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Making a Habit of Standing When Love Walks into the Room, or The Price of (Long-Distance) Salt

Photo by Phillip Trey

I started reading Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt to get a boy to fall in love with me. I know, I know. It was as naive as it sounds, but my intentions were good. We had known (of) each other through the lens of the internet for several years before dating; through Tumblr, Instagram, and Snapchat. When internet-talking became texting every day, became Skyping as often as possible, I started to think of other ways to stay connected. I started seeing past the 3,088 miles that separate Boston and Portland.

In my final year of undergrad, I’d read Highsmith’s most well-known novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley. It was then that I fell in love with her subversively (and ahead-of-the-times) queer characters and stories, keeping The Price of Salt on my mental to-read for years. So, when trying to brainstorm novels to read for our cross-country book-club (also my idea), it was top of my list. A 50s lesbian romance novel sounded like the perfect choice to bring two gay men closer together. Also, I knew a film version was being released with the superb Cate Blanchett and the unique Rooney Mara, and thought we could eventually watch it together after reading it while apart.

From the film Carol

The Price of Salt is the story of:

Therese Belivet, a stage designer trapped in a department-store day job, whose salvation arrives one day in the form of Carol Aird, an alluring suburban housewife in the throes of a divorce. They fall in love and set out across the United States, pursued by a private investigator who eventually blackmails Carol into a choice between her daughter and her lover.

I started the novel shortly after he received his copy, and made it about fifty pages before I realized he hadn’t even started it. I decided to stop and wait for him to catch up. Many months later I was still fifty pages to his zero, sporadically mentioning the book over Skype, carelessly voicing maybe I’d just finish it myself. He was transitioning from his undergrad into a masters Phd program, but I figured the Summer would make it possible to start up again. It didn’t.

It had, over time, become a sore spot for me; a symbol of our sometimes strained, even jealous communication. After months and months of daily contact, one visit to see him (before starting the book club), and several unmaterialized further visits, he still wouldn’t agree that he was my boyfriend. He did not, however, want me seeing anyone else and said that he wasn’t either. He still hadn’t started the book.

I was in limbo, mid plot, but as Therese tells herself in the novel, “At any rate [...], she was happier than she ever had been before. And why worry about defining everything?” This “why worry” worrying kept me sustained, occupied. I was alone but with someone. In dating him, I also felt like I was gaining a second city, and just maybe down the road a second home. That’s the thing about long-distance dating, you’re not just seeing the person, you’re courting their city too. The book could wait. The connection between Boston boy and I, the time we had built into our story, the way he made me laugh, the fact that he was the first “boyfriend” I could argue with and not have the arguments be relationship-ending. I hadn’t really experienced an argument before that was a way to work through issues and find mutual understanding. In past relationships I’d either never had a reason to argue, or never cared enough to bother. I finally felt like fighting for someone.

Highsmith has written over 22 novels in her lifetime, but The Price of Salt arguably has had the most cultural impact, directly affecting the lives of queer women and others across the country. Margaret Talbot wrote for The New Yorker:

In December of 1948, Patricia Highsmith was a twenty-seven-year-old aspiring writer with a murderous imagination and an outsized talent for seducing women. [...] Highsmith made a habit of standing at attention when a woman walked into the room. That Christmas season, she was working behind the toy counter at Bloomingdale’s, in Manhattan, in order to help pay for psychoanalysis. She wanted to explore the sharp ambivalence she felt about marrying her fiancé, a novelist named Marc Brandel. Highsmith was a Barnard graduate, and, like many sophisticates at the time, she viewed homosexuality as a psychological defect that could be fixed; yet she had enough self-respect and sexual appetite to reject any attempt to fix her own. When her analyst suggested that she join a therapy group of “married women who are latent homosexuals,” Highsmith wrote in her diary, “Perhaps I shall amuse myself by seducing a couple of them.” She never married Brandel—or anyone else.

Not all of Highsmith’s qualities were sultry, some were quite sour, bigoted even. Jill Dawson of The Guardian noted that:

Two biographies (by Andrew Wilson and Joan Schenkar) depict Highsmith as troubled, obsessive and in many ways unsavoury. They chart her alcoholism, her rudeness, her meanness. They reveal how later in life she frequently exploded in virulent anti-semitic and racist rants; the increasing isolation she preferred to live in; her eccentricities – that she kept snails as pets is one of the few things many people know about her. Yet love simmers away, deep in the ugly hearts of the most psychopathic and dangerous of her characters [...].

(What’s that saying? Don’t ever meet your idol, you’ll only end up disappointed. Sometimes the same can be said for researching them.)

Eventually, I picked up the book again, making it about 80 pages further. By this time, the limbo was no longer enough for me. My patience evaporating. I was in, and knew he wasn’t.

“Do people always fall in love with things they can't have?'

'Always,' Carol said, smiling, too.”

I ended things, for a time, saying I wanted to see other people. Out of loneliness and frustration, but also because it was the right thing for me. An ultimatum on my part, but one that had been building for far too long.

I kept the novel on my nightstand, untouched, during our break. We continued talking though, almost daily, and when I knew I’d be in Boston for a work conference, I ended up planning to stay longer with him. Eventually, he admitted I was all he wanted and just like that, I was back in. But making it official didn’t ease the distance, didn’t lessen our problems. After a few good months, our real, very separate cities and lives, became too much to ignore.

I finished the novel how I started it, by myself, after breaking up for good. This time I wasn’t ending some ambiguous relationship, I was ending the idea of leaving Portland for Boston. I was ending our own cross-country road trip, like the one Therese and Carol embark upon. I was popping the bubble. Highsmith writes in the novel, “She tried to keep her voice steady, but it was pretense, like pretending self-control when something you loved was dead in front of your eyes. They would have to separate here.” Dating now, I sometimes worry that my patience has been used up. I hear about others’ problems, and I care less somehow. Perhaps I’m jaded now, or just tired. I think to myself: I need to know you a lot longer to help with this problem. I need the years to stretch out to work on this, to invest in someone else beyond the surface.

I finished the book seeking catharsis, but the novel's ending left me wanting something else – something less cheerful. It didn’t match my situation, or my own connection or experience with the book. It didn’t match my vanity.

Nathan Smith for New Republic writes, “The Price of Salt was a landmark book for queer America, offering readers a powerful and hopeful ending, one that didn’t see the two women at the center of the story end their affair, commit suicide, or attempt murder.” But mine was not a happy ending. I still haven’t seen the film version of the novel, Carol, and perhaps keeping the movie on my to-watch list somehow keeps a piece of my past alive. Boston boy and I have sent each other cards on our birthdays, I texted him after some violent protests in his city, and sent him a card for Christmas. Other than that, we don’t speak.

I started reading The Price of Salt to get a boy to fall in love with me, and it didn’t work. He fell in love with me in spite of not reading it with me, and I fell for him in spite of his unwillingness to do so. During our time together, I became used to the idea of leaving Portland, started subconsciously distancing myself from friends and responsibilities so much so that, all these months after our break-up, I no longer feel like Portland is my city. That the comfortability of PDX is only that: comfortable. I moved to Portland originally to escape Idaho, to find what’s next after college. To see if I had what it takes to move on my own and start over. Now I have that answer, but I’ve got one more I wasn’t expecting. I love Portland, I’m just no longer in love with it.

Stay Backwords,

Phillip Trey

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