Romance is a treaty. Two people come together, armed with personal differences; wanting, if sometimes unwilling, to find a truce between their notions of love. There are periods of joy when this relationship finds a middle ground. There are conflicts when one, or both sides, fail to reconcile. Love, however clichéd it sounds, is complicated. We bring the context of our lives into love, whether we freely admit it or not. And sometimes, the context is much greater than anything we, or our families, have provided.
I met Lily the second semester of my senior year of college. She was a freshman, still caught in the aimless rough patches that regularly come with being eighteen. I was twenty-three, having dropped out of school twice, transferred four times--and incidentally, found my passion in psychology.
I tried dismissing Lily when we first met. She's cute, I thought, and immediately reminded myself she was eighteen. Not for me.
Despite my skepticism, we started spending a good deal of time alone together. The attraction--and distrust--was mutual. I didn't think too much of it, though. She was a cute, semi-spacy girl from California with a tremendous, operatic voice. If anything happened, I didn't see it going too far.
Halfway through a day together, Lily and I sat down for lunch at the cafeteria. She peered off into the distance, began to say something, and then let her words trail off. I asked her what was going on.
"I'm thinking about my family," She responded, almost absently.
Context is everything in a relationship--even in a friendship. So I gently asked her to tell me what she was pondering about them.
"My family's' last name was changed when we left Palestine. I want to change it back."
"Why was it changed?" I said, without hesitation.
I wanted to ask more. I questioned how many times I had ever met a Palestinian. I wanted to know if she secretly hated me for being Jewish. I wondered if she still had family there. I thought about my distant relatives in Israel. Maybe our families had met in the West Bank. Maybe they, too, were attracted and distrustful of one another, for entirely different reasons.
She explained that her family left Palestine because of persecution; they found themselves in Lebanon, where they changed their name, before moving to California.
"Because they're Christian?" I said.
We spent the rest of lunch together speaking sparsely, mostly about things other than Palestine.
Lily and I began seeing one another three weeks before I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. It was, as usual, a period of avid romance, spurred on not only by a strange connection, but also the uncertainty the relationship might not last. When we did commit to being together, shortly before she left for California, everything but love was irrelevant. Context, I thought, could take a secondary role to my feelings towards her.
We talked on the phone for hours, telling one another how much we loved each other. I sent her gifts--jewelry and perfume. She would post videos of her singing on my Facebook wall. It was, superficially, beautiful. Except these conversations occurred without her parents' knowledge. The gifts I sent her were from a "friend." And the idea she was seeing anyone--particularly an older Jewish New Yorker--was too damning to directly tell her father or mother. I only existed tacitly.
When she returned from California--she began her sophomore year, and I began graduate school at Columbia--her identity had shifted dramatically. She wanted to be more self-aware, more conscious of her identity as a woman, her history as a Palestinian, and more cautious concerning her relationship with me. None of it seemed prompted by my identity. We were, instead, moving in spheres around one another; again, entranced and threatened by what the other provided.
And oddly, these circular movements allowed us to ask questions most people wouldn't. She freely admitted she knew little about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I had studied international relations for three years before switching to psychology. Though I would never say I was an expert on the subject, she quickly, and readily, listened to my perspective.
How, I'd often ask myself, can I present this to her without sounding prejudiced? How can I acknowledge wrongdoings without sounding like another self-loathing Jew, or another mistrustful American? How can I present these incredibly delicate matters--delicately?
We lay in bed more than once trying to reconcile our histories. We spoke--or rather I often lectured--on the dangers of every kind of extremism, on both our histories of oppression, on her families compounded marginalization because they were both Catholic and Palestinian.
"You know," I said once, "When I look at Palestinians and Israelis, I usually have a hard time telling the difference."
Her face became unexpressive for a moment. I worried I had offended her. But instead she smiled, and responded:
"Palestinian Jews," She said, without hesitation. "I think we're pretty much the same people."
I nodded, certain that I understood her, but unsure I could reconcile this reality with anyone else. Something in that circling--those parallels--had ceased, and I was certain I was in love.
Our relationship ended almost a year after it began. It wasn't because of our ethnic differences, or political views, or the conflict in the Middle East that our parents' took parallel positions on. Rather, our relationship ended as almost all do. It wasn't feasible. We couldn't reconcile; our lives had driven us to separate. And I'd like to think--though cautiously--the hatred that should have been instilled in us was, by far, the least relevant issue.