Sometimes you lose when you bet the farm on love. But rest assured, you'll be back for more.
Thursday, February 14, 2002
But it always, always gets better. A kind friend brings over a Gloria Gaynor album and sings along to the world''s greatest comeback tune: "At first I was afraid/ I was petrified/ Just thinkin'' I could never live without you by my side..." The appetite returns. A period of wild plan-making ensues: Why not move to the Seychelles, now that the old ball ''n'' chain''s not there to hold you back? And then one day, you are somewhere with friends doing something not entirely tortuous, and you become aware of someone kind of cute standing right over there, someone fascinating who makes the slumbering part of you open its eyes, shake off sleep and realize it is very, very hungry.
And like lemmings to the sea, like mothers whose brains erase the pains of childbirth, back we go to the sloppy primordial soup of human love, there to feast until we''re sated. Mm-mm good.
In praise of the people who refuse to wise up.
By Kelly Luker
"A lobotomy," Kimberly says, half-laughing, half-sobbing. "I need a fucking lobotomy."
We''ve had this conversation at least a half-dozen times over the 15 years we''ve known each other. Sometimes she''s the one ready to line up a brain surgeon, sometimes it''s me. Only the motivation remains the same. It''s never a lousy job, a flat tire or health problems that make us want to rip the top of our skulls off and remove the part of our brain that refuses to shut up.
Only one thing can make us this crazy, and this time his name is Brian.
Kimberly''s voice echoes tinnily through the cell phone propped under my neck as I ease the car seat back. Parked in front of Safeway, I watch the early morning shoppers scurry through the automatic doors, then scurry out later with plastic bags.
I take another sip out of the commuter mug and settle in for a long one.
Kimberly met this Mr. Right the same place she met the last three--online. Like two out of the last three, Brian was anointed within a week after introductions as Kimberly''s soulmate. He was her missing half, the man she had been searching for her whole life. Within three weeks after clicking off that first email to each other, they had tentatively set a wedding date for May.
But here it is a month or so later and Brian wants to slow it down a little. Try as she might, Kimberly can only hear that he''s done with her.
It''s tempting to slap a trendy label on my friend''s dilemma, to dismiss her as codependent or dysfunctional, troubled by unresolved abandonment issues.
That''s all probably true. But buried somewhere beneath those DSM-III diagnoses is what I also know to be true about Kimberly: she loves more fiercely and completely than I could ever hope to.
Maybe it was that round with cancer and chemotherapy a few years ago, or maybe it was doing time in a marriage with an emotional corpse for 10 years, but Kimberly somewhere along the line stopped wasting time with the courtship dance. She didn''t know when the clock would strike and the carriage would turn back into a pumpkin, but she wasn''t taking any chances.
I study a group of young Latino men streaming out of Safeway, clutching their steaming coffee and waxy pastry bags. They will take up posts around the parking lot, hoping that someone drives by looking for day laborers. Taking another hit off my mug, I wonder what I can tell my friend.
I can remind her what I said after her heartbreak from David--that there''s a price for tearing off your protective skin too soon and laying your heart on the table. When I was a few years older than she is now, I finally discovered this. But Kimberly already learned that a long time ago. She just doesn''t have the time to waste playing it safe.
I wish I could join the chorus of personal growth junkies who would caution her to set boundaries, to wise up and put the brakes on.
But the truth is, I envy her passion.
In our carefully sanitized, therapeutically approved, Oprah-fied approach to relationships nowadays, we''ve gained the upper hand on the demon passion. Like good little Calvinists, we fight distressing emotions that we cannot control, looking to psychology tomes for spiritual guidance.
It worked for me. The combination of a few too many days spent in the I''m Okay, You''re Okay section of the bookstore and a few too many nights losing sleep over my version of David or Brian taught me that passion wasn''t worth it.
I''ve been seeing the same guy for more than six months and I couldn''t tell you whether he wants kids or not, if he''s ever been engaged or what frightens him the most. He tells me he has green eyes, but I wouldn''t know. I just never looked that closely.
As Kimberly wraps up by telling me she has to get her kids off to school, I glance down at my shopping list and mentally add a few other things before I lock up the car and step through the grocery store''s automated doors.
Maybe the next call will be Kimberly telling me that it''s over. Maybe she''ll be in tears, devastated again. But I like to believe the next call will be my girlfriend telling me to jump on a plane to San Diego for the nuptials. And we''ll celebrate and live like there''s no tomorrow.
But for Kimberly, I guess, that''s nothing new.
The Odd Couple
How an unusual friendship reinvented itself.
By C. Kevin Smith
We are told that love comes in all shapes and sizes, colors, kinds and creeds, but come Valentine''s Day, how many of us really believe it? This holiday, like so many others, has come to seem commercially retrofitted, shrink-wrapped and stamped with a very important message from its sponsor: If you''re not spending the 14th of February with someone "special," preferably young and attractive and of the opposite sex, surrounded by heart-shaped chocolates and long-stemmed roses and afloat in a mood of dewy romance, well, better luck next year.
Yet I suspect that everyone has felt at one time or another that she doesn''t count, that his love relationships don''t measure up to the standard of romantic perfection everyone else seems to be enjoying. So in the spirit of making the pleasures of Saint Valentine available to everyone, I offer this story, the tale of two friends who helped me understand the endless varieties of love.
Clarence and Teddy (not their real names) met several years ago when Clarence was referred to Teddy, who was a masseur, as part of a new medical regimen. Clarence, a retired English professor in his early seventies, had recently been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin''s lymphoma; Teddy was in his mid-twenties, uncertain about the direction his life would take.
During those first sessions, Clarence would chat up a storm while Teddy listened intently. Most people like to lie quietly while being massaged, but as Teddy kneaded health and healing into Clarence''s troubled body, the older man would ask the younger one questions, recount stories, offer opinions, talk about art he had seen, places he had visited, books he had read, musical performances he had attended. It was a vast world of culture and experience, intimidatingly foreign to Teddy, who listened and nodded and reminded Clarence to take deep breaths.
Eventually Clarence''s gregarious spirit broke through Teddy''s reserve, and the two began to spend time together. Clarence would take Teddy to plays, and Teddy would invite Clarence to Sunday brunches with his other young friends. Imperceptibly, each slowly came to be the person the other enjoyed spending time with the most. Soon they were taking trips together: Hawaii, Mexico, New York. You know that moment when you have been hanging out with someone, and then one day you realize that there is absolutely no one else as interesting or fun or warm or inviting as that person, no one else you''d rather spend time with? That''s how it was with Clarence and Teddy.
Clarence''s friends marveled at this unconventional friendship, and were grateful for the obvious health and happiness it seemed to bring him. There was, no doubt, a certain odd-couple dynamic between them. Yet it was a dynamic that was forever shifting. Each was always teaching the other. One minute Clarence could seem fussily closed-minded, loudly declaring, for example, that no music of any value had been written since 1809, the year of Franz Joseph Haydn''s death. And yet it was he who gently encouraged Teddy to be more open to the world, less judgmental of others, to soften his sometimes rigid beliefs, which were really only a manifestation of his inexperience.
What united them most of all was their mutually boundless generosity towards each other, a quality without which any love is doomed.
Clarence and Teddy had a love affair that challenges the words we would use to describe it. More than friends, yet not quite lovers (their relations were never sexual), each had a profound impact on the other. When the end finally came, Clarence was devastated. It was the freedom of their friendship that had led Teddy out of his shell, and he was now ready to meet another man, one his own age. At first, Clarence felt bitter and betrayed.
"I feel tossed and bloodied and full of holes," he wrote me, as if Cupid had this time unloaded his entire quiver of arrows into Clarence with dreadful force, the tender pinpricks of love and muted desire now raw, painful wounds. Those were dark days for Clarence.
But Teddy, with great delicacy, love, and respect, stuck it out. Holding Clarence''s hand, he led them both through the emotional minefield of their transition to a different kind of relationship. He knew that it was not just about Clarence''s pride, or his jealousy, or his sadness over what was lost. The break-up was also a reminder of his age, of the impossibility of it all. Of time running out.
As it happened, there was even less time left than we had hoped.
Two years ago, on Christmas Day, Clarence''s formally dormant cancer became abruptly virulent. His health collapsed. He died five weeks later.
Teddy was there with Clarence those last weeks. Dozens of people called, sent flowers, visited, brought food. Teddy gave the best gift of all, just being there in the same room, urging one more sip of Ensure on his dying friend, massaging his feet and legs as he had done when they first met, years before.
Clarence had always dreamed of finding someone who would love him above all others. This he never had. But in Teddy he found an enduring loyalty, a loving fidelity that would bind the young man to the older man right up to his last, rattling breath.
One thing Clarence and Teddy had in common was a passion for birds. Indeed, it was when each disclosed to the other a secret delight in chickens--chickens!--that the ice was finally broken and they began having lunch together. In reading about Valentine''s Day, I recently came across several poems that equate the holiday with the mating of birds. John Gay writes in The Shepherd''s Week of "Last Valentine, the day when birds of kind / Their paramours with mutual chirpings find." Even in the 14th century, Chaucer is explaining love affairs by evoking "Saint Valentine''s day, when every bird cometh to choose his mate." And Shakespeare has one character in A Midsummer Night''s Dream ask, "Saint Valentine is past--Begin these wood birds but to couple now?"
No one would say that chickens are romantic. Yet to Clarence and Teddy, a marvelous afternoon could be spent together, sitting on a bench under an oak tree in someone''s country yard, watching the hens and roosters tread noisily amidst the dirt and grass, the colorful birds seeming somehow both industrious and clueless, determined, yet vaguely lost.
I say there is room in this world for chickens as well as picturesque love birds, for awkward, unusual love affairs as well as storybook romances, room for Clarence and Teddy and all those like them. I say that love is more precious than our behavior would sometimes lead one to believe, and that any love pursued honestly is worth celebrating. Sometimes the love that breaks our heart also shows us how to put it back together again.
Love in the Time of Cosmopolitans
Spying on the hopeful lovelorn in a martini bar.
By Brett Wilbur
There''s giant anthropomorphic olive art decorating Lallapalooza restaurant and martini bar--and men, men, men everywhere this Thursday evening in Monterey. Women dot the male landscape at tables in the dining area, but the clear majority is male. Large packs of men huddle at the varnished wood bar, slurping drinks and watching the news on TV. Two guys stand talking near the Alvarado Street entrance and are nabbed as unscientific samples of the male population for this brief study of the bar scene.
John and David are over from Salinas to grab a few beers and check out the possibilities. Both men are in agriculture and divorced two years ago. Both were cheated on by their ex-wives. Both are bitter.
"It''s hard to start over at this age," says John, an attractive 37-year-old, with a distasteful expression on his face. "We work 15 hours a day, six days a week. We''re responsible for house payments--it''s not our game to date." He looks over at a group of guys in their early twenties. "Put me back in college--that was a cinch."
"Women are difficult," says David, 30, who has a more worn-out look than his buddy. "They cause more gray hair." David noticed red flags in his marriage when he discovered his wife had purchased sexy lingerie. "''Wait a minute, you never wore a G-string before,''" he remembers complaining. "Then it was like, ''Okay, can''t I see you in it before you move out?''"
David and John laugh, then fall silent. David has found that being a single dad makes dating difficult. "The first two girlfriends I had I didn''t introduce to my daughter," he says. "The third one tried to correct my daughter, and it''s not her place."
David grows quiet again and looks blankly at the men in the restaurant--men who seem to be waiting for something. "There''s three-to-one guys to girls here in Monterey," he says. "Go ahead and count!"
We stand on the bench seat and count the dining area: 20 guys, four girls. David stares at his beer. "I''m not going to get married again," he says. "What''s the use of marriage?"
The issue for these two doesn''t necessarily seem to be finding someone, but the effort of creating a new relationship at this point in their lives. "The unfortunate part is a lot of other women have to pay for my ex''s sins," John says. "I''ve met a lot of nice people and pushed them away."
Both men blame a family pattern for their ex-wives'' decisions to divorce them. "I think people who grow up with divorced parents find it a lot easier when it happens to them," says John, who believes his religion made him take his marriage vows more seriously. "For me, divorce is not an option. This doesn''t happen."
Sherry, a beautiful 22-year-old with a friendly smile, is leaning on the bar chatting with a friend who waitresses. She hasn''t had a boyfriend since high school, but still believes in love.
"It''s not worth it to try here--most people I already know, or they''re from out of town and it''s not going to work out," she says. "It''s like a 100-to-one ratio guys to girls, but the choices are not that great. The men hanging out here looking for women look at almost every girl who walks by."
James Roberts, 33, divorced father of two and general manager of Lallapalooza, sees people looking for an emotional connection that a bar scene is unlikely to provide. "When people come into an establishment looking for some sort of an emotional response, they''re not going to receive it," he says.
Roberts, a big teddy bear of a man, leans over the bar and looks intently into my eyes. "When you''re just being yourself, and not trying to envelop yourself into the scene--that''s when you find it."
Bartender Joanne Ziegler, 24, watches the "meat market" at Lallapalooza unfold nightly before her eyes. "It''s funny how alcohol makes such a difference in people," she says. "When you drink, your guard comes down and you think someone is a little cuter than they are," she says. "Then you wake up and say, ''Oh no, what have I done?''"
"One-night flings aren''t as socially acceptable as before," Roberts says. "People are actually starting to learn it does emotional damage." Even with this positive trend, Ziegler can find it depressing to see the same regulars night after night. "This is the last place I want to be when I''m not working," she says. "I want to be at home."
But then again, Ziegler is in love. "It''s a cheesy story," she says. "My best friend and I are dating identical twin brothers." Ziegler doubts love can be found in a bar, but finds it humorous to watch the mating dance performed. "The guys are showing off to each other, trying to be witty to the girls," she says. "Then the girls dog them and they say, ''Aw, she was ugly anyway.'' Then I hear them use the same line on the next girl!"
Does she have any bartenderly advice on love? "Once you find it, keep it," Zieg- ler says. "You''ll know it if you have it."
For all the official pessimism, all the bargoers interviewed swear that they believe in love. "I''m a nice person and I go to bars," says John. "Maybe someone else will too."
First loss recalled.
By Traci Hukill
In some ways Nikolai was the hardest. He''s the one who almost did me in.
I adored him from the start. He was handsome and affectionate, the perfect gentleman. Though I could only assume he''d suffered some unspeakable trauma, he was so sweet-tempered and gentle that I felt ashamed of my own self-pity, and I opened my heart to him.
I was 10, and Nikolai was a silver tabby. He was also a rebound kitty. I had just lost a cat to the arterial speedway that thundered past our house in service to the mighty suburban plan, and I was still devastated. The heartache that domesticated animals can wreak on kids is tremendous. It''s the first ugly practice run through the bramble of grief.
Harold was one of the all-time great cats, a love bug, a snuggler, a fancy man with a crook in his tail that looked when he passed by like a periscope floating on the air. When he failed to show up for dinner one night, and then again the next night, we launched the sort of helpless, desperate campaign that families always do when they know one of their own probably isn''t coming back. Signs were hastily drawn up at the kitchen table using notebook paper and a smelly black magic marker. Grimly my father and I cruised the neighborhood in the family wagon, peering into the dark, calling to our dapper tabby. Finally, on the third night, we spotted Harry lying stiff and arched in a yard across Comanche Boulevard. His neck was broken. I could see that one of his canines had punctured his tongue. He had almost made it home.
He wasn''t even the first. About a year before Harry''s death, there was Maudie''s. She, too, had simply vanished one summer evening. We never found her, though somehow my mother formulated the theory that she had "gotten into something" in someone''s garage and "crawled off to die." I held out hope for a while that she would just show up one day, but even I knew that wish was useless.
So it was with halting hope that I accepted Nikolai into my heart. I felt nervous when I first peered through the sickly green light of the animal shelter''s cat ward and laid eyes on Nikolai, lying calmly amid his frantically yowling fellows. He looked like Harry--no accident, that--but he was less of a dandy, more of a blue-collar cat. It was different than with Harry, yet I was soon hooked just the same.
But days after we brought him home, he began to seem listless. Reaching for the phone one afternoon, I almost stepped in a small pool of vomit. Later that evening he was sick several more times. We took him to the vet. Nikolai had feline distemper, advanced and incurable, picked up during his three weeks in the squalor of the animal shelter.
He went downhill fast. At the end of two days he could not drag himself to the litter box. The last day I spent in a chair in the living room, feeding bullion and water through a medicine dropper to a weak bundle wrapped in a towel, blubbering the whole time.
I cried because it was inconceivable that an innocent animal could suffer so much, and I cried from rage. The injustice was appalling--first Maudie, then Harry, now this! I resolved to harden my heart. I would not be the chump, a fool for cats, with their hidden viruses and dangerous habits! I swore off all creatures, great and small. My days as a pet lover were finished! It was bitterness with training wheels.
Then, a year later, I unwittingly conducted a different sort of rehearsal for the future. I relented. "One more chance," I thought, though I had conditions: the candidate could not have done time in the pound. And it would be an indoor cat.
As it happened, kittens were on sale at a local pet store for $1.89. A few tiny furballs wrestled in a cage behind the glass--a rambunctious black one, a long-haired tabby and, off to the side, a black and white female that looked more gentle than the rest.
"See any you like?" asked the clerk, a motherly woman wearing a pink smock. I pointed to the black and white kitten.
"Can I see that one?"
Czarina lived to a ripe old age. She was a house cat, seemingly by preference, though eventually I overcame my paranoia and let her outside. Her first time in the back yard she crept through the grass, eyes huge, tail twitching furiously, and I imagined I knew how she was feeling: alive and alone in a strange and wondrous world with so many mysteries, so many secrets, so many difficult things.
Illustration by Jeremy Swan