It took me fifty years to learn the difference between love and the thousand bad compromises that masquerade as love. I know, because over the decades I was involved in just about every variety of those sort-of-love relationships. Usually, I sailed through those romances with my emotional bags pre-packed. And, almost always, I left my partners half-destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn…well, at least, stunned and mystified at how a romance that seemed to be so solid turned out to have no foundation at all.
But, to me, there was nothing mysterious about it at all. Here is my confession, and the lessons I learned.
The unusual part of this story is, I was 35 years old when I first went out on a date. Not that I had been the world’s first Jewish priest, the celibate Father Moishe. Rather, my romantic life until age 35 had never involved dating.
Back when we hippies roamed the earth, I’d married a gal I met on a commune when I was 16; she was the first girl I’d ever kissed. And, when that marriage broke up, I fell naturally into a romance with a coworker who was a close friend. So, when that coworker broke off our engagement a few years later, I was that rarest of creatures: A 35-year-old man who had never been single, never had dated, never had experienced that odd tarantella by which two strangers somehow become lovers. No Improvised Explosive Device, left at a crowded roadside market, could have possibly been more dangerous.
On the one hand, I was fascinated by the courtship process. It was completely new to me. And, it was more than a little bit scary. I wanted to do it right, and I went at it the way a general plans a military campaign . Like some hirsute Carrie Bradshaw, I gathered my single friends around me and we talked endlessly about our searches for love. I kept a diary. I was thoroughly insufferable.
On the other hand, and for no fault but my own, I was incapable of accepting love. My childhood had taught me that the flip side of accepting love is experiencing abandonment and disappointment. I had become very accustomed to finding love, praise, and support in ways that did not require me to be vulnerable. When it came to romance, I had become expert in allowing myself to feel loved but holding myself aloof, distancing myself just enough that I would never risk disappointment. As I said: Dangerous.
I had a job, hair, teeth, and a house. Heck, I was a trial lawyer, with all my hair, all my teeth, and a really nice house in a snootily upscale town. And, I was tall, with a droll sense of humor, and with an inventory of fun ideas for evenings out and weekends away. I was, as they say in the law, an “attractive nuisance.”
I dated for fifteen years. Fifteen freaking years. This was not because I had trouble meeting women. A man in his late thirties or forties who is willing to date in his own age range will have no trouble finding potential mates. In fact, those years were sometimes a blur of condominium complexes (“I’m in unit 5E; park only in the spots marked ‘visitors’!”) and cute pet cats. And, as much for my demographics and availability than for my quick wit and dazzling smile, the passing of fifteen years was not because the women were at all elusive or standoffish.
No. The reason I dated for fifteen years was that I had not the first clue about what I was looking for. And, for that reason, like Joe Strummer, I was completely incapable of knowing whether to stay or to go. I never saw a future with any of the women I dated during these fifteen years. I never even imagined proposing marriage. Instead, I was happy just to keep company with them, often for years, ending things only when it became inescapably clear that the romance could not continue.
The end of this story takes place, of course, when love clobbered me over the head like a right cross from Daisy Mae on Sadie Hawkins Day. I’ve written often about why I fell in love with Barbara; but never about how unexpected and eye-opening it was.
When I met Barbara, I was dating a Russian woman from my town with magazine-model looks and an outspoken and businesslike desire for a wealthy man to care for her. During one of our dates, she confided in me: “Do you know what I hate? Cheap men!,” and she asked me whether I was willing to pursue a “five-star lifestyle.” Yet, despite her gleefully avaricious intentions –and despite how completely modest my tastes really are — I was prepared to keep company with her, hold her at arms’ length, until the conflict between her Robin Leach tastes and my Jack Benny wallet finally boiled over.
Meeting Barbara made one thing clear to me: There are a thousand ways in which a romance can be wrong, but there is only one way it can be right. As for all of the ways that a romance can be wrong, and as for the lessons I learned from fifteen years of counting those ways….well, that’s another thousand words, so this post is To Be Continued.