How does one begin an essay on almost-middle-aged virginity?
Webster’s dictionary defines virgin as “a person who has not had sexual intercourse.”
The crux of the problem is that what I really really want is connection, and yet I have, thus far, 38 years in, not engaged in humanity’s most universally engaged-in method of achieving it. Not even close.
What does that say about me? What the hell am I?
I’m a writer, and I’ll pretty much write anything, and often it’s poems, and lately they’re coming out as these very flat-toned, plainspoken, sparse things. No lyricality. Little to no word play. Barely any punctuation even. Just broken statements hanging out naked in the white space. I’m fond as fuck of rhythm, rhyme, assonance, et al., always have been, but certain stories of mine seem to be asking for a different approach. They’re unpoems. For the most part they aren’t going over well with the literary journals, but a couple of them were published in a local magazine recently. This led to a reading at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and the editor did the inevitable awkward little Q&A beforehand. She was like, “How did you come to write ‘unpoems’?” and I launched into an inarticulate thing about how sometimes decoration feels like deception, like hiding behind language; how CanLit irritates me with its unrelenting pretty lyricality and what I perceive as an overall aversion to real risk-taking or badassery; how I feel like I’m not part of the poetry “scene,” or any scene, etc.
Really it’s not that complicated. I say too much when I’m flustered, and the editor’s question flustered me, even though she’d told me in advance that she was going to ask it. Later that day when I redid the conversation in my mind my response was: I write unpoems because I’m an unperson.
I’m a translator, as well. Translate means nothing more (and nothing less) than bring across, carry from one place to another. The word has no etymological link to language. My concept of it is unbounded. Words on a page are translated thoughts. Actions are translated feelings. Actual is translated potential. Age is translated time. Mythology is translated psychology. Metaphors are translated images.
I love languages, I love language. I’ve done translations of Horace, Sappho, Ovid, Aeschylus, Catullus. I’ve translated “Mack the Knife” into Latin, the chorus of “Billie Jean” into Greek. With the help of some classmates and professors at a reception, I’ve Latinized the opening lines of “Baby Got Back” (we got stuck on how to accurately render “You get sprung”). I’ve done straight translations, liberal translations, adaptations, dramatic modernizations of classical literature, translations of dark tragedy into darker comedy. I translate my own unpleasant experiences into, Muses willing, entertaining reads.
And yet when it comes to emotional closeness and physical contact, I can’t do the translation. The distance between them feels untraversable. How did that happen? I ask myself whenever I see a couple holding hands. What’s the mechanism?
I know I’m not the only one, but I’m the only one I know, which is pretty much the same thing from where I’m sitting.
(Obviously I’m not counting nuns and whatnot. God knows this has nothing to do with religion.)
There is a lady virgin trope that shows up here and there in literature and on film, but she’s usually post-menopausal, usually a side character with a sepia-toned back story of having decades ago fucked up (via some combination of timidity, vanity, indecision, and unladylike comportment) her one and only golden opportunity for companionship. She is a relic of a bygone era when it was marriage or nothing. Any distress her situation may have caused her is far in the past; she is content now, content and wise, content and wise and old.
Occasionally a non-elderly adult virgin from the modern day shows up on TV or in a movie, but then it’s always a man, and his situation comes across as hilarious to the other characters in the show, and to the people watching the show (me included), and, I assume, to the people writing the show.
It doesn’t offend or upset me not to be “represented” in popular culture. Honestly, I’d rather represent myself. I’m all the proof I need of how “valid” my (in)experience is. But there’s an ontological incongruity to actually existing while at the same time being laughably unimaginable. It’s not something that bothers me constantly, or even all that often, but it’s always there, floating around, and now and then in the course of its drifting it bumps up against my consciousness, and I can’t deny that those moments are pretty unfuckingpleasant.
An earlier draft of this segment began: I feel an unspoken pressure to depict myself as a joke to make others comfortable. But every time I reread the line, it felt disingenuous and inaccurate, like writer BS, calculated vulnerability, one of those aphorisms that sound profound but make less sense the more you think about them.
The truth is, I’ve always gotten the impression that I experience considerably less pressure than other people, women in particular, to make anyone comfortable. I have very few fucks to give in the social obligations department, even fewer to spare for the gender roles department. I have no practical interest in what other people are doing or expect me to be doing. I do what feels appropriate or necessary for me to be doing. I trust myself the most. I’m grateful for this self-reliance now, though not for the years of shit from which it was sculpted.
The truth is, when I depict myself as a joke, it’s to make myself comfortable.
I love comedy, the darker the better, ideally dark enough that the reader or audience becomes emotionally unmoored. If there’s a consistent philosophy behind my writing it’s the concept of comedy and tragedy as identical twins, as each other’s reflections. What, if anything, differentiates them? Timing. Time.
Thirteen years ago, when I told him I hadn’t slept with anyone, my University of Washington classmate and purported friend and persistently aspiring deflowerer Alex replied, palpably perplexed: “How is that possible?” A fair question.
I never expected to survive high school, to experience my adult self. I didn’t see myself as a person with a future. Things were not good. They’d never been great, but I’d gotten by, and then around grade six I really started to unravel. I’d always been socially weird, introverted AF, and now I was drowning in the effort of attempting to give the impression of comprehending the complex and mysterious social rituals and demands engendered by adolescence. Cliques, dating, crushes, kissing. Brand-name clothes, eyeshadow.
Mainly what I remember from grades seven through twelve is debilitating anxiety, severe depression, migraines that left me immobile with pain or weakness in the middle of class. I assumed I’d kill myself. That seemed like the only rational conclusion, the only believable ending for this character. I was always fantasizing about it, always cutting myself.
It’s not that I was bullied, exactly. There was one guy, Cory fucking Scott, who harassed me from grade seven onward, sometimes physically, but aside from his bizarrely persistent reliance on insults that played off my, unfortunately for him, unrhymeable name (“Hey Scrondeau!”), it was for the most part a situation of being invisible, negligible, ignored, mocked behind my back (though sometimes within earshot) because I didn’t wear the right clothes, was excruciatingly awkward, rarely spoke, had nothing to contribute socially. I kept my eyes on my textbooks, not (contrary to popular opinion) because I was nerdishly obsessed with my grades or even necessarily all that interested in whatever I was reading. As often as not, “reading” wasn’t even the right word. In hindsight, staring at books was a self-preservation tactic that I made heavy use of well into my university life and can still be found employing at readings and other social events. Directing my eyes at any page of text was safer than having to look up and take in all the little daily rejections. I had made a pact with myself to always come across as indifferent. I’d worked out that refusing to give anyone the satisfaction of a reaction would let me keep hold of a small piece of my dignity.
There was never a time when anyone chose me as a gym class partner or a group member or a friend. Although grudgingly tolerated on occasion, I was not wanted in anyone’s presence. I was rarely sought out. Rarely was anyone glad to see me. If there was an assembly I’d cling to the fringes of a certain group of girls who weren’t actively terrible to me, sit at their outskirts, feeling guilty that I was imposing on them, contaminating their space by being there.
To never be seen. To be unseeable, to not occupy physical space, to be present only as absence. To non-exist. That was the fantasy.
My concept of myself, of time, of my self in time, is still pretty fucked up, even though all that stuff was so, so long ago and I went on to eventually make friends and build a highly tolerable life for myself and dare I say achieve things. But even now I sometimes catch a glance at myself in the bathroom mirror and it’s like, You’re still here? Twenty years later, I’ve still got a foot out the door.
nam sane cum hanc considero sive meips[a]m quatenus sum tantum res cogitans, nullas in me partes possum distinguere, sed rem plane unam et integram me esse intelligo. (Descartes, Meditation VI.19, italics mine, with the masculine pronoun feminized ‘cause I’m a lady.)
“But then when I consider [the mind]—I mean, myself, insofar as I am plainly a thinking thing—I can distinguish in myself no parts; rather, I understand clearly that I am something single and whole.”
Unam et integram.
I suppose it’s still the fantasy, and to some extent the reality.
I was introduced to Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy in my first year of university. I don’t want to give him a lot of airspace here because in a graduate seminar I took six years later I found out he was a major asshole who went around kicking dogs because he thought animals were automata who couldn’t feel pain, but anyway, what he’s mainly known for is cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”). In the Meditations he serves up his theory of dualism: a person consists of two distinct entities, a body and a mind, and the body is divisible, corruptible, etc., while the mind is divine, immaterial, immortal, the true essence of humanity. Again, I dislike Descartes as a person and I hope he’s getting shinbitten by plenty of dogs in the afterlife, but I really latched on to his argument that the mind is what matters, is the you of you. His thesis legitimized what I already hoped was true: I was a res cogitans, a thinking thing. I’d never believed in God, but the idea of physicality as irrelevant, minds as indivisible and unbound by space, heaven as a place without bodies, made a beautiful, almost religious kind of sense.
In the beginning was the Word, and so on: one of the great opening lines in fiction. Language as synonymous with God, as the First Thing, as Creation itself, as Immortality. Eternity, Entirety, Entity.
I wish I were a more credulous kind of person so I could have the experience of believing in things like that for more than two seconds before my internal monologue shows up to point out that the concept of language predating and creating everything else in the universe is logically impossible, if not downright meaningless. Anthropocentric. A myth.
In the 8th century BCE-ish, around the same time as the Iliad and Odyssey were working their way up the charts, the poet Hesiod composed the Theogony, the graphically disturbing R-rated story of the genealogy of the Greek gods. In his poem, the first entity to come into being is Chaos. In Greek, “chaos” means neither “disorganization” nor “a hectic excess of romantic entanglements and/or emotional problems and/or tasks to complete”; it means kind of the exact opposite of that: “emptiness,” “nothingness.” Cognate with chasm. A void.
Then, spontaneously, simultaneously, come Gaia (Earth), Tartarus (vaguely defined; some sort of prisony dungeony place deep within the Earth), and Eros (self-explanatory).
Some implications: (1) Earth without sex is unthinkable. (2) Both causally and temporally, everything descends from Eros. (3) Without fucking, there’s nothing.
The Greek gods are gleefully, shamelessly physical, but even in the more cerebral, less symposiastic Christian tradition, the Word becoming flesh is pretty central to the whole deal, despite the Christian philosophers’ and Biblical commentators’ proclamations of the superiority of the immaterial and indivisible. Jesus is, among other things, a testament to humankind’s dependence on matter for meaning, our species’ apparently innate need for something (/someone) to grab on to.
I’ve never written about this. Well, never straightforwardly, and never at length. Never in a format that could lead to anyone else thinking about it, uninterrupted, for this long. I would have liked the story to have reached some sort of conclusion before writing it (or, perhaps better yet, not writing it). Structurally, that would be preferable. Emotionally, likewise.
ludunt formosae; casta est quam nemo rogavit: Ovid, Amores I.8.43.
“Good-looking girls play around; the chaste girl is the one no one has—” well, rogavit is literally “asked,” but here it’s meant in an innuendoey winkyface sense: “propositioned,” “come on to.” “Chased.”
Early on in my terrible adolescence I somehow or another came to believe I’d like to learn Latin, a hunch that intensified each time we crossed paths: biological taxonomy, the periodic table, Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” (Nemo me impune lacessit!). So when I ran into the list of Latin classes in the University of Calgary’s course catalogue as I made my first-year schedule, it felt like fate, and maybe it was.
On the first day, the prof distributed handouts with the text of the Lord’s Prayer, the English on the left and the Latin on the right, and allowed us a silent minute to begin to build the bridge, to connect the philological dots, and that was about as long as it took for me to abandon my nebulous intention to “become a writer” by way of an English degree. Who knows where I’d gotten the idea that that was how a literary life was achieved. I didn’t know how anything was achieved. I was seventeen and I’d spent the last six years hanging out with a carpet knife in a bedroom in small-town Saskatchewan.
I went to the U of C because that was where my cousin Jess was. She and I became close in the late ’90s, in our late teens. We lived three hours apart and regularly mailed each other long letters with extravagantly decorated envelopes.
Although I talked a decent game in my letters, going right along with, e.g., Jess’s positive assessment of the physical attributes of Gavin Rossdale, I had no idea what “a cute guy” was. I didn’t have any real feelings about Gavin Rossdale, beyond liking his songs.
I didn’t know what I was supposed to be feeling about guys. I was overhearing all kinds of stuff about dates, crushes, sex, love, and so forth, but the sense I always got was that none of it applied to me. I remember being in a sex ed class in grade six or seven, and as the teacher explained, with the help of a crude overhead projection, the basic logistics of intercourse, I said to myself: I’m not doing that. Not that I thought it was bad or dirty; it just looked … strange. Foreign. Nonsensical. Like, Why?
One day during my lunch break in grade eleven or twelve I was sitting alone near a group of people, near enough that when a guy from the group accidentally broke his plastic fork, one of the tines came flying over and either hit me or landed near me. I looked up. He was smiling genuinely, bigly. “Sorry about that!” he said, as though speaking to me was an acceptable thing to do, as though accidentally hitting and/or startling me was apology-worthy, as though I was a human being. I told Jess all about it in my next letter. I kept his fork tine. But it wasn’t attraction, really. I was just astonished by his kindness.
Jess was a year ahead of me, and in her first year in Calgary she had nothing but great things to report about residence life. Silly times! Cute guys! Holiday parties! Friendships around every corner! We decided we wanted to room together.
Needless to say, it was a ridiculous disaster. I didn’t know how to function socially. I didn’t know how to be in a conversation, had nothing but silent confusion to contribute to discussions of dating, drinking, drunken mistakes, clubs, high school antics, missing one’s friends at home. That year I nearly lost Jess as a friend in the process of constantly embarrassing myself and offending others with my feral behaviour.
I belonged nowhere, nowhere except at the back of classics and philosophy classrooms. I did not speak in class. I did not make friends. I drank coffee and took very thorough, colourful notes. I studied Latin verb charts and Greek principal parts lists like my identity depended on it. I did all the readings on Plato and Ockham and Aquinas. I let the gods run around in my head.
Sounds like something out of a book of unattributed Greek lyric poetry fragments, I think to myself every time I see the tagline on the front of a package of Safeway brand sliced strawberries: “Frozen at the peak of ripeness.”
In mythology, men chase girls in the most literal sense. The girls who decide to hold on to their virginity are always athletic, outdoorsy types. Fast runners.
Times have changed, apparently. I have never entered a gym. I’ve owned a bike for twelve years and ridden it twice. As we speak, I’m slouched on an armchair spooning a tub of gelato.
The theory in Ovid’s poem—virgins are virgins for a reason—is witty (and sexist), stated with his usual sly elegance (and sexism). But the theory fails to hold. Sure, high school was a bleak writeoff, but there’s plentiful photographic evidence to confirm that in the bygone days of my twenties—copulation primetime, I hear!—I was quite sufficiently formosa. And plenty of people have asked me out. Friends, strangers, men, women, a couple of students … I’ve said yes to some of them (not the students), gone on some dates. How do you like me now, Ovid?
Say I meet someone tomorrow and—
Whatever gender, sex, category, and/or etc. of person you want to imagine me with is fine with me. I don’t know, and I have yet to encounter any evidence that I care. In my twenties I became infatuated with a woman, which had a huge emotional impact on me because it was the first time I’d noticed myself being infatuated with anyone, really noticing and being affected psychologically by someone’s physicality. Utterly against my will, I acted like a total teenaged doofus whenever she was around, which I found embarrassing but also fascinating because it had never happened in all the years that I’d actually been a teenaged doofus. As a result of her being a her I sort of vaguely thought of myself as a lesbian for a few years: told my parents and my closest friends, wounded the heart of a smitten friend with whom I’d accidentally gone on what he considered a date, intentionally went on dates with some women. But the label never felt quite right, although for a while there it did bring some relief in that I felt like it went some of the way toward explaining why my entire romantic CV consisted of one reluctant date and one accidental one.
In conversations with men who want to date and/ or sleep with me, I wield my alleged orientation like a shield: combatively, clumsily, unconvincingly. I want it to end the discussion, but it only ever elicits more questions.
I had a poem published in Plenitude a few years ago, and even though I’m clearly not straight in any recognizable sense of the term, it felt wrong to be included in an LGBTQ+ publication. Underhanded, like some sort of cheating. Like, What if they ask me what I am? How could I respond in a way that would make sense? If they find out I’m not any of the things from the acronym will they take down my poem and demand their fifteen dollars back? I’ve already spent it on ice cream …
It’s been a long time since I’ve felt any affiliation with any of the currently claimable categories or communities. Maybe I’m in the wrong place, or the wrong time, or the wrong language, or the wrong culture. Or maybe I’m something that already does exist and I just don’t realize it. Regardless, the best I can do here and now is to espouse a key tenet of propositional logic and “identify as” Meaghan Rondeau.
I realized recently that I’ll never get to have the experience of being a young writer, and articulating that to myself made me a little bit griefy. Thanks to my mental-health-garbage-themed adolescence and the intensity of my academic life, I didn’t start writing seriously until I quit my PhD program at 27. I was first published at 30 and started my MFA at 35. I don’t regret my background: as both a person and a writer I’m grateful for my education, and for what I’ve learned about creativity and writing outside of creative writing classrooms. Still, the exaltation of young writers irritates the bejesus out of me. Prizes and contests for writers under 30, “top 25 under 25” lists, that sort of thing.
Am I jealous of how effortlessly they fit in? Of how easily they, and their writing—their voices, their perspectives, their experience—find their place, are granted acceptance?
So. Say I, Meaghan Rondeau, meet someone tomorrow. We hit it off super hard. Immediate connection. Trust! Comfort! Similar principles! We hang out a lot. We meet each other’s cats. We sit in my living room’s two adjacent armchairs passing a tub of gelato back and forth. We act like teenaged doofuses doofi around each other. We start to fall in love, however that works. We end up in bed, or something like that. Hurrah!
Now what? How in the fuck do I be and do what a person roughly my age, 38, expects and wants? I don’t know what to offer, how much to ask for, what the available positions are. I lack the requisite skills and the pre-requisite experience. It’s not that I don’t know what sex is. I’m well-read. I’m one of the greatest eavesdroppers of my generation. I have friends, we have conversations. I am intellectually cognizant of the salient logistics of what pairs of humans do with/to/for each other. But knowing about something isn’t the same thing as having experienced it. How do I not scare and/or amuse the shit out of the person with the fact of what I am? How do I not make it about me? How do I not take it too seriously, ascribe more importance to it than is reasonable, or fair to my partner? (“I’m scared this is going to mean too much to you, like, we made out a couple times and you’re going to want to get married now.”—UW Alex in 2005.) How do I engage in a truly shared, reciprocation-oriented experience, which, though it may not always be everyone’s goal, is definitely mine in the context of this hypothetical scenario?
In the same way, for the same reasons, that I’ll never be a young writer, I’ve lost the possibility of mutual discovery, equal footing with a partner, young love. I never get to be a 16-year-old fumbling around on a couch in my parents’ basement with another 16-year-old.
I met my best friend Nicole in the fall of 2002 when she moved to Calgary from California to start the Classics MA program. Later that semester she told me about an awkward encounter with a guy who had fallen for her really hard at a Grad Studies meet-and-greet during her first week on campus. She was uninterested, but she was also lonely and disoriented, a new student in a new country, recently out of a long-term relationship, on top of which she tends to exude a warm friendliness regardless of how she’s actually feeling, so it can be impossible to tell when she wants you to eff off. Anyway, somehow they ended up back in her room in residence, and although she’d been clear that she wasn’t going to have sex with him, she agreed to let him stay over because she was too indifferent, tired, nice, whatever to kick him out of her room and make him walk back to wherever he lived at whatever time of the early morning it was. While crammed into her single bed, they made awkward conversation, and he ended up divulging that he’d never been in a relationship.
This being a secondhand anecdote from sixteen years ago, I’ve forgotten a lot of the details, but what I do remember, still, is the exasperation in Nicole’s voice as she told me what went through her mind in response to his confession: “I don’t want to have to teach you.”
She and I were, at the time, 22. And, again, she is way above average, friendliness-wise.
It’s not that I don’t see where she was coming from. I see, and I agree. I don’t want to have to be taught. I don’t want to be a 38-year-old fumbling around like a 16-year-old with another 38-year-old. I’m an independent, almost-middle-aged woman with a schwackload of credentials. And I’m a teacher, damn it. Between TA gigs and ESL positions, I’ve spent thousands of hours at the front of classrooms. Even when I’m taking a course, I can’t turn off my teacher brain. If she had us do a quick group activity occasionally, the atmosphere in here would be totally different. We could do so much more with our class time if he’d just spend ten minutes preparing.
Besides the not speaking in class, I was a model student in my undergraduate days—I bought in to the system, I had an almost blind, uncritical respect for my professors, I was content to look way, way up to them—but that ship sailed a long time ago. And anyway, I’m an equal-footing-or-bust kind of person, and even the most successful teacher-student interactions are rooted in a pretty blatant power mismatch. When I’m teaching, I acknowledge this explicitly, I ridicule it now and again, I do my best to slacken its grip on whatever is going on in my classroom—but it’s still there. Whereas, as far as I can tell, the whole thing of a successful relationship is reciprocity, mutual giving and mutual benefit. A sort of balanced … I don’t know … even-handedness.
“You’re so exotic,” Alex—still the only person I’ve ever kissed—once said to me, with a certain gleam in his tone, a certain moon-landing flag-plant kind of lust, as we discussed my inexperience.
Thirteen years ago, I was exotic. What would the adjective be today?
(Don’t answer that.)
I’m still playing catch-up from things I missed. Not just important interpersonal things but day-to-day stuff. Like, it took me years to figure out how to choose clothes. I still don’t know how to do a French braid or a messy bun. I don’t have a flaming clue how to use eyeliner; I buy it, try to apply it, say a bunch of swears, and that’s the end of that, until the next time. There was no internet when I was growing up, no YouTube tutorials to pick up the slack for a socially non-participating teenager. My little sister is a big help; I’m always asking her to help me pick out sunglasses and lipstick, sending her texts like Can I wear hot pink tights with a shortish black dress? (You can. I did.)
There’s no YouTube video called “How to fall in love and lose your virginity at 38.” Or 39 or 43 or 56. Or “How to maintain your humanness despite never falling in love or sleeping with anyone ever,” another possibility.
“This is a universal experience,” my nonfiction prof said last year, in response to a classmate’s personal essay on his quest for the right partner. “Everyone wants a relationship.”
(Is that true??), I wrote in my notebook, frantic enough to bust out a second question mark, after recording the above quotations.
For the next week’s workshop, I submitted the first draft of … this.
Is that true?
Shouldn’t I be able to answer that? I mean, if everyone wants something, and I want to want it, but I haven’t figured out how to want it, then …
The way I once described it to a friend (ex-friend, now) is that back when I was younger I went into my brain’s electrical panel and shut off some of the switches, which at the time was a clever move, a strategy to pre-empt total burnout, to outsmart the part of me that yearned for that. Self-sabotage in the service of self-preservation. And now, now that my life is no longer a hellscape, now that I possibly have it in me psychologically to participate in whatever I’ve been missing universal-experience-wise, I can’t reset the breakers. It’s too late, the system’s been upgraded, that panel is defunct. Mice chewed through the wiring years ago, and I was too busy hiding from my floor-mates and memorizing Latin verb endings to notice.
Virginity is a symbol: it has semiotic value, conceptual significance that transcends its dictionary definition. Same goes for the loss (“ ”) of it. It’s a fairly arbitrary boundary—hilarious, even—if you take it literally.
But you don’t. We don’t.
This isn’t about the stark fact of not having been fucked. If the problem were that I’m on one end of a dichotomy and would rather be on the other, it would take about twelve minutes to solve, and then I could come home and triumphantly delete this entire document.
The weight of it is this: as a result of never having experienced a sexual relationship, I’ve never done, felt, suffered, given, or received any of the good or bad or complicated or significant or character-developing or generous or selfish or devastating or life-affirming or death-defying stuff that comes along with getting so intimately tangled up with another human being. And as a result of that, distance exists between me and the people who have, which, at my age, is everyone I know.
The distance is the problem. The growing and growing and growing distance. Because I was friendless for so long, I still and probably always will experience every friendship of mine as miraculous, an ineffable mystery. I value friendship above everything except language. Yet, ironically, I’m in exactly the right position to watch friends drift away from me as they assume the role of partner or parent. To be cut off by friends whose partners don’t want them talking to me anymore. To end up at unresolveable impasses with friends who have either come to want, or have secretly wanted all along, a physical relationship with me. (The ex-friend mentioned above, for example.)
I attract people in the middlespace: the recently divorced or broken-up-with, the emotionally wounded, people looking for a form of exclusive companionship but without the dating, for someone incapable of casting judgment on their sexual lifechoices, someone to talk to until two in the morning, someone who’s almost always available to exchange texts or go for a drink. I don’t go looking for these people. But they find me. Looming over all of these relationships, despite the unusually intense closeness they often generate, is my knowledge that I’m a rest stop, a half-thing, that the person will be moving on once they’ve recovered enough to go out and find what they really want. They’re my friends, I respect them, I fucking love them. I want them to have what they want. And it isn’t this. It isn’t me.
I’m not looking for sympathy, my dear good reader. I am still here, and I’m strong as fuck, actually. I know all kinds of interesting shit. I have good people in my life. I’m employed, financially stable, debt-free. I rent my home from a landlord who’s kind and reasonable, and it’s full of meaningful knick-knacks and good books. My sense of humour is as sharp as a carpet knife. I have like two dozen articles of cat-themed clothing, plus two actual cats. I always wanted to be a writer and knew I was one and now I am one. My freezer is full of ice cream and when I run out I can and will go get more.
My academic life has been a long tour of the arts and humanities, and I have the useless degrees to prove it. I’ve taken courses in English literature, comparative Indo-European linguistics, medieval Christian philosophy, Old English, Helen of Troy, Plato, Greek and Latin prose composition, Rene dogkicking Descartes, Sanskrit, Thomas Aquinas, Homer, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, ancient manuscripts, sentential logic, the Greek New Testament, Greek novels, feminist philosophy, women in the ancient world …
It’s as though I’ve been unconsciously trying to make up for my physical inexperience intellectually. Like if I take enough of these classes, it’ll be equivalent to having done the things in real life, I’ll understand them as thoroughly as everyone else does. Like if I spend enough time in the humanities I’ll eventually be fully human.
As both a writer and a reader, what I’m most fascinated by, drawn to, is voice. That feeling of knowing within a few seconds, “This is ____’s writing.” That’s how I want people to feel when they’re reading me or hearing me read: Nobody else could have written this. The word choice, the structure, the syntax, the rhythms, the placement of humour, the take on the topic, I want them to be unmistakably mine. Otherwise, why bother?
I wonder a lot if the chronic relationshiplessness, the physical aloneness, the untouchedness, is holding me back as a writer. I worry that there may be certain things I can’t understand, can’t write intelligently about, can’t “get right” or describe from a realistic perspective or helpfully comment on in my colleagues’ work, because I don’t have hands-on experience of anything past the very very tip of human sexuality. The thought that this may be standing in the way of my being able to connect with readers emotionally upsets me whenever I think about it, which I try not to. Are we too far apart, is the bridge unbuildable? Maybe whoever is reading this is feeling the same unsettling sense of oarless floating that grips me as my peers describe their hilariously disturbing one-night Tinder hookups, their agonizing three-month dry spells, their inability to resist sleeping with a certain person despite knowing that it’s going to lead to months of ridiculous fallout.
If all I’m accomplishing is making you feel as far away from me as I feel from you, is that connection, or a parody of connection? Or both?
On the other hand—no: at the same time—maybe my intactness/untouchedness/integrity (a set of etymological triplets) contributes to my voice, or even to some extent defines it. When I’m writing, no-man’s-land is where I’m comfortable; it’s all hybrid this and fragmentary that and indefinable the other. It would hurt to be seen as unsettling or aberrant by a person whose bed I was in, but I take it as a delicious compliment when people react to my writing with terms like those.
Is genrelessness worth what it costs me as a person, if it makes me a better writer? I’ve been called a fatalist more than once. Maybe I’m supposed to be a half-thing. Maybe there’s no other way to get to wherever I’m going.
Does an “essay” like this have an ending?
Is it a happy one?
Photo by Flickr user L. Andrew Bell