I take Jonathan Goldstein to bed on a regular basis. Well, him, or Ira Glass. Or possibly Paul Kennedy. Public radio geeks know exactly what I mean; everyone else is thinking I should consider being a little more modest in mixed company.
Last night, I was enchanted by one of the pieces Jonathan Goldstein read on a May 2010 episode of CBC Radio’s WireTap. A little research turns up the fact that it was also part of a 2001 episode of This American Life. Read it below, or even better, listen — it’s the kind of writing best told in the author’s voice. (It’s the first segment, just sit tight through the promo.) If you’d rather read, here goes:
This first piece that I’m going to read is about love. But, um, aren’t they all.
If there was no such word as love, our vocabulary would be richer, and we’d have to struggle harder to find the right words. Everyone would be so long-winded and Shakespearean in their range of emotional expression. The word love came along and wiped out all sorts of terms in a semantical bloodbath.
Without the word love, people would speak in terms of sensations, like the sensation of standing waist-deep in a tub of warm plum sauce. Or the sensation of being tickled on the back of the knees. Some would say they felt like they had just swallowed a honey-soaked boxing glove, and others might say that they were feeling like their guts had been yanked out and spread across the kitchen floor.
Without the word love, you would get wedding invitations that would say things like, “On July 15, join us at the Five Holy Martyrs Church of Worship to help celebrate Barry Lyscinzy’s feeling of aimless goodwill that he’s decided to direct onto Robin Krupka, who’s receptive to the idea of being with a man she’s fairly certain will never inflict hurt on her.”
Sometimes we call something love because we don’t know what else to call it. When I first started dating Holly, there was one night where I was double-riding her back home from downtown on my bike. And she kissed my neck and rubbed my back through my t-shirt. We were going uphill, and she knew I could use all the encouragement I could get. We had spent the evening with some friends we didn’t especially like, just because we didn’t have the heart to say no to them. “We should go out more often,” she said from behind me. “The way I hate everybody makes me love you more.” Was that a moment of love, or merely an instance of lack of hate?
With Christiane, I thought I couldn’t be in love because her knees were too big. They were the size of grapefruits, and I could not see myself being in love with a woman whose knees were that big. They were ludicrous really. My thinking was that it was a good thing they were so ludicrous because they kept me firmly anchored. If I thought for even a second that I might be falling in love, all I had to do was think of those big, fat knees of hers, and then, one day, I found myself kissing them. I had to leap over a great inner hurdle to get to that, but it wasn’t love that was on the other side. It was just self-congratulatory pats on my own back over how I could move beyond pettiness like that.
When I was 16, there was a summer I spent in Wildwood, New Jersey, where one night while walking down the boardwalk feeling lonely and depressed, a girl a few years older than me came spinning down the boardwalk, her arms spread out. She came right towards me, and then, when we were face to face, she kissed me. Just like that. Because she was drunk or stoned, but she had kissed me. For the rest of the summer, I couldn’t pass a woman on the boardwalk without thinking that we should somehow be meeting in a kiss, that that’s how life should really be.
In that moment, where our lips touched, the way it suddenly brought into alignment the private, unspeakable hopefulness in the heart with the uncontrollableness of the outside world, it felt like as surely as anything else I’ve ever experienced, a moment of love. I say this as an adult who has had serious relationships since, and I can’t think of another word but love to describe what I felt that day on the boardwalk. And that was it. She just walked on.
When I was a little kid, my mother’s favorite thing was to crane her head through a door frame or around a corner and bite me or my sister on the ass while explaining, “Boy, is this a tuckus.” I spent much of my childhood walking around our house always on my guard, always feeling like she could strike at any moment. She was never really any good with words, so this was sort of her version of a love sonnet. At least that’s how I’ve chosen to see it. You could also say it was filthy and damaging, but if you want to see something as love, or even need to see it as love, and you call it love, it feels a lot more like love.