“Anthropocene—the slice of Earth’s history during which people have become a major geological force.”
–Richard Monastersky, Nature
I’m ruminating on the Anthropocene as I sit behind the wheel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. My girlfriend is in the passenger seat and she’s talking about what an open relationship means to her, and how, if the world were a perfect place, free of contingencies, she could see one working for us. She’s a lawyer, or used to be, and she speaks with beauty and precision.
We met at a sweet spot in time, six month before this conversation, just as both of us had managed to slough off versions of ourselves that had been haunting us for many years. When it comes to queer love, time can draw out the stale, lingering flavor of intimate connection. The grain of truth that lies in stereotypes about the way care for each other has to do with the high conversion rate between deep love and deep friendship. Explanations for this phenomenon are easy to come by: for survival, small communities must value conviviality over bridge-burning; or perhaps, it’s that those of us socialized as female have been taught to avoid conflict and facilitate care and healing. Freud’s formulation was the simplest, and could, barring its deep-seated misogyny, still have the most purchase—we are, at our core, just narcissists. We can’t bear the thought of not being loved, even by those who cling to the versions of ourselves we can no longer bear to be.
For my girlfriend, it was her first love, with whom she had a beautiful run throughout college. The relationship ended, or so she thought, for logistical reasons, rather than for reasons of the heart. Holding out a candle that long for a love who once felt like home can, after many years, illuminate cracks in the foundation. I don’t know the details, but I do know that they took a trip to Michigan, and on that trip they took a walk, during which something shifted that set both of them free.
I, too, had recently learned to let go of someone—a person I met at the beginning of graduate school. I loved her deeply, but I could never quite stick around long enough for us to make it through the hardest parts. I spent years running away from her just long enough that coming back almost reminded me of why our first months set us both on fire. But in those first months, we burned through each other so quickly that before I knew it I was carrying around handfuls of ashes. For a couple of years, I convinced myself that there was still a flame buried inside. There wasn’t. The phrase “letting go” sounds whimsical, even mythical, but the reality of it is so often only awkward and stilting. The day I ended it we were sitting in a booth in a crowded bar across the street from the university and I had to shout, “If it was going to happen it would have happened already.” And so I lost and gained a way of being in the world.
In literary studies, we talk about the Anthropocene with trepidation tinged with a kind of reverential melancholia. The term is a buzz word par excellence, the kind around which conferences are organized and clever article titles are crafted, which pave the road towards the concept’s own perdition even at the peak of its ability to compel public attention. I’m inclined to watch the rise and fall of words like these from afar, but the poetics of this one—Anthropocene—compel me. Four syllables, ever so lightly punctuated by the softest consonants, announcing a tragic, apocalyptic shift in global time. It’s a way of saying that human behavior has put us outside of earthly cadence, beyond the slow chug of natural physical and biological change. Cavalier and irresponsible, we have spent the last century booking a one-way ticket to disaster, headed directly into an oblivion of our own construction.
My girlfriend is talking about geography. I live in a city and she lives in a town (this distance being the reason that we are currently on the Turnpike), and she’s talking about the insecurities bound up in queer networks. “What if,” she asks, “what if the difference between a casual encounter and an intimate connection is the number of times you run into someone on their way to the dog park?” What if, indeed.
Sarah Ahmed has written on what it means to be queerly oriented in the world. More than a kind of direction, she writes, orientation implies a kind of residing or inhabiting. Being queer means inhabiting a world of objects that constantly tell us we deviate from the normal. We are oriented, while everyone else just… is. Being queerly oriented is a kind of ipso facto resistance against forces that are omnipresent yet perpetually out of sight, which means that any time we try to take stock of a new relationship, we’re already doing so from a place of contingency. “The question,” Ahmed writes, “is not so much finding a queer line but rather asking what our orientation toward queer moments of deviation will be. If the objects slip away, if its face becomes inverted, if it looks odd, strange, or out of place, what will we do?”
I’m feeling particularly queer in this car ride, both of us facing forward, hurtling down 76 at 70 miles an hour, trying to squint through the blinding light that we are to one another when we are face to face. Between us is an object coming into formation, one that we’re talking around with the hopes that our words will protect it before we ever have to figure out how to put it back together again. We’re old enough to know that we’ve stumbled on something worth protecting, and that we’ve fallen into a love that is equal parts beautiful madness and steadfast sensibility. We’re also old enough to know that the bad stuff sneaks up on you, so it’s best to head it off at the pass. She’s a lawyer and I’m an academic—we are, if nothing else, professional base-coverers.
“I know it’s unrealistic to think that neither of us will ever be attracted to anyone else again,” she thinks out loud. “And I love you. That means I want you to do the things that make you feel good. Keeping you from them is the opposite of love.”
The concept of the Anthropocene came about because scientists needed a new name to describe the ticking of our geological time. Humans have arrived at a rather odd temporal precipice, with enough years behind us to know that we’ve certainly altered the planet’s relationship to its own growth, but not enough to see the precise shape this intervention will take. We need this word so we won’t forget that this time, we built the future, all of it, every apocalyptic brick and disastrous mortar. When it comes to be our dwelling-place, we can’t let ourselves forget that, indeed, it is ours, in every possible pronominal sense of the word.
“No one wants to be a Lennie,” I agree. But what exactly do I mean by that? It certainly seems wise to avoid a love so tight it strangles. Surely the last thing anyone wants is a squished rabbit on their hands. And yet here we are, laying out the best plans that we can for a kind of relationship neither of us wants, yet, but probably will, someday soon. Our words are punctuated by the mutually held knowledge that if modernity as taught us anything, it is no doubt that even the best-laid schemes go awry.
The highway winds us over the peak of a rolling hill as the sun begins to fall over the tops of endless forest acres. I’ve been reading a lot of post-apocalyptic novels for work lately, which make me anxious about tiny things, things so small we forget to love them. I crack a window, even though the highway makes an unbearable noise. The late afternoon air is just a little too warm, but it smells like summer sunlight and I feel lucky to breathe it in. It’s early for us, laughably so, but someday we could have kids, I think to myself. I wonder if there will be any air left for them, to breathe through the window on hot summer afternoons in the middle of conversations about too many unknowable things.
Rumpus original art by Max Winter.