I write about the hunger for desire with a lover who is not a lover—for there is an intimacy between us that exceeds love—whose face I have never held between my hands. We write two kinds of reality that are does at the same time two kinds of fantasy, tangled like bodies in sheets. For a relationship that lacks corporeality, it is achingly physical in its thoughts, yet promises no romantic fantasies, often the undoing of such connections, nor does it offer a continuing presence. Its very nature is contradictory—perhaps that is why it continues to this day. To exist in such precariousness and the reality of absence, is to understand why we often mistakenly believe what is tangible to also be stable.
We have never met, yet pretend to be two characters—ourselves. I am XX, and he is XY. You know my name; his is unimportant. To be the person who happened to be in my life at the right time is enough. We write, knowing there is truth in that fantasy, that we are characters within characters, true to who we are, even though these are not sides of ourselves we have often shown to others. It has often made me think that who we write ourselves to be is sometimes more accurate than how we show ourselves, face to face. Starting from the inside, not only is there nowhere to hide, but you see with their eyes as well as your own. I was so broken when I started writing to him that seeing through his eyes was the only way I could see inside myself—just as the only way I could see myself externally was to take a photo, the physical image of my previously long-sick self a censor on my vision. Slowly I realised that there was a body, a woman still there amongst the wreckage of fragments, but that it was a puzzle: a strange leg, an angle of a cheekbone that did not exist before, a voice coming through on a page that was a distantly remembered me.
Tabula rasa. Except this time, I began to write myself in ways I understood. I saw an image shape itself and start to exist. For a long time, my existence lay in that white abyss of words, a sort of limbo before I emerged yet again—into a world of flesh and blood and voices I could hear, not just imagine, real though they were. Yet part of me still remains in the abyss even now.
We can write day in, day out, and never really know a person—only the story they choose to tell. That can be the absolute truth, complete in the way a chapter can be complete but is only a fragment of something larger. We wrote in those fragments: me, because I was scared that too much would have been seen as a flood; him, because like most people, there is a wariness—however kindly meant—in speaking to the abyss. I did not need to be wary since there was nothing else in my life. The only things left were hunger and instinct. It is said that when a person is starving, the other senses are heightened, become sharper. We have to think of something other than the ache to be able to continue.
Alya in Shklovksy’s Zoo: ‘You write about me—for yourself; I write about myself—for you’. Is the act of writing one of perpetual balance, to try and give as much as one receives; or do we slip, fingertips weighted by our need or the other’s? Perhaps the generosity of the abyss is that the whiteness of the screen is so blinding we cannot see whose need is greater—although we still feel it. The epistolary lover sees in a different way.
How I see and write of my appetites in the abyss helps me to understand them outside of it; therefore, I live twice. What I do not know is which is more real: what is inside or outside. Can we ever be unguarded enough to trust the sensation of freedom? Sometimes I have glimpses of what it feels like: ribbons that bind me tight—unwinding from my body slowly, falling away. I think they must be words, those ribbons.
When I thought only of my hunger, time seemed elastic, stretching interminably but still close—as if infinity were paradoxically finite, and I wandered its boundaries like someone imprisoned. Of course, that’s exactly what I was doing.
We have never met, he and I, but we speak with our fingertips almost every day, closer than most flesh-and-blood lovers. There is a freedom that shimmers like a mirage, knowing the other is there, but not there, anticipating but never expecting. Is there fantasy in this truth? There are fantasies—as to truth itself, what is that but another kind of fantasy? To not have to say anything means you can say everything, and the white space of a reply is as welcoming as the physical silences of breathing and listening. At the time, I lived in such overwhelming silence that to communicate in a different way seemed the most natural one by which someone could come to—and understand—me. If I breathed in the silence of the book-filled annexe where I lived on my own, then he appeared whenever I breathed out. It did not feel much different to talking to myself, and indeed I wondered at times whether I imagined XY, if he was an elaborate trick of a broken mind, sending messages to myself—the ultimate fantasy of the lonely.
Do you know the movie Dans la ville blanche? A sailor leaves his ship at Lisbon, driven almost mad by the people and routine. He wanders the streets, anonymous, and records what he sees in letters—not just for himself but for his lover back home. But he also has an affair with a local woman, and I have always wondered at the idea of escaping from oneself and living in a kind of liminality, despite being in a definite place: where writing, as you and I do in this white space, is his white city—tabula rasa again—where we can write and rewrite each other as we please, our fixed-place lives overlapping. Does this mean, unlike what Shklovksy’s Alya says, that we are both writing to each other for ourselves, as if I were actually another him, and he another version of me, conjured in the heat and light of this blank city where we have escaped from another place in order to discover ourselves, find each other. Or are we here in order to find a way back, and if so, to where, what, who?
Now, with a partner who loves me, how do I reconcile two hungers that lie side by side, complementing one another? How do I explain they are separate things that make you whole and not some sort of blind greed—eating because you only crave the taste of love and desire?
The problem with hunger is that while one person devours, it seems logical that another often starves.
How do you know what you feel is genuine hunger? It never occurred to me to let XY go, when there was someone ‘real’ to hold and talk to, because he was every bit as real. Instead, I told my partner of XY’s entry and place in my life—his importance. I was fortunate that the concept of isolation from others was not strange to him; had it, regardless of XY I would also have been alien to him. But it was, if not embraced, then understood in the way that truly, you can only hope to study a person while you accept that you may never know everything—that you cannot, at least in a manner that denotes possession. The best gift in any relationship is knowing it can disappear at any moment, or perhaps it is only to me. The truth of impermanence is itself a kind of security.
The problem with hunger is that while one person devours, it seems logical that another often starves. But we are not allowed to say that it is rare to be completely nourished by one lover. We mistake new hunger as the hunger that will satiate us for all time. Were it only enough! And then I remember stillness, contentment. To be content, must I only satisfy myself with a fraction of what I crave, knowing it is better for me, for us? The fears of monogamy centre around an other—the unseen, better, more tempting lover, the one who fulfils something we don’t have or never knew we wanted, a shadow to our partner’s light. How is it that we believe that we can exist only in light or darkness when we see how one complements the other? My other exists in the open, just in a form some may dismiss as too unreal to be a consideration. But the soul of hunger is intimacy, and there is no doubt it can exist without a body, every bit as strong as the heat of skin.
What is it we are saying when we say this person is my light, this one my shadow, both necessary parts of me? Sometimes I think monogamy is a constant running away from shadows, something we know is not possible unless we choose to exist only in extreme brightness or darkness. Shadow and light balance and centre who we are. Why would this not be true emotionally—sexually? I think of myself, XY, and my partner as planets and the sun. I did not seek out either one, but having found my balance with them, I would not choose one over the other, because they stand in equal importance in their relation to me.
Is this a betrayal of monogamy? It cannot be polyamory in the conventional sense: XY has no physical presence in my life, nor is he likely to, other than in friendly passing—the shadow meeting the body. There is no question of love that I know of, at least in how the word is used to represent most relationships. What thing is seen most as a threat to the stability of a relationship—is it sex, love, or intimacy? But I have open intimacies with many people in varying forms. Is the ultimate de-stability the one that imagines a future with another? I look at what is between us—with its deliberate constraints; Oulipian lust—and think of myself years ago, understanding how men saw me through my body, how little of it was actually me. There is another kind of examination now, with XY, and that is how I love, and what it is in people that allows me to open my intimacy to others. To study these things is to ask, what is it to love? We never really define it in terms outside of friends and partners, those poles of intimate acceptability. And yet there must be a place where I can have a kind of intimacy that allows sexual feelings, even if they are contradictorily devoid of body or any promise of fulfilment, and have that be enough. Where is my sexual stillness with others—will I ever be allowed it, or must I state for the world I will have it and only love those who understand that its stillness is different to the hunger they experience physically from me?
I now have a lover with what we like to call love; another without. One has a body—the other, one that is not mine to experience with the physical senses. A triangle missing a side is an angle: what is an angle here but the space where my different desires meet? Before the painting comes the sketch, before the curves, the angles. Before it all, the blank space: the canvas, the paper, the screen. What is any of this but the structuring—the origins—of desire?
I could not say I value one above the other, because I could not live, or at least —less melodramatically— I would live in difficulty without either. It is not a question of appreciating one more, because one complements the other. The simplicity lies in the unreality—the non-corporeality—of the first, although XY has an emotional effect on me, the same kind that resonates in my body as it does when I feel my partner against me. Would it be the same if both were real—physical—in the way we understand the ‘real’ and ‘physical’ relationship? It is both easy and impossible to speculate: on one hand, seduced by the idea of instinctively finding someone who reflects your essence. On the other, a self-doubt that what you desire will be an incompatible fantasy in the flesh. The only thing I know with certainty is that it would introduce a dynamic in which it becomes harder to be content, because they would then be the same side of a coin, rather than different. But in such hypotheticals lie both happiness and the end of everything, and I know that to dissect them in the hope of finding an answer—the answer—is a kind of madness.
The women of glossy lifestyle blogs and wealth have skin untouched by life—touched instead by the needles, lasers, time, and money that maintain them as naiads, forever fresh and desirable—the only women beyond the cusp who exist.
One exists within a more standard definition of love; the other in an intimacy that is as comforting as love. Maybe it is that one is greedy—I acknowledge greed here as others would understand it—and risks starving in trying to devour everything. But then I think it could be as simple as recognising what nourishes you and accepting it; never seeing too far into the emotional future, but enjoying and appreciating it while you have it. Perhaps the simplicity is what we fight against, as if we refuse to believe that intimacy, desire, and love are as uncomplicated as we wish them to be—that greed is only curiosity and a desire to have the knowledge of desire; there is almost no-one that I would not want to learn the taste of. But complexity of self is also a simplicity that must be accepted, perhaps first and foremost. I spent so long trying to find an answer to intimate happiness with one person that when it fell apart and I had nothing at all, not even the promise of someone. I took pleasure from the smallest of things—being warm on a cold day, moss on a brick wall, the smell of air at night. I decided to do the same if I would be so lucky to have people and love in my life again. But I knew the only chance I had of it was if someone saw me with all my complexities and chose to see it as normal; beyond that, desirable.
I emerged from the coma of my 15-year marriage-relationship without identity, at the other end of desirability, at an age where the world erases most women. At 40 we are at the cusp of useful desire, to be lost in motherhood, wifely duty, or a single status that is still translated on forms as spinster. When we start to settle into the skin of our lives, hunger is thought to have left us; at least the anonymous woman on the street. The women of glossy lifestyle blogs and wealth have skin untouched by life—touched instead by the needles, lasers, time, and money that maintain them as naiads, forever fresh and desirable—the only women beyond the cusp who exist.
I have often wondered what it means, those words on women’s lips: having it all. A hunger, to be certain—but is it one of possession or perspective? In theory, you will never have to be hungry, for all is satisfied, and we will live in a state of permanent satiety and happiness. It cannot be stillness, for having it all is not a restful state—it is intensely active and forcefully happy. And I think, I do not want all, because I want to always know what it is like to hunger, even when it makes my body ache to the depths. Stillness and pain. The masochism of such a desire surprises me.
I like to re-imagine Jean Rhys’ women—if instead of uncertainty at the end of their stories, they were given every security: no more fleeting lovers attached to occasional cheques, husbands disappeared to prison or elsewhere, shadowy fair-weather friends. Would they be content in the ability to spend, knowing it was no longer a gamble—happy to drift from café to café, the taste of fine burning on their tongues? And I think the answer would be no, that still they would be seeking a discontentment or difficulty to jolt them into life; that having it all is sometimes the same as having nothing in its monotony. One is coloured, the other grey, but both relentless, exhausting. If Rhys’ women feel perpetually balanced on an uncertain cusp, it is because life is where you feel the cut.
Mouth in Beckett’s Not I: why is it I always think of her? ‘… she did not know … what position she was in … imagine!’ In the darkness, the story that could not be told in the light; in the darkness, without a body.
Tomoé Hill is a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s]. Her essays can be found in in Lapsus Lima, Empty Mirror, Berfrois, 3:AM, and Numéro Cinq, as well as the anthologies We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater Books) and Azimuth (the Sonic Art Research Unit, Oxford Brookes). She is co-editor (with Andrew Gallix and C.D. Rose) of Love Bites: Fiction inspired by Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks (Dostoyevsky Wannabe). You can find her on Twitter @CuriosoTheGreat
Art by Yanina Spizzirri.