The first half of ‘Past Desire’ is published in Ambit 246. Here we present the full 62 sestudes.
My husband appears after a long absence from my dream life. And in the optimism of this dream, The Man hasn’t yet left me, but I am marrying Husband again. It is both ordinary and amazing seeing Husband, and I say but how is it that you’re here? I thought you were completely dead, and he smiles his unforgotten, world-changing, downturned smile.
- Smoke signals
It’s 23.47. In bed, I tap awake my iPhone and click into WhatsApp. I am filled with dread and a quickening, both. It’s hilarious to call this a chat: me here, watching for smoke signals from The Man, who indecorously ditched me five months ago. All I am looking for is the time signature: 22.51. 57 minutes ago, he was alive, present.
- Frantic epistemologists
Lovers, writes psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, are frantic epistemologists, second only to paranoiacs. Readers of signs. Never more so than when spurned, I say. What did I miss? What did he mean? Picking over events, like vultures swooped on carcasses. One day he’ll wake up from his numb sleep, I say. There is text as enigma: a fuck-off email. Now go decipher it.
At 62, I find myself on Tinder, swiping left and right, nights crazed with laughing and sending friends screenshots. Tibor, 48, shows himself walking away from what looks like a terminal building, carrying a rolling suitcase, wearing swimming trunks and a T-shirt. Steve 55, 127 km away, loves banter and cheekiness and says he’s 100% single, and also very honest and genuine.
The term, minted in 2011, describes a nugget of thought with the single stipulation that it contain precisely 62 words. Numerical inversion of 26, this was the number of people enlisted each to write one such, about a piece in the exhibition 26 Treasures at the V&A Museum in London. The discipline, corseting a free-form snippet of reflection, suits my flickering attention.
Your attention is holy, Patricia Lockwood writes. But what does she mean it is the soul spending itself? I know that spending (and wasting) is the metaphor that attention — like time — mobilises. Objects of attention have a value, and in the attention economy, they keep clambering for our focus. In an age of scattered concentration, those who can commandeer attention accrue power.
Because there seemed not to have been an end to love — that wilting of the outer leaves, the edging (over time) towards softness, brownness — it sometimes seems to me as though The Man might walk right in, with that familiar fit of Superdry jeans on his neat bum. Then my fury is instantly deleted as he sweeps me into his normal arms.
The postman’s van is parked with its door swung open, and out of it pours my youth in a sound stream, all the young dudes. Hey, says the postman; hey say I. Out of the archaeological site of my mind, I’ve pulled a readymade. Mott the Hoople. The name, the song, bring to mind a particular kiss, more longed for than enjoyed.
Dee, 56 – no wife, no car – is bisexual but not polyamorous, also not into vanilla sex. He would prefer someone bonkers enough to match him. Alec, 54, too thick for university, with a fat blonde girl. John, 52, bearded, aint changing for no f*cker!!! ☺ Then: The Man. His clever, laughing eyes behind glasses thicker than mine; the smile, the words engaging.
In Chris Marker’s film Sans Soleil, the narrator speaks of memories whose chief purpose is to invoke other memories. This now brings to mind Maria Stepanova’s book In Memory of Memory. She speaks of memory’s unrecognizable, rainy darkness, lit with the sharp flashes of guesswork. Can one really remember a kiss? I inhabit my first with The Man, standing in my kitchen.
- His body
That first afternoon, I loved the way The Man lay, a thin question mark, his bent legs perfectly shaped, slender back curved. His skin was pale, and I thought, irrationally, that he looked Jewish in his nakedness, despite not being circumcised. He had a huge bush that made me laugh (show some respect he chortled) and in it, his shy penis nested.
The vocabulary of sudden abandonment contains violence, momentum, gravity. Ditching, dumping: both evoke earthworks, a rumble of soil. The vocabulary of cowardice to describe such an act is visceral — guts, lily-livered — or gendered: grit, spunk. I am a coward, The Man writes, for not telling you sooner what I feared, for not doing something about it. Who knew. Get a pair.
Only Sharon Olds could write elegiacally about balls. After her divorce, a spinster again — celibate again — she longs first for the man, then generically for the category: balls. The two that lolled while the one was inside her. I remember Husband, rangy, naked and dripping, bending over to squeegee the shower water, his two old life-sacks translucent, insouciant, swinging over the drain.
I photographed Husband through his treatment for the colon cancer that didn’t kill him. He died of a fungus colonising his brain. I photographed the ongoingness of life around us in the months I didn’t know were his last: his better days, our ageing dogs, the changing seasons. Then, abruptly, I stopped photographing. I no longer knew whether I had his consent.
- Early Signs
The first night I spent at The Man’s house in a northern city, some months after we’d acknowledged love’s ignition, expecting the theatre of romance, I found myself sitting alone on a sofa downstairs for a long while, not sure where he’d gone. I later discovered that his 18-year old daughter had asked him to read to her in bed. He’d complied.
- Previous Life
Photographs around his house showed The Man in his previous life with his now-dead wife and their three daughters; conventional portraits saying nothing other than we are a happy, indivisible unit. Presenting as neat and sexy now, he looked so — what would be the equivalent of mumsy — dadsy? — then, in baggy jeans and beige jumpers. His wife: practical haircut, big teeth, doughty.
In Macau, in the spring of 1997, Ex-Lover first kissed me on a street called happiness. Rua da Felicidade. Not because he was shorter, but because he was married, I could tell that he would bring me no such thing as happiness, and indeed, over four years, that came to pass, repeatedly. Many times over, he brought me no happiness.
I see I have a missed call on my phone. In the nano-second it takes for the realisation to hit me, that this is a man I phoned earlier for a quote for power hosing my patio furniture — a man (surname unknown) who shares a first name with The Man — I experience cardially and viscerally what it means to travel in time.
- His body
The second time The Man and I are together, we have a whole afternoon, night and following morning. I see his walnut of a penis turn into a cock of agreeable dimensions and aptitude. I’ve possibly never met a man so at ease in his body, and perhaps linked to this, one who enabled me to live more easily in my own.
- What I want to know
after we’ve subjected each other’s character to vivisection and thought and talked and shaken and exorcised each other from our so-called individual systems, if such things exist — increasingly I’ve become convinced that we’re all continuously and interconnectedly shaped — after all that malarky, what happens to the jokes we shared, that sui-generis idiolect of funnies, voice-tickles and throwbacks that constituted our conjoined laughter?
Artist Sophie Calle turned being ditched by a lover into a time-based, performative work of art. I received an email telling me it was over, she begins. She asked 107 women (including two made from wood and one with feathers), chosen for their profession or skills, to interpret this letter, which the lover signs off telling her to take care of herself.
Your lover — your partner — has spent time thinking about breaking up with you, without saying a word. The thoughts have coalesced into a finely crafted letter, sent by email. His name marks the site of an absence. The Man ends his email saying: I am very fond of you and I genuinely want the best for you. Yeah, take care of yourself.
It’s not that I ignored his silences; the tools I brought to them were the wrong ones. A plumber turning up with an electrician’s kit, mistaking one set of units for another: rate of discharge, flow. I gave The Man a small blue notebook. Write in it the things you mind about me but cannot say. Afterwards, I leaned into his silences.
- Best times
Most of our happiest, most sensual times take place against the backdrop of my home. At The Man’s house, there is always tension, tight smiles, since often, watchful Youngest Daughter is there, withdrawn and silently needing something. He seems uneasy, annoyingly affable. I feel hemmed in by their possessions and the photographs everywhere, the way nothing has been altered to accommodate me.
Happiness, says a character in Natalia Ginzburg’s Voices in the Evening, always seems nothing. It is like water; one only realizes it when it has run away. In literature, happiness is often portrayed that way: a river of delight unconsciously savoured, dwindling from a rear-view mirror. In life, less so: moments when the fullness of it spilled over everything, almost drowning me.
In Macau, when I fell into voluptuous agitation with Ex-Lover — long before he was an ex, of course — I spent days photographing the tangled, knotted spaghetti of electric wires. Skeins, webs: external signs of power theft that surely meant illegal connections to the grid, and that yet, to me, looked like drawings up above, the pencilled threads of some unspecified expressionist artist.
In the dark, the self not yet centred or lost, a trick of scale: my hands suddenly seem huge, the less dominant one with its own peculiar flexibility, tip of thumbnail reaching easily to four digital cuticles; tiny, hardened rims where each nail beds in. Methodically, the thumbnail works its way round four crescents of skin, loosening, attempting to prise them away.
Someone, a very old friend who lives in Australia and with whom I have sporadically miscommunicated over the years, writes to say I guess that life after The Man is pretty much like life before The Man. On what planet does this friend live? The Man, like all love objects, filled a space I did not know I had. Now it’s empty.
Whether or not you were aware that there was something missing from your life, Adam Phillips writes, you will be when you meet the person you want. You’ll think you’ve dreamed this person up out of prior experience, both real and fantasised. And that, folks, is how you come to miss a person now whom you didn’t know existed two months ago.
I call Ex-Lover because that’s what I do when something else has collapsed. He talks of coincidence, synchronicity. Says he’s just been talking about me, misses someone — me — to have decent conversations with. I think of him as I read Renata Adler’s book, Pitch Dark. Even though it ends in disappointment, it seems that that the married man possibly did love Kate.
- Panic attack
Fear of nothing you can pinpoint barrels through your chest. Entirely physical, it is as though you’d lost control of your car, bouncing metal into ditch, stomach squelched. Thumped by the nosedive, you’re in a capsule of you. You. Ziplocked. A thin voice somewhere, but no. People say panic spreads, like contagion. Like blood. They don’t mention that you are the panic.
- Early signs
There had been early signs, if I’d known how to read them. The Man wore a wedding ring when I met him. Respect for his dead wife, for their daughters, he said. He said he would remove it a year after her death. The year passed. The ring remained on his finger until, on day 412, I asked him to remove it.
Paper marks the first anniversary, fragile yet material, the unwriting of twinned now twined futures on its waiting surface. Caroline Bird calls the running-up year — that first year, heady with promise, fear, lust, the tearing down of old veils — the air year. Perfection. All that air that we first breathed together, made of edgeless sky and the invisible substance we live by.
Asking other women to interpret the email in which her lover ditched her, Sophie Calle is playing for time: the time of kinder separation that the coward-lover, in slinking away, did not grant her. She photographs these women, posed and poised. She sees them as her proxies. They take care of her because she cannot, and that piece of shit did not.
I’ve kept Husband’s crumpled pyjamas, scuffed slippers, glasses and a checked table napkin that he’d used earlier on the day that I rushed him to hospital for the last time, three weeks before he died. I needed such bio-metonymies: things that had enjoyed casual adjacency with his body and that now expanded and filled out as proxies, as fully substitutive objects.
On the phone, Ex-Lover asks what I’m reading. My breath catches. He emits a deep chuckle and I say what is it, and he says he can just hear, by that intake of breath, my pleasure in talking about books. Fleetingly, I miss how book talk had an erotic charge between me and this professor of love who managed to lose me.
Three years into our relationship — three precious years in my sixties — The Man sends me an email saying that he has misread his capabilities and his circumstances, the 240-mile round trip between us, Youngest Daughter, now the pandemic. He writes that he knows how much he is losing in losing me. The great weight of past hope crushes my ribs.
When I met The Man, there was no coup of anything. We’d had a month of zigzagging emails, WhatsApps, calls… so meeting him was an act of embodiment, of fitting the various parts in their correct corporeal order: sleek torso, arms, legs, cock, and that laugh-crinkled, snubby nose. Still, towards the end of that first day, something went pop behind my sternum.
Sleep, as all insomniacs know, cannot be willed: it is master, not slave. People used to think that in insomnia, we are most truly human. But apparently, animals too can suffer insomnia. How and what do animals dream? In the film-projection of our human dreams, we meet our fears and desires, finding in the creatureliness of sleep the awakening of our unconscious.
- Jesus’ blood
One afternoon, years ago, I lay on top of Ex-Lover on the narrow sofa in a room overlooking rooftops and a military academy; I was wearing jeans, nothing else, and he was fully dressed, and we were listening to Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Saved Me and at the point when Tom Waits’ voice comes in from a distance, I started crying.
- First Night
The Man and I were awake for most of our first night together. We couldn’t believe our hunger. And our luck. We’d both been celibate for a long while — he for much longer, since he’d looked after his terminally ill wife for nine years. At 2.am. we got out of bed, tiptoed downstairs, and had tea and crunchy peanut butter on toast.
Cruel optimism — Lauren Berlant’s term — describes a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility. The object of desire is a cluster of promises that we want someone/something to make. We get drawn to the scene where the object hovers in its potentialities, granting the opportunity for optimism. While the desire for an impossible object remains enticing, all other hope is foreclosed.
Though my veins must soon be dry and I look on desire receding from the point where I now stand, I cannot believe that love always pitches his mansion in the place of excrement, as Yeats would have it. Perhaps more on the quicksand of childhood, where frustration is first sowed, and with it the idea that want — need — can be satisfied.
- Early signs
The day I became British, I acquired a broken patella and a stiff upper lip. The Man trotted beside me as I hobbled to the ceremony, adrenaline and cortisol flushing through me, blood pouring down my shin. He’d planned to return home that evening, and return home he did, leaving me on the sofa with my leg raised. Youngest Daughter needed minding.
When I reached the age of euphemism, past the embonpoint of middle-middle years, my body fell into cliché and dried up. Nothing more boldly proclaimed the closing up of the reproductive shop than this atrophy. Lucky to have been, then, for a while with The Man, who loved me watching as, juddering, he coaxed a silver spray of jism onto my mons.
Youngest Daughter is a peeled grape. I understand the urgency of the father wanting to reassure the girl whose mother has recently died — an unconsoled child — of continuity, that she is held. She is only eighteen and it’s not the end of the world that he should read to her in bed, not in spite of my being there: because of it.
At a point in her life, my mother (who, when I was small, had a fierce energy — angry, sexual) described herself as feeling magnetised to her bed. Short naps became days spent supine. Recognising the lure, I avoided anything longer than the essential snooze. Then, lockdown and the end of love. Between Zooms, writing, reading: silky sleep and soft dog breath. Afternoons.
My attachment to The Man was not an example of cruel optimism, since he did not seem to offer a cluster of promises that — structurally and fundamentally —could not be kept. Sustaining love is, above all, a project construed with a belief in the future. Though we did turn out to have pitched our love on shit, we built perfectly sound foundations.
Although The Man hadn’t the balls to end our relationship in person, in his dumping email, he suggests he’d been thinking of it for a time, during which I’d unwittingly continued to love him. I wrote my anger into notes to myself, to others. I wanted people who liked him to know who he was. To attenuate humiliation by making it public.
- The one known to have been left
Sharon Olds, who is an incomparable poet of beginnings and endings, writes of feeling humiliated among friends, to be known to have been left by the one who supposedly knew me best, her finger on the very pulse of shame: to be un-loved, released from its special appointment, like a child, having to try to behave/while hating the terms of your life.
Considering her long relationship with photographer Molly Malone Cook, poet Mary Oliver notes that attention without feeling… is only a report. Attention and feeling. Blogger extraordinaire, Maria Popova quotes Simone Weil: attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. It strikes me, now that I’ve lost love, that I might miss attention — that sense of intimate address — more even than touch.
- What I miss
I miss the nights that he spent in my bed, stolen from his home life, it turns out — stolen from Youngest Daughter, who was first eighteen, then nineteen then twenty, a child but a young woman too, surely — his sleeping head a moon on the adjacent pillow. I miss waking up early and turning towards him, knees to knees, breath to breath.
Waking in a hotel room in Windermere, with morning light prying, I watched The Man sleep. Clean breath puffed his upper lip to a regular beat. Separate from me in a birth-sac of slumber, he didn’t wake to the choked vibration of his mobile phone. Later, Youngest Daughter, who was by then nineteen, called again to tell him she’d vomited at night.
I check in with myself as my yoga teacher suggests. I am trying — though striving is precisely not the point — to find the place in myself in which it is OK to be alone again. I tune into the furthest sounds I can hear, but cannot get beyond my dog snoring, which is fine since that is the music of my consolation.
One morning, Youngest Daughter, who’d come for the weekend with her father, panicked because she couldn’t remove an earring. I probed the soft flesh of her pale ear, gently turning the pin in the piercing, watching her delicate fingers hold back a veil of ginger hair. She blinked, pale eyes, pale lashes: she was a sweet and frightened rabbit, caught in headlights.
It was a dream of empty urban spaces, absences, dead ends. In my mind this was a known city, built along waterways, with animals wandering around. It felt like India — actually, Varanassi — and I thought I must photograph this and show The Man. I couldn’t find my way out of those labyrinthine streets. And I couldn’t shake myself out of that sleep.
- Early signs
Logically, the notion of early signs is nonsense. It’s both teleological and retrospective: those signifiers would not have signalled anything had things turned out differently. Still, there they were. For two years, The Man and I sleep in a guest room when I visit his house; after I depart, he returns to his own bedroom, to what Youngest Daughter calls Mum’s bed.
- The future
I loved The Man’s navel collecting lint, his personal, matted puffs of thistledown. With great deliberation — solemnity, even — he’d use his fingertip to mine the treasure. I loved how his white belly softened and domed just a little. Then he would present the fluffball to me, since he knew I might want to collect enough of it eventually to make a pillow.
- Taking my time
You could say that I don’t waste too much time on preamble, swooping from first flush to tension (exhilarating, intolerable) to expressed desire (better formulation than consent, even if wavering between ambivalent and enthusiastic). Perhaps now that there’s little time left, I’ll learn to slow it. It never occurred to me what taking time meant. Not duration, but stealth from the graveyard.
I want to learn from animals, impelled by the drive towards their own survival. I lean into creatureliness, sharing the house with a dog who doesn’t necessarily want to nestle into my body, but desires to keep me within his line of sight or smell. What keeps me from putting my little trough on the floor and slurping my soup with him?
- In retrospect
The present slipping, slipping by, and the past not only blurring out of focus, as though seen through a lens with a great thumbprint on it, but actually reconfiguring itself. Constantly. That’s what the term in retrospect means. Afterwards, you see things differently. Everything is about afterwards, says the narrator in Eimear McBride’s Strange Hotel. There’s death, disappearance, betrayal; then there’s afterwards.
- Photo stream
It is unnerving to be granted leave to see The Man’s naked body — its lunar whiteness — now that such permission is no longer mine to have. Does he ever look, I wonder, at my thighs with their blue filigree of veins under pressure of his fingers? He’ll have that on the memory stick I sent him after he was done with us.
Ruth Rosengarten is a writer, researcher and artist. Born in Israel, she lived in South Africa and Portugal before settling in England in 2002. She has published extensively in the field of art history, but has only recently forayed into other kinds of writing. In her studio, she makes collages and considers collage a good term to describe her writing practice. Her book Second Chance: My Life in Things will be published by Open Book later this year.