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all love stories are gossip
On the internet everyone is getting sick, and mostly getting better, and cars are stuck on roads, and storms come in everywhere that isn’t ready for storms, and two celebrities are in love after two dates. Everyone is talking about everything all the time. I am walking home from downtown, counting all the discarded trees, trying to believe that maybe this time of year feels this hard for everybody, that maybe everybody else feels perpetually like they are right up against the life they want, without ever getting inside it.
Everyone is yelling that nobody is talking about the right things. Everyone makes everybody else’s joke but better. Everybody retells their own jokes but worse. Everybody talks about everybody else. It’s the time of year for gossip. We are all looking for something to eavesdrop on, for somebody to talk about other than ourselves, here in the empty spaces left by the holidays, after the trees go out with the trash, in the cold parts of the year, with all the cars waiting on the road for spring and for religion, for the big false hope that comes when the days get longer and brighter.
Downtown, in the small, dark streets where the sidewalk smells like a bar, two people go on a date. They are also reeling fresh off of a year of losses, but only so much as we all are. They are protected by the way in which fame renders people unreal at a certain level. They are very beautiful; they go to a restaurant where everything is red, where everyone is eating pasta that comes to the table as glossy and bright as a new dress. Going on dates at restaurants always feels like a quotation to me when I try to do it, like I am trying to pass off somebody else’s joke as my own. But maybe they don’t feel that way, sitting in the center of the cameras.
It’s all an act and that’s the point of it, this kind of thing. But most of our relationships share more with these kinds of acts, these public performances, than we think they do. Love is a thing in public, a too-loud declaration, putting on a show. Love is an allegory, and allegories are gossip.
I like when famous people are very publicly in love in the same way I like Bible stories even though I don’t believe in them. I don’t believe in famous people being in love, either, but I like to be invited in to just about anything. I like getting to look inside of somebody else’s room. I just like when the door is open, and I care about being invited in more than I care what the room is like beyond the door. I like when stories are big enough that the only real character in them is the person who is reading the story. Celebrities are allegories and an allegory is a mirror. I am the main character in every allegory, in every illustrative fable, in every passion play pulling into town with a wagon full of painted signs spelling out vices and virtues. Nothing is real in this story except for where I insert myself into it. Every love story is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves.
Celebrities are no more real than the people in the Old Testament, running around begatting and being extravagantly punished for things. All of this is gossip, too. Somewhere the two people in the glossy staged photos of their second date are real people, with bodies and inconveniences and needs. Each them sleeps in a real bed, wakes up in a real room, looks at a real phone just as dully addictive as mine. I am sure each of them has a thing they have to do today that they don’t want to do. But I don’t experience them that way and I never will; that’s the point of celebrity, in its old, large-format, corruptible form. This is the celebrity I grew up with in the ‘90s, when the radio was always on and always talking about the same thing, a world that cohered again and again around ten imaginary people and somebody else’s opinion.
Gossip on a large enough scale becomes a shared language. On Saturday, some friends and I gathered sloppily in the corner window booth at a restaurant I had loved for a decade, and which is now closing at the end of the month. It was too soon for restaurants, maybe, but we wanted to refuse the fact that things were changing. We understood that a place we loved could open its doors one day smelling like grease and chicken and fries and beer and like the way your oldest friend says your name differently than how anyone else says it, and the next day it might not exist anymore. So we went to the restaurant one last time, piling up our coats and our bags, crowding in on top of one another, trying to make a long night last forever. We moved ourselves into the old patterns from before; we accumulated glasses and used plates and keys and phones and orders of fries on the table. We didn’t quite remember how it do it anymore, but maybe we never had, maybe that was always what this felt like. Nights like this are an allegory too, a way to tell a story large enough to invite strangers inside out of the cold.
In the booth in the window, we talked about sex and history and family, about being young and then less young, which means we talked about Monica Lewinsky. Each of us was somewhere near the right age for Monica Lewinsky to have been how we learned about these things, about the bargains and trapdoors of the waiting adult world. We each had a slightly different version of the same story, but all of them were about childhood and adulthood, secrets and bodies, the horror and wonder of the first moments when we knew things that changed us in the knowing. We remembered hearing the President talk about sex when we had only just barely learned what sex was. We recalled what we whispered to other kids at sleepovers, and how the next day those whispers were the same things adults were talking about on the radio and on the nightly news.
Here at this table, years later, we were still telling these stories, repeating the same well-known gossip. How old were you when it happened, and, what did you realize, and what had you already known? We tried to make our stories match, to locate the resonances, to make our stupid little revelations big enough to count, going around the table and saying whether or not we learned what a blowjob was from Bill Clinton.
I was twelve when the Lewinsky case went to trial; it is largely what I remember of puberty, and I understood it then and understand it now not as a political event but as the story of my own earliest sexual awareness. It was my first understanding of the players in the passion play about want and deception, sleaze and marriage, fidelity and getting away with things. It was shame and power, who gets blamed and who walks away clean-handed, owing nothing, who gets their life back, and who is swept up with the list of casualties. I had just begun to feel that strange pull toward some people and repulsion from others, that sudden sense of bodies existing in the world in a three-dimensional way. New awarenesses shimmered the air like the heat in the center of the summer. On every TV station and in every newspaper, these same stories played out over and over again, the lessons pasted up in bold-print letters.
That story wasn’t about love, and neither is the one playing out in downtown restaurants and matching outfits now. But I pull at the edges where they might be. I am always looking for any story about love, however trashy or tabloid-ugly, however cruel or unlikely. It’s the only thing that really interests me: what happens behind the closed doors, and who gets hurt in the process, the grand failures and unlikely successes of hearts and bodies. Kelsey started a podcast about gossip, and I was scared of it and then I listed to it hungrily, like eating all the ice cream in the fridge in the middle of the day. Love is mostly gossip; maybe that’s all it is. More tabloid headlines are about love than anything else. I feel almost certain that this holds true down decades and centuries, through the long history of tabloids and gossip, through the invention and iteration of celebrity. We want to know how people get close to each other, and how they break apart, what they promise each other and how they fail at those promises, what they want from each other and what happens when they get it.
I like gossip. I find it hopeful that people are still trying to love each other, and still failing valiantly at it. I am always looking for evidence that unlikely things work out, that behind all of the fake photos, there might be something real. The internet turned us all into the smallest possible celebrities, with our love stories, with our tabloid breakups and scandals. This is old news, and bad news, but I’ve never managed to regret it. I want to know everything about everyone; I want inside all of the rooms. Down the years, old friends and I sat in bars and on couches and outside in the cold and told each other stories about love. We gossiped about everyone we knew as though we were trying to unravel some massive ball of yarn, trying to get to the center of the labyrinth. Did you hear about her and how she embarrassed herself, did you hear about him and how everything worked out and nobody knows why, did you hear about them and how somehow they’re still happy?
Every story about love is a tabloid; sitting up on a friend’s roof through my twenties, we talked in circles, telling stories about everyone else’s relationships. We wanted to know the answers, but to some degree we were aware that there weren’t any. We could live with that because it meant there would be more gossip, and more stories to tell. We turned our friends and everyone we knew into celebrities by holding them up as examples. We made one another into allegories and lessons, trying to find the solution to the unsolvable things.
This friend and I once admitted to each other that these were the only conversations we found interesting. We knew everything else was supposed to be more important than this, but everything else was boring in comparison. We were always trying to turn the conversation back to who was sleeping together, who had a crush and who had a secret. Years later I danced at his wedding, at a bar in the middle of the day on a Sunday, down the block from where once we used to sit and drink and gossip about everyone we knew. The day was bright and awkward and good, the party sloppy and soft and kind as it wore on into evening. Nobody had any answers, but we got dressed up and made one another into celebrities. I took pictures of him and his wife glowing at each other; they had become an allegory, a story so big that it was not about them anymore. They were a tabloid item, love on offer to everyone else, thrown up on the big screen, playing over all the car radios.
The news is gossip and celebrity is gossip, and gossip is the language in which we learn about ourselves. Two celebrities broadcast their dates to the world on as big a screen as they can manage; they publish photos of their limbs entangled in a hotel suite. They offer themselves up as allegory. Probably it is hollow at the center, and probably both of them are despicable, but that part doesn’t matter. It never has; celebrity and gossip are both excuses to tell the stories we want to tell anyway, to twist the conversation back around to the same subject again.
Here we are in the new year, and I want every lesson to be about love. Tell me a story about how the unlikely things work out; tell me about how people stay together when everyone thinks they shouldn’t. Tell me about the bad, rash decisions that last through time, that make it down the years. Tell me that there are rooms where nobody else can go, where best practices and good wisdom cannot reach. Tell me everyone was wrong about keeping your heart safe; tell me that there’s no way to do that anyway. Tell me that what is public is also private, that the known can stay unknown, that something precious can be hoarded away from the light. Tell me that the loud, show-off, screeching things can go home together in the quiet part of the night and close all the windows. Tell me I have more time left, that there is still something beautiful coming, that sometimes delusions work out, and that we can build a life on the thinnest and most selfish feeling, running blue with it down a long day, setting the end of the summer on fire. Tell me a big stupid story about love. Put love up on the projector in the town square so we can all stop our days, walking by on the way to run errands, to stand around and marvel that even now it still happens. Here in the cold at the bottom of the winter, I am looking in every stranger’s window, hoping that they’ll tell me their secrets, and hoping that the secrets are about love.
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