|Helena Fitzgerald||May 5, 2016|
Thomas and I met the old-fashioned way: On the internet. We met through a mutual friend who also knew us both from the internet. We were words, the possibility of text, everything a curated image on a screen can promise another curated image on a screen. It was a damp, cold spring that proceeded into heart-tearing bloom, the last year I remember when the seasons happened according to their traditional script. I walked around clutching my phone like an external, beating heart. All day back and forth from my apartment to the Duane Reade and to friends’ apartments, I held my heartbeat in my hand, tapping my thumb to jolt it to life. I was dizzy and distracted all the time, as though I had at every moment just gotten off a ride going too fast, leapt to the ground before it had come to a full stop. The greens in Brooklyn saturated like some kind of soft hallucination as spring turned over into summer. I sat on the corner of couches at parties and in the booths at Sharlene’s and at the backyard tables at Flatbush Farm and flipped my phone over and over and over, reveal and conceal, as though I were doing a magic trick. I must have been infuriating to be around. I didn’t care. I told my friends that I knew it wasn’t real, that he was just a game I played with my phone. I wasn’t falling in love, I was just playing Neko Atsume. This text game swallowed up vast swaths of free time. I left parties early, I stayed home, I lay on the couch that was almost the only piece of furniture in my apartment and built a world.
My dad, who has been married twice and has a lot to say about love, taught high school English for fifteen years. He says his classes always came to the conclusion that it is most difficult to write successfully about joy. That despite the proliferation of love poetry, it is nearly impossible to depict happy love, love that works, in a way that makes the depiction interesting to read – only unhappy love rises like dough into the shape of narrative. Whenever he says this, I bring up Frank O’Hara.
My phone’s lock screen is a photo of the last few lines of O'Hara's "Steps:"
oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much
O’Hara was by all accounts unhappy in love much of his life – his biography narrates a series of unworthy partners, men who in a later era might have been called fuckboys. Like many other shining open-hearted individuals, O’Hara was surrounded by loving friends but had frequently terrible taste in sexual and romantic partners. When he did find a loving partner, also like many shining open-hearted people, he had no idea what to do with this good fortune. Despite this, his subject is happy love more than anything else. Many of his poems are mournful, specific elegies, and yet what they all share in common is a sort of intoxication with the world, a stubborn return to all its available small miracles. His at-once easy and white-knuckled insistence on not just love but joy is unparalleled – there’s even something riotously joyful about the poems that depict loneliness, loss, and longing.
It is so easy to talk about strife, to talk about condemnations of the social landscape and the human condition both, to teach students to pry apart into smaller and smaller surgeries the ways in which things have gone wrong. After all, this is a skill we have already learned in the social realms by the time we get to ninth grade – our first experiences of close-reading are taught by the text of the people we know. Gossip is an initial way to practice literary analysis, and literary analysis is always a form of gossip. We take apart the people we know, dissecting their faults, their choices, the events in their lives and their reactions to those events. We create intricate character studies to discuss why everyone else's choices will result in unhappiness. We learn how to close-read by close-reading our friends behind their backs.
But when people are happy, there’s never much to say, unless it’s a theory on why that happiness is fake. Happiness is harder to dissect, as it seems only to arrive at itself – it’s much harder to discuss something that succeeds, as success is a closed circle. If it is more difficult to find something to say about O’Hara’s poems without reaching outside of them to talk about his biography or about the art scene in New York in that era, this may be because all his work reaches toward joy. The triumphs of the heart, not its failures. His poems settle so deep for many of us because they insist on honoring these triumphs even when they’re small and dumb and boring, buying a magazine at a newsstand or giving a handjob in a movie theatre. In his work these un-magnificent joys are nurtured and tended into eruptive bloom. Small events blossom huge in our interior lives, and walking down a street in the morning coming home from a lover’s house can feel bigger than winning a war. The poems offer a version of the world in which we might reach toward others’ joy in the same gesture as reaching toward our own, rather than dissecting faults and hoarding happiness.
Thomas and my relationship started on social media and has lived its entire life there, even once we’d met in person. We are obnoxiously and overly public about our life together, about the dumb minutiae of our days. We send replies to each other’s tweets while sitting next to each other on the couch. We overpost photos of our vacations and our dates and our cat. Anything you have ever talked about or read about as the worst possible behaviors of couples on social media is something we do – I have never read one of those articles without feeling like photos from my instagram could be inserted as illustrations.
I am aware that this is a way of being bad at social media, just like insisting on joy is a way of being bad at poetry. I am aware that documenting my love is basic in the same way that O’Hara being my favorite poet is basic. But, at least for me, this obsessive documentation of the stupid, boring, repetitive things that string a life together is the place where social media aspires to the level of poetry. Love is not spectacular from the outside. Love is about about putting yourself next to someone and doing your life in a rhythm that includes them. It is the way my iphone corrects "love" to "live" each time, getting it more right than I ever do -- we live each other. When Thomas and I were first dating, he lived in Atlanta and would come to New York to visit. When he visited, we would plan spectacular strings of days sewn together with outsize expenditure, over the top eating and drinking, visits to the most interesting or best secret places in New York. I can tell you where we went or what I wore if I think hard about it, but what I remember from that first year isn’t those extravagances. Instead it’s the way he changed the pattern and map of my days by appearing in my phone, text messages that said nothing so important on either of our sides, the walks down the hill near my apartment to the bodega and back up again, my heart clutched in my hand, running out its battery. The way we live each other, the way we became a life.
Love allows us to see – and be seen – in not just our raw or ugly selves, but our boring selves, the person who sits on the couch and watches television, the person who wakes up in the morning and makes coffee, the person who doesn’t have much of anything to say. We already know to praise ourselves for our rare special occasion achievements. In love, we elevate the unsightly things, the boring day-to-day, into the spectacular. Love celebrates another person’s existence rather than their achievements.
In this way, O’Hara’s work shares something essential with the most boring and over-sharing and best aspects of social media. Here are snapshots of moments that shouldn’t matter, that have no distinguishing features on their own except for the outsize meaning they carry for those living them. It’s the glory of the unimportant, the details we cling to to make ourselves matter, the simple miracle of each continuing day – in a sense we’re all winning / we’re alive.
It’s Thomas and my anniversary on Saturday – we celebrate from the first day we met in person, although we’d been lighting up each other’s phones up for months beforehand. I like anniversaries. I like holidays and traditions and remembering dates and times. I like anything that gives me an excuse to celebrate, but more than that I like these things because I believe in celebrating repetition, in honoring the passage of time and the fact that it’s passed. Three years ago I crossed 47th street in shoes I couldn’t walk in and a dress with a skirt like a bell, a long future crowding into a small moment as I shaded my eyes from the sun. Look at how miraculous it is that we’re both still here, sitting in bed in the morning together, drinking too much coffee. And love you so much, the last line undifferentiated from the first in the list, to get out of bed, just as boring and just as wonderful. Look at this pattern of days, this holiday that means nothing outside itself.