I mention this not only because it is characteristic of nearly everything that is wrong with me, but because it may make it easier to understand how, a week after Isaac kicked me to the curb, it was possible for me to be unsure of how I felt (beyond "sucky"). In both cases, where a shriek of unbridled agony would have been more the proper response, I could only murmur, "That hurt quite a lot, actually."
Fortunately, I have a therapist who specializes in emotional retardation. When I told her that, in the week since Isaac had broken up with me, I'd had difficulty working or even conversing intelligently, it finally occurred to me what any six-year-old of normal intelligence would have realized immediately: I was mad at him, and mad as hell. He had acted, totally uncharacteristically, like a despicable coward, and I was furious. And I wanted to tell him so.
I am not good with confrontation, folks. I come from a family where disagreements are smoothed over as quickly as possible, no matter what the emotional cost to those involved. But if I was going to be mad at Isaac for being a coward, I was going to have to make sure that I didn't act like one myself. This meant flouting what I had been taught all my life by the people who loved me most, the people who taught me how to read and how to ride a bike, how to tie my shoes and how to make a sandwich: it meant telling Isaac that I was angry.
Generations of my forebears groaned and rolled over in their graves to hear the melodramatic way in which I carried on once I had gotten him on the phone. "What is it you want from me?" he asked, testily but not too testily, because he knew he had no right to be angry. And I replied, "I don't want anything from you; I just have to tell you how I feel. You say that I won't let this consume my life because I'm too sensible. But I'm tired of being sensible. I have a heart. And I can't read or write or even talk now, because you decided to jettison me once I was no longer convenient. You say I'm not supposed to let this consume me?"
I had planned to work myself up into a splendid high dudgeon and then slam the phone down. But an odd thing happened. We started to have a conversation -- the kind that I imagine police officers and hapless janitors have with people sitting on ledges. Keep him talking, said the voices of my stoic ancestors. If you're going to sob and carry on like some unmedicated schizophrenic, you had damn well have something to show for it, at least; or must we disown you completely?
So I kept him talking. I told him that I had never loved anyone the way I loved him; I had had intimations of this kind of love, but none quite like it, and I found it satisfying in a new and very interesting way. Before, when I had loved, I would catch myself wishing that the loved one were slightly different in one way or another; what I loved was not so much a person as an imagined ideal of which a person happened to be a crude approximation. "Now that you've seen how selfishly I behaved, do you wish I were different?" he asked.
"No," I said. "But I wish you had acted differently."
He told me that every time he saw me it was like falling in love with me all over again, and that it was torment every time I left. He couldn't stand it, he said. My non-presence, the absence that had the shape of me, wasn't enough to remind him of what it was like to have me around; he couldn't love a lack. Not, anyway, with enough force that he was willing to wait for the presence that the absence implied.
Who's asking you to wait? I asked. Who's asking you to promise anything? People can't promise things. The heart is a psychopath that wants what it wants -- if it stops loving me, or starts loving someone else, there isn't anything you can do about it. But it doesn't have to be all or nothing. It doesn't have to be either giving me my walking papers or this waiting, this promising, like some whaling widow pacing her balcony. Other people have done this kind of thing before and muddled through it somehow. And anyway, let's face it: how often does either one of us get a date?
Not often, he had to admit.
In the end -- after hours of conversation the details of which would be very tedious to anyone but me or him -- I talked him around. We settled on conditions, professed enormous relief, and hung up to collapse in mutual psychic exhaustion. My spirits were higher than they had been in as long as I could remember: I had averted disaster, postponed it at the very least, and all because I had summoned my courage and done the very thing I had always been taught not to do. I had owned my anger, and it had succeeded where love alone had failed.
I realized that my anger was part of my love, because they were both part of me. I couldn't have been more surprised if you'd told me that forest fires help forests grow, or that a mild strain of the measles will prevent one from getting sick, or that predators improve the genetic stock of their prey.