“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell.”
― Edna St. Vincent Millay
The ongoing pandemic has weathered its own internal seasons; microclimates and trends that could only have happened under the bizarre circumstances of a slow-moving apocalypse. At no other time could everyone else have been trapped in the shadow of Tiger King or decided that baking sourdough was the best place to focus our manual fidgeting and jaw-clenching chew. So, too, have we endured seasons in reading. We have swelled, en masse, toward cozies and romances when it was all too much, toward plague apocalypse fiction when we needed to remember that it might be worse, toward portal fantasies and second-world escapes when even happily ever after wasn’t enough. As we careen toward endemic with no end in sight, I find that the only thing that resonates for me is open, naked, vulnerable yearning.
Weren’t all those things just clothing the nakedness of our longing, anyhow? We can settle in and let Netflix work on us like anesthesia, we can fill ourselves with bread so that the heart cracks softly above the pillow of a stuffed belly. We can dream ourselves to the castle, to outer space, to anywhere but here. All those things are only cover for the feeling we cannot cope with, our constant gnawing companion through all this: yearning.
We are social apes and Zoom does not feed the beast. We crave each other, specifically and in the flesh, and nothing else will do. We have suffered through two grueling years of hopes-dashed holidays and turned-down trysts, telling ourselves there will be respite if we are good. If we get our shots, if we isolate and test and trust. There is no balm in Gilead, only a fresh variant and another season of weddings washed away and dates dashed. And so now all I want to read about is yearning.
All I want to do is fall into Miles Vorkosigan’s unrequited love for Elena Bothari, never to be assuaged, only to shift to Rian Degtiar without changing tenor or intensity. Bujold shows me the hole in her heart and I feel it open up in my own; a pair of best friends getting piercings at the mall before summer vacation tears us apart. I cry out across a colonized universe, and the Aegean Sea answers back with the longing of Achilles for Patroclus. How Madeline Miller made a story three centuries older than the invention of soap feel new again is beyond me, but it’s also curled up inside me, hollowing me out like the grave of the beloved. Song of Achilles was sold to me by countless friends on the strength of its prose (superb!) and the way it brings the ancient world to life (I can taste the blood of Troy in my mouth!) but I didn’t realize it would fill me with longing the way a giant horse is packed with secret soldiers. I can feel them bunked up together in the undercarriage of my heart, holding each other and dreaming of a cigarette, dreading the dawn.
As if I didn’t already loathe the footprints on the ground urging me to keep my social distance, as if I wasn’t already waking from feverish dreams wherein strange women in sequins kiss me on the street, Last Night at the Telegraph Club reminded me of the frenetic fragility of queer spaces. How I crave the brash bawdiness of a drag brunch, the clandestine coyness of a lesbian bar even in America’s queerest city. Malinda Lo wove together the Red Scare and the Lavender Menace into such a comely cord that it drew me neatly down the street to Passing Strange, Ellen Klages’s own speculative speakeasy novella. Both are set in San Francisco, both in the era of WWII, both among women who love women and the unique dangers the world dreams up for us. Both reminded me how yearning is a component of queer art; that we are almost never truly free to reach for one another if the lights are on, if people are looking. Both drew me into the deep water between words, made me gasp for air when I could surface and remember across the folds of time and space that my own yearning is the same.
Not so different to yearn for a nemesis as for a lover. The intensity of feeling is the same, only inverted as mountains and canyons are both too far to climb without contemplating death. I sought out depictions of yearning for one’s opposite number, of unions that can never be because the heights and depths are simply too great to safely cross. Good Omens, both book and television show, came to me at the right moment to show angel and demon fated and bound and seeking one another out, again and again, despite various ends of sundry worlds. Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This Is How You Lose the Time War blew everybody away, but specifically during the pandemic I felt that Red and Blue took turns jerking me around by my lapels, asking me to tell the other that her days were numbered, but never speaking directly to one another. Instead, that book was a series of letters stuffed into my right and left ear to be yanked out the opposite side by the intended recipient. My brain was flossed with longing. Is there—is there balm in Gilead? Sometimes. What relief, what primal joy to see She-Ra and Catra finally (spoiler!) kiss (go find it!) and kiss (you need it!) and bring some completion to the incomplete; finish the arch for half an arch will not stand. We cannot stand. We must still sit and wait.
What are we waiting for? The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is the kind of book only an established novelist with a record like V.E. Schwab will get to write. It unfolds itself as slowly as a life in which there are no parties, not even at New Year’s Eve, and it expresses nothing as much as yearning. Addie lives a beautiful life with loves and adventures, admirers and artworks, but no one can remember her. She cannot leave her mark on anything, and no one who knows her story will remember it. As the months fell from the calendar and the clocks melted all around us, who among us did not worry that we might be forgotten? Which of us does not fret that the constellations of our freckles were fading from somebody’s sky forever, untouchable and thus from the flesh drive of the brain? Addie LaRue was the sweetness to contrast the bizarre sours of Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Nabokov’s late-career novel, and perhaps his strangest. This slyly speculative (blink and you’ll miss the brief mention of alternate history where Russia settled the U.S., the banning of electricity) sinslide of a book is steeped in illicit lust between siblings who spend all their time longing for one another, trying to recreate their earliest memories in marginal arguments over a mumbletext of half-remembered summer sensualities. Did it disgust me? Nabokov always does. Did I go back for more like a kid who has thrown up brownie batter made with bad eggs and has learned not a thing? My fellow yearners: you know I went back to licking the bowl.
But my longing is like a fever, longing still for that which further nurseth the disease. I find a new flavor or yearning to lick down and sick up every time I touch my Kindle. Time Was, Ian McDonald’s novella of two nearly immortal men writing letters to one another in a used book swapped and sold across time, fills the void left by Nicky and Joe in The Old Guard (who get only a single scene to explain that their love has carried them since the crusades and no mortal bigot could possibly understand the tide of yearning that has shaped their shared shores). Time Was combines the desperation that only an epistolary can scratch on the walls; the wartime urgency of a love that must be spoken before the bomb goes off, and the inimitable torch-passing between queer generations that takes the place of a more traditional form of reproduction. And the combination of queerness, queer parenthood, and that traditional reproduction dance swirls together in that sultry masterpiece of longing, Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. These were pleasure and play to my younger brain that wanted only kink and intrigue and loved the racy tattoo on the pretty lady on the cover. Now, an intellectual saddled with decades of variegated longings and a Greek chorus of affairs spread out over Telegram, Signal, iMessage, Gmail, and borne on the decaying backs of the U.S. Postal Service, I feel the ache in Delaunay’s slaughtered prince like never before. I nurse Joscelin’s piety and surrender to the anguish of love where I used to get high on contempt. I sail morosely on the ink-dark waters of every love denied to Phèdre, drown in her desire as it transcends the flesh and propels her into a yearning that is only assuaged by stuffing her mouth with the secret name of God (I am not exaggerating. If your yearning is as extra as mine, I promise this one comes in your size.)
There is no cure for yearning. There is no projected period to this pandemic, no end in sight. Take, then, these vaccines and booster shots to lessen the effects of your suffering. Inject yourself with a microscopic dose of the virus and let your immune system gain a memory of its shape and taste, let your cells embrace it and destroy it in a few cubic centimeters of fictional disease in the hopes that you may survive and live to yearn again. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that satisfaction will cure your yearning for good; we will close the gap of six feet and strip off our masks one day, clasp and kiss and cough again. And still we will yearn, for yearning is what the body does until it reaches the end of desire.
Don’t worry. There are books about that part, too.
© 2022 Meg Elison