Ryckman’s novella challenges society’s notions of gender and dives into the obstacles of long-distance commitment.
Novella | 116 Pages | Reviewed: Paperback
978–1–892061–81–2 | First Edition | $12.00
Future Tense Books | Portland, Oregon | BUY HERE
Long-distance relationships are hard. Suspicions sting, and the ease with which modern technology presents our mundaneness can lead to jealousy — X looks happy in that photo, but who is that other person holding a beer? Sure, these apps and websites make spending virtual time together possible, but they can’t compete with skin on skin, of a partner’s breath tickling your neck.
Sitting in the same room together creates comfort. Tatiana Ryckman understands this, and her novella, I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do), feels like a gift to those who’ve experienced the obstacles of long-distance commitment. Structured as 100 brief chapters, often only a paragraph long, Ryckman’s narrative is spun by a nameless (and genderless) narrator living far from their lover. Alone, they mull the meaning of relationships and panic over obsessions. They wonder if they are worthwhile and if their lover is thinking of them. They roller coaster through emotions, and resulting volume is a devastating look at modern romance, one that’s quick to read, yet which sticks to the soul.
Ryckman’s protagonist comes from a spiritual upbringing, and there is a sense of dread and religious guilt that runs through their thoughts, whether it’s the constant belief that their relationship will fail, or the idea that considering other potential partners might cause a figurative tailspin. The narrator calls their relationship “an affair,” which symbolically prevents any true permanence, and they lean on quotes from writers like Susan Sontag and Claudia Rankine to make sense of their lover’s and their actions. When considering Rankine’s words on investing oneself in unhealthy endeavors, the narrator says,
“I kept quoting this line when I rolled over in the dark cloak of my tendency toward self-destruction,”
and this, combined with the narrator’s penchant for sucking the salt off of peanuts while repeating “flesh of my flesh,” brings to mind the Biblical story of Lot’s Wife, who turned into a pillar of salt when she disobeyed God’s orders not to look back at her crumbling city. While Ryckman’s protagonist shuffles about, buying groceries and attending weddings without their lover, they remain isolated within themselves, frozen by the possibilities of romance and by their own infatuation.
“Sometimes I longed for my longing,”
they say as they think about their companion, and the weight of the words pins them to the earth. They are able to come alive only when with their lover. This feeling of seclusion exacerbates itself with time, until the narrator admits,
“Everywhere I was was just another place you weren’t.”
The desperation is palpable, and it begins to create a legend within the relationship, one that becomes impossible to recreate when the two periodically reconvene at each other’s doorsteps.
The psychology on display in I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) is fascinating, speaking to the idea of over-anticipation and the awkwardness of the inner self. At what point do fantasies ruin reality? Can the tangible ever match our desires? In addition, by leaving her characters gender-neutral (only referred to as “I” and “you” throughout), Ryckman hangs a blank canvas for the reader to paint. This decision is refreshing, for it forces those engaged with the text to determine what constitutes a “typical” couple. Are these people men, women, or are they non-binary? More importantly: does it matter? Ryckman herself toys with the potential mystery by dropping contradictory clues. For example, the narrator first masturbates by,
“jerk[ing] off to Asians in four-dollar heart-shaped pasties,”
yet later refers to the act as “touch[ing] myself.” The narrator also fantasizes about a scenario where they are,
“turned on by the four hairs [their lover] missed while shaving,”
but reveals nothing else about the person’s gender, or where said hairs resided. These small winks by the author leave the reader speculating, and they call into question society’s rigid view of gender. Is it necessary to introduce gender when telling a story relatable to all persons? By leaving these details out, Ryckman turns her characters into vessels, ready to be embodied in any number of ways.
From an early age, we’re conditioned to the idea of settling down and falling in love, and part of this hinges on the generic love story narrative. Whether it’s a Disney cartoon or a sanitized fairytale, the beats are the same: A meets B, they fall in love, their love is challenged, and in the end, they do/don’t find a way to stay together. Even as we age and realize the complexity of healthy, loving relationships, the story served by Hollywood frequently remains stuck in this simplistic circuit. That’s why books like I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) deserve to find wide audiences. They’re the antidotes to the formula, and while Ryckman’s novella does occasionally rely on its character’s youth a bit too much — quoting Morrissey and the Violent Femmes; running into junior prom dates — the emotions on each page are potent. This is real life. This is real love, for better or worse.