In it, the narrator, Louise, juxtaposes her own love affair to that of the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. In alternating segments, she reveals the facts of her own relationship: she wants her lover to move in with her. He refuses. The rest of her own story unfolds, alternating with scenes between Gertrude and Alice, and becomes a kind of love letter to the absent. “Take me in your arms,” she says in her final lines. “This is the Here that we have.”
Louise, this narrator, is pointed, direct. She says:
“I do very badly without a lover. I pine, I sigh, I sleep, I dream, I set the table for two and stare into the empty chair. I could invite a friend - I sometimes do - but that is not the point; the point is that I am always wondering where you are even when you don’t exist.
Sometimes I have affairs. But though I enjoy the bed, I feel angry at the fraud; the closeness without the cost.
I know what the cost is: the more I love you, the more I feel alone.”
My friend loves a man who is in the process of uncoupling. Not yet uncoupled. He stays with her in her apartment, keeps her up half the night with his stories of how he has been wronged in love. They drink wine and sometimes read to each other from books of poems, or books of letters between lovers. They have romantic hearts, and that is their undoing.
“I see the sadness in him. And it makes me want to fix it,” she tells me, her voice heavy with sighs.
“And what of your needs?” I try to ask, but I am no expert.
And another in her own uncoupling, after nearly 15 years of marriage. Throughout the day he sends her messages, to torment her. “I am happy without you,” he says. Or “I could say things that would ruin you.” Or “Do you want to have a drink later tonight, after work?"
This dance of wanting and not wanting. Needing. Refusing. Withholding.
Louise says: "I am lonely when I love because I feel the immensity of the task - the stoking and tending of love. I feel unable, overwhelmed. I feel I can only fail. So I hide and I cling all at once. I need you near me, in my house, but I don’t want you to find my hiding place. Hold me. Don’t come too close.”
I read recently - I can’t recall where - that marriage can be seen as this lifelong process of learning how to love better. What begins in a heady rush of infatuation and desire to discover another, evolves slowly, over time. We think we know things about each other. We think we understand, and yet what we forget is that we are constantly changing. How do we keep bringing our new selves back to each other? What do we say at the sink, where we stand chopping carrots, or drying dishes? What do we share on the couch, side by side, laptops perched on laps?
Across our wide, unmade bed before sleeping?
Louise says: “Love has a religious quality to it - it depends on the unseen and it makes miracles out of itself. And there is always a sacrifice. I don’t think we talk about love in real terms any more. We talk about partnership. We talk about romance. We talk about sex. We talk about divorce. I don’t think we talk about love at all.”
When M. and I met, he wrote songs for his band. One of the things I most loved about our lives in those early days was to wake in the morning, hear him playing his guitar in another room, his voice soft and low as he teased out the new music. We went to live shows constantly. It was a part of the way we lived.
Bandmates moved away, married, had families. Venues were sold, closed. The bands we loved struggled. There were years of not writing, years of only living.
Yesterday, at the kitchen sink, M. is packing lunch for our son. Crackers in a tiny plastic containers. A bunch of grapes in a plastic bag. Cubes of cheese. As he zips up the lunchbox, he says, “I’m starting to write songs again.”
Louise, again: “We were confident that love would always be there, like air, like water, like summer, like sun. Love could take care of itself. We didn’t notice the quiet tending of love, the small daily repairs to the fabric of love. The faithful gigantic work that kept love as regular as light.
Love is an ecosystem like any other. You can’t drain it and strip-mine it, drill it and build over it and wonder where the birds and the bees have gone.
Love is where we want to live. Planet Love.”