THE ‘NORMATIVE HEART
by Chris R. Morgan
What’s the best advice you have ever received on being in love?
Reece, 26: The best advice I ever got was to never fear commitment. But the trick is you never know just what you’ll be committing to. I don’t really know how it all started, all I can remember is that one day I was fed up. With all of it. All of the games and bullshit; all of the mixed signals and drama. I was at the end up my rope. I was in my apartment, my utilities bill in hand, and just said, “Fuck it.” Yes, out loud. I drank my last can of Michelob and took the equivalent amount of money I owed my landlord and spent it on spring rolls to have delivered to the workplace of the last girl who ghosted me. Then I started running.
Kaylee and Alan, 31 and 33: The best advice we ever got was to be adventurous. I know, when you’re single and dating you hear that a lot. And then it only really amounts to what, mixing mint cookies n’ cream with sherbet? But it takes on a whole new meaning once you’re a year and a half—almost two years—into a marriage. No one, not our friends or family, thought highly of our prospects. And they’re not wrong. My parents: divorced. His parents: divorced twice. Same with a few cousins and even grandparents. I have auxiliary grandparents. Step grandparents! How honorifically awkward is that?
Dana, 32: Probably, no, definitely the best advice I ever got was to go to Hell. “Go to Hell.” That’s what I was told, specifically. By a guy. He wasn’t my boyfriend, thinking about it now he probably thought that he was my boyfriend, or convinced himself that he was my boyfriend, through force of will, I guess. I can’t recall the events that precipitated the handing down of that particular advice. I get so much advice in a day it’s hard to know really who is doing the soliciting. I sense it wasn’t me. All I know is that at some point in our relationship, angular though it was, I grew exhausted with pleasantries. Evidently so did he.
Reece: Well, I didn’t go running running, but I was moving. I kept on moving until the roads no longer led anywhere, until the stench of sweat and shit in the city became the natural musk of pine and dung, until the hollers and screeches became chirps and breezes. I was in the woods, basically. So deep into them I completely lost the way to get out. I admit I was well and truly scared. After a day of wandering I came to a creek, intermittently heaving and crying. And at the moment I was convinced that I would die alone, I felt a hand on my shoulder.
Kaylee and Alan: They said “When you know, you’ll know.” One day, Alan walks into the room and I know him in form, but not in spirit; as if someone was inside him, working his gears. To let each other know, we’d give ourselves new names. He’d see me sometimes and go “Hi, Delilah!” and I’d go “Good morning, Will!” (I’m not really creative with names.) We could go whole days doing that, we even had separate Gmails for them.
Dana: I didn’t know much about Hell when he told me to go there, in fact what I knew about it appeared to be wrong. In what little time I gave myself towards thinking about Hell I was always under the assumption that it was something that found you. In my experience it’s something that I had to go out in search of. Now I wonder, is this the same for everyone? Or could it be that I am a good person? But why would a good person go through with this? Why would a good person go into CVS at nine ‘o clock on a Tuesday for tampons and instead spend the better part of the night staring down a display of hair dye?
Reece: I looked up and saw a man, who hoisted me up and gave me the longest, closest, tightest hug I ever felt. When he released me he smiled and said, “Welcome.” He stepped off to the side and from out of the trees came another man. Then another man. Then another man, until there was a veritable tribe of them. It turns out I was not the only one who was overcome by the petty demands of polite society and took to nature’s bosom. They had been at it a while though. They were robust and lived in, where I was frail and soft. But they changed that.
Kaylee and Alan: But long term, that wasn’t going to work. We went to counseling. We tried tantric sex. We tried role-play sex. We tried BDSM, you know, with safe words and all that. It was all too pedestrian. We tried swinging once. I think the problem was planning. There was too much of it. I think at every level of our relationship we strived too hard for the perfect moment, which we had planned into something turgid and clinical. We had to be spontaneous. There was a lot of suspense at first. We didn’t do anything for weeks.
Dana: I guess you can say I found it, or stumbled into it. Whatever.
Reece: For most of the time we are just living our days in the wild. We forage for food, build shelter, find manageable clothing, yes. But we also swim and run. We play contact games of our own rules, design, and ends. Yes, there needs to be a winner for it to be complete, but all is fair and accepted under the guides of brotherhood and sportsmanship.
But our most cherished—and to me our most necessary—activity is the vulnerability cone.
Kaylee and Alan: Then, boom. I wake up one Saturday to find Alan already out of bed. I remember it so clearly. He called me from outside, I looked out the window, and he was standing in between two used Pintos. They were so old, they were rusty, the paint was chipping off, and they reeked something fierce, of stale sweat and Burger King. I asked him what the hell were supposed to do with these, we couldn’t possibly drive more than 20 miles in these. But that was the point. They would only go as far as this old reservoir outside of town. Once there, he would drive to one end and I would be at the other, and then we’d spend every last bit of juice these jalopies had driving straight at each other. I asked him if we were playing chicken, if this as a test. And I’ll never forget this, he smiled that kind but shy smile I remember from our first date and said “Get dressed and get in.”
Dana: The hair dyes were from the same brand. A green box with a picture of the same model. Same skin color—white but not too white—and eye color—hazel, I think—but with a different hair color of course, each with names more colorful than the actual colors. “Raven,” “sunset,” “chestnut,” “amber,” “copper,” “caramel,” and so on. Perhaps it was the specific way in which she was positioned on the package, but my gaze was locked in by hers and it wouldn’t let go. “Why,” I asked her, neither conscious nor interested if anyone else was in the aisle with me, “why me?” She did not answer.
Reece: It’s not a physical thing as such, but a kind of area we construct when we focus our energies when we need comfort and security. In the vulnerability cone, we can at long last be honest and direct. We need no longer talk around, over, or at anyone, but just to anyone. We can share secrets, longings, and pain. We can be quirky and joyful or we can be introspective and sad. We can, for whatever reason, have an erection, and we can talk each other through it. We are honest, but we are respectful. The stability of the cone depends on it.
Kaylee and Alan: I’m a romantic at heart. We both are. I had an image in my head that we’d collide with enough power to break the windshield and we’d embrace losing consciousness. It’s silly and I’m embarrassed to think about it.
Dana: I decided then that being a redhead was not as important as knowing the message of this woman. I sensed that each new color I tried would elicit a new secret. I had even worked out an order. No secrets were forthcoming, though. Soon enough my hair had begun to thin. I went next to a Rite Aid and found the lipsticks, each with their own colors, “rose,” “coral,” “jubilee,” “diamond jubilee,” “pink lemonade,” “silver fox,” “opal,” “jade.” I took all of them back home. The shades did not correspond in flavor, exactly.
Reece: One day, one of my brothers asked us if women could do what we do, and perhaps even with us. At the time we were hiking and not in the vulnerability cone. It caused panic and near-rupture. I miss him sometimes.
Yet, sometime later, a woman did appear, and inside the cone no less! No one would cop to who invited her inside, or how she could be let in at all. Nor could she provide any real information when we prodded her. It was all the more jarring when she broke square through the cone and back into the wild. We made a firm pact to never break each other’s trust like that again.
Kaylee and Alan: We woke up in the hospital. We were devastated and in pain. We were also heavily drugged, so this sequence of events is a bit blurry. During rehabilitation, we met this doctor. Dr. [REDACTED]. He is a surgical specialist and he said he’d been watching us, that he felt profound sadness and joy at our struggles to stay together. He wanted to help us and he had just the solution. He said that he can, quite literally, bring us together. He developed a process by which two people can become conjoined by our circulatory systems. Now, Alan and I have vastly different blood types, so we were open but wary. Dr. [REDACTED] assured us, however, that through his special cell synthesis, he could create a new type, a kind of boutique blood type. I remember very clearly what he said to me before the gas kicked in: “Science will cure incompatibility.”
Dana: For a few weeks I was sick. Then I adjusted, mind as well as body. I had restocked the cupboards and refrigerators and then my vanity cabinets. I have to be creative if I want to look nice, or at least presentable. One day I was feeling less confident than usual. I opened the first drawer and I found some meat, some kind of beef, still in the plastic, still good, more or less.
Reece: We’ve made a good home here. But some day we’d like to return and to show our potential brothers what we’ve learned. We’d like to be able to construct more, bigger vulnerability cones anywhere, and to make all of our world safe. But I’m afraid that is impossible without making considerable changes to society. I am certain our way will be laughed at if we came back now.
Kaylee and Alan: Science, regretfully, hasn’t quite mastered preservation methods. Alan’s gone silent these days, but that’s not entirely new, he was the introvert. But we are certainly closer together since the procedure. We are inside of each other in ways that would astonish our skeptical loved ones. And they do. I love the looks on their faces. We’re doing well! We’re even exploring polyamory.
Dana: I sat in front of the mirror, switched it to convex and patted it on my cheeks, then smeared it over my mouth and forehead. I smiled, genuinely. The flies started showing up in the afternoon as I lay on the couch. They communed and commiserated well into the night.
Reece: So we bide our time, we play our games, and with some patience, they may in the end come to us, until all of nature is one vast cone.
Kaylee and Alan: So yes, be adventurous. Be unafraid. But definitely buy used cars within budget!
Dana: I can tell you how many flies were on me. I named them all. I remember them when they return and mourn them when they die. Maybe when I get to know you better I’ll tell you what they were.