for A. S.
You are what you love, not what loves you.Donald Kaufman, Adaptation, 2002
In a dream, Orpheus meets his friend Pop Psychology, whom he hasn’t seen in years. She has secured a table for them at her student bar, near a window overlooking the sandstone campus. The courtyard is filled with pigeons fighting over the many food scraps the students leave behind. Orpheus and Pop Psychology sit face to face, sipping their drinks; water for him, and a beer for her. She looks just as she did when he last saw her; the same gold and lavender features Orpheus bears, except for her hair, which she has dyed the colour of slate. Unlike Orpheus, whose hair is a mess of strings, and whose clothes never make the most of his build, her appearance is coherent and neat.
“How’s life?” she asks. “I see you still don’t drink.”
“And you still do.”
“Unlike you I don’t have control issues,” she says.
“I don’t have issues,” says Orpheus, slurping his water loudly, which he knows she hates.
Pop Psychology looks at Orpheus’s indigo-stained hands.
“What happened?” she asks.
“Nothing,” he says. “I’m grieving.”
“What for?” Her nails are long and dark, smooth as roller rinks.
“I’ve lost Eurydice.”
“Haven’t we all,” she says. “Where’d she go?”
“Self-imposed stint in Hades. Committed herself to the place a few weeks after the wedding, when a viper bit her ankle. Just walked in there as if it was a detox centre and said, ‘This is where I’ll be from now on. Everything else is too much for me.’”
“So she’s not lost, exactly, just gone.”
“That distinction doesn’t help my grief.”
“Do you visit her?”
Orpheus sighs. “As often as my heart can bear it. Sometimes I let a few visits slide, and during my absence she appears to me in dreams, so vividly that awakening to reality without her feels impossibly painful. But the more often I visit her, the less she seems to see me, as if her memory of me is fading away.”
“So why are you on a date with me?” asks Pop Psychology.
“This is a date?”
Pop Psychology shrugs and takes a sip of her beer. “Well, they say anything’s a date in a dream. I’ll tell you something we have in common. I’ll tell you in a few minutes and you’ll see that I’m right. Are you still writing? How’s the music?”
“Don’t ask. I come here to rest, you know.”
Suddenly, the expression on Pop Psychology’s face is very serious. “I know it hurts to want something so much, Orpheus.”
“I feel doomed, sometimes, you know.”
“I’m sorry, buddy. I don’t know Eurydice, but she sounds like a person who’s not done grieving.”
“Grieving?” says Orpheus. “She’s the one who left.”
“The grieving we all go through when we’re releasing our past. Her healing cycle may still be incomplete, and whenever she opens up, she sees that things inside her are raw and unfinished, and it freaks her out. You were like this too, remember?”
“Was I? Are you sure?”
“I remember it vividly,” she says. “You were convinced that the pain of past loves would replicate itself in new ones by default. At the same time, you kept hoping the past would somehow return to make amends and close the painful loop. Then one day you woke up and realised you’d closed it yourself. Remember how bright and vivid the present suddenly felt? Maybe Eurydice is just like you; she, too, has lost a part of herself in the past, and is trying to rebuild herself. She may just be slow at licking her wounds. The cold and isolation of Hades slows you down if you let it.”
Orpheus drains his water. “So what has she lost?”
“Who can say? Everyone leaves different parts in his past.”
“What did you left behind, Poppy?”
“I think we’re a lot alike, Orpheus, we have been for a long time. We both love very intensely, very deeply, with great focus. But for a while, I was different. I loved someone who hurt himself, again and again, stuffed himself with pills and left me to deal with the aftermath, again and again. Someone I came home to each day to find he had beaten himself to a pulp. While this man’s need for me was great, while he was ravenous for the soothing I could provide, he himself had very little to give. I emptied myself out to this person for years, drove him to the various hospitals in which he stayed. I understood that this was all I would ever be to this man, nothing more. I was not an equal but a carer, a parent. I loved him but received so little in return that one day I was utterly empty, and because I had nothing left to give, I disappeared.”
“I remember,” says Orpheus. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“I know that now. But I spent years wondering if I’d behaved selfishly by leaving, by choosing my sanity over him. I began to shut people out, allow close to me only those who were so dull, stable and uncaring they seemed safe, because those people would never need me like this man had needed me. My capacity for love had become a dangerous thing, and any sensitive person I felt drawn to reminded me of the emptiness I still felt.”
“Do you remember,” asks Orpheus, “all those nights we sat on that bench near the duckpond and talked about cannibalism?”
Pop Psychology smiles. “I do,” she says. “I miss those days.”
“Me too. Things seemed so much easier then.”
“Do you remember” asks Pop Psychology, “the man we met near that pond, who told us that after a relationship ends the self is like infertile earth for a while, that you have to work hard to figure out what will still grow after the scorching, and for a while not much will. And then, with time, because there is always seed floating in the air, things once again begin to take hold, a self emerges in patches, but it seems too good to be true, and you become jealous and guarded, draping yourself over this plot of earth in which small seedlings have again begun to tremble, and anyone approaching it you fend off with a snarl. ‘Not again, you think, it was too hard getting things to grow again, it took so long, my plants are not ready yet to withstand being trampled by an other’s feet.’ This is normal, of course, the man said. But sometimes we are so busy cowering over our young and tender garden that we don’t see that, among those approaching us, some carry fertiliser, eggshells and coffee grounds, that among them some have greener thumbs than we do. It’s a fragile place, the man said, and it’s hard to let anyone back in.”
“Vaguely,” says Orpheus. “We met a lot of strange people then.”
“I thought of that story years ago,” says Pop Psychology, “when I was hesitant to open myself up to someone new, a man who wanted to love me. I resented the hell out of that story then.”
“Not for any good reason. I just thought such allegories were holier-than-thou bullshit, useless while you’re in the thick of it. Who in their right mind would, in the midst of a crisis, act in unguarded ways, based on emotional growth? That’s when our instincts kick in, and our instincts often follow old and useless patterns. That’s what it was like for me, too, and I felt rebellious then, so deeply human.”
“What happened with the new man?”
“For over a year,” says Pop Psychology, “I made him suffer the wrath of my most smug and self-righteous humanity. He was wrong, I decided, for wanting me, for seeing the good in me even though I saw myself as only half a person, a wreck. I told myself that there were so many things I had to achieve before I could run the risk of losing myself to someone else again. I was determined to brush him off, the way I had anyone else who’d approached me. But the man stayed, quietly, calmly, with his bag of fertiliser in his hand, tending his own garden in silence next to mine, only offering gentle reassurance every once in a while.”
“Wasn’t he angry?” asks Orpheus.
“Maybe he was, but he never seemed angry with me. After a while, realising he was still there, I began to look over at his garden and saw that there, too, much had been devastated and scorched. But unlike me he didn’t drape himself jealously over the few sprouts he had growing, but simply sat next to them, made small adjustments to the looseness of the earth and the shadow he provided, and left the whole thing out to be seen just as it was.”
“What were you scared of?” ask Orpheus.
“Losing what I’d spent so long rebuilding, this self that didn’t yet amount to the person I wanted to be. Love seemed like a distraction, and I wanted only to focus on my achievements, my solitary stability; those were things that felt a lot easier to hold on to somehow. Love was slippery, and involved another person’s whims, and I wanted to be selfish after having spent so long unable to put myself first. I thought about what it had felt to witness another person break down in front of me so many times, and I knew I couldn’t do it again.”
“What did the man say?” asks Orpheus.
“Surprisingly little. He listened, mostly. He listened to a lot of my fears, anger, and unrelated complaints. He listened to my silence, too, sometimes for weeks. He listened to the things I said to try and drive him away. He listened to my self-loathing and misanthropy. He smiled at me in return. Sometimes he’d lay a finger gently into my palm, the way you do with a baby when it has nothing to hold on to. Sometimes, if a plant in his garden had a flower to spare, he’d pick it and hold it out towards me. His flowers were so different in colour to mine, so strange in their shapes, but beautiful.”
“Did you ever open up to him?”
“I did,” says Pop Psychology, “after a while.”
“Because I wanted him. Because I’d grown stronger by then, and was learning to trust that he wouldn’t fall apart like the other man had. I’d looked into him and seen a gentle stability cradling all his chaos.”
“Did he still want you?”
“He showed me every plant that had grown in my absence; he let me touch every single one of their leaves. I think he saw me clearly. I don’t understand how, or why, but he did. He just reached into what was difficult and broken about both of us, as if it were easy. Whatever he found, it never made him run. He sat with it and held it in his heart.”
“Were you happy?”
“Don’t underestimate how good it feels to be seen by someone, and see them clearly in return. Don’t underestimate how good it feels to be loved by someone whose spirit resonates with yours. Yes, Orpheus, I was happy. Until, well, you know.”
“I know,” says Orpheus. “I’m sorry.”
They sit quietly for a while, holding on to their empty glasses. Outside, the clouds are purple and green, and the ground is covered in the agitation of birds. Orpheus looks at Pop Psychology’s placid face, the darkening in her eyes, and the gentle smile, as if chiselled into the bone.
He lays his hand on her forearm. It feels as solid and quiet as touching a tree. “I’m really glad I got to see you, Poppers,” he says. “I was sure you had died.”
She looks up at him, then out of the window at the bobbing layer of wings.
“Let’s not speak of it, Orpheus,” she says. “The dream is nearly over. This is a nice moment, too nice for sadness, which will return soon enough. I, too, am glad to see you.”