Lying face up like a mummy on a plastic mattress in the Nut is nobody’s idea of a good place to ponder the meaning of love, but when it’s all you’ve got, you go right ahead and ponder. You’ve got to think about when love first happens in order to understand how it got there, and you’ve got to think about when love ends in order to understand why it’s gone. It’s a slippery thing, isn’t it? Just when you think you’ve got your arms around it wrapped up all nice and tight, love shows up across the room, headed out the door. How did it get inside in the first place? That’s a good question. Let’s think back…
Can you remember your first love? Not your first crush, your first object of unbridled teenage lust. A real, true first love is so light and airy it’s almost like it’s not there. How did it happen, how did it feel? Could it be seen, like a cloud formation, or felt, like a cresting wave? Did your first love lift you up, or did it press you down, like the G forces of an accelerating plane? Did it have shape and color, or was it as invisible as wind? What was it, this thing you suddenly knew was filling a space in you where previously there had been nothing? Was it something conjured magically from the air? Was it a scrap of lace you brushed up against in the dark, stricken by its softness and power? Could you define it for yourself, or was it as nameless as a pebble in a stream, a raindrop in a storm? Did it even need definition, the certification of being held up to the light and examined with words? Or was first love so without anchor, without boundaries, that it refused to be captured and would submit only to being tested and abandoned?
It was August in Washington D.C., and it fell on you and Mary Gail like the stifling, humid air all around, smothering every cell in your bodies. There was a screen porch involved, and a padded chaise lounge on which two young bodies could just barely fit. There was no breeze. There was the cover of darkness and a sense of being the only two people in the universe, as alone together as a mother and child, as tightly entwined as a knot in a string. It was so quiet, heartbeats could be heard. It was so filled with anticipation and fear, it skirted foreboding. There was a sense of panic that if you broke the hold you had on this thing, you might never get it back, at least not in the same shape it was in right now. It was as if your heart was about to lift out of your chest like a helium filled balloon. You wanted it to last forever, it was that good. But it would come to an end, right? Hearts broken by the distance of moving away, the distractions of youth. You wanted it to happen again, so you went looking for it, didn’t you? Yeah, again and again, the thrill of the ride, the crushing disappointment when it coasted to a halt.
First love had to make way for all of the loves that followed. And what of those loves? Did they all have to end in broken hearts? Was a broken heart the logical end game to falling in love? You didn’t know, and there was no way in hell you could figure it out. All you knew was that the next time was different, and the next time, and the time after that. You grew a little older. Part of what aged you was being in love and losing love. Having your heart broken made you who you are as surely as falling in love in the first place.
Love lessons, one after the other: there were college girls who made your whole body ache; there was a girl when you were a lieutenant in the Army who was like a cloud of cotton candy, and just as sweet; there was an Older Woman so wise and beautiful and distant she seemed like a professor, an Einstein of love. There was an uptown lady, descended from Southern aristocracy, whose love was like a crystal goblet that would break with the gentlest tap. And then, standing in Plimpton’s apartment at a party one night, there was a regal being with dark, deep-set eyes and an aquiline nose who beheld the room as if it was her court, and you reacted like a love struck jester. She was the one who broke the mold, the one who blinded you like a dust devil, sweeping your heart up and spinning it round and round.
Falling in love that time took only a few quick steps: it was only a few weeks before you moved in together, only a few weeks more before you were up in Massachusetts meeting the family, and hardly a year went by before you got a loft in SoHo and established a home. It felt mature, even though you were both in your 20’s and everything you did was an imitation of the experience of others. You were living together, words which at the time were all you had to describe a serious romantic relationship. People who were dating were fooling around. You were committed.
But staying in love was another matter. How did you keep it going? Neither of you had a clue. Was it a lawn you had to sprinkle to keep green? A road you followed, watching the curves so your speed didn’t spin you into a ditch? What was that old saying? A watched pot will never boil? How much attention needed to be paid? Was it a sauce that needed seasoning, a pot of beans you had to stir keep from seizing and burning? Was love as Tina Turner said, river deep, mountain high?
The days were short and the nights were long and drugs didn’t live up to their promise, serving only to distort, not to enhance. Everything was fast. You hardly had time to relish a moment before it flashed by and was gone. In order to earn a living, each of you went sped away down separate roads, you writing an endless string of stories, she hitting the streets of New York running campaigns, tending to her own endless string of political egos. You bumped into each other at the Lion’s Head, occasionally at the dinner table, even in bed at the loft. And then you were gone again, off to write about terrorism in the Middle East, or naked in a hot spring outside Aspen at 13,000 feet, high on thin air, mescaline and the gorgeous blonde you hiked up there with. The idea that love needed maintenance to endure didn’t occur to you until it was too late. Broken hearts, yes, but were they stronger, wiser? Not a chance.
Who was to blame? You were, of course, convinced as you were that impatience and feeling indestructible trumped tenderness, caution, even the passage of time. Lacy bras and microscopic panties fell to the ground like fall leaves, and you didn’t even take the time to rake them up. Spring was always just around the corner in an even shorter skirt and higher heels, with big, eager eyes beneath mascaraed lashes peering at you dangerously in the dark. Prince of the city? Hell, you were prince of the universe keeping your options open as if entitled. Then you fell in love again and you got married for the first time, and it flew by like a freight train. High on cocaine, driving that train, Casey Jones you better watch your speed. But did you? Nope, and the collision ahead down the tracks banged both of you up good, leaving behind scars and nightmares and fear. Was it your fault? Of course it was. Did you learn anything? Nope, and so like a lumbering beast you stumbled forward, broken but unbound and as you approached middle age about as wise as a puppy off his leash.
And now here you are on that plastic mattress in the nut. Another marriage gone belly-up, decades long this time, with 3 beautiful kids in its wake. And what of it this time? Your fault? Of course it was. You’re marching through middle age into your 60’s just about as clueless as you were in your 20’s and 30’s. She’s sending all these signals, and they’re bouncing off you like police radar, showing your speed to someone else instead of you.
You don’t move on from a broken marriage and a broken heart. You end up.