The thing about being both insecure and perhaps a touch self-involved is that when someone sends you a 4,000-word email explaining what they think of you, you find it more compelling than creepy. I received one such missive fairly recently, and it contained – among a host of other wildly incorrect things – a line that ran roughly thus: ‘that lust nonsense you talk about isn’t love’. And I’m outraged (yes, still). Mainly at the audacity it takes to think you can explain what love is or isn’t to someone who made a relationship work for seven years, but also at the idea of dismissing lust as mere ‘nonsense’.
Because I believe in lust. I really do. All of my best anecdotes – and yours too, I bet – start with it. As a species, we keep trying to explain it; it will never stop fuelling our art. I recently read By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, and while it’s more of a fever-dream than a straightforward narrative, it’s also a paean to the force of a love stoked by raw desire. “But he never passed anywhere near me without every drop of my blood springing to attention,” writes Elizabeth Smart of George Barker, and we know exactly what she means.
Lust creates a reserve of energy seemingly from nothing, rewires you, changes you at cellular level. You’re softened, a fraction more porous than you were before; everything feels that little bit sharper. And you see the beauty in things more readily – the sky is at its bluest, autumn leaves are at their most gold. Winter drizzle makes rain-slicked pavements gleam under streetlights. The world moves too slowly when you’re high on lust, or maybe it’s just your blood moving too quickly. It’s that lurch at the base of your stomach when you miss a step, but on a loop.
I’m not an expert on, well, anything, but I do know that any romantic relationship worth having needs both love and lust to work long-term. Rock-solid companionship is built in the small moments – the long car journeys, cooking supper together on a weeknight, Sunday afternoons on the sofa, you devouring a novel, him reading particularly funny AskReddit answers to you at intervals. Being able to do separate things in the same room is essential. But so is desire – the absurd conviction that the person beside you was built with you in mind.
Because I’ve been in relationships where lust took a while to sneak in, and I’ve been in relationships where it was there, humming and fizzing from the off, and there are no prizes for guessing which lasted longer. The difference is like the shift from black and white to Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz: unequivocal, undeniable. Sometimes you’re comfortable – safe in the home-dust of Kansas, and sometimes you’re dancing along a yellow road in glittering shoes.
There are different types of lust; it’s not always a lightning strike. The instant crush – you catch each other’s eye and it’s there, a fully-formed secret. The desire that hangs back for a moment then rushes in, and you can’t understand why it ever hesitated. The slow burn, which takes its time in settling upon you, warm and gentle as sunrise. It’s arguably the most unreliable of all, however; is it real, or mere repeated exposure? And perhaps the most fascinating kind – the lust that doesn’t make sense. “He’s not even my type! He’s not even that nice a person!” Maybe it’s his eyes, maybe it’s his lacerating wit, maybe his recklessness echoes what you fear most in yourself. But something in your veins recognises him from a mile away. You know you’re stepping on hot coals, but God, what a lovely way to burn.
There’s an honesty to lust – it arrives or it doesn’t, so it’s difficult to feign. It lets you know what you’re lying about, and therefore doesn’t always bring out your best behaviour. Chemistry is hard to argue with. You hear yourself asking them another question just so they keep talking, you say yes to another drink, and you risk your pet joke, the line you’re proudest of, because if they laugh, it feels like you’ve won something. Lust is a conversation in a language that everybody knows without learning it, because it’s already there – in your eyes, your hands, your mouth.
Lust is a breath-catching, blood-quickening reminder we’re alive – fully, gloriously alive. The minute I stop believing in it – the moment I stop relishing the taste and the feel of it – put me in the fucking ground.