Desire is An Unbearable Gift
Emerging Writer Series
Every two weeks (or more), I feature an essay from an emerging writer. This week, “Desire Is An Unbearable Gift,” by Uma Dwivedi an incredibly talented former student of mine. Uma has been published more than twice. I am including their essay here because it was going to be published in Gay Magazine and then it folded, so I am happily following through on that commitment in this space. Uma is a student at Yale University originally from Seattle. They have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net; previous publications include Black Warrior Review, Muzzle Magazine, Hayden's Ferry Review, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Sporklet, and Diode Poetry Journal. Catch them with paint on their hands, thinking about cheesecake. This essay was edited by Meg Pillow.
*This essay contains spoilers for Season 2 of Fleabag
Earlier this year, I watched the second season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. In the beginning of the first episode, Waller-Bridge’s character, the eponymous Fleabag, turns to the camera and tells us that this is a love story.
In the show’s second season, Fleabag falls in love with a Catholic priest who, against all odds, loves her back. Ultimately, however—after Fleabag and the Priest have sex, after he’s officiated her father’s wedding to Fleabag’s delightfully terrible Godmother, after one blissful day of dodging behind buildings to make out and exchanging charged looks across the wedding’s sprawl—he leaves her.
It’s God, isn’t it? she asks him, and he nods.
I love you, she tells him. He nods again.
It’ll pass, he says.
When the Priest says that Fleabag’s love will pass, it feels both hollow and pleading. Hollow, because what meager comfort, how almost cruel to look at someone’s heart in their outstretched hand and say, it won’t always be so gruesome. Pleading, because he isn’t really speaking to Fleabag at all. The Priest is trying to convince himself that he will survive the self-imposed restriction of his desire for human love and happiness. He is trying to convince himself that any indecorous bulging or bleeding of his own heart will pass simply because it must, because he has left himself no other choice. The Priest needs his response to Fleabag to be true perhaps more than she does; if her love will pass, so will the pain he causes her. The Priest has chosen to give his life over to religion, and he must now live with the consequences, which means making them of a size he can live with.
Fleabag is a love story, and it’s one that, to me, feels evocative of the specific complexities of love and desire when you are trans: repression, the performance of built identity, a distrust of the body and what it wants. Both Fleabag and the Priest embody specific roles available to trans people in a cisgender world. Fleabag takes up that of the Jester, carefully crafting an intentionally disastrous performance to conceal her vulnerability and capacity for pain. The Priest eponymously takes up that of the Priest, perpetually taking confession so that he never need confess that he feels anything but compassion.
I am not Catholic. I was raised vaguely Hindu by vaguely agnostic Indian parents, and I was 18 the first time I attended a Catholic Mass. The extent of my knowledge about Christian theology is that Jesus seemed to have cool ideas about love and Mary Magdalene deserves more respect. But I’ve always loved churches; I’ve always loved the idea of priests. Here is a place for being on your knees, a chamber for prayer with its magnificently distant ceilings, and a small forest of candles. Here is someone who has made a life out of listening to confession. They have said, I am full of love and it goes all to God, which means it goes to those God loves, which means it goes to everyone, so I will listen to all of your shame and sorrow and offer you a gesture towards grace.
I’ve always thought I would be good at that. A life dedicated to a holy book and the offering of solace. People have long found me a fitting vessel for confession: friends, family, strangers. A woman panhandling once told me the long story of her mother succumbing to cancer before inviting me to her home for Thanksgiving the next day. An acquaintance who didn’t know me well enough to invite me to their birthday party once texted me at one in the morning, admitting that they didn’t love the person they had been with for over a year. My family has long left me with revelations too heavy for the child I was simply because they had nowhere else to put them down: me, at eleven, talking an adult I loved through suicidal ideation; me, at nine, holding another through decades of untended grief. I have been molded by the secrets of others into a perpetually safe place.
I want to make a life out of this. To reduce my body to what can’t be seen through the confession booth.
There is a scene in the fourth episode of Fleabag where Fleabag, grief-ridden and wretched with desire, gives confession.
I want someone to tell me what to believe in, she tells him. Who to vote for, and who to love, and how to tell them. I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far, I think I’ve been getting it wrong. And I know that’s why people want people like you in their lives. Because you just tell them how to do it. You just tell them what to do, and what they’ll get out of the end of it.
The Priest, still on his side of the confessional booth, tells her to kneel. What follows is a brief and brilliant moment of passion between the two as they share their first, furious kiss, cut short by a painting thundering to the ground. Taking it as a sign from God, the Priest leaves, shaken.
That such intimacy is only possible between them after an excruciatingly vulnerable revelation is telling. The Priest needs Fleabag stripped nearly to the bone with a confession that defies everything she has made herself out to be—loud, sexually liberated, confident in even her disrepair—before he can confess the mortifying fact of his desire. His desire for hers would not be a fair exchange: he needs her pain to feel on equal footing. She is a woman who disallows her own terrible pain and isolation. Despite the pride she seems to take in her uniqueness, deep down she wants to be unified with those who alienate her; she wants all her wanting to be acceptable, to not cast her so terribly aside. Ultimately, though, it’s clear that the pain of wanting what she wants, even as it ruins her with loneliness and unsatisfaction, will not stop her. She still wants what she wants, and she pursues it doggedly.
The Priest was not born a priest. This is important to remember. This is a life he chose, priesthood a self he has made. When, an episode after Fleabag’s confession, he says, if you really wanted to be told what to do, you’d be wearing one of these, and gestures to his priestly collar, he is showing his own hand. He wants to abdicate his desire entirely, render the whole mess meaningless, resign himself completely to another’s will. Fleabag has, despite the consequences, built a life around her wanting. The priest has, despite the consequences, built a life against his own.
Cisgender people regale me with stories of their love lives and sexual escapades frequently. For some of them, yes, there is shame involved, that dense and tricky knot, but still, they assume that there are people in the world who will want them back. I am trans; specifically, a transmasculine nonbinary person. I am afforded no such luxury. When I tell cisgender people that I might like someone, that I think someone may have been flirting with me, if I allude at all to the fact that I, too, am a sexual and romantic being, I know many don’t quite believe me. Or, if they do, they think that my desire is something doomed, pitiable. Most would never say it outright. They may not even admit it to themselves. But there is a high-pitched wavering when they begin to respond. There is the split second where they exchange a glance with another cis person in the room.
Perhaps I am being ungenerous, but maybe what I suspect is true: that most cisgender people haven’t uprooted the belief that you can be either trans or fully human, that in abandoning normative gender, we are accepting the inevitability of our grotesqueness. Because how dare we? How dare we vandalize the strict norms of gender identity and performance and still expect to be wanted? How dare we have the audacity to believe that we, unnatural creatures of our own making, are still both worthy and capable of desire?
When I am in cisgender spaces, I feel as though there are two roles available to me, those same roles embodied by Fleabag and the Priest: Jester or Priest. Both require a collapsing of self. The Jester takes their difference and turns it into performance art. They stitch their soft insides into a costume, apologizing for the fact of their existence by entertaining others. The Jester is concerned with hiding their pain: if you paint tears on your face, no one will ever know when you are really crying. While the Jester hides behind face paint, the Priest hides in the confessional booth. The Priest’s goal is to hide desire. If you are always taking confession from others and always habitually depriving yourself, you never have to confess to what you want. Priests hollow their life of their own presence, orienting instead to the care and keeping of those they love. They apologize for themselves by offering a deluge of care. Listening, advice, support. No judgment. They take in the stories of others without offering up any of their own.
One of these roles carves themself into perpetual embrace to hide their grotesque desire—the other transforms into an amusing spectacle to gawk at so no one can see them hurt. Both have made themselves an apology. Both fancy themselves untouchable.
Either case demands a kind of dehumanization. In part, for the comfort of those around us so that we do not stretch their view of the world to breaking by suggesting that we can be found among the human vulnerable and wanting. Mostly, though, it comes out of a kind of self-preservation. If we never expose our pain, who can know we are less than inhumanly indestructible? If we never confess our desire, who can know we are more than inhumanly austere? None of us can be seen losing a game we aren’t seen playing.
The role of Priest appeals more to me, in part because I’m better at it. I’ve never known how to make performance art of myself, how to hide under a painted version of my own face. But I can speak from behind a wooden screen, telling you how to seek grace. I try to reconcile myself to a life of holding others through their living rather than indulging in my own. For what an indulgence it would be: the luxury of my own choices, the impudent volume of my own possible mistakes, failures. Truth be told, the role of Priest appeals more to me because I am more afraid of my desire than I am of my pain. I am terrified of my greedy, ruinous hands, of what they would make of anything I let them touch. Of what they would make of themselves. Safer to just look, just listen.
So I spend my Friday nights alone. As those I love live their lives, I sit with my books and don’t say a word. I want this to be sacred, my self-deprivation, sanctified instead of just sad. In my moments of weakness, I envy the Jesters, how people will still look them in the eye, admit that they have bodies, a heart of their own. Of course, I know this is unfair. Their bodies are considered monstrous, their hearts a sick joke. But this is what I have reduced myself to. I can’t stand to envy—want—anything more.
At Fleabag’s dad’s wedding, the Priest, officiant, gives a speech:
Love is awful! It’s awful. It’s painful. It’s frightening…Makes you selfish. Makes you creepy! … It’s all any of us want, and it’s hell when we get there! So no wonder it’s something we don’t want to do on our own. I was taught, if we’re born with love, then life is about choosing the right place to put it. People talk about that a lot, it feeling right. When it feels right, it’s easy. But I’m not sure that’s true. It takes strength to know what’s right. And love isn’t something that weak people do. Being a romantic takes a hell of a lot of hope. I think what they mean is… when you find somebody that you love, it feels like hope.
I don’t think love is awful. But I think desire is. And when you have made a habit of self-deprivation, it becomes difficult to differentiate the awfulness of desire from the awfulness of its absence. And so comes the gutless sacrifice. When the Priest says, it takes strength to know what’s right, he is saying two things. On one level, he is trying to justify his decision to leave Fleabag, calling it right, calling it strength. On another, he is calling himself too weak for love. Too weak to survive hope.
To love God requires the possible uncertainty of faith rather than the impurity of hope: it is a perfect love, incorruptible. God can never leave you unforgiven, and there is no risk of having to live with love for someone who is flawed, who has done wrong. To love Fleabag? Human and messy, a heart so close to her skin that you can feel it pulse? It requires a hope unbearable. The stakes of human love are unfathomably high. When the Priest talks about how love makes you selfish, he is speaking to the fear that in allowing desire to be fulfilled, he will desecrate the pristine morality with which he has been justifying his existence. To love someone is to give up a kind of purity because people will always make a mess of one another. When that carefully constrained purity is sacrificed, one must reckon with the fragile, unclean hope that even like this, messy and uncontrolled, we can be forgiven for the audacity of our living.
Hope is not a stable condition. It doesn’t promise redemption. It doesn’t promise anything. The Priest has his love: he wants to place it in a perfect vessel, one that cannot crumble, that cannot move him towards destruction. He wants not to have to forgive himself for the audacity of believing that his desire means anything, that his life—priesthood, service, God—should be sacrificed for it, that his wanting is truly that important. It would be an unforgivable impudence. And this is the crux of the issue: believing that your wanting must be forgiven, paid for in clean self-denial, that it is vanity, obscene, to demand its recognition. To me, it feels somehow noble to sit in the thick wooden booth I have built for myself. But I don’t know how much more dutiful obscurity I can take, how much longer I can keep apologizing for being alive. My hand is on the door. I can’t quite bring myself to open it. I’m not sure my legs are strong enough to hold me up if I stand, exposed, on the other side.