We have been cold to the bone. And even under the hot stream of the shower, we don’t know how to get warm again. So it is, with love. We have been loved to the marrow. We are learning how to be loved again.
But in the absence of a cut-grass sky, fresh and severed, it is still raining.
I have been single for about three years now. I think. Because my relationships tend to be tenuous, light on their feet, and lacking in goodbyes. I don’t know how to let someone go any better than I know how to let them in. My relationships stand on doorsteps, loitering in the irresolute manner of a security light’s flickering. I have knocked on a lot of doors and been unable to cross the threshold. I have locked doors I should have opened. I have opened doors to strangers and let them in, hoping they would appraise my interior in the manner of a real estate agent, offering me my own worth; my asking price; a value to my nakedness.
My best friend and I watch The Bachelor. I’m sorry. Please don’t judge me. I watch so many of the women on this show confess that they find it hard to be open, but this man, this man dating all of them, has exposed their vulnerability, shucked them and peeled their pearls from their salty and perilous flesh. It is not so, with me. I am as open as a long road to nowhere. Most of the time. Most of the time I love with reckless abandon: my friends, my landscape, art works, meals, museums, sprawling trees in city parks: I love these things with all of myself. Because they move me and change me and make me want to be better. They shake me like a storm. The way my first true love did: he loved me, not right, not perfectly, but like I had never been loved before. He made me want to change, and although I lost myself in the process, it was the kind of love that shifted my view out my rear view mirror. I no longer saw the past as broken, but as an arrow. It led me to him. I still love him, though I do not want him back. We loved each other a sadness we shared, and mistook as growth. We loved each other into shoeboxes and called them modern apartment living. We loved at each other, but not into each other, and in the few photos I see of him on Facebook, he is loving all over again, and I think he is happy now.
My father often says that I want everything, right now. I want the world in my back pocket. I want a future I can’t fathom, in the present. So it is, with love. I respect the kind of love a friend’s mother once told me of: she married her husband, because that was what was done. You met a man who would do, and you married him. Their love was a slow burn, and it is the perfect temperature, now, to roast marshmallows in. They will not burn. But they will glow and pucker and melt on the tongue. They read the Sunday papers and they have fish and chips on a Thursday, and each summer they go to Spain for a week, and sit in contented silence in the sun. I imagine they have sex fortnightly, on a Wednesday, after a light dinner of chicken salad.
I have met many men who I could love like that.
What I imagine, however, is love like a hot air balloon. Love like the first time you see the Taj Mahal. Because I do not do content. I do wild and unfeasible joy. I do misery. I do hysteria: I soar. I plummet. I love wildly, and within a quiet pocket of my chest is the hope that someone else might love me like that.
The wider question, of course, is about what it is that I believe in. Perhaps I am not searching for love, but a life I can understand and frame as my own. Is it an apartment I want, or a bivouac? Should I dreadlock my hair and take hold of the life in Goa that I could have so quickly fallen into, a life of forget? There are shacks across the world looking for souls like mine. Of course, somebody owns them. Somebody owns the trees and even the sky, so freedom is a construct like everything else. Still, I could pretend so vehemently that it might become true. A part of me says falling into that could be bigger than this. Whatever this is.
But I wonder if the challenge, the meaning, lies in refusing to fall. Engaging with the things I want to change. And I type this in a Wellington café, a latte beside me, my hair conditioned with Aegean oil. I am wearing a shirt from a designer brand, my handbag, too, is expensive. I am not the unshackled light I believe myself to be. I pay my taxes; I take advantage of the healthcare system. I live beyond the means of most of the world, and I will never have the choice to truly know the experience of the other, even if I wanted to. It is arrogant and recessive to assume that I could downgrade my lifestyle and shed my privilege.
We cannot unknow what we have known. I cannot forget my first love any more than unravel my ideas of the kind if love I, obtusely, believe that I have earned. Because if there is one thing I have learned, it is that life does not owe me anything, and I have already been offered far more than my fair share.
Within us is all the cold we have ever felt. So it is, with fire. Whatever you call the hearth – God, home, family, love or learning – it is a life’s work to sit beside it, and perhaps one day learn that it is the fire within us, not the things without us, that truly keeps us warm.