I have perhaps fallen in love several times in my life, but never so completely, so effortlessly and without doubt, as when I fell in love with Maria. I first saw her sitting in a caf reading a book I knew well, and that I loved, and I observed her subtle features - her slightly snubbed nose, her intense, large eyes below sharp, curious eyebrows, and her mouth which was full, but still capable of the expressiveness we often attribute to thin lips. She was to me unequivocally beautiful. And then, after observing her on the other side of this small caf, she moved to get up. I first saw that she gripped the back of the chair firmly, and then noticed her moving towards the caf counter with a clear limp. It is to this limp I credit our world of tenderness.
A couple of times in the past I've been with what friends have called beautiful women, but on each occasion there was something lacking in intimacy in the relationship. While I would find the women beautiful whilst with them in my flat or theirs, when we would go out publicly the looks, glances and comments they would receive seemed to destroy the intimacy we would have together. My own insistent comments on their beauty, the smoothness of their skin, the thickness of their hair, would then be matched by those very looks, glances and comments by others. What comments could I claim as my own in relation to their beauty?
And a number of times I've been out with women who were 'merely' attractive. They would occasionally receive glances, but almost never comments, and I would feel that the beauty I would see in them as we lay in bed together was more intimate than it was with the two beautiful women with whom I'd slept.
But with Maria it was a strange and intense combination that came about, I believe, because of this coming together of immense beauty and that severe limp. How often when we were together publicly did I notice the admiring glances as she sat next to me, and then a vague feeling of disappointment when she got up and left the table? It was during those moments, when the man would look, and then almost as quickly look away, that I felt the most tenderness for Maria.
So we met that afternoon in the caf, when I went over to her after she came back from the counter and I asked what she made of the book. She asked if I knew it. I said that yes I did. She said she would often spend her afternoons in cafes reading, and often men would come up and ask her about the book, and claim they'd read it themselves. But she said I had spoken to her after clearly noticing her limp, and she felt that I really did know of the book she was reading. She asked if I would like to sit down.
I noticed a firmness, a certain type of confidence that I didn't usually find in beautiful women and I guess it was because Maria knew better than most beautiful women how relative that beauty was. It reminded me a little of a journalist friend in her mid-forties who was now attractive but no longer stunning, who would sometimes still be approached by men for her looks. Ten or fifteen years before, she would say, they stammered their advances at her; now they would do so almost with arrogant expectation. But Maria knew of this subtle disdain, she would tell me once, whilst still in her so-called stunning stage, and I always saw that it gave her a fiery forthrightness especially evident in her eyes where other beautiful women her age often had a naivety, sometimes also an arrogance, but rarely a sense that they knew how they'd be perceived when their beauty faded. To know oneself as others only know themselves at a later stage of their own lives is attractive, but to know oneself, and contain within that knowledge a certain melancholy, is what seemed to allow for this unfathomable love I felt for her.
The book she was reading in the caf that afternoon was by Peter Handke. I'd asked her if she'd read the bit about the father slapping the child. She said yes, and I asked her what she thought of it. She said it seemed true, that it came out of the situation, and you sensed the despair. I said a number of friends who had read the book thought it was irresponsible writing, and I thought, as I said this, she was the first person I'd met who'd read this not altogether well-known author, who had seen the incident for what it was and not for what it morally ought to have been.
She believed one of the things you notice if you have a disability is the discrepancy between people's feelings and their intentions. Sometimes people notice the limp, and then pretend they don't notice it, but they're reacting to the moral expectation in their pretence and that makes you feel even more aware that they're not engaged with you but instead with some notion they have of you. When I see a writer, she said, or filmmaker or artist trying to cut through the moral expectation to get to the sensation, frustration, irritation of an event, I admire it.
Now this was the first of many occasions where Maria predicated an observation on her disability, and yet of course she didn't do this from the moral position which we might expect, but much more from a perceptual position similar to that which she would later use to express her notion of beauty, and its fading.
So I suppose I could say that part of my immense attraction towards her was perceptual, was based on how she could see the world. I recall Proust saying that it is a mediocre woman who enriches a man's universe so much more than an intelligent woman, and he believed this lay in a rudimentary nature which nevertheless offered a richness of interpretation. Their behavioural codes could offer great riches for a complex man to project upon. But whilst that has been true of a number of relationships I'd had in the past, I really believed I was falling in love not with her objective state, with Maria's status as an object, but with her constantly evolving intelligence, an intelligence that came almost, if you like, from her 'flaw'.
It would have been a few days after we'd first met in that caf, after we'd spent almost every hour of each day with each other, that she said one of her favourite lines in cinema was from a fifties film called Les Amants, where it says 'love can be born in a glance'. She'd said she noticed me looking across at her whilst she was reading in the caf, and noticed that when she stood up, holding the chair, and turned towards the counter, clearly limping, that my look was quizzical, interested, and didn't suggest I was trying to hide whatever I was feeling. She said she recognized sensitivity could be born in a glance also. But how far, she had wondered, would that sensitivity go? For just as I found myself looking at the world afresh through her way of seeing things, I noticed my body language in her company changed, or more especially the way I moved. During those first few weeks with Maria, friends would comment on how my walk was different. I'd always been known to move quickly, even briskly, but now they said there was a certain laziness in my step.
Maria wondered though whether my increased sensitivity towards her would make me also less sensitive to other people? After all, she suggested, while her disability was a hindrance, certainly, it had also freed her up in other ways too. She'd said she felt free to become assertive in a manner that she thought would have felt impolite before the accident. Never rude, she insisted, but forthright and direct - she knew quite quickly after the accident that she didn't want it to be an issue of resentfulness, but that she did want to cut through a layer of cultural assumption she never had the confidence to cut through before. She said that what drew her to me was that I seemed to have a similar resistance to certain norms and expectations - like the passage in the Handke book.
How, she asked me, do people arrive at this kind of interior assertiveness? Hers, she said, came from a car crash when she was twenty three, and for a few months there was certainly anger at the world, but then after she got out of hospital, and saw how the world was responding to her, that anger wasn't abstract but surprisingly concrete. As she had lain in a hospital bed feeling a sense of injustice, her feelings had nowhere to go, except to blame chance and contingency. When she got out she found the anger - though too strong a word - could work itself through the responses to her disability. Through the looks she would receive she would find a direction for her anger, and then found increasingly she sublimated these angry feelings into thoughts, and would observe how people would observe her. A few, she said, like me, seemed to respond differently from most. If someone offered an unexpected response she would want to talk to them, and often did.
I would ask her how she would talk to them, and what she would say when she did so. Often the former would be easy, because people are often very willing to help you if you are carrying shopping, or leaning against something before steadying yourself on your stick, so conversation rarely seemed gratuitous. Sometimes it would come from the opposite position, where one would be sitting in a caf and a man would come over and start chatting, ask if he could sit down, and so they would talk. When at some stage it became clear she had a limp, if she noticed a change in his attitude or his behaviour, then the subject could be broached. This was, she said, an amazing learning curve. But how, she wanted to know, did I achieve something resembling it. She couldn't believe it would be possible for her to arrive at this mental state without the physical injury.
These conversations took place within the first few weeks of our seeing each other, and perhaps she was projecting ideal feelings onto me as I was undeniably projecting them onto her. But even I could see that there was something I'd been pursuing for a number of years, and Maria was the first person with whom I had ever really talked to about it. I suspected it was when at about seventeen I developed a nasty skin rash and spent months and months barely going out. When I did I felt the sheer pressure of what I could only now call the weight of signification. We're all of course signifying machines, if you like (I explained to her briefly what I knew of semiotics) but before seventeen I felt I was a positive or neutral signifying machine, a person amongst other people. When I bought some new clothes, or came back from a holiday all tanned, I felt a positive machine, and the rest of the time fairly neutral. However, feeling the weight of this negativity made me really think about humans as signs. Sometimes as I walked along the street people would look at me as if I had been badly beaten or mildly burnt. The rash was superficial, though looked nasty. It was just as if the surface of my skin had been scraped along a pavement, and the rash resembled the sort of crusty scab that would develop from a fall. What it stemmed from was an itchiness that I couldn't leave alone, didn't even want to leave alone. So I would rub the back of my hand so ferociously across my itchy face that the skin would start to weep and the next morning a scab would develop. Often the scab would fall off after about five or six days and I would go out again feeling like a normal human being, or, I said to her with a smile, like a neutral signifying machine.
Maybe, I would say to her, that this was a pretentious sounding phrase for looking like a so-called normal human, but it set in motion thoughts and feelings about what we are, what we represent, far more intensely than the books I would then go on to read at university - books that would touch upon these very ideas. It was as though I needed both the rash and the idea to come together to transform my outer appearance temporarily, and my inner feelings permanently. I knew there were people with far worse skin disorders and disabilities than mine, but sometimes that inner feeling is never quite transformed. Was it possible that even people with the most ferocious burns were still somehow, somewhere, wishing and hoping the wounds would heal?
I told Maria about my own skin rash one evening in a restaurant where a man had been looking across at her for much of the meal. He'd been half attending to his pretty date, and half attending to Maria's beauty. After I'd finished she said she would get up and go to the bathroom and we would see when she got back if his semi-flirtatious looking would alter. So sure enough when she returned and sat down the man stopped looking across. We discussed this and both agreed that maybe it wasn't just that he no longer found her beautiful, but that his perception of her beauty had changed, and he couldn't suddenly offer a new response. What made her so attracted to me, Maria said, was that I didn't seem to change my response at all. The perception I had of her before she moved to get up and go the counter in the caf was more or less the same, she believed, as my response when she returned. She didn't feel, she said, offering a wry smile, like a signifying machine.
Maria and I had been together for over fifteen months and were considering getting a place together. Though her limp was steadily improving it was still very noticeable. However, with a particular type of operation her physio suggested she could walk again without any trace of a limp. Would she be interested in having the operation? There was a small risk, he admitted that the limp could get worse, but a very small one. Almost everyone who had had this operation had recovered more or less fully. The physio believed the risks were no greater than for an eye operation for myopia.
At the time I couldn't quite have explained why I had reservations about this operation, but I suppose that they concerned the obvious fears of a loved one being operated on. There were other things as well, though, that I either never confronted at the time, or really required a change of circumstance to notice.
So Maria went ahead and had the operation, and with much physio afterwards was walking without any discernible limp and no pain after a couple of months. Over the next six months we did many of the things we had talked about doing. We took the bikes on the train up to the Highlands and also did several cycle trips around the region. Before her injury Maria had been very fit and her fitness returned surprisingly quickly. We went on a couple of city trips to Paris and Barcelona, covering, it seemed to me, every part of the city as Maria both wanted to discover the city and feel her health and fitness.
But what I couldn't help but notice was that she was slipping away from me. The more exuberant she became, the more I felt she would leave me for somebody else. Was this empty jealousy and paranoia? Of that it is hard to say. Maria wanted once again to extend into life much more than she wanted to explore it cerebrally, and she could finally see that instead of her disability holding me back, it was exactly the place I wanted to be: mainly sitting in cafes the way we had when we first visited Paris shortly after we had met, and where we would spend hours observing people as they passed. On the second visit barely had we sat down with our coffee or The a la menthe and she would insist we had to go out and see the Arab Institute, or take a metro out to Bois de Bouloigne and wander around this city park.
We had been together not much more than two years, and still living in our own flats, when she said we should split up. It would be churlish to suggest she would accept me when she was crippled, but I wasn't good enough for her when she was suddenly able-bodied. I don't believe that to be true. What I think might be true though is that her belief in the interior life was always of secondary importance to a more obvious external reality. I wondered if this was partly because she had sustained her injuries in her early to mid-twenties, at an age where, if you like, her perceptual take on life had already been established. When my skin rash appeared I was seventeen, and it would come and go until I was twenty. I believe it radically altered the way I saw the world and my place within it. Some might say how could I compare my fairly insignificant skin rash with Maria's injury, an injury that left her with a limp for three years? I would reply it isn't really about comparison, but much more an emotional analogy followed by a conspicuous difference. The emotional similarities lay in how for a period of time we both comprehended the notion of being signifying machines, and made it the basis of how we perceived the world. It was as if no matter that my rash had long since gone, the psychological impact wouldn't go away - it made me much more a perceiver of the world rather than an agent within it. Maria's injuries may have ostensibly been much more serious than mine, but nevertheless they seemed to dig less deeply in her sub-conscious, and thus the consequent difference.
Unfortunately, perhaps, for I still think far too much and too often about our relationship, and cannot seem to move on to another one. Maria also dug deep into my sub-conscious, where I feel I barely marked myself on her memory at all. She is now with somebody else, living on the other side of the world, and though I have sent several post-cards and e-mails, I've only once received a brief e-mail response. I wonder if she sees that period of time with me as a kind of psychological hiatus, a moment in time where her being was suspended by its general lack of movement. Maybe if I were a more superficial person - superficial in the sense that I lived much more through space than through time - Maria would not have made that much of an impact upon me. Maybe less than the other beautiful women I have been lucky enough to have shared some time with. But Maria remains lodged in memory, and I feel sometimes, as I often dream of her, waking up restlessly and the next day functioning listlessly, it maybe even weakening my very body, creating in me what I can only call a certain limpness.
© Tony McKibbin