Ottawa
3 min

Centretown love letter

“Clearly love is subject to just as much regulation as any powerful pleasure-inducing substance. Whether or not we fancy that we love as we please, free as the birds and butterflies, an endless quantity of social instruction exists to tell us what it is, and what to do with it, and how, and when. And tell us, and tell us: the quantity of advice on the subject of how to love properly is almost as infinite as the sanctioned forms it takes are limited.

“Love’s proper denouement, matrimony, is also, of course, the social form regulated by the state, which refashions itself as benevolent pharmacist, doling out the addictive substance in licensed doses.

“Of course, no one is physically held down and forced to swallow vows, and not all those who love acquire the proper licenses to do so, but what a remarkable compliance rate is nevertheless achieved.

“Why bother to make marriage compulsory when informal compulsions work so well that even gays — once such paragons of unregulated sexuality, once so contemptuous of whitebread hetero lifestyles — are now demanding state regulation too?”

– Laura Kipnis, Against Love: a polemic, Vintage Books, 2003.

I was reading that passage from Laura Kipnis’ polemic against the uniformity of modern manifestations of romance, while sitting at one of the downtown Bridgeheads the other day. I was thinking about the recent Prop 8 vote in California and my surprise over Canadian efforts to acquire same-sex marriage rights in recent years. Surprise not at some people’s desire to get married (hell, do whatever you like), but surprise that of all the pressing needs of Canadian queer people (comprehensive, provincially-mandated, queer-inclusive sex education, for starters), marriage somehow managed to top the list in the early 2000s, pushing what seems like far more urgent issues to the backburner.

I was sitting there, reading and thinking, while this old guy came in with his walker and rolled over to the counter. He’s a Centretown regular, I’ve seen him puttering from one dollar store to the next. I’ve seen him at the same Bridgehead in the morning with a man in his 40s who yells that day’s headlines at him.  They discuss the news in short bursts punctuated by long silent pauses or coughing fits.  He looks about eighty.

He ordered a coffee and wheeled himself over to the spare chair at my table while the coffee girl brought his cup over.  He got comfortable and pulled out a word search.  Not a crossword, but a word search.  We sat there in silence for about ten minutes, me reading, him searching, teeth clacking — until I was ready to go and started packing up my things.

“I can’t see the name of that book you’re reading,” he said.

“It’s called Against Love.”

“That’s what I thought.” Long pause, me still packing. “The author’s against love then, is that right? Is it a man or a woman?”

“It’s a woman.”

“And she’s against love?”

“Seems so.”

“Where from?”

“Pardon?”

“Where is she from?”

“The States. Northwestern.”

“Which school?”

“Northwestern.”

“Ah.” Long pause, me sitting there now, all packed, not sure if the conversation is over. It isn’t: “And she’s had a bad experience?”

“Uh.”

“She’s had a bad experience and now she’s against love?”

“Well I haven’t read far enough to know yet. But generally, she seems to be against love in its most common forms because she thinks it’s a form of social control, I guess.”

“She thinks marriage is passé, does she?”

“Yeah, I guess she does.”

“Well it is.”

“Is it?”

“Are you married?”

“No.”

“I’m not either. Never was.” Long pause. “I’ve spent my whole life resisting social control by having fun. Maybe now I could use some social control!”

“Really? Think you’ll get married?”

“Ha!” He laughed and so did a man in the corner who I guess was eavesdropping. “I doubt it!”

“Having fun as a form of resistance, huh?”

“Sad statement.”

“Only if you’re the one who’s not having fun.”

“Ha!”

I told him I hoped he enjoyed his coffee and I went out onto Bank Street, pitch black at 5pm, blustery and snowy and cold. People heading home from work.  Posters telling me about rock shows I could go to, why I both should and shouldn’t support the Village, where I can go learn Spanish, English and French. Couples and single people.  Sex shops with 2009 beefcake calendars in the windows.  Cute rocker boys who work at the Herb & Spice. Garbage, abandoned bikes locked to lamp posts, homeless people.  Used syringe drop boxes.  Vandalized Canada Post boxes.  Centretown detritus: both richer and poorer, in sickness and in health.

Aswoon, I make a vow. From this day forward.  I do.