A Post-Post Modern Love Story
by Joe Winkler
They decided to approach the relationship backwards. Vulnerabilities first, strengths later. Lead with the crazy, the oft hidden not particularly dark or dirty secrets. Start with their insecurities, the worries, their fears; their expectations they know they could not meet laid out, cards up, on the table: Previous relationships, first loves, first times, sexual hangups, issues with their parents, her mother, his father; worries about self confidence, or the lack thereof, the self hatred – that ambient buzzing noise in their heads.
Emma the genuine, Ben the cynic. Emma’s curious ability to love someone else despite her inability to even like herself. Ben’s fear about career choices, about his viability as a functioning adult, one who can provide for his family. Mutual worries of some core narcissism that blocks any successful attempt at intimacy. Concerns that they lack the fundamental tools necessary to care about someone else, let alone care more about someone else than their selves. His eternal expectations to die young, alone, and happy in his solitude; a function of his childhood. All first and second date fodder.
“Maybe just sex matters and everyone else just lies to us?”
Love as evolution’s imperative, command, nothing more than the firing of neurons desperate to stave off death that we misinterpret as something lofty.
What people hate about them most, what they hate most about themselves. Body issues, scrawniness she feigned to find cute, and an obsession with her body, hidden in plain sight. Mutual mistrust. Full and complete emotional honesty, yet oddly cold like a contract, one signed with the lights off. The feeling of forced intimacy, like the last couple on earth with nothing to lose or gain, might as well get it out now. Neither of them feels certain how it came about, perhaps out of fear, or out of resentment of past pain.
Emma’s depression and anxiety, Ben’s dormant depression and anxiety. Family visitation too early in the first trimester of their relationship, a real swim in the sea of the other’s shit. No one intended for people to live like this.
Of course, Ben realized months later, this couldn’t work. He would console himself in the obviousness of hindsight, in his loneliest of hours that it did work for a while, or at least that he desperately wanted it to work for a longer while. For a while the rush, the fighting, the reconciliation, the sex distracted them from any sort of turmoil until the turmoil bubbled up into more intense fights, with more intense reconciliations. Accusations strewn across the ruins of their personalities. Core beliefs torn to dust. Despicable name-calling, wild claims; jealousy of ghosts, of memories. It served as an emotional kick, every time: the manipulation, pushing themselves to the brink of kindness and meanness. Attempts to just experience the range of possible emotions and physical sensations. Courageous pioneers of love and hate. The intensity of it all blinded him to the persistent death knell, growing louder with each kiss.
The mutual poverty helped, well, their mutual upper middle class poverty, graduate student poverty, a decision to be functionally poor for reasons of independence, both a preposterous, yet brave assertion of self. The luxury of choosing poverty. Yet the poverty of the well educated, living on the expensive upper west side, 15 blocks from each other, the biggest question of the night being who went where and how. Their uncanny overlap of life situations. Their mutual disdain of using their parents’ money. The posh babysitting job to pay off student loans. A pair of Macbook Airs, Emma’s a 13 inch and Ben’s an 11 inch. Arguments of those well versed in the parlance of too much therapy.
“I’m not saying this is true about you, but this is how I experience your behavior.”
“Right now, I feel attacked, and I don’t deserve this kind of power imbalance in my relationship dynamic.”
“I trust the process.”
Communication above all else. A need for a safety zone. Indulgence in all emotional output, regardless of its usefulness.
Ben, without his realization, sought to use the relationship to create some sort of artist colony experience, at least for himself. His job as a freelance writer allowed him to explore the terrains and boundaries of his self. The crazy hours, an inverted schedule, the night beginning with the day, every night. Moonrise as a wake up call. The artistic rush of creating in the quiet of the world. An attractive girlfriend who looked good in cute hats. A lifestyle of a faux tortured artist: inappropriate time elapsed between haircuts. Underwear for a uniform. Tutoring, writing papers for rich, spoiled, severely learning disabled college students with stingy mothers. All in the name of art, art for his sake. He hoped to recreate the saloons of the past in which ideas bounced off the molecules of oxygen in his atmosphere.
For Emma, she felt intimate, challenged, and understood for the first time in a relationship. Ben, for all his cynicism, genuinely cared, about her, about people, she believed. He surprised her with cupcakes, with presents, but she also liked the safe danger he provided. She lived vicariously through his trifling debauchery: the low level addiction to pot, the occasional drunken party for one, the cigarettes he snuck which fooled no one. The enjoyment of watching beauty burn. The contentment attained watching someone veer off your path and self-explode. The simple human enjoyment of being right, about life.
He thought she opted for blindness so as to receive the semblance of stability, the dream of marriage, and the comforts of acute attention. She realized he always overestimated his self-awareness. Ben realized she overused hers.
For the most part, Ben didn’t care. He found his life conducive to this experimental relationship. Fodder for his desperate goal to experience the world, to quiet the constant voice muttering cheers of mediocrity in his head. She served as a satellite in his orbit, a sense of drama, a playfulness, an artist’s dream of a tumultuous relationship. In the morning he wrote, with assumptions of grandeur, in the night they spoke and explored each other’s bodies with the curiosity of a scientists and the passion of a teenagers. He wrote her one poem a day, sometimes just five words long on the scraps of paper from the floor, on the napkins from his office, Starbucks. He hoped to collect them one day and publish a book. She read them with her thoughts on another person. Not on any real man, but the ideal partner, someone she knew Ben could never change into.
They respected each other in the abstract, in potential. They learned all about their capabilities for mundane evil. For the hatred only someone you love can provoke, for the desire to destroy another person’s essence. Real redefinition of self, of capabilities. Illusions broken, defenses attacked, relentlessly.
In the inevitable end of the relationship, a real whimper of a break-up, they talked about the truths they learned, like old friends discussing a novel: That despite his pretensions, he really only likes humanity in the abstract, the thought of listening to people describe their psychic pain all of his life physically hurts him, as in really causes Ben nausea, headaches, and a crippling sense of a jail descending on his life. Emma learned that adulthood is something that needs constant, day to day re-earning, reinforcement. It is most definitely not a stage you reach, a title bestowed, rather it easily will slip through fingers like smoke. They both learned that people will actually hate you. The sight of your face can cause their stomach to drop. And one of the hardest realizations that love in no way equals compatibility. That this hurts. That the vantage point of universal suffering will in no way mitigate either of your personal sufferings, despite how much it reeks of privileged white people issues. That you can both feel immense pain and guilt about your pain. That not every thought you have deserves indulgence, nor does it contain truth. That, though she no longer believes in some devil trying to trip her up, she does believe in some inner demon that wants her to hurt, perpetually, that sometimes she literally has to fight herself to live. That so much of your day can be used up on thinking thoughts about yourself. That you are not as well liked as you think you are, but to some you are beloved. That though mediocrity scares the shit out of Ben, its embrace sets him free. That you can actually follow a feeling so far down the path of explanation but end up with nothing in the way of catharsis or release. Ben’s penis is pretty much average sized, both in length and width. That despite his wishes, and its inanity, time takes time, and time heals most wounds, or at the very least leaves behind attractive scars. That sometimes you must resign yourself to distraction, to petty distractions to get by. That you can live with pain, that the pain of pain is most often the image of yourself as somehow limited, as a person who lives in pain. That expectations will kill your soul when not based in reality but based on ideology. That your friends and family, again despite the cliche, are the most important parts of your life. That they are actually there for you, day in and day out, regardless of how much you whine, though pain will parse out those that can care and those that can’t.
Years later, with kids on his lap, their bony butts inherited from him cutting into his thigh, he would tell himself and others the story of his best relationship. No one believed in this early tryst. The pathetic dreams of a person who spent more emotional cash on books than people. But the nostalgia sustained him. He couldn’t ask for more. No matter the audience, no matter the rendition he repeated the one lesson he learned in life about love: only a love that tears you to rubble deserves your devotion. Love either kills you or leaves you cold.
Joe Winkler is a freelance writer living in the Upper West Side. When not ingesting all things cultural, he attends classes for a Masters in English Literature at City College. To support this extravagant lifestyle, Joe teaches, tutors and babysits, unabashedly. He started writing with a personal blog – noconversationleftbehind.
Art by Margarita Korol.