On a recent trip with a family, I spent a day taking care of a six-year-old boy. He was all clingy and affectionate, following me around or pulling me by the hand, asking me to play or chat with him, lying beside me to sleep. As I was about to bid them goodbye, he took me aside and asked me not to go. And he added, “I’m not in love with you, okay? We’re just friends.” I laughed and said, “Of course, that’s cool.” Would that all boys that grow up to be men were so forthright with their intentions. Or were certain about just what they intend in the first place.
But I am, myself, often not sure. With me the erotic impulse comes wrapped in the incongruity of feeling desire and yearning for innocence: I claim not to understand the grammar of flirting; I deadpan innuendo with square translation; and if I allow myself to be embraced, I deem it platonic. I am afraid of overstepping boundaries, and I am afraid that even if I do, it will not mean anything—that I will simply follow formula and draw a blank.
It is difficult for me to give myself over to the currents of romance and the eddy of being “in love.” I’ve become so sensitive to clichés or the least hint of fuckwittage that I’ve developed an ironic detachment to the romantic: set against an all-too-perfect backdrop of chirping crickets and stars, or slow traffic and light rain, his hand on my knee starts moving elsewhere; he looks into my eyes to communicate sincerity before he whispers into my ear or wraps his arms around my back. Maybe he’s had a drink, or maybe he’s just trying his luck. Maybe he even fancies me—but does it matter? He acts according to a script, and if I play opposite him, it is with curiosity about whether he would throw his own lines in or do something unrehearsed. I am seldom, as they say, in the moment. I watch myself watching myself watching him, and think about how to best describe it.
It is only in literature and movies that I dare to identify, because in those contexts romance is so clearly artificial that disbelief may be safely suspended without fear of being deceived. When I cry for a heroine I know that I am really crying for myself, and I feel thankful that I can share in her emotion without sharing in her ordeal. And then, of course, I write. I siphon off doubts and desires into characters and have them act out my experiences and dreams. The distance is comforting, like cloud cover on a too-hot day—I can go about my business without fearing either sun or rain.