Love: the struggle between the familiar and the unknowable


Quint Buccholz

A, my late husband, decided in his early seventies that he wanted to learn how to play the cello. In his sixties he’d decided to learn Hebrew, the language of his tribe. While he was at it, he took up the ukulele, and he started teaching Shakespeare’s comedies in classes run by the University of the Third Age.

All the years we were together and before them, A. took himself to a variety of therapists and psychiatrists in his pursuit of self-knowledge and what is popularly known as personal growth, a term he loathed. I did the same. Sometimes we went together, united in our curiosity about the mysteries of the self, our mutual desire to make sense of being here, our longing to deeply understand our family stories and the story of us, and to learn how we might assuage past griefs, and so free ourselves for present pleasures.

I never felt I would run out of discoveries about A. I loved his vision of other people: he unfailingly recognised their complexities, and that, wondrously, included mine. I was, he told me, the “richest” woman he’d ever known, and while to myself I seemed boringly ordinary, he never found me so.

I was used to being described as “difficult” “intense” “volatile” to which descriptions I would respond by donning a suit of chain mail and brandishing my lance. But when A. revealed me to myself as “rich” I lost my defensiveness, and my shame at apparently being outside the parameters of normal. This is what the sustained loving vision of another can assist into being: love and acceptance of the self.

We also fought, furiously. We shouted, and wept and threw things. I don’t know how it could have been any other way between us as our progression wasn’t always synchronised, and one would inevitably, if temporarily, leave the other behind. The left-behind-one felt anguished rejection, while the forging-ahead-one grew impatient and felt shackled. These roles never entirely belonged to either one of us: we shared them. It was his turn to feel left behind, or it was mine. This exchange took place quite without the conscious knowledge of either party: we were, on a level inaccessible to our everyday awareness, committed to fairness and equality of experience.

Both writers and academics with considerable expertise in the spoken and written word, both with a high degree of psychological savvy, our fights were fierce and wounding. We knew how and where to strike.

We also struggled, as every couple must, to find a balance between the familiar, and the ultimate unknowableness of another human being. The familiar can indeed breed contempt, the contempt of taking for granted, of being unable or unwilling to see the complexities of the other, of being afraid of any change in the other that threatens the comforting familiarity.  The fear of this loss can compel one to subdue the other’s struggle to  change and develop. It’s a terrible thing that humans can do: hold another back, because we fear what their advancement might do to the familiarity that is our security.

It’s possible, I think,  to be familiar with another and not know him or her very well at all, because familiarity is not the same as knowledge.

To settle for familiarity is lazy, and demeaning to both parties, is the conclusion I’ve reached. Love is dynamic, love is an action, a practice, love refuses familiarity and its seductive comforts. Love sings self and other into becoming and when I’m engaged in becoming, I never arrive at a final destination.

A. is gone now, though he always said he believed we become energy in the universe and in that sense, never die. But he is gone from me in his human form. I consult him, in my imagination, on all kinds of subjects, just as I did in our life together. He isn’t always helpful.

After his death, a mutual friend told me he had once confided in her that he’d had the best sexual experiences of his life with me: I was immensely embarrassed, and momentarily pissed off with him. He’d tell people anything, he really would.

I see now that was a most extraordinary thing for a man to say about his marriage, and his partner of thirty years, and that while our bodies and minds and hearts were inevitably familiar to one another, their fundamental unknowableness remained to the last.

Respect the unknowableness, is the only advice I’d give. Of everyone. Of everything. Then you will truly be alive.


A. talks about poetry shortly before his stroke.



The Book of Longing 4.



I knew, his wife told me. I knew from the beginning.

Why didn’t you say something to him? Why did you let it go on for so long?

Because, she said, I didn’t want to deal with it.


By now I’d learned he’d had affairs for much of his marriage. But he’d never, she told me, done anything like he’d done with me. Fallen in love. Increasingly neglected her. Become obsessed, and withdrawn from his daily life.

He’s an honourable man, she protested. I know you don’t think so but he is.

I think, but don’t say, I know there are ways in which he is an honourable man. But if he were my husband, I wouldn’t be interested in those ways if he wasn’t honourable in his dealings with me. I would feel worse, that he took the trouble to be honourable in other areas of his life, but not with me. That hurt would make my soul ache for the rest of my life.

He is a man who cannot not watch a fly drown, without feeling compelled to save its wretched life. While saving the lives of flies he lies and dissembles and promises, and betrays her yet again.

Better to let a billion flies drown than that.


I imagine a woman so exhausted by her husband’s infidelities she can’t deal with one more, even as it unfolds before her eyes. Even as it matures into deep love, and equally deep obsession. Even as he increasingly neglects her, and in her heart she knows the reason.

Why, I want to ask her, do you think so little of yourself that you admire him for his honourable stand towards others, while he dishonours you, and the marriage you’ve made with him?

There is power to be had in knowing things about another, things the other believes he is keeping from you. There is a grim satisfaction to be found in watching another believe he is deceiving you, and knowing all the while he is really deceiving himself. The art of deception finds many and complex expressions, between people who profess intimacy.

You have no secrets, though I will allow you to believe you do. Until I won’t allow it anymore.

What a hard and dead-end road she chose, if it ran in that grim direction.

More than anything, I wish I’d known his history.


Towards the end of our affair he spoke to me of years of drunken fumblings, of awkward breakfasts with women he’d fucked the night before while his wife kept to their home and the children it then sheltered. Did you feel guilty, I asked him. Yes, he replied. Always.

You aren’t very grown up in some ways, are you?

I’ve always been wrapped in cotton wool, he replied with calm satisfaction, as if it was his due.

I gazed at him, taking in this revelation of male entitlement, the like of which I hadn’t in my personal life yet encountered. Women give him what he wants. It just is.


I’ve never seen the purpose of guilt. It doesn’t stop a person doing something, as far as I can tell. It’s a useless emotion that careens around inside a head and stays there. There’s an idea that the capacity to feel guilt is a sign a person is, at heart, good, but surely the feeling is worse than nothing without an action, or the cessation of an action.

I watched him as with sideways looks he told me those things. For the first time I saw his mask slip. He was testing me, I knew, but he wasn’t my husband and never would be, so I didn’t care what he’d done. I laughed at him.  I laughed at his admission to drunken fumblings and awkward breakfasts. What fun was there in that, I asked him. He shrugged.

I understood it was his rebellion. It was the act itself that temporarily liberated from whatever he felt imprisoned him, and not the quality of the experience that mattered. It was the freedom of unilateral action, a brief respite from the relentless mutuality of marriage.

He asked me if I, when an academic, had attended conferences and fucked like he did. I gave him two names he recognised who’d put the proposition, but I wasn’t interested in either of them that way, and politely declined. It wasn’t a moral thing, I told him. I had no need of liberation in that way. I only wanted my husband. Nobody could hold a candle to him, I said, singing the line from the country and western song because I knew he disliked country music and I knew too, that he loved me to tease him.

Would you have fucked me if we’d met like that? he asked, putting his hand gently over my mouth to stop my singing.

We’d never have met at a conference, I told him, my words thickened with desire as I spoke them through his fingers, now tracing the outline of my lips. Our disciplines are worlds apart.


My husband was unfaithful once or twice, so I knew a little of how it could be. He never fell in love, and I know if he had that would be more than I could tolerate.

I felt many things. But I see now that one of the worst was how I came to regard the other woman as less than me. As someone unimportant he fucked and discarded, regardless of her feelings. I became complicit in the exploitation of another, relieved that she meant nothing to him.

The way that is said of another human being. She meant nothing to me.

She was an aberration we wanted gone, the better for us to “move on,” “move forward,” “repair our marriage,” and the rest of the bubblegum clichés infidelity experts on morning television prescribe, rapidly, in order to get as many in as possible before their allotted time runs out.

This is what in reality might be in store for a woman when her husband introduces betrayal into their union: it is impossible to live closely with a liar and exploiter, without in part becoming both.

My lover’s wife observed him as he lied, for going on two years. What did she feel as she watched through eyes jaundiced by decades of betrayal? Contempt? Superiority? Power? Exasperation? Rage? Grief? Exhaustion? Despair?

Why didn’t she say anything, I asked him when it all fell to pieces.

I don’t know. She probably thought it would pass.

All that time? She thought it would pass?

I’m cynical about men, she later told me.


You made a choice, I hissed at her, my anger rising in reaction to her threat to prevent me writing what she described as intimate things all over the Internet. Nothing provokes me as much as a threat to silence me.

Every time he fucked another woman you had a decision to make, I snarled. Your decision was always to stay, move past it, put it behind you, focus on your marriage, whatever banal phrases you thought fitted the occasion and lent you the illusion of control. You decided to live a life of uncertainty with a man you knew betrayed you.  He wasn’t holding you in place with violence and fear for your fucking life.

I knew I should never have let him meet you alone! she shouted.

A startling revelation of the depth of mistrust in which they lived their daily lives.

Later, I thought long on how a woman must be in relation to a man about whom she uses the words, I knew I should never have let him meet you alone. She should have policed his first meeting with a fellow writer in order to thwart his nascent stirrings of desire?

It was her failure that she hadn’t, and now all this had come to pass?

I should have stopped it sooner, she railed.

You speak as if he’s fifteen, I cruelly observed. The odds were he’d fall in love sooner or later. Inspired by snark I added, no amount of mummy-wife control can prevent people falling in love. He broke the rules, didn’t he? He could no longer tell you, she meant nothing to me.

Take responsibility for your decision to live as the owner/manager of another adult being, I finally shouted. For what that decision has done to your life. For how it has brought you to this, yelling at me, telling me you are waiting for me to die, threatening me you’ll devise some silencing punishment.You think you can stop me writing whatever I want? You do? You just fucking well try.

And don’t blame me for your unfortunate life choices. Sister.


He told me if he lost me he would never write again. You will, he said, but I never will.

No, I protested, no, why would you think that, no!

He sadly shook his head.

And then he kissed the inside of my wrist.

Your skin, he said. Your softness. Your soft, beautiful skin.


Do you love me still? he asked after a bruising argument. In spite of everything?

I love you still, I told him. In spite of everything.

Dead Flowers Two




The Book of Longing 3.

Quint Buccholz Ten

Some thoughts about how we are formed

When I was a child my life divided itself into two seven-year cycles, during which events occurred that could not have been predicted.

The first seven years  I spent with grandparents who loved and nurtured me. Those were the golden years.

The second cycle of seven I spent with my mother and stepfather who neither loved nor nurtured me, and during those years I came to believe I had no autonomy, but that I existed only to be what they wanted me to be.

The third cycle, after escape from that dyad, was chaotic and filled with fear but it was the first two cycles that formed me, and influenced every aspect of my life.

There are schools of thought that insist our present is determined by our past and until we recognise this we are doomed to repeat it. The repetition compulsion, Freud named it, in which we are unconsciously compelled to re-stage our traumas in a desperate effort to this time, overcome them.

This thinking makes some sense to me. The past can hold us in place when the organism’s instinct is to progress. Why, then, would it be so surprising that we would set ourselves the task of re-enacting what imprisons us, with the goal of bending the past’s steel bars sufficient enough for us to crawl through them, to freedom?


He writes, because I am uncertain: I will NEVER be “rejecting” you. NEVER. NEVER – do you understand?  NEVER.

Thank you, my love, for this reassurance. 

He asks me, when he is facing some unpleasant medical procedure, if I will give him an image he can think of to distract him from the experience. His favourite is of me suckling him, holding his head against my breast as he lies across my lap, stroking his forehead, his cheek, as he feeds.

I am at times his secret mother in our secret coupling.

This is surprising to me as I’ve never thought of myself as especially maternal.

But thinking myself un-maternal is  inaccurate. What I wasn’t drawn to, and still resist, are the managerial expectations the word maternal implies. That I will “mother” in the sense of finding socks and knowing where everyone should be and when. All the mind-cluttering tasks people should, after a certain age, learn to do for themselves. There is little so crippling for either party than when one person unnecessarily takes entire responsibility for things another can do perfectly well.

I have always needed time to think. A woman’s need to think ought not to be routinely displaced by the imagined obligation to service the wants of others. This is not what is expected to happen when men need to think. This is not how men are expected to daily demonstrate their love.

I am anxious tonight, love. Give me an image I can go to sleep with.

Remember our tongues? 

Oh yes, how fierce they were!  

And how sweetly they loved one another?

Aaaah! Yes, I remember. Oh Lordy, how I remember!  And how you trace the ridge between my balls with the tip of your tongue. So gentle. So loving. 

I will sleep now, lovely lady. And you must too. Night night my love. And thank you.


I only began to learn how to consciously comfort with my body when my husband became ill. Although I hoped his hardship was eased by my new skill I couldn’t be sure, as he had few ways of telling me.

I knew though, that he wanted my presence and assistance. When nurses brought his food he waved them away with his good hand, pointed at me and gabbled in his alien tongue. He would not accept feeding from anyone else. So I thought, he knows me, and he feels my love.

I spooned the infant nourishment into his mouth, opened like a baby bird for its parent’s beak. Gently, I wiped his beloved face. I remembered as I did so the times when he wept for some sorrow and I would lick up his tears, an animal mother cleaning up an offspring, and then we would laugh, and likely make love.

He was sometimes tender-hearted, and at that those times wept easily. Say Wednesday, he would laugh at himself, and a Jewish man will cry.

I didn’t fully realise the power of the body to comfort until my lover told me. Feeling my skin against his, remembering our bodies together, conjuring me up at his most testing moments. How my love, his love, our love soothed him as he struggled with procedures and their aftermath.

The moment he asked or wrote that he needed my body I responded as if it was the most natural thing, and my mind followed quickly with the few words required.

This is what human beings can do for one another, even when a thousand miles apart. With our bodies. With our minds. I never knew.


In winter, my grandmother scrubbed me in the kitchen sink, while I looked out of the window at our snowy garden in the early evening light. Later I was tucked into a bed already warmed by a heated brick wrapped in flannel.

My aunt painted my small toenails a pearly pink, as she sat beside the kitchen stove attending to her own manicure.

My uncle carried me on his shoulders through the house, and my head almost touched the ceiling, so tall was he.

My grandfather took me in my pram to his working men’s club where he parked me in a corner and his friends fed me lemonade and crisps. More than once he drank too much and forgot me when the time came for him to walk home. Eventually, my grandmother would tolerate his forgetfulness no longer, and he was forbidden to take me on his outings with his friends. Instead, he wheeled me soberly around the park.

My father was unknown to me.

And I have no memories of my mother at this time.


 My lover’s wife (this is how she introduced herself to me when first we spoke, this is …’s wife) told me that after seeing an image of my husband she thought he looked a lot like hers.

I don’t know how to name this woman. I’m discomfited by referring to her as his wife, or the wife, or my lover’s wife, or Wife, as a universal. Neither can I bring myself to create a name for her, because then I will be creating a character who is in keeping with that name, and she will not be her.

I apologise for describing a woman as “his wife.”

I don’t know what his wife meant by remarking how physically alike our husbands seem to her to be. For to me, intimately knowing both men, there is no resemblance at all. Was she implying that it wasn’t really her husband I loved, but what I saw in him that reminded me of my own lost spouse?

I have careful compared the two men in every way. Except in the matter of their physical frailty and need for loving comfort, they couldn’t be more different.

If I was removed from the equation they probably would have liked each other.

A brilliant edginess (in the sense of the avant-garde) was my husband’s defining characteristic, the unique sensibility he brought to every thought, always unexpected, sometimes offensive, usually poetic.

Old girlfriends would visit, and tell me, I just want to have a bit of his mind, and I knew exactly what they meant and we would sit around our kitchen table drinking tea while he riffed, making great imaginative lunges between apparently disparate topics, for that was his interest, the connections between things, finding them, inventing them, describing them.

I think, when considering intelligence, it is more a matter of imaginative courage combined with learning. The intelligent and courageous imagination is a wondrous thing, especially when it is lived through the body as well as the mind and heart.

I know that had my husband loved another woman as my lover loved me he would not have kept it secret from me. I have no idea what the outcome of such revelation would have been, but I know he could not have loved another so deeply, and tried to live as if there was nothing different in his life and, necessarily, mine.

That is, perhaps, the biggest difference between the two.

Maragaret Olley. Poppies and checked cloth image_web

The Book of Longing 1.

Edvard Munch. The Kiss
Edvard Munch. The Kiss

These stories can be read consecutively in the page, Book of Longing at the top of the site.

I return to the Practice of Goodness as one returns to the arms of a long-desired lover. With relief, and a sense that I have always belonged here, and the separation has been harder than I could ever let myself know until it was over.

I have written on my blog No Place for Sheep in the pages Infidelity and the category Adultery of my affair with a married man.

This affair disturbed me so deeply I decided to seek help to deal with its aftermath. The Book of Longing, a title I’ve borrowed from Leonard Cohen, is my record of discovery.

I am tired of the superficial. We love, we hurt, we ache, we desire, we rage, we suffer and yet we speak to each other mostly of the banalities of life on earth, enduring the rest in silence.

The deeps are what draw me. The mysteries. The things concealed and unspoken. These are what I will give voice to as best I can.

There’s no chronological order to be found here. The flow of eternity does not adapt itself to the demands of time, and what happens in the places we call our hearts and spirits has little to do with time, and everything to do with eternity.

I met him, my lover, only because he was ill, suffering from the same cancer  I suffer, though I was in remission and he was at the end of a gruelling cycle of chemotherapy. We’d known each other for a couple of years in cyberspace, sharing the same politically-minded community and interests, admiring one another’s writing. When I was visiting his area I suggested we meet for coffee, as I wanted to give encouragement and companionship to someone I liked, who was enduring one of life’s worst experiences.

We agreed to meet in the Nolan room at the National Gallery. The painting that impressed itself upon me most that morning was the horse falling upside down off a cliff. I didn’t know why at the time. But later it came to signify my own state of mind.



My husband, about whom I’ve also written on No Place for Sheep, had some time earlier suffered a massive stroke that left him paralysed on the right side of his body, without coherent speech, completely dependent and in a nursing home. Not long before I met the man who was to become my lover, I’d spent several months by my husband’s bedside.

During this time of witnessing, I had a most extraordinary experience. Each time I visited and settled myself beside his bed I felt a strange sensation that was  physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual, though I am not quite sure of the meaning of that last term as I have no religious belief. Perhaps metaphysical would serve better.

The sensation as I can best describe it was one of intense love and compassion, unlike anything I have ever felt before, and requiring no response from him, which was just as well as he could give none. This sensation was self-renewing: the more I allowed myself to experience it, the more it flooded into me, and through me to him.

On its path the strange energy nurtured and strengthened me, and I was able to daily spend hours with him for what turned out to be months, without ever feeling exhausted. Other circumstances surrounding the situation exhausted me, but not being with him. I was able to give myself over completely to this extended experience, which was remarkable  as my personality is not at all suited to the long periods of holistic stillness it demanded.

I was in an altered state. Even away from him, the altered state remained.

It was in this altered state that I suggested  to the man who became my lover that we have coffee. Open, vulnerable, grief-stricken at the loss of my husband as I’d known him, yet in strong denial of all my sorrow and anger about what had been lost, I found another man fighting for his life, one who unlike my husband could respond and who, unlike my husband, could ask and give and love me back. He, I have no doubt, sensed in me the loving compassion that hadn’t left me, and his need of it was great.

And so we fell in love, at first sight, in the Nolan room in front of the painting of the falling horse. It was a coup de foudre. And neither of us knew the first thing to do about it.

White Flowers Georgia O'Keeffe

We are eating lunch at an outdoor cafe in a southern city.  It’s winter. I’m used to warmer climates and am wrapped in layers of clothing, up to my chin. He leans across the table, and strokes my face with his forefinger. I make a joke, and he taps me lightly on the side of my nose. Then he says, I love you. And then we look at one another and the look is fierce. He says, softly, you’re mine, and I say, softly, I know.

This is not something I could have imagined myself saying to a man, had I ever given the matter any thought. But I am overwhelmed by a rush of hot feeling that causes me to temporarily relinquish ownership of myself. He holds my gaze, he doesn’t flinch or blink, he holds me there in that unexpected and foreign desire. Remember, he says. We have done so many things today and every one of them is for us to remember. Yes? 

Yes, I say. 

The eroticism of surrender. It is new to me, at least to this extent.

He feels it also. He writes of how he wants me to fall on him while he lies helpless, and take whatever I want for as long as I want and I find it reassuring, the knowledge that this desire to yield is not confined to me. When he writes of his wish I feel in myself the thrill of domination, though it is tempered by discomfort: I am not used to taking what I want without considering the other. I wonder if I might feel silly, embarrassed, feasting on him while he lies still and unresponsive. I tell him this. Absolute honesty, he’s promised, and I’ve promised in return. No pretending. This is one of the things I love about you, he tells me. I know you will never pretend to feel something you don’t. Everything with you is real. 

Ah, he writes, when I tell him of my fears. I will respond. But I won’t touch you. You’ll have to tie my hands so I can’t touch your breasts, otherwise I won’t be able to resist. And then you can lean over me and lower a nipple into my mouth and I will tongue and suck and feed. You will decide when to take your breast away from me, and when to give it back. I will beg. I know that. But you will decide. 


I’m weeping in the office of the man I’ve come to for help with myself. For the last ten days the right side of my body from my head to my foot, has been painfully seized up. It feels like structural damage.

I’ve been to this office four times now, and the moment I sit down I start to cry and then I continue to cry, pretty much for the next hour.  Strange, apparently disconnected thoughts erupt through the weeping. I tell him about my right side, how it hurts.

Which side of your husband’s body was paralysed? he asks me.

The right side, I say, and then double over with anguish so bad I can barely breathe.

Yes, he says, kindly. Yes.




Aching, he swings out of bed.

As always, the uncertainties of the coming day crowd in on him and his troubled heart.

He shaves, anxiety nibbling the ends of his fingers. Tell me, he entreats the face in the mirror. Tell me what to do.

He regards himself, unimpressed and with frightened eyes.

Outside the birds start up their morning racket. The air is still and thick with humidity.

Somewhere in another country his beloved, pale, blonde, with ragged red-lacquered fingernails, will be preparing herself for sleep.

When she looks out her window she sees snowflakes in the streetlights

She sees cold white clouds drift down, and with a weightless grace decorate the Old City.

When she looks at the river she sees islands of ice, jagged and adrift in the dark water.

When turns on the TV she hears a foreign language, a language that resembles the accents of a cold war a language she knows

A language with which he is entirely unfamiliar.

She recently sent him a picture of herself knee-deep in fallen leaves in a Swedish forest where men shoot deer.

She has sent him a picture of herself in a black wool coat and a lilac scarf in a stand of silver birch

A picture taken by an individual unknown to him. In a stand of silver birch.

He does not recognise her in this costume. She is a stranger to him in this costume. His head aches with the strangeness

Does she go to bed alone?

Briskly, he pulls on his shoes and socks, thinking that he prefers her in lighter garments.

Outside his apartment in the busy street the air chokes him with its density. Wet and reeking, he could be in Bangkok, not Bondi.

Last night he tried to get it on with someone else, but all it felt like was hard work. All he knew was that she wasn’t her.

It’s left him feeling gritty. Stuck in a life without meaning.

The Pacific Ocean, blue and glittering at his feet. She’s on the grayer edges of the Baltic Sea.

He thinks perhaps he’ll live like there’s no tomorrow. He thinks he’ll spend all his money, fly to the States, fuck a lot of women.

But what he can’t figure out (and it seems to be the crux of the whole matter)

What he can’t figure out (snowdrifts in Gamla Stan: they’re skating on the ponds)

What he can’t figure out (and it seems as if his life might depend upon it)

Is how to get control of his erratic, thumping heart.

In his new shirt (‘Absolut Svensk’) he strides along the beachfront, his gait lopsided from an irregularity in the length of a hamstring.

As he walks, his walk his attention is caught by a woman leading a ferret on a red leather leash. Around its neck, nestled in the fur, it sports a diamante collar.

Its eyes glitter at him, full, he thinks, of bad intention. Its belly scrapes the concrete. Its full tail sweeps aside cigarette butts, globules of phlegm, hamburger cartons, ice cream droppings, syringes and all the other detritus encountered each morning by walkers on the promenade.

The sight distracts him momentarily from his misery, his obsessive speculation as to the whereabouts and doings of his beloved in another country.

As he watches the woman gathers up the ferret and drapes the animal round her neck where it lolls like a mouldy fox fur his grandmother once owned.

Beadily, it eyes him. He has an urge to throttle it brought on, he thinks, by the animal’s smug expression and its air of belonging to someone. As if it knows his loneliness and is flaunting its own good fortune.

He tries to work up an interest in the owner of the ferret. Long, dark hair, a severe fringe and purple lips the antithesis of her

But it comes to nothing.

He doesn’t know if her will ever see his beloved again. He doesn’t know if he will hold her. Kiss her breasts, lose himself between her thighs.

He doesn’t know if he will ever hear her laugh. Hold her feet in the palms of his hands.

(Slim feet, with evenly spaced toes, well-bred feet; Why is it that the recollection of those feet has the power to bring him utterly undone?)

Sometimes, when he goes home from the café, his mind full of jokes and witticisms picked up that morning from his no-account friends, he looks for her in the rooms of the apartment, longing to tell her what he has heard.

But she is in another country

(Does she take another lover inside her? Does she let him suckle at her breast? Do her feet rest in the palms of another’s hands?)

The stories he has for her remain untold.

His head hurts.His eyes fill. If she ever comes home he’ll change everything. He’ll reinvent himself. He’ll become the man she deserves.

He feels strangely breathless.His vision blurs.Traffic noise explodes inside his head.He understands that he is falling onto the filthy promenade where the ferret took its morning stroll.

His arm aches. Something powerful has taken hold of his chest.

He tries to call out her name but nothing happens. Then everything is dark.


In Stockholm it is the middle of the night. She wakes sweating, and gripped by fear. I must go home, she thinks. Now. In the morning.

 She looks out of her window onto the white courtyard. Snowflakes drift through the streetlights. Snow transforms all stains and blemishes, leaving everything innocent, like original beauty.

Yesterday, in the grey afternoon light, she’d walked through the Old City. Ice on cobblestones. The wind, freezing off the river, searing the membranes of her nose.

She’d wrapped the lilac scarf securely around her mouth and pulled her black fur hat hard over her ears.

Even under the same roof, she’d reflected, they were in another country. Only in their bed, only through their bodies were their borders dissolved in the most temporary manner.

Is this men and women? she’d wondered.Or is it just him and me?

Alone in snowy Stockholm she begs him, Love me.

Alone on the glittering edges of the blue Pacific, alone on the glittering edges of life he begs her, Love me.

©Jennifer Wilson

If I tell you I love you

 Blue Bell Forest


1. ‘If I tell you I love you,’ he said, ‘then I’ll have to do something about it.’

2 .‘When you were an infant,’ I would like to say to my son, ‘I heard your cry through the open window. I sat in the autumn sun, under the peach tree in the courtyard your father and I laid, brick by brick, during the hot summer before you were born. I heard your cry coming from the yellow nursery, through the white window frames and the floating cotton curtains. When I heard that cry, milk flooded my breasts. They swelled and stung, my nipples rose up hard and sprouted fountains; the front of my pink shirt grew dark and soaked. All this, at the sound of your waking cry.’

3. I offer my breast to my lover. Astride him, I lean forward and lower a round and rosy globe into his waiting mouth. He accepts only its hard tip, while delicately fingering the breast’s curves that are swollen, not with milk this time, but with desire. ‘Suck,’ I whisper and he does, noisily like the babies used to, kneading and fondling.

4. When he said ‘I’ll have to do something about it,’ he meant leave the others who had claims on his affections and take up with me in a permanent way. That was how he understood love, as responsibility, and long term goals. I was uninterested in these matters, young and with no sense of the future. ‘Fuck me,’ I whispered and he dabbled the tips of his fingers ever so slowly, in the wet flowing out of me down there.

5. He watched me. He watched me arch and open my mouth and cry a little and he flicked his tongue against mine, all the while dabbling with the most delicious rhythm, and flicking and whispering ‘Is that good? Do you like that, does it feel nice?’ until I cried out loud, and cried tears too. All that love flooding and stinging me. Stinging and flooding me.

6. The child suckled, but with less urgency, drowsy against my breasts. Milk trickled from the corner of his mouth. I stroked his full cheeks with the tips of my fingers. Counted his toes again as I did every day through the weeks after his birth. Kissed his fair brow, ran my tongue along his soft, fat arms. Fell asleep in the autumn sun underneath the peach tree in the courtyard we’d made. Fell asleep with the milky, snuffling infant heavy in my arms, and my breasts bared to the afternoon breeze. Fell asleep and dreamed I was in heaven.

7. It wasn’t always thus.

8. For example. My mother, on a carpet of bluebells in a northern forest at midsummer in soft, dappled light made love, and subsequently found herself with child. Her first sexual encounter, a stroke of bad luck if ever there was one. Family shame ensued. A short-lived marriage. A humiliating return to her father’s house with a tiny infant. My soft, fat arms, and my ten curled toes wrapped up tight in the blanket of disgrace.

9. This was only the beginning of the repercussions of that unplanned act, that reckless moment in the bluebells. My mother’s white dress stained bluebell blue and red with her blood. My father’s reassurances that came to nothing.

10. In fairy tales it is never the mother who hovers, heavy with bad intentions, around the growing girl. In fairy tales, it is always the stepmother, as if the notion of a mother consumed by dark passions towards her daughter is too abhorrent for fairy tales to bear. But someone has to bear it.

11. Children. Love blindly, and suffer, and always look out from their being with hope.

12. Grown up, I lie in my bedroom, alone. It’s late afternoon, and staring out of my window at the darkening sky I see the wicked witch of the west with her pointed hat and her black hair and her long black garments. I watch her fly across clouds made bleeding and orange by the setting sun. It seems to me that she is snarling at me, sending out rays of malevolence towards me where I lie on my white bed. ‘I did not take your life!’ I tell her. ‘I did not take your life!’

13. When finally I sleep I dream, not of the bad fairy, but of sex. It’s a long time since I’ve been with a man. My nighttime lover is a stranger. The love we make is sweet with greed. It trembles tender and dangerous between us, with lucidity too brilliant to be contained by fairy tales. I wake at dawn in the midst of orgasm. The encounter has about it a perfection that I’ve never known in waking life.

14. I didn’t know my mother’s breasts, but I remember to this day how her hair hung smooth, like black silk, like black satin, like midnight velvet, across her shoulders, and down the length of her back. I didn’t know my mother’s breasts, but to this day I imagine them as white, as cream, as milk, as soft, as perfumed, as tender, as giving. I imagine them as rosy globes within which love might dwell, waiting for me to suckle, waiting for me to drink from them the secret lessons they contain, the lessons that will set me right in life.

15. What does it mean when you have stolen your mother’s life, I wonder, as I prepare myself for the day. Is it a crime for which one may never atone?

16. ‘If I tell you I love you,’ he said, ‘then I’ll have to do something about it.’

17. ‘Best not, then,’ I advised and turned my back on him, the better to grieve my losses and count my blessings and dream my dreams.

18. In another lifetime, I saw him in a car park. We didn’t speak. Though I wanted to, though I made those movements towards him that signal the beginnings of an encounter, he waved me back and gestured with his silver head towards a shadowed figure in the front seat of the car. I understood. I shrugged my bag more securely across my shoulders and walked on. My head held high. That night I remembered everything from years ago, with little or no regret, and with a warm delight that I had once known these things, and yet escaped with my life.

19. ‘When you were an infant,’ I would like to say to my son, ‘I took you in our bed, you slept between your father and me and in the mornings when we woke my breasts were full and aching. I offered them to you, and when you had finished, and fallen back into your infant dreams, I gave them to your father. These acts of love I count as some of the most generous I have ever performed. Your gratitude and your contentment, your small sighs, your unforgettable gaze, all these let me know the best of everything, at least for a while.’
20. The floor of my room is made of pale polished wood, and two brightly patterned oriental carpets lie across it, adding warmth and comfort. On the low table beside my bed there’s a small pile of books, a pair of reading glasses, a blue vase holding several stems of iris I bought at the Sunday markets, and a reading lamp with an engraved glass shade. I stay alone now, in another kind of love.

21. Sometimes I lie in this calm room, on my white bed, and through the window I watch the wicked witch in her long black garments that are like midnight velvet, like black satin, that flow out behind her, smooth as silk. I watch her as she flies back and forth across the darkening sky.

This story was first published in M/C Journal  ©Jennifer Wilson 2011