On denial

You don’t need a degree in psychoanalysis to know we human beings are programmed to want what we cannot have. Denial is its own heat source, a generator of acute, erotic energy. And yet it is more complicated than mere refusal, and can arrive to us in many forms.

“They call it longing,” a poet once wrote, “because desire is full of endless distances.” While I wouldn’t claim to speak for Robert Hass, I’ve always taken this line as a tribute to the power of delayed gratification. Denial, in this way, can be stratified, made better by suspension: this is not to say you can never have it, only that you cannot have it now. There is pleasure, after all, to be found in patience. Isn’t it better, sometimes, to be forced to wait?

Picture the possibilities: I could keep us apart as long as I decide. You could take me there, draw me back at the last second. You could hold a finger to my lips, dare me to make a sound. Wait, I could say, not yet. Together, we might shudder, wince, moan in frustration; every gesture – however slight – a reminder of what we haven’t yet reached.

 Perhaps we place so much stock in negative space because it teaches us who we are,  allows us to see the true shape of what we desire most. Not that, this. Not there, here. Not him, you. We come to know ourselves not through self-fulfillment, but through self-denial. Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention.

Absence, in this sense, invites questions. What shall I put there? How much can you take? How do you want it? Emptiness is blissfully conditional, a beguiling reminder of what could be, what we could do, what it might be like. To paraphrase Zadie Smith, the present is always perfect, the future tense.

Because the day will come: you’ll be on my street. You’ll be in the hallway of my building. You’ll be at the foot of my stairs. When you arrive, I’ll be there. I’ll press my heel to your chest, push you to the floor, take your thumb in my mouth. Nothing more, not yet. When you touch me, I’ll catch my breath, or bite my lip, or let my skin leap under your hands. Not because I don’t want you, but because of how much I do. If you watch me, though, you’ll understand, I’m just trying to make the distance last as long as possible. I’ll want you to stop me, watch the way you control how our bodies look together in the particular hierarchy of a moment. In many ways, we’ll have already chosen each other.

Later in the poem, Hass casts his lover in the role of absentee, the object of his lust disappeared, gone forever. Across the course of his verse, he engages in the act of remembering. This is no struggle to his quest: he sees her with a clarity time cannot erase, and describes feeling “a violent wonder at her presence,” an experience so powerful he cannot fully comprehend it until the aftermath, when he can no longer touch her.

Society conspires to remind us our time is not really our own. Every day, we grow distant from ourselves, the vagaries of responsibility and modern life dragging us ever further from who we truly are. When we finally meet, we’ll draw back from the day. Time won’t so much stop as become elastic. Hours will melt to minutes. Minutes will extend to hours. A second will stretch to contain more than entire months combined. We’ll remember this forever. Here, time will know it cannot win. Wait, you’ll say, not yet. And before you know it, I’ll be gone.

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