this is not a love story

I stay up too late - sleepless, thrashing. The heat sputters on through the old pipes, a hiss and cough of steam. I think of all the things I had hoped to accomplish, so few of them done. I consider rising, descending the stairs, switching on lights, making tea. In the end, I force myself to lie still, slow my breathing. 

When I rise it is still dark. The room is cool. I wrap a blanket around myself and sit at my desk and stare at the glowing screen. 

M. and I talk about 40 again with his birthday approaching. I know now what you were feeling, he says. I think now I understand.

He says: It is like getting to the crest of a hill. I look down, he says, and I can see what is below. And the path that leads to it. At that we are on it. Neither of us says aloud, though we think it: Inevitable. Neither of us says aloud: Relentless.

I write these scenes. I put these lovers on a beach on a gray afternoon. He leads her down from the house blindfolded. She can hear the sound of the waves on the shore. A cacaphony of gulls. The smell of salt air and of eelgrass. I let him undress her there, a fine mist on their skin. I write her silent, save for her quick breaths and the gasp that escapes her lips as he enters. I write him silent too, but he whispers to her, his hot breath on her ear. We cannot hear what he says, but we can guess at it. We have ourselves known these urgent whispers. We have ourselves spoken them. 

They pass the hours like this. Binding and unbinding. 

In the end, there is only sadness. I write them embracing on the damp sand like the last of the damned. I write the cruelty that settles in on them now that they have known the ways in which each is broken. 

I let them sleep lightly. I write the air turning cold. I wake them still hungry but now they are fast and brutal as evening falls. His fingers leave bruises. She marks him with her teeth.

The library in the town where I spent my teenage years had a carousel of paperback romance novels in the main reading room. Their tattered covers depicted windswept heroines on horseback. They were white-necked, their thin dresses blowing open. The men had piercing eyes and broad chests. Some were dark-haired and brooding: These were the ones I loved best. 

I read them methodically, compulsively; worked through the titles until I could turn the carousel a complete rotation and not see an unfamiliar face. 

What was it I was looking for in those brittle, yellowed pages? What did I find?

For a time, I thought I knew these stories so well that I could write them effortlessly, and I tried and failed repeatedly for years. I am reminded of this now as I struggle with plot. It is a simple idea: rising action, conflict, resolution, but this offers no solace or no real instruction as I sit staring at a page full of fragments. 

In the end, in the windswept romances, there is the promise of the future, of what they have overcome some obstacle to achieve. In the end, the future lies glittering before them – an endless horizon where everything is possible because nothing has been chosen. The future is unformed and shapeless. A bright abstraction yet to be drawn. 

Why am I drawn to the tragic? Why do I write scene after scene in which moments of beauty are so steeped in sadness? And why is there no resolution? Why do I insist on withholding resolution?

I think I am an optimist. By that I mean: No one writes, no one creates with any seriousness who is not, in some small way, an optimist. Or at least, one who believes that our human struggles matter. Or at least one who believes that despite the steady report of indications to the contrary, there is beauty and meaning and hopefulness, in fact that at times we are even giddy with a surfeit of it, in each of our own small lives. 

Perhaps that is its own kind of resolution, provides its own kind of momentum: That we hold each other, even though we know that we are dying. That we walk upright even when our hearts are breaking. 

I drive my daughter to school and we talk about The Walking Dead. Misery follows misery and each episode is more brutal than the last. The things that give comfort are taken away, one by one. Each flicker of hope is extinguished before it can burn bright enough to cast real light. How can they go on? we ask ourselves. 

My daughter says: “I would give up.” I say: “I would too.”

And we laugh. And we make our zombie jokes. And we touch each other’s hands and arms as the traffic moves slowly forward. Because what else, after all, is there to do?