The Heart Wants What It Wants

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Such a slim volume but how sharply it connects, the Reader muses, feeling as though a door were creaking open as Annie Ernaux’s “Simple Passion” triggers a meandering meditation on how sheer emotion runs the day-to-day.

    Teetering on the brink of 50, the Reader feels she has been specially addressed by Ernaux’s story of a woman consumed by the man whose voice on the phone signals the beginning of her day, even if it is already the afternoon or the early evening. She is certain that anyone who has ever been caught in the throes of a fatal passion, and now able to perform a clinical autopsy on it, feels the same way.

    Ernaux’s exposition of the malady is methodical; the “symptoms” that are at once plain-spoken and lyrical are hardly strange. Every lover knows it is not impossible for passion to dictate even the ticking of the clock. I think of you 26 hours a day, the Reader remembers a young man telling her back in the university: a declaration of astonishment at how she, even then already cloaked in the arrogance of the cherished, had been impinging on his consciousness. The Reader calculates — granting it is truly herself that the 2022 Nobel laureate in literature has written about, and not merely someone observed from a distance with a sniper’s precision — that Ernaux is 51 when she begins a two-year affair with a married man who, by his pre-announced presence, determines the contours of her days. The Reader understands it is not only because Ernaux is French —and, therefore, according to legend, prone to fall into the deep end toujours — that she is so completely committed. Many — male, female, non-binary —will claim Ernaux’s feelings as their own and will swear by the fidelity of each throb and thrum.

    Or by the fidelity of the feelings of others similarly situated, whether lover, beloved or injured party, passion being so transparent, so incapable of disguise, no matter how potentially ruinous in a society as hypocritical and parochial as the one the Reader inhabits. Quite simply, passion cannot but show.

Hindsight, indeed the vantage point of advanced age — youth (no offense) is yet lacking the requisite practice, perspective, humor, touch of irony— offers space and time for a review of scenes of emotional upheaval that perversely pop up in the mind: detail-faithful thought balloons drifting languidly, inviting puncturing. Everyone is a moving target of memory. The Reader has discovered that even the ear is complicit in the ceremony of her reluctant remembering: as when strains of the Brandenburg Concertos, no matter how faint, still produce a twinge in the chest, yanking back the many mornings she spent weeping over the kitchen sink in tune to baroque music. It’s true what they say about the heart breaking.

    The review of scenes of high emotion will perhaps result in closure — if at all wanted, or if at all possible — through a deft appraisal of the circumstances. But is she up to it? the Reader wonders, suddenly weary. It requires candid exchanges with oneself, including considering that passion moves the wretch in its thrall — male, female, non-binary— to behave single-mindedly, in unfortunate cases callously, with no regard to intervening feelings. Ernaux in her book cannot be bothered by her lover’s wife, the latter figuring only in her calculations of the extent of her stolen time with him. The heart wants what it wants. C’est comme ca. A lover — male, female, non-binary — needs to lay eyes on, and ultimately get within breathing distance of, the object of ardor. An old song tells it like it is: “You fly down the street/ On the chance that you’ll meet/ And you’ll meet/ Not really by chance…”

    Thus provoked by Ernaux, the Reader wrestles with memories of pain, flicking herself with images of him enamored with someone else. That she is burdened with sharp sight, she sees now, was the primary cause of her suffering; had she been in a manner illiterate, slow to read the signs littering the landscape of his desire, she would have basked longer in the bliss of those who are the last to know. She remembers, at her effortless discovery, how difficult it was to feign ignorance and eventual indifference. She would hardly speak of the very personal injury, but her agony showed: nothing explosive, just a deadweight over the dinner table that pushed her, more than him, to flee, truncating whatever was left of their conversation and hastening the fading of their connection.

    In a rare, ever-so-civilized “confrontation” over drinks in a bar filled with couples in various states of undressed emotion, the alcohol having pressed the “unmute” button, she inquired of him: “Do you love her?”

    He seemed to balk at the L-word, filling her with hope. Then, like Santana plucking her pain with his fingers, he said: “She makes me happy.”

    The heat of his passion for another produced an intriguing phenomenon: She was constantly chilled. Yet she would not acknowledge the icy grip of jealousy, would not concede to the plebeian emotion despite her body displaying its profound effects. She wept in the most inconvenient times, even in so public an event as a “Laban Leni” campaign rally, so that she appeared greatly moved by the political moment (even if the moment was truly moving in its immensity). Annoyed, she chided herself as she surreptitiously dried her tears: Imagine how awkward it would have been were she discussing the Marcos hidden wealth and the people’s impoverishment at a house-to-house election campaign in Krus na Ligas.

But the Reader endured. Tough nut, she concealed her daily waterworks behind a manufactured hauteur, all the while striving to find a scientific angle that may explain the dynamics of her despair over his professed happiness, with the end in view of plotting a future that entailed change — but not too much change, she hoped, bargaining with herself, having admitted by her grief over his change of heart that she had become a creature of routine. Routine runs households, reaps harvests, raises children. But routine ruins romance; it’s the nature of the beast. As Camelot has shown, tongue lodged firmly in cynical cheek, happy-ever-aftering is a stupid, ultimately cruel notion.

    Inevitable then that the Reader would turn to Sartre and de Beauvoir’s contention that an authentic relationship required the lovers’ respect for one another’s freedoms, including the freedom to love others — a bold proposition embodied in the “contingent” love affairs that marked their vaunted partnership of half a century. The concept of an open relationship such as espoused by the titans of existentialism is a correct position, an ideal for which thinking people can (should) aspire, but the Reader recoiled from it, deemed herself not stolid enough, not intellectual enough, to embrace the detachment necessary to make the arrangement work.

    Her inner tumult came to a point that she was plagued by an earworm, perpetually crooning under her breath Jacques Brel’s lament to his lost Zizou: “Ne me quitte pas/ ne me quitte pas/ ne me quitte pas…”

Sensing disquiet and then gradually recognizing a train wreck, a friend of long standing ventured to warn the Reader that intellectualizing a problem would be no good in the long run. She was struck by her friend’s language, but also stung by the irony and angry at her misery being unmasked. She dissolved into a sulk that soon led her to acknowledge to herself a sticky subplot. Lately this friend’s husband had been behaving inappropriately— she sees; she can read signs even if blinded by tristesse — and it became easy to conclude that he was infatuated  by her: showing up at her office on the most absurd pretexts, speaking loudly (thus drawing attention to himself) to overcome the embarrassment at insisting on face to face when she was well within reach by phone, once coming too close to inexplicably touch her fingers and, amazed, whispering wonderingly how cold they were. (She was constantly chilled.)

    The Reader was attuned only to her heartbreak, making her oblivious to infinitely more terrible crimes (like the abuse of children). Loath to be distracted from it, she dismissed the emerging complication as pandemic-induced. But her friend’s husband’s passion for her quickly made itself evident, like footage on a loop, as though he had sniffed a scent she was emitting and duly scoped her as wounded prey. The nerve, she thought. Was anyone else seeing this? Surely his driver, a jester with somber eyes, has noticed something not right. She began to suspect that by then his wife had stumbled on a grim find: that across a crowded room it was only she, the Reader, whom he wanted to lay eyes on. But the Reader, performing the equivalent of a mental shrug, pronounced it not her problem.

    The Reader is not unaware that although pushing 50 and long past childbearing age, she remains desirable in other men’s eyes even if no longer in his. This fact of being wanted presented to her an affirmation of lasting charm, in which Ernaux herself reveled, always prodding the Frenchwoman, after her lover’s phone call, to choose a dress he would delight in unzipping when he arrived at her apartment. The Reader is pleased at the results of recent research showing that most people over 40 feel younger than they actually are. The research validates what she has long felt: that what scientists term as “subjective age” prevails over the number stated on her government-issued IDs. Tina Turner, royalty of rock and chronologically 15 years her second husband’s senior, married him for love and the certainty that she was as young as he.

Nor is the swirl of emotions stilled by advancing years, as scandalized families of lovesick widows in the era of “dance instructors” might have discovered, if they were halfway sensitive to the human condition and not merely bent on keeping their inheritance safe from predatory gigolos. The grandmother infatuated by her DI was not necessarily nearing dotage; it may be that the mambo she mastered under his tutelage awakened her body’s natural response to a man’s touch, in the way, the Reader recalls, Isabella, the drug king’s woman, catches fire in the arms of the underground cop Sonny on a steamy dance floor in Havana. Sexy mambo music feeds the flame, as the 2006 film Miami Vice (that “gorgeous, shimmering object,” per The New York Times’s Manohla Dargis) astutely demonstrates.

    Having formulated that passion dulls one’s guard (how could he, otherwise so self-assured, be so vulnerable to a random arrow?) yet keeps the senses acute — as elegant a definition of life and living as they come — the Reader affirms her own right to life and beefs up her efforts to seek means of climbing out of the pit of her pain. The task requires that she first stop her damned crying, then accept that, falcon-like, the elusive bird of happy plumage now lands on his proffered arm. Forthwith she must conduct skillful plotting: nothing dramatic, just herself as central figure and a blunting of her sorrow as sole objective, in the course of which someone will have to be called upon to fill the contingency and, inevitably, be used.

    Were she inclined, her friend’s husband having wordlessly indicated his availability much like his Mercedes parked and purring at the curb, he is there for the taking. Yet she recoils at the prospect, not from some chaste sense of virtue but that it would be so unthinkably…bourgeois: like partaking of her friend’s tea while her friend’s husband obsesses over her lipstick traces on the rim of the teacup, and their children sweetly blow kisses in her direction. There are limits even in matters of infidelity.

    That option discarded, the Reader considers the waiting game — for passion to peter out, it being too hot not to cool down (so they say), and an avowed happiness too much like quicksilver to keep in one’s unsteady hand. The idea is down on her list but the Universe seems amenable because on waking one morning, she feels a renewed vigor, a sudden loss of pain, like a diver recovered from the bends. She realizes that even sorrow has an end, that, like some bodies of water, tears dry out as the planet turns. She observes him — she can see clearly now, the precipitation is gone — and finds a gap in herself where grief has been.

Feeling unfettered, the Reader examines her escape plan, the steps she intended to take in allowing him and his lover their moment without her being compelled to stand as witness to it. Her tears have led her to realize how reasonable is an enforced (not necessarily permanent) absence from the scene of the crime. The wisdom of engaging in a contingent relationship has finally become clear: She is now convinced that it will dull the edge off her emotional disorder and serve to balance passion and power.

    “Sometimes you have to suffer for the things you really want,” Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra  said after his team grabbed do-or-die Game 7 from the Boston Celtics to advance to the 2023 NBA Finals. The Reader feels as if the message were directed to her only. And how fairly easy it was for her, the stars gone from her eyes, to embark on an affaire de coeur with a relative stranger with whom she makes no promises of forever. He’s no Vronsky but they share perfervid moments, content each to each, and, most important, take safeguards to inflict the least injury on the peripheral parties while at it.

    A thrilling, still inconclusive experiment.


Rosario Garcellano
Rosario Garcellano
Journalist ROSARIO A. GARCELLANO, lately of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, is now executive editor of the digital newsmagazine She is the author of Necessary Contexts: Essays for Our Times (Gantala Press and Alfredo F. Tadiar Library, 2022), and Mean Streets: Essays on the Knife Edge (Kalikasan Press, 1991). She studied at the University of the Philippines Diliman and at the College of the Holy Spirit Manila. Her short story, "The Heart Wants What It Wants"—published in the July 2023 issue of the Philippines Graphic Reader—won first place during the 2024 Nick Joaquin Literary Awards (NJLA).


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