Dear Gillian: The ship has sailed
I've been seeing this boy for around a month now, and I find myself falling for him hard. He's super smart and charming and handsome and kind of perfect. The one problem is, we are both seniors and will be going our separate ways in a few weeks. I'm trying not to confront this fact but it is unavoidable. I feel like I've really formed a deep bond with this person and want to spend as much time with him as possible, yet every time we hang out, in the back of my mind I hear a voice telling me to not pour so much into the relationship because it's coming to an end shortly, whether or not I like it. Do I just end it now in order to make our good-bye that much easier? Or do I say screw it and keep up the intense level we've reached now? I would never want to stunt my natural inclination, which would be to continue on with him, but I can't help but feel scared that it's all for naught once graduation happens. I want nothing more than to just be in the moment with him, but it's really hard. Help me out!!
— Reluctant Graduate
Whether it’s the end of summer, the end of a program or the end of an adventure, many are the looming last stops on a life path that have been ignored by love. But the advice to fellow travelers in love is always the same, quintessentially expressed in the Victorian poet Tennyson’s timeless trope: “tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
If you were hoping for the opposite advice, you’ve come the wrong place. The history books, poetry volumes, fiction shelves, gallery walls and Netflix queues all brim with characters carrying on with loves that everyone knew were doomed. Good luck finding any whose pragmatism wasn’t pummeled into submission by love’s mighty forces.
Do you think “Casablanca” ’s Rick and Ilsa, who were from opposite ends of the Western world, knew zero about each other and were facing the Germans rolling into Paris, didn’t know they were doomed? Nonetheless they carried out a storybook romance montaged in dreamy flashback. They loved, they lost, but they’ll always have Paris.
It was the same for Dido, queen of Carthage and Aeneas, who commanded the Roman fleet soon to sail home. You can’t stop divine fate; you can’t stop human passion. The “Before Sunrise” trilogy is conceived entirely around short timeframes where the lives of two individuals intersect and then separate. While the spontaneity of Ethan Hawke’s decisions to hop off the train in Vienna with the beautiful and French Julie Delpy seems like a no-brainer, the night animates the entire rest of their lives.
Many believe it is the very nature of love to be fleeting. The examples are countless, but look at these elegant lyrics from the song “Who Wants Love,” by Gus Kahn and Franz Wexman, and made famous by Billie Holiday:
Who wants love?
Love is a joy we borrow
Pay back in tears tomorrow
So who wants love?
Who wants love?
Something to fill your heart with
So very soon to part with
So who wants love?
So you might say that love is comfortable in a temporary setting. In your situation, Luct, the temporariness of your setting may well be enabling, even intensifying, your love. Go with it; who’s to say it’s not the best kind?
And really, you can’t ever fully possess anyone, even if you were not scheduled for an imminent parting of ways. Consider this passage from Mark Merlis’s novel “The Arrow’s Flight,” which sets American gay culture of the late ’70s within a classical Greek framework:
“Do you know how sometimes you see a man, and you’re not sure if you want to get in his pants or if you want to cry? Not because you can’t have him; maybe you can: But you see right away something in him beyond having. You can’t screw your way into it, any more than you can get at the golden eggs by slitting the goose. So you want to cry, not like a child, but like an exile who is reminded of his homeland. That’s what Leucon saw when he first beheld Pyrrhus: as if he were getting a glimpse of that other place we were meant to be, the shore from which we were deported before we were born.”
The lesson, beautifully intensified in the passage, is that owning your lover’s perpetual time may be an illusion and being with them in the moment, as you say, may be the only, or best, thing there is.
It can often be for the best that a love affair meets an end determined not by the lovers (or by one of them), but by circumstances beyond their control. It averts the pain of a one-sided breakup. As the reprising song from the much-praised 1973 Senegalese film “Touki Bouki” intones: “love is fleeting but rejection lasts a lifetime.”
Lovers on diverging paths is the subject of Sir Frederic William Burton’s rich and beautiful 1864 painting “The Meeting on the Turret Stairs.” The 19th century watercolor frames two figures in a stairway, each facing different directions in lost profiles. They seem to hold one another in passing as they continue on separate paths. There is a melancholy tone to the scene, yet an undeniable passion and opportunity for a quick embrace as their bodies continue forward. It’s no accident that the artist chooses to capture this moment of love between those on diverging life paths.
However, if the stress of your impending separation bubbles up some deep-seated tensions in the relationship and things turn sour, I’d suggest tossing before the expiration date. It’s best not to taint the good memories you have together or sacrifice your well-being to see the relationship through as it fizzles toward the finish line.
Grad, who knows what your post graduation future is going to bring. You might think you’re going your separate ways, but look how Sandy and Danny unexpectedly ended up in school together after their summer lovin’. I bring up Grease, not because it’s a profound work in the Western canon, but because it might cheer you up to have a sing-along to this:
We go togeth-er like
Rama lama lama
Ka dingity dinga dong
Remembered forever as
Shoo-wop sha whadda whadda
Yippity boom de boom
Chang chang changity chang sha bop
If you can’t smile after that, the liberal arts and I have nothing for ya.
— Dear Gillian
My column and I are indebted not only to the wisdom of the liberal arts, but to the expertise of my friends, professors, boyfriend and parents in sifting through and interpreting the archives of their memories (or the Internet). And to you, my readers, for your thoughtful submissions!