The host had the sort of mother who let him have parties midweek. That night, we sat in a collection of concrete rooms that led off the garage. There was a sound system and a net of fairy lights above the sitting area that brought out the warmth of the faux-wood floor. I sat on one of the couches (burnt, flayed, pen-tattooed), dizzy with cask wine and cigarettes I was not yet used to smoking. A roller door opened onto the lawn and the wind wafted in, threatening to launch us onto the night like a pontoon.
My friends were talking final grades.
“Simo got 99.7,” one said.
I was not unproud. The grade would get me into Combined Law at Sydney University, which everyone said was the most competitive course in Australia. I was comfortable in that conversation, though I wanted to talk with the more intimidating guests. I had met most of them when they were in high school, but now that they went to the College of Fine Arts, they moved with the aloof assurance of young Rauschenbergs. At happenings, they covered one another in paint and fucked and filmed it to screen at their next show, advertised in hand-painted images on the back of condoms distributed via cut-glass bowl. Meanwhile, I didn’t even know who Warhol was.
A few hours later, I found myself next to a boy called Jules. Smoke trickled out of the corner of his mouth, like he was too disaffected to exhale. Until a year earlier, he had been a religious, fat-faced guy who was kind to drunk girls, and in a long-term relationship. The trauma of his girlfriend breaking up with him, along with art school, had made him edgy. Now he was rock-star skeletal and a militantly agnostic painter. He read philosophy and angsted around in tight jeans. My own jeans were bootcut.
Jules cocked his head toward the pool and asked me if I wanted to swim.
At the poolside, I stripped to my bra and thong. I had put on weight that year, but Jules’s eyes flicked over my body in approval.
He did a girlish breaststroke across the pool and asked, “What is art?”
“Isn’t it, like, the ability to make people feel?”
“That’s the popular opinion.”
By the time we were out, the party had emptied. Wrapped in a towel, I hung in the garage while Jules unpacked the scabrous couch. I was afraid that if I moved, I’d scare him away. Ethnic, and, until recently, breast-less, no boy had ever wanted to fool around with me before. But tonight, life had finally thrown me a bone.
Jules pushed me back onto the bed and kissed me. He is kissing me with his whole body, I thought, although the term is dry fucking. It was unbearable, that full-body itch, that whole self leaning out toward another. Jules massaged my back and got me naked, fast. He put my hands on his ass like he wanted me to squeeze, but I was shy and dropped them to my sides.
He cupped my face: “You complete me.”
I had not watched many movies growing up and didn’t recognize this line from Jerry Maguire. The sentence struck me as weirdly intense, but beautiful.
Jules took advantage of my shock to go down on me. After a while he stopped.
I laid my head on his chest and murmured, “I wish we could have sex.”
“I don’t have a condom. But you could do something for me.”
I told him I didn’t feel comfortable doing that with someone I wasn’t dating. The truth was, I didn’t know how.
“I’m not looking for a girlfriend at the moment,” he said.
He stroked my stomach and let the silence build. I was in a bind. I couldn’t let him down, not when he’d gone to the effort of getting hard on my behalf.
“Can you teach me?”
Jules blinked, surprised. Then, in a schoolmaster’s tone, he showed me how to grip his shaft and hold his balls with the other hand, to cover my teeth with my lips, the proper lock of the jaw. He wanted me to rub my breasts on him while I moved, but they weren’t big enough to reach, and he said okay. By the time he came, I was shaking.
Some display of tenderness felt appropriate, so I pulled the sheet over him. He kicked it off in irritation. I watched him sleep in the queasy half-darkness. Outside, kookaburra voices shook like full-throated bags of worry. I’d expected some warmth, maybe cuddling, but it was clear that I wasn’t wanted. I left without waking him.
▴ ▴ ▴
In A Treatise on Lovesickness (1610), a discussion of erotic melancholy, Jacques Ferrand describes how the image of the beloved physically incises itself into the lover’s brain. I had no idea, that cold suburban morning, that all it took was one exposure. My mum grounded me when I got home because I’d been expected at midnight. I didn’t care: I had sucked a dick. I held this delicious fact to myself as I drifted to sleep.
At first, Jules was just a way to brag. A long-anticipated sexploit that I related to friends, brothers, cousins. I resisted describing his perineum to my cat.
My smoking buddy down the street whistled. “Hot Jesus? Hot damn. Are you seeing him again?”
“There wasn’t much chemistry,” I said, although I didn’t believe it. It was only a matter of time before I saw Jules again, so I could pretend indifference.
In the months after the party, I offloaded my virginity to another boy. It didn’t seem anywhere near as important as that night I’d had with Jules. I slept with the new boy and told him in the morning that I didn’t want to see him again.
I dwelled on Jules: his painter hands, the bedsheet stretched white like a canvas. I distilled that night into freeze-frames and rifled through them with painful pleasure. Jules treading water, Jules with fingers loose around a beer neck, Jules turned away, asleep in the half-light. The attraction was unexpected. I’d always preferred muscular blond guys, and Jules was anemic, like Helena Bonham-Carter or Winona Ryder, or some other broad-cheeked, Tim-Burton waif. But then, that made him rare, un-Australian. Unsuited to the elements, like a delicate consumptive. These memories made me double up in humiliation, just as they were strangely exciting. My bootcut jeans! The blowjob lesson! What an honest moment, though, sketched in chlorine and sweat. You complete me. Who could have come up with such a thing? Surely, a genius.
▴ ▴ ▴
A few months after Jules and I had hooked up, I was at Tess’s house. Tess went to my high school and was a family friend of Jules’s. Over the summer, she told me, Jules had acquired an art-school girlfriend called Harley. I felt sick. He had been looking for a girlfriend, then. He just hadn’t wanted me for one.
Tess dropped another showstopper. Jules had been canvassed for modeling. Until then, I hadn’t thought of him as unusually good-looking, but as I looked at his web page, I saw proportions. His cheekbones were seven times broader than his slim nose. Dark brows rested over gray-green eyes. Gray—no graphite, no obsidian, no thunderclouds, no, no, more hazel, hazel-gray? His mouth was a lick, a wound, a Dorian-Gray-like twist of knowing pinkness, imprisoned beneath a head of Byronic curl. I was undone. In the words of Lacan, it is not every day that we encounter the image of our desire.
▴ ▴ ▴
For the last two years of high school I had longed to begin Combined Law, believing that I would find it packed with Raskolnikovs and bohemians of the Latin Quarter. Instead, when I arrived in March 2006, I met two hundred class-presidents-cum-debating-champions, made bold in a garden of nerdly delights. Though nerd is not the right term. Nerds care about ideas. These people just aired racy judicial opinion in beer cafés. They over-punned. They quoted The West Wing. Even the girls mansplained. They were white-washed, middle-class strivers, making awkward love to their milieu.
And law? It was watered-down ethics with more rote learning. Why had I worked so hard to get here? I started taking a water bottle of vodka to class. I stopped listening in lectures, preferring to sketch Jules instead. I hadn’t seen him in the months since our hookup, but as my peers sank in my estimation, he became more resplendent. From social media I learned that he was now a minor celebrity. I saw him on FashionTV and Australia’s Next Top Model, on billboards, and in Vogue. I replaced my law readings with the works of Jules’s favorite philosophers—Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Heidegger—all culled from his Myspace page. I took feverish public notes on the Critiques. I giggled at Nietzsche. With lapidary attention, I studded the inside of my mind with ideas and epigrams, schools and facts, until it sparkled like a new-formed geode. I credited him with giving me these gems of thought, these Jules.
My thinking was, if I wasn’t beautiful enough to be loved, then I could at least embody a desire so immense as to prove that mine was a higher consciousness. I cast myself a being as becoming. Not an in-itself, but a for-itself. I didn’t blink when I failed my first semester and lost my scholarship. I wore ripped fishnets and heavy boots: they had to make a sound when I walked. I was an announcement.
▴ ▴ ▴
It is hard to make sense of who I then became, because I remember the girl as a compression of many destructive moments, all rolled into one. She dodges classes to sleep rolled up in a carpet, like a giant worm. No one understands her; she is a very special worm. She smokes so much that she develops an often pre-cancerous lining of the mouth called leukoplakia. Her parents tell her to stop smoking in her room. She tells them to go to hell. They tell her they’ll throw her out of the house. She says she’ll turn tricks and describes these acts in sickening detail. She stalks the suburbs at night, hoping to be hurt.
She ambles around campus in thrift-store clothes: sack dresses, vintage tees, power suits, hats that don’t suit. Her eyes are encircled in so much black sharpie that from a distance they resemble two dark dabs in a melting face. To look like a cutter, she bands her wrists with scarves, watches, and bracelets. She aspires to what Dostoyevsky calls “the brain fever.” Make eye contact and she’ll open her eyes wide to let you know she’s in on the cosmic joke. As she walks, she considers herself from different angles. She tries to hallucinate text onto her field of vision, to annotate the world. She soft stalks the (exhibitionist) Harley to glean her inadequacies: photoshopped stencil art, bad spelling, an overreliance on the word rad.
Her body withers. She runs endlessly. She soaks her running shoes in water and yanks the laces tight, so that her feet blister and bleed. It pitches her into a low-grade masochistic trance. She doesn’t eat for two days, then eats a kilo of chocolate and vomits it up. She wants her body to be as acute as her mind. She wants her body to say, This chick is in pain. She has cheekbones. She loses thirty pounds, but still wants to kill her amorphous thighs and carve her ordure into clean angular plots. People tell her she has the same chewed-up-and-spat-out look of Amy Winehouse, but fuck your unimaginative comparison, she’s more like Sade’s Juliette.
In synchrony, she: collapses at a party, vomits in a washing machine, fucks a toothless gardener at the law ball. She hand-jobs a 7-Eleven employee, then steals a packet of cigarettes and a 2L Coke on the way out, delighted to have technically sold herself. She fancies herself an überwench, literally squatting overman. She walks up to strangers and kisses them point blank. This always works, though that says more about boys at that age than her particular appeal. She gives skillful head in alleys, to correct her wide-eyed garage night. Never again will she be humiliated by a lack of experience. She gets experience in her hair. She swallows. If a boy tries to pleasure her, she feels nothing. And once it’s over, she’s out.
▴ ▴ ▴
This next part I understand least of all. Sydney University has a fairy-tale quad of scotch-colored sandstone and fluorescent grass swept with jacaranda flowers that milk underfoot. One afternoon, at the start of my second semester, I took some painkillers and met a poet friend in the quad. She watched me drink a bottle of gin and wax lyrical about Jules. I passed out and she called the ambulance. The crew found me unresponsive, with an erratic pulse.
I woke up in the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. A nurse asked me why I’d tried to kill myself.
I told her I was in love. She seemed unsympathetic, so I called her a cunt and started to weep. “Why are you so cruel?” I wailed.
When I came to, I was in the intensive care unit.
I had accompanied my physician mother to the Prince Alfred on countless visits, so I felt oriented. I pulled the IV out of my arm and fled without my discharge papers. The writer in me can appreciate the comedic sequence through which I got lost in the burns and trauma ward. When I arrived home at three a.m., my mum took one look at my hospital bracelet and informed me that I was going to see a therapist.
▴ ▴ ▴
Once a week, my mum dropped me off at Dr. Schoen’s office in a shady cul-de-sac leavened with bursting elm roots. My father was not to know about these visits, because he thought therapists were for crazies. Inside the office were two leather chairs, a footstool with a box of tissues, a fireplace, and a stained-glass window I looked out when I didn’t want to make eye contact. Above the desk was a crude tapestry of a village, made from llama hair.
I hated Dr. Schoen. She looked like Oscar Wilde mated with a cow: beneath her fringe sat a bovine brace of white chompers. She looked at me with empty absorbent eyes and prescribed me antidepressants that didn’t work. She tried to trap me into confessing to a weed habit I did not have because she thought all depressed young people smoked it. (Weed made me anxious and I’d only smoked it once). She also believed that no one under the age of twenty-five should have access to philosophy, because serious thought induced depression.
One morning she said, “Tell me more about your cruelty to men.”
I had doubts about what good could come of talking to a woman with anti-intellectual tendencies, but I told her about the Irish guy I’d dated a few times and then told I was dying of a terminal illness, before leaping on a departing train and ignoring his worried calls. I told her how on the weekend, I’d slept with a guy and then convinced him that although I looked female, I was biologically male.
“And did he believe you?”
“In the end. He started crying. Total homophobe.”
It felt good to fuck with people, I said. Dr. Schoen had a lot of questions about that. I told her that it was hard to respect the opinion of a woman with bad taste in wall art.
“I’m beginning to note this cruelty.”
▴ ▴ ▴
A year after our garage hookup, my avenues to Jules had almost closed. Tess didn’t hang out with him anymore. Anna was a better bet, but she’d also made new art school friends. I kept up the friendship with her in the hope that I would be invited to one of her infrequent parties, where Jules might be.
After months of trying to pin her down, Anna agreed to hang out. We met at the Killara train station, a tree-shrouded platform that cost the council more in gardening fees than it generated in revenue.
We drank wine and smoked in the bus shelter. Anna mentioned that Harley had dumped Jules. “The thing is, Harley was sleeping with Pat the whole time,” she said.
Pat was Anna’s ex-boyfriend.
She went on. The weekend before, Jules had hosted a party. At the end of the night, Jules had asked Anna into his room. They’d had sex.
“How was it?” I asked, casually.
“I didn’t want to.”
“You didn’t want to?” Too incredulous. “You mean, he took advantage?”
“It kind of messed me up.” Anna scratched a small stick back and forth on the concrete. “He did this one thing, though, that made me think that there was something between us. I mean, we had sex for a while, until I wanted to stop. Then he sat on his chair, naked, with this bottle of wine, and his—you know.” She mimed a thick erection. “On his wall was a painting of Harley, all twisted-up and evil-looking. She was holding this platter with his severed head on it. I started to say that I was uncomfortable. I mean, he was way too hot to sleep with me. Then he said, Hey. He took my face in his hands and said,” Anna’s expression became beatific, and when she spoke, I could almost hear his voice, “You’re good enough for this.”
▴ ▴ ▴
I am not proud of my reaction to Anna’s story. I didn’t comfort her, condemn Jules, or think that her situation was anything less than enviable. That speaks to how obsessed I was, or perhaps, my acceptance of how interactions with men so often go. Whatever the case, I didn’t care that Jules had pressured Anna into sex, only that he might like her. You’re good enough for this, he’d said. I tried to spin the line as pure manipulation on his part, whereas the line he’d fed me evinced some deep feeling, perhaps a feeling for me that he had, at the time, been too scared to acknowledge?
Still, I was upset. The next week, I told Dr. Schoen.
“So, your friend was assaulted,” she said.
“That’s not the point. I bet he has, like, three lines. It’s disappointing.” I looked out the stained-glass window. “At least I got, You complete me. Frankly, her line was insulting.”
I had told Dr. Schoen about the You complete me in an earlier session. She had called it “one hell of a sentence.” We must have been the only two people in the world who hadn’t seen Jerry Maguire.
“Go on,” she said.
“He’s just some garden-variety dude then. An average-minded guy with some game, who likes to fuck. That can’t be right.”
▴ ▴ ▴
So many years later, it is hard for me to remember how all-consuming infatuation can feel. In the time that has elapsed, though, I’ve shifted my obsession with Jules into an obsession with understanding romantic obsession. One explanation I’ve found for it is incompetence. Stalking usually occurs between individuals of different statuses, and often between young people, who have not always learned to assess their comparative social worth.
Sometimes, a status-discrepancy can be the point. Many teens crush on inaccessible targets, who let them have the emotional experience of romance without the threat of a relationship. Things get dangerous when a lover links dating the beloved with a higher-order goal, such as attaining self-worth; the would-be lover then feels that they cannot abandon their target. They can ruminate and rationalize their escalating behavior. They can move from the plea, Love me! to the grim addendum, Or else.
▴ ▴ ▴
A couple of weeks after Anna had told me she’d slept with Jules, I saw him again. Anna had invited me to a seventies night at Club 77. I was excited. By now, I was all bones, which made me look wonderfully put-upon. Before leaving the house, I wrote salient quotations up my arms in ink; my body was a text, wrapped in a comforting fiction. I shaved a square section from my hair and painted the scalp white. This mini-canvas referenced the bed in the garage (where I had been a blank canvas sexually), was an invitation for Jules to impress his artistic vision upon me and reflected his being a surface onto which I projected. A joke. For my love.
At the club, I scanned the room. Jules was by the bar, in a tennis outfit. When he saw me, I was talking to some girl, and he came over. I acted like I hadn’t seen him. After a minute, he walked away. That night, he initiated conversation a few times, but I was too scared to give more than one-word answers. I hated myself, but I couldn’t do otherwise. When I was outside, late in the night, I asked him to roll me a cigarette. While he did, I talked to someone else, made a forbidding comment about how stupid everyone was, wandered off, and made out with some guy.
The next week, I explained this to Dr. Schoen. Her eyes popped. “You hooked with another guy right in front of him?”
“It’s an interesting expression. Hooking. Hooking hurts, right? Anyway, you go to all this effort, and then ignore him?”
I explained that conversation was a lesser semiotic system. I wanted my aesthetic to communicate my worth.
“And did it?”
“We didn’t talk for long. He didn’t seem like himself. I figure I’m not used to seeing him in three dimensions.”
“Or maybe he thinks that when a girl doesn’t talk to him, she’s not interested.”
I hated Dr. Schoen’s aspersions on my sanity, because my plan to win Jules over felt logical. I didn’t want our relationship to unfold along prosaic lines. I imagined that someday we would run into each other on the street, and that I would, through a series of mysterious and allusive comments, make an impression on him. He would realize how mistaken he had been in his initial assessment.
In preparation for this moment, I had spent a year acculturating myself. I made a listening regimen and learned the guitar. I worked my way through avant-garde films. I took up painting. To my parents’ horror, I painted my room black and stuck up work by Jules’s favorite artists—Munch, Warhol, Gauguin, Degas. I built my taste like a shanty town, probing these artist’s forebears and followers and erecting their dwellings one on top of the other. I broke down my mind’s places and built my love a shrine. My room was a reliquary. Like a hyper-aesthetic bowerbird, I populated my nest with silver egg cups, animal skeletons, candles lifted from churches, incense burners, antique cigarette cases. These objects, I felt, exerted a talismanic power that would bring Jules to me. I read for up to twelve hours a day. Petrarch had his Laura, Dante his Beatrice, Stendhal his Métilde. I believed that my immense capacity for love proved that I had a similarly artistic sensibility. Obsession was an artistic apprenticeship, love-pain was the craft entering my body. And Jules, like technical mastery, was a prize that would come to me at last.
▴ ▴ ▴
The morning after Club 77, I realized, with horror, that it had been a year and a half since I’d hooked up with Jules. I decided to escalate my efforts by responding to the texts of Jules’s friend, Mitchell Musgrave. I had met him through Anna, and he’d been pursuing me ever since.
Mitchell Musgrave had features as wildly Dickensian as his name: fantastically blue eyes, a hook nose, and the physique of a gnome. The wisdom was that Mitch was a genius, an impression heightened by the bipolarity that had led him to drop out of school and check in to an asylum at sixteen. This defection was apparently why he was working, five years later, in an Apple retail store (albeit at the Genius Bar). Mitch was also Jules’s housemate. The two lived in an apartment in the Newtown art hub.
Mitch was funny, although he directed his humor in a fecal spray at those around him. He dressed like a goth and swore a lot. He ran commentary on the looks of every girl he saw—especially if they were “jail bait”—and always let me know how I stood in relation to them. He once claimed to “put the sensual in non-consensual.” He talked about jizzing in faces, anal, and deep-throating with assaultive frequency. In his mind, this was all harmless kink, and anyone who wasn’t kinky was boring.
I started to hang out with Mitch, and on occasion I would let him hook up with me. It was worth it because I got inside Jules’s apartment, where I could see his framed drawings and sit on his couch. I once left the beginning of a story I’d written on the balcony. Another time, I slotted a composite of quotations into a self-illustrated copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The next time I went to Mitch’s I found the book on the ground, but I had no way to know who’d moved it.
Jules was never there. Mitch once mentioned his roommate as possessing an Orphic ability to send women out of their minds. He had no idea that I even knew Jules.
“I don’t mean to toot his horn,” said Mitch, “but it’s obscene. We’ll walk into a club and five minutes later, the hottest girl in the room will be pulling him out the door.”
A couple of months into our cat-and-mouse game, Mitch and I started up a ritual. On the first Saturday of every month, we’d play dawn-till-dusk laser tag. After these sessions, we’d go back to his apartment, where I’d try to dodge his advances until Jules came home. After six months of Jules not showing up—and a full two years after that night in the garage—I was finally rewarded.
Mitch and I got to the apartment. Jules was home, because his bedroom door was closed. I told Mitch I was tired, and he left me on a mattress on the living room floor. I lay there, too scared to move. I was thirty pounds thinner. In a modish headband and leg warmers, I looked appreciably alternative. Should I sit outside on the balcony and smoke, so that Jules could spy me through the glass door, writing? But then maybe he wouldn’t say hello. I stayed put.
A couple of hours later, Jules’s door cracked. He came out fully dressed and holding a portable speaker. He spotted me on the mattress.
“How was laser tag?”
“Extreme,” I said.
He held out his free hand. “I don’t think we’ve met. My name is Jules.”
▴ ▴ ▴
Science has yet to help me understand the way I felt about Jules. In the initial years after my recovery, I understood my love through the metaphor of illness. It’s a well-worn trope. The Arab Bedouins, in the amor hereos tradition, likened amour to insanity. The melancholy, the rapture, the moods. According to scientist Frank Tallis, lovers are superstitious, and their hoarding, sensitivity to symbol, and belief that they can will their lovers to think of them, deploy the same thought-action fusion characterizing OCD. Freud called love a socially-sanctioned neurosis.
But the psychiatrist who really brings the two together is Dorothy Tennov. She describes limerence, a state of romantic obsession typified by anxiety, intrusive thoughts, idealization, and a mania for self-improvement. Uncertainty about those romantic feelings being reciprocated is all that a lover needs to stay in limerence. Tennov’s acolyte, Albert Eakin, has argued that limerence should become a DSM-certified disorder. When I discovered Tennov’s theory of limerence I was twenty-seven, and reading the pages of her book made me sick. How much pain could I have been saved had Dr. Schoen diagnosed me not with depression, but with its close cousin: unrequited love?
▴ ▴ ▴
“You might put something out apart from tissues,” I told Dr. Schoen. “It’s a bit on the nose.”
Dr. Schoen never laughed at my jokes, so I laughed for the both of us.
She gave me an asperous look. “How so?”
“Crying is for when you only feel sort-of bad. Like, a three.”
Because Dr. Schoen didn’t understand nuance, I gave my depression ratings. A sadness of 1–2 indicated a pleasant melancholy (easeful death) in which I could walk, read, sketch. 3–5 was a standard depressed space, in which everything felt pointless. I’d generally try to sleep, but if I left the house and encountered any obstacle, intrusive thoughts sounded: I must buy textbooks, I want to die. In the 6–7 range, sadness was a pain that other hurt alleviated. No jokes, but allusive epigrams. If I was out drinking, I would do any drug I could get (except weed), fuck someone in a park, and get black-out drunk. I might circulate in a public place, looking tormented and enjoying the figure I was cutting in the minds of those around me. At 8–10, I flipped between terror and paralysis. I would get a knife and stare at it for hours, too frightened to move.
Dr. Schoen changed the subject to how I was failing university. “Not submitting essays is typical perfectionistic behavior.”
She told me about her brilliant son. He had an IQ of 174. That meant he either got a hundred on his essays or he didn’t hand them in. He sounded like my elder brother. This was, I suppose, meant to be constructive, but it just made me want to die. She couldn’t resist the brag.
“You’re not special,” she added. Unlike some.
▴ ▴ ▴
Although infatuation-as-illness appealed to me for some time, I now think the state is better understood through the lens of art. In chivalric romance, a knight pledged himself to an unattainable lady. As Diane Ackerman explains, “the essence of courtly love was protracted excitement, a delirium of gorgeously unbearable longing. Only by staying wholly infatuated, damp with sublimated erotic passion, could one mine one’s emotions inexhaustibly, and strive higher, risk more, achieve nobler ends.” The same could be said of the Romantic poets, who used passion to prompt lyric flight. There’s a theory that reactions to both love and beauty take place in the same part of the brain, the caudate nucleus, and flexible and fantastical thinking followed by rigid fixation is much like the thinking required to execute a work of art.
I could, by meditating on Jules’s untouchable face, induce a wild, grapho-maniacal state, during which I wrote notebooks full of brain drool. Or I would turn off the lights, switch on a lamp, and perform conversations with Jules in my bathroom mirror: strings of bon mots, rehearsals of my post facto wit. In this space—with the right clothes, hopped-up on caffeine and cigarettes, and backlit so heavily that I could almost look as attractive as Harley—I composed phrases, anecdotes, whole stories. I had characters who I would play—the Lain Marquis, S’abusée, Friar Doofus—who I considered signs of my intriguingly fractured psyche. Passion was aestheticizing, narrativizing, mythologizing. Love was imagination in feast mode, and it let me speak with an originality that stunned. I was proud of my fertile flow. It was, perhaps, the only power that I had. But the exhaustion of eloquence is this: waiting to make sense, when all you do is feel.
▴ ▴ ▴
One Sunday morning, Mitch and I were sitting on his couch. I’d bought a box of cask wine and hoped to drink it until Jules showed up, now that we’d met and all.
Mitch spooned me. He reached into my bra. We hooked up. He kept suggesting we go to his bedroom, and eventually, I let him lead me there.
The walls of the room were bare, and the floor covered with clothes that smelled of yeast and cigarettes. I sat on the bed. We kissed for a while, but Mitch wasn’t interested in my face. He pinned me. I hadn’t known that even a small man could be so considerably stronger than me. I felt a tingle of panic. Stop, I said. He called me a slut in a low, breathy voice. Said that I wanted his cock. Then I was off the bed and on my knees on the carpet and he was fucking my throat. His fingers cinched my neck and I couldn’t breathe. He plied me back and forth. I’d never been in someone’s physical control before. It was a wildness that I can only compare to being dumped by a wave.
I remember thinking, during this minute of oral sex, of my poet friend who’d taken me to hospital that time in the quad, how she once told me that her boyfriend did something similar all the time. He called it “head-fucking a brain-case.” I envisioned Bart in The Simpsons being strangled, his tongue tasting the air like a rasher of wavy bacon. I felt lucky that I’d killed my gag reflex with bulimia, because otherwise I might’ve vomited and choked. The door to Mitch’s room was open, and I thought, *I cannot let Jules see this. *
But it is likely that I thought none of these things, because in moments of danger, we don’t think much at all.
I tried to make my throat as pleasurable as possible so that Mitch would finally come, and I wouldn’t die. I moaned a bit, to this end. Mitch must have finished, because he unfingered my neck. Said something about the experience having been excellent.
“I’ve got to go,” I said and walk-ran to the elevator.
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I never told Dr. Schoen about what happened with Mitch. It didn’t feel significant. When friends have confided their sexual traumas to me, I have always said, I can only imagine what that was like. It was only while writing this essay that I realized that Mitch had assaulted me. Maybe the younger me rationalized the event away. It wasn’t all that unusual an occurrence for her and, compared to the pain that she regularly levelled on herself, was on par with a strenuous jog. Perhaps she cast it as part of a wider martyrdom for Jules and felt satisfied. I don’t know. Self-blame is consistent with the psychology of abuse.
Still, I remain tormented by the impression that my morning with Mitch was nothing so much as honest. Unlike the mansplainers, cutter-inners, or dicks-bearing-thesauruses, Mitch had no subtlety. He spoke pure sign. And to have inchoate subjection take a definite form carried with it a relief: it wasn’t all in my head. Mitch did suck, but what hurts and maddens me more insidiously and completely than his violence are the forces that led me to his apartment to begin with, that told me that my self-worth lay in Jules, and that I had to attain him. Why focus on the forced oral sex, a fleeting symptom of the underlying illness?
When I first wrote this essay, I didn’t include the morning with Mitch at all. I told myself that this essay was to be an anatomy of romantic obsession, not a trauma narrative. I told myself that my experience had not been extreme enough. But this is a lie. Most assault survivors would embrace my revelation. They would say that all abuse is news and that every witness breaks the conspiracy of silence. The real reason for my reticence was vanity. I didn’t want to be the woman who writes about abuse. I found the wholesale trauma-fest of modern memoir to be overly confessional, lightweight, and yes—hysterical. I disabused myself of my own experience.
Better writers than me have discussed such minimization, including Rebecca Solnit, Claire Vaye Watkins, Roxane Gay, and Melissa Febos. Leslie Jamison calls this self-censorship the “post-wounded” stance. The writer has so internalized criticisms of “overly feminine” (read: emotional) work that she neuters herself. Jamison writes, “Post-wounded women know that postures of pain play into limited and outmoded conceptions of womanhood. Their hurt has a new native language spoken in several dialects: sarcastic, jaded, opaque, cool, and clever. They guard against those moments where melodrama or self-pity might split their careful seams of intellect, expose the shame of self-absorption without self-awareness.” Too often when writing, women listen to the inner critic who tells them, Hey chick. Be cool.
I often think of the girl in Mitch’s apartment that morning. In this recurring vignette, I-as-viewer stand beyond the doorway, where Jules might have stood had he come home. I see Mitch’s dick like a hook in the girl’s mouth, ripping a bloody sluice through tongue and jaw and throat. That girl is not in control. She is not the overman or the überwench. She is not doing, but being done to. This is not an inspiring vision, and it always ends the same way. She doesn’t spit back the lie, but swallows it hook, line, and sinker.
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At the end of our session, I pulled out a portrait of Jules. Dr. Schoen asked me whether it was a self-portrait. I looked at the picture. Jules and I shared the same hollow cheeks, curls, and androgynous figure.
“It does look a bit like me.”
“You’ve mentioned that you think of yourself as a male being,” said Dr. Schoen.
This was true. I grew up considering myself more masculine than my brothers. I had short hair and played contact sports. I prided myself on never wearing dresses.
“I know where you’re going with this,” I said.
I glossed some Jung for her. Jung said that men repress their anima (the female, nurturing side of their unconscious) and women their animus (the male, creative side). In love, women fall for a man’s animus because it corresponds to their own suppressed male identity, and vice-versa. This explains why we’re attracted to partners with the same level of gender orthodoxy as ourselves. In the beloved, we literally find our missing piece.
“So,” I finished, “they complete you.”
Dr. Schoen dismissed this with a wave. “Jung was a psychotic. Do you know what an identity crush is? It’s when we form an attachment to a person whom we wish to emulate. It may be that don’t want to be with Jules; you want to be Jules.”
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Some scientists question why infatuation has survived in the species at all. In Lovesick, Tallis notes that such love seems a misfire of pair-bonding mechanisms, a waste of reproductive energy, and a source of social discord.
But others point to infatuation’s clear evolutionary value. Tallis claims that “The primary function of love is to cement sexual relationships for a period of several years, in order to ensure that the vulnerable human infant receives care from its mother, resources from its father, and protection from both.” That make infatuation a useful madness.
But it doesn’t make sense to prolong this intense state. After a honeymoon phase most couples settle into stable companionship. Most unrequited loves last for about the same length of time: eighteen to thirty-six months.
I pined for Jules for nearly three years before my feeling fell away. It wasn’t that I consciously adopted Dr. Schoen’s narrative of wanting to be Jules. I just unyoked arty things from him and these interests pulled me toward their own burning centers.
You would think that I’d be thrilled to be free, but I missed the brilliant perception, the exquisite agony. Never again would I feel so hard and bright. Fixation was painful, but comforting. Although I would often panic and try to stoke my passion back to life, circumstances continued to drag me back to health. I ate normally and drank less. I switched from Economics/Law to Arts. I formed the ambition of becoming a writer. I had a few good friends, and started dating a guy I liked.
One morning, I wrote a story. It was a transformation of Dante’s La Vita Nuova from the perspective of a head louse. The louse was in love with another (promiscuous) louse who didn’t know that he existed. At the end of the story, death comes for the beloved, which inspires the protagonist-louse, as the death of Beatrice did Dante, to create. That moment was, in many ways, the beginning of my journey, through writing, to understand the obsession I had lived through.
By mid-2008, I was healthy enough to abandon my art wall, put my sainted objects in storage, and move out of my parents’ house. An upside was that I got to stop seeing Dr. Schoen because of the long commute. They say that leaving your psychiatrist is like leaving a marriage, and in our last session I did feel genuine regret. I had not been an easy patient. I decided to lie and admit to Dr. Schoen that I did, in fact, smoke pot. It felt good to finally throw her a bone.
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I saw Jules one last time, a few weeks after I moved into my new place. He walked into an outdoor café where I was sitting with a roommate.
“Simo,” he said. Without skipping a beat, he pulled up a chair.
That confused me. Had he known my name this entire time and had only pretended not to, that time in the apartment? Had he remembered it from then, when I introduced myself? Or had he always known it, but, like some mediocre memory, it remained shelved and recallable only in the right circumstances?
“I go by Kate now.”
My friend and I resumed our conversation, with Jules chipping in. It was all wrong. When he spoke, the sound came from a place a foot behind his head. I asked him about his master’s thesis. He told me it was about shiny things. It sounded like Althusser mated with Warhol, made boring. This guy wasn’t passionate about art. He certainly wasn’t a genius. But he did know a lot about fixed-gauge bicycles. While me and my friend discussed synecdoche, he rolled a cigarette. He fired off some drivel about Dada with a smoothness that made me think, con artist.
When my friend left, I struggled to sustain the conversation. I asked him where he was living.
“Not with Mitch?”
“Nah, I moved out.” He licked the rollie cigarette with a neat, catlike motion. “What are you up to today?”
I had nowhere to be. But who was this? Some silly drifter, looking for something to amuse him. I tried to recognize his alien features. I had drawn them thousands of times, but the frame in which they were now collected made no sense, as if I stood an inch away from a pointillist painting. I saw dots. A fuzzy swatch. A curve. A bit and a piece. He could have been anyone.
“I’ve got to go,” I said. “I’ll see you around.”
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That Jules was unremarkable is irrelevant: a muse is a means. What matters is that taking a muse didn’t work for me. Why? Because society valorizes the man who fans the flames of his love, however deluded, as possessing strong, imaginative energies. The enamored woman, by contrast, doesn’t take a muse. At best, she is taken sick. She’s a figure of fun or revulsion. She is aberrant, a libidinal fuckup, a pea hen who hasn’t realized that hers is not the dance.
We know this. We know that although there are many visionary women who deserve the epithet genius—Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, and Debbie Harry; Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Gertrude Stein; Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Tanning, and Georgia O’Keeffe—that their examples have yet to unseat the juggernaut of male genius. Women do not derive glamour from the sordid encounters through which Joyce challenged the limits of sensual experience. Women can less easily step out of the role of outsider in which artists often cast themselves. Some brave women tell the world to be damned, but we must assume that for every girl who defies social codes, there are a dozen who do not. Which means that the aspiring female artist models herself, at least in part, on a vision that is not only outmoded, but hostile to her very being.
Jules was not my muse, even if I told myself he was. He represented the artist to whom I ascribed the talent that I craved for myself. Young girls do this unconscious bait-and-switch all the time. I see them: loud-mouth skaters, waifs jogging the suburbs, punks with faces full of metal and rage. Afflicted and affected, their bodies let slip the battle within. I don’t know if their cliff is drugs, or a Mitch, or the daily creeping obliteration of self, but I know how they feel. Because Dr. Schoen was right: I’m not special. The brand of self-erasure I practiced is devastatingly common.
This is terrible, but it is not what haunts me, in the end. What still kills me is my inability to see myself. In the years since Jules, I’ve tried to love myself better and shake off sexist self-conceptions. I’ve taken introspection and souped it up with hindsight; this essay is just the latest in a long line of attempts.
But consider the attempt. In this essay, I have relentlessly tried to pin down the girl. I have catalogued her actions, recorded her grotesqueries, probed her postures, laughed at her weirdness. I have offered her story as trauma narrative, parody, case study—but never the künstlerroman of this essay’s famous namesake. With a pathological need to classify, I have slid lens after lens between myself and who I was, be it a lorgnette, a microscope, a jeweler’s loupe. Because even if I know it to be wrong, I believe that there needs to be a reason to look at A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman. Some lesson to be learned. I am unable to let the girl stand before you, vital and interesting in herself.
Is the girl interesting? Perhaps not. But she should feel so to me. She should feel worthy of the complex honor of aesthetic appreciation, which is to perceive something for its own sake. I have tried, and still fail, to see her that way. That is the real reason I wrote this essay. She deserves a beholder. I shouldn’t need you, but I do. Please see her, without judgment or goal, because I cannot. Please, linger before her portrait. Look her in the face.