The madness and charm of crushes

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We met while I was working. It was in a class room setting. A conference. She was two seats in front of me. What captivated me the most was her voice. Melodious, loud enough, cheeky but sweet. I had laid eyes on her that morning as each one of us walked into the conference room to take their seats before the seminar began. Out of habit, I had come in a few minutes earlier, taken a seat at the far end of the hall opposite the door. The door was on my left. Being adjacent to the wall and four seats from the back, I was strategically seated to see everyone who walked in and out of the hall. Just like in the movies. I had followed her with my eyes from the second she walked in to when she took her seat.

From time to time, I love to imagine myself as an undercover CIA operative in the midst of an unsuspecting crowd. Trying to be more alert to the subtle details of other people’s lives that would normally get ignored. I love details, however minute. I loved how she walked in smiling for absolutely no reason or at least for reasons I do not know about. It was not weird. I too smile or laugh hysterically when I’m alone for things that have occurred in the past. I can’t help it. I guess she couldn’t help it too.

Our love story (if you can call it that) kicked off somewhere in the middle of that conference. She had a small face or at least appeared so from what the hijab left of it. She is Muslim. She had on a long black buibui dress that touch the ground. She had to hold and lift it to walk or climb stairs. I never got to see her hair. But if my imagination is anything to go by, it must be really long and thick and dark and silky. She was light skinned and about five foot six tall. I know this because we got into an argument about who was taller than the other to a point that this had to be settled there. I claimed to be taller while she insisted, we were of the same height. We had to stand shoulder to shoulder when we went for a short break. And as if that wasn’t enough, we stood staring straight at each other’s face to be sure. That was the closest and farthest our intimacy went. My eyes were an inch higher going by the angle of inclination of her gaze at my eyes. She was in heels, about two inches high (quite modest) and I had on shoes with about an inch-high heel. Given that I’m five foot eight, that was how I came up with her height.

She had a contagious smile, one that couldn’t go unnoticed. She had asked a question during the seminar that had made everyone laugh. She kept asking until the end of the seminar. Yea, I know. She is one of those. I have this really loud way of laughing that stands out, I never hold back laughter. She heard it, looked behind and our eyes locked for an instance. From time to time, she would turn back and whisper something to the lady behind her and I would be there eyes looking straight ahead, which would be her head, and our eyes would lock again. I didn’t look away, not once. And then she would smile and I would smile back. Two days of looking at each other and smiling went by and on the evening of the third, I winked. From there, we would sit together during meal times and if not, I took a sit where I had a clear line of vision of her.

Soon after, I switched seats with someone next to her and that was how we kicked it off. We laughed a lot. Its easy to talk to people when they are laughing. Her voice was glorious. I would just sit there and watch her speak about things she was passionate about and she would notice that I was staring and she would blush. I would say something funny again and she would adjust her glasses or take them off and start laughing, again. I couldn’t tell which look I loved more, her with glasses or without. It was impossible to decide. Her face had a certain innocence to it but from time to time she would let on subtle hints, a little twitch of the lips, that she wasn’t as innocent as her face made her seem. That she had a naughty side to her, a side she preferred kept hidden under her buibui. She had the body of a model. I could see the curves beneath the fabric as she sat or bended over (no pun intended) to check something on her shoe or when the dress would hug her tighter than it was supposed to at certain angles. She had beautiful shoes. I do not know much about women’s shoes but these were beautiful. She was beautiful beyond beautiful.

The conference came to an end, each one of us went their separate ways but we kept in touch. I would call and we would talk for hours about things, about life and about the future. We would laugh a lot and she would keep reminding me how funny I was. And how contrasting that was given how quiet I was at the conference at times. I told her I had not been in my element until I had met her. I really liked her. My heart had started warming up to her really fast. I called the chairman of the committee and board of director of my relationships, my best friend Sam and told him about her. I wanted to go all in but as usual I had to consult with my best man first. We are not going to this wedding without him being notified about it prior.

Back and forth our conversations went, not with Sam. I made my intentions with her clear. I opened my heart. I even started thinking about my old friend Suleiman from campus. I wanted to borrow tips on how I would go about converting to Islam. I had already chosen a name for myself: Yusuf El Hadji Bilal. And then things went sideways… She was betrothed to another and couldn’t leave him. I suggested eloping but she couldn’t go through with it. She didn’t want to disappoint her parents and her clan.

I called Sam again and told him about my broken heart and he listened as he always does without criticism. But he did laugh when I told him about my plans to call Suleiman about the converting to Islam thing. He laughed like a mad man but nonetheless brought me back to my senses as he has always done so many other times.

He reminded me of all the crushes I have heard in the last few years because he knows them all. He reminded me of another lady I was introduced to at another conference two years ago. She looked nice and we had a brief chat about the keynote speaker. But already, partly because of the slope of her neck and a lilt in their accent, I had already reached an overwhelming conclusion.

Or, you sit in a matatu, and next to you or in the next seat is someone you cannot stop stealing glances at for the rest of the journey across miles of darkening countryside and stretching plantations of rice. You know nothing concrete about them. You are going only by what their appearance suggests. You note that they have slipped a finger into a book (The Lost Art of Listening), that their nails are bitten raw, that they have a Kenyan flag bracelet around their left wrist. And that is enough to convince you. Another day, when you’ve gone for a hike at Ngong hills, amidst a throng of people you don’t know, you catch sight of a face for no longer than a minute and yet here too, you feel the same overwhelming certainty and subsequently, a bittersweet sadness at their disappearance in the anonymous crowd.

Crushes, as I have come to learn, happen to some people more often and to almost everyone sometimes. Matatus, airports, bus stops, trains, streets, conferences or wherever. The dynamics of modern life are forever throwing us into fleeting contact with strangers, from amongst whom we pick out a few examples who seem to us not merely interesting, but more powerfully, the solution to our lives. This phenomenon, the crush, goes to the heart of the modern understanding of love. It could seem like a small incident, essentially comic and occasionally farcical. It may look like a minor planet in the constellation of love, but it is in fact the underlying secret central sun around which our notions of the romantic revolve.

A crush represents in pure and perfect form the dynamics of romantic philosophy: the explosive interaction of limited knowledge, outward obstacles to further discovery and boundless hope.

The crush reveals how willing we are to allow details to suggest a whole. We allow the arch of someone’s eyebrow or just a smile to suggest a personality. We take the way a person puts more weight on their right leg as they stand listening to a colleague as an indication of a witty independence of mind. Or their way of lowering their head seems proof of a complex shyness and sensitivity. From a few cues only, you anticipate years of happiness, buoyed by profound mutual sympathy. Someone will fully grasp that you love your mother even though you don’t get on well with her; that you are hard-working, even though you appear to be distracted; that you are hurt rather than angry. The parts of your character that confuse and puzzle others will at last find a soothing, wise, complex soulmate.

In elaborating a whole personality from a few small but hugely evocative details, we are doing for the inner character of a person what our eyes naturally do with the sketch of a face. Without even noticing that we are doing it, we fill in the missing parts. Our brains are primed to take tiny visual hints and construct entire figures from them and we do the same when it comes to character.

We are much more than we give ourselves credit for; inveterate artists of elaboration. We have evolved to be ready to make quick decisions about people (to trust or withhold, to fight or embrace, to share or deny) on the basis of very limited evidence. The way someone looks at us, how they stand, a twitch of the lips, a slight movement of the shoulder and we bring this ingenious but fateful talent to situations of love as much to those of danger.

The cynical voice in my head wants to declare that these enthusiastic imaginings at the conference or in the matatu, or the encounter at Ngong hills, are just delusional. That I, just like most people do, simply project a false completely imaginary idea of identity onto an innocent stranger. But this is too sweeping. I may be right. The wry posture may really belong to someone with a great line in skepticism; the head tilter may be unusually generous to the foibles of others. The error of the crush is subtler, it lies in how easily we move from spotting a range of genuinely fine traits of character to settling on a recklessly naive romantic conclusion: that the other in the conference or in the matatu constitutes a complete answer to our inner needs.

The primary error of the crush lies in overlooking a central fact about people in general, not merely this or that example, but the species as a whole: that everyone has something very substantially wrong with them once their characters are fully known, something so wrong as to make an eventual mockery of the unlimited rapture unleashed by the crush. We can’t yet know what the problems will be, but we can and should be certain that they are there, lurking somewhere behind the facade, waiting for time to unfurl them.

How can one be so sure? Because the facts of life have deformed all of our natures. No one among us has come through unscathed. There is too much to fear: mortality, loss, dependency, abandonment, ruin, humiliation, subjection. We are all desperately fragile, ill-equipped to meet with the challenges to our mental integrity: we lack courage, preparation, confidence and intelligence. We don’t have the right role models, we were (necessarily) imperfectly parented, we fight rather than explain, we nag rather than teach, we fret instead of analyzing our worries, we have a precarious sense of security, we can’t understand either ourselves or others well enough, we don’t have an appetite for the truth and suffer a fatal weakness for flattering denials. The chances of a perfectly good human emerging from the perilous facts of life are non-existent. Our fears and our frailties play themselves out in a thousand ways, they can make us defensive or aggressive, grandiose or hesitant, clingy or avoidant but we can be sure that they will make everyone much less than perfect and at moments, extremely hard to live with.

We don’t have to know someone in any way before knowing this about them. Naturally, their particular way of being flawed (very annoying) will not be visually apparent and may be concealed for quite long periods. If we only encounter another person in a fairly limited range of situations (a matatu journey, rather than when they are trying to get a toddler into a car seat; a conference, rather than 97 minutes into a shopping trip with their elderly grandfather) we may, for a very long time indeed (especially if we are left alone to convert our enthusiasm into an obsession because they don’t call us back or are playing it cool), have the pleasure of believing we have landed upon an angel.

A mature person should not think, ‘There’s nothing good here’, but rather ‘The genuinely good things will inevitably come mixed up with really terrible things’

Maturity however doesn’t suggest we give up on crushes. Merely that we definitively give up on the founding romantic idea upon which the Western understanding of relationships and marriage has been based for the past 250 years: that a perfect being exists who can solve all our needs and satisfy our yearnings. We need to swap the Romantic view for the Tragic Awareness of Love, which states that every human can be guaranteed to frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us and we will (without any malice) do the same to them. There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness. This is a truth chiseled indelibly into the script of life. Choosing who to marry or commit ourselves to is therefore merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for, rather than a miraculous occasion to escape from grief.

We should enjoy our crushes. A crush teaches us about qualities we admire and need to have more of in our lives. The person on that matatu or lane you pass through everyday really might really have an extremely beguiling air of self-deprecation in their eyes. The person glimpsed by the fresh fruit counter at the supermarket really does promise to be a gentle and excellent parent. But these characters will, just as importantly, also be sure to ruin our lives in key ways, as all those we love will.

A caustic view of crushes shouldn’t depress us, merely relieve the excessive imaginative pressure that our romantic culture places upon long-term relationships. The failure of one particular partner to be the ideal other is not, we should always understand, an argument against them; it is by no means a sign that the relationship deserves to fail or be upgraded. We have all necessarily, without being damned, ended up with that figure of our nightmares, ‘the wrong person.’

Romantic pessimism simply takes it for granted that one person should not be asked to be everything to another. With this truth accepted, we can look for ways to accommodate ourselves as gently and as kindly as we can to the awkward realities of life beside another fallen creature, for example, never feeling that we have to spend all of our time with them, being prepared for the disappointments of erotic life, not insisting on complete transparency, being ready to be maddened and to madden, making sure we are allowed to keep a vibrant independent social life and maintaining a clear-eyed refusal to act on sudden desires to run off with strangers and convert to another religion on impulse. A mature understanding of the madness of crushes turns out to be the best and perhaps the only solution to the tensions of long-term love.

If we tried to put a crush into practice and settled down with this individual (as our fantasy prompts) we’d find all this out soon enough. In order to enjoy a crush, we have to understand that that is what it is. If we think that we are in fact encountering a person who will make us happy, who will actually be the ideal person to live and grow old with, we are inadvertently destroying the specific satisfaction the crush brings. The pleasure depends on our recognizing that we are imagining an ideal person, not really finding one.

To crush well therefore is to realized that the lovely person we sketch in our heads is our creation: a creation that says more about us, than about them. But what it says about us is important. The crush gives us access to our own ideals. We may not really be getting to know another person properly, but we are growing our insight into who we really are.

Yours truly,

©C. J. NJOROGE

The most perfect beings in our eyes are usually those that we love. Nobody gives a flying fuck about advices on love and relationships. What is funny is this creature called crush. We fall head over heels for them, then as fate would have it, we find ourselves entangled in a web of unplanned romantic more-than-friends kind of bullshit. And we see things we never saw, or something we confused for affection and it kills to know that we’re already in too deep to go back. So, we live with regrets and pains, faking smiles to distract our friends from knowing the shit we are dealing with. A crush is someone perfect because a crush is only meant to be a crush. Nothing else.– Brainy O’Bee

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About The Philosopher King

Writer, philosopher, painter and a student of life and politics. Follow on Twitter @cj_njoroge. Instagram @cj_njoroge

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