When I was younger I often said that my hobby was being crossed in love.
Despite the flippant tone in which I always said this, it was no joke. Every day, sometimes every hour of the day, I ached, I pined for my love; I wept rivers—no, whole oceans of salt tears; I brooded, I raged; I plotted strategies to put myself in his way, to charm him, to seduce him, to win him—the him of the moment.
Compulsively I cast the I Ching and laid out the Tarot cards, trying to determine the nature, or the depth, or the existence of his feelings for me, asking the same questions over and over when I didn’t like the answers. I drew up charts comparing our natal horoscopes to prove that we were fated to be together. I poured out my heart in journals and in letters sent or unsent, letters almost always better unsent.
For thirty years my life was defined not by the man I loved—even as a sentimental girl I was too much a feminist for that—but by my passion for him, a passion blind and selfish enough to rival any sexist pig’s objectification of a woman.
My first two husbands and the assorted lovers before, between and after them, were alike only in their inability or unwillingness to give me what I thought I needed from them, to be what I wanted them to be. It seemed I chose them partly by accident, partly for their potential to feed my appetite for drama, which they did primarily by not fulfilling their assigned roles in my scenarios.
Truly, my perennial misery about some lover, or ex-lover, or wished-for lover was far more than a hobby: it was an art form—one of the dramatic arts, of course. At the peak of my virtuosity I could, and did, agonize deeply, sincerely, and simultaneously, over three separate relationships.
How did I fall into the habit of giving myself over to such devouring passions? How did I come to define myself for so many decades as, before all else, a woman in love? Did I spend too much time, at too impressionable an age, listening to Piaf and Bessie Smith and Judy Garland albums? Did I read too much romantic poetry, too many love stories, too many fairy tales? But fairy tales have happy endings, and I chose relationships pretty much guaranteed not to end well.
In my forties I got some much-needed counseling, and in the process I recovered the memory of my childhood anguish at losing my father. He had come home from war in body but never in spirit, never again to be my beloved daddy. He was silent and morose, walking wounded, walking dead: a heart-broken, hard-drinking zombie, separated from me by a glass wall that shimmered at times with the heat of sudden rage. Five years later when he abandoned us, I was convinced that I didn’t care. By then I had erected my own glass wall against grief and fear, and taught myself to forget how we had once delighted in each other.
Recalling that delight and that grief so many years later, I understood at last that I had consistently gravitated to men who were emotionally unavailable for one reason or another, most of them addicted to alcohol or drugs, in a fruitless attempt to repair the part of my heart that broke when I was five, to revive by proxy the lost relationship with my father.
I would like to say that from that time forward I stopped compulsively falling in love with men who couldn’t or wouldn’t love me back, but seeing that a behavior is destructive and futile is never quite the same thing as actually giving it up. Meeting my father after thirty-six years’ absence did help me accept that I had lost him long ago, but I still had to pursue a few more bad romances before I could quit my hobby.
One day, when I was almost fifty years old, I realized that I had given it up. Imperceptibly, without effort or intention, I had simply grown busier with creative work, with earning a living, with friendships, with plans to travel and then with the travel itself, until I no longer had the time or the emotional energy—or rather, was no longer willing to spend so much of either—to support my past level of infatuation. Instead of a love-life, I realized, I had acquired a life.
And so, naturally, within a few years, I had both.
No longer compelled to be in love for the sake of being in love, becoming accustomed to an emotional climate of sober sanity, at last I was capable of seeing a man as he was, and so of loving him for himself instead of for his potential to fulfill my hunger for trouble.
The men in my past were all remarkable in their different ways, and loving each of them was an adventure. I learned from them much I needed to know about life—as well as much I could have happily gone the rest of my life without knowing. Each of them in his own way did love me, at least a little, and I will never regret loving them.
But oh, the way I loved them: you couldn’t pay me enough to go through all that again, and I expect the objects of my past affections feel much the same. I owe those men my heartfelt apologies, and also my eternal thanks, for if any one of them had managed to keep me just barely happy enough to stay with him, I would not have gone stumbling away blinded by my tears, stumbling on into the future until at last I was ready to meet a man to join me in a truly happy marriage.
So thanks, guys, for saving from myself by not getting between me and my mate, my true love, my lasting and at long last requited love.
And to you, Ian, my dear husband, Happy Valentine’s Day.