A World Without Love

I What happens in a world without love?

Imagined and woven from the floss of midnight dreams. With the moon high, waning each night with the spirits drifting in the nocturnal breeze. This is when I dreamed of love—not soft, not sophisticated. Just the girls in the next row. The cheerleader or fast farm girl with tight sweet kiss in dark theaters. Then my pages turned and I wandered the moors with Tess and Thomas Hardy.

Passionate unrequited love. Fates turning a blank eye. The soft, mud-bound streets, the crazed wife upstairs, empty coffers, and Rochester stalking the night. Complicated. This was not the love that I conjured up, nor did Shakespeare’s dark-lady sonnets draw such stories. Other poets told me where to look.

So I slipped into black-and-white movies and imagined scenes as I danced with budding girls. Pushing back those urges that some said were dark. Not me or my partners as we danced real slow.

For me the love of home, mother, and black Mama were strong. Feeding, playing, teasing, and shaking me with laughter until I woke. Breaking from the cloak of home takes time—standing among my fellow warriors, those boys who just wanted a roll in the hay. Who didn’t? I turned from the booty of turf wars, knowing my juvenile pals, delinquent boys, were bounding down the wrong path. They did not know true love or why they fought over that patch of playground.

They still do not get it.

II Our world

Our world without love, without the passions that shake the bedrock of each day, is empty. So many just put food on the table, raise the barn, hoist the flag of family, tribe, and nation. They say that life is a series of routines—gathering minutes, days, and years together—that the play is the thing. They are right and wrong. Sheltered in castles, staring out of empty homes, something is missing. The hug, the kiss, and bed are signs of a good life, but…but if the heart does not beat thump, thump when I see you cross the room, then the smile is forced. And the bed is cold. Without love there is no home. No way forward.

The house, the country without love crumbles slowly. The hurts and broken dreams find new guises, another bed until the flowers fade. The succor of each day evaporates. So many wilt without love, so many trudge on dreamless roads. Others point to the sky, hoping.

“This is what you left me, God?”

Why, why did we leave the home, the hearth, the mother who loved me… Why did I go to school, fight for our playground turf, grow up and leave familiar haunts? Gothic halls, apartment blocks stacked atop each other—balconies gasping for air—are not welcoming. And streets teeming with lemmings, adults dressed for work, knowing not which way to turn.

How did we get so lost? Without love the abyss opens, without dreams there is no beginning, no fairy-book endings. Yet the dream, with ghosts enticing us—you and me—high into the billowy clouds is where it starts. We see all the suns, the phases of the moons, and our feet do not touch the ground. Our imagined love frees us from the demons that claw. Cherubs applaud. We begin our journeys in the clouds.

This garden is where we first venture out—for most it is about making do, putting dinner on the table, buying a warm coat, and that roof over our heads; for some it is about the love poems pasted in our memories—a wall that protects us from tempting ghouls. For the lucky few it is a path paved with hope, letting us dodge the potholes that upend the unsuspecting. The vision of love that we seek starts with first dreams.

The world without love is everywhere we turn—smirking at the bar, gambling late at night, looking lewdly at strangers. The daily test where we toss and turn. Restless sleep is a hollow place where many scramble for more and more. The grand house on the hill, the speeding red car, the tight-fitting clothes. The trappings of success.

This is Lucifer’s trick. Gabriel’s tales of virtues cannot compete.

III My day started with love.

The mother’s milk, a kind hand cleaning the spittle, a sleeping babe in crib with lullabies and stars above. My dreamscapes. Not all know the comfort of slumbering babes.

But then the dance begins—too much talk, another glass of wine, some slipping close to the edge. Ankles touching, temptations luring the eyes up and down. The delights of passions unleashed. This feels good. The night disappears; that is just honest rollicking fun, you say as you wake to the dishes to wash, table to clean, and an unmade bed.

Lukewarm coffee, a perfunctory kiss, and a swollen summer door. Good morning, how are you today? Perhaps we are walking down another wrong path. “Something’s not right, the light is too bright.”

Why do we covet so much? I hear the heartbeat of commerce with outstretched hand. More, please more. I stare at the parquet floor as the boy downstairs makes another bomb, just to stir up Times Square. He says he ain’t so happy. A letter would do, even a whisper to the wall might console. “I ain’t so happy, are you?”

Maybe not. I scribble into the night in this solitary room as the boy blows up an unsuspecting soul.

My street is dark, the saxophone calls to the quiet of the night. I stand with my illusions. The world without love is filled with wandering souls wanting more. Bomb maker, drunken man, or needle stuck in arm. I have seen the alleyway, the rats, bare basement light bulbs, and sleeping babe with mother wanting out. It is pitch black before dawn, then there is light.

How do we get out of here? screamed the joker.

I heard the saxophone in the early morning as I spun round. Out the window a solitary person walks, head looking down, then up. No stars visible in the city sky. A dog pees. I gotta get out of here before the streetwalkers say no, not him again.

Lost without love, swirling whispering sounds ask, Are you okay? Yes, I’m alright. The empty room in the hillbilly town with rusty blue Chevy says not so. The wolf howls, I rest on broken bed, sip day-old coffee, and hit the road. The NO VACANCY sign says we do not take anyone. Lonely people look at the dawn just beyond. Tomorrow might be a better day.

Maybe luck will be my lady today?

IV My not-quite-broken-down car 

My Chevy with violations tucked in the glove compartment slides by the steel furnace belching fire to build a better town. Lying still, staring up at the gargoyle looking down, I plot my escape. My eyes close with heavy textbook resting on my chest. Here in a midwestern university is where you might find love. Not a surprise for those who still dream. Lost, yet hoping to find that person who cares with hands touching, eyes locked, and warm dinners with the setting sun.

My world without love stopped on October 31st, 1975. Just like that at 5:30 p.m. in a Chinese dive on the south side of Chicago. Ghosts and goblins roamed, and witches stirred before Halloween. I looked across the white Formica table into the sparkling blue eyes of another wandering soul. Slightly bruised, full of questions, trying to make sense of the everyday ups and downs of our lives. The souls outside finding refuge that Halloween.

My old rusty car, leather boat shoes, and beret said he is not like the others. And her bending back, belly-dancing midriff said she is different…so we talked, barely touching the true meaning of life. Words took us to places only we visited. You know the sound, the room where you step into the dark. Unafraid.

Ann and I did not know we were on the path of true love, til the vows sealed our love.

How was that; what was new, different?

V By our second date

One week later we stepped in unison, still talking, not quite touching. A peck on the forehead. No rushing true love, say the soothsayers. I will marry, says I. I will drop the boyfriends, says she. And so begins the romance, the passions that shake our bones, mend our souls. Kisses soft as babies’ skin.

“Fates step back, Lucifer too. Even if distant guns sound,
True love has found another soul.”

Did we know? Not quite. We spun our tales together. Exchanging vows ten months later, eyes locked, believing we were the only ones for each other. Temptations might rise, devils spin, and sins roam the streets. Our love stays true after some forty-eight years…a dream, you say. Poets wax on, gods inspire, and painters see beyond.

The place I walk, the home we built sits in a garden of love. Bombs still drop out there, sex sells, and the artifice of success is shallow. Mammon’s hall glitters with empty promises. Gold is not the measure of happy lives, still some count into the dark of night. How much? they say. Not enough. A home without love is empty. No echoes in the heart and little nectar to feed the soul. An empty heart strangles life’s desires.

A world without love will not survive.

VI I peer back.

Not sure what love is or how I found it. Maybe there was some angel, messenger, or sign that October evening. The eyes sparkling across the quad, the no, I am too busy for a date tonight—a test, she says. Perhaps the October moon fleeting beyond the clouds murmured secret messages. No rose on the ramparts, no dream of dark ladies, no thunderclaps saying this is the one. The luck of the draw. Maybe love is in our hearts, buried deep, just waiting. Love hides in corners. Many miss those moments.

My true love burst forth on October 31st, 1975, a little before 6 p.m., over the Chinese meal I don’t remember; bullet holes in the wall, talk that did not stop, and my rusting blue Chevy taking us away before the street shots rang out. Words started before our dinner order, families first—where are you from—easy and complicated, why are you here, what do you think about Durkheim, Weber, and the University of Chicago gargoyles? Why did you drop out of the PhD program?

Let me tell you about the Mongol hordes—not for me, said she. Or Saul Bellow reading more books than me, said I. Twists of time put us in the Social Science afternoon class—all twenty-five students charting our way through the shifting maze of the world. Always changing and often the same. We sat in Regenstein Library reading, shared lunch under the gothic arches of Ida Noyes dining hall, and we learned.

Two young people—a boy and girl—talking as the sun sets and the restaurant closes. Halloween a time for mischief and remembrance. At 7 p.m. we escaped the south side of Chicago for uptown Michigan Avenue—me with car that drove, despite the holes in the floor. Big department stores—Nordstrom with perfumes and fine wear, while rising winds tried to bend Michigan Avenue glass towers. The Sears store’s dark-brown spire reaching just above the Empire State Building. Deserted streets where Halloween spirits roamed. Did we feel the rumbling under our feet, the love soon to be released, did we know that late-night belly-dancing in some Chicago club—the extended first date—was the opening of our new lives?

“Aunt Rody,” I declared the next day, “I am going to marry her.”

What’s her name? I’m not sure, Ann.

My Aunt Rody knew much more about the ups and downs of marriage, complicated families, bad divorces, and the necessary struggles to break free. Laughingly, she insisted I ask her last name.

“Oh, Johnny Bal, what a dreamer sits here with Wendell, my son, your cousin and roommate.”

VII My love was born.

Before that October night, maybe in my mother’s womb; Ann hers in Libya. Each child was held by our mothers’ laughing eyes, delighting and a little protective as we ventured out. How we both jumped for joy, stumbled, and got up. There was food, warm breast, and morning coos that hummed with songs of love. We walked out of our homes with our mothers watching—many others lending a hand—with bouncing steps. Not quite warriors but children discovering that the everyday is not so simple.

Were we ready for love?

The mothers who held, nursed, and smacked me were there for the smile, the laugh, and the poops. We were fed, rolled over, changed, schooled, and then Ann and I walked out, hardly turning round to say goodbye. Each ready, after so many years, not just for the roll in the hay but true love. Our fates were not written, missteps were possible, yet luck let us couple that October night, Halloween 1975 in a Chinese restaurant on the south side of Chicago, two souls launched a journey together.

Neither knew the path ahead, but together we barely looked back. A dream possibly, a poem certainly, and two hands holding our fortunes together. The mystery of how and why keeps us astonished every day—maybe it’s our mothers, our family, those extended stories, strange histories, or something we drank. Other times the hints lie in the books we read or the leaves rustling. We feel the cloak wrapping round our shoulders as the wind rises and storm clouds break.

Love makes the world go round.

John and Ann started spinning in unison on October 31st, 1975. Lucky them.

John Ballantine

John Ballantine is an emeritus professor at Brandeis International Business School. He is now beginning his re-education returning to books and poems he could not possibly understand -- Paradise Lost, Divine Comedy, Ulysses, much of Virginia Woolfe, and most of Faulkner, not to mention the Becket novels and Nabokov's Ada. He received his bachelor's degree in English from Harvard University, then earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in economics from University of Chicago and NYU Stern, respectively. His economic commentary has appeared in Salon, The Boston Globe, and The Conversation, and other more academic publications.