The Name of Desire
WHAT CONSTITUTES LOVE, HOW DO WE SEPARATE A GOOD LOVE FROM A SAFE LOVE, AND WHAT DO WE SACRIFICE FROM OURSELVES IN THE NAME OF DESIRE?
I’m going to tell you a story. Are you sitting down? Is your chair comfortable? If I start at the beginning, things will make too much sense. Do you mind if a story starts in the middle? Nothing ever happens in a sensible order anyway. A heart is never so rational. Desire is never an arrow that points straight.
Once upon a time, I held a boy’s hand. Most stories start this way, really, even if you don’t hold their hand until after you’ve made love. We think embers catch alight with gazes hitching across a dance floor, or over a bottle of rosé during the first date. We think it all begins with a swipe or a laugh or a kiss, but it doesn’t. The story starts when flesh meets flesh in the most innocent way. Desire can be peculiar and dishonest like that.
His skin is warm and alive as he pulls my hand into his, brings it to his mouth, smothers it with a gentle kiss, “I’m so proud of you,” he says.
The cars are thrumming on the main road and we are walking along the crossing. There is a shopping centre and a medical centre on the corner of the road, and there are fumes of smoke all around, with people who are busy going wherever they need to be, but above it all we are floating and he is looking at me, and my heart whispers notes of adoration. My desire is a tight coil that burrows under my flesh and sinews around my veins. I am not yet the damsel who has been saved by the prince, but I hope to be
The greatest stories build their backbones with truth. Here is a truth: holding a hand can simmer down your firing blaze to a gentle heat. Scientific studies (Crawford, 2018) have proven that the mere act of fingers meeting fingers, clasping, joining, has an analgesic effect on pain. Your brain, so timid and receptive and clever, is outwitted by the heart and its desire for the body to be held.
Another time, we are driving along the highway and he reaches for my hand. His body seems to fit so well in the driver’s seat. He is the captain of the ship and I am his woman even if he is not my man and he knows it. He speaks, while his palm is in my palm, and weaves me words that hint at his longing. He tells me that he cannot believe how fast I have swept him off his feet, and then he smiles at me. A mahogany grin full of promises. Earlier he found my pendulum tucked inside my wallet. I remember the sun bouncing from its edges as he swung it. He asks the pendulum a question but refuses to tell me what he asked. It is his ship, afterall. He relents that the answer would please me. He relents that he was not prepared for his desire to have him bending to me so quickly.
Love is your back to the ocean as a wave collides with the shore you stand on. Is that not love? To be caught off guard? To have no time to brace yourself for the imminent impact? Is love the impact? Is it two forces colliding, finally? Finally. Finally. Flesh meeting flesh, finally. Soul’s reaching for one another through time and space and parallel universes. It is the simmering, heated knowledge that in every realm this meeting exists.
Is it love even when it ends in one of those realms? It is, oh it is. What is love if not the hope we keep hidden next to our most gruesome fears?
Scientists cannot decide if we exist in a multiverse. Are we tuning in to only one frequency when there are, in fact, many frequencies that exist which are simply invisible to us? In this universe our hands met and our lips tasted and our eyes were hungry, but in another, do we never speak again after our first interaction? And what of bloodshed? And what of our hearts? How do they fare in every other realm?
I have googled it, you know. How do I contact myself in a parallel universe? The influx of search results indicate that it is not so strange a question. Some suggestions included finding a way to make yourself faster than the speed of light, or locating a black hole to jump into. My favourite, however, was to write a letter to your other self. The theory is that the simple act of wishing to connect to your other self tunes you into their frequency. Would they get your letter as deja vu? As a strange coincidence that makes them change their mind? Would we really wish to trickle into those dimensions? To make such an impact seems unholy. To make such an impact seems to sing of regret, here, in this realm, where each terrible thing has amounted to the bliss of many beautiful happenings.
Ok, let me backtrack for a moment and transport you to the beginning so that the story can have a shape. It is too soon to speak of regret and its weight.
Here’s how the story starts: the lights in the club smother me as the loud music washes over the crowd of patrons. The winter air is heavy in its sharpness, cutting into my cheeks. I’m working outside in the courtyard and he’s working at the bar. I notice him within minutes, and I can feel the silhouette of him on my peripheral all night. The prey and the hunter, shadowing each other between the bright lights. Like a sixth sense. Like a fated meeting. Like, thank god the last boy couldn’t desire me the way I needed him to. He smiles at me once but I think he’s just being polite. I resume my stance as the new employee and accept that he has already forgotten me by the time he makes the next drink.
The story continues because I do not forget him. Because my desire is a serpent devouring a mouse and I am ruthless in my pursuit. I pray he is not in love with someone else. I scour for crumbs until I learn his name. I am sure that in every universe we find each other. The story continues because I shield him from my ruthlessness, I curve the edges out so they’re soft and pretty. He thinks we met again by accident, but accidents so rarely hold a place in the lore of love.
On the first date, we lay side by side and expose our stories. I explain how my lovers have not always been fair to me, and he tells me of the ex who would not trust him. We talk about the universe and the corruption of circuses and the conspiracies of the cosmos and my heart with its desire is banging against my bones; the rattle is a raucous, it is a blade, it is a splintering. I tell him of my heartache, the termination of the pregnancy, the bruises that were the catalyst. He repeats back a similar story that happened to him, once, in which he was the man who had to talk his girlfriend out of a pregnancy. I recall shaking off a quiet knowing that whispered in my ears: he could never fathom how soft a woman is forced to be in her rage. When he tells me his story he is sure to position himself as a victim, too: a helpless man at the helm of a woman’s insanity. If I had a key to the door of a parallel universe, would I go to that moment? Would I grab my past self by the shoulders and tell her a glinting truth that this self is sure of? With my invisible voice I could tell her, “he is no victim.”
In Animal, Lisa Taddeo writes that “men are always putting their coats around my shoulders. They mark their territory that way. It’s better to freeze to death.” Here is a truth: holding a hand can simmer down your firing blaze to a gentle heat, and sometimes you should not be simmered down.
The number of women dying at the hands of men is a devastating avalanche. Women who lusted and laboured and tried to quiet their ruthlessness for the sake of safety. Because love is your back to the ocean as a wave collides with the shore you stand on, isn’t it? Is our choice not stripped once we plummet? Once they smile at us in praise as we bend and shrink and cry for them? Yes, those smiles seem to purr, that’s exactly how a woman should desire me. These deadly men lure and lumber and grunt and add to the avalanche but they could never be soft enough to write a letter to their alternate self. They could never have the foresight to wrap shackles around their own wrists so that their hands could never cause more damage.
Can I interrupt this tale and give you a spoiler? I want to tell you an important part of the ending. Love does not care where your heart rests, where his heart rests, only that it must have its moment in the sun, through your bones, fierce like a shank cutting through your ribcage. There is a timer and it clicks when he tells you how he’ll never forget you. This. The important moments wrapped in tiny claws. When he tells you how strange it is that we’ll never abandon the thought of one another, when we’re each separate, driving down that highway in our own cars and not holding each other’s hands, but living in the memory of what was.
Karakurt wrote that when a woman is leaving an abusive relationship, “a better indicator [to determine if she will leave] than frequency of physical violence may instead be the severity of emotional abuse.” (2013).
A man can be as lethal with his words as he is his fists. A bug caught in a spiders web. An invisible voice shouting at you from another universe that you cannot hear. A woman can become separate from her own self through the weaving of pretty words; living in a haze on her captain’s ship, saying yes, saying please, and loving in the name of desire.
I write him a four page letter before it ends but after I take the pregnancy test. I write it and shake. I write it and weep. I write it and pray. I write it and never give it to him but hope that he hears my words nonetheless. A few days after it is written, I call and leave a voicemail asking to see him. He texts back and says he’s too busy. My reply is simple, I am pregnant.
I want to tell you this story with the true sharpness it contains. I want the brutality of a hushed pain to be clear. Not all harm is done with a barrage of bullets. It only takes a papercut to make us bleed.
If I had started this story at the beginning, I may have chosen to tell the tale of my first abortion. The way it ripped through me like a hurricane strips entire cities. The years it took to rebuild my foundations. I may have gone back a few months before that, to the nights I’d laid bruised and broken at the hands of the man I had once loved. Perhaps, at that beginning, I would have mentioned how I hoped the father of my future children could be a man less angry, less violent, less akin to a barreling windstorm. I could have numbly skipped to the part where I met the bartender on my first night at my new job, and explained how soft his hands were as they ran through my hair while I told him about the past that had wrecked me. In that beginning, I may have explained how when I’d found out I was pregnant again with the bartender’s baby, it seemed as though all the devastation had amounted to this one radiant moment.
The truth is not a comforting hand but instead it is a fistful to the mouth: my first pregnancy was with a man who threatened to kill me if I didn’t get an abortion, and my second pregnancy was with a man who had treated me so soft, wrapped me in warm words and delicate arms, and then threatened to kill himself if I didn’t get an abortion.
When he leaves me, I am splintered in half. I am left aghast by the falsity of his promises. I lose faith in words, and so spend years running from writing. Which is to say, running from myself. I reach through the pain and tell myself that if I am to survive this, I must act differently than last time. I must build a thick skin and bury the blasphemy. I spend hours thinking about how callous his hands were with my heart, how the bruises my skin has worn pale in comparison to the brutality of a man who used my own mind against me; who took my kindness, my desire, and bent it to his will. I wonder which left me more broken. I consider how physical abuse leaves a mark that you can point to, but emotional abuse leaves you in an echo chamber. Only you can see the wailing. I send a prayer into the ether, as far into every realm as I can manage, for every woman whose self has been mismanaged by an ill-equipped captain.
Can I tell you the truth about how women stitch themselves back together? We heal and hurt and remember so hard that it can’t hurt us anymore: he is driving me home after I’ve had too many drinks, his eyes are glittering when he reads what I write, he is listening to the things I tell him and devouring my favourite books and taking good, good care of me. Healing is so much murkier when the good moments shine so bright.
Some memories make me wrench my gut. The morning we sat on the hotel couch together plays back in my mind on loop. He’d been out the night before but was generous enough to leave the club at 4am to sit with me while I bled out my womb. His feet are in my lap and his eyes are watching me as we talk about what the future holds. From his lips comes the question, “How can I trust that you actually like me when you didn’t wait a few dates before you slept with me?”. In my head I bite back that the scenario he is recalling also required his participation, but out loud I profess and explain and do my best to take my desire out of my body so that he can see it in all its glory. I am tidying my edges and being gentle. I am wrapping my arms around him and doing what all desirous women are taught to do: soothe.
When we leave the hotel, I am weary and empty and unwilling to drive, so I give him my keys. Before he gets behind the steering wheel, he throws them back to me. With a crimson grin, he tells me I have to get used to driving with him in the car, and I think: he’s alluding to a future with us in it, together, and for now I have done enough to convince him.
Here’s how this story really starts: his skin is warm and alive as he pulls my cold hand into his, brings it to his mouth, smothers it with a gentle kiss, “I’m so proud of you,” he says.
In the soft waves of his love I plunge. I fool myself into believing my desire makes the sacrifice worth it, piercing my own heart to ensure his stays mended. A savagery that whispers, a punch that leaves no bruises.
We are crossing the road and heading to another medical centre. The lady at the abortion clinic had tried six times but could not find a vein and they needed to take my bloods to make sure it worked. I remember almost nothing except floating above it all, finding comfort in the knowledge that I had done something to make him happy. He is so proud of me, he tells me so.
I wonder if my parallel self was watching over my shoulder, laying her hands over my heart, furiously writing me letters, and wishing I would have known earlier that to sacrifice your own needs for the sake of another, in the name of desire, is the greatest sin.