When Love Is Impossible
My love lives far away so we spend an inordinate amount of time on the phone. Hours. Sometimes entire days working, running errands together. When the silence gets too much we entertain ourselves by posing absurd, impossible questions to one another.
“Okay,” one of us might say, “I’m me, but I’m really into golf. Like my whole identity is based around golf, I have golf friends, and wear golf clothes everywhere, even to formal events. I wore a golf shirt to your dad’s funeral. You didn’t want me to, but I insisted. It’s like how I deal with some childhood trauma or something. I’m always dragging you to golf events and my apartment is all decorated in golf themes. My bed is custom made to look like a putting green. There’s a flag on the headboard. I paid like $40,000 for a special SUV that looks exactly like a golf cart. It’s just like, a thing about me. But I’m exactly the same person in every other way. You just have to explain to all your friends, ‘yeah my partner’s really cool, they just have this… this golf thing.’ Are you still into me?”
I like this game because it’s funny and absurd. How could you be the exact same person but also have an identity built entirely around golf? But the other reason I suspect we do this is because we like testing our love. The pleasure is not the test itself, but the fact that our love almost always passes. We kick the stones upon which it is built and delight in seeing them entirely unmoved. There is also another kind of joy I feel when it doesn’t pass. It is satisfying to hear the other person say “I love you. But not enough to sacrifice something I believe in.” I suppose this too makes us feel safe. We may be deep in love, but not entirely lost to it.
Once, along these lines, she posed the following question. “Do you like me better on the phone or in person?” We had been together for over a year and a half at this point, but due to geography and COVID, we had spent at a great deal more time on the phone than we had together in real life. So it was an interesting question, one which I, of course, entirely dodged. There is, I should say, an out to this game, which is that either of us can say “That is impossible to answer.” The other might make a brief case for why it’s not impossible, or why that’s a cop out, but nonetheless the subject is usually dropped. I took this escape when she asked me.
“How can I decide that?” I asked, perhaps exaggerating a little my sense of being offended. “I love you in all the ways! I can’t be asked to choose just one.”
This she reluctantly accepted, and soon our conversation ended because we both had parenting to do.
Seven hours later we were on the phone again. She was brushing her teeth, my kids were at their mom’s house, I was playing Mario Kart 8 — practicing so my children could stop destroying me at it — and thinking about how I should be writing. After a long silence in which both of us disappeared so deeply into our own worlds that I briefly forgot I was on the phone at all, I said “Do you like me better on the phone or in person?”
“What… what are you doing?”
“Do you like me better on the phone or in person?”
“Did you even answer when I asked you that?”
“I mean I’ll answer if you will.”
“You can’t do that. I invented the question! It’s my question.” She was right. Traditionally the inventor of the question gets to control the terms upon which it is answered.
“Yeah, but if you ask it you should be willing to answer it.”
Even though this logic held, it was a clear violation of our unspoken rule that the first person asked has to be the first person to answer. Nevertheless, she decided to relent. Probably because she needed to say what she ended up saying.
Soon she was into a long exploration of the topic, the seriousness of which I have to admit I was not expecting. She told me that it was nice when I visited, but it was also hard to do regular life under those circumstances. It’s exhausting, the emotions of it. The joy at seeing one another, the obsessive way we want to spend every moment together. The demands of regular life — kids, bills, work, housekeeping — go unattended during our visits. We try to behave normally, but it’s not possible. We stay up all night cracking jokes, having sex, staring at each other. We eat second dinners at two am, cake at three, and popcorn at four. We sleep until the morning is nearly over, and upon waking, light out for pastries and coffee from the best and most expensive bakeries and cafes we can find. During these times, it is as if we are living a permanent festival, a celebration of the mere fact that we found each other, that this thing called “us” now exists where before it did not. How amazing is that?! It’s like we want to take every pleasure. Cigarettes, naps, food, ice cream, sex. It is joyous and overwhelming, exhausting like a day with too much sunlight.
“So yes, she concluded, “I do like it when we’re on the phone. But I also like it when you’re here.” She, too, had dodged the question, but had, it seemed to me, answered a much more significant one.
It was my turn.
There is another game we play, within the game. The competition is to see who can come up with the most loving, most earnest, most meaningful answer to these ridiculous question. Who can say the words that will be remembered forever, that will be forever enshrined in the pull quotes of our love. There are extra bonus points awarded if you can do this while somehow trolling the other one in the process. At the very last moment before answering, I suddenly realized how I could win this second game. It was by saying:
“Yeah. I like you better in person.”
“I hate you,” she said laughing.
I giggled for at least a minute at this exchange before we lapsed once again into silence.
Love is painful sometimes. When you are alone and longing for it, you are at least complete. There is you, and there is your desire, but you are whole, all your passions and wants, hurts and desires are contained unto yourself. But once you truly love someone, once a piece of you is buried inside someone else’s heart, it is as if you are suddenly split into two and you cannot ever be whole again without them.
But of course you can’t have them. They are always away from you, if not in geography, then in spirit. They are a different person, with an entire lifetime of differing experiences. There are not enough quiet late night talks or long morning walks together in all of your lives on this Earth for you to come to understand all of them. They have experienced this world in a different body, perhaps a different gender, a different class than you. They grew up in a different place, with different parents. The childhood experiences that shaped them may be known to you, memorized by you, but you can never truly understand these experience as your love does, how they all are intertwined, creating a network of desires, fears, attachments, and avoidance that you can never know in its entirety. You can only guess. This you must accept.
This separation is of course healthy. We cannot love in a way that devours one another. This is how abuse happens, how hurt happens, and in hetero relationships, this is one of the ways in which misogyny and patriarchy is played out. There is a limit to how close two people can be, how much possession they can have of one another, and that limit must be understood and accepted.
Still there is a bizarre, almost unconscious desire to be closer. Even if neither of you want the gap fully closed, there lies something within your bodies that does. The Sisyphean effort to satisfy this urge and combat it at the same time, lately I have come to wonder if this in and of itself is the act of love — of surrender, a demonstration of how far you’re willing to go for them, toward them, away from them, and toward them again. Maybe this is part of why our time together is so overwhelming. Maybe we are constantly trying, in vain, to close the gap between us, to feel the completeness and satisfaction of becoming one again, which we can never fully do. The space always remains, and in that chasm a part of you falls, dies, never returns.
They say love is patient and kind, but they never say what else is true: that love is also anxious and fearful, desperate and forever on unsure footing. The stakes are so high, the potential for ruin so complete, the powerlessness so utter. In that sense it is like life itself: all encompassing, but completely unwinnable. No one gets out alive.
Maybe for now it is better when we are on the phone.