Photograph by Caryl González.
In our Spring issue, we published selections from Annie Ernaux’s 1988 diaries, which chronicle the affair that served as the basis for her memoir Simple Passion. To mark the occasion, the Review has begun asking writers and artists for pages from their diaries, along with brief postscripts.
July 13, 2018
I was up all night and it’s afternoon now. Maybe writing this will let me go to sleep. Sometimes it feels as if I’ve been awake for six months. Longer? In Cyprus I felt like I never slept. Even when I did my body felt impatient, braced, alert, waiting for the knock of the cat’s paws on the bedroom door at 5 A.M. I would be out of bed before she could start mewing for food. “Acutely, terribly awake,” I wrote in a poem I’m still trying to finish. She knew I was an easy mark, looking for an escape into the day. I saw nearly every sunrise from my window onto the garden. The bougainvillea. “I want to make love to everyone who’s ever lived,” I wrote in the same unfinished poem. An unwise wish, and a lie, of course, if taken literally—but the feeling. What was I trying to ask for? Pleasure. Recompense from the world. Surprise. The end of desire. Something.
And now I’m a sad woman, apparently; sleeplessness is entirely changed, desire’s not ended but it holds hands with pain. He does not come to me because he does not want to come, and not for any other reason. It’s all very boring, this recitation. Last night it rained horribly but even so I forced myself to go to Chelsea for dinner with J. and her friend Y., who has one of those jobs I always want when I find out they exist. He’s an expert on repairing antique, or simply old, sound equipment. I envy expertise that seems both useful and specific. And like you had to actually do something to acquire it, like it’s not just blather. J. was late, so I had to make conversation with Y. while he finished a blueberry galette. The galette was a godsend, actually, since I had just listened to his complaints about how blueberries are an inferior fruit, tasteless, and the only reason he was making this was because J. had requested it. And then, after I had enough wine to feel like talking, J. arrived, and everything improved as they sparred the way old friends do. I didn’t eat enough for Y.’s satisfaction, so he chided me and then forgave me after I ate more galette, and then he started playing records on a record player so beautiful I didn’t want to go near it, and then J. got out the molly and coke. We took a signed photo of a famous musician off the wall to do lines off of, now I don’t remember who, but Y. joked “he’d approve” so it was probably Keith Richards or someone like that. I saw K. R. joke once about how his ghostwriter did all the work on his memoir. It sounds like a relief to have someone translate, or invent, your memories, to tell your life story so you can read it.
I came back to this weird temporary home sometime around 4:30. I took the subway, even though it would have been so much nicer to take a cab up Madison Avenue in the dark, all the lighted shop windows flashing by, emptied of their luxuries though still so bright. But I’m very poor. I had breakfast plans with C. at 9:30, and since I couldn’t sleep from drugs and/or ambient heartbreak, I didn’t cancel. Instead I took a shower, smashed a cockroach, and stared at the gray ceiling till it occurred to me that I could walk there. So I walked all the way from Eighty-Second to MacDougal, the chemical ecstasy filling me so that I felt as if I were expanding as the city did, awakening. It was the happiest I’ve been since I came back, alone. I thought, No one in the world knows where I am. Why do I always return to that thought as a source of, if not happiness, then pleasure? I remember in Warsaw when I’d tell D. I was going out somewhere, or had an appointment, and instead I would walk south to Praga-Południe or crisscross the bridges—there was no point in the lie, he wouldn’t have cared. But the claustrophobia of our life together was such that I just lied, which should have told me something about how it would end. And I was so happy, even when it was cold and smoggy and gray, to be alone and unfindable. I know why, then, it felt liberating. But now, when I clatter around this big house missing everything about love and proximity? I mean, yes, drugs are an explanation, but I’m writing about this because the elation was more than that. There’s something bigger than solitude in being lost to everyone who knows you, to being open only to the eyes of strangers. Real loneliness? And that loneliness is an escape from owing everything to everyone I love. I suspect, at least. If I could have the love I want to have exactly as I want it, but I could never think exactly that—no one on earth knows where I am—again, would I choose the love? No, I think. But maybe I am just telling myself that. Walking around in a circle again, as Professor B. said, unable to choose whether to be inside or outside: love, loneliness.
Then again in this case I don’t have a choice, and I should stop prattling and go to sleep. Or to bed, even if I can’t sleep. When I showed up, C. said, Why do you look so happy? I told him. He laughed at me; he always enjoys my chaos, so I always confess it to him. Patti Smith, who knows C., came up to say hello on her way out. I didn’t say I’d seen a signed photo of her on the wall last night. I just stayed quiet and admired how—at least there in the café every morning—she chooses exactly who she speaks to, and when. Drinks her coffee. Writes. I envy that.
At the end of 2017, I finished a Fulbright in Poland and moved to Cyprus with my husband. It was to be a geographic pause of uncertain length during which we planned to apply for a U.S. immigrant visa for him. Secretly, I hoped the sea and sun—and the return to a place where he’d spent the happiest years of his childhood—would cure his depression. It did not. I, however, fell in love with someone there with whom there was no possible future. My husband found out; everything went to hell. In June 2018, I retreated to a friend’s parents’ otherwise empty townhouse on the Upper East Side, a lavish setting that belied my poverty. I’d exhausted my savings, had no job, and ate a nauseating number of boiled eggs, depending on the kindness of friends for more substantial meals. And yet, as my diary reveals, my biggest preoccupation was my double heartbreak: the end of my marriage and the end of my affair. What Proust calls “the charms of an intimate sadness” beguiled me. I used to accept, unquestioningly, that pleasure was fleeting, but now I think it has an afterlife, during which we integrate it into all the griefs we also feel.
In the general (and tedious) chorus of misery of entries from this time, typed into Microsoft Word because my handwriting is often incomprehensible even to myself, this entry is an aberration in its strange pleasure. It interests me now because I have been thinking about forms of loneliness. Last year, my youngest brother died. Now I often feel loneliest in company—looking around a party, knowing that I am the only one who feels his absence in the world. (Another Proust line I repeat to myself now: “The absence of a thing is not merely that, it is not simply a partial lack, it is a disruption of everything else, it is a new state which one cannot foresee in the old.”) But even that specific loneliness brings an odd pleasure: a confirmation that love hasn’t been lost along with him. If I could address the Elisa of 2018, who believed in the surpassing intensity of her suffering even as she called it “boring,” I wouldn’t tell her she was foolish. I would say that the division she imagined between love and loneliness was at least partly false. Loneliness is a figure of present-tense love, for the lost person and for those strangers who represent, to her, the as-yet-unknown beauties of the world. She was correct, though, that there’s no choice to be made.
Elisa Gonzalez is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award.
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