Watching Them Sleep

Author Rick Moody on the subject of young love, whose tenderest moments, though fleeting, give birth to some of our most profound and long-lasting emotions

At 17 I thought I knew all there was to know about love. In part I believed this because I was reading Byron, Shelley and Keats in a literature class in my senior year of high school, and in part because I had a large crate of LPs in my dorm room, and this crate was filled with love songs. I liked love songs about romantic destitution best. In fact, as a 17-year-old, I seemed to favour repelling love in my daily life so that I could feel the destitution of love, which would occasion playing the love songs that best celebrated this acute loss. I thought love was an indescribable violet, I thought it was a certain stretch of empty highway, I thought it was in the craggy outcropping of desolate snowy peaks that you can see in the valleys, I thought it was a hanging plateau of fog, or an elk glimpsed on a bit of empty prairie, or the call of the hawk swooping down on a trembling rodent. I was happy both to declare love and to declare its futility.

We had an obligatory religion class at my high school, and a large part of this class, to the chagrin of my contemporaries, was given over to wrestling with a knotty theologian called Paul Tillich. The 17-year-old dreamer version of Rick Moody applied himself to the class, and could readily spout Tillich’s phrase loving action when asked to describe the meaning of faith. I could tell you, because we’d had an exam on the subject, that this meant that love was not a static condition, but that in the throes of love one was outwardly directed, or ultimately concerned, as Tillich says; one was giving and expecting nothing in return, one was open and selfless, one was the wind off the inscrutable ocean, clearing away the detritus of selfishness, blowing where it listeth.

What little apocalypse was required to make this loving action a thing that one felt and lived rather than something one spouted in exams? Well, there was this girl – who I’ll call Brenda – who was a couple of years younger, meaning that at the time of this story we were almost exactly the age of Romeo and Juliet. Neither of us were allowed to vote, and neither of us could legally drink, and we went to a school where if a boy visited a girl in her room she was supposed to leave the door open, and have three out of their four feet on the floor. Brenda was from Colorado, and she had a really warm and loving family. She was put together like a level-headed person is put together. We didn’t have much in common but we were in love.

One day, Brenda and I were over in this school building called Memorial Hall, an assembly hall, which was empty. Brenda and I were just strolling around, and through some impulse we ended up sitting on the carpet, whereupon, in some glorious fit she, leaning against me, simply fell asleep. Brenda was blonde, oh reader of these lines, and she was tall, had a decidedly joyful smile, a great, earthy sense of humour, and a perfect laugh, and she fell asleep in my arms. Rather than wake her, I just held her, and let her sleep. It was not comfortable for me, not for long. But I had cause to think about all of this – who she was, how she was, how I was with her – and while she slept all the ups and downs, the star-crossed and difficult portions of our entanglement, were in arrest, and all was silence and awaiting.

It came to me, in the half hour that ensued, at least as I recreate it, that I had never known how she felt, not really, not from the inside, but as she slept I felt the beginning of some sentiment that didn’t require romantic destitution, didn’t require loss, but was rather a measure of the labour and service put in to being with someone, and the selflessness that comes from trying to figure out what’s best for the girl in your lap, rather than always thinking about what’s best for you, abuser of all the natural resources in your family and your group of friends. I held her, and watched, and waited, and there was no bounty of tears, there was no brush fire of the heart, there was just the outwardly directed feeling, which in turn, as the Sun in the window moved several inches in its across-the-carpet-ing transit, pointed toward the feeling of being ultimately concerned.

We did, it must be said, break up not long after that. Or we broke up and got back together and broke up again. And then I graduated. And moved several states away. Neither of us ever drank a draught of poison, or set themselves on fire at the ocean’s edge. Protestations of need of the epistolary sort would have been silly. We went on with our lives. But in my case I went on a bit wiser about what’s important. A still moment of being and giving and letting go could, it seemed, reveal where the deepest feelings are hiding out, waiting to be diagrammed over the decades to come. The deepest feelings are to be found in what you give. Brenda taught me in the simplest way possible, by falling asleep.

I’m now in my mid-50s and very happily married, and have a newborn son, as one should probably not have at my age, and a daughter who is almost eight years old, and I frequently have the opportunity to watch them sleep. In fact, nothing makes me happier than watching children sleep. Is it the love, the agape, that C S Lewis ascribes to the divine (him or her or itself ), the love that parents feel for children? Maybe. I know that something really pure takes place in these moments, the child breathing and dreaming in some vulnerable way that is beautiful and trusting. It doesn’t seem to matter much how old the children are. It’s a different model, this adult loving action, from the 17-year- old rental economy kind of love, the love-the-one-you’re-with desperation of the teenage years, and I’m glad for it, I’m glad it’s different, no matter how long it took to get here.

Keats said it best: “Silly youth doth think to make itself/Divine by loving, and so goes on/ Yawning and doting a whole summer long.”

Illustration Tim McDonagh

This is an extract from issue 21 of Port, out now. To buy or subscribe, click here.