Of Lovers’ Discourses
Rochelle Hairman (University of Technology, Sydney, Australia)
“Good morning and welcome to Creative Writing and Critical Theory 123.” Luce’s lecture was on “Writing and Love.” Love, which changes the DNA of your blood. Human blood becoming spiderblood throwing golden webs. Sticky. A trap that leaves you suspended. Luce didn’t say this out loud. They would see her heart and laugh. She followed her notes:
“Roland Barthes wrote, ‘Am I in love? — yes, since I am waiting… I try to busy myself elsewhere…but I always lose at this game. Whatever I do, I find…I am the one who waits.’”
Click, click, click, click – black patent high heels moved across the podium. She was only thirty and lecturing in the Communications Department. For her, each tutorial was a performance; she paced around the room like a boot-scooter on stilts, now pointing, now folding her arms, now standing back.
“I believe meaning is opaque. But can we ever really know?” A blonde, dressed in a fake kimono, heavily made-up – a sort of Lady Gaga look-alike – voiced her ideas. Luce wrote the student’s comments on the board. An involuntary suck-in of air unsteadied her as she realised the Gaga look-alike was Tony’s ex, Shira Iragar. She steadied herself behind the podium. One of Luce’s students frowned, another shifted uncomfortably. Be a rational person, Luce, jealousy will make you lose your place. And face! Self-talk was good.
For ten minutes, the class to-and-fro-ed, following strands. She read, they wrote: fingers typing in silken concentration. Luce saw the ex shrug once or twice while she copied down phrases.
Last night Tony banged on Luce’s door, as she was about to watch a re-run of Gone With the Wind. He’d slung his lethal weapon, his Flamenco guitar, over his shoulder and appeared like a wandering minstrel, ready to entertain her.
“Rhythm is everything.”
“You don’t need to know.”
“You feel it?”
Tony had joked about how a person could never really know their ‘lover,’ igniting questions that made her unsure how her feelings were reciprocated, especially when he informed her that he was going, alone, to his ex’s birthday dinner. The ex was turning twenty-one. Couldn’t he tell that Luce worried about being older?
“You shouldn’t be able to get away with going without me.”
“She’s a friend.”
“Platonic, I’m sure.”
The edge in her voice made him pull back from a kiss. She had taken a chance with him, delved into the unknown and was uncertain of who he was, or who she might become when she was with him. Tony poured her a Pinot Gris and began to sing, “Right under my feet there is air made of bricks pulling me down…”1
My heart is a drum, my mind is a clarinet, she thought. But I cannot read him. Later, when he was gone, she sat surrounded by the smell of old books, writing: “Being with Tony is being un-syncopated.”
In the classroom, Luce went over the homework: “Sum up by reiterating a structuralist critique. Identify parallels, reflections and patterns in motive and situation.” Some of the students were already packing away their books.
“For next week’s class, I want you to write a narrative with a binary structure, which explores the above notions. You may centre it on the relationship between a married couple, in a place where he recovers his health and she is destroyed.” She gathered her books and made her way to the door without meeting Gaga’s eye. Luce was seeing Tony for a drink
How could she explain her attraction to him? Luce danced between elation and self-doubt, thrilled by desire, spurred on by the secret and rebellious nature of their sexual pursuits. Each step towards self- knowledge was framed by an action like an invisible lift. She had always believed that love, like writing, was rule-bound, but over and over she would ask – who sets the rules?
Like a dancer, in those early, heady days, Luce lived in her body, knowing that she needed freedom to love with pleasure. Sex and choice had always perplexed her. They created ever-widening spaces in her life, which she negotiated with pirouettes and points. Yet, with Tony, she seemed to lose her balance, she clung onto invisible strands, dangling in the knowledge that he had come to her.
“Why me? I’m nearly thirty. She’s twenty-one.”
“Age is only a number. I want you.”
In her first encounter with him she had asked, what does it mean to be part of a relationship and surveyed her body in the mirror. Her slender body, in proportion to which her full breasts could not help but evoke lust, had been a source of contention. The men in her circles never spoke to her about anything that really mattered yet this did not bother her, for she had a powerful craving for their bodies too. She was just sixteen when she had her first sexual experience. She felt she was becoming altered, while in fact she was being consumed. It was like that, even now.
Luce wrote about Tony in her diary: “If I merge with you, I will become you. If I pleasure you, I am giving you and I a mutual taste of ecstasy. Ignite me.” To-morrow she would be lecturing on Barthes’ Jouissance2.
In the next class, Luce noticed Tony’s ex (she hoped) springing into the back row of the lecture hall. She was not aware that Tony was courting Luce, or so he said. She questioned him about his commitment to her.
“Traces, there are traces of a relationship. But I don’t want to pursue it. It’s all too predictable.” He nibbled her top lip, their tongues touching. She flinched when imagining the ex sleeping with the man she desired and had not yet won. She invited the ex to read her homework out to the class. Why her? She couldn’t say.
The scent of hyacinths wafted through Shira’s window where she breathed in the familiarity of their room. Rest and peace. Ant was about to shower and that was part of their routine. He would shower first and would wait for her to come to bed. This evening, while he was showering she sorted her notes for the next day’s lecture. They had a ritual – Ant would tease her about reading on the toilet for half an hour, she would tease him back about singing in the shower for half an hour (and how he sang with an Elvis voice when he was showering). After he was done, she would let the shower pelt her anxiety away.
Showered clean, free from her mask of makeup, Shira was ready to climb into bed. She reached for her book. This was her ritual. Tonight she was re-reading Wuthering Heights. Shira felt Heathcliff’s love, the tense muscles of his forearm as he held her, and her head falling against his chest. He was facing Linton, and his passion for Cathy was in danger of becoming unrequited.
Ant was in bed, writing as usual. This was his ritual. Work was the last thing on her mind at this time of night. Not that his was work. He was a writer, dependant on her. Propping her pillows so that her book leant up at exactly the right angle and the light shone on the page, Shira read, Ant wrote. The only sounds were her pages turning and the sound of his computer humming. Ant was becoming a character in his story, Shira was in Heathcliff’s mind.
Ant was trying to connect with his life, recall the events of the day, their passion, their conversations, their endless quarrels and frustrations. She was lost in her story. Her eyes began to shut. His eyes were alert. She had to be up early in the morning to go to the lecture, he had to stay up late that night, because his piece did not flow onto the page and he was having a meeting the next day with an editor. She almost reached over to switch off the light but stopped when she saw the look of horror on his face.
-What are you doing?
-I need to sleep.
-You don’t think my writing is important?
-What about mine? I’m the one who has to be dressed and out of the house by eight tomorrow morning.
-But I have to write.
-And I have to sleep.
-Don’t you want to read anymore?
-No, I want to sleep.
-I’ll sleep on the couch tonight.
TO BE CONTINUED…PERHAPS!
Tony’s ex stopped reading. She knows what I’ll write on the page of my life before I do. Luce frowned, again, imagining this young Gaga sprawled over Tony. She will have felt Tony, his same skin on her skin. Luce was startled by her realisation that this woman, reading her work, waiting for a response, was shaped in Luce’s mind by everything that perhaps never happened. She is a text of my future, Luce thought, and coughed to clear her voice.
She smiled at the eager faces waiting for her to speak and began:
“What do you think?”
One student raised his hand. Luce nodded in his direction.
“I know what she means. My girlfriend and I argue over her wanting to read, and my wanting to sleep. Every night.” The class laughed.
“I understand, I think,” Luce said. The ex looked at her suspiciously but said nothing. “I’ll read it in more detail and comment after re-reading it. We’ll pursue some of the ideas you hint at, next week, when we discuss Barthes. In A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes wants to understand how we understand the complexity of love. In essence, he asks you what you think of love and then subverts this by saying you think nothing at all of love. He says you’d be glad to know what it is, but being inside you, you are merely able to say you see it in existence, but not in essence.”
Luce shoved her notes into her tote bag, then, stepping out in front of her desk she said: “Try and write a scene in which you capture the essence of love. When you have completed the exercise we will all discuss our interpretation of this enigma to see whether any of us can fully articulate it.” She forgot to collect her students’ stories.
Luce could not explain what love meant. Even at the start she was confused. She was scuttled by love. She remembered lying next to her first love, kissing. Holding each other, a breath apart. She had listened to the dark shape of love as if it was a blank space in music and she was a musician learning the silences of the piece. Inches apart, the wall between her and this boy, two years older than she, was a poem in code with every letter askew. Love has shattered my ability to speak, love has become all I speak about, she remembered thinking.
Now, love was still a web of intrigue. Tony drew her blood while she clutched at the sticky spider web, uncertain about her fate.
In her third lecture, fifteen students sat absorbed in their thoughts, searching for words their readers would read with the meaning they intended. When they began the workshop and saw that what they meant to say was not what was read, mouths opened in protest; silent dismay clouded their faces.
“It’s all part of the process,” Luce reassured, calling upon Shira to read aloud. She wondered if she was searching for an understanding of Tony.
AN ESSENCE OF LOVE
He knows my body, the line of sweat beneath my breast, the smell of my scent on my neck. He knows every contour, every smoothness, every line between dark and light, my tongue, my ears, my eyelids, my sounds. I know when he downs his guitar, slips his glasses off and stares at me, accidentally touching his crotch, that he will begin to make love to me. In the moments when I can no longer distinguish if my body belongs to me or to him, I know I am lost. I have lost myself. I cannot see myself. I cannot reflect upon a landscape of flesh. I am caught in a melody of arousal, his hands gliding over me, my hands over him, his awareness of the sensitivity of skin, his thin naked legs straddling me, trapping me in an ecstasy of pleasure. I realise I am a prisoner.
“You think you have me, heart and soul?” I whisper.
“You’re mistaken. I’m your prisoner,” he says and I am glad that he cannot read my thoughts.
What if I am pregnant? For a second I imagine how it would be to love a child and I am transformed into all the characters I have read about. I roll over and kiss him on the lips. Crickets chirp.
“Ant, Anthony,” I say, knowing I’m in trouble thinking about becoming his wife. I’m too young for all this. He smiles when I get up and shroud myself in a white cotton gown. Perhaps he knows I must leave or we will fall into a trap of domesticity, so difficult to escape.
His dog comes padding in, wagging his tail in anticipation. While I tickle him under his chin, Ant raises his shoulders momentarily and I know that I should have left before. I shower and dress, retrieving my sandals from under a chair.
“You love me?” I say, standing near the railing at the door. A tentative smile, like a parenthesis that might contain the impossible binaries that we need, spreads across his face. He lowers his eyes. He would never be able to reassure me, I think, knowing that once I believed I could reassure him.
“The pleasure of the text,” Luce grimaced, gently taking “the text”.
“I don’t know about love any better than you do,” Shira slung her bag over her shoulder and adjusted her parka as if she was sending some kind of signal strung out of fragments for Luce to tie together, fill in the gaps, make whole sentences.
“Next lesson we’ll look at endings,” Luce bit her lip as she dismissed the class. A sequence was forming, scuffing at the edges of her mind. Luce flew into Shira’s thoughts, sweating with unbearable guilt. But why? There was no marriage. No children. Why was it that in her mind, a betrayal is a murder? It could also be a reluctant wave, a shrug of the shoulders in a hopeful direction.
There was something like a mist glistening on the strands that held Tony and Luce so tenuously. She felt it and shivered. It didn’t matter that Anthony told her Shira had never made him feel a deep trembling in his heart. He had never been able to feel very close to her and had to fence off a certain territory in himself. Could she understand?
Luce tried to understand. Love became wild and arbitrary. Between Tony’s gradual moving in and her acquiescence, an earthquake turned Luce upside down. Their love was a game of passion where connecting the dots was not part of the equation. Still mystery, like a terrible darkness, shadowed them. The quest to discover each other’s psyche, swathed and bound in silken knots. Luce was losing herself, trying to fit into a place within a mutual world. She wanted him. Constantly. Always feeling as if she was about to vanish or that he was.
“Will you come?”
“I think so.”
“I need to know if …”
“I hope I can.”
She tried to push Barthes’ words from her mind: “The lover’s fatal identity is precisely this: I am the one who waits.” She was searching for a safe house in which she might hide from the torture of anticipation. Tony said he was no longer seeing the ex but could he be trusted? Then, for some unknown reason, she decided the only thing to do was to concentrate on their holding onto each other. In the summer when the wind was so strong that the spider webs shook and the water on the lake seemed to be blown downstream instead of flowing; it was all they could do.
In the early autumn of her year with Tony, they lounged about her home, together but distracted. Luce squinted as she scratched out a pass and awarded Shira a high distinction. Tony saw and smiled, but could not erase the anxious lines hovering in the corners of his eyes. For a moment she wondered if he’d written the story, and not Shira. He was always writing. She was always reading. Don’t read nonsense into their relationship, she admonished herself.
He was drinking, which was unusual for him at this time of day. “I have something to tell you.” She slumped onto her couch, waiting, preparing for the end. “I haven’t been entirely truthful.” He leaned towards her, reaching hesitantly for her hand. “I don’t know how to say this.”
“What is it?”
When he told her, it was as if she was seeing him for the first time. And then the thoughts …Was one lie any worse than another? Could she love him still? Could she not love him? What was she to do? What can a person ever do? How could she ever really know?
North-facing winter sun floods the lounge room. Tony is writing at the desk in the corner in a slapdash way, thoughts criss-crossing in broken strands. His guitar is propped against the mahogany table legs. He has brought another case of clothes that lies open on the mat, in front of Luce’s cupboard. He does not see Luce enter, twirling her hair around her fingers, slipping off her pointed patent heels bought over the net from a new online store.
Anthony does not see her watch him writing his love for her into his story, his head cocked to one side. He writes with his body, those lanky limbs tucked under him while he taps out words. She leans over him and reads thoughts that defy gravity and her heart surges. Luce is compelled to be with him, like a plum on a plum tree in the sun, turning dark with a sweetness she herself will never apprehend.
1 Adele – Melt My Heart of Stone
2 Equivalent to ‘the heightened pleasure one experiences just before orgasm’ – a term coined by Barthes to describe the experience of reading a disruptive and challenging text.
Rochelle Hairman is a Sydney high school English teacher currently undertaking a graduate diploma in Creative Writing at UTS. Her secret passion is creative writing. She believes that stories are essential in the quest to understand the human condition. Her husband and children indulge her wild imaginings and believe she will one day write and publish a novel.