It Was Romance
by Miranda July
This is how we are different from other animals, she said. But keep your eyes open so you can see the cloth. We all had white cloth napkins over our faces and the light glowed through them. It seemed brighter under there, as if the cloth actually filtered out the darkness that was in the rest of the room. The dark rays that come off of things and people. The instructor walked around the room as she talked so that she was everywhere at once. Her face and permed hair were forgotten, there was just the voice and the white light and these two things combined felt like the truth.
You will never be a part of the world. She was standing quite near.
Humans each make their own worlds in the area in front of their own face. Now she was across the room.
Why do you think that we are the only animal that kisses? She was near again.
Because the area in front of our faces is our most intimate zone. She drew a breath. This is why humans are the only romantic animal!
We were quiet and wondering under our napkins. How did she know this? What about dogs? Don’t dogs feel everything we do times one hundred? But we couldn’t see to form a chain of doubt between each other’s eyes. And her voice had a vibrant certainty that made believing her feel liberating and obvious like the truth was there all along. Why pull your finger back when you can just let it be part of the hand? It is the hand! Of course! Fingers and hands are all one thing, these distinctions are like shackles, I see the light, it is coming through the napkin.
The tiny world in front of your face is an illusion, and romance itself is an illusion! We gasped. But it was a delayed gasp, we were a slow group. Just the distribution of the napkins had been hard to organize. We had finally settled on Take one and pass the rest down.
Romance isn’t real, and neither is your world under the cloth. But because you are human, you can never lift the cloth. So you might as well learn how to be the most romantic woman you can be. This is what humans can do: romance. You may now remove the cloth.
We almost felt that we would not be able to, because we were human, but it slid right off. The cloth was just a metaphor and the auditorium seemed darker than before and we were forty women. I had hoped that we would now be another type of animal, one that could be part of the world. But the cloth was just a metaphor and we were forty women gathered on a Saturday morning to become more romantic. One woman still had the napkin on her head, possibly asleep.
We worked hard because we wanted results. We mirrored each other and we breathed in No and breathed out Yes. We wrapped our hands around our own ankles and pretended they were someone else’s, and then we tried to run and pretended that someone else was trying to run, someone we loved, was trying to run away, and we held them by the ankles and we breathed in No and breathed out Yes and released the ankles and ran, all around the auditorium, forty women. Then we came back to the circle and talked about pheromones and other kinds of mists.
Remember, you don’t have to make the whole world romantic, or even the whole bedroom. Just the small space in front of your face. A very manageable territory, even the working women will agree. Because when he looks at you (or she! Romance has no biases!) he has to look through the air in front of your face. Is that space polluted? Is it rosy? Is it misty? Think about these questions during the lunch break.
We ate our sandwiches and looked at each other through the air in front of our faces. It looked clear but maybe it wasn’t. We thought hard about this while we drank the provided soda. This could change everything.
I got up and stood alone in the hallway and pressed my face into the wall. It was wood-panelled and smelled like pee as so many things do. Romance. My apartment. Romance. My Honda. Romance. My skin condition. Romance. My job.
I turned my head and pressed my other cheek against the wall. The bell was calling us back together for the wrap-up session.
Romance. My utter lack of friends who shared my interests. Romance. The Soul. Romance. Life on other planets. Romance. I stared down the hall. Someone was down there. It was Theresa who I’d partnered with during breath-mirroring. We had synchronized our breaths and then syncopated them and then we had talked about how that felt and which one was more romantic. Syncopated was the right answer. I walked down the hall and saw that Theresa was sitting on the floor next to a chair. This is always a bad sign. It’s a slippery slope and it’s best to just sit in chairs, to eat when hungry, to sleep and rise and work. But we have all been there. Chairs are for people and you’re not sure if you are one. I kneeled beside her. I rubbed her back and then I stopped because I thought it might be too familiar, but that felt cold so I patted her shoulder which meant I was only touching her a third of the time. The other two-thirds of the time my hand was either traveling towards her or away from her. The longer I patted her the harder it became; I was too aware of the intervals between the pats and I couldn’t find a natural rhythm. I felt like I was hitting a conga drum and then as soon as I thought of this I had to beat out a little cha cha cha and Theresa began to cry. I stopped with the patting and hugged her and she hugged me back. I had made everything just horrible enough to bring Theresa’s sadness down to the next level and I joined her here. It was a place of overflowing collaborative misery and we cried together. We could smell each other’s shampoo and the laundry detergents we had chosen and I smelled that she didn’t smoke but someone she loved did, and she could feel that I was large, but not genetically, not permanently, just until I found my way again and the snaps on our jeans pressed in to each other and our breasts exchanged their tired histories, tales of being over- and under-utilized, floods and famines and never mind, just go. We wetted each other’s blouses and pushed our crying ahead of us like a lantern, searching out new and forgotten sadnessness, ones that had died politely years ago but in fact had not died, and came to life with a little water. We had loved people we really shouldn’t have loved and then married other people in order to forget our impossible loves, or we had once called out hello into the cauldron of the world and then run away before anyone could respond.
Always running and always wanting to go back but always being farther and farther away until finally it was just a scene in a movie where a girl says hello into the cauldron of the world and you are just a woman watching the movie with her husband on the couch and his legs are across your lap and you have to go to the bathroom. There were things of this general scale to cry about. But the biggest reason to cry was to drench the air in front of our faces. It was romance. Not the falling in love kind, but the sharing of the air in front of our eyes and shoulders and chests and stomachs and thighs. There was so much air to share. Then gradually we slowed, then stopped, and after a long still pause — goodbye — we broke apart into our respective selves. And then the euphoria came, warm winds from Hawaii, drying our tears and clearing the path back into the material world. It was joy to be there, beside the chair. We held each other’s hands and laughed with feigned embarrassment which gradually took hold and became real.
We stood and Theresa wiped off her backside briskly, like she had taken a fall. I pulled the cuffs of my cardigan down. We walked down the hall and entered the auditorium just in time to help stack the chairs. There was no system for stacking and so we accidentally made many sub-stacks that were too heavy to lift and join together. The stacks of various heights stood alone like ice floes. We gathered our purses and walked to our cars.
First published in Harvard Review 25
Published on February 8, 2012