I used to be fixated on the idea of arranged marriages when I was in high school. Relying on other people’s judgment to get around the difficulties of discovering what I really wanted seemed both sensible and adventurous. What better way to enter into a lifelong relationship with someone than in the spirit of discovery and making the best of an unavoidable situation? I’d revel in the lower divorce rates for countries with traditional arranged marriages and munch on mystic stories about the capacity of someone else to play matchmaker on my behalf.
I’ve moved on rhetorically, but I carry with me a remnant of that young fatalism. I have a romantic on and off button, and there’s no middle step. I either don’t like someone or want to have their babies and buy a brownstone together. Anything in between makes me nauseous and, more to the point, nervous. Nerves and romance are the Gemini twins of human procreation. Having anxiety about the absence of romance is just as common, and it runs up against the fact that love remains an indescribable, faith-based activity.
The source of my fear of in-between affections is that it requires me to make a choice for myself. When the wonder pony of falling love gallops through one’s front door there’s nothing to choose. You can only marvel at the fact that a large horse with shivering withers is standing in your living room. It’s an encounter with a force of nature that violently resists any attempt at control. But when the door opens and there’s just another human outside, someone you can reason with and be persuaded by, the process of falling in love becomes about self-determinism as much as subatomic predestination.
I went ice-skating in Bryant Park with a woman a couple of months ago. I had decided to walk the twenty-five blocks from my apartment instead of riding the subway and I realized walking out the front door that I was going to be late. I felt bad but didn’t want to do anything about it so I just decided to walk faster. When I got there she was waiting on the steps outside in a long red overcoat. She was talking on the phone and I could see fresh henna drawings on her hand.
She was tall with light blue eyes that hovered above her nostrils, which turned up just enough to make them an unavoidable part of her face. She was pretty. When we got in line to enter the rink a security guard told us to stand against a wall and have our pictures taken, allegedly for security reasons. The idea of having a picture taken on a first date was secretly thrilling to me. I remembered another date I’d been on a few years earlier, with a woman I never saw again afterward. As we’d sat in a dark corner of a bar in San Francisco I remember suddenly wanting to take her picture with my cell phone. I wasn’t much attracted to her but the sudden idea that I could immortalize her and that moment with the little plastic machine in my pocket made me excited. Something could be created in those dark moments, drinking from the same cloudy glasses that thousands of other mouths had hovered over, and it would last.
I hate smiling in pictures but as the security man held up the camera, I stood up straight and felt mirthful bubbles rising inside and my lips spread momentarily to let them out.
We went inside and rented skates. I felt a moment of self-conscious fear walking through a crowded room with children running free. I was uncomfortably aware that I was carrying two long and sharp metal blades. As we made small talk, I kept replaying the footage of that poor hockey goaltender whose throat was cut open on the ice. We found an empty locker to put our stuff in and squeezed onto the crowded bench to change into the skates. Taking your shoes off on a date with someone is a good way to puncture any of the upselling of fashion and presentation. I suddenly realized my daintily arranged ensemble was now going to unravel along the fuzzy lining of my socks and the worn and not entirely fragrant cave of my leather boots. She was wearing black maryjane’s with a chunky two inch heel. She had red socks on underneath and I tried not to look as she put them into the skates.
I hadn’t been skating since I was eleven years old and my fifth grade class went on a trip where we wobbled around a rink to Nu Shooz. I felt a moment of uncertainty as I moved my foot out over the ice again. I imagined either falling immediately onto my back or else shooting off against the flow of other skaters at speeds beyond my control. Neither happened. I put both my feet on the ice. The blades fidgeted back and forth a little but it was otherwise just exactly like standing.
It was dark but the lights on the rink made a bright white glow that bounced off the ice in the fifteen-degree air. I felt wide-awake. We started skating around the small rink, people passing on all sides, the cold air running around us in a heavy envelope. I tried to push faster and faster in the straight-aways. The turns came too quickly, like a sudden confrontation with geometry and the human body in which I would try and figure out just what angle I would need to take to avoid running into the thirty people clustered in their own arcing turns.
I tried to skate backwards at one point, after having watched A do it easily. I hunched over and held my arms out like a child, A holding onto my hands for support. She pushed me gently while I tried to move my legs in and out in a repeating sine curve to propel myself.
Earlier, we had waited inside while the rink had been re-iced and A noticed that I’d repeated the word “entropy” three times in ten minutes. Somehow our conversation turned towards love and relationships, which totally unnerved me. I described people as an entropic scattering of particles in which relationships are governed by gravity. One particle passes through another close enough to have its path altered, bent into orbit around this new particle. It’s either yes, or no. And even when it happens, there’s a decay to the gravitation over time, tension between the chaos of the universe and the repeating circle around a center of gravity relative to only you.
What scares me about experiencing love as a choice instead of a reaction is it requires me to select qualities in a partner and then find the closest approximation of those qualities that I can. And then I tether myself in loyal orbit to that person on the basis of a checklist that presumes I’d want a relationship based on goals. The inherent terror in goals is their attainability. I knew at a young age that I could do anything. I can’t do everything simultaneously, but there was a period in my adolescence when I knew that I could become a ballet dancer or an accountant. It would take time and be filled with difficulty, but both where out there waiting to be chosen and moved towards.
Along with that realization came another about how much of life would have to be excluded or given short shrift in the selection of one specific goal. To choose one path is to disavow all others. If all other paths were going to be disavowed, I’d prefer it come as a force of nature instead of a murky guess at what it is I’m best suited for. I don’t know, and I imagine the longer one lives the less clear the answer to that question becomes. But it’s not something you can reason out of a maybe. The answer is always plain, yes or no. The question is the mystery, and it only becomes murkier.
I liked A. We had a good time together. And we passed right through each other.