Epistolary Romance on Love and Friendship

Dear Shiv,

You told me to write to you.

It was kind of you to tell me to write.

You were writing to me
of heartbreaks and hangovers
and whether we’ll ever love or write again,
and how to replace one
with the other, with each other.

You were asking me how to tell the difference
between love and friendship; no, I was writing
about that, not you; no, not yet, I hadn’t started writing,
that’s why you told me to, so I started writing
to you, and since you are love & friend,
I thought about the difference between you & you, you
who appear in my poems as Shiv and in yours as Shiva
and in countless boys’ poems, I’m sure, as a man to kiss,
just as you do here, just as you do in Jane Austen’s
Love and Freindship [sic], where you knock at the door.

In this book, you’re a suitor to the woman
deceived in Freindship and Betrayed in Love.
Look at how we can spell love
but we can’t spell friendship,
that’s what Austen tells us
about having been young.
Let me spell it out for you:
You knock at Laura’s door,
and everyone notices:

My Father started—”What noise is that,” (said he.)
“It sounds like a loud rapping at the door”—(replied my Mother.)
“it does indeed.” (cried I.)
“I am of your opinion; (said my Father) it certainly does appear to proceed from some uncommon violence exerted against our unoffending door.”
“Yes (exclaimed I) I cannot help thinking it must be somebody who knocks for admittance.”
“That is another point (replied he;) We must not pretend to determine on what motive the person may knock—tho’ that someone DOES rap at the door, I am partly convinced.”
Here, a second tremendous rap interrupted my Father in his speech, and somewhat alarmed my Mother and me.

You hide behind the names Lindsay
and Edward, you fuck Laura because your dad
told you to fuck Dorothea, “Never shall it be
said that I obliged my father,” you tell her.
She hears you, she knows you oblige not
your father by fucking her but your mother.
No, you oblige neither: you die in a carriage
where you travel in secret with your wife’s
best friend’s husband; the best friends
lament their loss. This is a lie, too:
You were not Edward but Sophia,
I, Laura, we’re best Freinds, which means
we listen to each other and disregard
our parents and constantly faint, scream, and
go mad, which is what we are doing today.

That’s why I’m writing to you. If I didn’t
we would both be fainting into a glass,
pretending to mourn our husbands, but actually
on a trip together where we give no fucks about anything
but each other, this is my understanding of our roles in
Jane Austen’s juvenilia, let’s move on.

“No,” you tell me, you’re not ready to move on: “Tell me
more about this epistolary novel Jane wrote at fourteen,”
you demand. I don’t have to, Shiv. You never tell me
the plots of what you watch and read; it makes me mad.
I come home with a lover, and I’m happy to put off sex
to wait for you to tell me the plot of Duke of Burgundy,
which you just watched, you tell us, and which, you tell me,
has no men in it at all and is instead about the dom/sub
relationship between the two women. “Where is the Duke?”
I want to ask, but instead I say, “tell me about it”
and you say, “no, I don’t want to give it away, I want you
to watch it.” I am furious. The lover
takes your side, so I’m furious at him, too.

You wouldn’t tell me about Duke of Burgundy so
why should I tell you more about Love
and Freindship. Clearly, the movies’ women are friends, but
all you’ll tell me is that there’s a role reversal, so I give you
my copy of Jean Genet’s The Maids, which I’ve been texting
excerpts of to the man as an attempt to flirt
but should have sent to you, everything to you, except
what you ask me for, because this isn’t fair. First,
you have to make it up to me, which you do,
not by doing anything, but by being replaced: just as
we can replace lovers with friends, we can replace friends
with plot summaries of the films they’ve watched.

Now, look here, Shiv, I’m disappointed. I assumed this movie
was old. You know I thought it would relate to the 1937
Désiré, which we watched together recently, about a valet
who has seduced the mistress of every house he serves,
and about the sex dreams they have about each other, but
now I’m accidentally reading about a movie from 2014;
this is disgustingly recent; I can only imagine how short
each shot will be. OK, it’s getting better now. I see that
it involves lovers writing each other scripts! No one
will do that for me; I’m furious again. You knew
all that, but you wouldn’t tell me. The maid,
Evelyn, is fucking her boss, Cynthia, who abuses
and punishes her for her failure, but “things
aren’t as they seem,” aha; it is the maid who instructs
the mistress to abuse her: “While Evelyn finds the scenes
to be sexually exciting, Cynthia only acts them out to sate her lover.”

This is also what happens in one of Serge André’s
case studies, “Dany, ou le choix du masochism.”
Dany knows what he wants, which is, we’ll both agree,
quite a lot for one man to achieve, but he can’t get it:
every woman he finds to beat him does it
out of kindness rather than desire: “in order for
that scene to satisfy him, an essential condition,
although rarely fulfilled, was that his partner really
derive pleasure from whipping and humiliating him.”
He gets married; his wife complies; Dan
Savage never tells you what to do about a wife
who’s game but who doesn’t enjoy the game herself.
Poor Cynthia, pauvre Dany; we all spite our lovers’
generosity. Our friends’ refusal to sleep with us
is so much more generous, as they don’t do us
the violence of putting a real person’s needs
in the place of our fantasies.

Instead, you ask to wear my dress; I say “yes,
of course, anything;” you put it on; I say
“you look great.” I look great too. I’m in your button
down with tights; we kiss a little but not too much.
for the remaining years of our lives what follows
this kiss is both of our guesses; it doesn’t have to
happen; we don’t have to lose the sense that,
say, were I to top you, I’d do so from my own
desire; I’d tell you to shut up, “Shut up, Shiv,”
I’ll never say, “This is for me, not you.”

Thank you. Thank you, Wikipedia, for standing in
for Shiv to tell me the plot of the movies he watches
so that I can tell him the plot of the books I read
without the need to punish him for withholding.
It is not Laura who writes letters to Marianne, but
Austen who writes for the pleasure of her family:
“Arm yourself my amiable young Freind with all
the philosophy you are Mistress of; summon up all
the fortitude you possess, for alas! in the perusal
of the following pages your sensibility will be
most severely tried.” Shiv, I’ve tried
your patience. Try mine, now. Tell me the plot,
not of the movie you watched most recently—
I’ve gotten over this anger; I thought only men
refuse to tell you what happens in movies, until
my friend scolded me for telling the bartender why
Jeanne Dielman is great; “just see it,” she cut me off,
making it clear the problem was not that others refuse
to summarize what they’ve seen and read, but that I refuse
to see anything someone I love hasn’t persuaded me
is worth seeing; “try harder,” I want to say,
“I know you can tell me the detail that will make me
watch; if you saw Ninotchka, for example, you would say
‘there’s this line where Ninotchka says, “We don’t
have men like you in this country,” and the dude thinks
it’s a compliment; he says “thank you,” but she says,
“That’s why I believe in the future of my country;” but
that’s not all, she falls in love initially not with a man
like him, but with a hat, which she sees in a window
display and pretends to despise: “How can such
a civilization survive which permits their women
to put things like that on their heads?
It won’t be long now comrades.”’ If you’d
said this to me, I would have believed
you; I’d have sent myself an email saying ‘WATCH
NINOTCHKA, THERE’S A HAT,’ and maybe
I’d forget to watch Ninotchka for a long time,
but when I did, I’d see the hat and I’d think,
‘Shiv was so generous to tell me of this hat,
so that I could anticipate seeing it later.’ But,
as we know, blessed are those who believe
without seeing, i.e. blessed are those who watch
the movies their friends tell them to watch
without demanding they spoil them. Tell me
instead of the plot of your love life.”

“You know that story already, Diana,” I know
you’d say, “it’s about love and friendship;
it’s about figuring out whether Love is so big
it doesn’t matter who is a man or a friend
or a woman or hetero- homo- or otherwise
mono-sexual in a direction that precludes
neither friendship nor love, but sex, but the sex
and its absence or occasional near-presence
or presence in various forms is enough
of a problem to call into question both
love and friendship, neither of which ought
to require sex, if love is this big, the sex
should be big too, not little, you know
about sex with friends.” This is not about me
and you, note, but about our other friends,
the ones with whom we actually had sex
instead of just talking about it all the time.
It’s not just me who knows something
about that; it’s also 18 year old me, who wrote
an essay titled “Sex with Friends”
for her freshman comp class.

I was even more of a snob when I was little.
I quote Aristotle, Heraclitus, Berger, and Gray
to prove that women, like ancient Greek men,
need not eschew sex with men to avoid
objectification, should instead fuck each other
to enjoy the full friendship I believed men had
in Ancient Greece; later in college, I would read
Montaigne on friendship, his sadness
that women aren’t worth talking to and men,
we “now” know, in 16th century France,
aren’t allowed to have sex with other, so there’s
no relationship good enough: just
sex with boring women and love with men
who won’t let you kiss their neck. But
there’s a way out, I argued: to recognize that
sex isn’t that important, and then have a lot of sex:
“In recognition of the comparable triviality
of carnal desires to friendship, people can learn
to balance both,” I wrote, when I was 18, when
I had already fallen in love with at least five friends
who weren’t attracted to women at all, let alone
to me. I wrote letters home to my then boyfriend
listing all of the straight women I had fallen for;
I described Annie’s eyes and hair all I could
to him; I was sad about it, sad that I still wanted
something other than him; I told him so;
I still thought that if I read enough books
(if I had the sex with books Montaigne recommends)
I’d find a way “out”—out of the closet I’d left
a long time ago, but found myself back in
each time I held a man’s hand in public,
out of Indiana, which I had left, out of men’s
hands entirely, and into the hands of friends.

When I found this old essay, I assumed
it would argue for sex between women;
I didn’t remember that, at 18, I was worried
for men: in the essay, I’m angry
one of the readings strongly implies that
women’s “activities” are more fulfilling
than men’s: “Gray limits men and women equally,”
I say. I bring in a “personal anecdote”—the teacher
had required us to write a “personal essay”
that included “a story from our real lives,”
but I thought I was too good for women’s
writing, i.e., too good for a writing of the self
(I was wrong), so I instead wrote a pretentious
philosophical argument for my own daily
longing—and I recounted men in the dorm
I overheard talking about paying a woman
for sex not because they wanted to sleep
with her, but because “we want to demonstrate
the power we hold over her just by offering
some cash.” This story doesn’t lead me
to argue that 18 year old straight men are worthless
pieces of shit you should avoid by fantasizing
about your best friends; it leads me to argue
that people of all genders learn to build friendships
that make room for desire. I had so much hope.

Last night, Shiv, you said,
“We should actually just get married.”

It’s what we both want:
for friendship to prove itself
so prioritized with respect to other loves
that it takes the form of those other loves;
further, we want love
to be so “important” it doesn’t matter
that I’m a woman and you aren’t
attracted to women; I want to love
a man without holding his heterosexuality
against him; we both presume “friendship”
precludes shit like “jealousy” and “children”
and “arguments about dishes.”

We’re wrong, though.

Our friends were right
when then said we should never marry.

God was right when he made us
want to marry each other, but showed us,
with a series of heartbreaks we’d have
only each other to process,
there’s no way to make truth
out of the lie of partnership—

I won’t be Jane Bowles to your Paul,
not only because I’ll never write that well,
but because we only imagine
they were happy. We don’t know.
Perhaps one lay awake crying
while the other got head in Tangier.

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Diana Hamilton

Diana Hamilton's first book, Okay, Okay (Truck Books 2012) dealt primarily with women crying at work. She's also published four chapbooks: 1. Universe (Ugly Duckling Presse), 2. Some Shit Advice (Physiocrats), 3. 23 Women to Kiss Before You Die (Make Now Press), and 4. Break-Up (Troll Thread).