Three writers reflect on the myriad challenges—and untold rewards—of romantic relationships.
Every time the cosmos threw us together, we found a way to avoid love. Until we both believed we deserved it.
By Pam Houston
Love against all odds. Show me the one that isn't. Especially if you are talking about life-bending, habit-breaking, soul-rocking, dig-in-and-work-at-it love.
In my own life, I was much more familiar with the other variety, the type of love in which everything starts out with a big bang and lots of exclamation points, where the relief of having somebody to go to the art museum/Avs game/Albertsons with turns the perfect stranger into the perfect partner overnight. Perfect that is, until the sex cools and conversation wanes, and he doesn't think it's sweet anymore to share the bed with an Irish wolfhound, and his deep love of Metallica stops being quite so quaint. If I had a dollar for every relationship in my life that lasted between nine and 12 months I could buy, well, at least my own admission to the art museum.
Then I met Greg. Or maybe I should say, I finally met Greg, because even though we have never lived in the same state, or hung out with the same people, whoever it is who's in charge of these things (Cupid? The cosmos? Goddess Diana?) had been trying to get us to meet for years. As it turns out, we were at the same banquet at a conference in Denver all the way back in 1990. In 1998 he came to my tiny town of Creede to fly-fish on the ranch adjacent to mine. We appear in the same photograph from the Taos Writers' Conference in 2006, and it was at a conference in 2007 that we shared a stage (me reading fiction, Greg reading poetry) and therefore couldn't avoid meeting. When we sat down and started talking, we literally talked all night.
To try to re-create our conversation would be impossible, but what I can say is that it felt less like a conversation that began and ended and more like a river that had been flowing right beside us all along, and we finally had the good sense to jump in.
He told me the story of the last 10 years of his life, a series of events so devastating that he insisted that he could no longer "have a life," let alone love again. He told me he felt like an entirely incomprehensible person, but I could tell, even as he said it, he suspected he was comprehensible to me. He told me he had made a decision, just days before, that maybe it hadn't (after all) been the cosmos' intention to kill him, that if he kept on trying to read the messages, it might lead to something good.
I told him about my last decade, 66 countries on assignment and 100,000 flight miles a year, a gnawing fear about what would happen when I ran out of geography, that I might die of loneliness if I stopped. I told him about the time in Massachusetts when I had asked for a sign and a dapper little man had come down the jetty with his sweater-clad Westie—right then—and told me I was a good person. I told him about how the sky opened up in a soybean field and filled me with unspeakable happiness, how I saw in my mind's eye a pair of cupped, waiting hands, and knew they offered solace and help.
"These hands?" he said, pulling a greeting card from his briefcase that had a picture of the very same hands on the front.
Before I go any further, let me say that I grew up in New Jersey, and Greg grew up in West Texas, and neither of us is all that comfortable with the language of the new age, not to mention the way it is used—like any religion—as an agent of control. And yet, the older I get the more the scientifically inexplicable becomes increasingly undeniable, in medicine, in communication, in love.
That first night I saw a hole in Greg's chest, and put my hand there. Together we sat very still and waited for it to get light.
When the sun rose I did what any levelheaded Jersey girl would do. I threw my books and my clothes and my Irish wolfhound, Fenton, into the 4-Runner, and put as much distance as I could between me and the man who would never love again. By the time I was back in cell phone range, safely across the Colorado border, I had two voice messages from Greg.
It was the wolfhounds who taught me about love against all odds in the first place, the way they die so young, and usually from cancer. I had vowed to hang in there with Fenton's uncle Dante right to the end—physically, financially, emotionally—and though at the time I thought the grief might kill me, the lessons have turned out to be the most valuable of my life.
Fenton had his chin on my shoulder while I listened to my voice mails, his soulful brown eyes bearing down on me in the rearview mirror.
"Just because I can, doesn't mean I have to," I told him, but we both knew I was bluffing. Greg and I had already jumped into the river. In every detail of his struggle, I recognized my own.
The first six months were a little like juggling hand grenades; the next six, more like living next door to people who are juggling hand grenades. Take two people with abandonment issues, throw in a deep commitment to relational honesty, add long distance and a pinch of the metaphysical—you've got a Molotov cocktail with the potential for the deepest, richest, most truthful and multifaceted connection imaginable. Even when it seemed like there was no way forward, Greg and I were never mean to each other. Even when it seemed like we had lost all connection, the dominant feeling between us was love.
One late night during those first crazy six months, both of us were exhausted and cried out, having decided to give up for good. With my car packed and running and only the wolfhound left to load, I came back into Greg's apartment to find Fenton plastered to the leather couch, completely unresponsive. This from the dog who stations himself next to the door at the first appearance of a suitcase, hiking shoe, or car key, the dog who always crawls straight into my lap at the first tearful quavering of my voice.
"Fenton," I said, "come on. Let's go."
He lifted his eyebrow, snuggled deeper into the couch. "Fenton, right now, bud," I said, again.
He groaned and stretched but didn't budge. "Fenton," I said, "move it!"
I called him four more times before Greg and I looked at each other helplessly. Whatever it was that wanted us together had successfully recruited Fenton. We gave each other a shaky smile and a hug, and climbed the stairs to bed.
These days, the hand grenades sit quietly in the closet. The hardest part for me to believe is the very most straightforward: We worked really hard for a long time, and then things got better. I knew that could work with horses, dogs, and girlfriends, but I didn't know it was possible with a spouse. Greg never says he has no life anymore, and I no longer have to hide my loneliness by pretending I have a huge one. Fenton is as pleased as can be on all fronts.
Pam Houston is a creative-writing teacher and the author of four books, including the novel Sight Hound. E-mail her at email@example.com.