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Modern Love

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Modern love: An empty heart is one that can be filled

By Lily King
New York Times
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Brian Rea for The New York Times - BRIAN REA FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
UNDATED -- BC-MODERN-LOVE-HEARTBREAK-ART-NYTSF -- //no caption. (CREDIT: Brian Rea for The New York Times)

I was 31 before I got my heart broken.

It was spring and I had quit my job and driven across country to an artists’ colony in New England, the kind of place that provides you with a cabin in the woods that is not within sight of any of the other cabins. My residency was for eight weeks. I hoped to finish my first novel there.

The poet arrived a week after I did. He was too skinny, but his eyes were very blue. I think his first words to me were something about how his throat felt tight. I was feeling the same thing, I told him. Maybe, he said, it was a reaction to the MSG they put in the food.

A rumor was circulating that MSG came in by the case to the back door of the kitchen.

My first joke with the poet was about “Lolita.” We were sitting at dinner and another writer was waxing on about the novel. The poet and I both said that the disturbing pedophilia canceled out the luscious prose and we could not worship it the way we would like.

Actually, we may have just caught eyes, not having to explain (love means never having to explain the misogynistic pedophilia of “Lolita”), and the other writer fought back, so the poet held up his napkin as a screen between the “Lolita” fans and us. Everyone laughed. I swooned.

A few nights later we watched short films made by other residents. There were no seats left so we stood in the back. He was behind me, breathing into my hair, our bodies seeming to speak to each other in the dark.

When it was over, with hardly a word, we got into my car and drove out of town. We ended up in a village that had been transported back to 1969 by a film crew.

On the way home he pressed his lips to my neck. The memory of it made my stomach flip all night long. Later he wrote a poem about how the water where we swam turned our arms to amber. I fell for him so fast, and as if through space, no planet in sight.

“Stay away from him,” my mother said to me when we spoke on the phone. “You’re there to write, so write.”

I had been revising the same short chapter for weeks. To keep all the anxiety at bay, I had embraced a brutal workout regimen: running a 12-mile loop, swimming across the lake and playing tennis. This didn’t leave much time to write.

The poet left a week before I did. We said goodbye in the parking lot. He got into his truck, and as I leaned in the window, he touched his chest and said, “You are deep in here.”

I tried to believe this was the way a poet says “I love you.” But I knew it was more like the way someone who is not in love dodges those words at the moment they are expected.

After that, I wanted to leave, too.

My sister in Massachusetts took me in. She lived in a carriage house with her boyfriend who had a friend who got me a job waiting tables at a fancy restaurant in Cambridge.

In August the poet came to visit, but he stayed with friends in Boston. We drove out to Walden Pond three days in a row. We talked and swam and pretended our arms were still amber, but they were not.

On the last of those days he dropped me off at the Sunoco station on Memorial Drive where I had left my bike. It was over.

Losing love

I was crying in public. But I marveled, too. I marveled at the feeling of being heartbroken.

Perhaps because it had happened so fast, I didn’t numb up. And I found this feeling, even through my tears, interesting.

I ran on the paths along the Charles River and I thought: This is what happens to people. This is what people and books and movies are talking about when they talk about losing love. People’s hearts break and it feels like this. It feels like someone has beaten you up with brass knuckles.

But it also felt like the universe was welcoming me in. I was heartbroken, but I felt less alone than I had in a long while.

In November I met a man I liked. He asked me out, then canceled on the morning of our first date, saying on my sister’s machine that he had to leave town unexpectedly. He wrote me a letter saying he would be back before New Year’s. The letter was postmarked New Mexico. He said I could write him there, at his aunt’s, but I didn’t. I wrote him off. Another man who isn’t ready, I thought.

The poet came back on a cold night. We walked my sister’s dog. He played me a video of his father, who was mentally ill, that he had recorded that day. I watched and felt terrible for him. He sat on my sister’s couch, and I saw the full breadth of his pain.

My heart was ready

When I walked him to his truck that night, there was a defeated, restless charge between us, and I punched him in the stomach, lightly, but he looked alarmed by something he saw in me, perhaps everything I wanted that he couldn’t give. After he drove away it began to snow, and I was glad the first snow of the year had held off until he was gone.

A week later the man in New Mexico came back East. We had our first date, and many more. And I married him. My heart was ready for him, for his kindness and honesty; his easy, steady love for me. For that kind of love: the mutual kind.

My heart was open, because I had finally let it break.

Lily King lives in Maine. Her fourth novel is “Euphoria.”
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