It was during my last year as a graduate student in San Diego that I experienced for the first time what it meant to be the object of someone else’s… how should I put it? “Romantic interest”? “Passion”? “Love”? Until then, love had been for me something I was in, and the object of my affection was either dead, or a literary character, or some other unattainable person. Therefore I had never expected anything from this object, as he was always passive and completely oblivious to my existence. And suddenly, I found myself in the bizarre and unexpected situation of being the object of someone else’s in: someone else was in love with me, and I was out, so to speak, insofar as one can be in love only with someone outside of him- or herself.
This situation may seem normal for most people, but for me was the beginning of a serious crisis that threatened the very foundations of the world as I knew it: for I began to feel, really feel, that I was out, that my very existence was at the edge, and not at the center of the world, as I had thought until then. I was out of this world.
But let’s go back and see how it happened. It was during Spring break, and I had decided not to go to L.A., and rather stay in San Diego and spend the whole week there by myself, since then, as usual, I had no friends. And suddenly, this man appeared, an older graduate student in the Philosophy Department, whom I had briefly met at a party several weeks before, N. N was not an American—he was from a country I would rather not name because he will very likely come across these lines some day, and will find what follows offensive. Let’s say he was from South America because he displayed certain macho characteristics specific to most men from there. He was by no means unintelligent, though I couldn’t call him intelligent either, if one thinks that the Latin intellegere means “to comprehend,” and one thing is certain: whatever he comprehended, it wasn’t me—though it became increasingly obvious during our daily strolls and half-day conversations over several cups of coffee that he thought he “understood” me. It also became clear that he was from a world in which the man talks and the woman listens, but this didn’t bother me too much because it freed me from having to do small talk or even answer his questions (he didn’t always wait for my response and, from the way he ignored my silence, I assume that he probably took it, together with my blank face, as a sign of feminine modesty), so I could let my thoughts roam through hills and valleys, while he kept blabbering. Not that he made small talk either; he was the kind of person who could only make “big talk,” that is, talk about serious topics, but in a way that made everything come back to me, which under different circumstances might have been flattering. After he talked about Derrida for two straight hours, he took a small break to light a cigarette, and declared with a mysterious smile that I was “indeconstructible.” (For those readers out there who are not Derridians, I should add that this was a big compliment since, according to Derrida, the only thing that is “indeconstructible” is Justice. So, that put me right up there with the Blindfolded Lady.)
You may ask yourselves why I went out with him if not only did I not find him attractive, but his conversation was like background noise I was trying to buffer my ears against with my own noisy thoughts. Though he wasn’t ugly, I found him slightly repulsive, as he was the proud owner of a trait (which, as Derrida might say, was simultaneously a trace) that reminded me of an East European peasant, and which as a consequence was a big turnoff: a mustache. For an independent observer we must have presented the image of an odd couple: a man who talked and talked and talked to (for he was talking to me, never with me) a woman he rarely looked at (he almost never made eye contact); and a woman who seemed entirely absorbed in what the man was saying, if one didn’t take into account the expression of complete stupor or infinite remoteness displayed on her face.
So why did I go out with him for an entire week, almost twelve hours a day? The answer is simple: I was so lonely I would have gone out with a pig. But the paradox and the moral of the story is that by the end of the week my loneliness attained such peaks that I was on top of an ice mountain, while he was at the bottom, talking and talking, and the more he talked, the more remote and pitiful he seemed, like a character in a funny cartoon.
One night, as we were walking and, as usual, he talked and I listened, I had a revelation. I realized that this man loved me—though he didn’t mention the word as such, but he presented many symptoms one would associate with what people call “love:” he would call me several times a day for no reason; appeared not to be able to “live without me;” and at some point he began to talk about “our future” and even mentioned a “trip to Europe.” The revelation was not that he “loved” me but that, if he did, he must have felt what everyone else feels in such circumstances. Was his heart beating faster whenever he saw me? I wondered. Was he thinking of me all the time when he was by himself? He must have—if he was in love. Then why could I, the object of this love, not feel anything, or rather, all I could feel was that we were of two different species between which no communication was possible? Why could I not feel this “love”? What was this “love” if I, its direct object, was incapable of feeling its existence? What was its point? What did it mean? Could it be that, when I was “in love,” I too was just as ridiculous and pathetic as he was? Could “love” even have a meaning if its addressee, the lovee, as it were, could not recognize the lover in the sender, the one carrying and carried by love? Could it be that “love” was the most absurd and therefore the funniest and most laughable invention since Tristan and Isolde?
For he was laughable. Laughable whenever he asked me, very ceremoniously, to pardon him because he had to go “urinate”—that’s the word he used, “urinate;” laughable when he tried to declare “his feelings”—once he whispered that he could hardly wait to “feel the vibrations” of my body, and I really had to bite my tongue not to laugh; laughable when… What? What was that? He actually uttered the word “marriage.” Out of the blue. I cannot, for the life of me, recall, or rather put in a context his use of the word, for, as usual, my thoughts were wandering God knows where. But I know that he used it in relation to me. Me. Him. Marriage.
Where was this coming from? Had I missed something before? I might have—all those hours when he talked and I was daydreaming… Who knows what he must have said? Suddenly I felt as if I had signed a contract without reading it. What had I signed? Or rather: was my signature even a question? Was he expecting a signature? I stopped walking and looked him in the eye. He too stopped. Surprised—I had never done that during the entire week.
“I’m not sure I understand what you are talking about,” I said. “There must have been a misunderstanding.”
There. I said it. For the first time in a week I said something.
I held his gaze, and I noticed very clearly a flicker in his eyes, I noticed the kind of expression peasants in my grandparents’ village had when they tried to fool “city people.” The cunning expression of a peasant.
All right, I thought. I can be a peasant too. So, I changed my tune right away. I shrugged: “Oh, it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter. I’m just tired.”
Next day, the word “marriage” had disappeared but, as I had guessed, the peasant was still there. The peasant offered me gold. It was not an “indecent proposal,” no, nothing like that. It was just a metonymy for the word “marriage.”
“All women like jewelry,” he declared (whereas an American would have asked me, “Do you like jewelry?” he simply told me what women like). I happened to be one of those women who didn’t like jewelry, but there was no point in arguing with him—that is, had I had any desire to argue—because he would have thought that, like all women, I was just being coquettish. So, I just looked at him, blankly: “Do they?”
“Well, of course,” he continued. “But not just any jewelry. Gold. Who doesn’t like gold?”
Well, I didn’t, but, as I said, what was the point of saying no? So, I replied with zero-degree inflection in my voice, “I don’t know. Who doesn’t?”
“All women do,” he repeated. “So, tell me, what kind of jewelry would you like me to bring you from…?” (He mentioned his home country, where he was getting ready to go for a brief vacation.)
My first impulse was to categorically dismiss his proposal. In the first place, I didn’t want any jewelry; in the second, I hated gold; third, I would have been a lot happier with a box of hazelnut chocolate. But I knew better than to tell him what I thought. So, I shrugged my shoulders—a gesture he must have interpreted as a delicate feminine resistance to his male mating calls—and I mumbled: “I don’t know… Whatever… Bring me a bracelet and a ring.”
That was the last time I saw him before classes resumed. His existence began to fade almost immediately, and yet I couldn’t get rid of the intense feeling of unreality of that whole week, of the sensation that something had happened—something that was the opposite of a revelation, like the photographic negative of a revelation, the revelation that we are nothing but molecules of being completely cut off from each other, and that in order to make existence bearable we have been inventing fictions since the dawn of time, fooling ourselves that something like “love” existed, when in fact the only thing that exists are our skin and bones—the latter, the only thing that remains once we are gone. We are nothing but bare bones, which all our lives we struggle to cover with beautifully painted veils of lies.
I saw him again shortly after his return, and he did bring me a bracelet and a ring, both 18-karate gold. I put them on, thanked him and took off immediately, saying I had “an errand to run.” I went straight to the closest pawn shop near campus and sold them for a little over a hundred dollars. I was sure it was a rip off, but I didn’t care. The important thing was to rid myself of that metonymy and to exchange it for almost nothing. The cheaper the better.
Soon afterward I saw him again at some graduate student party on campus. He noticed I wasn’t wearing his jewelry. “Oh,” I said. “I sold it to a pawn shop. I needed the money.” And I left, letting him digest the news on his own. I felt free and light, nothing but bare bones.