I’m a hypocrite. From shabby motel rooms, made less lonely by my dog on the bed, from Toledo to San Luis Obisbo, last summer I waxed poetic about the wonder, the glory and the healing tide of love. But I never waded into the topic of the kind of love which opens your every pore by the mere thought of the object du jour of your desire.
It’s because I’m a hypocrite and a chicken. I drove nearly 9,000 miles, just me and a big yeller’ dog, who neither drives nor changes tires, faced triple-digit Texas heat on sparsely traveled two-lane roads with only one gallon of water in the car, (some would say that’s just plain stupid) talked my way out of getting jumped by an irate mountain mama on the Blue Ridge Parkway, sorted through a pile of loss; the boyfriend who got killed in a car wreck, two brothers, my mother, my innocence, my marriage, and the very real prospect of losing my house after I lost my mind and quit my job to hit the road. I did not succumb to fear in any of those situations, but I was loathe to write about the thing that scares me the most: this thing called love.
But long about Ely, Nevada, where I stayed in the world-famous Jailhouse Motel, after 52 days and 42 blog posts in which I’d pontificated about heavenly love, maternal love, sibling love, brotherly love, puppy, platonic and paternalistic, I turned my thoughts, reluctantly, to the passionate kind. They don’t call U.S. 50 across Nevada the “Loneliest Road in America” for nothing. There’s something about it which paves the way for introspection and smack down truths.
Truth is, it had been a long time since I felt the fever for the flavor of a Pringle. In my last blog, A Woman With a Past, I must confess, I left you hanging. The story ended with me seriously investigating how I felt about a very nice man who was a) emotionally available, b) financially stable, c) intelligent, d) a Democrat, and e) falling in love with me. Unfortunately, I leaned the other way, but typically, I’m the faller, who ends up on my head.
Nick, the out-of-towner was the hardest to get back up from. He was the musician (should have been my first clue it wouldn’t work) whom I instantly fell in love with at my brother Garrett’s funeral back in 2002. My shrink would chide me for this later.
But for a time, it was purely wonderful, especially our first Valentine’s Day, when he flew into town for one of the most romantic weekends of my life. I baked heart-shaped sugar cookies and frosted them in pink. I arranged sleepovers for three kids and bought something pink. I booked a suite for the opening night of a lavishly restored, downtown hotel and made reservations at an intimate Italian restaurant and took a long bubble bath. I missed his call while I was in the tub.
“I can not wait to hold you,” he said, before he boarded the plane.
I saved that message for months.
The anticipation was thrilling. I had bought a pretty red shirt to wear to the airport, my make-up was perfect, my hair was perfect, my breath was pepperminty and I’d dabbed on just the right amount of perfume. We were like two pups wagging our tails when we spotted each other on Concourse A. Embraces like these are the kind you dream about. His shoulders were as wide as a big-screen TV and he swallowed me in his arms, lifting me off my feet.
“I thought it would take forever to get off that damn plane,” he whispered.
It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever known.
And it was one of the sweetest memories I’ll ever have. The dinner was exquisite ( I had the pumpkin tortellini, he had the veal ) and so was everything else; the red wine, the dark chocolate dessert, the red wicker basket he brought me, full of scented soaps and oils, the crystal chandeliers in the lobby with giant bouquets of roses on every table, the decadent king size bed in the gilded, turn-of-the-century suite, with its heavy, brocade bedspread which we promptly kicked to the floor. We were completely unaware of the blizzard whirling outside, until I got up to blow out the candles. I refused to fret about my kids sleeping at their friends’ houses, my ex-husband sleeping in the county jail, cancelled flights, mounting bills, car repairs and college loans or what would come of this romance. I was totally in the moment for one blissful night. I drifted off to sleep in his arms, sated and serene.
We broke up on a clear November morning nine months later. After a dozen or so back-and-forth trips, with him increasingly withdrawing, and me increasingly holding on for dear life, I found my strength, or rescued my pride. I got up one morning, after he’d said, “I just can’t do the long distance thing any longer,” and then added, ”but I don’t want to lose you,” and promptly turned his back to me in bed. As soon as it was light, I got up and out. Up and out, packed and gone, in six minutes flat.
“I’m leaving before it gets ugly,” I said and kissed him on the cheek.
“I don’t want you to go,” said he.
But I had to. I knew we couldn’t bridge the distance or different lifestyles. A writer and musician, with no children of his own, it wasn’t in his DNA to take on a woman with four kids and he admitted as much. He echoed what I already knew, but my head hadn’t informed my heart. The onslaught of tears commenced as I walked out of his building. A tree full of brilliant, yellow gingko leaves had dumped on my car overnight, resembling hundreds of carping Pac Men, “I told you so, I told you so, I told you so,” they seemed to mock me, as I brushed their annoying brightness off the windshield and my dark heart. I cried all the way from Lake Michigan to the miserable Mississippi. I parked a block from home, where I had to suck it up, pull it together, slap on some concealer and get ready to explain to my disappointed kids why Mom was home early and why Nick would not be coming back. It took me a full year to get over him.
But last August, with the truth serum of a lonely highway and endless desert coursing through my veins, I could no longer deflect reflection. “Am I destined to forever be unlucky at love?” It was a question as big the mountains in the distance. Hells bells, I had bled stories about everything else under the blazing sun! I’d become an oil leak across America; illegitimate child, father I’d never known, brother I’d never seen, stepfather never accused and a former husband who was. By Reno, I had slain those demons with my pen saying, “bring it, fuckers. What else you got?”
Wasn’t so easy to whack the lost loves though. It was just too hard, too close to the surface. The broken line of the highway tossed my history in my face; yellow, black, yellow, black, on, off, on, off. We’d merged, like the come on from the truckers, slowing down to allow me in their lane. We’d merged, for a few weeks, a few years, long enough for one kid, long enough for three more, a few more hours, a few more days, just one more week, “let’s get through Christmas.” Strung all together, suddenly and sobering, you realize you’re in your mid-50s and the lush landscape of options is looking a lot more like the powder white sand of the Nevada desert.
I suspect I’m not alone in being fooled, this far down the road. We live in a time of cavalier attitudes about love, enabled by an undeserved faith in the Internet to supply a never ending stream of suitors to make our lives better. Woe be it for any single person in America to say they actually need someone to make their lives complete. Nobody needs anybody anymore. We’d just “like” somebody to hang out with, which makes it that much easier to whiz through the prospects that pop up in batches, like so many tin ducks in a shooting gallery on the midway. Load a few keywords, and shoot em’ all down, because ten more will pop up to take their place. I’m not passing judgement, I’ve done it myself, along with an unprecedented number of other single people in this country. And sometimes, many times, folks get lucky. Well, after they got lucky. I know three people who married the person they met on-line.
But it’s kind of sad, isn’t it, the method to the match? And it’s taxing. Sitting in front of the streaming head shots of “next,” available during those vulnerable hours, like Friday night at seven o’clock, when your brain tells you to “Click, click, click. Keep going. Click, click, click.” And all the while your heart is holding out that something wonderful just might happen which doesn’t spring from your laptop, someone who takes your breath away, someone who isn’t the product of an exhausting numbers game, where the odds just happen to stack in your favor on any given click.
You’re holding out for something called magic, because magic should happen. Magic sure as fuck should happen when you fall in love. You deserve it. Life’s too short to do without it and it’s exhilarating when you feel it, because it’s happened before. Maybe that’s the benefit of having been around the block a time or two. You recognize the onset, kind of like a gall bladder attack, except this time, it’s your heart. It’s a reflex. It’s undeniable and it isn’t calculated or contrived, not spit out on a spreadsheet or revealed in a survey, or random.
Love isn’t random.
So when it does come around, how do we compare it against the scorecard in our pocket? The memories conspire to paralyze us on the advent of a new day, a new chance. How do we stop ourselves from analyzing, categorizing and compartmentalizing?
Therein lies our challenge, my funny Valentines. Loaded down with the disappointments of the past, like so many broken yellow lines in rear view mirrors, how do we make ourselves available for the unfolding? How can a person truly open their heart, with one foot in the past and one foot in the option zone? Armed with our hard-won wisdom, blind to the fallacy of unlimited options, how many of us approach love wearing an impenetrable layer of protection where vulnerability and hope used to be? It’s like preparing to go into a contaminated space, where, in the ante-room, we don a full body condom, protecting us from risk, keeping our true selves from really breaking through.
It’s not what we want though. We want it to be real.