I have young friends. A few. Some are former students, who will, to me, always be my students in some way, something which they often sense and in which they indulge me. I am invariably maternal toward all of them. Only the boy himself has escaped this, because of the terms on which we developed our relationship. The others are all my children, perpetually.
One young man, from the same country as the boy, and indeed a friend of his, is like a nephew to me; we joke that I am his Irish auntie. Intelligent, full of mischievous energy, and extremely clear-eyed about the surreal world of acting in which he is enjoying increasing success, he has proven a treasured correspondent and wit.
We recently spoke in a general way about a girl he’d been seeing, about love and its nature, about what it takes in the long term. He is too smart, and becoming too worldly, to believe simplistic things about love, but he is still young enough not to want to let go of some of those articles of faith with which many of us start our adult lives, for fear of the empty space that can gape before us when we lose our religion.
I wanted to tell him something about the view from middle-age and the thickening nature of love, what it trades for its purity when people, happily or not, simply hang in there long enough, until sometimes they love despite themselves or find that strong bonds exist when the bare name of love no longer sounds like itself. I had a couple of glasses of wine one night while in the middle of a writing project, and then turned to my young correspondent’s most recent note. Out of that came something that, when I look at it, makes sense to me. To borrow a turn of phrase from Carver, this is what I talk about when I talk about love.
We start off with love. Amor vincit omnia? For God's sake. Think of love. Think of that poor creature, that see-through thing with little wings like a dragonfly. Think of all we put on its narrow eggshell back. We want it to overcome anything? To save us? No wonder it evades so many of us, runs off, hides. Look at all we want it to do. It's a sweet and lovely thing, but it's delicate, it's crushable, and unless it's handled properly, and fed like any living thing, and not abused or neglected or belittled or anything that kills the living from the inside with a rot one can't see, it will grow thin and paranoid as an addict and wonder why the hell it's stayed around as long as it has. And it will leave, and there we'll be. That process often doesn't take that long, especially when we're young. It leaves; we're standing there.
If we're lucky--if we're really, really lucky--with hard work, it . . . ahhh, no, I'm not going to say, "It grows! It becomes a glorious, strong thing like a magnificent oak, and it can withstand anything!" No. I'm not going to say that. We have entire worlds of aging hippies and desperate boomers and people who call themselves “artists” to say that kind of thing. To babble that “Love is always the answer”, presumably to some overwhelming question that, like Prufrock, we’re all too frightened to ask. We have millions to whistle us past the graveyard. So I'm going to say that if we're lucky, no, it doesn't grow. It is always just itself, even if it thrives. But if properly nourished, it does thrive. And the way it does that, the way it repays us for the feeding, is that it learns to clothe itself. Everything around it, love throws around its shoulders and wraps around its spidery hands. Time. Children. Money. Homes. Memory. Death. Sex. Language. Fear. Things that a couple can share like wine, they can be that rich and that heady. What we consume, love assumes. It puts all this on, layer upon layer, and protects itself like that. And its bones and its skin and wings, beneath all that, if we’re very lucky, thicken and toughen over years with scar tissue and healed punctures and the weight of all those layers, and that's what lies at its core. Old, hard, scarred love, that we can still see clearly beneath all the layers, because we took good care of it and so it took us on. It decided to stay, because we really wanted it and really gave it a home. And sometimes we can even see the little thing with the eggshell skull that we encountered at the beginning, just sometimes, in flashes. But the truth is that by that stage, one can't separate the creature from its garments except in moments quick as a glance. They are fused, elements in a fuel brewed over time from all those things, from the sacrifice of so much remembered and experienced.
We have to work for that. And we won't always like it. It can trap like any sticky thing, like a web or quicksand. Or a spill that covers and smothers everything. But it's real, and it's there. And two people can run on its energy, sometimes, for an entire lifetime, unto death.