The first white boy I loved was in the fourth grade, soon after I had moved from Taiwan to Australia. Ben was a pale, thin boy with sandy hair and hazel eyes. He often sat at the computer in the corner of the classroom, tapping away. I couldn’t talk to him, my ability to communicate in English at the time capped at raising my hand, mumbling “toilet,” and frowning. Nonetheless, I liked sitting next to him with a book open in my lap, admiring his air of quiet intelligence. I imagined us kindred spirits, keeping a dignified distance from the ruckus of our fellow comrades.
Or at least that’s how I remember it, though who really knows. I was eight and already doing the thing that I would catch myself doing, again and again, in my teens and then my twenties: idealizing the objects of my affection, creating characters with whom I proceeded to fall head over heels in love. Maybe Ben was just sitting alone because he didn’t have any friends.
I have always been cautious to a fault. I am precious with my body, the reason why I avoid sports that involve fast balls or speed in general (which is to say most sports). But when it comes to matters of the heart, I throw myself headfirst, not so much falling as diving into love. I am addicted to love: its hot flushes, its cold sweats, the way I am unmade and remade by it.
Since Ben, I have yearned after many others. There was the drummer in the middle school jazz band, the high school class clown, the teaching assistant in political theory, the melancholic college debater, the aloof mathematician. And then there was A.
I am an Asian woman, and a certain narrative about relationships like the ones I have had with white men has infiltrated recent Asian American literature. Saturated with paranoia, the narrative portrays white-male/Asian-female (WMAF) couples as relationships inevitably doomed by ethnic difference.
Alexandra Chang’s autobiographical novel, Days of Distraction (2020), follows the travails of a Chinese American woman, also named Alexandra, who uproots her life in San Francisco and moves with her white boyfriend to Ithaca, where he is starting a Ph.D. in biochemistry. The novel milks her boyfriend J’s white ignorance for dramatic tension. For one, he insists on calling her by her family nickname, “Jing Jing,” in spite of his inability to pronounce it correctly. In another instance, he prompts her to apply for a lecturer position at the journalism department of a nearby liberal arts college after a white professor tells her about the opening, insisting even after she makes it clear that she doesn’t want to be the department’s diversity hire. A fight ensues.
Thinking back to her friend’s refrain, “Fuck dating white guys,” Alexandra “fantasizes about running away.” She attempts to cure J’s ignorance by sending him articles on the challenges of interracial marriage when he is at work, but he replies that he is busy and will read them later. This transgression prompts her to wonder, “What would be different with an Asian man, or another person of color? How much easier would it be? What kinds of conversations and pains could we bypass? What kinds of cultural aspects and perspectives of the world could we share?”
Where Days of Distraction locates the challenge of white-male/Asian-female relationships in white ignorance, Elaine Hsieh Chou’s satire, Disorientation (2022), enacts the threat of fetishization in these interracial couplings. The novel, which lampoons academia and facets of Asian American politics, features a Taiwanese American woman, Ingrid, who is engaged to a mediocre white man, Stephen. Near the climax of the novel, she rifles through pictures of her fiancé’s exes to discover—shock, horror!—that he has only dated Asian women. As it turns out, Stephen, a textbook weeaboo, is on a lifelong quest to date a Japanese woman. But perhaps we could have gleaned that at the beginning of the novel, when he is introduced as a translator of Japanese literature despite not speaking Japanese, or from the (none-too-subtle) scene where he asks Ingrid to dress up in a Japanese schoolgirl costume.
I could go on. Susie Yang’s White Ivy (2020) attempts to turn the tables on the trope of the victimized Asian woman by featuring a Chinese American antiheroine who deliberately pursues a wealthy white man to access white upper-class respectability. But what results is nonetheless a relationship that strains credulity, determined more by race than anything else that might give texture to a relationship—the clash of personalities, say, or sexual chemistry. The paranoia extends beyond literature. In her hit song “Your Best American Girl,” the Japanese American singer Mitski croons to her white boy lover, “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me/But I do, I think I do/And you’re an all-American boy/I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl.” The relationship, we are led to believe, is doomed because of an insurmountable cultural divide. The scholar Anne Anlin Cheng captures the anxiety that pervades these works in an essay on interracial love by describing “the question of love” for Asian women as “perilous.”
But what if love is perilous for Asian women not because we are Asian women, but because love is a perilous endeavor? I’ll admit it, many of my Asian American girlfriends have dated or are dating white men, and those relationships have, more often than not, ended in disappointment. But when we pass the Merlot back and forth at wine nights, we are not crying about how white boys just don’t get us, like, ethnically. We are crying because we are not sure how he feels, he’s “not ready for a relationship yet,” and—a perennial source of consternation—why the fuck won’t he text us back?
I broke up with a white man last year. Let’s call him A. Readers of contemporary Asian American literature might assume that the break-up was a consequence of ethnic difference, but the narrative rings hollow. It inaccurately renders A as ignorant or uncaring as it absolves me of responsibility in giving up on someone I loved.
I never thought I would write about us, but I used to love telling our story. A and I started dating a couple of months after we graduated college, but we met much earlier, during the first week of freshman year. I immediately liked the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled and how he seemed to know something about everything. I felt, even back then, when we stayed up until the wee hours of the morning reading and occasionally writing but mostly chatting, the yearning pangs of a small crush. But another girl beat me to the punch. So, I let him go, and we fell out of touch amidst the rush of campus life.
We ran into each other again at a coffee shop in the spring of our senior year. Those final months of college were awash with a preemptive nostalgia that tinted everything with a golden glow. I was nursing a broken heart and trying to write a thesis on Augustine’s conceptions of divine and political love. We recited the routine pleasantries. I asked after the girl who had beaten me to the punch, and he confessed that they had recently broke up. As the warming promise of spring gently dislodged the unforgiving cold of the East Coast winter, we began to grab meals and drinks together. I remembered why I liked him so much when we first met: he was razor-sharp but not pretentiously so, more bookish and endearingly disheveled. We submitted our undergraduate theses that April, and in the heady days of post-thesis life, we popped André and discussed the ascent of illiberalism until 3 a.m. He walked me back in the morning after the first time I spent the night with him. It was slightly drizzling and he held an umbrella for me.
And of course, I fell for him. I detoured to get coffee even when I was already nauseously over-caffeinated just so I could catch sight of him at the pool tables he frequented. But there were barriers I had to surmount. I was heading to Edinburgh for a master’s program after graduation, and he was moving to New York City for a job. We weren’t sure if we would end up in the same city in the near future, and he—ever the realist and logician—didn’t want to enter into a serious long-distance relationship right after college. My time in Edinburgh, which should have been a year of self-discovery and respite abroad, was torturous. I spent hours agonizing over my phone, waiting for him to text back. I did chaturangas in a yoga studio heated to tropical temperatures until I couldn’t think straight. I hung a calendar in my room and crossed out each day that elapsed, counting down to when I would see him again.
Then we found out we’d both been accepted to the same graduate school—a J.D. for him and a Ph.D. for me. I made a detour to New York City after doing campus visits for graduate programs I had gotten into. The night before I was due to return to Edinburgh, we lay side by side, listening to the sirens go by. “Will you date me?” I asked softly into the darkness. “Yes,” he replied. We kissed, and I thought this was it, I’d found the one.
I wasn’t blind to the perils of white-male/Asian-female relationships. After all, the scripts that pervade our culture are hard to ignore. There are many things we already know about these relationships. Encountering a white-male/Asian-female couple, we worry almost instinctively that:
(a) the white man has yellow fever and the Asian woman is a fetish object;
(b) the Asian woman wants to assimilate to whiteness via the white man;
(c) both of the above.
Of course, it’s not just instinct—it’s history. Asian women comprise a majority of mail-order brides to the U.S. and Australia due to widespread poverty in Asia, which is in turn a consequence of centuries of Euro-American exploitation and colonialism. While stationed in China, Japan, the Philippines, Korea and Vietnam, white American GIs fraternized with the local women who worked as service or sex workers and brought them back to the U.S. as war brides.1
But that history doesn’t fully account for why the narrative around white-male/Asian-female couples has become increasingly paranoid of late. The paranoia, I suspect, is born out of a growing tendency toward didactic critiques of whiteness in our cultural discourse. During the 2010s, social media enabled the proliferation of pundits fluent in the language of anti-racism, catapulting phrases like “white supremacy” into the cultural mainstream. Denouncing whiteness, especially during the Trump years, became an easy way to accrue cultural capital in the liberal middle class. The white-male/Asian-female couple—comprised of the white man himself and the presumably white-loving Asian woman—became the consummate bad object under such circumstances, offering its critic the opportunity to flagellate at once the desires of the predatory white man (who stands accused of fetishization) and those of the complicit Asian woman (who stands accused of desiring whiteness). Such relationships are also convenient subject matter in another sense: as Asian Americans accumulate capital and gain access to elite institutions, white-male/Asian-female couplings are becoming ever more common in the spaces that produce our novels and cultural discourse.
A curious consequence of the combination of forces just described is that it has become something of a demonstration of virtue to moralize about miscegenation when the couple in question comprises a white man and an Asian woman. That is to say, it’s hard to be naïve about white-male/Asian-female relationships because the people around me love to warn me about their dangers.
When A and I started dating, I mentioned on the phone to my mother that his ex-girlfriend was also Taiwanese. She paused on the other end of the line. “Hm,” she said. “Be careful.”
At a dinner with some new acquaintances after we moved to New Haven, a brash Taiwanese American woman looked me in the eye and asked, “So why are you dating a white man?”
“She’s one of those Asian girls who dates white boys,” an acquaintance confided in me about a writer we were gossiping about as we sipped matcha cocktails at a Korean woman-owned bar in the Lower East Side. I laughed nervously, praying that she wouldn’t look me up on Facebook and find the profile pictures with white boyfriends past and present.
Admittedly, the anxiety about white-male/Asian-female couples strikes a chord. I feel it too. Crouching over my laptop like a gremlin writing this very essay, I saw a white man sporting a tight tee with fake Japanese characters scrawled across the chest walk into the library with a willowy Asian woman. I immediately cringed. When I see an older white man and Asian woman walk together in the streets holding hands, I stare, scrying my future in their faces and interactions.
Nonetheless, my friends’ and family’s warnings grated. I am allergic to scripts about white-male/Asian-female relationships because I experience love as a narrative that I am writing. Though, as I said, I never thought I would write about A and me. After our bumpy takeoff, the relationship eased into a perfectly smooth ride that would make for rather poor storytelling. For nearly four years, we never fought. My parents loved him, and his parents loved me. My grandmother even praised his chopsticks skills. I came to know him in a way I had never known anyone else. I knew that he would always order a classic margherita at any pizza joint we went to for a scientific assessment. I could play out our conversations in our head before they happened, ping-ponging back and forth in my mind like two sides of myself. I knew that if I yelped “come here!” in a particularly petulant voice, he would always put down whatever he was doing and come over.
He tempered my melodramatic compulsions with his stability. His puttering around our apartment became the background rhythm, comforting in its familiarity, that held me together as I hacked away at each hurdle of the Ph.D. We got into a cadence. We took walks on the same route around New Haven every day, up Orange Street and down State Street. He looked up property prices on Zillow as I peered into each house, making up stories about the lives of its inhabitants. He cooked (pasta carbonara, three-cup chicken, red curry) and I cleaned (meticulously with sprays and wipes). I wondered if this was what it felt like for a peripatetic heart to find a home.
In the paranoid script about white-male/Asian-female relationships, I am represented. How thrilling, to be granted a character that is explicitly an Asian American woman! But alas, as I discovered, the paranoid script is not a very good one. In this script, the heroine is both a victim and complicit in her own victimhood, and her desire is transparent, overdetermined. It’s a rendering of desire I do not recognize.
I came to Asian American fiction because I was lured by the promises of representation. It is awfully fun to read about yourself. But I was also searching for something else—something that I did not realize I was looking for until I stumbled upon Anton Chekhov’s “The Darling.” In the short story, Olenka, a young woman, falls in love with abandon. The first object of Olenka’s affection is the manager of a theater, “short, gaunt, with a yellow face, and curly hair combed back from his forehead, and a thin tenor voice.” During their marriage, she extols the virtues of the theater. Their marriage is short-lived, however. Her husband dies suddenly, and she is bereft. Three months later, she meets Vasily Pustovalov, a lumberyard manager, on the way home from mass. He pays her a visit a few days later. Chekhov writes, “He stayed only about ten minutes, and spoke little, but Olenka fell in love with him, fell in love so desperately that she did not sleep the whole night and burned as with fever.” They get married, and she becomes an expert in lumber alongside her husband. She absorbs Pustovalov’s distaste for amusements as her former enthusiasm for the theater evaporates. When he dies from illness one especially bleak Russian winter, she soon grows attached to the local veterinarian, and the pattern repeats.
“She was always loving somebody,” Chekhov writes of Olenka. “She couldn’t get on without loving somebody.” I recognized myself in her: the excess of her desire, the speed and ease with which she opened her heart to others, the way she wanted to mold herself in the image of her beloved and empty herself at the same time. I picked up phrases and mannerisms from the first boy I ever dated, swaggering around our high school in his sweater like his female doppelgänger. I followed a graduate teaching assistant I crushed on in freshman year into an introduction to political theory course that he was precepting (I ended up majoring in political theory). I took Catholic conversion classes and began writing a senior thesis on St. Augustine when I fell in love with a Catholic man. Heck, I read Chekhov because of my Russian American boyfriend.
My thrill upon encountering Olenka is not the pleasure of representation derived from identitarian identification—seeing, for example, a Taiwanese American woman just like me in a story. Instead, it is the pleasure of recognition. Chekhov is unsparing in his depiction of Olenka, but in his unsparingness resides a keen ethical attention. He writes her with honesty, bringing to life a woman with whom I immediately identified. As I recognized Olenka, I am recognized by Chekhov. It feels good to be seen.
The pleasure of recognition is easily confused with the pleasure of representation. This confusion results from the fact that categories like “Asian American” and “woman” often do translate into similar experiences. For example, I delighted in Jean Chen Ho’s depiction of the Taiwanese night market in the opening of Fiona and Jane (2022), and the plastic couch cover in that one scene in Always Be My Maybe (2019), Ali Wong and Randall Park’s otherwise middling romantic comedy. God, that’s so Asian, my friends and I giggle with glee. But conflating the pleasure of recognition with the pleasure of representation constrains what art can do. As far as Asian American fiction is concerned, it means forever skating on the surface of ethnic aesthetics, unable to—as Virginia Woolf observes of Russian literature—“pierce through the flesh” and “reveal the soul.”
Are my desires shaped by a world that values whiteness? Undoubtedly. After my first breakup in high school with a Taiwanese boy my mother never liked, she found me staring out the window, sobbing. “Don’t worry,” she said, passing me a tissue. “You’ll find your bai ma wang zi one day.” The bai ma wang zi, prince on the white horse, came from the fairy tales in translation she read me when I was a child, picture books with illustrations of pasty princes astride snowy stallions.
We like hot people, and our standards for hotness are invariably sculpted by the forces that shape the world we live in. We can play that game of whiteness-studies Scooby-Doo: lift up the mask, and the culprit is white supremacy. But a singular focus on white supremacy can also obscure. It fails to account for the opacity of desire, its unruliness and mystery. I would posit that few of us can capture exactly in words why we love those whom we love. We might be able to make lists of adjectives like kind, intelligent, witty, hot, or even more specific things, like the curve of a smile, a predisposition toward putting others first. The lists, however, are always pale approximations of something far more ineffable. By contrast, the self-righteous critic of the white-male/Asian-female relationship claims to know why the Asian woman loves the white man. He—or often she—tells the Asian woman, I know what your desires are: they are illegitimate.
In Amia Srinivasan’s famous London Review of Books essay “The Right to Sex,” she observes that “the question posed by radical self-love movements is not whether there is a right to sex (there isn’t), but whether there is a duty to transfigure, as best we can, our desires.” The essay proceeds to answer the question rather obliquely, which is to say not really at all: on the one hand, Srinivasan holds that our desires are mutable and products of political rather than metaphysical forces; on the other, that our desires can also surprise us, and, if we are so lucky, “desire can cut against what politics has chosen for us, and choose for itself.”
I don’t disagree with Srinivasan, but it’s worth pointing out where she doesn’t explicitly go, which is to the original question: Should we try to discipline our desires? No! No!! There is a duty to work, to the best of our abilities, toward the transformation of the political, economic and cultural forces that shape our desires. But to discipline desire itself? I think not. For one, talk of disciplining desire has a violent history. The notion that there exists a moral duty to liberate those who are enslaved to their misguided passions is a well-worn justification for colonialism. We might then worry, with Andrea Long Chu, that “moralism about the desires of the oppressor can be a shell corporation for moralism about the desires of the oppressed.” One suspects that the scrutiny of one’s attractions are more often demanded of Asian women than white men. And for the Asian woman—who, as Anne Anlin Cheng notes, is also known as the “Celestial Lady, Lotus Blossom, Dragon Lady, Yellow Fever, Slave Girl, Geisha, Concubine, Butterfly, China Doll, Prostitute”—the call to discipline her own desires sounds an awful lot like a command for her to internalize the racialization of Asian women as sexually deviant.
And, as I found out the hard way, we would be hubristic to presume that desire is something that can even be disciplined. There is something to the fact that the body-positivity movement that saturated my feeds in the 2010s has only ever made me more obsessed about what I looked like and what I was putting in my body.
Also, who really wants to be a pity fuck?
I could do it. I could write a story about my relationship that traces each fracture along racial lines. I could spin a tale, Days of Distraction-style, about how I felt adrift as I followed my microaggressive white boyfriend around. Woe is me! Pity me as I fade into the background pursuing a Ph.D. in religion, a subject most people in the field can’t even seem to define, as he aced the best law school in the country, got an internship at the swankiest law firm in New York City, and scored one of the most prestigious clerkships, all without breaking a sweat. I could lie and say, “Your Best American Girl”-style, that his “mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me.”
It would be easier for me to peg the dissolution of our relationship to racial difference. I certainly come out looking better. It’s not that I didn’t try hard enough to commit to the relationship, or that I sociopathically made my boyfriend into a character in a narrative I am writing in my mind about my life. It’s simply because of race. If anything, I’m a victim of white supremacy, and breaking up with A was an act of self-actualization.
But then I would be in the business of writing scripted desire, that is, porn. Porn sells—or at least, it’s widely consumed, because people get off on it. Viewers come for a certain performance of sex in porn, and they come when they get it. Readers come for a certain performance of traumatized Asian women with white boyfriends who don’t understand them, and they are satisfied when they get a narrative that leaves them feeling virtuous for having read something that helps them understand the plight of Asian women, or having their victimhood affirmed. Porn is fine—I watch porn, you probably do too. But porn, with its potted narratives and singular purpose, leaves little to the imagination. In contrast, art at its best, as the essayist Melissa Febos puts it, disrupts “our internal scripts” and compels us to create our own stories.
We moved to Cambridge for A’s clerkship at the beginning of a summer when everything shimmered with the possibilities of a post-quarantine world. I had recently passed my general exams—a sordid, tearful affair—and felt adrift in my lack of a dissertation topic. But I had A, and A had me, and we were moving into a sun-filled one-bedroom with polished walnut floors.
The fractures of our relationship, at the time, were far harder to trace than any iteration of microaggressions. They were mostly imperceptible, our domestic bliss smooth and perfect like a snow globe. But sometimes, I caught sight of them: in the vague awareness that we were having less sex (once a week, and then once a month, and then once every three months); one evening, when I called my girlfriends to catch up and found myself all of a sudden in tears. I brushed away their concern, but I grew increasingly aware then of something in the recesses of my mind that I had tried to ignore for months: a sense of being trapped by the monotony of our routine, suffocating in that snow globe of domestic bliss.
The beginning of the end came to pass at our friend’s backyard party. As Bollywood music blasted from Bluetooth speakers and White Claws sweated in our hands, my eyes scanned the throng of party attendees and landed on him. He had an angular face and an easygoing smile, well-fitted t-shirt draped over a hint of a muscular torso just so. He caught my gaze, and walked over to introduce himself. I usually deflect in conversation, preferring to ask questions over divulging things about myself. But he parried each of my questions with questions of his own. I soon found myself telling him about growing up in Australia, and my inability to speak to my parents in Chinese. “And you? What language do you speak to your parents in?”
“Mostly English, sometimes Hindi. But tell me, why did you move to Cambridge?”
“Oh, I followed my partner here.” I recited the story of how I met A. As the party drew to a close, I wondered if I would run into this man again.
As it happens, we did. It was a peculiar summer when people were slowly shedding their antisocial quarantine lifestyles but no one was traveling yet. We milled around, hosting and attending parties, high on the exhilaration of being in proximity to other bodies again. Cambridge, in any case, is a small, incestuous town. The third time we ran into each other at a party, I found myself asking for his number. I told myself I was just trying to make new friends.
The infatuated woman becomes a master interpreter of signs. Each text is meticulously close-read, the date and time sent analyzed for deeper meaning. I calculated the time between our texts, trying to calibrate my responses to match his. It struck me that I had once scrutinized A’s texts like this.
There’s a quiet loss when you wake up one morning and realize that the first person you are thinking of is no longer the person who is lying next to you. I tried a number of things to salvage the relationship. I planned date nights. I made a mental list of things I loved about A, and when that didn’t work, I wrote the list down in the vain hope that committing it to ink would chasten my desire. I tried to explain my waning feelings to my friends. Maybe, I thought, if I could capture my feelings in words, then I could control the story. I even tried talking to A, first in abstract, theoretical terms, and then more concrete ones. I cried a lot, and I drank even more. I apologized over and over again. I’m sorry, I’ll try harder. But if I were being honest with myself, there were also moments when I did not try. I kept texting this man in spite of myself. We got coffee, and then lunch. I couldn’t stop myself, or maybe I didn’t want to. My determination to save the relationship was tempered with a sense of inevitability. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was living out the final pages of a chapter.
The fetish, I think, troubles us because it relocates what feels so particular to the realm of the abstract and general. I am me, eccentric and exasperating with all of my specific tics and neuroses, but the fetish makes me an Asian woman, with all of the abstractions encompassed by “Asian” and “woman” (submissive, ornamental). Ironically, writing white-male/Asian-female relationships as a paranoid script commits the same sin: it provides an infrastructure that invites stories about abstractions rather than living, breathing people.
Writers who rely on these scripts dwell in an uncanny valley, crafting stories that are at once too particular to speak to universal experiences of falling in and out of love and too reliant on clichés to capture the grittiness of actual relationships. What is more, I worry that the scripts that we reproduce end up scripting us. Following these narratives, we—Asian American women—become characters defined primarily by assumptions about how our race and gender dictate our lives, rather than fully fleshed people entangled in all sorts of complicated relationships. This is not to say that race and gender don’t matter—how can they not?—it is simply to say that our lives (and therefore our stories) are usually more surprising than the scripts would indicate. To move away from abstraction for a moment: good Asian woman that I am, I like to play a sub. But I am also many other things: obsessive and dogged in my pursuit of my objects of affection, for example.
The problem with contemporary morality tales about race has often been pegged to the pitfalls of writing for an imagined reader who is white. Ismail Muhammad recently offered a powerful exposition of the “representation trap” in contemporary Black literature. The “specter of the white audience,” he argued in the New York Times Magazine, manifests an anxiety regarding tropes of Blackness that recent Black novelists have strived but ultimately failed to think beyond. Instead, they delivered new tropes: for example, the lone Black character lost in a sea of whiteness who serves as a tool for white enlightenment about racial injustice. But I suspect something else is at play, too. The problem with contemporary morality tales about race is not only that they are written for an imagined reader who is white. It is also that they are written for an imagined reader who is stupid.
The writers of recent novels about white-male/Asian-female relationships seem to operate under the assumption that the reader is unable to comprehend anything beyond the basic thesis that fetishization and microaggressions are bad. In this way, they ensure there can be no confusion: they are on the right side of history. But every act of communication is open to misinterpretation, and oftentimes we will be misinterpreted. The acknowledgment of this reality should not lead us to stop communicating, or to parrot the same things over and over again because they are known to be “right.” Instead, the inevitability of misrecognition should encourage us to take risks. By taking risks, we open ourselves to misinterpretation, but also at least the possibility—however minuscule—of recognition.
Toward the end, A and I were having another one of those conversations we often had those days, in which we swooped around the problems in our relationship asymptotically without ever touching them. I wondered vaguely if we needed more mystery in our relationship, in which everything felt known. He replied quickly, “We flatter ourselves too much if we regard ourselves as so impossibly layered and complex as to have infinite unplumbed mystery.” I could tell that he, who was not prone to anger, was annoyed. He was frustrated with the way I romanticized everything. He resisted love stories, the soaring highs and crushing lows of desire. In his world, everything made sense, and nothing was enchanted.
But his disenchantment was a narrative of its own. “Disenchantment” is supposedly how modernity delivered us from magic. But it is itself a narrative—even a myth—that consoles our impotence in the face of contingency with the fantasy that we have the capacity to live rationally with full agency. The choice is not whether we should live in a narrative, but which narrative we should live in. This is why the stakes of storytelling are so high.
At the end of November, I attended a major conference in my field. Under the glittering lights of an afterparty, drifting in the hum of conversations pulsing around me, I felt, for the first time in a long time, alive in my aloneness.
I moved my flight back to Boston a day early. Unable to look A in the eye, I wrestled my luggage into the apartment and unpacked it quietly.
“We need to talk,” I eventually said when I tossed the last shirt into the laundry basket. I don’t remember how the rest of the conversation unfolded, except that at one point, A confronted me. “Other people have feelings too, Kathy, they’re not just characters in your novel,” he said angrily, tears flashing in his eyes. He accused me of casting him as the boring cuckold as I gallivanted about, chasing the thrills of new romance. I’m sorry, I said again. I’m really sorry.
I suppose I ended up in a script after all. Elements of this narrative are familiar: meeting someone else, the realization that life can go on after letting a lover go and—of course—that old line, “we need to talk.” But it’s a script that feels truer to me.
To be sure, the paranoid script will feel true to others. There is a more diplomatic thesis here: I could clarify that the point is not to litigate between scripts but to demand a wider range of narrative options—a liberalism of narrative options, if you will, where everyone can pick their favorite narrative for themselves and go home happy. But indulge me as I offer a riskier position: I think there are better narratives and worse narratives. The worst narratives feature caricatures whose decisions are wholly explainable by shallow facts about their identity. The best narratives—in our literature, in our lives—refuse transparency about how desire works and abide, however unbearably, in its mysteries.
November slipped into December. Snow fell, rendering Cambridge muted and solemn. A moved into a spare room in his friend’s apartment, and I was left alone in the one-bedroom with the walnut floors, which echoed with his absence. I sold pieces of our furniture: the couch, a gray behemoth we lugged painstakingly from New Haven because our friends loved napping on it; a kitchen cart we bought secondhand and wheeled, clacking loudly, a mile to get home. I began packing. Our mug, our pouf, our Instant Pot became my mug, his pouf, my Instant Pot.
A didn’t believe in enchantment or myth, but I have lived my life in search of transcendence. I have glimpsed it, here and there, when I read a novel and feel the exhilaration of recognition, or when I catch my lover’s eyes and feel that I have found my refuge. I live for these moments, when I am unmade and remade by words, unmade and remade by love. So, our stories diverged, and the world spins madly on.
Art credit: Mai Ta, Fill My Cup, 2022. Gouache on watercolor paper, mounted on woodboard. Courtesy of the artist.