What Is Love

What Is Love

Twenty years ago, they were madly in love. She loved him so much that she left her long-term boyfriend for him and moved to a different city, to live with him. Now there was nothing left from that love, which made her wonder how it happened. As she was an academic, she decided to investigate it as if it was a research problem, the way she was filling grant applications. One had to answer questions ‘what?’, ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ The first task was to provide a definition of love.

She concluded that for her, love happened, when one did something for another person not because they would pay her back, but because she wanted the best for them. She did not even mind if in the process she hurt herself. This is how their love began. She sacrificed a lot for him, but she didn’t care, it even gave her pleasure.  She was sure that he would sacrifice as much for her if  needed. There were other aspects of love, such as physical attraction, shared interests and mutual admiration. At the beginning, they ticked all these boxes. For example, there was so much more to their lovemaking than sex and even simple physical contact, like touching each other’s hand, made her shiver with excitement and tenderness.

And then he started to lose interest in what supposedly was of interest to both of them. He would stop in the middle of a film they were watching saying it was boring or that he was tired and she had to finish it by herself or, more often, switch it off. They ceased visiting art galleries in a nearby town as he admitted he was no longer into art. He confessed that the music she played on her computer was not to his taste and he got into the habit of putting on headphones to listen to his favourite radio station. This also gave him an excuse to ignore what she was saying by preventing her from saying it in the first place, there is no point talking to a person with their headphones plugged in their ears. The next step for him was to ignore her even when he had no headphones, even when she was asking him a question. Usually after asking twice, she stopped, thinking that these questions weren’t really important or she could find the answers from somewhere else. Sometimes, however, she challenged him, asking him why he was ignoring her. His answer was that he did not hear her or even that she hadn’t asked any questions – she had perhaps thought she had asked. As usually there were no witnesses, she had no way to prove she was right. And so there was less and less to talk about and every utterance started to sound like an intrusion. Their conversations became very factual: when? what? why? They even took pride in the economy of their exchanges and the respect granted to each partner’s privacy. The downside was that they lost touch with each other’s lives and most of their knowledge about each other came from conversations with a third person, when they had guests or were paying somebody a visit. In this way, she found out that the team he was leading at work was reduced from over thirty people to seven and he learnt that she had became the head of an institute. However, as the gap in their knowledge about each other grew, it became difficult to have visitors as they easily noticed the disconnect between them.  Their social lives became separate and rather limited. After work, he would occasionally go to a pub with the people from his work and once a year visited friends who lived in a different part of the country. She socialised mostly during her business trips and through the internet. In her e-mails, she focused on children rather than her husband, which was only natural. Her friends and relatives with children did the same.

Limited communication was coupled with limited interaction. He wouldn’t do anything for her unless he absolutely had to. When she asked him to pick her up from the airport while returning from an official trip, he pointed to the availability of taxis. Around the same time, she discovered that she got on his nerves. He had a problem with having to deal with her niggling troubles,  like her habit of catching a cold. Indeed, she often caught colds that confined her to the bed for days, invariably a bout of coughing would follow that sometimes lasted for weeks. He told her that he could not sleep with her coughing so loudly, so she moved to their spare room for the duration of her illnesses. He also disapproved of them sleeping under a warm quilt in winter, finding it suffocating.  He was someone who could clear the snow in a t-shirt and shorts. For some years, she tried to survive under a thin quilt, but it resulted in her suffering from colds practically all the way from October until March and so one year she moved to the spare room for the whole winter. He took it as a sign of both her lack of discipline and her sexual frigidity. By this time, every sentence he directed to her was filled with exasperation, as if he wanted to tell her: ‘Cannot you see how much it costs me to put up with you?’ Indeed, he did not even need to talk. It was enough for him to sigh. When he returned home from work, he immediately started to take a deep breath and release the air so loudly that she could hear his sigh upstairs. The trail of his sighs was a trail of her misdemeanours. It usually started in the kitchen, where the cooker was always dirty from some over boiled food (she cooked everything on the highest temperature) and finished in the spare room, where he discovered the most offending items, such as a large pile of women’s magazines and a small pile of painkillers, not mentioning the thick quilt on a permanently unmade bed. He did not know that she was also using anti-depressants, but these she never showed to him – they were hidden in the depth of her handbag. She knew that it was best to keep this trail of disgrace intact, because this provided him with a certain routine at home, which gave him a sense of security. By contrast, he got frustrated when his trail was broken, for example, when he found their kitchen spotless or instead of the women’s magazines there was Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ on her bedside table. On such occasions, he marched  through the house like a hungry lion in a  cage, impatiently waiting for its dinner meat.

A moment came when there seemed no point to pretend that the old love was still there, only clouded or polluted. It was annihilated, full stop. He did not love her anymore and she reciprocated with unloving him. She decided that there were two ways to solve their predicament. One was to leave him. This would mean accepting that her heart was broken but avoiding it being broken every day, 24/7. The second solution was to put up with it. She chose the second option. Why?  Partly because the death of their love was not spectacular, but gradual, like a prolonged illness, to which one has time to get used. She also convinced herself that love was a luxury; other things were more important, like paying off the mortgage and ensuring that their children lived with both parents, at least till they were ready to fly the nest. After all, if love was a basic human right, Amnesty International would devote part of its magazine to the plight of the unloved. Instead, it only published stories of imprisonment and torture. Slow unlove was even avoided in women’s magazines, which preferred to publish stories of love or love properly finished by extramarital affairs, divorces  and moving on (to a new love).

However, living with an unravelled love day after day was not straightforward. She had to build for herself a place in which she could find solace. It was a virtual place, and like a spare room she made it into her own room, it was an eclectic and seemingly disorganised place, filled with fragments: images, memories, words. Kitsch ruled there, not because she was particularly keen of kitsch, far from that, but because it was a perfect ignition, allowing her to move swiftly to some deeper (un)reality, where no images, memories or words were needed, one that helped her to float in the immaterial ocean of peace, which was as close to happiness, as she could get in her circumstances. Such a role fulfilled old disco songs, especially Haddaway’s ‘What Is Love’.When she arrived at work, cold and miserable not only from her daily injection of unlove, but also the dark winter and long commute, she sat at her desk, closed her eyes and allowed the energetic music to play in her head and soon she found herself in her shapeless nirvana, where she was not even a full person, but a bundle of pleasant sensations.  However, it was not easy to hold a grip on the real world while dwelling in a dream world because the real, being so cold and unjust, kept pushing her away. She felt most lonely among her children, because in front of them, she had to pretend that she and their dad were happy together and there were days when even Haddaway could not guide her to happiness. During such days she cried and prayed that her suffering would soon be over, brought on by terminal cancer or a car accident. Unfortunately, her numerous pains and colds did not translate into any more substantial illnesses and she was a very careful driver.

Throughout most of the years of their unlove she believed it was possible for them to make the return journey; regain the old love bit by bit or at least salvage something from what they had at the beginning. The truth was that they tried several times, usually on her initiative. On such occasions, she made certain rules for them, which they both were meant to obey, like focusing on the little they still had in common and simultaneously looking for something which might be added to this short list of shared properties. He promised to stop wearing headphones at home and answer all her questions. She agreed to wear warm pyjamas in winter, so there was no need for them to use a thick quilt, and promised to cook soup on a lower temperature as soon as it started simmering. They made plans to see exhibitions and go to concerts. But their attempts did not work. Old habits kicked in. He discovered that he had an important document to prepare over the weekend which left no time for visiting a gallery. Plus the old exasperation resurfaced in his voice the day after they promised each other patience and respect.

The last time they tried to recapture the missing love was after she had an affair. She did not plan to have any lovers as she believed that only monogamy was compatible with love as she understood it. But life took her by surprise; she met her lover in a hotel, on one of her business trips and he proved irresistible. They went to bed the same day and after that she started to visit him every six weeks or so in his summer house on Bodensee. Although he came from a country not particularly known for advancing the feminist cause, he seemed to have a natural affinity for women. He liked doing things for her, like cooking, making coffee and finding music she might enjoy. He liked the way she talked, maybe on account of her foreign accent. She liked his perfect body when in the morning he sat on a chair naked except for his boxer shorts and Swiss watch. She was thinking that in her country, men of this kind did not exist or maybe they all immigrated to Hollywood. But most of all she liked the fact that he seemed to like the way she was. She expected it would not last, but for time being, being with her lover was even better than dwelling in her dream world. And then he told her that he wanted them to be properly together, day after day, so she split with him as she knew what would be the most likely outcome, if she agreed to his proposal. Although she was convinced that she made the right decision, her heart was bleeding. She was crying more than before and had to go to the doctor to get stronger anti-depressants.

She did not tell her husband about her affair, not so much because she wanted to hide this fact from him, but because by this point they stopped discussing any intimacies. But he must have felt that she had found a way out of her predicament because he suddenly changed tack. He stopped sighing and proposed that in spring they go on a holiday together, without the children. Besides, by this point there were no children to go with them, as their youngest had moved out of the house several months earlier.

They went to a resort, of the sort with a blue sky, sandy beach and free drinks. The following day after their arrival, he proposed that they go for a walk in the sunset and took her hand. It was a shock for her, as by this point she’d forgotten his touch and it triggered the memory of the walks with her lover. She could not stand it and gently pulled her hand out of his grip and put it in the pocket of her shorts. After that there was no more evening walks. But apart from this episode, it was a good holiday, largely on the account of the drinks and the sea. She never swam so much since her teenage years. Every day she swam further and further, leaving him on the beach, looking after their possessions and then she took over, freeing him to swim too. The last day before their return, she was sad at the thought of returning home and after lunch, unusually for her, she drank three  cocktails. Then she went for her usual swim. After some time she noticed that she had lost some of her strength and the shore was far away and it would require an extra effort to make it to the beach. Normally there were some boats to patrol the coast, but on this occasion she could not see them. She changed her position, moving onto her back, but the result was that she lost sense of direction and swam away from the shore. She changed again, but in the process drank some salty water when a big wave came at her. It made her very weak and she realised that she would drown. And then she noticed somebody swimming towards her. Was it him?