|Ronald Coleman and Madeline Carroll in "The Prisoner of Zenda" -- the romantic paradigm.|
On its banks are lilies growing
And the waters all bestowing
Love, love, beautiful love.
Come ye children, sweetly gather
Learn to bless and love each other
It will bind your hearts together in
Love, love, beautiful love.
First of all, this not about filial or fraternal love. This is about the love you sign up for.
I had planned this to be to be a rollicking survey of my romantic relationships. After a short time, it became clear that would be sad, painful, and embarrassing. I have been a romantic fool.
In fact, if I look at it from a crazy, non-constructive way, my every romantic relationship up to the present one has been a failure. Which is how I looked at it. And, what’s even less helpful, the details of these failures are mostly locked away inside me. I learned little over a remarkably long period of time with a number of different beloveds.
I know nothing about women. Ask around. Particularly women. My conceptions of love were formed by poets and paper-heart makers, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley. As far as I can tell, my ancestors felt brief urges of passion, mated, and then settled down into monochrome normality. (After they died, I found out about their deeply repressed, tragic emotional lives. Still waters, etc.) The particular example my parents set was not particularly comforting or helpful. As a kid, when I thought at all about girls I cued on love songs, romance films, and storybook endings. The peculiar cultural window I looked through made me model myself much more on Ronald Coleman than Peter Fonda. You can guess the results.
When I began grappling with the opposite sex (fortunately, at 15 I was 6’3” and weighed 150 lbs., which made it easy to fight off my advances), bliss and disaster alternated. My first love played the alto sax, which probably says a lot about my devotion to Art Pepper. She loved marshmallow crème, laughed at my jokes, and was a great kisser.
But I began a long tradition of finding someone who could bear the extravagant weight of my urgent, undeveloped, and unmitigated emotional demands. I was scrawny and needy, and socially retarded. No one could more theatrically misinterpret reality than I could, and still can. I could perform love, I could act the swain. I wrote poems, sang songs, acted like a clown, ached, fought, made love, burned with despair. But I still hadn’t a clue.
In addition, be narcissistic and bipolar impairs selection skills. For years I found myself involved with women who were dangerously unstable, coldly remote, or simply baffled and increasingly enraged by the gap between my occasionally charming initial self-presentation and the swamp of dysfunction I would unleash as soon as she relaxed. After which I would stagger away from the burning crash site, wondering what went wrong.
Wanting is a kind of thirst that is satisfied only shortly. In my case, it has been largely poisonous. Desire is theft. Love is music. And I can barely tell them apart. What’s love, then? Would true love prevail?
Approaching the 20-year mark of my (so far) successful second marriage – successful denoting purely that it is still in effect – I can say that I am just grateful I haven’t been beaten to death in my sleep yet. (A displaced paramour once pulled a gun on me, a unique and refreshing experience I wouldn’t recommend to anyone.)
After many years, it finally is what it is. Little is like we thought it might be, and we are very different than we imagined we might be. Life has ground away at us, revealing ourselves to each other as completely as two people can. We have seen the best and the worst of each other, and I think that if you can do that and not flinch, and keep looking into the other’s eyes, you have something.
Real love is forged by the demands of necessity. Real love mysteriously accrues as the years are lived together. It’s no musical, no slow-motion gambol at waves' edge. You have to be damn stubborn and endure.
At the same time, I am learning to let go of how I think things should be between us, of creating some kind of static template of relationship satisfaction. Developing, despite myself, some compassion.
And humility. Another annoying problem is that someone that close to you can call you on your shit. Every time. There’s no place to hide. And so, by dint of the constant erosion caused by being wrong, only over the course of the last decade have I learned that I may actually BE wrong at times and, even worse, that my wife is right. And of course, once one person might be right . . . you can probably see how trying this has all been for her, she’s explained it to me a thousand times.
Love is a verb that must be incessantly acted upon, never shifting from present to past tense. Infatuations just happen. Love is a job, and its own reward. The tiny pleasures and hard-won satisfactions of each day are the rewards of working together to create a life and a home together.
When I keep my head down and keep pushing through, somehow it works. It’s a closeness and peace that flares up protectingly when times are tough. It can’t be erased or taken from. It’s knowing who I can count on, and finally accepting that I can be counted on, too. Maybe that’s what love really is for me – knowing that I am capable of transcending my own selfishness and stupidity, at least with my single someone, at least some of the time.
Next time: Work