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Excerpt

22 Minutes of
Unconditional Love

Daphne Merkin

July 6, 2020 
The following is excerpted from from Daphne Merkin's new novel, 22 Minutes of Unconditional Love. Merkin is the author of the novel Enchantment, which won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for best novel on a Jewish theme, as well as two collections of essays, and a memoir, This Close to Happy. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, her essays frequently appear in The New York Times, Bookforum, The New Republic, ELLE, and many other publications. Merkin has taught writing at the 92nd Street Y, Marymount Manhattan College, and Hunter College, and she currently teaches at Columbia University’s MFA program. She lives in New York City.

XXIII

Finally, though, it must be admitted, I don’t know how to make you see Howard Rose as I saw him. How to capture for you the effect he had on my limbic system, sending it into disarray almost on cue. The problem with writing about sex, of course, is that the proper parsing of the manifestations of desire and arousal remains outside—beyond—language. None of which is helped by the curiously limited vocabulary of erotic life (“throbbing,” “dick,” “wet,” “limp”), ensuring that we each stay stuck in the glue of our own experience, the radical solipsism of it. The experience remains opaque, untranslatable, radically subjective. It seems to me that this has always been the case, except in times of great repression, when the very words for relevant parts of the body—“tongue,” “mouth,” “thigh,” even “ankle” (see Madame Bovary)—seem to swell on the page, leaking their juice. In times like ours, where everything goes, you run up, sooner rather than later, against the limits of the available terminology. The erotic becomes comically pornographic before you can say “He took me in his arms and kissed me.”

How do other people let go? I’ve never understood it, although God knows I’ve tried, I connect this inability to a basic lack of hope in myself. Who will ever want me again after this rejection? Or, more to the point, whom will I ever want? In a way, it is a yawning gap in my survival mechanism. There is a rock in my path and instead of walking around it, I pick it up and say, “Rock, I love you. Please will you love me back.”

There are clues that there are other people out there who have difficulty with this as well—mostly women, of course, but also a few highly sensitive men. I read in a biography of François Truffaut that after his affair with Catherine Deneuve ended, he sank into a deep depression for months in which he did little else but sit by the phone, waiting for her calls. He eventually went for a sleep cure, and seemed to have come around, continuing to make movies and to have relationships with other beautiful actresses. I’d always been fond of Truffaut’s films, but when I read that detail I felt less lonely and uncontemporary in my sorrow. I thought of one of my favorite Truffaut movies, The Story of Adele H. I loved that movie, with Isabelle Adjani playing Victor Hugo’s besotted daughter, in her long, sober nineteenth-century dresses, unable to give up on a delusional romantic connection with a British soldier who was briefly stationed with his garrison in Halifax.

But in our day, or haven’t you noticed, everyone seems to get over everything very quickly, except for a few misfits who stalk women, and women who are attracted to men who destroy them. Then there are those rarer types who flourish inside obsessions, who draw their oxygen from its fetid, claustrophobic atmosphere, its mangled notion of loyalty. Types such as Baudelaire, who wrote a letter to a courtesan he had admired from a distance over many years in which he proclaimed that “fidelity is one of the signs of genius.”

Meanwhile, the years have passed. At some point in my late thirties, I became tired of polishing other people’s sentences and left book publishing to try to pursue my own writing. Then there is Richard and Sarah—and the fact that I am eight months pregnant, my belly big and taut.

“I don’t get this,” Richard says. He is reading something in a section of the Times, the one weighty with ideas and opinions, frowning.

“Don’t get what?”

I am looking at an issue of Vogue that’s several months old and wondering why I torment myself with these slinky bodies and photogenic faces attached to models whose names I actually know, as though it were vitally important.

“Oh, I dunno. I do get it, I just don’t agree with it.”

Richard is a radiologist, used to having abstract conversations with photographic images, X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and the rest. What are you hiding? Is that a tumor in disguise? Or just a healthy little irregularity posing as an alarming deviation? It’s an art form all its own, I suppose, this endless teasing out of shadows and light, calibrating the subtle patterns of disease, but it makes for a certain annoying indirection when it comes to human discourse.

“You’re not reading that idiot again,” I say. “You never agree with him, but you read him anyway.”

“I like having my opinions confirmed,” he says, reaching for his coffee, which he habitually lets cool until it’s tepid.

It is a Sunday morning, late, and Sarah toddles on wobbly legs toward me, wearing pink overalls that are on the cusp of being too small for her. I can still smell her freshly shampooed hair, that fine and glossy baby hair, a color she got from God knows where, a shade like burnt caramel, worthy of Titian’s palette. People would stop me on the street when she was little, swinging her legs in the stroller, and marvel at the glory of that hair, and I would pause and smile, like a proud L’Oréal technician, as though I had personally mixed up vials of yellow and red and gold dye to produce the desired effect. My pumpkin, I call her, for no reason at all. I watch her with her dolls, how she clutches them, then puts them down without looking back. Maybe that’s why she is more casual with me than she is with her father. I am a grown-up version of her dolls while Richard is the Other, the grown-up to be wooed, to be anxiously kept in view even when he is lolling on the floor. “Daddy, Daddy, come, show you,” she says.

Outside it is gray and drizzly. Melville wrote about a “November in my soul,” a phrase I read in one of my college classes that has stayed with me. But it is March weather that I truly dread. Inside there are dishes with traces of scrambled eggs in the sink, other dishes with toast crumbs. We are a man and a woman and a child—a nuclear family, they call it—in a too-small apartment in a city I keep promising myself I will leave one day.

“Miss Sarah,” Richard says, getting up from the table and pretending to peer around corners. “Where’s Miss Sarah?”

She hides behind me, giggling. I absently stir my half-empty cup of tea, trying to mentally track down the source of my anxiety. It could be anything: the day itself, I’ve always hated Sundays, especially the late afternoon, when everything seems to be coming to a close; a preschool appointment I’m dreading in which I will be called upon to act the official role of overeager mommy, one mother among many other official mothers; my marriage, which makes me grateful and restless in equal parts.

The last time I felt no anxiety was—was when? When I was lying on my back with Him: Him, whom I weaned myself from because he was the sort of man who made no sense if you were planning to live a life with a real narrative structure, a beginning that looked to a middle that smiled upon an end. Who made no sense, in other words, if you knew how to distinguish between yourself as a tragic character—Emma Bovary by way of Anna Karenina by way of 9 1⁄2 Weeks—and yourself as a flesh-and-blood person beyond the reach of even the most gifted novelist.

Didn’t I have a headache that day? Strange, the way my life keeps happening in the present tense even as it moves along from a past that hasn’t yet fully registered into a future that is about to happen—like one of those trick shots in the movies where two people are talking in a car that isn’t really moving but is made to look as if it is by the changing scenery rolling alongside it.

Narrative demands chronology, I know that, without it you might as well be tossing off a poem. The reader has a right to know when these things happened, and how many years have passed, not to mention where, and what about this child she’s talking about, this Sarah. What can I say? Maybe this isn’t a novel but an approximation, the best I can do under the circumstances. And then there is this: my feelings recognize no chronology. I know what you’re thinking, such a female preoccupation, this matter of feelings. No wonder men—the proper globe-striding men who write for The New York Times, the men who run the governments that never quite work—don’t read novels. The whole mad world seems constantly about to come crashing down, regimes topple overnight, flies buzz around the eyes of a starving child somewhere off in a hot, ravaged country, and women want to explore their feelings.

Meanwhile, Sarah is growing up, although I still call her “pumpkin” when I forget that she’s too old for such nicknames, I still count the smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks, and I still say “There you are” when she comes in the front door with Maria, our babysitter, as though she’s just back from the North Pole and my hair has turned white. She often sleeps in our bed, although I recognize she is too old for this, certainly from a strictly psychoanalytic perspective. After all, I am not living in a primitive culture, like Papua New Guinea—the kind Margaret Mead studied and apparently got all wrong, or not right enough, according to the rigorous, avowedly non-Eurocentric viewpoint that is the gold standard in anthropological studies these days. But it’s precisely the absolute unselfconscious aspect of those cultures, the sheer instinctiveness of them, that I like. The idea of a bare-breasted mother carrying a baby around strapped to her back in a papoose as she sat stringing beads or sifting flour into a big wooden bowl that would sell for a fortune in a crafts museum today makes complete sense to me, a way of keeping both mother and child company.

Years before I had Sarah—before I had met Richard and before she was so much as a speck on the sonogram’s screen—I would sometimes go and sit in the playground on weekend afternoons, over on the East Side if I didn’t feel like walking and closer to Fifth Avenue if I did. Something about the bright, hopeful circus of playgrounds drew me—all those children yelling, up and down the slides, in and out of the sandbox, the mothers and housekeepers and an occasional starched nanny standing by attentively or languishing on a bench. From an adult perspective, it’s like entering a closed world in which everything but the immediate crises of childhood are temporarily suspended: what matters is how high you can swing and if that little boy with dark hair has snatched your pail. There is always a bully and there is always a tentative girl of about six or seven who seems destined for a future at the end of which is nothing very promising.

I used to sit and watch, shielded by a book so as not to look unduly out of place like a female Humbert Humbert, and a great sadness would overtake me within fifteen or twenty minutes. It had something to do with observing the laws of nature at work, how early everything starts and how implacably everything keeps on going once it gets started. I suppose you could say I was thinking of myself under cover of musing about the world, and undoubtedly there’d be some truth to it. The question of who I might have been if things had been easier—better—has consumed me for much of my adulthood. I think it’s a question that consumes a lot of people, actually, if they only knew it. All that lost potential washed down the drain of human life, with only once in a while a flare going up and there in the center is someone doing something miraculously well: a neurosurgeon, an Olympic skater, a medieval historian.

But there’s also a part of me that has always been very curious, capable of watching a child who bears no connection to my life as he haltingly maneuvers his way around a jungle gym. In my head I give this little boy I’m watching a name, Harry, and when this Harry finally makes it to the top of the structure, where he stands for a moment in his apple-red duffel coat and surveys his dominion, I feel like standing up and giving him a hand. No one applauds us enough when we are young, I’m convinced of it, when we’re still inclined to glow in response and haven’t yet learned to feign the appearance of modesty, to smile in sheepish disclaimer: Who, me?

So, yes, I used to go to the playground before I was a mother, before I brought Sarah in her light blue snowsuit with yellow daisies, sitting in a stroller that she was anxious to get out of the minute we hit the park. There was something tonic about the sadness, then, because it came at me from far away, like an abstract concept; I didn’t realize that it would be so hard to shake, that nothing would quite do it for me except the sort of man who was bad for me, a man I couldn’t possibly hope to marry, a man like Howard Rose.

It has been years since I’ve seen him and he has become less real in the interval. (Sometimes I think I invented him from the beginning, that there was nothing to him, really, nothing as toxic as my own fantasy of the Rejecting Lover, the man who would destroy me if I hung around long enough.) Lately, though, he has resurfaced, like a virus, immune to my posturing, my impersonation of a well-adjusted woman living at some remove from the imperatives of heartache.

There are real-life diversions, of course, things that demand my attention. When I am helping my daughter with LEGO or admiring a drawing she has brought home from preschool or absorbed by a book or a movie or talking to Richard about our dinner plans for the following week, I forget. The rest of the time everywhere I look, I see him, behind my eyes. I walk around, remembering, trying to understand. Trying, that is, to master my bewilderment—why I was with him in the first place, and why I can’t let go of him for good in the second. It’s all implausible, except to the two for whom it made sense.

“He doesn’t come up to your ankles,” a man, a longtime acquaintance of his, once said to me. “He has nothing to offer you.” It was an act of well-meant betrayal, I could see that. These comments were meant to be a compliment to me and a slur on him, but they had the opposite effect: How little you know him, I thought; I must rescue him from your misunderstanding, feature him in all his complexity until you see him as I do.

Why, you might ask, did I want to understand him? It’s a form of archaeology, really, with me as the eager guide. See that man over there, the one who looks suspicious, like someone who will cause harm? Now if you look more closely, under that toppling pediment, you will see that he really is the injured party, a piece of him broken off long ago by someone careless. Or: you might think on first glance that the man seated across from you is icy cold, but if you study the curve of that archway, you will discern that he is smoldering inside, a furnace . . . It wasn’t as though I didn’t see him as others did: a man thirteen years older than I, still a bachelor at forty-two, with the kind of physical bearing that didn’t make much of a splash. There was a tightness to him, a sealed-off quality, that gave no indication of his devouring nature. But I also saw him as the other half of me, someone damaged long ago, hoping that there might yet be a chance of being healed, of finding a blue clearing in the woods where he—we—would discover an oasis, a reprieve of sorts.

 

XXIV

A WEEK OR SO AGO I tried calling him again. It was right after the eleven o’clock news and something—something from way back that flickered for a minute up there on the TV screen in the set of a man’s jaw—reminded me of Howard Rose. I let the phone ring, three, four, twenty times. I counted them: twenty. No voicemail, no answering machine, no display of that eagerness not to miss a message that I and everyone I knew exhibited.

I hung on with the receiver getting sweaty in my hand, willing him back, all the way back inside me again. But he was out, or more likely he was just not picking up the phone as a random exercise, just because he could. He was always drawn to that kind of thing—arbitrary tests of will, like Gordon Liddy—and I wondered whether he had been working late, as he occasionally did, composing a defense of some slit-eyed felon with an intricately worked-out legal argument of his own devising, or whether he was having a quick bite at his favorite coffee shop. Or making love to some woman the way he had once made love to me.

I could feel myself swelling up just imagining his long, dry fingers tracing circles around someone else’s nipples, imagining the getting-ready-to-fuck firmness of his cock. Nothing has ever meant as much to me—to my wish to be out of my own skin—as the milky-white lostness of sex with Howard Rose: it is an experience I’ve given up, for the sake of sanity, but have never lost sight of. In the end, you understand, it was a deliberate decision rather than a real change of heart; I don’t think there is any other means of disentangling from this sort of tortuous passion than to reason your way out of it, over and over again, until something clicks and you realize you have confused the signals once again, mistaken the shadows for the light.

Still, I continue to wonder whether I am meant for this normal-looking life I strive so hard toward, the husband and child and the kitchen all cleaned up when the day is done. I hung onto the phone long enough to hear Sarah calling out in her sleep—but no, I was only imagining it—and Richard stirring next to me in the bed, caught up in a dream. After that I turned off the light on my side, felt a faint kick in my belly—more of a flutter, really—and lay listening to the sound of my own breathing in the dark.

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Excerpted from 22 Minutes of Unconditional Love by Daphne Merkin. Copyright © 2020 by Daphne Merkin. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by FSG.




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