Mapplethorpe, "White Gauze", 1984
Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

A Minor Obsession

Ileana arrived at Martha’s tea with her usual high spirits and a bottle of Floc de Gascogne. The vin de liqueur provided the occasion for the first of the many stories she would recite that evening. It had come from a former lover of hers, a man who had left a well-paid job as a hedge funds manager in Paris and bought an Armagnac distillery. Of course he still adored her. If you listen to Ileana enough you come to realize that all the protagonists in her stories adore her. Artists, fishermen, ministers, designers, forest rangers—they’re all captivated by her. It must be nice to inhabit a world in which everybody likes you. And so many famous people at that. Ileana drops names as if they were shells from a bag of pistachios munched on at a baseball game. Casually, unthinkingly, incessantly.

For some people gift-giving is an occasion to impress, for others, a mark of power or subjugation. For Ileana, it’s a chance to talk about herself. I don’t think it’s intentional. It is just part of her entrance.

This evening she arrived wearing a cashmere sweater, paisley silk shawl and elephant pants, all in tones of wheat, moss and chestnut, an earth mother in Armani. A simple but large pendant lay nestled on her ample breast. Her voice, deep and mellifluous, betrays a childhood in the American south and years of study in England, but it has lost some of the syncopation of natural speech one hears among native speakers. It’s all too measured, too even. There’s no displacement of rhythm, no surprise in her voice. It is the voice of a monastic reader as he reads aloud a novel at mealtime. But the novel in this case is Ileana. She’s a good storyteller and a deft user of the language but all her stories are about herself. Her repartee is shadow-boxing.

We drank the mistelle with dessert. Martha had made a pavlova, billowing drifts of meringue studded with glazed raspberries like so many rubies in the snow, and crowned by a glistening amber lattice of strands of caramel spun sugar. It was impressive to behold, much in the way Ileana is. But it’s food that can’t be chewed. The meringue is all fluff, nothing to get your teeth around, and the caramel can only be ground, and inevitably bits will stick between your teeth and in the crest of your molars. It’s all clouds and gravel. Like Ileana.

My friends would be different desserts. I think of Anna as a sticky date bread pudding with amaretto zabaglione, a pairing of nourishing dependable comfort food with sensual extravagance and a hint of the Levant. Dieter would be mocha mousse with peppercorns, a dessert that tingles and intrigues, not so sweet and with a bit of a bite. Nikolas could be a poire William-laced pear croustade with buttery lemon pastry, a free-form tart with complex layers of flavor, with the freshness of citrus playing off the mellowness of the eau de vie. Sotiris might be cherry-fudge brownies with bourbon-chocolate sauce,  casually decadent and gloriously redundant.

We talked about obsessions that evening. Martha said hers was smoking, but I wasn’t sure that counted. Addiction is an order to be followed, a directive, a line of code. Get high. Get laid. Get drunk. But obsession is a pattern-generator, a scenario builder. There is essentially one way to smoke a cigarette but a thousand ways to be perfect. Germs lurk on a myriad of surfaces, and the enemy is inexhaustibly resourceful. Besides, the addict’s hunger can be satiated, even if the respite is temporary. But the obsessed will never be perfect, never be big or thin or rich or loved enough, they can never be confident that the enemy or pathogen has been entirely eradicated.

Tobias offered re-writing, which sounded like the kind of answer one would give during a job interview when asked about your character faults, an admission of the neurotic that points to the admirable. Still, the careful attention to detail and craftsman’s pride that he was alluding to did fit him. Someone else talked about the ivy in his garden. Ileana said her journals, which I thought was pretty lame as obsessions go—when I think of obsessions I think of Lesley Howard in Of Human Bondage or the mound-makers in Close Encounters of a Third Kind, a descent into a netherworld of consumptive fixation—and if it was a gambit for our admiration it fell flat (as far as I could tell everyone else at the table also kept a journal). No, journal-writing didn’t count. That was just a daily discipline, however demanding or unforgiving it may be.

We were impostors. Smoking or religiously tending ivy or re-writing until the early morning had nothing of the inevitable single-mindedness and the impoverishment of everyday life that ensues when the self becomes wholly identified with the object of one’s hunger. (Only when quitting does the smoker begin to feel the unrelenting, invasive presence of the monsters which are the daily company of the obsessed.)

Obsessions are not ivy. They’re more like the bamboo my cousin planted in his back yard to provide some privacy, he said, from his neighbors. The bamboo grew unexpectedly fast. He said he could actually hear it growing at night. What he couldn’t see, however, was how wildly the roots were spreading. That is, until the driveway buckled. By the time he called in an expert, the bamboo had cracked through the foundation wall of the house.

I was only half-listening to the others. My thoughts were of Wacław, my own, very private obsession, one that I wasn’t quite prepared to share with my dinner companions. I was thinking of how perfectly erect he stood and walked, as if some invisible weight were pulling down on the back of his neck and shoulders. There was something austere and noble to his carriage, an impression augmented by his steel-blue eyes and shaved head. He was taut and lean, all angles and joints. He wasn’t particularly muscular despite his job as a mason, except perhaps for the pair of oblong muscles that lay like tenderloins on either side of his lower spine. We all have these muscles, of course, but I had never seen them so pronounced before.

There was nothing soft to him. Or sweet. If he were a dessert—and I can’t really imagine him as one—it would be one of those bland Japanese bean-paste cakes, uncomplicated and unadorned, a non-dessert. An acquired taste.

We didn’t speak much, but when we spoke, which was usually small talk that bracketed our lovemaking, we did so in a language that was foreign for the both of us.  But we didn’t need language to communicate in sex; or rather it was a different kind of language. We could read each other’s bodies well enough. Our vocabulary was one of gesture, pressure, motion, touch:  the gentle rock in the hips, the quickening breath, an embrace that tightens or loosens. The head bows or the jaw grows slack. Gestures that register pleasure or signal retreat. Ones that say, yes, I trust you, I‘m waiting. Go further.  Together we did things that neither of had done before and which we will not do again with anyone else. Wacław told me that and I believe him.

We were perfect together, but only in sex. Our fantasies and fetishes meshed so seamlessly, even the ones we discovered only after we had started seeing each other. But perfect? Perhaps it’s just my projection now that whatever we had together—I’m still struggling to give it a name—is over. A paradise lost is always suspect, since often what we feel we have lost is only what we most yearn for now. But it felt perfect.

He wasn’t one of those massively debilitating, all-consuming obsessions. He was a minor obsession. I still went to work. I still saw my friends. But not as often as I once had. I stopped reading novels and going to the movies. I found myself thinking about him more and more, imaging the next time we’d be together, preparing for it, revisiting in my mind where we had been and fantasizing about where we might go.

He incapacitated me. That was the truest sign of the obsession. He made me unfit for other lovers. I went out with other men, at least at first. Some were more engaging, some were more beautiful, many were more affectionate.  They took me to their beds. They fixed me breakfast. We went on weekend trips to the country. One even joined me on a trip to Amsterdam. Wacław and I never had breakfast together and we never went further than a walk downtown for a coffee.  He was too poor for us to go out for dinner or a concert or the theater, and he was too proud to let me treat him. But none of these men gave me more pleasure or revealed more to me at the time than he did.

It’s over now. I think of Wacław now and then, and though I recognize the loss no longer grieve for it. I never deluded myself into thinking that a relationship based wholly on sex could really last. Or was it really only sex? I still don’t know but I am grateful that it lasted as long as it did.

I would have felt disloyal talking about him to the others. They wouldn’t have understood, anyway. Had we not gotten sidetracked before my turn came, I would have volunteered something as innocuous as my friends had. Perhaps, I thought, the others, too, were harboring their own minor obsessions, sheltering them from scrutiny, less ashamed of them than protective. Martha and Tobias and the guy with the ivy. Everyone except Ileana, that is. Her fixation was as easy to see as the pendant around her neck.


Image: Robert Mapplethorpe, White Gauze, 1984


2 responses to ‘A Minor Obsession

  1. i wonder if your choice of image to ‘illustrate’ your obsession -unification in a shroud- mightn’t be construed as betraying the apparent downplaying of “minor”…

    and i’m reminded how strongly i felt emily dickinson’s poem 124 [“safe in their alabaster chambers…”] to be a potent description of the most triuphantly binding sensual love – until a friend pointed out that it described a a couple in their tomb

    [and i hope you’ll forgive me this perhaps too ‘heavy’ comment]


    • Fascinating. I hadnt thought of gauze as a shroud. It may have even been what Mapplethorpe had in mind. I chose it because the idea of enwrapment seems to me a core element of obsessions, even minor ones I am wrapped up in the other. Wholly, without reservation. I succumb to his spell and lose my self in his arms (thinking of Barthes notion of engulfment that he talks about in *Fragments*). I also thought that the associations with bondage and mummification also fit with the particular obsession I was writing about (the trust part, that is, not the fetish itself; wrong material).

      But the shroud works too. I think a part of us dies in obsession, if only for a while. We leave behind the version of our self our colleagues and friends know, the ordinary at home-in-the-world self with its ordinary pursuits and interests.


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