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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Away with Words
In love, there is more than one way to be known.
By Cara McDonald
We hadn't seen each other in a few days, and we were doglike in our single-minded anticipation of being together again. And so Igor wrote, at the end of his e-mail: "I will be at the door, waging the tale, waiting for you."
I file this away like I do other written treasures, to read again for their meaning, both literal and implied.
Igor is Czech, not a poet, although sometimes the one makes him accidentally the other. And while he begs me to correct his English, I can't bring myself to do it; I'm afraid he'll tuck the right answer away in his mind and that no tales will be waged again. Likewise the extra articles, the malapropisms, the sweet little confusions that upend his meaning—which am I, he asks, "suspicious" or "superstitious?"
Though I delight in these words turned sideways, our language difference has been a source of concern—can he keep up? Will we get each other? I have always identified too much with words and their ability to express the mind behind them. I couldn't throw a ball from the outfield to first base, but I read a lot, I wrote a lot, and in time came to believe that my thoughts, and the ability to articulate them, were who I was.
Certainly words had determined the course of my life. The reader became a writer and a teacher, and I found myself working in Japan as an English instructor. There was one student, a young woman, whom I taught for three years; by the time my suitcase was packed for the trip back to America, she was fluent in the lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel, could discuss politics and gender issues, negotiate, tell jokes, and share deep feelings all in English. Triumphant, I asked her how she felt now that she could speak so beautifully. "Well," she said, "in English, I now can say 10 percent of who I am." The other 90, I realized, would take more than a lifetime. I left more convinced than ever that to be fluent was to fully exist.
It's no surprise that I looked for love, or at least a tribal belonging, among readers, writers, those who treated their verbal dexterity and skill as holy. I would have no sooner looked for a partner in a sports bar than I would have looked for someone whose language ability wasn't the same as mine. The halting, childlike sentences, the lack of shared cultural references—how on earth would we ever be whole to each other?
But then: I found Igor to be beautiful, with an unvarnished kindness and a habit of showing up for dinner with daisies or a six-pack of Pilsner in hand. We met in the mountains; he stuck with me politely while I gasped through a nasty stretch of single-track. And though our early conversations were filled with the usual eager sharing, I wondered out loud if we'd have anything in common once we'd burned through our stories of difference.
Our early dating became a series of conversations about Where We Stood, and What Our Intentions Are. Everything was said, said, said again—but I want to be clear, I insisted, I want you to know me. Igor wanted to show me his favorite place on the side of a mountain, and make me fried cauliflower and schnitzel, and recite a Baudelaire poem he still remembered from school.
So he did, and I followed, and ate, and understood, little by little, what it meant to be with him—on wooded trails soaked with spring snow, on the couch watching documentaries about grizzly bears, in his arms at night where I finally learned to fall asleep letting myself be held. I came to evaluate each day as its own thing, the stack of good days always outweighing the bad, and love becoming clear no matter what I wanted to call it.
We spent our second Christmas together with the knowledge that he had an engagement ring with him, somewhere; we'd discussed marriage, even the ring itself, but it hadn't been presented, not on Christmas, and not on New Year's Eve, as I expected. The holiday season made him homesick and withdrawn. "You know," he said, "you're not Czech, I am. You'll never understand."
I would hold onto him until I could, then. I cracked open a book, one with the 200 questions every couple must ask before marriage, and we grimly worked our way through them at the kitchen counter. Joint bank account or not? How much is too much to drink? Do your parents express affection? The coffee cooled as we hashed out our expectations, me sketching a life together, painting it for him with words, hoping if we talked it over he would see it too. At last he stood up, pushing the bar stool behind him, and left the room.
Then he came back. Igor pulled me down next to him on the couch and took a small wooden box out of his pocket. Quietly, he held it out to me. There was nothing left to be said.
E-mail Cara McDonald at email@example.com.
Another Kind of Love
That they were mismatched was a massive understatement. That it worked became the lesson of a lifetime.
By Laura Pritchett
As supporting evidence of my parents' basic incompatibility, I could point to the fact that all nine of us children have uttered phrases such as how is it possible, why do you think they bothered to...stay together. I could also list my favorite topics of arguments from my childhood, from the mundane (whether to sell a certain bull, where to plant the peas in the garden) to the equally mundane (faith, money, child-rearing). Or I could list the ways they've solved these arguments: Once, one abandoned the other in a town across the mountains, thus requiring a hitchhike home (which took a couple of days). Once, one lugged the other's furniture out into the lawn with a sign offering it for a dollar. Or I could list the particular traits that set them apart: my mother's propensity to have a fledging pigeon in the kitchen or a calf in the laundry room, no doubt products of her dominant rescue-gene; or my father's propensity to calmly whistle a tune while methodically castrating calves or peacefully irrigating, products of his dominant calm-gene. Or I could list their basic different qualities: calm versus ferocious, rule follower versus rule breaker, or, mainly, silent versus talker. (My father's "solution to the marriage," as he puts it, was borrowed from Chief Joseph: "I shall fight no more forever," which my mother thinks is dumb, and so sometimes they fight about that too.)
But none of that really gets to the depth of the problem of their marriage. The problem is temperament. And temperament, frankly, is more than your mood or personality; it also has everything to do with what you think is important about being human, and what we humans are supposed to do with our time on Earth. To illustrate: My father was a geneticist, and so a few years ago, while my parents sat outside their farmhouse in the sun, I asked him what he thought about heritable traits in our family. He was interrupted by my mom, who said, "My kids have round heads and kind hearts. Dad's kids have oval faces and are selfish." Then she added, "Mine all have type A blood except Alan, who has B. Dad's are all AB blood. Some of you inherited a sense of gratitude, and some of you didn't. Some are extremely anti-social; I just don't understand it. Some of you—especially you," she said, pointing at me, "are spiritually opaque. No light gets into you." My dad never did get to answer the question, which is typical.
That's my point. To him the world is a calm place to be observed and enjoyed, calmly taking in the surroundings, and to smile sweetly at a daughter's question, and to calmly reflect before answering (if he gets a chance). To her, the world is a place fraught with exciting possibilities and equally disturbing traumas, and the best way to handle all that is to leap into the surroundings, take 'em on, and speak up while you're at it.
So recently, as I sat in a cabin with my two parents on vacation in Estes Park, my mother doing a crossword and my father playing cards, all of us transfixed in an odd moment of silence, I considered their marriage of nearly 40 years. I thought: gasoline and cigarettes. Wind and forest fire. Oil and water. The potato-potato thing doesn't even apply here, although I did, at times, fervently pray they'd call the whole thing off.
They did not, and as I sat next to the crackling fire I came to a startling conclusion: They'd taught me yet one more thing to add to an endless list of lessons. Namely, that I was a spoiled snot who thought relationships should be full of loving-kindness and peace, sweet caretaking, and fondly induced laughter. I also considered a familiar theory of mine, which is that their first marriages were for romantic love, and then those people they loved died, so they got married again for another reason altogether—to prove to the world that there's another kind of love, the kind that basically illustrates the fact that explosions, wildfire, and unmixable elements make the world a very interesting place.
There's one thing I firmly believe, and that's this: Only a huge tragedy could have brought these two people together, which is exactly how it happened.
My mother was broke but spunky, very pregnant with her fourth child, and studying for her final year as a Ph.D. candidate. The phone rang. It was a sheriff from Oklahoma: "Your husband, was he flying a small plane? There's been an accident." She had to ask it herself: Is he dead? Yes, he is dead.
Simultaneously, there was a man, married, a professor of cattle genetics, who had one son and had recently adopted an infant daughter. His wife was feeling tired, they went to a doctor: "Your wife," said this doctor, "has leukemia."
And so, after burying their first loves, these survivors met in a Colorado town, dated a few times, and probably talked about what they had in common: the Depression, their tragedies, and single parenthood—three things which, to my mind, probably overshadowed all the very obvious and wildly polarizing things they did not share.
The disagreements started right away. They couldn't even decide whether to get married. So they played a game of gin rummy. He wins, they marry; she wins, they don't. My mom says she drew a good hand, she was going to win. So at an opportune moment, she quietly replaced some of her cards.
Such was the start of a huge gamble. A year later I was born, the seventh child, or the first, depending on how you look at it. Soon after came two boys, twins. And so nine of us—half-siblings and full—are bonded by the unique experience of growing up and watching two mismatched people doing their best to blend oil and water into a comfortable mix.
Here's what that particular recipe produced: a surprisingly sprightly pair.
These days, all of us children think how did they, why can they...act 20 years younger than everyone else their age? Perhaps it is the drama and spunk that kept them alive, kept them from falling into the doldrums I see weighing down other marriages, the couples silently eating with nothing left to say to each other. The couples that makes you want to lean over and shout: "GOOD GOD, ARGUE ABOUT SOMETHING!" before they kill your heart with their own cold deadness.
My parents will never, ever, not in a million years, look like that at a restaurant. As they prepared for bed that evening in Estes Park—putting out the fire, yawning, fixing a cup of warm milk—I considered their small attentions to one another. I considered the fact that what I once took for an unbearable convergence of two separate dispositions was in fact what gave their relationship its zest—it's pretty life-affirming and exciting and dramatic to see how much explosion one can stand, after all.
I want a love like that. A love that speaks up for itself, a love that demands attention and responses. I want to fight like hell for love, in order to protect it from the diminishment and entropy of time, the accumulations of betrayal and hurt, those dangerous ingredients that loom at the edge of every love, every day. Let the fire burn. Let it be bright enough.
Laura Pritchett is a contributing editor to 5280 and the author/editor of five books. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.