By David Olimpio
“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” — Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
We first became acquainted over social media. We ran in the same literary Twitter circles, but the first contact happened on Facebook. We realized we had friends in common other than just writers and that was because you had lived in the same New Jersey town that I lived in. This seemed like a sign. If nothing else, it made us seem more “safe” to one-another, or more “real,” or both.
We were each married. My marriage was open, yours was leaning that way. Things had not gone off the rails, yet. By which I mean: neither of us were divorced.
If we accept the idea of a beginning, this is the one I choose as the writer of this particular story. But like Bendrix, the unreliable narrator of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, I wonder: did I choose this beginning or did it choose me?
You would probably begin the story long before. A previous life, you would say. A previous universe or space-time. You claim to have visions of us as children, as twins. In the visions, there is a farm. I know you believe in this past.
If I were a romantic, I might believe in it, too.
When we began, we were living on different continents. I lived in American suburbia and you on a small Israeli kibbutz. We never would’ve thought back then that I would end up traveling to Israel nine months later, that I would actually walk the ground of your kibbutz. And that, when I did—as I did—you would be living back in the states, only about an hour from my house.
I went to Israel due to a circumstance unrelated to Us or This. And yet, for me, the trip had the tracks of our story lain across it.
Books were part of the affair from the start—our own books, the books we had written. Our books were our seduction. And each was a confession of sorts. What is more seductive than a confession?
We referred to time then in terms of our days, counting from the first, Day 1.
Day 3. Day 5. Day 9.
Days were for texting. Nights were for letters. You had a mission, which you announced early on. The mission was a slow burn. If we could somehow do that, then we might never freeze out, the way of the universe, the way of the stars, the way of everything.
But even back then, we spoke (or wrote) of an ending. Of an After.
The days of Us and This were somewhere in the twenties when we stopped keeping track. The days became weeks, then months. There was a lot of frustration, sexual and otherwise. Over those many months, we saw each other a few times in person, but mostly we fucked over phones.
How easy the Internet has made sexual connection.
While I was in Israel, I felt the absence of you there, and so I visited your places, traced your paths—the one on which (I remembered) you had walked your kids to the school bus while you WhatsApp’d me, the one on which you left me voice memos while you made your way from the train to your office in Tel Aviv, the one that led to the restaurant where you used to eat lunch with your boss while I was still sleeping. At one point, while in a car with a tour guide—who was probably confused as to why I’d been so eager to make a detour and visit your non-touristy, unremarkable kibbutz—I waited at an intersection where once, months earlier, you had been stopped at a red light, listening to me on your headphones as I came in my bathroom sink. You reminded me about this in a message which I received while at that intersection, sitting in the passenger seat of my tour guide’s car, looking west toward Haifa.
I became “you” — entering the West Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem and snapping a selfie to send to you, something you had done for me just a few months earlier. And you became “me,” the one drinking the double-tall holy cappuccino at Starbucks, eating the manna of the Whole Foods southwestern buffet. And while you spent every morning packing backpacks for your kids to go to day camp in New Jersey, I was in Tel Aviv rehearsing to read a piece I wrote about a pregnancy termination, a story from my recent past which had marked, for me, a different beginning and also a different ending. It had been a wanted pregnancy. It had been an unwanted termination.
At root, much of the stuff I write is about the inadequacy of language. The way people talk past one-another. The way they sometimes deliberately misunderstand, or misinform, or both. A central refrain from the piece I had gone there to read was the opening line from The Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God …
The bible is a flawed document. Written by flawed humans. Flawed by imperfect language. John is the most poetic of the gospels, it leaves perhaps the most open to interpretation. And I’d argue it’s that which makes it the most perfect.
One fascinating thing about language is how we can sometimes use antithetical words to describe the same thing.
Like “flawed” and “perfect.”
Others that come to mind: “fear” and “hope” or “terrifying” and “relief.” Once, I was both fearful of and hopeful for our beginning. Now, imagining our end leads me to feel both terrified and relieved.
With the Word is where we began. The Word led to the Religion of This. The Gospel of Us. But they were only words. Symbols. They were not the thing itself, which might’ve only existed in our minds.
When you begin a relationship online with thousands of miles between you, it is difficult to know if a person is who you think they are, or if they are imaginary, a projection, a mirror you are holding up to yourself. The “you” you wish you could be.
Online love affairs, maybe even more than in-person love affairs, have the tendency to be about The Self. The relationship takes place so much in the imagination, and we see ourselves in everything The Other does and says. Nuance is often lost in text messages. Meanings are assumed or misinterpreted by what and how we think or have thought. We look for The Self in The Other. And, when the relationship is over, we are left vulnerable to experiencing the strange variety of loss that comes from not finding it.
I Don’t Think Of You (Until I Do): Tatiana’s book — I read it after I got back from Israel and, later, loaned it to you.
I wouldn’t have guessed then that it would wind up becoming a thing we studied and wrote about together, recognizing in it the signs and patterns of Us. How could such a small book become such a tome?
When I read the book the first time, I couldn’t not think of you. Of Us. Of This. We were in the middle of one of our endings then. We were not speaking. (It was after the lunch on your birthday.) We were nowhere together during that time, and yet we were everywhere on those pages, even before either set of hands would touch them, even though the story had nothing to do with us.
In the Religion of Us, maybe I Don’t Think of You became our Book of Solomon.
As we each read the book, we wrote in it. First, me in ink, then you in pencil. We put our own words in the margins of pages. Your skin touching pulp which had touched my skin. A sort of literary transfiguration—flesh becoming words, words becoming flesh.
Where did your words begin and mine end?
If I were a romantic, I would say they were inseparable.
You didn’t mark anything on the first page and this surprised me. I did. I marked this line:
I wanted to watch you ascend forever.
It’s a beautiful line. It captures the way a person’s movement, a loved-one’s movement, can make time stop, and also the kind of idolizing and “raising up” of “the other” a person does when they are in love.
We did this, didn’t we?
The unnamed narrator in I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) tells the story without reference to gender. I like how this turns the lover’s gaze (typically male in literature) into a universal.
We all gaze. We all desire.
“I believed so much in our endings that they were perpetually beginning again.”
And again, and again.
You put a dot by that one. You noticed it too.
It felt good to be in Israel alone, and yet also still with you, connected by our mobile devices, the comfortable way we already knew how to relate to one another. Only now, our time was reversed: now I was the one seven hours ahead in the Holy Land, my feet in The River Jordan, eyes scanning the representations of the Virgin Mary along the walls of the Church of the Annunciation. The passage my tour guide read at that church, which was the passage I had cited in the piece I had come there to read, was something he could not have known ahead of time would be meaningful to me.
And the words engraved over the entrance to the church:
Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis
The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
If I were a romantic, I would say it was all predestined. I would say it was all “meant to be.” I would say it was magic.
By the time I made that trip to Israel, we’d already had five, maybe six, endings. And just before the trip, we’d had one more. During that trip, though, we rose again from death, as we’d done before, as we would do again.
When I saw you again, it was in the same place as always and exactly as I had feared or hoped.
You were everywhere. You were in the sunrise and sunset, the beaches and the cities, the cracks in the sidewalks, the tables where I ate schnitzel or the disappointing morning meals featuring things that just seemed unappetizing to me for breakfast…like cucumber salad.
When I swam in the Mediterranean, it was the brine from your skin I tasted. When I put my hand to the warm rocks of the Wailing Wall, it was your hand that returned the touch.
It felt like we were in the same places together. And maybe we were. Maybe we had been, always, forever, separated only by what Einstein once called the “stubbornly persistent illusion” of time.
Is any of it connected? Is any of it not connected?
How can it not be?
Your birthday. When I returned from Israel, we met in Philadelphia for lunch to celebrate, and I promptly ruined the day by suggesting I might want to sleep with J again. It was a completely irresponsible comment, especially since I am not even sure it was true. We were sitting so close at that small table, and yet in that single moment, began exploding quickly apart, the way of stars, of solar systems, of galaxies. Those dining around us must’ve felt the resulting shift. The irresistible force of love, the immovable object of my unwillingness to live only in one world.
You left that birthday lunch with a brand-new set of bluetooth headphones I’d gotten you for your birthday, along with a rekindled mistrust in me, a deep sadness and anger. I went to Rittenhouse Square and sat on a park bench in the city where once a country had its beginnings. I called my dad and smoked cigarettes over our ending. I also tried to call you, but you didn’t pick up.
I thought that was the end of the ends. The beginning of the final end.
I felt terror. I felt relief. I breathed.
But then the end wasn’t. It was just a pause before another beginning. Which is maybe what all endings are, even the final one, if there is one.
I’m not able to quote from memory many biblical passages, save for the ones most people can quote. But even with those, I usually don’t know which part of the Bible they come from. While not a Bible verse, I do know Gloria Patri by heart. I sang it many times, standing next to my mom in the Presbyterian church she took me to when I was growing up. The version we used to sing is this one:
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son:
and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be:
world without end. Amen. Amen.
I appreciate ritual. I appreciate repetition. I find them to be helpful to my sanity and effective ways to fight the sadness of endings or new beginnings. I’ve always liked the lyrics to this short doxology (a “doxology” itself, a ritualistic ending) and the simple melody that serves as the accompaniment. It brings me comfort.
I want to be around when the world ends. I want to be present. I would like the comfort in knowing that there was no more experience to experience. It would be perhaps the most terrifying thing ever. At the same time, it would be the greatest relief.
“Suddenly it seemed that everyone was counting down to some inevitable end.”
One cosmological theory of the universe, called the “Cyclic Multiverse,” posits that the universe goes through cycles and the ending of each cycle is the beginning of another. It sidesteps the question of the “ultimate beginning” by saying that the cycle has simply repeated for eternity. Basically, there is no beginning. There is no end.
“So I readied myself for the inevitable.”
Many physicists regard the “Cyclic Universe” theory with skepticism. I don’t blame them. It’s not really an answer, is it? It’s kind of a cop-out.
There is another, more widely accepted, theory of cosmology, the “Inflationary Multiverse,” which I like a little better. It works on the premise that there was an original Big Bang and that, out of that, sprang many “bubble universes,” of which ours is one.
As the universe has expanded, propelled by dark matter, these bubbles have drifted further and further apart at an increasing rate, becoming more isolated. If this continues (and it seems likely that it will) then one widely accepted notion of the end of universes in general, and ours in particular, is that it will eventually just “freeze out.”
I don’t know what to think about this. What would that actually mean? Freeze out. Is it possible to replace something with… nothing? Is nothing even possible? Experiments have shown that, even in a vacuum, particles fizz in and out of existence, borrowing energy from… what? We don’t really know.
On the one hand, I believe in cycles. I believe in Eternal Recurrence. I believe that the “Arrow of Time” is only a trick of our consciousness. I believe that things, events, people don’t really end but rather go on forever. That when a star dies, a universe is created. I believe, on some level, in a “world without end.” These ideas bring me comfort.
And yet, I know with certainty that all worlds do, in fact, end. That in some dimension we can’t see they have already ended. No matter what we do or how many plastic containers we recycle, our planet, our solar system, our universe will end (has already ended). We will end and will go on ending again and again, forever. Until there is nothing but the quiet final breath.
“You said, Can we lie down for a moment?”
I believe in endings. And I guess I don’t really know if that makes me a romantic or not.
Tatiana Ryckman’s book, I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) is available from Future Tense Books.
The End of the Affair. Graham Greene.
The Letters from Paul to John. New Testament.
Genesis. Old Testament.