Michele Morano’s new essay collection Like Love is a return to her autobiographical craft, with reflections on relationships that don’t fit neatly into the categories of romantic or platonic. Morano asks the titular questions of what it means to love, to be in love, to fall in and out of love—inviting us to reimagine the boundaries of relationships, and with them, ourselves.
I met James at an artist colony in the Berkshires, where we’d each been invited to spend a month free of charge, living and writing on the former estate of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. The setting was lush and fragrant and the view outside my studio window so green that for the first few days I walked around in a state of astonishment because someone thought I deserved this, an entire month in a beautiful place. All I had to do was whatever I felt like: write and read and take walks and eat dinner each night with the other residents.
There were six of us in all, three writers, a painter, a photographer and a sculptor. Only at dinnertime did we all come together, and the highlight of each day, the reward for plugging away hour after hour on an essay that wasn’t coming together yet, was the moment when I walked up the hill, entered the main house, and approached the table. James was often there already, nodding intently at another resident, his serious expression cracking into a bright smile when he saw me. Over dinner we talked and joked, dominating the conversation, agreeing on every political topic that came up and waxing sarcastic about the war in Iraq, the upcoming presidential election, the pope, Scientology. Later we’d walk back to the barn, the evening air thick with country smells, and share a glass of Scotch in the hallway before going back to work. Before long, I was in love with him.
I don’t mean that I loved him. Love needs time, much longer than a month, to take root and grow. But being in love, that early, dangerous stage of mild obsession, can happen quickly and intensely, without one’s consent or control.
Kevin and I fell in love during the summer, when we had an abundance of time together. Mornings, as I ate breakfast on my front porch, he’d walk down the street, bookbag over his shoulder, smiling broadly. He was on his way to the library or the coffee shop, somewhere quiet to read and think, but first he wanted to say hello. Sometimes he stopped for a quick chat, rubbing my back and chatting before walking off again, and sometimes we fell into bed for an hour before resuming our separate days. So much of the pleasure of that time came from the growing rhythm, how we collided and spun away, discovering each time we intersected again that we liked each other more.
During those early months I had a recurring dream that one or both of us was married, or seriously involved with someone else, that our love affair was laced with regret. Some mornings I woke to find Kevin lying face-down beside me, my enormous orange cat atop his back, and the relief of our situation made me giddy. There was no guilt, no sadness, just all the possibility in the world and a welling up of gratitude for how open and available we both were.
By the time I went to the Millay Colony five years later, Kevin and I had settled into a comfortable life. We lived a short walk from Lake Michigan, rode the El to our teaching jobs, visited the East Coast a couple times each year. At the residency, every day I looked forward to arriving home at the end of the month, to sharing a bed and a breakfast table and going out to dinner and to the movies and talking and talking the way we always did.
In the meantime, I talked with James. We learned about each other in short spurts, and the daily rhythm of offering bits of story, separating and then coming together again, was as seductive as the early time with Kevin. So much of romance involves seeing yourself reflected back in the expression of someone who enjoys you, and James has the kind of face that shows, and mirrors, appreciation.
I developed the habit of rising early and going immediately upstairs to my studio. After a few hours of work, I would stand up, stumble to the couch, and fall into a deep sleep. James started appearing in my dreams, attending to me, courting me, sidling up and pressing his lips into my hair, speaking into my ear, and the next moment pressing his body into mine in the way that dream-sex works, part theory, part metaphor, part animalistic drilling. I would wake sweaty and pulsing.
James and I snuck away a few times. We went to bars where we drank whiskey and talked about our lives, about his upbringing in Colombia, with a mother who had been his father’s long-time mistress until he left his wife and married her, a mother both tremendously strong and maddeningly passive. James’s novel centered on an entire town of women like that, women with no idea of their own power until a group of guerrilla revolutionaries forces all the town’s men to join their ranks, leaving the women to fend entirely for themselves. Over the next years, the women slowly adapt to the absence of men, and the community that arises looks very much like the socialist utopia men have always fought for but never attained. The women pair up in exquisite love affairs, devise a new way of marking time based on monthly cycles, lose the need for clothing and most material goods. They become edenic creatures, satisfied by one another, their need for men evaporating.
How I loved sitting on a barstool listening to James choose his words to perfection and pronounce them in a way that was subtle and glowing, as if they were wrapped in beautiful paper. He told me about the novel, which was as feminist a story as any I’d heard, and about his job waiting tables and about how he’d come to the U.S. at twenty-six, leaving an advertising career in Bogotá and working menial jobs in New York while learning English. Within a few years he was accepted into the MFA at Columbia University, which he still seemed to regard as a surprising turn of events.
I told James about my book, a travel memoir focused on Spain, and about my family, how my mother left my father in the mid-1970s, when lesbianism was a secret so dark it took more than a decade, until my mid-20s, for me to share the story with anyone. I told him about Kevin, who had happily moved to Chicago when I got a job and who remained as content to live in sin as I was. James was impressed that we weren’t married and didn’t plan to be, and I liked that he was impressed. I wanted to impress him every day, to dress nicer and write better and be cooler so that the smile he cast on me across the dinner table wouldn’t fade.
One night we came back early from a bar in town where everyone from the colony had gathered. A new moon had made the drive especially dark, and emerging from my car, we saw the Milky Way spread across the sky, diamonds affixed to a newly erased chalkboard. “Here,” James said, jogging to the barn and reaching inside to snap off the floodlight, after which the world, the earth, felt so precarious it seemed we might slip off its surface and take our floating place among the stars. There is nothing so humbling as a pitch-black night with a galaxy unfurled across it. The sheer number of stars puts to rest any existential thoughts because standing in our tiny world, hurtling through a universe filled with stars and planets and maybe even civilizations, what’s the point of wondering about anything?
The next afternoon, I lay on my studio couch, heart racing and pelvis throbbing, after a dream in which James and I were entwined in my parents’ bed, the double-bed of my childhood, and he was lying on his side behind me, clutching me so tight it almost hurt except that it didn’t hurt, and when my eyes opened I had no clue where I was. A desire to leave this place forced me up and out to the car, then down the mountain to a café where I drank coffee and stared at a newspaper, wondering what it meant to feel an attraction so strong it veered toward repulsion. When I was with James, when we shared a meal or traded stories, I felt calm, relaxed, not the least bit flustered. But as soon as we parted, his presence grew in my mind until I had trouble sitting still.
What did it all mean, especially since a real affair held no allure? I didn’t find myself wishing James weren’t gay or imagining what things might be like if he were attracted to me, I told myself he was simply a safe object for my emotions, that our compressed living situation created a false intimacy and his sexual orientation allowed for the emotional pleasure of an affair without any of the messiness. But as the residency progressed, I fell into the mild psychosis that often comes with secret love.
One night James and I exchanged some of our published work, and when we saw each other the next afternoon, each eager to talk about what we admired, I felt the kind of heady relief that comes from confessing one’s feeling. It was a beautiful July day, dragonflies riding each other across the field in front of the barn, and butterflies dancing their drunken way from flower to flower. James and I met on the path to the main house, him going there and me coming back, and when we each gushed about what we’d read, each relieved to have liked the other’s work so much, it felt like we were making a blood pact. Later James gave me a CD he’d burned of a Portuguese woman singing fado in a voice cracked with pain and passion. “I love dramatic music,” he said while holding his palm to his heart, eyebrows scrunched, pronouncing the word “love” like “loaf,” which I loved.
As the Millay residency drew to a close, my feelings for James were like an emotional flu. I dreamed tender scenes of confession, woke confused and anxious, felt high after talking with him for an hour. When back pain forced him to leave a couple days early, I was bereft. After he’d gone, I burst into tears repeatedly throughout the afternoon and the next day, then spent my penultimate night at the colony listening to the music he’d given me and finishing the bottle of Scotch he’d left behind. On my own last day in paradise, I stayed in bed until 2pm, sleeping off a hangover and missing him.
Then the month was over and I was driving west on the New York State Thruway, weeping fiercely. Over the next weeks, as I returned to a full life with Kevin, I checked email obsessively, flushing crimson when a message from James arrived and spending too long composing my responses. “I’m in love,” I kept thinking, shaking my head in disbelief and wondering once again what that meant.
I wanted and wanted, and the wanting, even without a specific outcome, kept me stewing for the rest of that summer. But then summer inched toward fall, and in late September Kevin and I went to New York City for a weekend, and when I saw James, the two of us falling into each other’s arms and hugging tightly before separating again, when I introduced him to Kevin and they shook hands, the crush was over. Not right in that moment, not in any moment I could put my finger on, but somewhere in the first part of September, the state of being “in love” had settled into the state of simply loving someone, deeply and permanently. The illness was gone. And the friendship, I knew, would last.
Michele Morano is the author of the travel memoir Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Best American Essays, Fourth Genre, Ninth Letter, and Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women. She lives in Chicago, where she chairs the English Department at DePaul University.