Es Muss Sein


Department of Sex Ed

The Unbearable Lightness of BeingI would never have had my very first orgasm, missionary style, on a twin-size futon in the middle of a school day had he not given me the book. It was The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In the inscription, he wrote he didn’t want his first gift to me to be something as fleeting as flowers or chocolate. They die, they get eaten, they disappear. How could I not be impressed? I was a teenager, a California girl from the quintessential southern part, where I’d probably been too preoccupied with all that, like, sun to get entangled in post-exile, Czech-communist literature.

Days later, I gave him my virginity. It was his first time too. We did it the way humans are meant to, without rubbers or other prophylactic nuisances. Afterward, he put on my bathrobe and sat out on my balcony, holding a wine-glass of orange juice in one hand, a cigarette in the other. I took a snapshot. We laughed.

I won’t lie and say I burned my way through it. In fact, I could barely get past the first sentence:

The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum!

Goddamn, it was a doozy of a line—a harbinger of many more that I also didn’t quite get. Several pages in, I’d suddenly come out of a haze and realize I’d just lost the last ten minutes of my life. It was like leaving Los Angeles on the 405 late at night, lulled by miles of darkness and speed, and then remembering: I’m still driving.

But he was right—the book has endured. There are parts I’ve kept with me throughout the years, initially gleaned between midterms and multiple orgasms (so many that when I smugly tried to count them all, I could only marvel at the math). As a coed inevitably hopped-up on Ortho Tri-Cyclen, I would fixate on Kundera’s vertigo: “the voice of emptiness below us which tempts and lures us . . . against which, terrified, we defend ourselves. ” Then there was his passage on the closing movement of Beethoven’s last quartet: Muss es sein? Es muss sein. Must it be? It must be. I’ve used it like a mantra in the many years since, when making life decisions that harbor complexities I’m just not in the mood to deal with. Muss es sein? Should I sleep with this womanizing sadist? Es muss sein.

When the relationship was over or, you know, mostly over, I tried searching the novel for clues as to how it should resolve, a possible parallel narrative that would give me some kind of sentimental insight. Was he Tomas, the philandering surgeon, and therefore I Tereza, the long-suffering woman he wanted to die with? Were we destined to be together until the end? For chrissakes, I hoped not. I could never devote myself to a cheater. Once more, I gave up—until recently, when I decided to give the book another go.

This time, I immediately recognize I’m more like Tomas, with his rule of threes and his natural ability to compartmentalize, or his favorite mistress Sabina, with her pathological aversion to kitsch. I also have a broader view on infidelity and the unfaithful. Though I’m not that, I understand it. In any case, I finally finished the book. Yesterday. Over a decade since that seminal afternoon. I got through it surprisingly fast and, finally, I think I’m starting to get it. Of course, as Nietzsche might have predicted, I’m going to have to read it again.

Clothilde Lu is the pseudonym of a writer whose mother has Google Alerts.