Daphne Merkin: “22 Minutes of Unconditional Love”

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Author, Daphne Merkin. Photo by Tina Turnbow.

Daphne Merkin discusses what normative means, the concept of a normal looking life, and her new novel, “22 Minutes of Unconditional Love”. Is the life of protagonist Judith Stone what she wanted or what she has—and what kind of life should she lead? And what about alluring obsessions? A novel written over thirty years and strained to its essence.

An excerpt from“22 Minutes of Unconditional Love,” by Daphne Merkin.

In this story there is no final scene, no decisive change of heart or firm resolve so much as a furious inner struggle—a struggle that has left no discernible traces yet has marked me as surely as bruises after a fall.

Because there is no end to the hunger for unconditional love and no end to my belief that he was the one to give it to me. I have no stopwatch to measure how long the experience of sexual pleasure—of losing yourself—lasts at any particular time: it could be ten minutes, or fifteen, or twenty-two. How do you measure the crest of a wave? All I know is that when it vanishes, it leaves in its wake a devouring appetite for more.

To this day I can’t forget how he was always touching me in bed, acting as though my skin came as a surprise. “You feel so soft,” he said. “So smooth.” Nothing very original in that, I realize, and yet coming from him I felt it as a lovely succumbing, a weakening of his ordinary resistance.

Then there is this: I am a writer, a believer in the powers of art to shape experience so that others might recognize something of themselves in it. Except when it comes to my own life, it appears. I have decided to tell this story now, after all these years, as a way of forcing it to the finish line. I am still confused about how I got to that place to begin with and how I got out without going mad, howling like a wolf. I think it had something to do, despite all evidence to the contrary, with some intact shred of a life force. I willed him out of my life in order to pursue a more sane existence, one that would include a husband and children—a daughter I would bring up to feel full in herself, without vast absences or ravaging needs. But it was just that: an effort of will rather than a natural ending—only a sense that if I wanted to survive, I would have to move on.

Meanwhile, the efficient little clock on my desk keeps marking the passage of time. If you pick up this clock—a practically weightless black Braun traveling clock, with white hour and minute hands and a yellow second hand—and hold it close to your ear, you can hear a faint, even tick. So many days, months, and years have intervened, not to mention a marriage, the daughter I wished for, and another child on the way, you’d think he’d have no place in my thoughts anymore. And for periods of time he doesn’t, only to alight on my nerve endings once again. It has to do, I imagine, with the tedium, the worn routines that are an inescapable part of domestic life. Some habit of my husband’s that I have tired of, such as the way he blinks his eyes rapidly when someone disagrees with him. Or the way my daughter puts up an argument about something perfectly reasonable, like getting into her pajamas before bedtime.

Suddenly a space opens up, a wedge of restlessness mixed with longing, and Howard Rose walks back in.

From 22 Minutes of Unconditional Love; Copyright © 2020 By Daphne Merkin. Reprinted here with permission of Macmillan Publishers.