A Course in Love
by Moshe Dann (October 2013)
Lori watched a large cricket drag its half eaten prey across the floor. Waiting until it got underneath her rocking chair she listened to the soft crunch as she pushed back and forth. “It didn’t fit in,” her mother had said, happy to be rid of the chair; Lori felt that she too was a burden.
She remembered her parents screaming at each other when she was a child and in the morning, marks of beatings her mother couldn't hide, a pain that seemed imbedded in her even before she was born, and her father's drunken apologies, the smell of his body, his unyielding embraces. Lori was ten years old when he left without notes or goodbyes, fear and anger burning inside her. Relieved that he was gone, neither she nor her mother talked about him again, his absence lingering in shadows, a silence carved into her consciousness.
She wondered where he was and if he was still alive, his image that followed her and his fiery eyes that would not let her go.
One day, on her way home from high school, Lori recognized him in a café with a young woman. Hiding in an alcove across the street, she watched them laugh, touching gently. Were they in love? she wondered as they walked out, arm in arm, his long grey hair flying in the wind, the devil in his step. A silent scream caught like a fist in her throat, Lori could not move.
Now, nearly twenty years later, he still haunted her with the possibility that he would return and humble her with love.
Shouts and laughter in the small park below her window filled the late afternoon. "Thirty-six," she winced, thinking about her upcoming birthday and pushed against the tile floor. The chair creaked an unsteady rhythm, a metronome of desire and regret.
Thurs-day. Thurs-day, she hummed. Al-most Fri-day. The week was nearly over; evenings with lectures and singles’ events, a class in aerobics or yoga, distractions from her mundane part-time secretarial job. Wednesday was the high point of her week and her favorite class, “The Faith and Philosophy of Love,” taught by Marcel.
Classes met in his home, a short walk away and were an anchor on which her whole being seemed to depend. It was, however, neither the content of the course that attracted her nor the half dozen other students in class; it was Marcel. Distinguished, with a polished, austere European charm and manners, his white hair brushed carefully, he was, she thought, everything her father was not.
She closed her eyes and thought of Marcel trembling with excitement as he explained a difficult concept and ‘put it together,’ as he said, the way he put his wire-rimmed glasses on and off, his angular face warming with a smile, delicate fingers holding pages of notes, and his dark red silk robe that hung in a corner near his desk. Arriving early one day she peeked into his study and noticed that he wore the robe when he wrote, a sacred uniform of inspiration.
Opening her notebook, Lori wrote: "Dear Marcel, you have given me everything and yet, abandoned me. You insist on becoming aware, of Transcendent Independence. But I want more. Our study sessions tease me. I smell you long after I've left your study, volumes of books perched around me like birds to peck at my heart, the dark table that separates us like an ocean when I want to feel the bare skin of your arm.”
She re-read his class notes: "We live for such small things, sometimes nothing more than a gesture of kindness, to know that we are still alive. We give ourselves to strangers who devour us with their needs and demands because we are afraid of being alone, afraid to reach out -- not only to another, but to the depths of ourselves.
“Love cripples us when we become dependent upon another. Love gives us hope and leads to despair. In the end, love is only madness -- we cannot live without it, nor bear it within.”
As the sky darkened, coffee shops and restaurants began to fill up. Suddenly tucking her notebook under her arm, Lori rushed out. Walking quickly through side streets, she found herself before Marcel's building. Except for a light inside, the building was dark. A dog barked, startling her. She knocked on the door, her skin tingling as she heard the sound of footsteps.
"Who's there,” Marcel asked.
"It's Lori," she answered hesitantly. It would have been better not to have come, she thought, but now it was too late. Marcel opened the door, his body framed by light. "I'm sorry for bothering you… I shouldn't have…” she began.
"Come in," he reassured her. Dressed as usual, dark pants and white shirt, he wore his red silk robe.
"I don't want to intrude ... if you’re busy..." She took a deep breath.
"Don't be silly," he said. "Please," he sounded genuinely hospitable, "come in," he insisted.
She knew the hallway well: an antique wooden table, a semi-abstract painting of a disfigured woman, another of garlic heads, and one of wild flowers glowing in their frame, in the style of Van Gogh, gifts from former lovers. At the end of the corridor were the bathroom and his bedroom; to the right, the living room where he invited guests; to the left, his study, the only room from which light drooled out.
"I was just reading," he said, taking her arm and moving toward his study, "so you're not disturbing me at all. In fact, I'm glad you decided to come by. Spontaneity is a wonderful gift. I have too little of it, I think," he chuckled.
Sitting in his armchair, surrounded by piles of papers and books, Marcel put on his glasses and then took them off, as if he'd meant to do something else, and smiled.
It wasn't often that she'd seen him smile that way, absently, without any intriguing idea behind it. He put his fingertips together, touching his lips as if in prayer. Lori understood by his silence that she must explain herself.
"There are some things that I can't understand. I've tried, with your help, but it goes nowhere, a dead-end. I write them down," she raised her notebook, as if to apologize, "but I'm so full of feelings that won’t stay ... that I wanted to tell you … " She stopped suddenly, as if balancing on the edge of a steep cliff, words escaping as she clung to them. "I am afraid that I'll always be alone, that I'll never find someone with whom I can share ..."
She watched him for a sign, a hint. "All my life I have struggled with that. I've had some relationships, yes, some nice ones, but no one who touched me the way you do, no one with whom I could soar." Lori raised her hands, as if wings, and a space for him.
She wondered if he was uneasy with her revelation. He hardly moved. She remembered her father, distances that teased them, and his readiness to lunge.
"No!” Marcel seemed impatient. “What about you? Where is sacredness in your life? What’s missing in you? Love isn't what you find in another person; it’s what you find in yourself to share, even parts that are broken, unfinished, tangled in confusion. You can learn to trust and become whole, but you have to let go of what you most want in order to receive it."
"But I have no one, Marcel … except you." Lori was startled by her boldness.
"Me?” he asked, surprised. “What do you want from me?"
"I want you to know me," she said, clearing her throat, “who I am. You taught me what it means to feel passionate love that redeems the other."
"Love? Redemption? Is it that? Illusions. I've given you what I have to give. Isn't that enough?"
"There’s more," she insisted. “You never let anyone close to you. That's your secret, isn't it?" She felt like she was skating down a steep incline. "But something’s missing ..."
"How does anyone know anything?" he stood up. "You only know about yourself," he said, "nothing more..."
"No," she interrupted, releasing her spinnaker into the wind.
"What do you want from me?" he asked.
“You awakened something in me, an awareness of myself. But you...what do you feel ..." She watched his eyebrows pull together.
He didn't answer immediately, a sign, she thought that she had surprised him. Had she tried to plan this she would have failed, she mused, and now, sailing through the waves she threw her head back.
"Oh, Marcel," she laughed gently, "don't be so serious now." She spoke as a woman with a determined sense of herself. "You have so much to offer ...” He looked at her as if a warning, but she was already beyond that. "Love," she said, "I'm talking about love." He shifted uncomfortably.
"What do you know about that?" he asked sharply, glaring at her.
"Nothing," she said, as if offering him a cheap victory. "Does that satisfy you, that I can talk about something without knowing precisely what I mean? Should I leave?"
"Don't go. I'm sorry if I was harsh,” he scrambled for words.
"Marcel, you don't have to apologize. You don’t have to have it all worked out. No neat packages. It’s a broken puzzle... and maybe that’s the way it has to be ... so we can work it out.”
"We?" he repeated, his eyes widening. "Oui. Non. I don't want... I've built my world carefully … I seek no one. Love is such a paradox,” he shook his head. “It destroys intimacy at the same time that it is created. It devours individuality just as it creates closeness. It offers so much, just as it tears away any protection…it can't last…infused with a little bit of death… and yet, what is life without passion?”
Lori listened to the clock’s ticking, measuring distances, silences and words. "Marcel, you challenged us to take risks, to explore, to go beyond our limitations, where we fear the most." She spoke quietly, firmly, guiding them both. "To be spontaneous."
He stared at his desk, as if distracted. "Oui.” he drew lines on his desk, in the sand before the waves washed them away. “I can't give you what you want,” he said, finally.
"That's not why I'm here," Lori said. "Keep what you need for yourself, but let me share what's left; let me reach you. Can you trust me?"
Marcel stuffed his hands into the pockets of his robe. "Trust? Intimacy? Is that what you want? My deepest secrets, the darkest places? Non.” He turned away.
"You never allowed anyone to know you,” she said softly, “or if you did, they betrayed and abandoned you; but I won't.” Lori stepped closer to him, reached out, and slid her hand across his shoulders, letting his robe drop to the floor.
She knew that his defenses were crumbling and that she would win. Marcel would expose himself and that would empower her. "Where does this belong," she asked with a faint smile, holding his glasses.
"N'importe ou," he answered. She placed them on his desk and then gently twirled his robe around them like a cape. She noticed a cricket tangled in threads, trying to escape.
"Marcel,” she said, feeling his body, “this is about love," as he fell into the lush appeasement of her arms.
The author is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.
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