You’re in a faraway nightclub. People can barely hear each other. They have to shout in others’ ears. You weren’t shouting. You were quiet. Letting the others around the table scream their heads off, deafening each other. In the space of the hour you had already spent there, your distress had intensified. Your exasperation, perhaps. But can one tell distress from exasperation, from melancholy?
Seated next to C*, you weren’t looking at her. You were simply feeling the presence of her body to your left. Sometimes her perfume, in waves.
You were attempting to measure, minute by minute, the tightening stranglehold of an exasperatedly physical desire, which you feel minute after minute becoming all the more unbearable, astonishing in its ability to grow, in its paradoxical ability to nail you there in a near- complete paralysis. You didn’t, and still don’t, remember having ever felt such a tyrannical desire. You were tracking its progress, its ascent. It had split your body in two: an abstract, imperceptible body, doubling another that was strained, steeled, exacerbated, a paradox of petrification and pulsation. You couldn’t steer your thoughts away from it, so much was this other body invading you. You witnessed, powerless, motionless, your own colonization by an inexplicable and obscene desire that your willpower was failing to keep in check, to contain, to purge.
This wave of inhuman desire was mounting, against you, against your better judgment. A night with C* was not at all your intention. Hadn’t she already once made a pass at you, which you had declined? For you simply did not find C* appealing at all.
You had even sometimes felt repulsion toward her body.
But desire, like repulsion, is without reason and defies explanation. Nor does repulsion cancel out desire.
How can you feel such a pressing, devastating desire for a woman you don’t even find attractive? A woman who does not fit any of your types… Hence your distress.
You were now intent on looking at her, scrutinizing her, identifying all of the reasons to lose your hard-on. You told yourself that her mouth was unappealing, that her features were too coarse for your taste, that her body, though supple, did not have the naïve delicateness or the energetic grace that usually excited you, that her manner, her gestures lacked the neatness, the discretion capable of seducing you.
You sought out the defects, inventoried the adjectives that might vanquish your desire. But this damned desire remained recalcitrant to all your curses and even to your denigrations.
Therein lies your melancholy: this desire is not yours. This desire cares nothing for you. Unrelenting, blind, deaf, brutal, offering no way out. A desire rising against your body’s will, and your body itself the traitor thwarting its own defense.
Then, maybe, could you divert it? You had started cultivating the hope that C* was only the accidental object, not the source, of this desire. And even then, still interchangeable. You had looked around for other women. Asking yourself, of all of them, which would hold the greatest likelihood of being attractive to you. None. So pick at random, any one of them. Then you could begin to think of this other woman, to apply yourself to this task, to draw this unknown woman toward the center of gravity of the desire preoccupying you. So that her image would be caught in its magnetic field. But no, nothing. Not the least pull of attraction. The gaze and the flesh do not belong, it seems, to the same body: the image of the unknown woman and the pulsing of desire, each the center of different galaxies or parallel universes.
Dance? But dancing will only aggravate this part of you living a life of its own. All the heaviness and tension of desire is concentrated in a wave of mercury whose dull backlash keeps pummeling your solar plexus.
It seemed impossible that, so close to you, close enough to brush against you, C* did not sense or recognize your body’s strange state.
How had this desire managed to creep up on you and catch you by surprise?
A long conversation the previous afternoon, seated on a quay, water beating against a pier. Something in her words that would have moved you, a bared vulnerability… A way to confide in you, breaking with her prior imperious and brusque sentimental demands… As if she was finally abandoning something to your mercy, to your discretion.
A night-time conversation, the day before: a glass of whiskey shared on a terrace overlooking the city; the calm of the night, the weightlessness of the air, the layers of light vacillating all around; the complicity brought on by long silences, solitude, altitude, the distant horizon?
* * * *
A dance, the night before, in this same nightclub where, since you found yourselves on enemy territory, you had to measure your steps, gestures, and be wary of any furtive contact, and yet, in the distance you both kept, a strange attraction was developing, as if invisible strings or forces linked your two bodies, and without even looking at each other, the movements of the other became perceptible, all the feints to throw her off thwarted, as if her body were prescient or forewarned of your body’s rhythm…
A reading you had done together and where it had seemed that she was venturing into you and that she was offering to let you get inside, too. In the sentences, in the breath that carries the phrases, in the voice that pronounces the words, what had she slipped, what charm?
A walk on an afternoon of ruthless sun in the streets of the old town? The cadence of your steps on the dusty ground? The wandering, the meandering, the voice?
After the nightclub, there will be, once again, the walk in the streets, the terrace, the final whiskey, perhaps. How will you resist? You who, in the past, have never even managed to resist far less intense impulses of your unruly senses? Sometimes even neglecting confirmation of said impulses in order to rush to the most discreet of invitations… How we love to exaggerate the power of desire. So resistible, so often. How many times have we truly, savagely, imperatively desired a body? Consider this question, reader, forget your heart’s outpourings, your head’s effervescence, your surges of vanity: how many times have you felt a desire that struck at your marrow?
It’s an enchantment, a bewitchment. Or rather, in all likelihood you will have overestimated the strength of your reason and your will. You believe you are the master of your desires; you think you are free to succumb to them or not; even free to deliberate them. We screw up, and end up screwing.
To this day, you do not know how, by what means—surreptitious and yet certainly obvious—C* succeeded in imparting to you this brutal and sad desire which, after flooring you unexpectedly, still appears to you a pure enigma, a singular monstrosity never felt again. You can still see her, voice, face, steps, scent, wandering, a body on which to extinguish this unbearable desire, in which to purge oneself of it, the only way out of vertigo.
C* possessed the art of the seductress: a nearly infallible intuition of the fault lines through which desire insinuates itself in the other. What had she captured, grasped about you, that gave her such power over your senses for a night? What fracture had her desire diabolically discerned in the architecture of your drives to so subtly pour the potion that dissolves distance, repulsion, defiance, irony, self-possession?
How do these women know?
What kind of Tristan, melancholy and bewitched, do you become, drifting on these waves of Chypre perfume that reach your nostrils, your lips, prevailing over the thick and heavy haze of cigarette smoke you were both drowning in?
Her victory must be acknowledged. You lean over, and in the swaying of bass, the slamming of percussion, the swells of electronic reverb, you whisper your defeat in her ear. Why bother shouting it when she already knows—and probably has for a long time?
You liked the name she called you: kiddo. She took a strange pleasure, perhaps it reassured her, in emphasizing the generational differences between you two, your wild and crazy youth and her maturity of a woman who has lived, who knows what is sensible and what is not— you, for example, and the desire she felt for you.
You hadn’t perceived the shift occurring between you from an established friendship to attraction, that madness she fought against, before which she kept erecting obstacles, limits, safeguards.
One autumn night she drove you home, and when it was time for you to get out, she lingered, leaning over her steering wheel, without speaking, without saying goodbye to you, and you waited, puzzled, for her to tell you her secret, a secret you had not imagined. She didn’t tell you, but prolonged your hug for an unusual amount of time. Then, after letting go, and before your silent interrogation, added only this: It’s ok kiddo.
You got out of the car, confused by that sudden revolution of your shared feelings, asking yourself later, at home, stretched out on the parquet floor of the big empty room that served as your living room, hands crossed under the nape of your neck, if you hadn’t dreamt it, and how it was possible that six years of friendship could have, in the space of one night, been converted into a desire you hadn’t seen coming. The friendship had probably, from the start, been built on a basis of subtle desire, of a potential desire that good sense, affinity, tenderness had managed to tame, divert, shape into something else.
This desire was worrying you. How would you respond to it? Were you responsible for it? Had you, by accident, without realizing it, activated or reactivated it? Didn’t it threaten your friendship?
The order of what ensued is vague. There is no time in your memory, nothing but places and between them passages that open only to close again. And a meteorological memory, of the texture of the light. Light inseparable from the places and the movement of your body in space, of the vision of other bodies in that space and that light.
There is the halogen light that floods the surface of your desk at the university, the all-nighters you pull working in your office; the light of the computer screen, distinct, surging out of the shadows. The email window turns it to black night streaked with bright green letters. K* will find these late night messages on her screen in the morning, a few doors farther down the hallway. Emails in which you tell her about your pinball machine feats, your video game triumphs (you spend way too much time in the student game room three floors below), the little hermeneutic discoveries you chance upon in your readings, and then all that one never talks about, for there are things—self, light, meaning—devoid of substance, but whose spectral presence we may try to grasp, to capture obliquely, in fragments, incidental or reflected.
There is the murky, garish light of the video game Mortal K. One night she came to watch you play, struggling against her horror of violence, even virtual violence, which you delighted in, decapitating, blowing up, carbonizing adversary after adversary in an interminable quest for virtual immortality.
There is the incredible light of a late afternoon after a storm that has rinsed the air and rendered a hallucinatory purity to the facades, the trees, all the objects it bathed, leaving behind a pale, bloodless sky, violently intensifying colors, expressing an unbearable darkness from the trunks of trees. You walk through the campus gates, K* still hesitant, delaying the moment of her response to your plea—let’s take a walk?—the coded phrase whereby you had, early on, started signaling the resolution to give yourselves over to pleasure, after a walk that leads you, along the shopping streets, by the old cemetery, through the ghetto, to your house.
You, too, had started calling her kiddo.
It’s two in the morning, and you remark that this project you have undertaken, to make an inventory of these moments of your life according to the pure order of desire, is a project that is either insane, vile, or idiotic.
The narration washes up there where you unravel. The autobiographical account is an imposture (as if you didn’t know that already): you are unable to unwind the nonexistent spool of a film that was never shot. Fragments of moments superimpose each other, cancel each other out. There are only erasures. In your memory, everything has decomposed and dispersed under the spectrum of what K* became for you. Could you even render a cubist portrait of her, an allusive portrait, a portrait in fragments? No, not even. Indecipherable. What machine, what fiction must you invent or construct to manage to capture what would only be an abstract figure of K*, a figure pierced with ellipses, and the enigma that you become in the space and light of her memory?
* * * *
Worse: the desire you both gave into destroyed the friendship— and today, you miss K*. All that she feared from you, from desire and its danger, came to pass. She could not keep herself from feeling it, from yielding to it to the point of inspiring it in you and, having inspired it in you, didn’t have the heart to protect herself from it, nor the force not to succumb to it, nor the freedom to abandon herself to it entirely without reservations. You’ve both left the place where you met. It’s been five years since you last saw her. You are dead to each other, and you must resuscitate who you were at her side, and who she was at yours.
You struggle with this impossible memory. You cannot recount K*. Tenderness devastates you. And here is the core of your powerlessness: you had more than desire for her. And when it comes to that, there is no way you can resort to the half-ironic, half-moral perspective that allows for narration. This aloof point of view that outlines and pins down, that immobilizes the memory under the lamp or under the tongue, and, methodically, like a scalpel, observes and describes it. Autopsy. A cold narration, consistent with the coldness of desire.
You cannot recount K*, and the reason is visible in the traces that remain, in that partially electronic correspondence that you keep on a shelf of your library, those gray ashes of phosphorescent signals consumed on the screen of former nights, that you reread a few months ago as one rifles through dust, in search of clues as to the genesis, forgotten like all the rest, of a novel that you conceived of at that time.
In this panic of sudden comprehension, you’ve just typed a load of nonsense. K* still remains within all that you are today. There is no one to resuscitate, and it’s because the memory is still alive that it resists autopsy and decimation over the course of a story.
You didn’t know it then, holding yourself to the comfortable concept of a friendship that had digressed into desire, you still didn’t know it at the moment you began writing tonight, but you loved K*, and I suddenly feel with a five-year delay the devastation of having lost a woman that I loved (that you loved?) without ever having known it. And who probably put down all her defenses to love you.
You should have suspected it at the first word written tonight. You should have, in rereading that correspondence a few months ago, understood it all. The dialect in which you wrote to each other is the dialect of all your loves: a chimera of French and English, strewn with bilingual wordplay, vertigos of language, trepidation over meaning. K* is also, she was already then—that was legible, but how long does it take to understand what one has written without having premeditated it?—the shadow or the double of another woman you loved, who did not look like her, and whom you were still mourning when you loved K*, without knowing it and perhaps without wanting to know it.
Your blindness, so convenient and so well maintained, has just exploded in your face. It’s ok kiddo, you would say.
Or is it?
From NOT ONE DAY. Used with permission of Deep Vellum Press. Copyright © 2017 by Emma Ramadan.