Download as PDF Download PDF



I remember while walking along the beach on the outskirts of Edinburgh with a recently acquired good friend that we were discussing the notion of love. “I’m not sure whether I’ve been in love” I said. He looked at me with a surprised visage and said he thought they had been in love several times, but each time it was slightly different. I said maybe if I’ve fallen in love it was always in the same manner. He was puzzled and asked what I meant. I said I would become involved with women who some might say were damaged, though maybe really just complex, and that they demanded comprehension as readily as love. However providing this comprehension wasn’t a way of enslaving them, of making them rely on me emotionally in some manipulative manner. No, I really thought it was a sort of emotional ethics, even a spiritual issue. I needed to believe that whomever I found myself being emotionally attached to had to be with me not only because of the developing passion, but also because they thought they had met someone in whom they could completely love and trust. And because I had shared this dynamic with the three previous women I’d been seeing for a lengthy period, I found in each instance I couldn’t end the relationship, and nor, finally, could they. In each case, they would say it was over, move back with an ex-lover, or forward to a new affair. However, in each instance they would never quite say it was completely over, never conclude they wanted no further contact.

Maybe I gave the impression to the friend that the emotional reliance was all one-sided, but I don’t think that was true; indeed our very conversation maybe came from my constant need to explore and explain my own feelings – it was simply that I somehow rarely found the necessary space to do so with the people for whom I would feel love. Perhaps it was because I wouldn’t allow weakness to present itself in love, and isn’t it common for the emotionally apparently strong person to need the ‘weaker’ one so they gain sustenance from being strong? Was I such a person, and did I never really feel the loss in a relationship: I could always still be there for the other person even if they went off and fell in love with other people? What would happen, though, if I met someone who was equally resilient a personality?

It was one Saturday during the Edinburgh film festival when Karina and I met. She was enquiring whether there were any tickets left for a film I had heard was particularly disturbing. Sorry, they said, the film had sold out. I offered my spare ticket: a friend decided (the very friend with whom I had walked along the beach that day a month or so before) that they couldn’t face the film. “Why, thanks” she smiled, “maybe I can get you a drink after by way of a thank you.” I said that would be great “but don’t feel obliged,” I shrugged. “I’m sure it would be a pleasure,” she insisted.

So after the film we managed to find the one spare table in the Filmhouse bar and found the conversation moving towards immediate intimacy perhaps by the nature of the film we had just seen. In it a woman becomes increasingly fascinated by mutilating herself, and by the end of it looks as if the self-mutilation has reached such an extreme state that she’ll probably soon die. Karina said she wasn’t given to self-mutilation; but she thought she understood the logic behind the film – she could comprehend why a woman so un-energized by her work might start feeding off her own body. I reckoned it wasn’t really a film about self-punishment, but about the human problem of where to put nervous energy. If the western world is becoming ever more neurotic, is it because it is a surplus energy problem, then, she asked? That is a big question, I replied, but what I said I liked about the film was that it somehow symptomised the social rather than the personal: we knew about the world in which she lived, but knew almost nothing about her life up until that point.

Karina was appearing in a play that week and she asked if I would come along and watch it. It was a play by a well-known contemporary British playwright, and hers was the leading female role. She said I might not like it – it was re-interpretation, with her role filled with passion.

Afterwards I told her I liked the way she played it – it seemed almost to tie into things we were talking about a couple of days before: about what to do with excess energy. Should an affair be viewed not as a moral lapse but as an energising option? Better to entangle oneself in another body than surely feed off one’s own.

Karina had decided not to go straight back to San Francisco after the festival, though her year at Oxford had finished, and she could have continued with her Berkeley degree in the fall. She wanted to spend several months in Scotland – she had relatives going back over a hundred years. A few nights after I had seen her in the play, and after we had been every evening in each other’s company, we made love at my flat, making love slowly yet passionately, and in between we would talk, get up and make tea, and have something to eat and return to bed. We didn’t get to sleep till about seven in the morning. Several hours later, over a late brunch, she reckoned I made love in an unusual way. “What do you mean?” I asked “Well” she said, “I think the way you have sex could make a woman insecure.”

I urged her to continue, and she added I didn’t give the impression of need. Often a woman really wants to feel needed for intense pleasure. I asked if what she meant was vaginal pleasure, the pleasure a writer I knew she liked had written so well about in her most famous book. She said yes (half surprised that I’d read it), and yet she thought I had maybe found a way of giving pleasure without a sense of needing it back. She explained that she’d had a fair number of lovers – maybe thirty or more. Two or three of them she believed she’d really loved because of the pleasure she felt in sleeping with them, and the intense desire in which they seemed to want her: there was a strong sense of mutual need. The rest were people who gave her some pleasure but nothing more. I gave her real pleasure but in a way which didn’t suggest that sense of necessity.

I explained I wasn’t really very sexually experienced. Apart from a couple of drunken one night stands when I was much younger, I’d only been with six women and that she was the sixth. She looked both surprised and puzzled, and I explained that I’d never been that sexually driven; that so much of my energy I would burn off through exercise or through my work. I would write every day, and would feel quite energised and tense whilst doing so. It released something, I believed, and the surplus was so often expelled in running or cycling or walking or swimming. I said maybe I didn’t even need to make love – before hastily adding that I often wanted to.  “Last night I really wanted to” I added.

She laughed, her smile easy and open, and flicked her long, dark brown hair back as she eased her leg towards my thigh, under the table we were breakfasting on, and placed it there. She said it was very strange the way I’d removed a woman’s sense of insecurity. Most men seemed to do so through intense desire, even if they’ve slept with hundreds of women in the past, they at least try to give the impression that the girl they’re presently with is more important than any of the others.

She would later insist she never felt special in that way with me, but instead as if she were so by being with someone who wanted another type of pleasure altogether from making love. “It’s as if you draw people in through your language, through your work even.” Ex-girlfriends had rarely said they desired my just by looking at me, though they thought I was physically attractive. They wanted to know if I was curious about their minds since they knew I spent so much of my time living in my own. Maybe if I were a more visceral creature, a rugby player, a footballer or a dancer, I could have seduced them more readily with my body; but no, talk to me, they would say. And so I talked, and they would listen, and then they would talk, and we would go to bed. After we had made love we would often talk some more. Women had often told me their lovers would usually fall asleep after sex. It was physiological; men would sleep straight away; women about twenty minutes afterwards, and so would be happy to keep talking. And so that is what we did – we kept talking. Then, often out of the talk, we would want to make love again, or get thirsty and want to make herbal tea. I said maybe it sounded strange but it felt quite natural. Of course in each instance they wanted something different eventually, and on leaving me would say, amongst other things, the same thing: they wanted to be with a man who was more selfish, more obviously desiring, and who wanted to take care of them. Could I only remove a woman’s sense of insecurity for so long, or was my way of making love fundamentally unnatural?

So Karina and I talked about this over that brunch, and talked about it some more in between visiting a well- known 19th century painter’s retrospective. As we lay in Princes Street Gardens she said I was potentially a dangerous man. She said I wanted to get into a woman ‘ontologically’ – that I didn’t simply want them to love me, but that I wanted them to comprehend something fundamental about their own being. She mentioned the conversation we’d had after watching another film at the festival. Where I had talked about how with some women it wasn’t romancing they needed, they didn’t feel special in an obviously desirable way, but what they needed was a man to understand their half thought thoughts, so that the intimacy had as much to do with revealing minds as bodies. Sure these minds might be defined as neurotic, but my response to that ‘neurosis’ was not to misapprehend it, or too readily to comprehend it and want to resolve it. No, it was to assume that the chaos was who they were, and that chaos was not to be quelled by anti-depressants or hash, or alcohol, or even cigarettes, necessarily, but by an emotional healing. She said it was almost as if I had used my intelligence as much if not more than my heart to love them. Was I still not in danger of practising it, she wondered, with someone for whom neurosis was not really an issue? Karina was a vegetarian, didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, and generally managed to channel her energy into creativity. “Shouldn’t you be changing your method?” she joked. Wasn’t she too un-neurotic to be healed?

I laughed back and said maybe – or perhaps we had to refine it into something equal. Was it not John Updike, she offered, who said in every relationship there was a teacher and a pupil, a master and a servant?

I suggested we could maybe move towards democracy. For much of the next three months she stayed over in my flat off Hanover Street in the New Town, It was for me a perfect bachelor flat, and I always thought there was in its self-containment a simultaneously seductive and repudiating feel to it. Seductive in the sense that it allowed someone a strong and quite immediate sense of who I was, but after a while repudiating because it suggested I was not someone who wanted to evolve, or dissolve, into a couple. Karina, and before her Florence, Ingrid and Yazmina, would all say they never felt so comfortable in my flat as in the initial few days. But after that, after they had semi-moved in, or would regularly pop round, they would feel the flat resistant to their little touches.

Karina would sometimes talk to me about this, say that while it might not really be a problem for her – was she not going to return to the States sometime soon – was it not a problem for Florence, Yazmina and Ingrid? I said that during the four years I was with Florence, and the year I was with Yazmina, they had kept their own flats. I wasn’t with Ingrid quite long enough for the flat really to be a problem. Karina wondered if I wanted to get inside their minds but was wary of letting them inside my abode.

Sometimes Karina would do this: she would say something provocative that could potentially start an argument, yet offer an inflection that would counter any hint of aggression. It was almost as though we weren’t two people having a relationship, but two people commenting on a relationship that was somehow almost abstract. We would talk about the idea that it was experimental, in the sense that the emotion never seemed greater than our capacity to make sense of the feeling. So when Karina would offer a provocation, it was received as a provocative thought; not a loose cannon emotion.

Some would say that ours was a cold, essentially unemotional affair, but I’m not so sure if the heat we avoided generating was because of the way each layer of potential resentment was addressed initially. When Karina commented on the bachelor aspect of the flat, it came not from a series of thoughts then expressed as if unleashed, but more quizzically, as a mode of inquiry. There was little sense of need.

Now I think both Florence and Yazmina needed me, and maybe even Ingrid, and so any love they felt carried this neurotic dimension, because they must have felt that I didn’t need them. I loved them and wanted them, but if they were away for a week or two – Florence would often visit her parents in France; Yazmina her parents in London – I would sometimes feel a sense of relief. I knew I would be able to get in more work, but also, with a healthy break from each other, we would be able to look forward to seeing each other again. But they were often reluctant to leave at all, and would sometimes do so only because I insisted. “Do you love me if you’re so keen to get rid of me” Yazmina once said. I said her leaving wasn’t a problem for me: she had such a strong place in my mind, strong enough to compensate for her bodily absence.

But when Yazmina left me I wondered whether it was because I finally didn’t have a strong enough presence in her mind. Sure when she was home at her parents’ place I would get many phone calls, but in retrospect I realized this was probably because I didn’t have a strong enough presence in her mind in my absence, and the same was also true, I think, of Florence. They would not be in touch so often because they loved me, but because with each passing minute of my absence I was fading from view. For me time didn’t seem to dissolve them at all, and to some degree still hasn’t removed them from my mind, though I see them rarely: Florence maybe once or twice times a year; and Yazmina every few months. Even though Ingrid and I were together for only half a year, still she will phone me occasionally and talk about some intricate problem in her life that she needs another to help her solve. I would sometimes ask her if she had gone to anybody else with the problem. She would sometimes say yes, and sometimes no. She would usually add, either way, that I seemed more willing to engage with the problem than others. Florence and Yazmina would say much the same thing. What they had always really wanted from me was a reminder of themselves, a side of themselves they felt they had to deny to live socially, but an aspect they didn’t want to eradicate altogether. It wasn’t so much that I had a clear place in their mind, but whatever side of themselves I brought out, they occasionally wanted to find again. Sometimes this side of themselves was no more than an analytic one; though often it seemed also to be about searching inside them a place they had only shared with me.

Karina asked me if she was the first woman with whom I’d lived with so openly, so without undercurrents of complexity. I mentioned again the famous book she had mentioned before, and where the novelist writes about meeting people who are split, have some dimension of themselves that makes them less than social beings, but are far from mad – merely a little lost. Both Florence and Yazmina in their very own ways had this split, but what they didn’t quite have, they both believed, was an understanding, or more especially a trust, in art that would helped to have given them a comprehension of themselves. I wondered as I said this to Karina whether this sounded patronising; yet that wasn’t the intention. It was never the intention. I just felt the need to compensate – as I myself did – for a certain social alienation with ‘personal development’, and for me that development came most fruitfully from books, from the aloneness of reading, but also from cinema, art, etc.

On leaving me, both Florence and Yazmina said books didn’t really matter that much to them; living was what counted. Yet I didn’t take their leaving me personally; in some way it felt thoroughly impersonal, or rather the impersonality was in them, in their insistence to live at one remove from their private selves and closer to society. In some way, though, this did feel more personal. If they’d left because of my bad habits that would have been easier than them leaving for the very things I lived for.

As I would talk about Florence and Yazmina, and occasionally Ingrid, Karina would talk about the ex lovers she was closest to, and she wondered if it were a little like Freud’s statement about the couple never in bed alone, there were always the parents to contend with: except with us it was ex-partners. I concurred, but suggested the self-consciousness made it healthy.

Our relationship though wasn’t all talk and analysis. Sometimes we would go off to the Highlands, and once to Ireland, and nature seemed to force upon us silence. There was the time when we spent a few days near Pitlochry pitching up a tent in the woods a few miles from the town. It was during a cold, crisp Autumn but with each day dry and sunny. In the evenings we would read our respective books for an hour or so after eating, often relying on the flickering light of the wood fire we’d made, and then, as the embers died out, retreat to the cosiness of the tent. In our joined up sleeping bags we would read for another hour by torchlight until exhaustion took us into a deep sleep. Curiously, during these trips, it was the only time we would say I love you to each other.

It was shortly before Christmas that Karina went back home. It seemed that there would be no problem with us parting until we got to the airport and I noticed her lips that no kiss could still. It was really only then that I wondered whether this wonderfully civilised, emotionally relatively straightforward relationship had reached an emotional intensity we hadn’t recognised until the moment we were to part.

There was probably some truth in this, but in the following weeks, though Karina would come into my mind, she did so not as emotional pain, but simply as a mental realisation. Sure when Florence and Yazmina were away from me I felt little emotional anguish – but when they left, when I knew it was over, there certainly was pain. However, with Karina there was nothing more and definitely no less than a feeling of well-being. She would sometimes pop up in conversations I would have with others, but never as a point of distress.  When I would talk about her to the friend whom I mentioned at the beginning of this story, they were always surprised that I could talk about her so factually, so unemotionally.

And maybe I felt no pain not only because, finally, I loved Karina less than certainly Florence and Yazmina, and even less than Ingrid, but above all because I sensed that she, because of her own inner strength and even perhaps final self-absorption, had no need for me. As it so happened, though we would occasionally exchange e-mails, she never phoned, never asked me to explore aspects of her emotional life. I still get calls especially from Florence and Yazmina, and still, even years after being apart, meet up with them. What is strange is that any relationship I have had since Karina has been short-term and with women whom I can explore thought more readily than feeling. What is also strange, however, is that I never really feel close to these women, and nowhere near as close as I felt to both Florence and Yazmina. Indeed, perhaps the person I now feel closest to is the friend with whom I walked along the beach that day and whom I see once or twice a week, and to whom I suggested I had never been in love.


©Tony McKibbin