To Desire

  Photograph by Larm Rmah

Photograph by Larm Rmah

Death is always an anticipation for us. We never experience it. We imagine it. It surrounds us in life, the way loneliness surrounds us in the midst of people.

When he heard of Meera’s death, that anticipation came to him with a sense of permanent loss that he had never known before. He felt so alone. He felt like he had never been able to understand her, and now it was no longer possible. She was just as far away in death as she had been in life, but they were never going to meet again. Somehow, the sadness of death was the eternity of this separation.

And yet, there was something about the love he had felt for her that had remained with him ever since. It was with him even now, now, when she was no longer here. And he wondered about this love that could remain untouched of the physical reality of the world. What was it made of? Where did it come from when it came into his life?

Later that night, he ran into his old friend Sonia. He hadn’t seen her in a while.

They had a few drinks together. She seemed preoccupied and didn’t talk much.

“You look restless,” she said.

“I haven’t been able to sleep,” he said.

Sonia turned off the car but remained seated, staring into space with hands on the steering wheel. She glanced at him, then looked away.

“Sometimes this silence of the night takes me away somewhere else,” she said. “And when I come back, I don’t know what to say.”

Her voice was small and distant.

“What is it?”

“I was thinking,” she said. “I began to feel so strange today at work. I looked outside and the sky was so blue. And then I thought about how I haven’t been able to feel any kind of happiness lately, and it just felt so unnecessary. Isn’t it strange? I thought. We look at the world and as soon as we look, we create some kind of problem.

She leaned back on her seat and looked out the windshield.

His place felt absent of harsh lights. It was spacious and old. When they arrived it had just stopped raining. The night had fallen like a large sheet.

She sat next to him, toweling her hair. He looked at her and smiled. She touched his hand. Somehow, being in Sonia’s presence, surrounded with Meera’s thoughts, he found it hard to accept a concept of life that was isolated from the rest of the world.

“Did something happen?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Something happened to me. Something so obvious, yet so unexpected.”

“What happened?”

“Someone I once knew and loved died. And I felt like we are so alone in this world.”

Sonia looked at him searchingly. Something about him felt so intimate. She couldn’t understand what it was.

“Have you heard about this idea of eternal recurrence?” she asked. He shook his head.

“It’s the thought that everything that happens recurs again and again, forever. Some interpret this to mean no particular event has any special significance.”

“How does it lose significance?”

“If you were to experience this death just this once, it would have a different meaning than if you were to experience it again and again.”

“It would mean something else if I was not feeling the way I am feeling right now.”

“It is such a strange thought, but so many people have had it. This desire for immortality that the heart feels. And then the mind’s disillusionment with repetitions. We attach some special significance to our bodies. We become delirious with our ability to think. But then we realize our physical reality.”

“But what about personal experiences? Does one’s suffering become less real if one were to realize it had happened in the past, or would happen again?”

“I don’t know. It just feels like a sad thought experiment. But I still find it fascinating. I find it fascinating because I really don’t have an intellectual explanation for why it shouldn’t bother me. But then again, maybe it is not an intellectual explanation that brings the state of being that causes such puzzles to disappear.”

“But memories are so mysterious. It is so obvious that the present moment is all I have, and it is so simple to just be alive and experience it. But if I think about it, without memories I have nothing. I don’t know if it means falling below the sense of self, or transcending it.”

“Our memories,” she said. “What are they made of?”

She got up and walked up to the window. There was only the night, hiding the world without hiding it. She turned around. Hands behind her back, she stared at her feet, moving her toe around in a circle. She saw him pick up a notebook from his bookshelf. She asked him about it. He said it was a journal he kept when he was young.

“What is it about?” she asked.

“Her,” he said. He touched the yellow pages of the notebook with his fingers, as if to experience the passage of time. Somehow, it didn’t seem real. The space between them, which sometimes felt like ten years and sometimes hundred, seemed to be only in his memory. Without memory, there was only this reality. He looked up. For a moment, Sonia seemed like his only bridge between time past and time present.

There is a real place behind these noises. Somewhere behind this sky, bounded with the eternal in life. It is trying to make itself manifest. But here, in this place of mortal lights, time keeps moving, turning every possibility into a limit.

In this season mornings appear out of nowhere. Nights are always covered in clouds. Dark and pregnant clouds. We can’t see their essence but the forms are enough to understand them.

All the streetlights were still on when I came outside. The sky was looking fresh and blue.

When I reached her place, I saw Meera sitting on the steps outside her apartment building. She looked up and saw me. For a moment she just stared, then picked up her backpack and came outside.

Her cheeks seem filled with colors. Sometimes they look almost unreal. She has grown a little taller than me since the last semester, and her breasts have begun to emerge. They seem so soft and mysterious. When I saw her for the first time in the subway, she was reading a book. There was no expression on her face. Occasionally she looked up, and almost without seeing anyone, went back to reading. Then the next day I learned she had come to live near me. It was strange how I recognized her immediately from that brief encounter.

Days are so long now, they seem to never move. But once they come to an end, it feels like they disappeared in an instant.

It’s almost dark. Everything seems filled with a strange nostalgia. Everyone is going home. Everyone except the street dogs. I see a light switch on at Meera’s apartment on the other side. She enters the kitchen with some dishes. She flips her hair and starts washing them by the sink. Even through the distance, I can see her. Engrossed in her world. What is she dreaming of? What exists behind her eyes?

“It’s strange how words freeze time,” he said. “It feels as if without language this world would be a completely different place.”

He lowered the notebook and looked at Sonia.

“And yet, somehow, words are not experiences,” he said. “They are just marks. They escape me, because now I don’t have what I had then.”

She heard his voice. She was surprised when she realized she understood him without an effort.

“What is it that we are constantly searching for? There must be something, because we are never satisfied. What is it that makes us have these ideas of perfection? What is it that everyone seems to want, when asked about it?”

“I feel like we are so self-centered and so dependent on words, even though we are so irrational,” she said. “We are constantly breathing around a world made by humans, and it limits our ability to imagine a reality beyond our bodies. And we are aware of it. How can we avoid feeling like we are never where we were supposed to be?”

“Sometimes I think, every effort, covered in various words, is just a longing for love. Love, which is also freedom,” he said. “And now I think about the meaning of death. Why does it feel so incomplete? What changes after death? Why should it differ from life?”

She listened intently, then looked into his eyes and said, “Life and death. You speak as if the person who lives is different from the person who dies.”

For a while he just stared at her.

“If you feel something, doesn’t it become a part of you?”

“Does it, really, if everything is changing, if everything beautiful must come to an end?”

“But isn’t this lack of permanence what makes life so precious?” she asked. “Nothing stays forever yet everything is connected to each other. The world before we were born, and the world after we will die, we seem to be a link between them, eternal. We feel responsibility but we never let ourselves feel connectedness.”

Sonia opened the window. The night was dark and quiet.

I want to know if it is possible, finally, to really know someone. How do we get to know another person? How do we enter their life? Love seems to me to be this simple thing: to be able to bridge the space between two people. But how do we do this? We seek perfection in our lives and in those we admire. But I wonder if it is something else that we are after. I wonder how two imperfect people can create perfect love. Maybe we are searching for something that transcends us.

As the light flashed, they closed their eyes. At first there was a red sensation. Then there was darkness. As the sounds settled down, their breathless desires sat next to them for a while.

“How does someone understand the other? How does it happen? Sometimes it seems to me to be the most significant thing in the world.”

“You have to know,” she said.

“To love someone. What does it mean?”

“To be at the same level of sensitivity.”

“Sometimes all our cravings seem unessential. Once we realize it is impossible to obtain something, the desire for it disappears. When I understand this, the need to possess what we love seems so specious.”

“I don’t think we can ever possess anything,” she said. “We cannot because the moment we procure what we want, it’s no longer the same thing. We can experience only when we don’t expect, because only then are we able to open ourselves to it. Our expectations are rigid. They hinder us from becoming a part of the world.”

“But what, then, is love?”

“What do you mean?”

“If it is not about being in a relationship with someone we desire, then what is it?”

“Love exists, like life,” she said. “We don’t create it. We only find ourselves in it. A relationship is a reflection of love, not its source.”

“And still we keep missing someone. As if without them, we can’t be complete.”

“Perhaps we are not able to realize that we are the source of our experiences. If we feel something, is it not because we were capable of feeling it? We are all looking at the same world, but somehow we see different things. Would it matter what we find, if we lost our sensitivity to experience it?”

“What happened?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t think you’ll be able to understand.”

“Tell me.”

“My father had a stroke,” she said.

She stared at me for some time, then looked away. Across the street, a homeless little girl was sitting with her mother. Suddenly Meera turned around and, with an anxious voice, said, “We can overlook anything, can’t we?”

I looked at them, then at her. The world was moving with its usual noise.

Identities leaving consciousness and thoughts sinking down. The lines of atmosphere turning blue. The world held by midnight like a large mother.

“Sometimes I think about how our lives would look from above,” he said. “We live here, on this small planet, so alone if you think about it, surrounded by endlessness from all sides. And in this little place we make our lives like an island. There is injustice, there is suffering. Yet somehow, we find this ability to ignore it all and find our happiness.”


“Our quest for making sense of our lives sometimes seems so fundamentally insincere. When we are overpowered by instincts, suddenly our reason disappears.”

“Is our reason separate from the universe? Does it not emerge from the universe? We use it to make sense of it, to interpret it. But what we interpret is not the universe itself. It is only an answer to the question that we are asking. We try to transcend our reason with reason, and when we fail we say we must imagine ourselves happy. We create a web, then lose ourselves in it.”

“But is there any other way? Isn’t the alternative to reason madness and self-destruction?”

She looked at the few lights that were visible outside, feeling the sound of his presence behind her.

“I think about the experiences, the experiences that are transcendent,” she said. “When we fall in love, we feel connected to the whole world. A relationship takes place between two people across space and time, and suddenly no one seems like a stranger. It feels like the first breath of life, even though we know for a fact that we are not the first person to have fallen in love. People have been falling in love since the beginning. Yet when we do, it feels like we are the ones who discovered it. Love is like a promise. Love is a promise existence makes with us. Every time I experience something, I experience it with my sensibility that had never existed before, and will never exist again. As if everything that touches me makes me, and I in turn make it. Maybe facts are irrelevant. Maybe experiences are more profound than judgments. Without identity we may never know our world, but beyond identity we are timeless.”

Somehow, Sonia started thinking about her teenage years. She used to be so alone in those days. The more painful her life became, the more meaning she tried to find. What do we really know about ourselves? she used to wonder. What do we really know about life? Everything would feel limited as soon as she learned it had a name. It wasn’t hard to imagine the possibility of a world beyond her. But it was such a scary thought, because it was really not possible to know everything. The act of knowing itself had a limit. It was limited by time and space. It was limited by her body and consciousness. It was limited by the tools she had to see the world outside as something different from herself, even though it was made of the same elements.

But sometimes at night she would get this almost overwhelming feeling that made everything she knew and everything she didn’t almost the same. Even when in her thoughts she wanted to eliminate her sense of self, she felt like there was something inside her that she had to preserve.

“I’m scared of many things,” she said. “I’m scared of being alone, and of never being alone. Of the stuff in the dark and the stuff in the world. Sometimes I feel so much love inside me I can hardly breathe. And it seems like the existence of someone other than me is the only thing in the world that can make this endless loneliness disappear. I try to feel other people’s presence. I suffer in their suffering. I feel like I am not alone.”

“I keep thinking,” she said. “I think the earth has an end but above the earth there is no end. No one can answer my questions, and if I find answer to one thing then another one pops up.”

The pictures came in front of his eyes like he was still there, like time had transported him into that last moment of togetherness. Morning was still far, but the atmosphere seemed to be changing itself slowly in preparation. He felt a cessation of all efforts. There was no identity to identify with, to think for. Wonder took away all the questions.

Sonia was standing next to him. He looked at her. Her presence brought a sense of continuity. In it, he felt a sense of completion that had nothing to do with their personal histories. A feeling of recognition emerged within him. It felt like the night was feeling herself through them. In expression. In creation. In love that was freedom. Freedom from the very memory of that love.

He felt her breath on his cheek. It was so warm. She was so close to him. And the fact that she was alive just like him amazed him.

He touched her hands and pressed them in his. She seemed so real. Her eyes were so clear. Their skin touching, bridging a distance that was no distance. This togetherness within which we find our answers. This reality that exists. Love, like death, takes us away from the earth and puts us in the middle of the universe. It destroys individuality, only to show us how impossible it is to be isolated. There is no separation in this world. It is impossible not to be together. It is impossible because we did not create the universe – the universe created us. We are made of her, and are timeless just like her.

He closed his eyes and saw his life – his life that was far above and below his form.

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To Desire was first published in 2012 by Hybrid Texts

Copyright © Vatsal Surti 2012

NovellaVatsal Surti