He offered me space and peace to pursue my memoirs without his influence, the next stage of my life. Where does such a thought come from? Even my more cynical side didn’t think, “Oh, that’s an excuse, he’s backing off. About a year later, I gave him the manuscript to read. I didn’t expect the answer to be 20,000 words in two colors of ink: one for, ‘Jesus, new girlfriend, what you’ve been through!’ and another for, ‘A semicolon might work better here.’ It wasn’t easy getting your most loving book edited by a writer you greatly admire and engage with. Especially when he has the ruthless eye and that old Dutch candor. But guess what. It was worth it.
We don’t live together. We don’t need it. When we met he was living in the Highlands, and when he left in 2016 I helped him find an apartment, aware of the poem in which he thanks Eva for “choosing well” an old home. But he and I don’t have kids and we’re not building lives. We already have lives. I love London and cider and capsizing dinghies; I lower the top of the car and head south singing along with Hank Williams. He likes intense overhead lighting, database CDs and comic book compilations in what he calls his burrow and spreading things out on the floor. He doesn’t swim, drink or stand the sun. I am physically unable to stay indoors when the weather is nice. I love his little garden which he never goes to and he has agreed to water it because he likes me to be happy. We go to foreign book festivals for long weekends and walk around all day talking about language and music; he kindly plays excellent puns for me, although he doesn’t find the puns funny at all. At every opportunity, I enter any available water; he’s got my stuff, and I look back and see him standing on the shore.
It doesn’t have to come in the sun for me. I don’t need to like Krautrock for him (even though he introduced me to a track from Neu! – Lieber Honig – which makes me cry). I don’t need him by my side all the time. It’s not just that we respect each other’s work and need for solitude, we understand and share it. Another marvel! The spirit of ‘getting to know you’ is for me the continuous joy of learning, infinitely better than ‘what now?’ collapse after the pleasure of accomplishment. The moment when everything seems fully known in a relationship is when it begins to wither and fall off the branch. As the Ghanaian proverb says: To, yet not.
Our mourning books are finished. He is writing Listen, a new book on music and tribalism; I publish my novel not at all autobiographical about love and death and matchmaking ghosts. I almost dedicated it to Eva and Robert, but in the end, although they are both in the acknowledgments, it is dedicated to the living. Of course, it just depends on where you end the story, but I like to steer everyone towards some sort of happy ending.
We were there, in L’Aquila, a city devastated by an earthquake. Years had passed since the disaster, but piles of rubble still lay everywhere. Walking through the streets with our Italian hosts, we could see abandoned houses, glimpse the sentimental wreckage of lost lives.
Louisa and I have experienced life-changing earthquakes ourselves. In 2012, the man Louisa loved since they were both teenagers died after long battles with alcoholism and throat cancer. In 2014, the one who had been my companion for a quarter of a century died of a particularly evil cancer of the bone marrow. When Louisa and I visited L’Aquila, she was five years into her grieving journey; I was three years old.
By then I had posted Immortal: A Love Story, a book of poetry about the illness and death of my wife Eva and what it was like to lose her. The Italian translation had just come out, hence the trip. In a literary room, I read aloud one of the poems. Maybe it was The Second-Last Time, about making love to Eva when the end was near. Out of courtesy to the non-English speakers in the audience, Louisa stood next to me on stage and read the poem in fluent Italian.
Think about it for a moment. A woman stands up in public and, without any loss of dignity, helps the man she loves express how much he will always love another woman.