I Want What I Can’t Have

I want what I can’t have.

When I say that, I don’t refer to the desires most of us have for actual things or states of being that exist in reality but which we will likely never enjoy: a mansion in Maui, a loft in Tribeca, waking up in bed with James Franco. 

In other words, when I say I want what I can’t have, I don’t mean it the same way Morrisey meant when he sang “I Want the One I Can’t Have.”  (Yes, that was just an excuse to include a Smiths video in this post.)

With all due respect, Morrisey, the more precise language to describe that state of desire would be, “I want what I am highly unlikely to have in the foreseeable future.”  No.  When I say that I want what I can’t have, what I mean is that I want what I literally cannot have.  And by literally, I mean literally, not figuratively, the way people nowadays inexplicably (and literally) say things such as, “My head literally exploded.” 

Here’s what I mean: Yes, I want that beach house in Maui, and I want that loft in Tribeca.  I’m not likely to have either one in the foreseeable future, but my real problem is that I want them at the same time.  I want to wake up to the sounds of waves crashing on the beach outside my window, then step outside onto cobblestone streets to eat pasta cooked by some employee of Robert DeNiro.  I want to take a surfing lesson in my backyard then walk down the street for dinner at Nobu.


And, yep, I got a mad crush on James Franco.  I sort of like the idea of being Mrs. James Franco.  (Oh, who are we kidding?  He’d be Mr. Alafair Burke, but whatevs.)  Now, am I likely ever to meet James Franco?  No.  Would he love me if he met me?  Well, yeah, of course, but he might not want to marry me.  All of those considerations are irrelevant, however, because I want to be married to my husband.  Forever.  Exclusively.  Indubutably.  For reals.  But, ahem, as bride to James Franco. I want what I can’t have.

As I write this, I find myself extremely sad because I am packing a suitcase.  Tomorrow morning, I will board an airplane, and I won’t come home for 14 days, 2 hours, and 11 minutes.  The husband will be joining me for the first five days on Burke-a-pa-looza, an all-Burke vacation up in Canada.  There will be golf, parental units, and nieces and nephews who think I’m the coolest aunt in the world.  I have every confidence that said vacation shall rock.

From there, I will head solo to a hotel room on the west coast, away from the humidity that ruins my summers and my hair, closer to dear friends whom I still miss everyday, and shielded from the many distractions at home that keep me from writing with the intensity I need right now.  I asked for ten days, by myself, in a hotel room, so I could finish my next book before classes start.

I got what I asked for. 

But now I’m sad.

Why?  Because fourteen days away from home means fourteen mornings when I won’t wake up to find this face licking mine:

It means fourteen days when I won’t have lunch at my office away from home:

Notice the name of the guest on the check. I’m a regular!
It means fourteen days without my gym, my park, my croissant place, or that amazing collection of health and beauty aids crammed into my medicine cabinet. 

It means ten days without my husband.

The thing I want that I can’t have is all the comforts of home, all the familiar rhythms of family, the constant companionship of my closest friends, and all the time and solitude I need to write the best possible book I can.

In this case, I really can’t get what I want.

I just might, however, find I get what I need: a few days with my family, a few dinners with my west coast friends, a hell of a lot of writing time, and a very happy husband and Duffer waiting to greet me and my completed manuscript at home.  Wish me luck!  (I may be a bit quiet while I’m bunkered down.)

So what are the things you want that you CAN’T have?

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15 thoughts on “I Want What I Can’t Have

  1. Susan Saxx

    Hi Alafair! Great post, and so true. I feel as you do. Quick weekend vacation in old Quebec City? Something I’d enjoy – but I too would miss the two lovable fur-balls that greet me every morning and then chat with me throughout breakfast. Perhaps this "intense love of life" is what makes us writers – The desire to magnify each experience, give it it’s due, and capture it for eternity.

    What do I want that I really can’t have? I lust for many of the things you mention. Waking up to the call of the waves breaking on the beach just outside my window, going for a sand-between-the-toes walk, and then being transported into any scene I wish to enjoy in Europe or LA or even on safari in Africa. I’d also like many careers – actress sounds great for a while, or high-powered exec in a classy pin-stripe suit in New York working in a skyscraper office with huge windows, making big decisions, or an oceanographer. Or an astronaut on a cool, earth-like space station with the wonder of discovery awaiting in each moment to come.

    That’s the short list. 😉

    I guess being a writer is a good compromise. 😉 Do you think?

    Thanks for this post. I enjoyed it!


  2. Barbie

    Funny you asked, I was thinking about it THIS VERY second.

    I want my grandma back!!! It’s going to be four years she died this month and I miss her every day! :'(

  3. Louise Ure

    The "what I want" is probably pretty obvious. The "what I need" … less clear. Have a great couple of weeks, Alafair. It sounds like it will do a body good.

  4. JT Ellison

    I love this post. I think we all have that longing for… something. Mine is much more selfish, not material: I wish I could express myself better verbally. But there’s nothing that can be done about that, I’ll always be thinking fourteen points ahead of where my mouth is and make a gaff. I want my friendships to be stronger, and to pick people to trust wisely. I’d like to find a way to stay naive and yet be fully enlightened. I want my family to be happy, always.

    Hmm… I feel a Tumblr coming on…

    Have a great trip, and write well!

  5. Kagey

    I want to spend all my time with my kids, know them inside out, and still get a full time job that fulfills my intellectual needs. I want to be able to try every career that has grabbed my interest, fully invest in each one, without worrying that I’m spending my life on the wrong one.
    In short, I want to live a hundred lifetimes, without losing that "deadline pressure" that comes with only getting one life.
    And yes, I’d want to spend every one of those hundred lifetimes with my husband.
    (FWIW, our 13th anniversary is today!)

  6. Cornelia Read

    Let’s see… I want to have finished my fourth book already and be happy with it. I want to have married someone different the first time out… I want my dad back alive and not troubled by mental illness… I want my editor to have survived his cancer… I want Louise and Bruce to have had all happy news for the last two years… I want my younger daughter not to have been struck down with autism… I want my dad not to have disowned us…


    Really, I just want my remaining loved ones to be happy and healthy and clear-minded enough so we can all love and support one another without the slings and arrows of bitterness and ego and disappointment destroying our bonds. I hope that’s not impossible. It’s not looking good…

  7. Dudley Forster

    I want to never have gone to law school. I want to have been closer to my brothers and sister, as we have literarily scattered to the four corners all running from our father, who is The Great Santini . I love my wife, children and grandchildren dearly, but I would like a switch I could throw and I would be in my office with perfect solitude, than when I was ready to rejoin the party, throw the switch and I am back and no one noticed I was gone. For me to be centered, comfortable in my own skin and to deal with what life throws at you with grace. More than anything though, I want to learn the craft so I can spill out all the stories in my head on to paper and people will really want to read them.

  8. Rae

    I would like a transmogrifier (a la Calvin and Hobbes) so that I can be in Paris or New York or San Francisco or Idaho at a moment’s notice, depending upon my mood.

    Failing that, I’ll take 36 hour days from now until about October 18 😉

  9. mary lynn

    I want to live closer to my son, and his family. I want it not to be such a long, arduous, expensive trek to see them. Jobs being what they are these days, that ain’t gonna happen. sigh I like the weather here better.

  10. toni mcgee causey

    I woud love a loft in NYC somewhere. I don’t know the city well enough yet to pick a particular area. I’d love a mountain cabin, too, while we’re at it. A private jet wouldn’t be too shabby, either.

    But really, I love where I am, what I have, and what I get to do. I’m not sure I need anything else.

  11. Catherine

    After a bit of thought I’m happy that most of what I want that I can’t have are whims or negotiable. The stuff I really want I chose to see it as merely a matter of time. I can see me having a nice little urban base in Brisbane in a couple of years or so. If I was able to pull this off right now, some choices I am making would be a whole lot simpler. The flip side of this is that because for right now I am unable to make this happen, I’m forced to think hard about what I really want, and just what I am prepared to do to make it happen.

    My only genuine since childhood want, that I can’t have, is the ability to twitch my nose and instantly make a room tidy. Either that of minions. Really well trained minions that are pleasant and don’t bitch about their overlord, or think to overthrow their overlord. Yeah.

  12. Rebbie Macintyre

    Personally, I’ve given up "wanting".
    I’ve wanted things or people or circumstances many times in my life. And I’ve gotten them. And then I’ve been so very sorry. Remember that old Stones song, SATISFACTION? We all "want", just like in the song. But most of our wants are not our own. They are things we’re guilted into wanting, or we’re convinced we want because the culture says we should want them or because of envy, lust or being just generally screwed up. Like the guy in the song says, "Can’t get no satisfaction, but I keep trying."
    Yes, I’ve given up "wanting" and decided to slap myself in the face– usually daily, sometimes hourly–until I remember to be thankful for what I have.

  13. Alafair Burke

    Thanks, everyone, for opening up about your wants. I loved these comments and will hope that all of us at least get what we need.

    Sorry to be quiet today. The Burke-a-pa-looza in Canada turned out not to have internet access. Add hi-speed wi-fi in the middle of nowhere to the stuff I want!

  14. Debbie

    Jt – Wasn’t it Solomon who made similar requests? Yours seem rather humble to me. I especially like the naive experience! I define success as being content. I do have a bucket list which only has one unfulfiled desire – to pat a wildcat cub (especially the ears). I think I might like to see Les Mis in Paris (no I don’t speak French) and perhaps in London and on Broadway but if I never do these things…I’m content. Met my husband nearly twenty years ago and have been married ten this October. I wish for others all the things I already have. Yes, if I could have it all, that’s all I’d want – for others to have at least what I do and for everybody: contentment.


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