Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
Love, they say, can move mountains. Less romantically, love has also been known to move mountains of crap. My college friend Logan and his mountain of crap arrived in New York City from Boston in a twenty-three-foot U-Haul truck, complete with the same six wooden peach crates of aging vinyl I had helped him pack and unpack at least three times through the years. He was moving in with his fiancée, Jerri. He came to New York the same year I moved out of my Boston condo and into my parents’ ancestral Manhattan apartment to help care for my ailing father. Our friend Michael also moved to New York that year, to pursue his girlfriend, Susi. We would all end up living within walking distance of each other for the first time since college. We’d all moved for love.
Two years later my dad is dead, Susi is history, and Logan and Jerri are getting married. Love is moving us once again, just for the weekend this time, to a beautiful Cape Ann farmhouse in Massachusetts. It is my tenth wedding in two summers, and it isn’t even August yet.
Michael and I take the bus up together.
“Weddings are good places to meet people,” Michael says.
“I used to think so, too,” I reply, still single in spite of all the recent wedding-going. Kitschy Chinese opera crackles from the speakers overhead. We’re taking the Fung Wah “Chinatown bus.” Just a few weeks ago a Fung Wah bus was firebombed, and the driver of another was shot by a hit man hired by a rival Chinatown bus company. But for ten dollars each way, we’re willing to take our chances.
Michael is seeing someone, but they’re not yet close enough for him to invite her to the wedding. I imagine they soon will be. That’s how he is: devoted to each new girlfriend until about two years in, when he finds he “just isn’t feeling it.” He’ll agonize over it but eventually break up with her. He’ll go solo for a few months, then find another. Lather, rinse, repeat.
“At weddings,” Michael continues, “the numbers, at least, are in your favor. You’ve got a large sample set of new women, with a good percentage of them in the prime age range.”
“And everyone’s drunk and full of hope,” I say.
“And staying in hotels.”
Twenty-four hours later Logan and Jerri are exchanging their vows. Or maybe they’re about to. Or already have. I can’t quite tell. The vows seem to be secretly embedded in the Hebrew ceremony, like numerological symbols woven into the Kabala. I’m sitting a few rows back, in yet another white wooden folding chair in yet another beautiful garden behind yet another farmhouse — or wine-country villa, or seaside gazebo — on yet another gorgeous summer day.
I lean over to a friend of the bride and whisper, “You know, this is my tenth wedding in fourteen months.”
She raises her eyebrows. Her eyebrows say, Jesus, you poor thing.
I shake my head. My head says, No, no. I love weddings. And it’s true. In spite of my own reluctance to tie the knot, I enjoy seeing two people announce to the world that they love each other, regardless of some mother-in-law’s insistence that every guest have a certain kind of soup spoon.
But don’t you get depressed? the woman’s now severely contracted eyebrows ask.
At any other wedding I would smile a serene, beatific smile that would say to the woman’s eyebrows: Not at all. And it would be true. During this marathon of ten weddings in two summers, I’ve felt genuinely happy for each couple, the kind of happiness that comes from a love of love. But today it has all caught up with me. Today I am depressed. I’ve been betrayed by one of my best friends. It’s not so much that Logan didn’t choose me to be his best man. (In a nepotistic move, he chose his actual brother.) It’s more that my comrade in arms and roommate of three apartments is getting married. (Or maybe has just gotten married. Is the breaking of the glass the end of the ceremony?) Not only that, the only single women here are sixty-five-year-old divorcées. And three — yes, three — of my ex-girlfriends are here, all either married, pregnant, or now of the lesbian persuasion. One of them, in fact, is married, pregnant, and of the lesbian persuasion. And I still love them all.
The vows must be over, because we’re moving to the barn. I catch up with Mary, the married, pregnant, and still decidedly sexy lesbian. She and I had an affair in college. She was student-body president and had a steady boyfriend; I was a campus troublemaker. She came on strong late one night in the student- government offices. Her boyfriend did the heavy lifting; I got the adventurous interludes — with no commitment.
I greet Mary and give her partner, Julie, a hug. They’re both lawyers. Incredibly, her partner’s full name is Julie Justice.
“You guys are a two-oven household,” I say to Julie, patting Mary’s six-month-pregnant tummy. “How come you make Mary do all the cooking?”
At the barn there’s more ceremony and more Hebrew. I don’t understand the words, but I like the scratchy, singsongy sound of them. I’m standing next to Alison, ex-girlfriend number two. As with Mary, I was mostly a side affair for Alison in college. She was with an absurdly tan, tall, blond guy who had sailed around the world solo — or, at least, he looked as if he could have. The blond sailor is long gone. In his place is her husband, Steve. They live in D.C., and I stay with them when I’m there on business.
Ex-girlfriend number three is Ellen. Brilliant. Passionate. Outspoken. Charismatic. Soon to be a professor and one of the most respected labor organizers and political campaigners in the country. We were together for three years in our late twenties. We’d go hiking in lightning storms, get drunk and drive to the beach, and stay up till 4 A.M. editing her grad-school papers. She taught me to drive a stick; I taught her to rein in her temper. We split up and got back together more than a few times during those three years. She wanted to get married; I wanted to see other people.
“Hey, Ellen,” I say.
I like that she still calls me “sweetie.” The sexual tension is gone, but in its place is a fierce, loyal friendship. When I’ve got work in Boston, I sleep on her couch, have a beer with her husband, and play with her kids. I am happy to briefly be a part of their loving family. But I’m also happy to walk out the door.
Can we see a pattern here with these ex-girlfriends? I think we can: they’re all great, they all love me, and they’re all married to somebody else.
We’ve lifted Logan and Jerri up: in their chairs, into the air. The crowd surges around them; the band plays the jaunty “Hava Nagila.” They’re each holding one end of a handkerchief, Jerri almost tipping over.
Seeing these three ex-girlfriends straining to hold Jerri aloft inevitably gets me thinking of the ones who aren’t here. There’s the convenience-store clerk in Ann Arbor to whom I deliberately and lovelessly lost my virginity at the end of freshman year. There’s the first woman I fell in love with, until navigating the new emotions around sex got the better of us. There’s the frighteningly intelligent man twice my age who mentored me in expressionist poetry, Nietzsche, and radical politics, when he wasn’t falling into drunken, suicidal rages. There’s the pale redhead who talked to ghosts. There’s the woman I spent a Michigan winter with in a barely weatherized extension to a friend’s garage — the only woman I’ve ever managed to live with. We’d knock the snow off our boots, light the kerosene heater, strip off our clothes, and jump under the covers, shivering and holding each other until we warmed up. There’s the Southern girl I had an on-again, off-again obsession with through most of my thirties. Whenever we were both single, we’d track each other down for a liaison. But in spite of our emotional — she would have said “spiritual” — connection in bed, I didn’t love her, a fact she found painful and inexplicable. These relationships were the crucible of my adult self. Through them I grew up emotionally and came into my own sexually. They taught me who I am.
And then there was Liz. I had been in love before, but never so completely. I admired her gutsy way with a video camera, and her career as a media activist was an inspiration to my own. When I first met her at a party, her long brown hair and hazel-green eyes were so beautiful that I ran away. I bravely chatted with her for a bit, then went and hid in the host’s study. We were together for a year and a half, and even as things started to fall apart, we were still on a sexual honeymoon. With Liz, alas, I had crossed some invisible line: in bed, and in my heart. I never got down on bended knee, but she was it for me. Sure, we had our problems: My sense of humor set her on edge. Our conversations went awry when we tried to talk ideas. And when I asked why she’d never been in therapy, she said, “Because I have no issues.” In spite of all this, I wanted it to work out. For once I was not the ambivalent one. I wanted to be with Liz, whatever it took, even counseling and unhappiness. I fought for her. And I lost. On July Fourth, Liz called and said she wasn’t coming to the holiday beach party we’d planned to attend. She felt lonely in the relationship. It wasn’t working, she said. It hadn’t been working for months. It was over.
Less than six weeks later, in desperation, shame, and bewilderment, I started up another relationship, this time with a woman who’d been a friend and colleague for years. She was smart and complicated, and I could talk to her about anything, but it was too soon. Something primal was amiss; she would always smell wrong to me. I broke it off with her, and the friendship was destroyed. She never quite forgave me; I never quite forgave myself.
A month after that, David, my only brother — my poor, sweet, hapless, lost, funny, heroic brother — overdosed in a cheap hotel room.
Our mom decided not to have a funeral; she didn’t believe in ritual and refused to grieve in public. Instead we poured David’s ashes off the pier in Marina Del Rey, Florida, near where he’d been living. The ashes had come to our Florida hotel in a cardboard box. I remember lifting it — him — off the hotel desk. The weight of the box was sickening. We put it in the rental car, and he sat there in the back seat as we drove around town, closing down the life he had left behind.
We’d visited him in Florida the previous Christmas. At the time, David had been living in a low-rise project, broken railings and a discarded diaper in the yard. His apartment was a mess of prescriptions, half-eaten food, and scraps of scrawled poetry. For years he’d been living like this — ever since the drugs in high school and the anxiety attacks that had come later. He seemed fragile, never quite comfortable in his own skin. I’d try to hug him, and his forehead would tense up, and he’d awkwardly step away. He lived with one foot in a fantasy world. His latest scheme was to get rich by inventing the perfect hot sauce. But he wasn’t high. He was holding down a job. He was going to meetings. On that visit we jumped up and down on the beds in my hotel room the way we had when we were kids. It was the best, most sane time our family had had together in years.
In that year before his death, David had sent me xeroxes of his one-month, three-month, and six-month sobriety buttons. I’d tacked them up on the wall in that last Boston apartment Logan and I had shared. But despite these tokens of recovery, he’d been slipping backward. Before the time came for his one-year button, he’d snuck back to New York to score. And then died alone in that fucking hotel.
I held a service of sorts for my brother after I’d returned to Boston. Ellen and Logan helped me pull it together. Liz came. We met Michael and a few others at the Jamaica Plain Arboretum, where we gathered in a small circle. I was afraid to show my feelings; I was also afraid to fail to show my feelings. I don’t remember much of what I said. When I was done speaking, Ellen and Logan began to recite the kaddish — the Jewish prayer of mourning — and Michael knelt down beside me. Whatever I’d said that day, I must have hoped that I’d been a good brother, because Michael hugged me and said, “I know you’ve been a good brother to David, because you’ve been a good brother to me.” And I broke down. With my head in the crook of Michael’s neck, I started sobbing. I was in an altered state, lost in grief, yet unusually aware of the things around me: the mournful tones of the kaddish; the tension in Michael’s biceps; Liz’s discomfort because of Ellen; Ellen’s discomfort because of Liz; the purple tulip bulbs we had brought lying on the grass, waiting for us to plant them.
The speeches at the reception have begun. Logan’s brother says a few words about family and love, and how their father, if he were still alive, would be happy and proud today. It’s hard for me not to reflect that I don’t have a father or a brother. Who will speak at my wedding?
When it comes my turn to speak — as the best friend, if not best man — my words are less well-chosen: something about Logan being a prince of a pal, and an ill-conceived joke about how he and I were never secret gay lovers (just in case there are any lingering doubts on this, his wedding day).
Now the groom takes the mike. He nods to the band, and they start to play. Logan looks over at Jerri and begins to sing. The man cannot sing. And yet, prideless and craftless, he sings. This is not the Logan we know. This is Logan uplifted, made bold by love. The guests are transfixed. Jerri is aglow.
Ellen, who lost her mother at sixteen, describes it as “an endless heartbreak” that lessens a little every year. “We’ve been growing old together for decades,” a work colleague once told me about the brother he’d lost when he was eleven. I visit with David in my dreams now. I could have done so much more, I say to myself every time I pass by the hotel where he died. Or could I?
The dead hang around, as do past loves. No matter how things end, for good or ill, each lover leaves a trace, maybe a scar. Whoever comes next for me will be measured against the excruciating tenderness I felt for Liz, as well as her perfect belly; against my fierce comradeship with Ellen and the dark philosophical worldview that she and I shared. Each lover also adds to that long list of relationship deal-breakers: no more sour taste of nicotine in someone’s pores; no more of Ellen’s high-maintenance, domineering ways; no more ill-matched conversational styles, like I had with Liz. Any woman who actually makes it past these hurdles faces a final test: Can she deal with me? Can she abide my particular bundle of idiocies and broken places? Can she help me bear the sadness of my brother’s and father’s deaths?
When I was in college, I’d walk past a women’s dormitory, and I’d count the number of floors up and the number of units across and multiply to get hundreds of women, a decent percentage of whom would make fine partners, I thought — maybe even the entire first floor. Now I’m living in a city of eight and a half million people. How many of them do I suspect would make good partners? Probably three. And it’s hard to know which parties they’ll be at.
When the receiving line has cleared away, I manage to catch Logan alone for a moment. “Your singing was something else,” I say. “It was beautiful. It really was.”
“I can’t believe I did it. I wanted it to be a surprise. I think it meant a lot to Jerri.”
“If it didn’t, as sworn protector of your vows, I must counsel divorce.”
“So soon? But I was just starting to enjoy marriage.”
“Do it now, while everyone’s still here. That’s a band-aid you don’t want to pull off slowly.”
We laugh, and Logan says, “I trust you’re having a good time.”
“Your wedding is a theme park of the women I could have married.”
“Just be happy we didn’t invite Judith” — the redhead with the talent for talking to ghosts.
“She’s a sorceress now, you know,” I tell him. “Literally. I saw her website.”
“We only invited three exes,” Logan says. “You should thank us — we could have invited Liz, too.”
“The one that got away.”
“They all got away, Andrew.”
What is it with guys who are unwilling to commit? Is it really fear of intimacy, as legions of self-help books would have us believe? Or is it a chosen path? I’ve never had marriage in my sights, never longed for children, never held dear an image of sitting beside someone in a rocking chair fifty years from now. What I’ve hungered for is connection. “What you want,” Ellen once told me, half exasperated, half charmed, “is intimacy and intensity — but no commitment.” She was right. And why not? Wasn’t I thereby outsmarting the great male dilemma? I was in touch with my feelings and actively cultivating intimacy but keeping my edge and my freedom. When I was twenty-eight, this felt like an accomplishment. But now that I’m pushing forty, it seems like a weakness of the soul.
It wasn’t a problem until everyone I know started getting married. Why’d they have to do that? Can’t we all just live forever in serial monogamy — one tender, loving, heartbreaking, challenging, life-transforming relationship after another? And in between, maybe a little rebound with that lovely redhead I’ve had my eye on, maybe a one-night stand or two, and then on to the next experience. I never cheated on my girlfriends; I just kept the door slightly ajar, my options always open. And it worked for my entire life. Until it didn’t. Until the accumulated loss outpaced the promise of adventure. It’s been years since I’ve been in a serious relationship.
The cake is cut, and Logan and Jerri feed each other the first slices. Applause. Laughter. Pictures. Who are all these childhood friends from Denver and second cousins from Flint, Michigan? Some of them are women. Some of them must be single. Why do none of them seem remotely interesting to me?
Maybe it’s not freedom or heartbreak that’s got me tied up in knots, but hubris. The secret of happiness, according to the Greek philosopher-novelist Nikos Kazantzakis, is “a simple, frugal heart.” But in these postmodern times our hearts are anything but frugal. Too many of us have become experience junkies and emotional consumers, always comparison shopping with an eye toward trading up.
Sure, I can play humble, but I’ve probably got a subterranean ego the size of Idaho. I’ve been approaching women as if I were scouting talent for a movie about myself. The girls come in for auditions, perform their scene, maybe pay a visit to the casting couch. But there’s always some reason — not enough cheekbone, too chatty, couldn’t quite nail the accent — for me to cross them off the list. “We’ll keep your résumé on file,” I tell them. “Something might come up.” My life story is such an epic masterpiece, how could any one leading lady play opposite me?
Maybe behind all this ambivalence lies the real master of ceremonies: death. Saying, “Till death do us part,” means you’re going to die. Maybe people who can commit are just less afraid to die.
Dinner is ending. People drift from table to table, drinks in hand. A cluster of friends — Ellen, Alison, and Mary among them — chat breezily while keeping an eye on their young charges. It’d be one thing if there were a raft of divorces among them; if their marriages were wracked by sordid affairs, midlife crises, domestic violence, and kids with ADD — that would mesh with my darkest expectations. But these couples are hanging together, and everyone seems pretty happy. How do they make it look so easy?
The woman with the raised-then-contracted eyebrows is standing nearby, surveying the scene. She’s alone. Maybe her husband is off getting her a drink. I say hello. She nods back. Her eyebrows seem to be in neutral. Scratch that; they seem a little drunk.
“All so pretty,” she says vaguely.
I try to make conversation: “You and your husband have a few little ones back home?”
“I don’t have a husband. I don’t need a husband.”
“I was just —”
“But I am looking.” She says this with drunken seriousness. “I’ve even subscribed to this online service. It’s called ‘Goodgenes.com.’ ”
Now it’s my eyebrows that are raised. “Are they all, like, gymnasts or something?”
“No.” She seems a little embarrassed.
“Ivy Leaguers who can’t get a date?”
“Who are ready. Who know what they want.”
“And, um, what do you want?”
“Just like that, huh?”
“Pretty much. Just like that. You?”
A little while later Michael and I go for a stroll. Nature has exhibited perfect timing: it rained while we were inside eating dinner, and now across the valley is a picture-book double rainbow.
“Must have had a great wedding planner,” Michael says, admiring the colors.
“You’d think it would cost extra for a double,” I say.
We walk the perimeter of the farm, a long white fence to our left.
“Meet anyone?” he asks.
“You were talking to somebody. Dark hair.”
He means eyebrows. “The ones looking for sperm and a ring scare me.”
“What about that cutie in the blue dress?”
“I thought you liked books.”
“Reading them. Writing them, maybe.”
We talk about the different traits we look for in a potential partner: intellect, looks, sexuality, emotions, life situation. “My mom says I won’t accept anything less than perfection,” I say. “Logan thinks it’s just an excuse to avoid commitment.”
“We want so much,” Michael says.
“I’m not asking for everything.”
“No, just almost everything.”
“It would be nice,” I say.
“Sure, but if she’s that great, then she’ll be with someone else.”
“What if we were shipwrecked on a desert island together?” I say.
“Never happen,” insists Michael.
“She’d have no choice then.”
“Trapped in an elevator?”
“It’s really the only way to have quality time with unattainable women.”
Michael isn’t buying it, but I think she’d have to talk to you. You could reveal yourself naturally, over time, trapped in an elevator with the perfect woman, the one who doesn’t know yet that you are perfect for her too, in your own imperfect way. The kind of woman who is too gorgeous or too together or too famous to give you the time of day were it not for a fortuitous elevator malfunction. The two of you would be stuck together in this claustrophobic, sweaty box — just you and her. At first she’d be put out, aloof. But then after the building manager shouted from the floor above that it would likely be hours before anything could be done, she’d settle in and make the best of it. And at some point you’d say something like “Sorry about the view; it’s the only room they had.” And she’d relax. And you’d tell each other the kind of basic biographical data two people share in such situations: how you are a near-forty-year-old, underemployed humor writer, and she is a thirty-five- — no, thirty-three- — year-old model and dancer, with a PhD in theology and a lovely apartment in the West Village. And she just broke up with Matt Damon. You would chat and tell stories, and after a few hours — because lunchtime has come and gone — her belly would make a tiny rumbling sound, and you would dig into your backpack and pull out a Snickers bar and offer it to her, and she would smile and take it but insist that you have half. You would refuse; she would insist; you would accept, but only half of the half. And this simple gesture would be like a window into your essential being, the real you, the person you know yourself to be, and she would see you and be touched just enough by what she saw that, when one of the cables snaps and the elevator suddenly lurches downward and the super and the firemen start shouting to each other on the floor above and you grab her by the elbow and look her steadily in the eye and say, It’s going to be OK, as you try not to shit your pants — that right there she’d fall for you: you, the short, underemployed humor writer whose nose is too big for his face; and her, this perfect woman, this ideal whip-smart soulful beauty, whom you found so emotionally, intellectually, sexually, and life-situationally magnificent that it would call forth the love that you knew was churning inside you, longing for a release toward some home outside itself, if only you had a few hours together trapped in a —
“No!” insists Michael.
We stroll back, the double rainbow now eclipsed by twilight. There are lights on in the barn. Dancing has begun.