I always look forward to Valentine’s Day; this is something of a mystery to my friends, since I am the most perpetually single person that they tend to know. However, it’s not a mystery to me; I’m a relentless Romantic, but I’m aware that my definition of ‘romance’ is very different from the relationship-focused, Bachelor-esque connotation it’s acquired in this century. My type of ‘romance’ is only similar in a few conceptual ways to the original 19th century meaning. But since this is a word that keeps evolving, I think I can use it to describe my own experience with it.
Romance has never seemed to me to be contingent upon the presence of another person. Rather, I find it most commonly in a state of sumptuous, active solitude– like being on a hunt. I often wonder how that heightened level of exhilaration could be either granted or sustained if another person were around, but I’m assured it happens; I’m just not sure I’m suited to share the experience. My “romances” are typicallybrought on bymusic in massive, noise-cancelling headphones, the lowered inhibition of knowing I’m completely alone, and a sensation of seeing my own imagination reflected in nature—lofty-sounding factors, but factors that require isolation.
I suppose I like Valentine’s Day because it insists that a freezing February night can be joyful, heart-racing, and this is something I’ve always found on my own. My most romantic nights are the ones that are too cold for anyone else to want to be outside; the cold drives everyone indoors so that I can be assured I’ll have the snow, sky, streets, wind and lake to almost completely to myself. It softens my guard to know I’m unlikely to have to share these things with any more than a few stray pedestrians who will thin out as I get closer to the water; it opens me up to immersing in my music and internal narratives. I put on gigantic headphones and set off, the freezing wind feeling like a glowing promise of solitude, and I start to get lost in one of the stories I’m writing or begin composing a new one.
It’s on these walks that some of the most magical things of my life have happened to me, things I know I wouldn’t have seen or been a part of if I’d tried to share it. Anyone I walk with eventually begs me to slow down, or gets cold and wants to go inside. And so my ‘romance’ may seem incompatible with Valentine’s Day’s target demographic, namely couples, but I always look forward to it as a confirmation that blazing excitement and joy can bloom on a cold, slushy night.
Since this is my definition of romance, I’m unsure if I could be romantic with a person—it’s is so ingrained into me as a solitary outdoor activity that takes energy, nerve, resolve, and a kind of childlike wonder that I know would be naturally unattractive to a fellow adult. Furthermore, how could I expect someone to follow me on these treks? For starters, I walk FAST. Walking with me is exhausting even when I’m not these states; I frequently zip around tall boys on the street. Second, there’s the music to consider. I have a heart-shaped jack which takes two sets of headphones, but I only bought it because I had the same idea for it in seventh grade; I don’t expect it would be very practical in use. I also don’t have favourable memories of sharing music with people; they tend to talk or text during it, or if not, are alarmed by my reaction.
I would never be able to share the quickening of my heart; the steely ferocity that sets in when a particular song begins, or enters its climatic throes; how could I share the feeling of being physically pulled, as if by the gravity of the moon or Jupiter or something out past the Kuiper belt, towards some inexpressible, terrible, marvellous, sublime destination. How would I communicate to them that walking like this, alone in the music, puts me into a trance, makes me feel as though I’m seeing the curve of the earth, only it’s not Earth—I can’t even describe it here with words. But I’ve long since gotten comfortable with the idea that some things are not shareable, and that’s what’s so wonderful about them.
The last time someone tried to follow me, he was sobbing hysterically and demanding I either come back inside or let him come with me. I could only feel oddly detached from his effusions; romance is as much a matter of instinct as it is emotion for me. I felt like an animal watching him, like a coyote or an osprey, eyes with no white in them, unable to empathize with his distress. I calmly explained to him that I go for walks all the time, and that I was in no danger.
“You can’t go out there!” I remember him squalling. I’m still as strangely without empathy now as I was then.
I felt something internal tugging the corners of my mouth upwards when I heard that; I honestly didn’t do so to mock him. But I felt too much like a beast being shouted at by a cleric; the moment I had given into the need for this walk, some part of my civilized self was left behind. And with that unfeeling smile, I said: “No, you can’t. I can.”
I didn’t mean to torment him, but my brand of romance is rooted in something atavistic, something that must look cruel and unfeeling from the outside. On the inside, it feels like sparkling waterfalls, flaming limbs of a spiral galaxy, a cascade of tiny petals about to forever scatter; it feels nucleotides finding one other and fusing, like synopses bursting and reforming. From where I live inside myself, it’s exactly like flying. And I suppose living like that, even for an hour or two, demands temporarily relinquishing some humanity.
So when I turned and walked away from him into the darkness (I just remembered I was actually wearing a cape– all unintentionally dramatic) and heard him howl in anguish, I felt giddy, electric thrills as if he was the melodramatic voice of civilization that I was leaving behind for a foray into some dangerous, savage communion.
It would be untrue to say I’m completely alone on these pilgrimages; truthfully, they wouldn’t be what they are if I wasn’t inundated by the sensation of being watched, followed, cared about by an unseen multitude. Empirically, I know this sensation is fabricated, but then, so is a good actor’s belief in his own words. So is the ecstasy that monks achieve. In light of Joseph Gordon Levitt’s recent film Don Jon (which I thought was brilliant, and will write a post on later) so is every guy while watching porn and every girl while watching a romantic movie—all immersed in a sensation that may not be reflecting an empirical reality, but is materially powerful and meaningful within the mind. Romance, for me, is quite literally a theatre in which my brain and nerves interface with natural stimuli to put on a show of such spectacle that even ancient Greek audiences would find it tasteless. Romance is a co-production between two major opera houses with the express intention of making the fresco’d ceilings crack and melt. When I see conductors lose themselves to the keystone role they play, bridging the performers and the orchestra who can’t interface directly– I feel such vibrant recognition. Vibrant– almost violent. Seeing how deeply invested a conductor becomes while pulling these two behemoths together makes me go “YES– I know that feeling!” Obviously they undergo far more training and are far more disciplined than I, but I recognize what it is to contain both, and it’s not just a trance– romance is power.
Power, and the feeling of being powerless at the same time, swallowed up, consumed by the experience. To fully immerse in an illusion so marvellous that it makes every snowflake incandescent; it gives the lake a voice, and makes it feel like every star in the sky (which in downtown Toronto isn’t much) is interested in what I’m doing, in my thoughts. I used to think this was arrogant, but I’m more forgiving now. I’ve recognized that I’m never more vulnerable than in these moments, rarely more humble that I am in the face of the massive universe I feel acutely connected to—and strangely, loved by. These episodes of high romance are incredibly redemptive, and they wash away the frustration, despondency, and loneliness that builds up from living in a world where one appears so perverse to most everyone else. I always feel so loving afterwards, not just of this alien world but of myself. For a little while after, I feel like I belong on this planet.
People tell me this is how their boyfriend or girlfriend makes them feel; believe me, I may have my own peculiar brand of romance, but I’m hardly insensitive to how lovely that is. And though I have no personal experience with that, I completely believe it’s authentic and true. Friends sometimes assume that I’m cynical and bitter about love just because I’m so rarely impressed by the options, but this could not be less true. I’m a huge fan of love; I just don’t necessarily think it’s interchangeable with or necessary for romance. Romance, for me, is purer than love; it’s nearer to nature. Romance makes my eyes go black, my lungs fill with liquid mercury, and draws me away from safety.
I might someday figure out how to share this wilderness with another person, but I’m not in any rush to do so. It took me about eight years longer than other kids to make friends and much longer to even be attracted to someone—I’m comfortable being a decade or so behind a few curves. I can almost imagine, when I really push myself, what it’d be like to share a piece of music with someone, but when I get close, I actually feel my cheeks get hot and I’m too embarrassed to continue thinking about it. Like how sometimes I can’t watch the gushy scenes in movies; not because I find them schmaltzy– ask some of my friends. They’ll tell you I hide behind a pillow or a stuffed animal at a particularly sincere, tender moment between the romantic leads. Maybe because I think if I was in that situation, it would be unbearably intimate. How does anyone maintain eye contact with someone they like?! How do you hold their hand without blushing and screaming and jumping around?? Sorry– those are questions for my next post.
In the meantime, I’d like to be able to offer an alternative kind of romance to anyone who is unhappy to be single on Valentine’s day: give yourself some credit. You’re probably capable of creating your own romance if you allow yourself to follow a crazy, exhilarating instinct.
Finally, romance is something I say is an immersion in productive illusions, which is true—empirically. I’ve delineated here how profoundly these illusions affect my life, but what that black-eyed coyote-osprey doesn’t want you to know is that I only half-believe that romance is just belief ❤