«The explanation of this forgiveness of everything is my love for her … but what explains my love for her, I really don’t know. »
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov
I love Claire. It is she who doesn’t love me. Or perhaps she loves me as she can, in her own way, transactional, efficient, capitalistic. Perhaps she can’t love me (or she can’t love at all), but she tries to anyway. In any case, she expresses her love (I am not sure that it’s love) in such a weird and alien way, that I cannot understand it. Sometimes I feel like a guest, like someone she’s invited into her life, who adapts himself to the theoretical profile of a man she would actually like to have by her side. Or like a piece, sometimes desired, sometimes necessary, on her chessboard. This thing, her love, has sophisticated, subtle, and expressionless contours. It takes the shape of formality, planning, effectiveness, perhaps because these are the ways in which her love gets to, tries to, is able to? manifest itself.
And in spite of all these clues, of all the roads that lead to the same endpoint, I find it hard to understand reality, which remains out of sight because a veil, sometimes made of fantasy, seeks to envelop it.
But there must be a way to summarize all this, to convey it without as many considerations, without going in as many circles. There is. It is the term.
It’s not easy to love Claire, but I do love her and it doesn’t surprise me. She is intelligent, beautiful, and has a strong temperament that I sometimes accept as personality. She is a woman of action and ideals, who loves adventure. We could do great things together, if we could just understand each other a bit better, if we just wanted to understand each other a bit more. And I do want to, because we share something very special: our refusal to accept the terms of reality. Or at least, that is what I want to believe.
If I had to sum up Claire in a single word, I would, without a doubt, use the term. If that possibility were forbidden, then I would say she is tough, like a round river rock, with all the good and bad that toughness has to offer. A rational toughness that covers a sensitive and forgotten heart, against which I hopelessly crash more often than I’d want to. And a lot more often than our relationship can withstand.
I mentioned the term to Claire only once, in passing, when I still talked to her in a spontaneous and careless way. When I hadn’t yet fallen into her logic. I did it a lot before I believed the term was the best way to define her, as I believe it now. It was the only precise way to describe what happened right after one of the most important moments in our relationship: the first time we made love.
It all happened in that city in the North, so comfortable and functional, especially for her. Perhaps it was our love for train travel that had us meet at the central station at six in the evening. Claire arrived with planned unpunctuality. We walked and seduced each other without hurry, beneath the dim light of an autumnal sun that was disappearing amidst the modern towers of the financial district. The night slowly fell upon us, and with it came dinner, confidence, and stares. The smoke produced by the students who crowded the place, one of the most traditional bars in the city, surrounded us. Desire already dominated the scene and, once in the apartment, the first kiss launched us unto the sofa, and then the bed, where we loved each other anxiously.
We were exhausted and soaked in sweat when she decided to take a shower. Inspired by something that seemed to me like politeness, I decided to follow her example. When I came out of the bathroom, ready to sleep by her side, I had to adapt to a change of plans: she asked me to sleep on the sofa. Since it was her home, she had every right to ask, and my age of naiveté had ended long ago; still, I was surprised. While staring at the sofa, searching for answers, I tried to convince my disappointment that solitude wouldn’t be so bad. I failed to understand how Claire was capable of disrupting that magical connection. I had, and still have, no doubt that it had been mutual.
I revealed all this to her, in this exact manner, much later on, when we mulled over the details of that night. I didn’t understand, still. It was in that moment that I used the term, the only time. I added that perhaps there was a cultural gap. It was not the first time that I had experienced this kind of behavior in those central lands, where pragmatism ruled over symbolism and life tended to be reduced, without conflict, to a handful of arguments. It was in these regions, after all, that I had witnessed long debates over the convenience of having children, in which arguments revolved around issues like the lack or abundance of time, money, and professional development. What surprised me even more than the sofa scenario, already so distant, was her disproportionate reaction to my point of view. Teetering on the edge of fury, she explained that her manners were not in the least bit unusual, and that it was neither the first time that she had sent someone to the sofa nor the first she’d been sent. She didn’t answer when I asked her how she had felt in my place. Without a doubt, she was upset over the use of the term, but only later would I understand the depths of this anger. She avoided my question, and instead focused on my “generalizations” of human behavior in those cold countries. As if cultures didn’t exist or weren’t different. As if these differences could be explained without generalizations. As if we could deny — I used a painful example from my own country — that, in Latin America, there is a machismo culture that kills.
The tension was such that we had to halt the debate, as it had become abrasive and hurtful. Only half-way through the next day were we able to restore certain normalcy, and in the following hours I realized, painfully, that we had wasted a precious opportunity to become closer and enrich our relationship through the conflict.
Claire’s tendency for premature and explosive irritation had revealed itself before my eyes and would, sadly, continue do so with increasing frequency in the time to come. It wasn’t the last time I slept on the sofa, either; it was one of her many, sometimes subtle, ways of imposing conditions.
She completely refuses the complicity I proffer. She prefers an empire instead. I still don’t know whether it is a matter of personal or cultural differences.
Arguments with Claire are difficult. She considers them unnecessary, a waste of time. We hit dead ends quickly and easily; an ideal scenario for tension to blossom. She doesn’t think it’s worth expending energy towards understanding and resolving our differences, which, both personal and culturally, are enormous. It’s better to ignore, forget, and move on. After all, time is limited. For that reason, it is not strange for her to unilaterally end arguments: “Things are the way they are; there’s nothing left to say, accept it, that’s it.” If that doesn’t work (it never works), she doesn’t miss the chance to put an end to it by slamming a door. When the moment comes to revisit these issues, Claire usually warns me to not get mad for what she’s about to say, something that has not yet happened. After all, getting angry is the most obvious way to admit intolerance, or lack of reasoning.
We almost always speak in Spanish, except when we’re arguing. In that case, we switch to English, on my own initiative, in order to introduce neutrality and fluidity to the interaction. Apart from her native tongue, Claire speaks excellent English, and speaks Spanish very well. She would, without a doubt, prefer to argue in Spanish, but the truth is that the language can become an obstacle for her and I’d rather avoid further complications.
Our lackluster arguments are only one of the many facets of our communication problems. We don’t have issues when it comes to exchanging practical information, such as schedules, locations or tickets. In fact, it is she who takes initiative in these cases. Perhaps the only problem is that all this information is secondary to me. Things get complicated when we stray from the concrete, and it’s not rare for Claire to ignore conversations about books, ideas, or feelings. If we’re riding bicycles, she prefers speed over conversation. When we’re travelling, she doesn’t answer my messages. Or she does it with complete aloofness, as if the physical distance were reflected in our conversation. And it’s not that I’m an importunate person. It’s that she is too busy. She has a lot of work. And she only likes to give full responses. And she wants to do it in Spanish, to practice the language. Therefore, she needs time, calmness, and concentration. Which she lacks. That is why she doesn’t answer me.
When we talk about our relationship and feelings, Claire «assesses» each of the aspects that worry her. If we’re going through a difficult moment, she informs me that she is not willing to «invest feelings» in vain. She believes that our conflicts are, in large part, a result of my irresponsible “power games.” For her, the relationship can go from “one hundred to zero” in the blink of an eye; if the periods are longer, she draws the evolution of these scores through time in the air, with functional curves that rise and fall, and spikes that highlight a fight or reconciliation. Claire doesn’t study mathematics, economics, or anything remotely close to a hard science. Luckily. She is aware of all this and admits to it with a pride I cannot comprehend. She defines herself as a “practical” and “not at all romantic” person in matters of love. Thanks for clarifying, Claire.
When the time comes to “organize her schedule,” Claire always has an agenda within reach, ready to be consulted or filled in. It’s like an extension of her body, all but an organ. Sometimes, the small notebook appears to be pulsing. It is a reflection of her optimized life, full of work and social events that can be scheduled as early as one year in advance. During the time of ecstasy, the summer, it is not unusual to have to schedule a moment to go for a walk, perhaps in a week’s time. There are no slots in her agenda for intimacy (which doesn’t necessarily have to be physical) — it is an unproductive activity. Her social life is a lot more nourished than mine, which is not a great feat…after all, I am a writer. Still, that doesn’t mean she is less alone (maybe it even explains it), much like many of the people we meet at all those events we attend. Even I can’t penetrate that loneliness, which she mistakes for independence. In fact, agendas, like budgets, are the best way to express priorities. And we have very different priorities. For example, those related to family or work.
Claire considers her family to be a group of adult individuals that share the same surname, an almost administrative matter. They must each take charge of their own responsibilities; she has no reason to take care of them or any of their problems. It’s difficult for her to understand why family is so important to me and finds it exaggerated that I consider mine a “source of unconditional love.”
Like many of the people around her, Claire works a lot and is proud of that. “I’ve been working a lot” or “I have a lot of work to do” are recurrent phrases. She in fact often works on Saturdays and always carries work materials with her, just in case. Due to this devotion, she has a successful career and is about to become an expert in her field. Her professional life has a solid future and contributes to the development of her already developed country. And this reminds me of something: she doesn’t like it when I say «developed», as it is a word that “crystallizes existing power dynamics.” Since I do not want to be a semantic oppressor, I’ll correct myself: her country, which has a high income per capita.
Claire’s interest in politics was one of the things that excited me most when I met her. For whatever reason, she is devoted to helping the disadvantaged in the city where she lives (which is not her city, as no city is), which to me is invaluable. She is vegetarian and has a strong environmental consciousness. She dominates an intensely progressive and anti-capitalist discourse, using firm words like “resistance,” which doesn’t stop her from worshiping New York and fostering a secret desire to live there someday. She doesn’t, at least in my presence, naively fall for the alternative, socialist proposal. To my disappointment, we haven’t yet delved into political debate. Maybe she is not actually interested in these conversations, or, alternatively, she considers me an unworthy interlocutor. After all, I am a mere liberal and my belief in equal opportunity is, perhaps, a bit naive or insufficient for her. When we do finally start to have a political discussion, she does not like for us to do it lying down or “in positions where one symbolically prevails over the other.” That is to say, where one is standing and the other, seated. She believes that most people are not ready to vote. Because, as everyone knows, only progressives are prepared for it.
As a good progressive, she justly repudiates nationalism and sexism. She does this with devotion, detecting and pointing it out all the time. Sometimes, exaggeratedly, as if she had the urgent need to be politically correct. Almost everything is nationalism from her vantage point: highlighting a cultural difference, my Argentine soccer shirt, and the humble peasants that celebrate a national holiday with traditional clothes. She doesn’t understand the love of one’s place, which doesn’t necessarily have to manifest itself in negative attitudes towards others. Almost everything is sexism, too: opening a door for her, disagreeing about sexism with a woman, and female titles that end in O’s, in Spanish. Not only does she believe (like I do) that women have the same rights as men, but also that men and women are exactly the same. Any excuse is good enough to label me as nationalist or sexist, even though she then ends up admitting, once the storm has passed and I demand definitions, that no, I am neither one of those things.
The web of micro-rules is not limited to physical postures during political discussions. On the contrary, it expands, chaotically, into every corner of our life together. Some of these micro-rules, to be honest, have a positive side, like the duty to go out on Saturday nights. Others have a touch of extravagance — especially during finite summers — like having to stay out of the house until nightfall. These are not broad statements, but rather non-negotiable laws. I could list every detail of the Clairecian legislation and co-opt the rest of the story, but that wouldn’t make much sense. To sum up, all these micro-rules, in their entirety, are exhausting.
The swamp of regulations on which Claire treads, with difficulty, exposes her inflexibility, her structured way of being. She believes that having an explanation supposes being right. Period. This drives her inability to admit her own mistakes and, therefore, to offer apologies. She prefers to leave counterarguments unresolved or to accept that the two parties are right, even when the positions contradict each other. Only as a last resort does she accept to offer apologies, always after I do and never on her own initiative. When she does, the apologies are almost never genuine (I could not demand so much), but rather a practical solution to end a discussion that she considers to have been too long. She loves, or needs, to have control. She acknowledges that she “hates surprises” and that she has been called “a dominant woman” in the past. The love switch she uses allows her (or, at least, so she believes) to decide her feelings, which can change abruptly with just a click, as if they were a light.
Sometimes, her ideas about privacy and intimacy confuse me. Sex does not mean much to her, something I began to understand our first time together. On the contrary, sharing a bed (sleeping, literally) is a much more intimate experience. She jogs several times a week, but she does not allow me to go with her because “it is a very personal and private moment.” She doesn’t like to be photographed. She practices yoga and meditation; judging by the results, insufficiently. She has, and this does not surprise me, a hard time sleeping.
None of the above makes her question the fact that she is an open-minded woman. And perhaps she is, according to her own concept of open-mindedness, which is limited to exercising a politically progressive discourse and sexual freedom. However, this concept doesn’t include choosing flexibility, tolerance, or humility over other ways of seeing the world or doing things, however small and insignificant they may be.
Claire is a complicated woman.
I think Claire suffers a dissociation. It relates to the conflict between her reasons, which are in charge, and her weak heart, which remains subdued. All this just to avoid the inconvenience of suffering. However, her reasons know that it is not good to live without a heart, so they seek to emulate it in an artificial way that will minimize risks. They build a facade in the shape of her heart, which doesn’t force them to relinquish control. This unstable house of cards creates a collateral curiosity: Claire tends to see causes where there are consequences. So, she confuses temperament with passion, politeness with kindness, or brutality with honesty.
The term reveals this conflict in its entirety, which is why it hurts her so much. None of what has happened between us, which is a lot, has had an impact as profound as the only time I mentioned it. It firmly defines the way in which her reasons determine her behavior, which is antithetical to her heart. The heart that chose me and which I can still sometimes reach. That’s why a part of Claire remembers the term periodically. It’s her heart asking for help.
So, I venture along with my heart in search of hers in the only way I can, without calculation or speculation. I accept my defects, my mistakes, my faults. I make myself flexible, beyond what’s reasonable. I take risks and expose my feelings, which now themselves contain contradictions. I become inconsistent and I often feel like an idiot. I doubt. With each false step, her reasons punish me and, if there’s a chance, humiliate me without hesitation.
I am willing to love Claire forever, in spite of everything. I know it and she knows it. But her reasons don’t allow me to, and they make her heart grow more distant every day. Meanwhile, the term inside her advances upon me and I am not able to contain it. The situation, I am willing to admit, overwhelms me. I am worn down, weakened, and I turn off. She perceives this, brings it up, and because it can’t be any other way, blames me for it. Were she in my place, she’d have left me a long time ago, maybe the day of our first argument. Or the second, as she partially did. But I’m not like her and I’m not willing to be. So, I resist, without a future, against all odds. Not only do I say that I won’t give up… I don’t. I won’t be the one to forsake her heart. She will be the one to do it when she finally leaves me, entirely, for good.
Translation by Branka Milisic, branka123[at]yahoo.com
Original version (in spanish)