Driving to Paestum Listening to “Living For Love”

“I found freedom in the ugly truth, I deserve the best and it’s not you,” Madonna declares as my parents drive through the streets leading to the ruins of Paestum. How fitting, in retrospect, that we should visit a ruin together. And I posed happily in those pictures of us foreshadowing the end. It is the winter of 2014 and as is Italy’s usual wont, they’ve been bumping this new Madonna single heavily on the radio. You are perhaps more tolerant of my love for the pop star than most straight boyfriends would be, and even admit to liking the song. It’s during the chorus that you tell me you’re surprised that I myself am not more of the mangled and commingled Madonna/Kabbalah philosophy of forgiving those who have fucked you over and moving on, as evidenced by the lyric, “I could get caught up in bitterness, but I’m not dwelling on this crazy mess.” Reflecting upon this, your critique of my predilection for grudge-holding seemed to set up–foretell–what you were going to do: abandon me in a manner most cowardly.

I was lulled into a false sense of security with this trip, however, as it was the second time you had consented to partaking of one with my parents. And this was a remarkable thing for me as, in all my twenty-seven years, I had never introduced any boy I was “seeing” (fucking) to them. That we should all join together for yet another journey this intimate made me believe that we were truly solid in our relationship, that I could relax with regard to fretting over whether or not I had become too attached. Because the second family gets involved, it isn’t just about breaking up with your significant other, but those who begat her as well. It didn’t help matters that you were now introduced to my entire extended Italian family. I think, in part, that’s what hurt the most about losing you–that I showed you every part of my life and opened myself to you in a way that I had never dared to with anyone, and you resultantly absconded. In this way, I can’t decipher any longer what reigns over my decimated heart more fully: an ego destroyed or a best friend lost.

The song ends as we pull up to the ancient temples, still so well-preserved even now and in the face of an extended period of desertion from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century. They must have lived a picturesque life, these original townspeople. I tell you as much as we meander through the remains of former houses, now little more than rubble. You return that we, too, can do the same when we move to Europe–another assurance that leads me down a false path of trust. As we further separate from my parents–themselves a paragon of lifelong monogamy–I begin to imagine that we’re back in the original time of the settlement, just a rustic husband and wife with nothing and no one to care about but each other and our daily survival.

The Tyrrhenian Sea lies to our right, bringing in a warm breeze that imbues me with a calm I shouldn’t be so quick to absorb. To the north is the Tempio di Athena and to the south is the Tempio di Nettuno. If I had been more objective at that time, I would have laughed at myself for being caught in such a romantic reverie, clinging to your arm and smiling like a village idiot. I wanted to go back toward Athena’s temple, where my parents were. I didn’t want them to think we were doing anything iniquitous out here on our own, my repressed Catholic upbringing always rearing its ugly testa. And plus, I didn’t want to bite the hand that was literally feeding us on this trip by overly ignoring them. You were unmoved, wanting to continue on to Neptune, the more jank Roman god of water, the pale imitation of Poseidon, his Greek counterpart–the same, but not. Maybe there was some symbolism for me to glean in that, like you being a pale imitation of someone who genuinely loved. I, never one to hold you back from your fluttering ways, said I was going to see where my parents were. How strange that I should be headed back to the Tempio di Athena, a goddess representative of wisdom when I seemed to have none of my own in intuiting what was happening, how you were already clearly showing the signs of a disappearance.

Incidentally, Neptune was one of the only gods it was deemed appropriate to sacrifice bulls to. Was it a coincidence that the video for “Living for Love” would find Madonna returning to her “Take A Bow” motif with regard to the usage of bulls–specifically men dressed as them? That’s what you turned out to be: a stubborn-in-your-selfishness entity that bulldozed me with your glamor.

And even if Madonna was singing about a proverbial boy toy (Brahim Zaibat) who had done her wrong, to me you were much more. There was a stronger gravity and meaningfulness to our time together. Yet it’s still as though Madonna was a spy on my life at that time as she rehashed, “First you love me and I let you in/Made me feel like I was born again/You empowered me, you made me strong/Built me up and I can do no wrong/I let down my guard, I fell into your arms/Forgot who I was, I didn’t hear the alarms/Now I’m down on my knees, alone in the dark/I was blind to your game/You fired a shot in my heart.”

It was a shot that wouldn’t be fired until a few months later, long after we had left Italy. You were evasive in your decampment method, telling me you felt compelled to return home to Maine for awhile to work in isolation on a project that still has yet to see the light. Maybe something in the painted tombs of Paestum had galvanized you to start taking up your brush again. Or maybe it was the weightiness of getting too close to me, to my family on that jaunt that sent you running. I’ll never know for sure, because your excuses for not returning were so clouded by vagueness and inconsistency that I find my head still spinning from the swirl of flimsy reasons.

In an interview about the album the song served as the lead single for, Madonna said, “It’s a breakup song. The thing is, lots of people write about being in love and being happy or they write about having a broken heart and being inconsolable. But nobody writes about having a broken heart and being hopeful and triumphant afterwards. So I thought, how can I do this? I didn’t want to share the sentiment of being a victim. This scenario devastated me, but it just made me stronger.” Maybe what you did made me stronger, too. Because to this day, I am still living for love. The kind I thought we shared together.

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