Nonverbal.

Sean and I walk arm-in-arm along streets whose names I haven’t yet bothered to learn somewhere in downtown Los Angeles. It could be a Saturday but I have no idea what time it is because time means little to us when we are together. Usually we are in search of food, or coffee, and our sort of meandering path sometimes leads us to establishments that aren’t even open because we are caught up in the details of each other and ignore more practical matters like business hours. Often a soundtrack of laughter and bus brakes accompanies us as we wander around. And, because this is downtown, it is often punctuated by the passionate rants of presumably crazy people.

So much of what matters to me in this life is nonverbal. I have this thing about making eye contact with strangers – I believe it changes things. At one point during my eye-contact experiment, a man actually stops, mid-rant, looks directly at me and says hello, how are you? Sean warns me that my eye contact policy might be short-lived in a place like this, but we experience two separate instances when animated, potentially unfriendly people become lucid, return my gaze and speak to me in clear voices as though we are old friends.  This never happens, Sean tells me. This isn’t normal.

It seems to me that we dehumanize ourselves by avoiding eye contact with strangers, particularly with strangers who might be shouting at the sky or asking us for money on the street. Not looking each other in the eye is how we communicate a nonverbal rule: you are separate from me; we are not the same.

I’m not sure exactly why it bothers me so much that people do this. When I was in grad school I worked as a janitor and had people actually look right through me as I carried my broom and dustpan and emptied garbage cans. So maybe it’s because I know how it feels to want to be seen, to need to be proven visible. Or maybe I’ve just had enough not-interacting to last the rest of my life.

*

Until I saw it myself, I never imagined the beauty that is the skyline of downtown Los Angeles. Like these unexpected interactions with my fellow humans, it catches me off-guard. Alabaster faces of buildings constructed around the turn of the last century cast a historic shadow over the busy streets as they angle up toward the alternating blue and gray sky. Grids of windows glare like a thousand suns from the more modern structures, catching and reflecting the flickering light and bright white clouds that pass high overhead.

My theory is that recent history has left me genuinely open, not just to other people but to whatever experience the universe has teed up for me, and other people, particularly people who are used to being shut off by each other or the rest of society, sense this openness and respond to it without thinking. For a moment they reconnect with themselves and that which makes us all human, and they are able to say good morning to a stranger.

Perhaps it is short-lived.

The aesthetic appeal of the architecture of downtown is countered by the reality of what’s on the ground below. This part of LA is home to Skid Row and numerous tent cities; Los Angeles County is estimated to have over 50,000 homeless people within its borders. According to a 2011 report issued by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, about 33% of those people are mentally ill. Eighteen percent are veterans. These are not people who should be ignored.

These are people whose stories I can only imagine. Making eye contact says I know your existence is as valuable as mine.

As I walk along the city’s many grimy sidewalks, especially if my hand has not found its place inside Sean’s, I have to remind myself to watch where I’m going. I can’t help but get caught up in the contrast between the celestial and the terrestrial. I look forward to the day, only a few weeks away, when I get to inhabit this intersection of past and future, glamor and grit, and call it my home. Such a big scene fills me with big ideas.

To say I had only imagined in the vaguest of ways that I might someday move to Los Angeles is a bit of an understatement. To say I did not expect to meet someone online who, in real life, would inspire me to redefine certain things about the world is also extremely accurate.

And yet I have a lease on a loft downtown that starts on December 21st. I also have that sweet, loopy feeling in my stomach that only comes with longing for a specific person – the obsessive desire to see him, to hear whatever he might have to say about nothing at all, to memorize every detail of his existence. I did not expect any of this, but expectations are like rules in that they are made to be broken. They exist so we can exceed them and propel ourselves into new territory. I see that now.

A year ago I thought I just wanted to change my life. Today it is almost unrecognizable. I’ve moved three times, spent most of my days in extremely remote areas where there’s almost nothing to do besides think yourself out of your own mind. And now I am about to live in the third largest economic center in the world, alongside 10 million other people.  None of this was anticipated.

In a few weeks Sean and I will renegotiate the conditions that have thus far determined the way we time we spend together. Suddenly we will only be separated by a handful of city blocks rather than a three-hour drive, and it will be possible to take my dog for a walk in the afternoon or share breakfast midweek. We will have the opportunity to completely disrupt and re-establish the routines of our individual lives. The opportunities to draw each other closer or push one another away will multiply by the thousands just by eliminating a few hundred miles.

I like not knowing what any of this means.

I like finding out who I am with Sean and who I am in this new environment. I enjoy watching him as he finds out who he is with me. We joke about how we are like teenagers. We are stricken, smitten, driven, pulled together in ways we can barely articulate with words, so we resort to using our bodies instead. We devote a lot of time to making eye contact. And of the 189 hours we’ve spent together so far, we estimate that a total of 945 minutes have been used up just in kissing alone -- at least 8% of our history has been committed to the nonverbal reinforcement of the bond between us.

Sometimes the strength of that bond, the feeling of attachment, is startling in its intensity considering we’ve only known of one another’s existence on this planet for a grand total of exactly 60 days.

We both freak out about it periodically. This can’t be real. Get it together. You’re setting your self up for heartbreak. Yes, it’s true. He could call me up one day and say this is too much; it’s not what I want. Or I could be the one to wake up one morning and find that I feel that way. But as Brene Brown has shown in her research, those who live wholeheartedly see this risk as a necessary part of truly living life, not as something to be avoided.

In my saner, more adult moments I recognize that there is a romantic part of me who believes not only that eye contact can change the world, but that true love deepens over time, that couples are not destined to become roommates living out a routine of domestic existence. I believe in the kind of love that is palpable after half a century together – love, not co-dependence – the kind that leaves your friends and family feeling like maybe they are intruding when they walk into a room where the two of you were alone. I want that and I’m not afraid to admit it.

We think we feel this love in our hearts, but of course it’s actually the brain that lights up at the sight of the person we love. In fact, a study came out recently that monitored which regions of the human brain literally light up when we are shown photos of someone with whom we are in love. MRI scans showed that these regions are the same in the brains of people who’ve been together for just a few years and in the brains of people who have been in love for decades. Romantically in love, -- not familial love or friendly love. I take that as proof that there IS a kind of love that lasts.

I don’t think this type of romantic love happens all that often. I equate it to the Colorado River’s relationship with the Grand Canyon. Love that lasts is, to me, as monumental as the confluence of a massive river, miles and miles of sandstone, and thousands of years of erosion. The end result, one of the world’s natural wonders, does not seem all that farfetched when the right elements are combined.

I’m not willing to give up on my own personal Grand Canyon just because it is such an enormous dream. There are millions of other beautiful examples of seemingly disparate forces working together to forge something new in this world, and they are no less meaningful just because they might exist on a smaller scale. I’m not willing to hold back with Sean out of fear of it not working out, nor am I willing to relinquish my commitment to meeting the eyes of strangers on the streets out of fear that they might misinterpret my intentions.

All of these are acceptable risks.

Sometimes, when I am overwhelmed by the growing fullness pressing my lungs against the walls of my chest, by the details of any possible outcome with Sean, I convince myself I made him up, that he exists only inside the construct of my fictional world where everyone says good morning. If not for the hard facts of reality staking down the corners of my day, I might believe I have completely lost my mind inside this imaginary rapture. Hard facts like the lease I just signed, the ordinary lines I stand in, the way my hands feel so empty when Sean isn’t filling them with his own.

Somehow we are both cautious architects, yet we are unable to save ourselves from our own undoing as we build this thing between us. Architects follow rules, the laws of nature, but we’re finding that the unspoken rules that governed the way we moved through the world in the past just don’t apply in the creative space between us. Nothing is predictable. We’re improvising, and it pushes us well outside our respective comfort zones.

*

During one of our timeless afternoons we ride the elevator up to the roof of Sean’s building ten or so stories above Pershing Square. There’s a pool and a Jacuzzi and they are empty, waiting for us. I know it’s late in the day because the light has that golden slant it gets when the sun dips down toward the horizon. The clouds have hung low and loose all day, covering the sun completely and then letting it break free. It may have rained a bit the night before because the air feels clean and damp.

We shed our clothes in the brisk November air and step into the Jacuzzi. The water is hot and churning around us; tiny bubbles spray up, chilling my skin when they break and a breeze rolls over my bare shoulders. Every color and texture is so clear my brain almost hurts as I try to take in so much detail. Sean looks at me intently, articulates the beauty I can only watch. He notices my freckles, the tiny beads of moisture on the soft hairs of my neck. I breathe deeply, the steam and cool air around us mixing to create a sensation I can’t quite name. His skin is pale and smooth as porcelain, his eyes are hazel but tend toward green, especially as a billowy gray cloud moves in behind him. I feel like I never want to look away. I feel like something unseen is pressing me into another dimension and I somehow must absorb all of this in order to get there.

It is not our similarities that matter, or the way we so enjoy exploring our differences. It is not about having plans or breaking rules or asking ourselves complicated questions we can’t possibly answer or will change our minds about anyway.

It is that the point where we meet, where we bleed outside the lines of our own bodies, our own expectations, and somehow into one another, is so exquisite. Like all the light reflecting off the grids of windows as we laughed our way through the streets below, it is a brilliance I can’t look away from. Just when I think surely my eyes can’t take anymore, my pupils must be pinpricks of darkness, the light shifts again and I see the swirling, melding mass that swoops in from a dimension we can only feel with our hearts and propels our bodies forward. The boundary where we meet becomes fluid. I find I can’t breathe, but it doesn’t matter because I don’t need to. I just need this. Now.

Comments

Popular Posts