"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Love In A Foreign Language–The Very Tedious Limits Of Romance

Robert Greeley looked for love wherever he could find it.  A product of a routine marriage concluded on the rebound of a bad one, a conservative man suspicious of romance but liberal when it came to sexual adventure, Robert had always hoped for a liaison dangereuse, a love affair of souls.  Of course as an intellectual he believed in no such things.  Love was a lovely fiction thanks to Petrarch, but evidently nothing more than a very prosaic and predictable union of hopefully compatible individuals.  Marriage was a negotiated contract, an agreement between two independent, rational beings who understood the tenuousness and fragility of connubial union, who, however much they might ‘love’ each other, wanted to take no chances.

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The marriage contract between Greeley and his wife had endured, less because they ‘loved’ each other, but because it would be too difficult for them to dissolve a relationship which had become complicated by children; and more importantly one which had three decades of sunken costs.  This unwritten clause in the contract was the most important.  Why undo a partnership which was far better than most, more congenial than many, and much less contentious than all? 

For Greeley’s wife this was a non-issue.  She loved her husband, tolerated his peccadilloes and was the more intelligent of the two.  While he went off seeking a neo-Petrarchan romantic love – a futile and hopeless enterprise to say the least – she remained faithful to the God of Practicality.  Why mess with a man who was a good father, who always returned home after his African adventures, and who, after two marriages was unlikely to venture a third?

His wife’s complaisance was part and parcel of a new covenant.  If she was content with his dutifulness and responsibility,  then the most important commandments had been respected.  He could go off on his own with no strings attached.

Ah, yes; but easier said than done.  How realistic was this new enterprise? How littered would the field be? How difficult would the search for a 500 year-old ideal of romantic love be?

Given the background of his sexual freedom, six months on the road in impossibly romantic places – ylang-ylang and spices in the Comoros, baths in Soviet-era spas in the Carpathians, sex in the thorny, goat-eaten, hills above Islamabad, intent in the jasmine-scented rooms of Ahmedabad – Greeley was open and ready for a romantic epiphany, the love of his life, a Lawrentian epiphany.

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Yet, there were always obstacles.  Miriam, a young woman from the Tyrol who had met and fallen in love with a Haitian mulatto, son of a wealthy Kenscoff family of merchants and entrepreneurs; but who had, like Greeley, never been totally committed and more importantly been as susceptible to Moroni’s scents of clove and cinnamon, the remoteness of the Comoros, and the constant, drumming rain on the roof of the ‘Italian Hotel’, an empty, derelict place run by a stateless Neapolitan.  She could give only love between missions on her way back to Petionville or Vienna or the Alto Adige.  There was real attraction there – that special coupling of unattached, unmoored,  hopelessly Victorian souls that only occurs in the jungle,  Haiti, Anjouan, Rwanda, and never survives beyond – but it had no legs, no longevity, no staying power.  It was the jungle that annealed the relationship, but the seal was nor ever could be watertight.  Robert went back to his wife and Hannah to Haiti.

Robert had become friends with an Argentine woman whom he had met on a trip to Morocco; but because both were intellectuals who relied on language for all correspondence,  they were emotionally stymied.   Despite an obvious attraction, they could not get past her fumbling English and his sporadic Spanish.  It wasn’t so much that they couldn’t make themselves understood; they were unable to communicate.  First Communion, the back seat of a ‘57 Ford, marbles, or Nishan’s drugstore; or whatever Argentine connections there were to adolescence and family.  Nothing was funny.  There are no jokes possible in a just manageable language.  Their relationship might have been had they been willing to get beyond definition and meaning; but they could not.

Robert’s relationship with a young Moldovan woman was quite different.  He spoke no Romanian, she no English,  but his desire for a much younger woman and hers for a wealthy American were compensations enough. Most importantly their sex was independent of, but reliant on these obsessions.  Although each was intent on something – she in corralling a Western husband and he in bedding a young Cleopatra – their sex was uninhibited by these claims. Language was nowhere nearly as important as he had thought.  Sex, sensuality, and expression counted for much more than ‘understanding’.

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Robert’s search for Lawrentian love almost came home in his love affair with Berthe, a youngish Danish woman whom he met in Rawalpindi.  Language was not an issue, nor with cultural oddities.  They met on an equal social, professional, cultural, and linguistic plane.  It was because of this surprising confluence that Robert became complacent.  He had ticked off so many prerequisites that her had missed the point entirely.  While the affair was for him a sadly romantic adventure, for her it was only an interlude.  Ah, the Europeans with their wonderful sexual ease and indifferent worldliness – he had missed the point entirely.  He had sorted out culture but had missed out on personal intimacy.

Left on the curb by Berthe, disappointed by the manipulative Christina, still hopeful for the lovely Maria, ,but concluding that his only future was either with his wife of 35 years or an Iowa farm girl – cornflower blue eyes, flaxen hair, love of fathers and family, Protestant and uncomplaining . 

The Iowa farm girl was intimately and quickly understandable and his wife decipherable.  He and his wife had both come from the right end of New Brighton, the upper crust end, the Ivy League and Nantucket end; and they had paralleled each other for twenty years on sloops, catamarans, beach cookouts, and string trios.  They were two of a kind, the match all parents of their milieu hoped for, the closest thing to arranged marriage, and the marital proposition of the decade.   He and Lisa, the Ames, Iowa maiden, shared nothing except indefinable Americanness – a shared core of religion, family, work, and community. Although they were at the extreme ends of the socio-cultural spectrum,  they understood each other fundamentally; but such understanding was boring. What was the point of a confluence of culture? What indeed did shared cultural roots ever matter to sexual epiphany?

On the one hand Robert longed for the easy repartee – those cultural, linguistic double-entendres that signaled wit, humor, and cultural intimacy.  On the other he wished for cultural unknowability that made new sexual alliances interesting if not worthwhile.  Turkish gender ceremonies, pagan Spring festivals, Islam, complex brotherhood, Asian insularity, and European glamour made Toprak, Emriye, and Ceyda even more alluring.  There seemed to be no middle ground, no resting place.

Despite many reverses Robert, a tireless, undaunted romantic, continued his search for a perfect romantic love; and yet the older he got, and the more settled in his very predictable, traditional marriage, the less he thought that he would ever find it.  There were simply too many variables, too many unintended consequences, and too many unforeseen happenings.   Pregnancy, penury, and visas always seemed to get in the way.  What was the point. As one drew closer to the end of one’s life and farther from its beginnings wasn’t time to either retire to Florida or to a retreat in an Alpine Carthusian monastery?

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The good news is that Robert remained married, had numerous grandchildren, and enjoyed his dotage.  The bad news – bad for all older men – is that he continued to think of sex with younger woman all the night and day.  If not a Petrarchan romance, than at least a cinq-a-sept with a thirty-something. This – the unfaded, unalloyed dream of the American male for better or worse – was Robert’s legacy.

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