A Previous Life
by Edmund White
an excerpt from the forthcoming novel
Constance thought it required a lot of courage to be in love—since as someone said in that AIDS play, The Inheritance, which she’d seen in a revival in London, “All love ends in heartbreak,” which must be true unless you both died in a car crash at the same instant, as her lucky parents had done. Courage because you had to accept every day that you were obsessed with him, that the burn across your solar plexus was the fear of losing him, that your heavy sigh as you stepped out of the shower was the anguish of mortality, as if you were wringing out a washcloth heavy with mercury. Logically she should be fearing his death (crossing the street the wrong way in London, a splinter from the broken femur slowly working its way to his heart, a sunstroke on the treeless stony streets of Florence) but what she was really afraid of was her own death. She knew that we’re all alone at the moment of death—and Rilke wanted you to embrace solitude but she couldn’t. It horrified her that she’d be alone to die. He called it her “fear of abandonment”—maybe that nice young therapist he’d seen thirty or forty times had supplied the phrase; it didn’t sound like something Ruggero would come up with on his own. It wasn’t abandonment she feared, it was death. His death or hers. She winced with pain as if she’d been branded. She leaped up and circled the room again; she went to the mirror over the fireplace to see herself crying, as if she had to have visible proof of the horror she was feeling.
She couldn’t bear the thought of his leaving her. Of course there was always the possibility he’d leave her for someone new, younger or prettier or just new, but she’d cried so hard on his beautiful chest as she confessed those fears and he’d reassured her so tenderly that now, at least on her sane days, she felt safe. He really did love her, sometimes so much he accused her of being a witch. She wished she were a witch able to cast a daily love spell on him. She didn’t think herself worthy of him—he was so much kinder, smarter, more cultured, sexier. And he ruled himself with such enormous self-discipline; he could account for every hour, every calorie, every word. He practiced his harpsichord for two hours every morning and two in the afternoon, though he could amp that up to seven unbroken hours if he was going to concertize. She loved the way he beat back the pages of the score as if they wouldn’t stay put unless punched. She loved the look of his long, narrow feet expensively shod that had no pedals to push but that he nevertheless kept poised as if on invisible starting blocks for a long-distance run. She loved his long, expensively veined hands with the pink, perfect cabochon nails. She loved the way he tossed his head back and to one side for slow, expressive passages or scrunched it forward between his shoulders in a perfect storm of concentration when he raced through a fiendish presto of counterpoint, forked veins on his forehead standing out. Unless he was actually reading the score his gaze was fixed on some inscrutable point in the middle distance, a target he would reel himself in from and look, a moment later, as dazed and surprised as Heidegger at merely existing in the world. Heidegger said all useful experience began with amazement—and Ruggero always looked amazed. He took nothing for granted. All his experiences were useful then, Q.E.D. He’d written his doctoral thesis on Heidegger.
It was strange sleeping alone in their big bed and she awakened five times, alarmed each time that he wasn’t breathing beside her, smelling of his delicate citrusy cologne, his breath like the abrasion of the finest cloth-backed diamond sand paper on wood that was already smooth. All five times she was certain that she’d missed his arrival, that he’d rung the doorbell in vain, that he was hobbling around in the rain-crusted snow, homeless, cold.
In bed she switched on the big TV, changed channels till she got CNN, thought guiltily that she should be watching FranceInter to improve her language skills, but finally settled for the warm bath of English over the cold shower of French. She let herself get absorbed in the catastrophes of the day (drought, floods, fires, mass shootings) but kept sensing that just behind the firewall of consciousness was the blaze of panic over her absent Ruggero. If her grip on today’s soothing disasters weakened for a moment, if her attention to the comforting horrors slipped, then once again she’d be engulfed by the silence shouting : I’M ALONE.HE’S NOT HERE.
Yes, it took courage to be in love, to act as if they were playing a slot-machine for pennies. As if one were distractedly leading banal daily life not tiptoeing out to the crater above the throat of the volcano and its boiling magma reservoir. Courage to deliver one’s scarcely memorized lines before two thousand pairs of ears, as if saying endearments to him were the most normal thing in the world, something taking place in a small dacha among aspens rather than in the throne room of the Kremlin.
Yes, it took courage to love him, to be unable to exact a lasting pledge from him, to treat every measure of their shared music as ad libitum rather than as strictly timed .
Sometimes she longed to move out of this perilous zone, break off with him definitively, content herself with a dim grey life rather than one alternating between shadow and sunlight, ice and fire.
Lovers had to be cool, not frantic or operatic. They had to have ice in their veins, to be heroin addicts, not jittery like her, high on the crystal meth of passion. Why didn’t he hold her all the time till her heart would finally slow down and she’d fall asleep? She took a Xanax—good thing she hadn’t drunk any wine.
The big black insect of the phone awakened her and for a split second she was astonished that she’d actually been asleep at all. She would have said she’d suffered a sleepless night except now she’d been alarmed into wakefulness. She must have been asleep after all—but what time was it when she passed out?
Yes, he’d be discharged this afternoon and the solid gold ambulance, he said sarcastically, would deliver him home, its meter scrolling through thousands of euros plus the salaries of the two heavy-duty nurses .
~ ~ ~
Even on the stretcher, attended by his toothy aides, Ruggero could turn the smallest event into something festive. A joyful excitement was ushered in with him like the polar cold that might cling to someone’s coat as he enters a warm house. He looked sheepish though with the happy smile of a boy who knew he’d already been forgiven in advance, would always be forgiven. “Oh, my Constance, c’est bête! I’ve made a mess of it. Now you’ll have to wait on me hand and foot.”
“I can’t think of anything I’d rather do,” she said with a smile. “And now you can’t run away—you’re my prisoner. The only punishment for your accident is that you’ll have to eat my food.”
“But you’re an excellent cook!” he protested.
The male nurses had meanwhile established him on the chaise longue by the window , next to his red Italian harpsichord with the pastoral scene painted on the inner lid—a sophisticated echo of the primitive Granida and Daifolo, but with fresher colors, finer brushwork, an uncracked wood support and no sheep.
When they were alone she asked him, “A cup of tea?”
“Water,” he said.”No ice,” as if their long time together had not already taught her to forego that American, liver-destroying eccentricity. He added as she headed for the kitchen, “The only bad thing about liquids is that it will make me urinate, which will be an extra chore for you if I have to hobble to the toilet leaning on you.”
“It will be worth it if I get to hold your penis,” she said merrily.
He looked at her with a smile and a raised eyebrow.
She guessed she’d never get it through her thick head that he really did love her. He didn’t seem to suffer from her absence as much as she did when they were apart. But then his grandfather had always been there beside him, and though his parents had vanished, he didn’t feel any separation anxiety. He’d lived in Castelnuovo his whole childhood and adolescence.
A friend had once said to her that Ruggero and she were co-dependent. When the friend had explained what that meant, Constance had cocked her head to one side and said, “That sounds like my definition of love.”
The friend objected, “But co-dependence is a constant torment.”
“It means you’re not self-sufficient, that you’re horribly vulnerable.”
“That you can’t authenticate yourself but must scramble after his approval night and day.”
“Yes, but I have my ways of disguising my neediness.”
“No.” She thought for an instant. “But he says I don’t make him feel claustrophobic. Or oppressed.”
“I wonder, too. I live in constant fear of losing him.”
~ ~ ~
EDMUND WHITE is author of A Saint from Texas and more than thirty other books. Last year he won the National Book Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award.