It's midsummer, 1995. I have just turned 35. I am sitting on a barstool at my friend Mark's apartment in Burbank, drinking a martini and confiding the details of my latest romance gone awry, a three-month rebound affair that I know, even as I lament its demise, will leave only a faint impression on my life. Still, I am distraught. Mark, I figure, knows what I'm going through, having spent some time moping over a woman he barely knew in the wake of his divorce. But now Mark is about to get married again, and like everyone about to get married, he has the answer to all love's woes. So Mark, well-meaning and limitlessly goodhearted, gives me a book: Ten Stupid Things Women Do To Mess Up Their Lives, by Dr. Laura Schlessinger.
Now, having spent too little time with talk radio, I am not familiar, at this point, with Dr. Laura. But as I skim her maxims by the pool later that afternoon, I get the sense that I am reading some hieroglyphic transcript of an alien culture, a text I must translate into the Roman alphabet, filter through what I know of the rest of the world and pass back through a decryption device before I can decipher its meaning. And when I do, it pisses me off.
It's not that I think women ought to hang their ids on the next available man, get themselves knocked up to score a husband and then let said husbands bat them around. It's just that I am not Dr. Laura's woman. That Mark, one of my closest friends, thinks I am fills me with the kind of loneliness I feel in foreign countries where I don't know the language. Where do you get this idea of me? I don't want to get married. I don't want someone to rescue me financially. I'm looking for more organic companionship, a meeting of the minds, someone to sit up and argue with me about foreign policy in the middle of the night, eating ice cream out of the container and spilling wine on the bed. Not someone to subsume my entire household and identity.
“I've been married,” I remind Mark. “Remember? I'm not looking for a husband.” I hold up the book to give it back. “These,” I inform him, “are not my problems.”
“Okay, fine,” he says, taking the book back.
“No, really. It's true.”
“Yeah. Well, whatever.”
Whatever. Explanations and self-definitions fail me in these moments. Protest too much, and the wise friend nods in sympathy; don't protest at all and expect more advice about how to snag a man. Another close friend gets married, to a man she picks out of the L.A. Weekly personals, made to order, ready for marriage, and begins recommending boyfriends to me, men who use trite metaphors in e-mail and work as marketing consultants, men who want to get married real bad. I ask her what the consultant will think when I tell him that I still might want to have sex with women.
I could make up reasons for why I left my husband, but in words they would emerge as half-truths. It might be better to ask why I got married, but I can't even answer that. It was as if I stumbled through the whole event absent-mindedly, understanding what I was supposed to do, yet experiencing neither joy nor passion. I don't even remember the proposal. What I remember most is the phone conversation that clinched the end: I had just moved to L.A. He was in Minneapolis preparing to join me. “Now, hon,” he said in his lumbering way, “we have to talk about how we're going to handle the money.” A few days later, I was on the phone again, crying. I can't. I just can't. Soon after, I found someone else. Someone who understood the importance of keeping one's bank account separate and passport current.
The Rules. Smart Women, Foolish Choices. Women Who Love Too Much. These books are documents of rituals to me, relics of a culture I, like my mother, muddled through to a point but eventually threw up my hands against, as did my maternal aunts, one of whom left her insurance-salesman husband for a Rastafarian she met in Barbados on vacation. Even my paternal grandmother hit her limit fairly young, abandoning my then 5-year-old father to the care of his teenage siblings while she went to live alone in a North Dakota shack. (She missed, she would tell us later, “the unbroken horizon.”) On neither side of my family is there one single happy marriage after which I could model my own.
Here is a scene from my childhood that I remember more vividly because it strikes me as strange that I do: My father is driving, my mother is in the passenger's seat. My sister and I are in back. I am 8, maybe 9 years old. I am watching, curiously, as Mom and Dad have a conversation. I am not aware of the topic, only that they are exchanging information, nodding “yes, yes” at each other's comments, emitting “uh-huhs” as people do when they take in each other's words with the relaxed, floating attention of intimacy. I remember this mundane scene – the street, the mowed-lawn smell of the air, the filtered light on the back of my mother's head – because as far as I know, it never happened again. Mom and Dad were having a conversation at a pitch that didn't send their children scurrying for cover.
With all my amassed adult wisdom, I have to wonder how my parents' example for living hard-wired my interaction with lovers. I wonder not with self-pity but with cold, analytical pragmatism, ever aware of how cliched it's become to blame parents for one's own shortcomings. But what if it's not blame, but understanding? Compounding my parents' essential friction was my father's tendency to swing between extremes of violence and reason without relative cause: Spilling food coloring on a picnic table warranted a beating; getting caught shoplifting called for a heart-to-heart talk. I have no doubt that his fluid application of discipline inspired my rebellion against authority; I suspect it also made me predisposed to exit any relationship I cannot control.
The family stories of the men I've been involved with aren't much better. Steve contends that his mother berated him throughout his childhood, forcing him to retreat into his own fantastical world; Michael was adopted by parents who regretted it – after learning they could produce their own “natural” offspring. One ex-boyfriend lost a sister to suicide, another left his mother when his parents divorced at 12 because his father threatened to shoot himself if the son didn't take Dad's side. Still another came home one day to find his house taped off as a crime scene. His brother had returned from Vietnam and murdered his mother with an ax.
We find each other, somehow, children with histories of turmoil trying to make their way in a world they find suspect, looking for true love like everybody else but ill-equipped to handle it when it comes. We don't stay together long; we sabotage, we cheat, we nag and criticize and pick fights. We let other relationships take precedence over the primary one, and develop a self-preserving mutual contempt, because after a certain day passes, three months, six months, a year, we cannot look each other in the eye without facing the icy truth that one of us has to die first. We don't stay together long, because we can't stand it.
It is an early morning in March, and I wake up in a panic. A month ago I started seeing Steve again after half a year apart, and I am struck with the realization that part of the reason it's going so well this time around is that I am not the only woman in his life and he is not the only lover in mine. We've tried it other ways – we've tried it every way imaginable, in fact – but all fitful attempts to forge a relationship that would look normal in the eyes of friends and family deteriorated into mutual frustration and drudgery. The witty, cheerful man I'd fallen so hard for in the beginning, the one who rode roller coasters on our first date even though they terrified him, who sat cross-legged on the ground with me to swap tales of our terrorized childhoods, who wrote poetry about fear and risk, had become withdrawn and surly and stubborn; I had started to resent his comings as much as his goings, his demands as well as my own. Our spontaneous appreciation of each other's sex, humor and intellect had grown weighted with fear-laden speculations about an uncertain future. We had lost, as the Buddhists put it, our present moments.
This time around, present moments are all we have. What we guardedly refer to as a relationship is ruled by only personal inclination and immediate desire, which is frightening and precarious in one way, stable in another: It dawned on me recently that not only will he probably always be there, but, more significantly, so will I. Because as the years barrel toward 40, I have begun to face another truth, one that chills less, but chills all the same: I am never going to find the model relationship, because half of that relationship is always going to be me. And I have begun to understand, in an undramatic sort of way, that the people who last longest in my life, most of them as short on emotional resources as I am on faith, have stayed in my life because they provide precisely what I need, and not more than I can bear.
“Keep us pure,” Steve says. “The price of all this goodness is a certain loss of control.” And ideals, I remind him. But in saying that, I have to ask whose ideals they were in the first place.