Sublime Complications, or, I Come Clean About Ripping Off AS Byatt

“THE passion caused by the great and sublime… is astonishment, and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended… The mind is so entirely filled with its object that it cannot entertain any other, nor reason on that object which fills it.” ––Edmund Burke

Saturday– another late night evening with J.: Bud Lite in a can, the occasional drag on his cigarette, Black Swan on the television–

Wait, Black Swan? 

Indeed. Apparently, he loves it, which initially surprises me, and then makes perfect sense. Like me, he’s interested in extreme states, emotional and otherwise. Sitting there, my legs draped over his, Tchaikovsky’s score aches and swells as Natalie Portman does a wicked impersonation of a dancer and a psychopath, a girl who breaks so effectively into pieces, we can almost see the trails her split selves leave; when she is touched– by her instructor, by her rival, by her mother– one expects steam to rise from her taut and tender skin. The music alone could kill you, suck you, helpless, out of your week-a-day body into another realm, a place where sounds take shape: at home, later that night, I’ll dream that J. and I are trying to talk with glasses of water as our only form of communique, barred from language, from touch. Dreams: sublime land of synesthesia, of terror, where the things that stand between us in the day either dispense or spring up stronger than before.

In our waking hours, though, J. and I have no problems communicating, verbally or otherwise, as we wade swiftly and comfortably through our previous marriages (“Were you in love with her?” “Of course–” “And you?” “I think so–“) our belief systems (a long explanation of a book he read in high school that concerned extra-terrestrial explanations for mankind’s origin– “Like in Genesis, with the flaming chariots–” “Ezekiel,” I cut in with my best schoolmarm tone; he rolls his eyes. “It matters,” I say, testily. “It does,” he says, smiling down at me.)

He excuses himself momentarily. When he comes back, I am standing, stretching. He places himself directly behind me, his body pressed firmly against mine. He presses his lips to my neck. I shiver. I suppose it would be wrong– maybe inaccurate?– to say I didn’t expect something like this might happen, but, like I said before about him– the sex is secondary. The conversation is first. And I imagine being on house arrest makes one restless, and eager for listeners. We’ve been talking for the better part of an hour, and the entire time, I’ve been watching the old-fashioned wall clock that faces us tick, tick, tick toward my leaving– out of one life, back to another. That afternoon, when we discussed the possibility of seeing each other, I said, “After I put the baby down I experience what I like to call the ‘anti-Cinderella’ effect: rather than turning into a pumpkin, I become an independent person, again.” Even writing that, I feel guilty, like it’s somehow wrong  to want to be that independent person, like I should find a way to give even more than I’m already giving to my son, like these two and a half magical hours of sublime freedom are wrong, that I’ll pay for them– and sure enough, that night, the baby is up, coughing, and I can’t soothe him back to sleep. “Watch Dora,” he says, wheedlingly, and so, a mere three hours after my potential lover ran his tongue lightly, trippingly, perfectly, barely touching me, from the hollow of my collarbone to the tip of my earlobe, causing me to writhe ever so slightly beneath his hands, to moan beneath my breath, I find myself pouring viscous grape cough syrup down my son’s throat by the light of the microwave clock (“Yum!” he says, and pauses– “I ride my scooter, now, Mama?”) which reads 4 am, and immediately thereafter cueing up Netflix for a marathon viewing of the world’s favorite bilingual toddler and her simian sidekick. We fall back to sleep at 6, as the sun comes up, and are up for good at 7:45, my limbs like lead weights, the memory of the previous evening skittering through the baby’s beelining movement and chatter like so many flighted birds– I am here, I am there…


The inspiration for the this blog, for its title, was a passage from AS Byatt, wherein her character, Frederica Potter, a (rare) divorced single mother in mid-1960s London has a vision of her life(s) as laminated, like geological strata– here is sex, here are friends, here is work, here is language. They are kept “scrupulously separate”, in Byatt’s words, in order to ensure Frederica’s survival. Owing to her place in society, she doesn’t think the merging of these things is possible, thinks the petty jealousies of men, women, society, would destroy them, and, as such, her.

The evening I slept with Z., a few weeks ago, I lay in my bed, my body humming, and it hit me that I was doing my own laminating. Earlier that evening, I’d stood to gather my clothes; he’d picked me up like it was nothing, hefting my legs around his waist, kissing me incessantly, whispering not to go. We laughed and kissed and laughed. “See?” I said. “Isn’t this great?” I was referring to the fact that it had taken us the better part of six months to hook up.

“It is,” he said.

“And the best part is,” I said, between catching his gorgeous lower lip between my teeth, “I don’t even want to date you. I just want to have sex with you.” I giggled, and kissed him again, but I appeared to have hit a nerve.

“Why not?” he asked. “I’m datable.”

“Are you?” I asked. I meant it. As a 24-year old, swooning over his Cheshire Cat grin, lithe muscles, and curling forelock of hair? Datable. Totally. Signed, sealed, delivered. I would have moved mountains to date him, to have that delicious rush take over me night after perfect night, to fall into bed with him like there was a force greater than myself pushing me there. The Sublime: The Passion It Causes: suspended motion, a moment outside of time, an inability to reason about the mind’s object; Everyone Else Falls Flat, tastes stale. At 24, my mind batted him about like a cat with a ball of string, desperate to unravel the most obvious of questions– why won’t he call me back?

How could he not feel the thing I felt? I was no dummy. I’d had a lot of sex. The connection we had was unique, and lovely, compounded by the fact that we were old friends. And yet– nothing. We had maybe four encounters over a period of six months, and each time, he promised– I’ll call you tomorrow, next Friday we’ll get together. And each time, I was dazzled and foolhardy enough to buy it. Once, he waited two months to call and apologize– by that point, I’d deleted him from my phone. The sad part? I recognized the number, regardless, a victim of my inviolate memory and straight-up lovesickness. I was driving to Steve & Cookie’s By the Bay, the restaurant I worked at, with my friend and co-worker, Erin, when the phone rang.

“Hello?” I said, brusquely.

“Em… it’s me.”

Big pause.

“What the hell do you want?”

Apologies galore, and excuses, and explanations, and promises that never materialized, followed. I was thoroughly disenchanted, telling him as much, and ending the call with, “Well, I guess we’ll see, won’t we?” When I finally hung up, Erin said, “I think you just became my personal hero.” After a while, I accepted it for what it was, and tried to enjoy it, but it never ceased to hurt; when I was married, three years later, the one thought that stung me, the one twinge in my armor of monogamy and security and the swift kiss good-bye I’d blown my old life was, “I’ll never know what might have happened between Z. and me,” something I filed into the stacks of my newly compartmentalized brain. I sent J. the occasional email, and every once in a great while, I’d ask him– how is Z.? Is he ok?

Now– 32, a single mother, a teacher– I don’t know if I want to date anyone. It hits me like a ton of bricks, in bed, alone. Laminations. Rock. Frederica thought of Elizabeth I, who refused to give herself over, who said, “I will be separate, I will not bleed.” Conversely, ironically, Frederica is obsessed with the poetry of Racine, of Donne, with the novels of Lawrence and Forster– “Only Connect.” In order to fall headlong into the language, which she needs to do, which she desperately wants to do, she must keep sex, actual sex, in a separate corner of her life. Otherwise, she loses everything else, the sublime desire for another blotting out her abilities to think, which she values above all else. On J.’s couch, my head against the silk pillows, his hands on my belly, in the midst of yet another heady conversation, he begins to stroke the inside of my thigh, and I lose my train of thought totally.

“What was that?” he asks, smiling devilishly.

“I meant to say– I was saying that, in Orwell’s view– it was something about the gaze, when he encounters the Senegalese soldiers–”


“And– oh, I can’t remember, dammit–”

My brain swings out and loops, suspended as if from a pendulum, empty, free, light as air. “If we continue down this road, I intend to make you forget what day it is,” he grins, his hands never stopping.

“It’s September 15, 2012,” I say, and grab him, and kiss him. How complicated. How lovely. That chemistry I spoke of, with all its lightning quickness, its toughness, its equality, is giving way to something else, tonight, something slower and softer. He tells me, “In Sicily, where I lived for a while, the women all say, ‘Destroy me!’ Meaning, you know. You’ve hit the right spot. Don’t stop.” All the old metaphors– little deaths, a merging, a disappearing, “Only connect,” her body thought– destroy me. Just for an instant, let me be another, let me vanish into the thin air of my own pleasure, which you have given me. And then–

Well, then. Let me go home with a clear head. Let me come back to myself: hard-fought, hard-won, hard-earned.


This entry was published on September 17, 2012 at 4:00 am and is filed under Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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