In springtime India, a woman in my hostel splits a pomegranate and hands me half. (Insert that mythological chestnut about Proserpina here: her blue velvet gown rippling behind her as she falls.) Broken open, the pomegranate spills its globular, wine-colored contents. Each individual seed plays with light like bodies of water do, the single white grains refracting with the glamour of pinky pearls. Past the initial tartness, pomegranate tastes faintly of meat, a gamy umami flavor that reminds me of sex, or monosodium glutamate. (This is not the first time I’ve made a comparison this vulgar, and trust me, it won’t be the last. Nothing better than a tradition of metaphors that encompass both fruit and fornication.)
Months later, while on the road to Damascus, Strawberry and I split a serving of fried rice, Bayou Bourbon chicken, and existential anxiety in the food court of an American shopping mall. There’s something so fatally unreasonable about being twenty-three and thinking you know anything about philosophy but eh, fuck it. Strawberry is always a willing audience to my demonstrations of ego, a catalog that includes plagues, absurdism, and the separation of the body and mind. If he notices how badly I’m trying to arouse his interest, he reveals nothing. It occurs to me that he could easily decide to embarrass me, but in the next beat I recognize, with a punchy breath of fondness, that it just isn’t his style.
In love, I have encountered a syncretism of ego and insecurity that manifests itself in incremental contradictions. I am possessed by the desire to be adored and, conversely, abandoned; to be described as charismatic, but diffident, bratty, but poised, empathetic, but unyielding. On more than one occasion, I fall into the “cool girlfriend” trap, going along with nearly any proposition in an effort to construct a facsimile of relationship perfection. This attitude would be untenable if it were not so typical: a girl trying, passionately, but pathetically, to be impressive.
In the Florida Panhandle, we have a dinner date at a pho restaurant in a strip mall. The interior decorating captures an aesthetic that is halfway between elementary school cafeteria and airport waiting lounge. We face each other over a table surface laminated to resemble oakwood grain. A plasma screen television mounted on the wall above the counter plays an endless loop of Vietnamese music videos. Squirming on emerald-and-burgundy upholstered plastic seats, I look at Strawberry’s impassive face as he scans the menu and feel the sudden horror of inaccessible emotion. I realize that I don’t know how he feels about me. An accompanying realization: I don’t know how I feel about me. Only the idea of me seems real.
When my moodiness over us feels pathological rather than circumstantial, I retreat to the supercut my mind has assembled of the past year: the nacreous, drunken flush across Strawberry’s cheeks, the ancient forest in the summertime, the midnight in May spent crying together. I think of Martin Buber’s “I-Thou,” a framework for human relations that feels like buried instinct rather than improbable theory. (Yes, I too am rolling my eyes at myself. Bear with me here.) To communicate as an “I” with another “I,” the world of the free, and the genuine. My misreading of Buber reinterprets the theory as a mechanism for emotional exchange between souls. But what is a soul? What is Strawberry’s soul, which I imagine to be the human core stripped of everything extraneous? Without his green eyes, his rounded, Slavic features, his soft spot for folk songs, his particular combination of shyness and charm, his blasé, sometimes evasive attitude, so impossible for me to decipher?
Strawberry orders two bowls of soy sauce ramen in Kansai, Japan. Outside, the hoods of cars parked alongside the rice fields gleam like Tungsten. In silence, I break apart a pair of disposable chopsticks and examine the textured strips of seaweed, the delicately soft-boiled egg, the helix of flavorings, as though reading our fortune like a millennial witch. I think, not without shame, of the night before: a baffled, semi-sweet fumbling, a faked climax. The unbearable melodrama of my pronouncements. How what had started as an impulse, a brief encounter, had culminated in entry into an underworld, loving and not dangerous but mysterious nonetheless, and I was buoyed up through it by him, my heart turning over in my chest with Prosperina’s brew of anxiety and exhilaration. Seems about right, for a first time.