So profoundly Other.Posted: July 16, 2014
This is my sister Clare holding a picture of our parents on their wedding day.
When I was growing up, my parents’ social lives revolved within a small bubble of Lebanon Valley College where my Dad taught religion. Their friends were faculty couples. I observed them and observed my Dad observing them. Once he privately remarked how uncomfortable it made him to watch them snipe at each other at social functions, a discomfort I absorbed. But now that I’m older, I see a more subtle form of it: members of a couple anticipating each other’s contribution to the conversation, finishing it for them, cutting each other off, policing each other. It’s a form of ownership: the assumption that they know each other. The assumption that they can.
I’m not sure what intimacy is. But whatever it is, I don’t believe it’s a function of time. My Dad says that the longer he was married to Mom, the more he realized how profoundly Other she was. That as much as he loved her, he could not possibly know her—why she liked the things she liked, or did the things she did, or said the things she said. I guess that may seem like a desolate concept, but to me, it feels liberating. We don’t have to know each other! We just get to let each other be.
Recently an actor friend and I had an intense conversation about Romeo and Juliet. He’d first read it in ninth grade, like I had, and the teacher had posed the same question: “Was it really Love?” And in both cases, the whole jaded classroom of fourteen-year-olds had said no, no, not possible. They’d only known each other for a week. They were too young. It was just a crush.
But we both thought it was real love. I still do.
What are love and intimacy a function of, then, if not time? Sometimes I think it’s a function of presence. Romeo and Juliet experienced radical present-ness, and just didn’t live long enough to keep practicing it. Lately I keep being reminded of how hard it is to be present to a person, in front of me, changing in time and space and fundamentally unknowable, instead of merely reacting to the construct of them I have in my head.
But somehow, that practice seems like the key to everything else.