There are plenty of reasons to suppose that we should, and should be able to, learn. In every other sphere of life this seems to work just fine: you burn your hand on the hot handle of a pan on the hob, you know better next time. Maybe not next time, but the time after. You wobble on your bike a few yards as a boy with your older brother or your friends or your dad holding on to it and they shout ‘go!’ and ‘faster!’ and you go faster and they let go of the bike and you stay upright and you have the hang of it and you can now ride a bike. You may still fall off occasionally, but the principle is down and you can tick that off your list. You practice and practice and practice the piano and if you have a modicum of talent and a bit of a musicality in your ear you will become passably good at playing. If you have a lot of talent and a great deal of musicality and you love what you’re doing you may become exceptionally good and turn into a professional musician, a concert pianist: if you are God’s Gift to Steinway you may become Keith Jarrett. Languages. Mathematics. History. Even writing, people even teach writing, which suggests some people learn it. Chemistry. Not love though. Not the chemistry of love. Not the mystery of love. Not the vexation of love. Not the love of love.
Leonard [who’s not really called Leonard, I’m changing his name too, though I doubt he will read this] does to me what dozens of men before him have done, never deliberately, hardly ever even aware, most certainly not with any ill intentions: he infatuates me. In him. Is infatuate a transitive verb? In a passive sense? If I am now infatuated, that would suggest I have been infatuated and since I can hardly infatuate myself – unless I suffer a substantial streak in narcissism – the person who infatuates should, if logic had anything to do with it, be by definition the infatuator. With the person who’s infatuated the infatuatee. Logic has very little to with it. Leonard is a little taller than me and a little younger. I’ve always wanted to be a little taller than I am (though I am not, by averages, short) and while I spent the whole of my teens wanting to be older, and never really in that sense since have wanted to be younger than I actually am, I relate well to people who are a little younger, partly because part of my brain has not really caught up yet with my actual age and partly because another part of my brain has always been far ahead. Age doesn’t really matter to me. Or so I like to believe.
Leonard [and I like the name Leonard, not least because I now associate it with the man I have off the top of my head given it to], is German, though you wouldn’t immediately think so: his accent makes him sound more like a Dutchman who’s spent a lot of time in the States, or a Europeanised American. He and his girlfriend have joined the choir together and on the first evening of the new term he sits next to me and I feel like a schoolboy. I feel like the schoolboy precisely who fell in love with Michael when he joined our class, he aged 7, most of us then aged 8. This is ridiculous. I know it is ridiculous and my young brain infuriates at the idiocy of my heart while my old brain manages a smile that sits halfway between condescending and benign. Of course you are now infatuated, it says, my old brain, to heart. Worry not. Like all previous infatuations this one shall pass and you will laugh about it later. Soon, in fact, because I have so much experience now, so much insight, very nearly wisdom to give you now and to ease the imminent transition from infatuation to friendship with love of the friendship kind, love that is unentangled, appreciative, mutual, but free. You idiot, says my younger brain, you child, you pubescent teenager: you, at the age of fifty-one are allowing yourself a crush on somebody who has just introduced you to his girlfriend and who is absolutely certain to fancy you about as much as his grandfather’s drinking buddy Ralph. (I like the idea of Leonard having a grandfather with a drinking buddy called Ralph and feel slightly flattered that I should remind him of him. That’s how absurd I am in this moment…)
There is nothing to be done. When he misses a couple of rehearsals, I miss him. When he returns, my heart leaps. In the break, when he’s standing, chatting to his girlfriend, I join them. I make a point of talking to her as much as to him, so she doesn’t feel left out, but I really only have eyes for him. It is ridiculous, even pathetic, but thoroughly enjoyable too. Maybe that’s what this is about: maybe the reason the heart won’t learn is not just because it doesn’t really have to, and not so much because it can’t, but simply because it doesn’t actually want to: the pleasure of being a little in love, of being infatuated, of being just a tad drugged by endorphins is just too great to forego forever. And why should it: it’s not causing any harm. It’s not even causing pain, curiously. In the past it did. In the past, I would get over my infatuations through pain. That is no longer the case. Probably because while the heart steadfastly refuses to learn, the head is really quite capable now of putting it all in its place.
Also in the choir is another sweet man who is quite a bit younger and quite a bit shorter and maybe also a little bit rounder than I. And he’s roundly lovable too. I just want to hug him, every time I see him. He reminds me of Paddington Bear. How could you not cuddle Paddington Bear? And until not so long ago there was a young man who was just very beautiful. Or so I thought. I don’t think I ever spoke more than about three and half sentences with him. And of course there was Edward…
George looks at me puzzled. ‘I think you should go with the heart,’ he finally says in a calm measured tone, looking me straight in the eye. ‘Really?’ I mean: I agree with him, but isn’t he the one who too often has precisely not done that, and now he’s telling me?… ‘Yes.’ He speaks with a slight accent and a tone that makes him sound a little aloof and a little bemused and a little detached and a little curious, too. I remember being all of these very well, but I don’t remember sounding them. ‘The only times I’ve ever been unhappy was when I did not follow my heart. You know: “you regret the things you haven’t done, never the things you did…”’ Yes, but: you’re telling me? If I knew this then, and he’s probably right, I knew this then, then how come I still make exactly the same mistakes… hang on. Did I not just say they’re not, maybe, mistakes, at all, they’re maybe just: my modus operandi.
‘Assuming, George, you could find the ideal partner for yourself, who would that be?’
‘Oh I don’t think such a person exists.’ – He doesn’t even have to think about it.
‘Why do you think so?’ I’m beginning to feel a little inadequate, talking to myself, aged twenty-one.
‘Well, because there is no ideal person. For anyone. People just accommodate each other and get used to each other’s foibles and when they find somebody who they can bear more than they can bear being alone, they settle with them; for as long as that’s true, and sometimes quite a bit longer, mainly because they can’t be bothered going through the hassle of separation. Or because they’re just comfortable enough. Or because they’re afraid.’
‘Not because they need someone?’
‘Maybe that. But isn’t needing someone the same as being able to bear someone more than being able to bear being alone?’
‘If you put it that way. – And you?’
‘Oh, I can bear being alone.’
I thought as much, but:
‘And you’re not afraid?’
‘Afraid? Of what? I love being on my own. I love being with people and I love being on my own. I need people around me and I need a lot of time and a lot of space for myself. I function exceptionally well on my own.’
That is so true. That was true then, that is true now. Thank you, George: I function exceptionally well, on my own. But does that necessarily mean I couldn’t function even better with someone? Ah, here we go again…