Of course the academic calendar was designed to mirror the agricultural one, the idea being that children could study during the cold, slow months and still help out during the warm, productive ones. It makes sense but, when you live and work on a college campus, it means the seasons are always slightly at war with themselves: we put the Farm to bed as classes start in the fall, and spend the last days of spring preparing for students’ departure alongside the ground’s reawakening. Spring, especially here, especially for me, always means the end of something, just when the air gets so promising and sweet.
DM announced that he was leaving about a month ago, out of the blue, at a staff meeting our brand new boss was Skyping into while he finished packing up his old life in Canada. DM’s last day official day was a couple of weeks ago (our offices sat side by side, the only two at the end of a funny little hallway, so we often spent the morning chatting blindly back and forth); his goodbye party was yesterday afternoon. Just before it started, the boss came in let me know that we’d gotten the go-ahead to list my job, which I’ll start to leave in June, though I won’t go anywhere until December.
I got to the Farm a little early to help set up for the party but everything was pretty much set already; JL sent me down to cut flowers for the table. Only the daffodils are up at this point (still too early anyway) so at least it was easy: nothing to chose or arrange, just a narrow-necked vase of water and a red-handled harvest knife, slicing diagonally near the bottom of the stem. The daffodils dripped sap, clear and viscous, and I held them out to keep clear of my clothes and it was that gesture that dredged it up: this time last year, my bare knees in the dirt, the rest of me in a new dress, cutting flowers, sap dripping, wrapping the stems in foil. I was on my way to meet D for dinner; we sat outside and ate hamburgers and drank beer. I was tender and foolish over spring, over him. (The flowers, however, were for the friend whose play we were on our way to see.)
And then I thought how silly, of course not: it was a little less than a year ago, first of all. It is still March, and last year it snowed into April. Now the daffodils are already up and we have nine chickens running around under cover in Q5, we have a new boss and a new Farm manager, soon I will have a new version of my old job. Beginning or ending, either way: what it means is you can’t keep it, whatever it is you’re holding on to.
The first time I kissed D he was single and it was a perfectly acceptable thing to do; a couple of months later he got back together with an ex-girlfriend and we couldn’t quite stop kissing, spending long afternoons and late evenings together, texting “I’ll miss you” when faced with separations of more than a few days. To say we had an affair makes it sound like we planned it out, or at least admitted to what we were doing. In fact we very carefully didn’t talk about it and pretended that we were just trying to salvage our friendship and that nothing was going to happen, until we were too tired or too drunk to pretend anymore, and then it did. “I like being her boyfriend,” he said to me at one point, “I like that that’s who I am. But then when I’m with you, I just want to stay with you. I never get enough of you.” How could I say no to that?
This was in September of our junior year of college. At some point soon after I went to hear Henri Cole read poetry and scribbled down a line of his that has haunted me ever since: how can I defend myself against what I want? That was my credo, then, my sole rationale for my behavior and my misery and the things I put everyone around me through. How could I defend myself against him, so earnest and tender and confused?
I’m not trying to exculpate myself or my sins; what I did was nasty and destructive, ill-considered, selfish: fucked up. I’m only pointing out that I had to live with myself during and afterwards, and that it was fit punishment. Because that’s not a situation you get yourself into if you like yourself very much at all, and once you’re in it things don’t tend to improve. It’s a very precarious tightrope, the logic of cheating, a wire-thin noose you wrap right around your own neck day in and day out. This person who loved me enough to risk his relationship to be with me didn’t love me enough to destroy that relationship outright, to admit to me publicly. I was addicted to his approval because without it I had to face the fact that I was a low, mean person, hellbent on her own pleasure and willing to disregard others’ pain in order to achieve it.
I thought if he left her that would solve everything and of course when he did it only made it worse, cast light upon the fundamental distrust between us, my deep anger and hurt that he hadn’t been able to do it before. By the time he was ready to love me our relationship was too damaged to survive, in large part because I needed something impossible from him: I needed him to love me enough that I could forget how much I hated myself. When it worked it was narcotic but that metaphor cuts both ways, and the eventual withdrawal was a shattering experience.
Any relationship that ends acrimoniously has its own harrowing emotional trajectory, its own bad echoes and bad patterns. A therapist I saw for a while after graduating compared it to a trauma, which I revisited intently, minutely, a genuine obsessive. If the relationship itself had been a twisted cycle of affection and its withdrawal, classically abusive in form if not detail, then I was determined to carry on that abuse in his absence, making sure that I suffered for hurting his now ex-girlfriend, suffered for not having been able to keep him, suffered because I was so sure I deserved it. “You aren’t a masochist,” the therapist said at one point, “but you are absolutely obsessed with causing yourself pain over this.”
How can I defend myself against what I want. If I had been just slightly more unstable (or hadn’t grown up with my father’s two ill-advised tattoos) I probably would have inked it somewhere. It became my mantra, a fixed point of study, ringing in my ears, white noise against which the rest of the day went on. Because I had wanted him so badly, to distraction, to the exclusion of everything else in my life. It made desire seem terrifying, certainly not to be trusted. It meant that wanting was what was wrong with me. It meant that everything bad that had happened was, in fact, my fault. I couldn’t defend myself against all of that love so freely offered; the only thing was to have not wanted it in the first place.
In the spring after graduation I was living at home in Los Angeles. My parents had a big Passover seder and asked all of the guests to bring readings, something appropriate to the season. Passover is one of the few Jewish holidays that requires abstention to observe; we are not, as a rule, a self-sacrificing people. But I thought that the poem might suit, and looked it up to see. I had not seen it in its entirety since that reading, already several years ago, and it turned out that I had misunderstood the context of the line entirely. The poem is like this:
“I love the iridescent tricolor slime
that squirts all over my Honda in random
yet purposeful patterns as I sit in the semi-
dark of the “touch-free” carwash with you.
Listening to the undercarriage blast, I think,
"Love changes and will not be commanded."
I smile at the long flesh-colored tentacles waving
at us like passengers waving good-bye.
Water isn’t shaped like a river or ocean;
it mists invisibly against metal and glass.
In the corridor of green unnatural lights
recalling the lunatic asylum, how can I
defend myself against what I want?
Lay your head in my lap. Touch me.”
What I had taken for self-abnegation, a wounded and terrified cry, was in fact part of a lovely acquiescence, an opening and a beginning. Cole writes often about his experience as a gay man and the complicated business of sorting shame from desire, especially around sex; this was not about wanting wrong but about defending yourself against that want, and being wrong to do it. What was wrong with me wasn’t that I had wanted but that I had lied about it, and let others lie to me about what they wanted in return. What had ruined us was deception, not desire; what I lacked was courage and nothing else.
It’s easy to trust abstinence because it feels like the hard thing to do, a task set before us: it provides a rule against which to measure our progress. Desire is a big open space and there is no telling where it takes us, where it ends. Love changes and will not be commanded. It’s no use wishing I had known that then, but I am trying very hard to know it now, to carry it into this season of Passover and Lent, of fasting and prayer. Not how can I defend myself against what I want. Now I think: lay your head in my lap. Touch me.
D and I had a fractured, fractious relationship, the kind you can only have with someone you have fallen violently both and in and out of love with: a deep and abiding tenderness shocked through with the fault lines of cruelty, mine and his, which had wrecked the chance of a stable foundation. We met in the bar across the street from my apartment to say goodbye; it was a week after college graduation, and I’d just come back from five days on the Connecticut coast to pack up my things and move across the country. As long as we’d lived in the same town there had been the slight chance of reconciliation, of finding a way to speak civily; now we sat sheltered in the bar’s cool, dim interior, drinking one too many beers each, the world outside oppressively hot and humid, occasionally rainy. It was like so many other times we’d sat in this bar and others, in the corners of friends’ houses, on the college farm where we worked: we’d insist on meeting only to stand off, stare down, each of us attempting to stonewall the other into coming crawling back. I’m giving you another chance to apologize, we’d both say, trying to cast mistrust and blame as a chance for absolution, a generous gesture.
Just after we broke up he’d given me my birthday present, a curt footnote to the whole affair that I’d shoved in a desk drawer and forgotten until it came time to dismantle the apartment— I’d found it again just before coming out to meet him, leaving my parents to the packing. “I have something for you,” he said, this time, and I thought of the package I’d just thrown away, of how much more of this I’d have to divest myself of.
He gave me a key to the farm’s truck, a black behemoth of a pickup so raised I had to swing myself into the passenger seat at a hop, with six inch wheel wells widening out her broad-hipped sides The truck was much beloved and a constant source of tension: who felt ownership of it, who got to drive it. He’d kept the key by accident; I can imagine why he gave it to me now, though then it felt like the worst kind of cruelty. Take it. He seemed to say. You need this more than I do.
Breakups are difficult in that they rupture the present (don’t text him that joke, don’t make enough for two, don’t go to that party— he might be there) and put the recent past under a kind of funny erasure: you shouldn’t dwell on the good times, and anyway, you can’t think of them without questioning: was he really happy, did he really mean that, or had it already fallen apart and I just hadn’t seen it yet. We think of time as linear and continuous, but the breakup deprives us of all the story we’ve built up so far— both the grand romantic sense-of-self stuff and the day to day, the routine gestures you didn’t realize were involved. The books we’d both read, the sandwiches we liked to eat (ricotta, argulua, honey), the movies we’d watched together, holding hands on my red corduroy couch. If I could have moved right out of that apartment, leaving it intact and unable to touch me, I think I would have.
It happens that one was particularly fraught; though we definitely broke up, we’d never actually, officially, dated. We’d had a year of intensely miserable and entirely private communion followed by a spectacularly public end, so that all anyone saw was him disavowing me, claiming that it had never mattered; and who could blame them for believing him?
I was so scared that it didn’t matter that I determined, unconsciously, to feel everything: my own pain and guilt and jealousy, and the pain and guilt and jealousy he never seemed to feel. I punished myself doubly by suffering and hating myself for it; I lived with it far longer than I felt it, because after a while, I didn’t know how to feel anything else. I was the last person it mattered to, and once I let it go, the whole thing would be well and truly gone. I think I was a little worried that I would go along with it.
For months, back in LA, I wore that key, along with the one to the shipping container that held the farm’s tools, on a long chain around my neck. I’d gotten the container key on the first day of the summer internship where I had learned the farm and we’d fallen in love. When I talk about that summer, I too often talk about the relationship, its damages and its fallout; what I rarely acknowledge is that I have the farm, still, and love the place and the work that it gave me just as fiercely as I did then, those first few months. The container key had always meant trust in my own competence, that I knew how to open the heavy, creaking doors, select the tools we needed, and teach volunteers how to get shit done. It meant that for all I was silly and small in the rest of my life, here was somewhere I was needed. I’d always been a fine worker, a quiet steadfast good girl who would put her head down and get it done, whatever it was, but here, for the first time, I found out what a pure and utter joy it is to be really, really fucking good at your job.
I wore the two keys to remind myself: what I could keep, and all I had to lose.
So I came back to work on the same farm, a year after graduation; I watched another crop of interns go through the motions of my precious, private summer, bringing it from cosseted nostalgia into sunstruck relief. It was difficult at first: coming back felt a little like failing, finding myself right back where I’d started. I took the keys off the necklace (I hadn’t worn it in months anyway) and put them back on my keychain. What had been sentimental symbol became, once again, just part of my working life.
The container lock broke last week; it’s been sticky and troublesome for some time, and last week it broke for good. Today its replacement arrived, rendering my four year old key, kept through two cross country moves and too many jobs and that prolonged, hideous heartbreak, suddenly useless. It isn’t that I mourn it— for once, I can understand that the symbol doesn’t mean all that much, ultimately. I won’t get another personal key because we don’t make them anymore; I’ll keep my job, and that’s what matters: I’ll continue to matter to the place, and to know it well. The key and all the past it keeps won’t ever mean less to me. That piece of myself and my history: they aren’t things I’m going to lose .