By Cara Diaconoff
The only way to know someone is to love them without hope.
Proudly alone but
craving one true companion:
The single genuinely transgressive sexual behavior left today might well be no sexual behavior.
I have some things I’d like to try to say about loneliness. It has seemed to me that if I could express the facts of the matter, I might be able to help myself. It has seemed to me that this kind of loneliness is a spell that gets cast upon a person, probably at some younger age, without her quite being aware of it and that if said person wants not to be trapped in it forever, she must break the spell by naming.
(Fairy-tale logic can often be a great comfort.)
To be specific, I’m talking about the loneliness of the adolescent—that unarmored state in which you live, and suffer, only for yourself and fret about your stammer or your acne. No one needs you yet. You have no children, and your own family is mainly something to escape.
The problem is, of course, I’m not an adolescent. I only live like one—thirty years older, forty pounds heavier, and zero dollars richer than I was my freshman year in college, and still spending hours brooding by myself in a room. The only substantive difference between the old dorm cubicle and my current abode is the presence of two cats. I still, as Chrissie Hynde sang back then, go
Back in my room, I wonder, and I
Sit on the bed and look at the sky
You never know, she sang. Maybe tomorrow, maybe someday…. But she is over sixty now and doesn’t sing that anymore. Only I still sing it. How much longer will I sing it? How much longer before it becomes embarrassing? Will I turn into one of the girlish old ladies one sees in the street, sporting bobby sox, Keds, and bare legs scribbled with veins?
My situation is as follows: forty-eight and never married, not so much as a boyfriend for the past twenty years (a smattering, though, of love affairs, mostly disappointing); no settled residence; penniless; and still pursuing a writing career that never quite got off the ground. Maybe freedom really is just another word for…et cetera. Or, as the Twitter-pic had it that I once saw linked from some young man’s feed (it was either¬¬ @BadBoyfriend or one of his adoring clan), When she says she’s a strong independent woman, she mostly just sounds lonely.
Yes indeed, the un-partnered woman is still a thing, as the kids today say: still a specter, a demon, a sad and scary joke.
Think the word “lonely.” See the little girl moping in the corner of the schoolyard or the homeless man hunched over a grate. When one reads that some well-known person was lonely, isn’t there always a small twinge of surprise? One thinks, it must mean ‘lonely’ on the inside. To be really alone in the world is to be young, innocent—or to be so much forgotten that it’s as if one has become innocent again. It’s to be one of the meek who are supposed to one day inherit the earth. It’s to be pure. And only saints really want to be pure.
A lonely woman is especially strange. If a woman is lonely, she is ugly and a freak. Isn’t it still true? One morning in 2010, I was at home in my suburban Seattle apartment, desperately seeking refuge from the boredom of scoring standardized exams, one of the humiliating online jobs to which my misfortunes had sunk me. A certain well-known poet around my age had recently killed herself. She was among other things a great poet of failed love. Her verse was intimidatingly witty and erudite. I was fascinated by her and a little obsessed. She was brilliant and had spent her whole life among the privileged in both social class and verbal gifts; she was the child of a Village Voice editor and had only briefly ever lived outside New York. Her third book was named after a city park near the Columbia campus. In the photo on the back of it, she looked at the viewer up from under, smiling wryly, long prow of a nose and large brown eyes, sun glinting off her hair in ringlets down her back. She was pretty. I had never known her personally, but I wished I had. I wondered if I would have liked her. She wrote poems like “Love and Work,” about reading a book of difficult theory, one slow page at a time, in order to impress a date even more learned than she. She didn’t always write accessibly; you had to know a certain amount of philosophy, and linguistics, and poetry forms both in and outside the Western canon to get anything out of some of the work, and her rhymes could be very odd. Yet the clear and the obscure alike were all part of the same forceful, faceted vision: hers and no one else’s, a voice you would always stop to listen to. When I read the poems, the figure of a woman would sometimes appear in my head: dark cloud of curls, body wrapped in a velvet cloak, bony legs in black stockings—a vision of elegant angularity weaving through piles of leaves down Riverside Drive. Autumn’s perennial challenge to the soul. The clouds scurrying to gather with their fellows. The smell in the air of wine and sap.
She’d had a life that seemed so richly the opposite of my own un-rooted, unfulfilled one (what landscape or cityscape could I ever really claim?), but she had chosen to end it. I wanted to know why. I wanted to know who. The reports had said that she was depressed over the end of a love affair. Another writer had compared her to Catullus, the witty poet of Roman social life who died of a broken heart. On this morning, I found myself thinking about her again and eager to stop clicking buttons on my job program’s blue screen. I opened another window and began googling. I saw a suggested phrase with her name and the word boyfriend. And it was in this desultory way that I was introduced to the Internet world of misogynist blogs.
This particular Internet byway has its own inner weather, humid and rotten yet at the same time contriving to be sterile, like a junk-food emporium in a slum neighborhood. But who are these men, the misogynist bloggers? Are they really all beer-bellied losers, or is the truth more scarily complex than that? Who was the blogger who took it upon himself to copy and paste the dead poet’s obituary from the New York Times and deconstruct it, phrase by phrase, starting with its headline about the “solitary, defiant lives of single women” that had been her signature topic?
I imagined a young man, from his tone, and he sounded well educated, with his references to Roman generals and his actually rather incisive comments as to the Times’ lack of self-consciousness about its own class-based constructions, its unexamined assumptions about the wider cultural importance of lives lived on the Upper West Side. He was imaginative and vivid, in his vicious way. He used the poet’s name as if he’d known her, and he painted a comic-bookishly acid, compulsively readable portrait of her as a virago dependent on her “life coach” and given to writing graffiti in her own blood on bathroom walls. When the obituary referred to the way she’d written about falling into and out of love, he responded with a line about a “much-used vagina.” When the obituary quoted a poem in which she used the phrase, “versions of myself,” he called her a poor sad twat and scoffed that there was but one surefire way to secure versions of herself and that it was called having children. In the comments section, he was duly egged on by what you could tell were longtime followers, congratulating him (“yum!”) on how “delightfully cruel” the entry was and opining what a “sad cliché” the poet’s life had been.
In sum, it was ugly, mean, and slanderous, but more poignantly awful was the way it recalled the attitude of certain smart and sullen male students I had taught in writing classes. For the next week, I peered surreptitiously at any men I saw who seemed between the ages of eighteen and forty, wondering what the chances were that any given one of them led a secret life as a misogynist blogger. Did the mild-mannered, bespectacled cashier at the Lynnwood Safeway go home at night to comb through the writings of Church Fathers to find the perfect epigraph for that day’s online jeremiad? The Capitol Hill hipster with his goatee and his messenger bag: would he be logging on sometime soon to curse fat, useless females, contemptibly unskilled at everything from fixing a flat tire to programming a computer?
I’d been naïve. It had never occurred to me that the kind of men who were super-bothered by women as a group would in turn bother having an opinion about women like the poet—or like me: unmarried bluestockings. Weren’t we single, middle-aged, educated females supposed to be mostly invisible? Or simply pathetic. In It’s a Wonderful Life, when Jimmy Stewart in the parallel universe demands to talk to his wife, it turns out that if he’d never been born, she would have been a spinster librarian, and the music cues you that this is cause for lamentation. But the screed against the suicidal poet was my first inkling that the bluestocking could be more than just lamentable, or a joke. She could be hated. And if she dared to be depressed, she was even more despised.
Isn’t it strange? You would think that if men were going to hate an old maid, they would especially hate a happy one—one who’d never needed them. But it seemed that the dead poet’s worst offense, in the blogger’s eyes, was to have been unhappy.
Unhappy people, I suppose, are selfish. And their need for other people is just need; it’s not flattering to those others. Finally, it must be that unhappy people have egos. They have complaints. They dare to be subjects. And women—even to this day, somehow—aren’t supposed to be subjects. Women aren’t supposed to take themselves so seriously as to kill themselves. That sort of serious unhappiness—like serious lovesickness—is still supposed to be reserved for men.
It may not be proper for a woman to be lonely, but, of course, the reams of published advice for lonely women would fill many libraries. Most of this literature is based on a pair of mutually contradictory assumptions: one, that a woman needs a man in order to have a fully realized life; and two, that the surest way to drive a man off is to have needs. No redder flag in dating than to appear “needy.”
So the advice manuals and blogs are full of tips for how to mask the fact that you need and want that man—or any man. A lot of the advice sounds sensible enough. Don’t nag or ask too many questions. Don’t over-interpret his motives. Don’t do anything that could be expected to drive a normal person up the wall. And as one reads on, one starts to realize that the advice can be boiled down to one commonsense edict: Have your own life. It turns out that men—surprise surprise—are most interested in a woman who isn’t looking to them to give her a sense of identity or purpose in the first place.
Of course, it’s hardly shocking that entrepreneurial people make money by publishing common sense. Still, where does that common sense leave me?
But wait. Since when did I believe that self-help books were the tools to find love anyway? Didn’t I always have a different belief about love? For me, love was never a goal. It wasn’t a job. It wasn’t something you acquired, whether for the sake of status, health, or proving you were an adult. It was something that just happened. It was a gift. People didn’t earn it; they unexpectedly found it. Or it found them.
You can’t ask, then, why it didn’t find you. The question’s not amenable to logic. Still, I can’t help but ask it. Why can’t I have the story? All around me, not only on screen and page but in real life as well, other people are having theirs. I’m a warm soul—I’m passionate. Isn’t all that energy going to waste? I’m not like those people who honestly know, or feel, that they’re better off alone. I was supposed to have the great love and writing partnership—wasn’t I? Did I sabotage myself somehow? Did I fail to recognize the chance when I had it? Did my fatal lack of confidence do me in again?
There is another possibility. “To be ‘romantic,’” writes British critic Mary Evans, “has always been associated with turning away from reality. In relations between men and women, our apparently overwhelming need for romance would sometimes suggest that the reality of these relations is too awful to be allowed.” If she’s right, and I’m therefore too idealistic a soul to tolerate well the awful reality—even if it’s just the awful tedium—of reciprocal love as it’s practiced today, then perhaps in some way, I chose to be alone. I wanted to be free to love in my own way. I wanted to be free to crush.
In my way of thinking, loneliness births crushing, and, for me, crushing and romantic love have always been virtually synonymous. What defines crushing? That it’s a private way of loving. To love is to daydream: this was as true for me at forty-seven as it was at seven.
Somebody with a crush is usually considered at best charming, at worst pathetic. Somebody with a crush is usually taken seriously only when they cross the line to stalker. The very word is suffused with triviality. But recently I’ve begun to wonder whether it’s possible to make a virtue of necessity—whether it’s possible to see the beauty in crushing. I’ve begun to want to see my daydreaming love as passionate, and urgent, and complex in the architecture of its details, just as much so as “real” love. I’ve begun to want to see it as open-hearted, as brave.
In my life I’ve loved all sorts of people—TV and movie stars and singers, of course, but I’ve saved my deepest ardor for people I actually know: ballet teachers and literature professors and musicians in college-town bands, kind boys in thick glasses who sat next to me in school, aloof boys who flitted in black trench coats at the periphery of my vision, the boy who sang the title role in the high-school production of Jesus Christ Superstar and the funny and carefree drama-club boy who gave me rides home in his white Pinto and then was out for six weeks with mono. Into my twenties and thirties and forties, I harbored harmless crushes on students and visceral but hopeless attachments to professors, colleagues, fellow residents at artists’ colonies. Although my crushes have almost always been men, I’ve been drawn to women as well: the trim and lovely Cameron, sweet of features and of heart, who sometimes graced my teenage suburban ballet class in her role as inspiration for the younger dancers; the brilliant, slightly ponderous Slavic-studies graduate student who never attended a party without her femme-y girlfriend by her side; the West Coast poet who flirted her way through a summer artists’ colony residency, teasing men and women alike, almost kissing me in the lounge one night before we were interrupted by someone coming in. In forty years I have rarely been without a crush. I can mark off portions of my life according to one or another uber-crush of the time, the way that other people do with real-life relationships or with jobs they had.
Eventually, at some point, both consciously and not, I accepted the realization that crushing from afar was the only kind of love I’d ever know, and so I began to wonder if it was possible to build a spiritual home with the fragments it provided. If writing could break the spell, then writing might also make the handbook to guide me.
I just said handbook, as if crushing is a practical skill to be mastered. Perhaps crushing is, if not a skill, at least a craft. Perhaps the question is, what if more people in the world practiced the craft of crushing? What if more women, in particular, practiced it? What if women opened themselves to the possibilities of hopeless love the way men have for centuries? Could it be a way to get past certain zombified cultural assumptions—like the one that says that women are always finally looking to get married? Or the one that says that women are mostly looking, whether they admit it or not, for someone to make babies with? Is crushing one of the last vistas for feminism to conquer?
Why shouldn’t women be crushers too? Let women behave just as absurdly as men have been celebrated for behaving for hundreds of years. Let women crushers get to be imagined as something other than either confused schoolgirl or hysterical stalker. Let women over-intellectualize their attachments, let women write moony sonnets. Lesbians have been crushing on each other all along; let straight women in on the action. Let them make muses of men.
This is the new song I’m now trying to teach myself to sing.
At the same time, though, it’s a swan song. After forty years, I’m tired of crushing. Crushing is empowering right up until it’s not—right up until the moment when it makes you feel just a little too much like that childish old lady. Anyway, there’s nothing like finally consummating a crush to cure a girl of crushing, and that, a few years ago now, is what happened to me. At an annual week-long conference for English teachers, I marked my quarry, a quietly charming, married prep-school headmaster ten years older than I. Again to quote Chrissie Hynde, “I said it out loud, loud in a crowd . . .” never thinking that doing so might lead anywhere else than to more of the mooning from afar that I had always been used to. But he called my bluff, this man. He issued a hotel-room invitation that, in due time, I accepted. It turned out that not only was he incorrigibly addicted to flirting, he was also not inexperienced in the realm of extramarital affairs—but, all the same, not quite seasoned enough to be hardened to the moral and emotional problems they present. After one encounter, he put the kibosh on more, and although we flirted pleasantly via email over the course of the next year, he could not see his way to sustaining a friendship. In subsequent years at the conference, he found it necessary to brush me off. I was “really nice,” he told me, shooing me from his company as he might a troublemaking parent from his office back at school.
It was time, I realized, to graduate from crushing. It gave me a great run while it lasted; it taught me many things and shaped me as a person. But I can’t see continuing to crush into my bare-legged fifties and sixties. If this is a handbook, it’s a retroactive one—a memorial. Let me burnish the song of crushing and set it gently on the shelf.