Last night I heard one of my favorite writers speak—he may be my favorite living writer—and I was so brokenhearted I could barely take it in. Afterward, I bought a new copy of his best book (I’d read the last copy to shreds), and made an ass of myself as he signed it. I forgive myself because I’d known this would happen. I’m balls out when it comes to meeting movie actors and rock stars, but on the rare occasions I’ve met the writers I cherish, I’ve presented as angsty, unbalanced, wild-eyed. I think it is because I was raised more by my favorite authors than by my parents. I learned to read at age 3, inhaled adult books by kindergarten, and relied on essays, novels, and memoirs for the models of decency and decorum, the communion and care-taking, that I received nowhere else. It’s no wonder I’ve always been a disaster when I’ve met my favorite authors. The degree to which I’ve cathected to them has made our dynamics hideously uneven.
The person I met last night was Edmund White, whose work I’ve loved since reading “The Beautiful Room Is Empty” in the university library while my peers fell upon each in beery, Gap-clad messes. (I hated college.) As he signed “The Farewell Symphony” for me, I welled up and recited the Joshua passage I’ve quoted here. I saw his eyes widen in sympathy and alarm but couldn’t reel myself in; any emotional pregnancy unmoors me completely right now. I know I am not alone in feeling this way, far from it. But I am ashamed to say I am not just mourning the demise of the United States of America. I also am mourning the death of hopes I’ve nursed for months and months.
The thing about having your heart broken when you’re little, the thing about your own parents breaking your heart, is that you think the norm is a broken heart and that you have no business protecting yourself from the very people who are supposed to protect you. So you live with the danger and the despair the way you’d live with bad eyesight: you don’t know any other way until someone places glasses on your nose or loves you for real. If you’re like me, you respond like the thirtiest camel in the desert, an alcoholic with their first drink. You lose your mind in all that light.
Fifteen years ago, I met someone so bright-eyed and curious and clever and kind that he surgically opened my heart, and it is one of the great regrets of my life that I bolted in the face of our unconditional, reciprocal adoration. I cheated on him, disparaged him, drove him all the way back to his native country of England. Before this man, I’d never really loved anyone, least of all myself. Afterward, I had to learn how to deal with this new ability to love—with the fact that I felt something besides anger, avarice, envy. Felt everything, in fact. From then on, I cried and laughed all the time. For this I am grateful, though feeling everything is painful when there’s so much sadness in this world. I am grateful because you cannot be a real person if you cannot receive and express love.
I feel terrible minding that my heart is broken right now, especially because it has been broken my whole life. So what else is new? I say to myself. I know very well how to live with longing. Hell, I survived Mr. Oyster. It’s just that once again I fell so hard for the connection I shared with a person that I ignored his inability or unwillingness to honor it. At least this man was honorable about his unavailabilty–was transparent, regretful, sweetly soft. But his decency only deepens my sorrow.
I’d worry about him reading this except I know he will not. He does not read my words, does not take me in. In this lack of reciprocity, I have recreated my original heartbreak once again.
It is foolish to worry about my love life while the world falls down around our ears. But it also is the most natural time to do it. I’ve treasured being on my own, have learned more than I ever could if I’d had someone to clean up my messes and blame for my shortcomings. But I so rarely let anyone in—require so much rawness and radiance in the people I adore; am so all or nothing in my affections–that I only can assume I’ll be alone in the foxhole of these next four years. Oh, I will fight. I may even flourish, in a wartime sort of way. But I labor under no illusions. Alone in a foxhole is the aloneliest you can be.