The Way That They Can Love You: On Writing a History of Love

Cover of The Way That They Can Love You: On Writing a History of Love

The summer after I turned 17—just months before I would read The History of Love by Nicole Krauss in my high school English class—my best friend Caitlin and I stayed up late one night, sitting on the bedroom floor, making collages and painting into our notebooks, talking about our recent heartbreaks. I opened the Photobooth app on my MacBook, aimed the camera at us both and pressed record. I’d fallen for a boy who was a year older than me, about to graduate and move across the ocean. He’d spent months repeatedly pushing me away, and then pulling me close again, and I’d followed his lead each step along the way. 


At the time, I tried to write about him. In 10,000 words, I wrote recreations of our conversations and encounters, vignettes of myself waiting for him to text, long passages ruminating about how I imagined things could be between us, if only he would allow himself to love me. In one scene, we’re in Central Park and it begins to snow; I observe the way the snowflakes fall on the stiff leather of his jacket, and wonder if it’s new, or if it’s just the kind of leather that doesn’t get softer with age. In another scene, we’re in school, both studying on the couch in the otherwise empty Dean of Students office where our group of friends would congregate, when he wordlessly pulls me on top of him: I rose and fell with every breath he took. When I wrote this line, it felt like a declaration, a commitment to a kind of love that I had once idealized, and now am almost too embarrassed to admit to.


The History of Love is a book about writing about love, split between two narrators who do so. Leo Gursky, an aspiring writer since he was a boy, grows up in Poland before World War II. Leo falls in love with his neighbor, Alma Mereminski, and the two share a passionate romance until she leaves for America to escape the threat of Nazi occupation, neither of them yet aware that she is already pregnant. Inspired by his love of Alma, Leo writes a book called The History of Love, from which our other primary narrator, 14-year-old Alma Singer, is given her name. In the novel’s present day, 85-year-old Leo lives alone in Manhattan, in constant anticipation of his death. Alma Mereminski has passed away, and Leo begins writing again, documenting his life story for the son he never knew except from afar. Alma Singer is also processing the death of her father, an avid outdoorsman, and her narration is told through her detailed notebook, titled “How To Survive In The Wild.” She writes about her parents’ love, the love depicted in their favorite book, and the new romantic territory of her own life.


Sitting on the floor with Caitlin late at night, the boy who had been about to leave had finally done so, but not before calling to tell me that he was sorry, but he couldn’t reciprocate my feelings. When my phone rang, I was out shopping with some friends, and walked outside of the store to take the call. At some point in the conversation, I crouched down, folding my chest over my knees and hovering above the sidewalk. One of my friends came out of the store. She took a photograph of me curled up in this position, holding my cell phone to one ear, fingers pressed into the other ear to hear his words more clearly. She posted it to Facebook and she tagged me. In the Photobooth recording, I’m trying to find the words: I’ll just never know if I was ever loved that way.


When the semester ended, and the time came to write a final paper about The History of Love, I couldn’t do it. Instead, I explained to my English teacher that since photography was an important theme of the book, I would assemble an album of my own re-stagings of the novel’s photographs. In our negotiation, I agreed to write a few poems as well—it was an English class, so there needed to be some written element in my response to the book—but I took solace in the ways photography and poetry would allow me to obfuscate my thesis about love, to create something as irresolute as I was. 


My mother always tells me, people can only love you in the way that they can love you. Eventually, I started adding my own caveat: and you get to decide if that’s enough. I don’t think I was wrong in this assertion, but I think it’s possible I took this belief too far. I became convinced that being in love requires mutuality—that to be in love with someone, one must know what it’s like to be loved by them, specifically. The boy said he could not reciprocate my feelings, so for years I told myself I never really loved him. And for most of my life I was able to deny that I had ever been in love before, because I never trusted the love offered by the person I was with, if I thought it possible that they were offering anything at all. How much must one be loved in order to know what it feels like? How to give and receive it? How much does one have to openly, admittedly love others in order to be able to write about love? 


In the book, Leo describes the attempts his cousin made to photograph him with a pinhole camera, a form of mirrorless photography using a box or container with a small hole in the side. A piece of photographic paper is placed inside to catch the image from the uncovered pinhole. Leo says that in every photograph, he still did not appear once the image had been developed.


For the album, I photographed a guy whose name I don’t remember anymore. We hadn’t been friends, really—I don’t think we’d ever spoken one-on-one before—but he was also in this English class, and seeing him across the heavy oval table, I recognized within myself an emotional reaction to the way he felt embodied, something not romantic or sexual, but an offering of comfort, a shared melancholy. I’d asked if he would pose for me and he said sure. I seated him in a blue plastic chair, with a clean whiteboard behind him. I asked him not to smile, and he didn’t. I clicked the shutter, which opened and closed. I asked him to move his head slowly from side to side, and he did. I adjusted my camera’s settings and clicked the shutter, which opened. He kept turning his head. The shutter closed. When the film was developed, the first frame showed his face, still, quiet, but not expressionless. His eyes were kind and his shaggy curls sat above his ears. He was a bigger guy, his soft chest and rounded shoulders under a too-large t-shirt. In the second frame, his face becomes a blur, the result of capturing a moving object (when he turned his face from left to right) during a long exposure. His features dissolve into the cloud of gray.


I photographed the boy I thought I loved before he moved away (even today, I resist applying declarative language to how I felt back then), the way he sat in the boxy green chair in my bedroom, one elbow propped up on its high armrest, his head tipped sideways into that hand, his long-sleeved black button-down, worn open with the sleeves pushed up, over a taupe t-shirt, his wide, sleepy eyes. Though this photograph was taken nine months earlier, and not intended for that purpose, I included it in my album, in the place where I claimed to be re-staging a photograph of Leo Gursky’s son. 


I’ve always had an ideal of what love looks like. For so long, I would only allow myself to assign my feelings the label of love if it was indisputable, but I only pursued relationships where there could be no certainty, where there was a level of distance by design. Twice, I fell for other guys, each of whom lived a few states away (and who were also dating other people, to varying degrees), and these relationships consisted almost solely of the written word—messages on Facebook, Google Chat, or text. When I wanted one of them to tell me that he loved me, I knew he never would, so instead I simply typed his name, and he typed mine in response. I would say tell me something I should know and he would say not yet, and then the moment never came. I wanted a love that would fit neatly into the expectation I had gleaned from my first read of The History of Love, a Great Love that traverses oceans, borders, silence. I tried on numerous occasions to cast people in this role, but no one would ever stage that play with me. 


I wanted to write about love, but I kept finding myself in longing instead. I was all too familiar with the experience of longing, but I knew that longing isn’t love, and to mistake the two would be the gravest error, a humiliation that would shatter my reality and pull the rug out from under me. I couldn’t write about love if it had never been offered to me, and so I felt I couldn’t write about anything. My commitment to my photography practice deepened, and by the end of college, I more or less stopped writing altogether. Longing does not require reciprocation, and in that way, longing is at least reliable. 


On my first date with my fiancé Phil, we were sitting in the grass in Washington Square Park. I was picking at the cardboard sleeve of my coffee cup, and when I looked up, he was making an intense eye contact with me that I was not expecting. I met his gaze for a moment before I had to look away again. I knew then that being with Phil, that being loved by him, would mean really letting him see me; it would mean being vulnerable, loving and being loved without the safety of distance. A few weeks into dating, I told Phil that I’d never been in love before. I so deeply wanted this to be true that I almost convinced myself of it. 


Alma’s namesake, Leo’s Alma, is defined to us by the way that she is loved. Our Alma watched the love between her mother and father, and saw her mother’s reaction to his loss. For Alma Singer, the experience of being loved is entangled with this danger. In an entry titled “One Thing I’m Never Going To Do When I Grow Up,” Alma begins, “is fall in love.” She goes on to list all of the things that falling in love made her mother do, that she herself will never do “drop out of college, learn to subsist on water and air, have a species named after me, and ruin my life.” When her mother dotes on her lovingly, Alma views this as a kind of weakness: “She’d call after me, ‘What can I do for you I love you so much,’ and I always wanted to say, but never said: Love me less.” So Alma Singer rejects love, and later rejects the boy who offers it to her. 


I fear relying on Phil’s love. What is the right amount of needing someone? Sometimes I think (and I suspect that Alma would agree) the answer is: not really needing them at all.


Now that Phil and I are engaged, and therefore “officially” and indisputably in love, I still waver in my confidence of my authority to write about it. My mother tells me, I like the way you write about Phil. Like you don’t have to explain it. He just kinda goes without saying, he’s just Phil. I appreciate my mother’s take, and I hope that my choice not to explain Phil’s presence is as positive of a phenomenon as her interpretation makes it out to be. I hope that Phil going without saying is not the same as Phil being taken for granted, something I hope I never do. For his sake, yes, but mostly for my own. To be loved by someone is to be changed by their love, and what if I am changed for the better? I know for a fact that I have been, and it’s terrifying because I’ve had less control over this force than I would like. Phil could only love me in the way that he could love me, which was completely, overwhelmingly, ground-shiftingly, and I was unprepared. So who would I be now without him? I would never wish for Phil to “love me less,” but what if one day he does? If he never loved me and I never loved him, if it was only a longing from me, for him, I would have nothing to lose. Writing about love is accounting for everything I have to lose. When you desire something so deeply, you also kind of fear its power. To write about love is to admit its power over you. 


It wasn’t until after Phil and I moved in together that I even began to write about him, and in every instance that I write about, his presence is a given. I wrote about going to a concert together, where I waited for Phil while he was in line at the concession stand, staring at a masked bald man in a taupe winter coat because he looked exactly like my father. I wrote about asking Phil for his opinion on the photographs I was attempting to put into a sequence, and how he gave a too-honest answer that hurt my feelings. I wrote about hiding underneath the covers when I’m on my phone in bed, so the bright light of my screen won’t keep him awake. I would say I struggle most to write the reasons why and how I love him, but that would be misleading; I’ve hardly let myself attempt it. I think the real reason why I never explain Phil’s presence in my life is that doing so—explaining why this love, this person, is the one I choose—would mean asserting my beliefs about love, and claiming certainty or expertise. And because I know that I was wrong. For me, loving will always involve some longing, some admission that I am all desire, that a part of me will always rise and fall with the person that I love. 


Writing about love is an admission of vulnerability, an exposure of the weak spots in my armor. Writing about Phil as the person that I love advertises the way that I am building my life around him, around our relationship, the ways that I allow myself to depend on him, and the gaps that would be left if our relationship were to end. Why, in the case of other people, can I see that the end of a relationship does not invalidate the love that existed between them, while I’m unable to extend that kind of clarity in the hypothetical case of my own relationships? If I were to speak about love, from a place of knowing love, because I have love, and then I were to lose it, I don’t know if I could ever overcome that humiliation—if I could ever forgive myself for that hubris, to think that I knew enough, was certain enough of the goings-on of the larger emotional landscape of not only myself, but another person—enough to somehow speak to other people about their emotional landscapes, with their own other persons. 


When I re-read The History of Love a few months ago, the book that I’ve long looked to as a perfect example of writing about love, I realized that no one in the book achieves a level of certainty in love that I always held as my own standard. Leo’s history of love is one of longing—longing for the woman from his past life, longing for the son he never got to know. Leo’s longing is told through photographs, through the act of looking, being seen. Maybe this was the inadvertent lesson from my first read, to maintain distance in love, via the lens of a camera. Leo imagines apologizing to his son, “forgive me, your mother didn’t love me the way I wanted to be loved; perhaps I didn’t love her the way she needed either? And yet.” And yet, Leo never denies the existence of the love between them; he doesn’t require a perfect love in order to write about it, twice over. Once when he was young, and again as an old man. 


On December 4, 2009, at 9:49 AM, in my Contemporary Lit class during my senior year of high school, we discussed The History of Love. Mr. Aune offered this proposal, Maybe the bottom line of love is: I take what you are, whatever you are. I wrote the quote, the date, the time. And then, over the years, repeatedly forgot the line, and then remembered it again.

I thought I needed a love story like Leo’s in order to write about love. But instead I was living Alma’s story: her obsession with love, yet fear of its power, fear of what it would mean to love and be loved, fear of the ways that losing love could derail her (could derail me), and so avoiding it altogether could feel like a matter of survival. Like Alma, I always believed that I should be self-sufficient, self-sustaining, that needing someone else was a sign of potential weakness. Maybe I could never write about love until I admitted that I had a history with it at all, even if it wasn’t what I’d thought that love would be. I think the thing I hate most about love is that, in significant ways, it saved me. My life got better after I met Phil. I started to take care of myself in ways I’d struggled to before. That isn’t the story of love that I wanted to write, but I have to take my history of love as it is, whatever it is, because that’s all I know to write about.



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