a romantic man

It's not what you look at which matters

There’s no such thing as a romantic man.

However hard we try to conjure him up. We’ll write him into novels, films and our darkest noir erotic fantasies. We want him alright.  God we want him. But the most romantic part is that we can’t have him. He’ll always be the one on the horizon, never stacking the dishwasher after dinner.

To the man reading this, I know you are the exception; you couldn’t live without romance and I so like that about you. But on the whole, we women are blind to the true romance of men’s nature, it’s invisible to us.  Although sometimes we’re able to catch a glimpse of it in our romantic encounters.

Caught in a sudden torrential downpour she runs into the tiny Izakaya under a Tokyo bridge and orders a sake mojito. The place is set in grey concrete. The lantern outside is dingy, a faded red.  He arrives only minutes after her, softens inside as he sees her still dishevelled from the rain, flustered. He doesn’t know she’s lost the precious moments she was looking forward to, the pleasurable agony of waiting for him. Their eyes meet and everything slows and at the same time bursts brilliantly into life. They can’t breathe. Out of the corner of her eye she is miraculously able to track the progress of a single glistening raindrop as it splashes into a puddle.  Eyes locked, her heart expands with inexplicable happiness, blossoming wide open to let in the radiance of his energy. Outside, time ceases.  For the man in the dark overcoat hunched over his drink, it’s a dreary night;  the storm’s held him up, he’ll be home late and his querulous wife won’t give him any peace.  But for them, the lantern outside glows crimson, charging the rainy night alive with sorcery.

While they are talking, an entirely other conversation is happening between their hands.  Words blur and hum in their ears, their real attention is focussed on the tips and lengths of his fingers as they stroke her hand, he’s breathless at the touch of her exquisitely attentive fingertips exploring the soft naked places between his fingers. They can hold hands like this all evening and never grow tired of it – that’s romantic.

There’s the first kiss, fiercely sexual, hungry, searing and bone-melting, maybe. But if it’s romantic it will barely be there, yet still feel like a momentous meeting of souls through the soft tender agency of lips.

All these words. Romance is love in the language of symbols.  Which is of course the poet’s arena – we have our favourite lines the best of which pierce our defences with heart-excavating exactitude. Unable to bear the intensity of our own encounters, we spy through poetry’s keyhole instead hoping for perspective.  But there’s no relief to be found here.  If anything, it strips your eyes naked with its over-dazzling images of new-found love, love lost and perhaps most painful of all, love in limbo with no place to go. Now you have to see what you pretend you don’t already know to be true.  And it’s delivered with more kick and a whole lot more burn than if you’d been left to your own inarticulate bumbling about.  How else to explain the uprooting jolt of melancholy in such lines as:

The piers sadden when the afternoon moors there.
My life grows tired, hungry to no purpose.
I love what I do not have.

(Pablo Neruda – Here I love you)

And what can signal romance more soulfully than music?  Our lives are studded with soundtracks announcing the arrivals and departures of those we once loved. Who has not been taken elsewhere by a song, an aching refrain, a haunting of the past that reverberates in the body long after the last note has sounded. We can’t help but resonate with our own memories when music plays them back to us.   I hear an orchestra tuning up and she appears instantly; the girl I used to be in another time, another place.  And there is an even greater romance in making music with another. For then each shared note becomes a touch,  harmonies weave and breathe together, sound becomes sensation we melt into as something greater than we know how to properly hold is being made between us. Love.

Romance inhabits the memory of times and places. “the first time we ever…” and “where we once…”  It lives in the symbols of time spent together. I know of a man who left a brand new dish-washing brush in a tree outside his girlfriend’s house.  A romantic gesture?  She happens to be particular about her dishwashing tools – liking them to be clean and fresh and not grungy-looking.  It’s the queen in her.  Leaving that brush for her was paying homage to her queenliness yes, but even more deeply it said “I know you. I know you in your greatness, but I also know you in your small ways. And I love and appreciate it all.”  It made her smile. It made her feel seen and known in an unmistakeably romantic way.  A dish washing brush as romantic artefact! Who would have thought it?

So often the romantic gestures of men go unnoticed by the very women they are aimed at.  I love men, their passionate can-do-ness, their inspired testosterone drive that longs to create something special for their beloved no other can.  I’ve seen men build fires and furniture, write love songs, verses and paint pictures,  grow gardens, trees and families, make cups of tea and hot water bottles all all all for their beloveds. To impress them, cherish, move them.   And we women?  How often we find fault.  The new table wobbles, the cup of tea grows cold, the poetry is dismissed as sentimental twaddle and we refuse to be impressed. I’m as guilty as any.

My mother acknowledges romance exists, but says it has no endurance.  Romance in a man, she declares, is A Limited Edition. In other words a hard-to-find rarity and short lived.  It‘s why we say “the romance has gone” when a relationship goes stale, when life with the other person becomes predictable. I can’t agree it’s impossible to keep a space always open for romance, but there’s something real she points to nonetheless – its fleeting evanescent nature.  Romance isn’t meant to be sustainable. It’s necessarily of the moment – anything else and it would become an institution. Like marriage.

A man whose thoughts I value says romance is being able to see the other in their highest state, see the star of their best selves shining through the cracks of their flaws and foibles. It’s how we’re able to worship and adore someone when others see only their ordinary humdrumness.  But more than anything, he says, romance lives in the mystery of the other. For with mystery, there is the unknown and within the unknown winks the glint of danger. It could be a blade, but also a jewel. It’s the thrill of risk that is so arousing, the smell of something hidden and alluring that propels us trembling into desires we haven’t yet met.  And here is the erotic dilemma. For paradoxically, as another man who is a friend tells me,  there is the magical romance of true deep intimacy, the willingness to be vulnerable and open as one shares one soul, heart and body with another –so becoming known.  Love, says Esther Perel in Mating in Captivity wants closeness.  Eros and romance thrive on distance. I can’t yet see a way to live in the tension of that paradox except through believing we can never fully discover another’s essential mystery.

What I know now is we’re looking for the wrong thing when we seek a romantic man. We’re hooked on the artificial version, the one that lives in the MSG-clogged sensory-overload of the shopping mall culture like a snack bar; always available at a price, always leaving us dissatisfied and wanting more.  Make no mistake, romance is nourishment, it’s soul-food and we shouldn’t live without it.  But we’ve been raised on a junk diet concocted in a consumer-culture lab;  we no longer recognise romance unless it comes wrapped in American Swiss advertorial and the soft-focus lens of the corner candle-lit table for two.

Now I’m not knocking candle-lit dinners for two. I’m a sucker for them – which just goes to show.   But real romance is found in the most ordinary of moments if your eyes have the heart to see it.  For then what appears mundane becomes exalted:  a piano spilling out a swelling river of emotion as you walk past an open window, an unexpected glance of appreciation from a stranger as you step off the bus at dusk,  a recklessly tender kiss on an escalator.  No, it’s not just in the tickets for two to Paris. Nor in the arrival of 48 red velvet roses hiding a diamond bracelet.  That’s commonplace, not just in its execution but in its currency as the romantic ideal. There is more romance to be found in the everyday than you know.  It’s not what you look at which matters so much as how you see it.

I know the archetype of the lover slips readily enough into the hearts of men, but men fear the scorn of women. The romantic man we expect them to live up to does not exist. But there are men who know how to speak the romantic tongue of symbol and mystery with genuine sincerity, giving their unpredictable gifts in ways that need only our recognition.  I love a man who can do that.

Finally though, while the glow of romance is unmistakable when you step into its tingling aura, it’s impossible to put your finger on it. I just tried; it dissolves and vanishes under scrutiny. And I’m glad of it.  How it holds its own mystery intact.