From the start of adulthood, we have been waiting. We understood love intuitively long before it was ever a practical possibility. We knew that it was bound up with a sense of being profoundly understood and finally able to say everything, without fear of judgement or censure. Love was a two-person conspiracy against everyone else too dumb or leaden to get ‘it’, the true nature of being alive. It had to do with fancying someone totally and the amazingness that they might fancy you back, to the extent that you could do anything with them, like rest a finger inside their mouth and ask them to bite it hard.
We imagined from the first that love might be the best part of life – and we were not wrong. In the name of love, we put ourselves in extraordinary situations. We went out far more than we would have wanted. We bought fancy clothes, we thought about our hair and worried about our spots, we drank intensely coloured cocktails, we ended up at small hours in alien parts of town, in the bedrooms of people we knew weren’t right but that seemed at least in some way to be an advance on the cause. We accepted dates with people we knew were problematic because we wanted not to ossify or grow too peculiar. It wasn’t always right, in fact, it was mostly always wrong, but we kept our spirits up and told ourselves it would eventually be ok, as they kindly assured us it would be. But time passed; decades went by. We got enmeshed in some very troubling situations that looked like love from the outside but were anything but. We spent far too long extricating ourselves and finding our voice. And at a certain point, we started to apprehend something whose terror we are still grappling with, probably late at night, because such things aren’t easy to look at in daylight: the probability that love isn’t, after all, despite our efforts and insights, ever going to come right for us. We are going to die without ever having known the love we long for. The reasons are multiple and, in their ways entirely banal. Because our past is too complicated; our lack of trust too deep; we are too ugly; we are too unconfident; we don’t meet the right people; our luck is too slim; hope feels too risky. Though we try, harder than we try
at anything else, we can’t do this thing. It won’t work out for us. The ambassador for this sombre grand truth might be an objectively rather innocuous disappointment: perhaps one more date that didn’t in the end – despite a very hopeful stage around dessert – go as it should, or one more person who didn’t call back. They, the angel of romantic death, couldn’t have known what they were doing to us, and certainly didn’t mean to (we can’t hate them for a moment, unfortunately), but through their lack of
desire, they initiated us into an idea which now threatens to blow our sanity. Behind closed doors, the scenes aren’t pretty. Thank goodness for privacy to shield a moralistic world from scenes that need to be forgotten. There will be hours of the most unedifying desperation: tears, bitter denunciations of everyone and everything, self-pitying and vengeful rants: this is too much, I can’t take it any more, this is unfair beyond measure. In the night, we smash through the crash barriers of ordinary hope. We’re going to do away with ourselves. They’ll regret us, they’ll miss us now. But we won’t, of course, do anything silly. It’s just the mind doing it’s normal work, adjusting to yet another yawning gap between the way we would want things to be and the horrid way they are. We settle. We are – after all – creatures who know how to die. We think we don’t know how to, but we invariably do, whatever the fierce rage. We can digest pretty much any verdict. We tell ourselves we’d never endure not being able to speak or losing our bowels, but then the doctors tell us what has to be and we put up with a feeding tube and a bag and being able to communicate only through a quivering eyelid. It’s always better than the alternative. So of course we deal with the cataclysmic lack of love. Dawn comes, chilly and severe and yet reassuring in its sober bleakness. We make the bed, clear away the despair, and get on. There are a few consolations. First and foremost, a ravaged incensed defiance, a fuck you to the universe and all those who peddle sentimental nonsense that doesn’t fit our reality. A certain kind of art works too, the sort created by unflinching genius realists who went through as much loneliness as we have, who understood our sadness ahead of time, grief-stricken masters like Baudelaire and Leopardi, Pessoa and Pascal, who can express our petty domestic sorrow in mighty transcendental terms and induct us to the most dignified kind of regret. They were there too and, in the most abstract accomplished ways, tell us ‘I know’. And we have friendship, not the kind that obliterates the loneliness, but that allows us to commune around it. We can’t help each other directly, we’re more like a group of the dying in a hospice talking circle who won’t be able to eradicate the end but know they are at least not alone with it. We get better too at understanding statistics: that this is normal for a benighted group of us. We belong to an important minority party in the parliament of human suffering. Lovelessness will have been our major burden, a grief that endured from adolescence to the end, a problem that was meant to go away and never did. On our secret gravestone, it should say: Love didn’t work out for them, and how they longed that it might: an epitaph to frighten children and reassure our emotional successors. What was meant to be a phase turned into the truest thing about us: that we longed for love – and that it never came, a truth all the more redemptive for being expressed at last with a rare calm unflinching honesty