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Thomas and I talked to each other on the internet for the first time on Valentine’s Day, which is a very embarrassing fact to relate. The night before, I had met up with a person I was dating - I’m stretching the word almost past reasonable use there but whatever, we live within an impoverished language - around midnight. We hadn’t planned in advance to see each other and neither of us had thought about what day it was. We had a very late, very long night and woke up the next day and managed to get through the morning without mentioning what day it was and I went home, walking the long sloping valley down across Atlantic Avenue and over the bridge above the old train yard and back up the verdant suburban streets through Park Slope, dragging last night’s hair and last night’s outfit past fresh-faced soccer moms already awake to face the day.
When I got home I was very hungover and I took a shower and sat on my bed trying to comb out my hair. On the internet, my best friend and a stranger who seemed to be a friend of hers were talking about Shakespeare’s sonnets, and I replied with something about my favorite sonnet, maybe the bleakest and least romantic, and best, of all of them. He replied with something else about it. You know how the rest of the story goes, blah blah we’re married now.
Sonnet 129 is about the things you’re not supposed to talk about on Valentine’s Day. If there’s a sex-negative sonnet, it’s this one, though it’s also teeth-grindingly hot. The thesis is simple, something we all know - we want people until we have them, and then we are disgusted by them, and ourselves for our wanting. Desire turns to shame, longing to waste. We do it again with someone else, we fail to learn lessons, we damn ourselves to the hell of unbroken cycles. The sonnet’s depiction of sexual pursuit feels like when someone turns into a werewolf in a horror story, pure animal violence obliterating both memory and morals, painting the whole screen red. The aftermath is like those stories, too: The person wakes up in the stink of what they’ve done, naked and surrounded by torn flesh and lost time. Of course most horror stories that involve human transformation have historically been ways of talking about sex. In wanting someone, we become something we can neither control nor recognize, past manners and dignity, up against the ugliest facts of life in a body. We can choose how we act on these desires, but their existence is itself a reckoning with a mirror we might have preferred not to see, a conversation about violence we might have preferred not to have. Shame follows want; having admitted desire to ourselves, or acted on it, often makes it more shameful, rather than less, makes it feel more acute to live within a split self, the good manners up above the waterline and red-stained violence playing out below, a movie on silent, carried around hot in our boiling brains, under the nerves in our hands. Often what seems desperately important when out of reach makes no legible sense when achieved. We retreat into ourselves, and then we fly at the glass agin, thinking it opens into fresh air.
I finally saw Call Me By Your Name last weekend. I love the book a lot so I’d resisted the movie, afraid it would tread on my possessive memory of Aciman’s prose. Instead, it translated that prose perfectly to film by using almost none of it. The language became the texture of the light, the sound of the rain, the way the windows and doors in a house banged shut and open again and let in the summer. It is a deeply unfair movie for anyone who feels the way I do about the color green; it saturates in it, its dripping sense of living on sick, luscious borrowed time, its siren songs about escape, its plea to freeze a moment that can’t be frozen, the gentle, soft, permitted summer worlds in which we cannot stay. Call Me By Your Name is a green world, the unreal privileged spaces lifted out of time in which we do our growing up, the place outside the laws and rules in which everything is permitted and which necessarily does not last. Waiting this long to see the movie means I’d seen many of its criticisms, too, before I sat down to watch it: It’s unrealistic and dragging, little actually happens, it’s only a fantasy of people without real problems, rich and sun-warmed, there’s no context to this relationship, no logical reactions or outside narrative to ground it in anything other than itself, that it’s only beauty and no utility, beauty without a rudder, a map, a destination.
All of these may have some validity. But Call Me By Your Name is also about the twisted desire in Sonnet 129, that sick-heart thing with blood on its hands, the way first wanting someone makes us feel like murderers, makes us feel that our bodies are beyond us, too much meat to be contained by the wrapper. The bodies in the film constantly wobble at the edge of awfulness, and then at the last second tip over into beauty. Things that should be disgusting or funny instead find an uncanny and uncommon grace; everything is gentle where one does not expect gentleness. The utility of the film’s beauty is this: That we might live within the horrorshow pleading of our bodies, their strangeness and their insistence, and still have it be beautiful, that the murderousness of desire does not render us horrible, does not turn us to a warning or a crime scene, but can act as its own green world, a place removed from time and obligation, from schedules and jobs. The less-than-realistic contextlessness of the relationship - the lack of any reaction from anyone other than kindness, the lack of consequence, punishment, or recrimination - underscores how desire telescopes the world down to a single person, like the deafening rush of sound when one is suddenly submerged underwater. Everything else disappears, cedes to the primacy of the body, the way it sparks to minute life as though another person were a struck match, sucking up all the air. Most stories about love, whether comic or tragic, make their subject the collision of this myopia with the ongoing reality of the world; our line of vision transforms, but outside of it nothing changes. This irresolution is the basic material of farce, and often what ruins lives. We know this story, we have likely read and seen it before, from slapstick romantic comedy to Sonnet 129’s blood-soaked morning after. More likely, we have lived it. That Call Me By Your Name refuses until the very end to interrupt its focused desire is a way of saying that our werewolf bodies are angelic in their transformations.
Here we are at Valentine’s Day, at the end of the long obligated season, the four month calendar slog when you can’t break up with anyone, spanning from the familial holidays at the end of the year to this artificially generated one planted in the center of February like a heart-shaped flag in a mound of week-old grey snow. I want to like Valentine’s Day. I’d like to be someone who defends it. I used to be the kind of person who argued that love should be severed entirely from obligation, and that the obligation built into romance was what made the ongoing of romantic love impossible, a doomed proposition. It’s a neat argument if you are trying to justify cheating and half-truths and other bad behavior, if you are trying to make universal the inability to resolve wanting and being wanted that animates Sonnet 129. It’s true that obligation in love is unavoidable, but it’s also one of the best gifts romantic love offers; our selves who turn toward obligation are generally our best selves, willing to do what is difficult over what is available, willing to pull up out of our habits and into our better potential. The obligation of romance has the capacity to teach us to do this in a larger sense. It acts act as a lesson in accountability. At least I know that it has for me.
If Call Me By Your Name feels static, unfamiliar from the forms of narrative we expect from film and from stories, one reason is that the lovers in it are not at odds. Wanting is not set in opposition to being wanted; having does not exhaust wanting, successful pursuit generates not satiation but more desire. Our inability to resolve our desires is what drives most narratives, and also most lives. A story that lives outside of it is escapist, a dream like the dream of love without obligation. If we could live in a world where everything else was provided and nothing else was asked of us, where we were not required to inhabit either identity or backstory other than the facts of our skin in this room where the light comes in from the window, love might be effortless, and teach no hard lessons about how to navigate the obligated world.
Valentine’s Day isn’t about this. It’s about obligation, a good lesson but one better taught on all the other undifferentiated days. But if one imagined love as its own true holiday, celebrating itself, one might imagine instead the perpetual summer of Call Me By Your Name, the skin-sense of its sunken green world. One might go inside, and turn off all performances, all records and surveillances, shut the door, and let the outside world roar into the silence of a single other wanting body.