Daan Borrel – Sometimes Love Is This
Four months ago I kissed a man who wasn’t mine. You, quite oblivious, were at home; the home we’d moved into together six months previously. Now I’m in Berlin for a while and I’m writing to you. It is exactly the kind of indeterminate weather I’d hoped for: grey and cold, but not too much of either. This afternoon, I noticed how many more children there are out on the streets here than in Amsterdam. It makes the air vibrate with a sweet promise. Mothers had wrapped up their charges well in hats, snowshoes and ski pants; they resembled little parcels, little Michelin men. All that fabric impeded movement, so they hobbled along after one another. On the way back home, as dusk was falling, I walked past a grubby café. The window displayed the following large, hand-written sign: Ich will ein kind von dir, dir, dir. The desire to give every attractive man your most intimate and most precious possession: a child, your body. If there has to be a union, then why not go the whole hog. As if such eagerness is ever able to remove the painful, grey twilight area between being joined and being alone.
The German text, the day that was already turning into night, the change of seasons in a foreign city, from together to alone: it gave me a sickly feeling. Everything is in flux, whether you like it or not. It’s only now that I realise that the text in the café window refers to a song by the Blues Brothers: I need you, you, you. Everyone needs someone to love.
Back home in Amsterdam I’d come up with the idea that I would write about that kiss in Berlin: not about what had actually happened, but a fictionalised version. I’d written the stranger a few letters at the time, not necessarily to send, but to write it out of my body, my system. I’d envisioned that I would be able to dress up and complement these letters with letters to a fictionalised lover, and that the writing protagonist would end up loving the latter most, the fictitious version of you in other words, and that all would be well. A kind of contemporary chivalric novel. A romantic reassurance, a familiar concept. People make mistakes, yet love conquers all.
But once crouched over my laptop, I cowered with insecurity. Kissing another man is one thing, but to then flaunt this in a disingenuous way was altogether something else. This was the plan of a self-centred chick. And one who would record the entire hullabaloo, would explain how and why the world was turning, but keep herself neatly out of it. Did you ever think that I would be this selfish?
Or is this even more hypocritical: starting a letter which I strongly suspect beforehand will become a much bigger story?
As you know, ‘the incident that shouldn’t have happened, but which I did not regret’ happened during a holiday in Portugal, in a windy coastal resort north of Lisbon. What you now know is that I was reading the novel I Love Dick (2016). This spurred me to write letters to that strange man. In I Love Dick, the female protagonist, thirty-nine year old filmmaker Chris Kraus – thick, straight hair, small crescent-shaped eyes; she describes herself as repulsive -, after a meal with her husband Sylvère and his colleague Dick falls hopelessly in love with the latter. Once back home, she tells Sylvère about her infatuation: they haven’t had sex for a few years and sustain their intimacy by telling each other everything. They decided to write to Dick, together.
This starts innocently: they write letters to him in turn, criticise each other’s words, but never send them. Eventually, they leave him a voicemail on his answerphone in which they tell him about their project.
Chris enjoys feeling like this: her heart pounding, palms sweating. For ten years she’d arranged her life in such a way that she’d been able to avoid this painful, primitive state, but now that her body is urging her, all she can do is yield to it hungrily. The answer to the question of why Chris doesn’t give her hopeless infatuation a wide birth is fairly straightforward. There’s nothing she can do, it seems; after years, she can feel her body again. But why does her husband Sylvère go along in her obsession?
Maybe because he’s a pervert. Maybe because he doesn’t want Chris to be sad, maybe because, for the first time in ages, he sees her alive and glowing because their relationship feels alive and glowing. Maybe because he’s reached an impasse in the writing of his academic book and is finding that new words are flowing from his pen as he writes the love letters.
For the first time in years, Chris and Sylvère have sex again.
After a while, Chris becomes desperate. At her wits’ end. Crazy with desire. Fretful. Flu-ish. She is desperate to have sex with Dick, desperate for him to contact her. In a letter to him she describes her infatuation like this: ‘When you’re living so intensely in your head there isn’t any difference between what you imagine and what actually takes place. Living so intensely in your head that boundaries disappear. It’s a warped omnipotence, a negative psychic power, as if what happens in your head really drives the world outside.’
She compares her state of psychosis with puberty. A period when it can feel as if your thinking steers the world. That when the neighbour’s cat dies, you think it’s your fault because, so often, you’ve silently wished the creature dead. That when you keep hoping that the other will send you a message soon, this might actually affect it. That when you think about something enough, it also exists outside your skull. Thinking and writing she brings the attraction between Dick and her to life. She thinks.
In front of me on the table are a few notes from that summer: letters to my unknown Dick. A Dick I have never known, will never know, with whom I’ve only ever shared a kiss. All I can remember is that the days afterwards felt psychotic, too, as if I was no longer able to distinguish between what exactly was happening and what I hoped was happening. A high energy was howling through my mind and body. This is what it says:
It’s a week ago now that we kissed. At that precise moment we were eating a juicy nectarine on some steps in the early morning sun, straight across from the supermarket that was already open, on the way back from the club to our beds for the night. Or rather, I was eating a nectarine and you were eating plump cherries. You draped them around my ears like earrings and nibbled them from their stalks, something my brothers and I did when we were young. I’ve washed the clothes I wore that night now, apart from the soft bra. Perhaps that’s what’s most stayed with me: not your eyes, your lips or neck, but how carefully you slid the elastic strap back over my shoulder. Intently, the way a present is wrapped in Harrods’ jewellery department.
Never take up writing, or you’ll never be able to shake off your earlier self. Reading all this again feels ghastly, like eating three boxes of creamy Belgian chocolates on an empty stomach in the morning. I remember the place only too well, the warmth of the Mediterranean sun that had just risen, the juice of the ripe fruit dripping onto the ground. The devil-may-care mode. But, knowing what I know now, it makes me feel sick. Not only because, over the course of my life, I’ve learnt that intimacy is only justified when it lasts, when there’s some point to it – but this was intimacy in its most pointless form: from the outset it was obvious that this would be no more than a very temporary juncture -, but especially because a desire can seem so justified at one point, so ordained and necessary, and later on so childish and terribly haphazard. In that context – sun, holiday, a long way away – the desire to want to kiss him and actually doing so seemed permitted; four months later I no longer understand why these two things, desire and realisation, felt so urgent. And yet I’m still the same person. What’s the difference between these two moments? Is it something you can weigh? ‘A pound or so less in your head, miss.’ Or is it lodged in the zone around my belly after all?
But it must be even more unpleasant for you, reading this.
The letter goes on talking about infidelity and the local disco where the entire fiasco – yes, that’s what I would call it now – played out.
Not a trace of remorse is evident in what I write to him. More a kind of invincibility, that is to say, before the tone veers to one of a spoilt, angry girl who doesn’t get what she wants. I remember it felt like a real triumph, during those first few days. As if I’d been able to segregate physical and mental conjunction. As if I’d gained another life experience, had been able to fly home a more complete human being. Fly home to you. That you would get something from this as well, indirectly. I was under the honest impression that I had the right to find out what else, I, a sexual, longing individual, was besides your lover. A lover who had just moved in with her one and only, and to whom it was becoming oppressively clear which scenario was being charted in the process. Even though I don’t believe I saw this so clearly at the time. All I felt was the right to greater experience, something women of the world can allow themselves on holiday once or twice, only to pick up their quiet lives once they’re home again. In myself I saw someone who had taken the liberty to have another go at seducing someone. Testing whether I still had the knack, something like that. With hindsight, incredibly self-centred.
I never sent him the letters. We hadn’t exchanged numbers either, so no temptation there. In all my excitement and boredom at the airport on the way home I’d added him on Facebook, knowing full well that the internet makes everyone a great deal more interesting than he or she actually is, and is forever begging for the distance to be bridged – because this is what distance calls for. He accepted my friend request, but I didn’t leave him a message. He did.
Sample translation by Suzanne Jansen