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Understanding Desire

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Patricia Stacey
Late spring. I was in my first year of college. Big Sur and Monterey Bay shimmered through a ferny redwood foreground as my boyfriend and I sat in my college library social room watching a play. Daniel, my tall and beautiful admirer, leaned in close beside me, laughing and waiting for me to laugh with him. I lifted Daniel's long, expressive fingers off my leg, tilted my head away just so slightly, and crossed my legs into the aisle. I wished we could be like the other couples in the room, fingers entwined, occasionally looking at each other with shared mirth and recognition, but I couldn't do it. Especially not with a professor sitting behind us watching our every move. And especially not this particular professor.

Bald, intense, white-mustached, and as old as my grandfather, the man I'll call Professor Bellagio taught psychology. He was known for his research on the subject of desire. Charles Bellagio was a legend, a hero. I often saw him strolling with his wife, a retired physicist, a silver-haired beauty. One day I mustered the confidence to visit Bellagio in his office and asked if he would sponsor me in an independent study.

"What do you want to research?" he asked. I suggested something rather dull.

"I have a better idea," Bellagio said. "How about desire? You know it's my field. Are you interested in the topic?"

Interested? The truth was I'd been fascinated by the subject for years. I nodded dumbly.

"We'll meet next quarter, once a week," he said. "Keep a journal until then and bring it the first day. I want you to define desire for me."

Bellagio was sitting in a corner of his large office in an overstuffed chair, smoking a pipe, when I found him that first official day of our independent study. He motioned for me to sit down directly in front of him. He crossed his arms and sat there staring at me. "What is desire?" he finally asked. Shy and panicked, I didn't answer right away. He pulled my journal from my lap and read the only sentence I had written there: "Desire is a joke created by a willful and perverse minor deity with a chip on his shoulder."

Bellagio flattened out the hairs on his snowy mustache and studied me. Then he said, "Were you afraid to be serious?"

"It's not that it's just that I am not sure I'm going to be very good at figuring out what desire is. My relationships always end disastrously."

"We'll have to go to the experts," said Bellagio quickly. His speech was like lightning, his mind firing fast; his body was slower, an echo of that light. There were rumors that he'd had a stroke. He stood and, walking with a slight limp, made his way to the book-lined wall of his office and plucked out a volume.

"The Golden Bowl?" I asked. "This is fiction. I was expecting something by a psychologist."

Bellagio shook his head. "Compared with this writer, most psychologists know nothing about love." He sent me home with a stack of fiction and one philosophy book: Lolita. Remembrance of Things Past. Of Human Bondage. Being and Nothingness.

Each week Bellagio assailed me with questions inspired by the reading. At first I struggled.

"When we desire someone, what exactly are we desiring?"

"Someone else who desires us?"

"Yes ... that's part of it. So what then are you desiring?"

Under his intimidating gaze, I tended to look away to the sea outside his window. In the foreground stood an elegant arbor. Round about it wound a gnarled and flagrantly full wisteria. That day, searching for an answer to Bellagio's question, my mind followed the branches that twisted so tightly around each other they seemed almost choked. In those gnarled branches I felt there might be a way of thinking about his query: an image. The branches wrapped around each other twisted, misshapen, but ending in such exquisite lilac-colored exuberance. Was this desire? A twisted, ugly distortion ending in fruition?

"So what do we desire when we desire a person?" Bellagio repeated.

I thought about the book I'd finished two nights earlier, about the sensitive little boy living in 19th-century Paris in Remembrance of Things Past. Young Marcel lies in bed, awash in delicious anticipation of his mother coming to kiss him good night. Yet in a stroke of irony, the moment he hears the rustle of her dress in the corridor near his door, he trades joy for sorrow. Her coming reminds him that she will soon leave, and he knows he will be left longing once more.

My eye fell again on the gnarled branches. "Pain," I said finally.

Bellagio leaned his head sideways and lit up his pipe as if to say, Think again.

"Well, okay," I said, considering the little boy aching for the rustle of the dress that might signal his mother's arrival. "Are we desiring the person's desire ... I mean desiring the person to want us?"

Patricia Stacey

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