I was introduced to Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse by a good friend I was sleeping with. We'd just had brunch and sex when he told me, "Read it." I found his edition of the book on his bedside table. The yellowing pages were soft against my fingers as his own traced figures on my skin. "It's right up your alley."
"Why's that?" I said.
"You're like the book." He planted kisses down my spine with each word. "Intelligent. Gorgeous. Romantic..."
After another orgasm, I got a copy that very afternoon.
We weren't, nor would we ever be, "boyfriends." He was in a long-term open relationship (now marriage) and I was living in New York for just a few months. So I didn't expect much. But his warm brown eyes were engaging. We'd walk around Manhattan and talk about books. We'd go out to dinner and talk about writing. And we'd kiss and turn snowfall into rain.
We weren't sure what to call ourselves. He was older and established — my mentor, in a sense. So we played with the term "lover." How French, I thought. I could do French. But for Barthes, an actual gay Frenchman, being a lover was a different ordeal.
Barthes wrote A Lover's Discourse in 1977 as a collection of notes on amorous language. "Figures," he calls them, gestures of the lover at work. He says his goal is to present scenes of language wherein the lover might recognize himself. The whole thing reads like a dictionary of a lover's desire, an exercise in defining every move made, thought shared, word said. Or unsaid.
"Waiting," for example, Barthes describes as "the tumult of anxiety provoked by waiting for the loved being, subject to trivial delays (rendezvous, letters, telephone calls, returns)." He talks about waiting by the phone for his loved one to call. He dare not attempt to find him or call him lest he miss him. Barthes reports how his feelings ricochet between dread and anger and sadness, all while seated by the telephone. (Imagine if he had iMessage.)
"Am I in love?" he writes. "Yes, since I am waiting. The other never waits. Sometimes I want to play the part of the one who doesn't wait; I try to busy myself elsewhere, to arrive late; but I always lose at this game: whatever I do, I find myself there, with nothing to do, punctual, even ahead of time. The lover's fatal identity is precisely: I am the one who waits."
Barthes uses words to make a lucid mirror out of Discourse. But it was only two years later, when I looked into it again, that I recognized myself. This happened, predictably, when I found myself a "boyfriend."
We began using the word when we were having real estate problems in New York. I needed to move out of an apartment I couldn't afford and his landlord refused to renew his lease. After he texted me with this news, I called him.
"I think we can do it," he said. I could hear his crooked smile through the phone.
Between breathy laughs, I said, "I know we've only just met."
We'd already gone on four dates within nine days, so the intimate act of telephoning was permissible, among other suggestions. "We could live together."
The fact I could sit in silence with him, gaze into his steely blue eyes for hours, I willingly mistook for comfort. We'd walk around Brooklyn and stare at the pavement. We'd go out to dinner and chew on our food. But we'd kiss and turn the rain into steam.
He was beautiful and said the same of me. He'd text me good night and good morning. He was my age and single. These things, I decided, were good enough. And thus, I became the lover at work.
adorable / adorable
Not managing to name the specialty of his desire for the loved being, the amorous subject falls back on this rather stupid word: adorable!
— Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse
During the Gay Pride parade in New York, I got belligerently drunk. He had to take me home to his place in Williamsburg when it was still light out. I accidentally left my bag at a bar in the West Village. In the bag were a flask once filled with vodka and the Ray-Bans he lent me. I wore them at the parade, but they weren't in my bag when I woke up in his bedroom that evening, close to midnight. I didn't mention this loss to him when I found him sleeping on the couch in the living room.
"What're you doing out here?" My tongue was still catching up to my thoughts.
"You're still drunk." He smiled. "I need to give you some space."
In the amber glow of the streetlights outside, his handsomeness was made princely. I said, "You went back to the bar for my bag?"
"Of course." He turned away from me on the couch, tightening his hold on a pillow.
But I pulled him into his twin bed and wrapped my sunburnt arms around him. I thought about how lucky I was, to be here with him, in this home leased for only a little while longer, but with him nonetheless. I kissed the nape of his neck and said, "Thank you."
Whenever anyone asked what made me want to be in a relationship with him, I'd often cite this story. Selfless, I called him. We didn't talk about much else other than work and the weather, but he was sweet, kind, adorable — capable of loving and being loved. The nights after dinner on his couch watching Netflix with my head on his shoulder outweighed everything else. This was the honeymoon period I'd heard about.
But, of course, as all moons do, it waned.
fête / festivity
The amorous subject experiences every meeting with the loved being as a festival.
— Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse
We would see each other almost every day, at first. We had drinks two days after our first date. He spent the night at my place three days after that. He'd meet me at the park for lunch and soon invited me to meet his friends. I've always had the habit of marking down these special days in my calendar. In the beginning, these days were wonderfully cramped into short weeks, but it wasn't long until I began to measure my life in the days I didn't see him.
He grew distant, for whatever reason. We saw each other less. His texts became less frequent, less sprinkled with emojis — which everyone knows is an infallible barometer of intimacy. And we used to call each other on video just to watch movies together. I'd point my phone at Clueless on the television and hear how he'd memorized the lines.
Then it became different. Then came weeks of radio silence. I could only count on seeing him on our monthly dates on the 15th, our month-aversary. But even then I'd have to wait for him, for his texts to tell me when and where to be. And whenever I did see him, the festivity I felt was more of a gratitude than sheer joy. Thank you, I wanted to tell him, thank you for picking me tonight. But after the dinner, after the gazing, after the toe-curling under the sheets, I was made to wait again — the subject subjected.
I decided to re-read A Lover's Discourse. My copy's pages were beginning to soften and yellow. In it, I found my notes naive, if not foolish; wide-eyed, if not provincial. And if Barthes' work was once incandescent, now it was searing. His words were once warnings, cautionary tales to be heeded. But now the book, for better or worse, was our shared diary.
Still, I lied to myself. I gave my boyfriend excuses in the weeks between, blaming his own rendezvous and returns. And he was adorable; no one else could promise such pleasure. These were just growing pains, I reasoned. Our relationship was going through puberty, and every time we met, my voice would crack.
I Love You
je-t'-aime / I-love-you
The figure refers not to the declaration of love, to the avowal, but to the repeated utterance of the love cry.
— Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse
On our first date, he took me to the carousel at the Brooklyn Bridge Park. He paid for our two tickets and tossed me the penny he got back. I tried to catch the change, but failed. It spun in circles on the cement, then rolled toward his foot. He stepped on it and picked it up. I told him he should have checked first, to see if it was lucky or not.
He put the change in my shirt pocket and pressed a hand to my chest. "Make your own luck."
Then the lease ran out. I landed an apartment with friends in Harlem and he was moving to Crown Heights. We were on his Williamsburg rooftop for the last time when I thought I felt the breeze pick up. I held his face in my hands and ran a thumb across his manicured stubble. His hands were on my waist and I inflated my chest against his.
"I love you." I felt him tense. I added the next line I'd practiced: "You don't have to say it back. I just wanted you to know."
"I'm not a good boyfriend," he said. "Just wait. Let me catch up." This was one of his many promises.
Time and again, he'd promised to communicate more openly, to be more forthright with his emotions, to just treat me like his friend. But I never once felt him work on these vows. I felt us going in circles where nothing was wrong and nothing was right.
In cabs, in bed, outside parties, it was the same conversation: how I felt like an accessory of convenience in his life, to be used only when he needed help moving furniture or having an orgasm. We weren't us anymore, as much of an us as we ever were. He'd left the job of making our own luck to me. He was not the lover at work.
At last, after months of waiting, he explained that whenever he's in a relationship, he wants to be single again. And when he's single, he wants to be in a relationship. I congratulated him on this novel feeling.
"Are you dating someone else?" I said. He paused, tightened my duvet around himself. "You're not lying to me in my bed."
"I'm not dating anyone," he said. The next morning, we woke up with our backs turned to each other.
On the 15th of some month, we broke up at the waterfront of Brooklyn Bridge Park, near the carousel and the horse he rode in on. Some paces away, a couple taking their wedding photos was standing in the water, the Manhattan skyline as their backdrop. I silently wished them luck; I'd just found out fidelity is too much to ask for nowadays.
"I love you," I said, "but I can't keep waiting for you."
"A mandarin fell in love with a courtesan. 'I shall be yours,' she told him, 'when you have spent a hundred nights waiting for me, sitting on a stool, in my garden, beneath my window.' But on the ninety-ninth night, the mandarin stood up, put his stool under his arm, and went away."
— Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse
When I began to feel my relationship crumble, I picked up my copy of A Lover's Discourse, fiercely notated, aggressively dog-eared, and loved. In both, I saw the lover at work. But it's the "lover" — singular, alone — at work by himself. The loved one, the other, is oblivious to this. He is passive while the lover becomes active in his waiting. He begins to feel himself waiting. Calling it hoping, calling it pretending.
The title of the book can be misleading. Barthes was not writing about love, at least not in its healthiest sense, but about desire. It's a romantic work, sure, wildly emotional and recklessly hopeful — very much up my alley. But it makes no pretenses about deconstructing an unrequited ideal. As Barthes discloses on the very first page of the book, to see oneself in these scenes of language is to be reminded of the lover's extreme state of solitude.
Today, Barthes' figures now come with sharp pangs of recognition. It's a comfort in disguise. Barthes, eager and tormented next to his telephone, seems to say, "You are not alone in your aloneness." It's as singular and unique a work as it is unrequited and one-sided; that is to say, devastatingly so.
As I flip through the beautiful, bleeding pages now, I'm made to conclude that, by Barthes' standards, I can't do French. I don't want a lover, for the time being at least. I just want a good friend I'm sleeping with.