When I left London and came back to Australia I promised myself I’d return for a visit within 18 months. I needed to make myself this promise, or I wouldn’t have been able to leave the places, and the people, I loved.
At almost precisely the 18-month mark, I booked a return Melbourne/London/Melbourne plane ticket on my credit card and flew ‘home’ to London, where I’d arranged to spend a few days initially staying with a friend and her infant daughter. I must have been the worst guest ever: I immediately came down with an ugly cold virus. Everywhere I went inside Evelyn’s flat I trailed cloud-mountains of used tissues, soggy and snotty and seemingly endless. Evelyn insisted this was fine; she said she had a cold herself, and contributed a few snotty tissues to the mountain range in solidarity. I bought an over-the-counter medication containing pseudoephedrine to drain my internal swamps and thought I’d be able to tramp on regardless.
I was wrong. I had a reaction to the pseudoephedrine, manifested as a total loss of appetite, mortifying the evening Evelyn and her man took me out to dinner at a local African restaurant and I couldn’t eat a thing. Then my voice went raspy, and eventually, after I’d moved on from Evelyn’s and was staying as a paying guest in a private home in my old neighbourhood, my voice started cutting out altogether.
I’d arranged to meet one of the people I loved for lunch.
“It’s Elly,” I croaked over the phone.
“You sound like a horror movie monster,” the loved one replied. It was too hard to talk. I let that one go.
At Waterloo Station I stopped at a pharmacy and when my turn in the queue came up, I made pleading eyes at the sales attendant and gestured urgently at my throat. He was momentarily nonplussed, then handed me a medication he thought suited.
“I hope whatever happened to your voice gets… better,” he said, sympathetically.
“Thanks,” the horror movie monster croaked. People behind me in the queue shifted uneasily.
By the time I reached the loved one’s workplace I could barely make intelligible noises. This was unfortunate, as he attempted introductions to various colleagues. They smiled and were gracious; I rasped at them.
By the time we reached the upmarket restaurant my friend had booked, I was reduced to making pantomime faces. The waiter came to take our order.
“The rabbit,” I said. He heard, “Rrr rrrrrr.”
The waiter looked at my friend and raised his eyebrow.
“She wants the rabbit,” said my loved one, completely calmly, as if bringing a desperate semi-mute to lunch was an every day occurrence, and as if he could see no problem whatsoever translating my intentions.
My intentions, as it happened, had been to tell my friend how much I had loved him. I felt defeated.
“What’s wrong?” my loved one asked.
“Rrr rrrr rrr rr,” I replied. Which he heard correctly as, “I can’t talk.”
I looked at him with soggy eyes. You know the tragic face in a silent movie? That one.
I think my friend reassured me that was okay, and we proceeded to lunch as best a pragmatic CEO and a snot-filled silent movie grotesque can in a glamorous restaurant. My vision of us talking, earnestly and intimately, about how we’d felt and why we were not together dissolved in a mist of cold virus microspray.
My loved one assumed immunity as we hugged farewell and I rasped my goodbyes.
“Rrrrrrrrrrrr”, I said, with feeling.
He smiled kindly.
It was somehow unfulfilling.
My plan to declare love was almost certainly foolish. My friend knew I loved him. Or he didn’t. Either way, that should have spoken for itself and been sufficient. There are few things more irrelevant than a love whose moment has passed.
In my blog posts, I’ve spent an ungodly amount of space considering the ethics of when to name names and how to label emotions. I’ve tried to explore emotional bonds: how we form strong feelings for a person; when strong emotions are ambivalent; how we situate those feelings within our life narratives. Sometimes I’ve self-censored, thinking it’s not for me to put words out into the world about particular feelings and experiences, in relation to particular people, especially when those people very likely would tell the story of our shared experiences differently.
In other words: My friend of the London lunch might not have had the ‘L’ word – the four-letter one – in mind in relation to me. Ever. I can’t know because we never directly discussed this. That’s why I’d wanted to speak The Word on this occasion.
As I get older, and as people I love age and die, I find I am getting reckless with words and emotions. Fling ‘em out there. Speak up. Just say it.
Two years ago I wrote a series of blog posts I thought of as my ‘Five dead rock stars’ pieces. They were eulogies for five people, now dead, who at important points in my life were significant to me, about whom I had strong positive feelings. Just say it: these were love letters – they were people I loved.
I’m not saying they loved me. Maybe they did, in differing ways, some of the time, at least. The important point is I loved them.
Some people really didn’t like my ‘Five dead rock star’ pieces. They didn’t think I should co-opt and name other people within my highly personalized narratives. They didn’t think I should name my feelings about those people. As they see it, I don’t have that right.
But the way I’ve come to see it, love is too important to leave unnamed. It’s a mystery to me why one day this other person is just another person, then the realization hits: what I feel is a form of love.
Yesterday, I read an article in a newspaper, an interview with an old friend who has been confronting his formative years and writing about his extremely troubled past. I admired his willingness to try to tell it like it is, to try to uncover his truth. And I realized, I don’t want to wait till this person is another dead rock star to eulogize them. I want to publicly name the place he had in my life, as someone I loved, in my way.
Decades ago, a female friend and I were jaywalking in Kings Cross when we bumped into my troubled rock star friend. We chatted briefly, then we parted.
My female friend turned to me and said, “That was amazing. You lit up like a Christmas tree!”
I did. That was love. I can’t turn it down, or off, or suppress it. It persists.
And halleluljah. Thank God for that. What a gift it is, to be capable of long-lasting, irrepressible, life-changing positive feelings for a person, even if those feelings are not reciprocated or are returned inequitably. It’s a cliché, but love gives meaning to life.
So why am I not naming the loved ones in this piece? And the others who I love, who shaped my life and helped create meaning?
Our lives are now disparate, widely diverged and widely divulged. I guess they know I loved them. Or they don’t. Maybe they do and they’d rather I hadn’t, rather I didn’t. Too bad.
Love shows up and does its thing then settles into my soul. It’s not that it doesn’t dare speak its name. Through life’s inarticulacy, it makes itself understood.