Breaking the Waves

water affair

The Affair has relied heavily on drowning and ocean metaphors since its pilot in 2014. Its moody opening credit footage of crashing water fit the rustic landscape of Montauk and set the mood to think about the capricious and overwhelming nature of lust and love. In its four seasons, almost every character has cheated or imploded their relationships in some way, but When Fiona Apple sang “there’s only one thing I can do and that’s be the wave that I am/and then sink back into the ocean” I always had the sense that those lines, or maybe the song in general, were about Alison. Alison who starts the story defined by a literal drowning – the death of her toddler son. A woman who is afraid of the ocean, but is treated as a siren by most of the men in her life. I started watching The Affair to pass time, and because I’m drawn to stories and discussions of infidelity. I wasn’t expecting to be so moved or feel so seen by a character, but Alison has come to be very special to me.

**spoilers for the latest season of The Affair**

I just finished the fourth and latest season and while it expanded far beyond the actions of its original affair and into overly soapy territory, I couldn’t look away. Even at its worst the disastrous orbit of these characters – the “main” couple but also betrayed spouses, children, and new relationships – was bleakly addictive. Most importantly for me, Alison remained the emotional heart of the story. Her extreme choices and darkest turns never felt contrived and campy so much as tragic. No main character hated themselves more or tried harder to have a purpose; to be understood, loved, and chosen. As you may have seen in entertainment headlines lately, Ruth Wilson has left the cast. In the show, this meant the fourth season climaxed in Alison’s death. She never got to rewrite her narrative as she wanted. Her story, in her own words at least, is now over, but I imagine she’ll be on my mind for a long time.

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The Clocks Don’t Sync Up

Next month I’ll be 27. This isn’t a number I’m too thrilled about. Plenty of older people rush to call me young if I verbalize my discomfort, but not as many as in past years. It’s too close to 30 to have many excuses anymore, but I feel like I only stopped being a child in the last, oh, two or three years. It wasn’t marriage, divorce, or physical aging that finally caused the break. It was a slow realization, the remolding and hardening of a series of decisions – not all of them bad but all of them difficult and messy – that I had set into motion on my own. I played with real narrative weight in my own life long enough that the distance between my emotional reality and the ability to go home again became too great. The grief of losing touch with the pre-adult me and the comfort it brought is a brutal amputation. I see other people my age (and much older for that matter) shambling through the same mourning process. The world is bad and we all know it. My generation grew into something far more bleak and doomed than we were ever prepared for. It’s not a world that my friends and I want to be in most days, and the thought of bringning anything else into it seems irresponsible at best and cruel at worst. My body doesn’t care about this at all.

I’ve spent most of my life treating childlessness as a foregone conclusion; an internal imperative so strong that pregnant women and mothers seemed fundamentally apart from whatever I am on a source level. They have different boundaries, as if the lines around them were pleasantly fuzzy. And there’s me, so hardwired to be self-contained within the limits of my own body. I’m sharp; a set unit you would never think to add to or subtract from. If I try to imagine myself pregnant, or with small children, my brain short circuits like the blue screen of death. The mythology of motherhood as a sacred and primordial mystery, the deepest source of feminine power, is not something I’m interested in contributing to. Really, it’s only strange inasmuch as any experience we find ourselves utterly locked off from is.

And yet, after over 26 years of bullheaded confidence, something is wavering. I pass couples with young children in Prospect Park and I try to project onto them, but not because I want it. A snapshot moment of a happy family is of course not the whole picture. Those couples fight and get too tired to fuck and those children throw tantrums. It’s still a slice of something I’ll never know. These moments didn’t use to register as anything, but now seeing parents with a stroller feels like peeking in people’s windows at night. TV plot lines about couples strained over whether to have kids make me sad now, but not because I want it. “We’re pregnant,” announced my brother’s friends at Easter brunch, and I looked away and excused myself. I started crying in the bathroom, but not because I want it. I’ve become consumed by what not wanting it means.

I do not want kids for the reasons that we’ve mostly agreed are bad reasons. There’s no legacy I care about passing on, my parents are fine enough that I don’t have a compulsion to fix their mistakes, and I know it’s selfish to create people in hope that they’ll take care of you when you’re old or sick. So what are the right reasons? No, I really want to know. Those happy kids in Prospect Park will probably grow up and mourn the loss of their childhoods in a world that’s even more unforgiving than mine. Even if the future looked better, it’s hard to imagine inflicting womanhood on another person. Are those mothers who express relief at only having sons, who say “boys are just easier,” actually relieved that they don’t have to pass on that particular millstone? It seems like there may not be a reason right enough to justify the risk anymore. And yet.

Maybe it’s that I’m almost 27 and some chemicals in my brain are nudging me to consider things because they’re attuned to rhythms and deadlines unparsable by my rational mind. My body doesn’t care about the doomsday clock any more than the world cares about me. But maybe it’s that I’m so sad and so bad at handling grief that I fantasize about experiencing hope and innocence vicariously; a fairy tale witch lying in wait to leech a sense of security and optimism from another generation. Do people want to have children because the only way to re-experience the veil of real safety and open-endedness is to draw it over someone else’s eyes?

As so many things do, I was reminded of The Age of Innocence. In particular, I thought about the sum of May Welland, the character most invested in and protective of the status quo. ” …the world of her youth had fallen into pieces and rebuilt itself without her ever being conscious of the change. This hard bright blindness had kept her immediate horizon apparently unaltered…she had died thinking the world a good place, full of loving and harmonious households like her own… ” I have always focused on the other main characters, on Newland Archer and his crippling fear and obligation or Ellen Olenska and the price of her unconventionality. The mutant strain of longing for a family is the first thing that has made May truly click with me. There’s an allure in being so naive that you sail right by the painful severance from your pre-adult assumptions. How lucky to raise children in the glow of your own childhood.

I’ve always liked the word weltschmerz and I think my unpackagable sadness over having children is the essence of that feeling. The world of split-second fantasies and lives I’ll never lead isn’t a reality that actually exists. It’s not even that I want children. I want to think about whether or not I want them in a world where the odds wouldn’t be stacked against them from the start.