Monday, September 7, 2009
As Good As It Gets?
“You know Lorin,” Juan’s manner was so nonchalant, “One thing we’ve never talked about is sex.” Deer… headlights. I walked between them, heading north on Sepulveda Boulevard for Trader Joes. I shot a look left at Wade. He gazed into traffic, face averted to hide a smirk, his broad shoulders already bobbing with laughter. Wade knew this conversation would be stopped dead in its tracks, a crime of passion, murder in cold blood and broad daylight. “You’re right,” I faced my assailant, “We’ve never talked about sex and we’re not gonna now.” “Why not?” my little Mexican friend wanted to know. “Because you’re not The One.” I don’t believe in the concept of The One but it was a ready rebuff. “A man has to be The One to have a conversation with you about sex?” “You have to be The One or a reasonable facsimile. You are neither and I have no intention of having this conversation with you!” Case closed… and thrown in his direction…like a fastball… at his head. I was in LA attending a Partnership Exploration Course weekend, a course designed to explore my boundaries in conversations and life. Sex was an obvious boundary. “But don’t you want to be held and cuddled?” Gary asked over breakfast. “Of course.” “Could you have cuddling without sex? I could see cuddling with you. Could you have a man in your bed cuddling you without it being a sexual relationship?” If I had fur… I’d bite. Monkey’s hackles rose and he bounced from a skinny branch, scr-e-e-e-ching. My leg bounced beneath the table and heel jack-hammered the carpet in a sure sign of discomfort. “I don’t have that pulled apart,” I admitted. “You’re in my bed; you’re my lover. You’re not my lover, you ain’t there.” “Yeah but…” I raised a hand to stop him; here after all and once again, was the boundary. “I got that it keeps me from a certain amount of intimacy but so far, I haven’t worked this out. I’m not one for recreational sex and I don’t see that changing. I have sex and love interwoven, there is not one without the other. Add attachment for a dicey ménage de toi. I have sex?” I raised a finger, “I’m in love,” I raised a second, “And attached. I can see they are three separate issues: love, sex and attachment… and knowing makes no difference.” “Ok-a-a-a-y,” he sounded dubious. Then quite unexpectedly, he flushed with tears. I waited quietly for him to gather words. “I’m sad because… I could really love you and I think…,” his lip trembled, “It will never be that way for you. I’m smitten,” he was forthright and unembarrassed, “In some stage of gotta have you,” he smiled through his tears. “Thank you,” I reached for his hand and squeezed. He was right, it was not that way for me but this time, there was no fastball to the head. This time, there was compassion for his heart and his willingness to share it with me. “I married the wrong woman,” Tony said. No you didn’t; I woulda killed you. “We are so much alike and so well matched.” No, we’re not. Really, trust me on this. Some philosophies purport we marry the perfect person, the one who lets us run our rackets and schemes. And that old adage “opposites attract,” points to opposing strong suits. “You’re mine,” he said so confident, “One day I’ll have you.” I calmed myself before speaking. “When you say that, it comes across like I have no say in the matter. I can’t tell you how uncomfortable that is.” We often think we can hear anything and have any conversation. The more likely truth is, we train people to avoid our boundaries. As my capacity for edgy conversations expanded, so too did the Christopher Columbus’ sailing to explore my edge. “Oh, I don’t mean anything by it,” he backpedaled, “You’re precious and I just want to love you.” Loving me and making love to me are completely separate issues… and I was uncertain I wanted either… with any. “How good are you willing to have it?” I asked Tom one day. “Like, how much love can you stand?” “Not that much I guess,” he squirmed. “So if love doesn’t match your picture; you throw it out?” His constant complaining was tiresome and earned him the moniker: curmudgeon. Not his real self, the curmudgeon was a fixed way of being, a habit and crust to protect his soft, kneaded and gently baked heart. Beneath concrete, I knew a man with twinkling eyes and tender thoughts. The world however, knew the curmudgeon. “Yeah, I guess I do,” he admitted thoughtfully. “What do you suppose the age of that conversation is?” “I don’t know,” he growled. “Like how old is the child who says, ‘If you don’t play my way, I’ll take my ball and go home!’” Silence. “About five?” I offered, “Six?” “It’s easier… see, if I can’t have you the way I want you, it’s easier to make up a story about how you don’t want me and push you away.” “Understood. And then you don’t get the love I can and do give. This doesn’t have to be an all or nothing game… or does it?” This is a strategic game, this game of love fully-expressed within societal bounds. It’s a complex game with traps and treasure, rules and exceptions, dungeons and dragons, disappearing walls, expanding boundaries, shadow play and shackles, kings and queens. A full ten-months later, the Partnership Exploration Course was dismissed for lunch. “You single people are scheming for hot-sex all the time,” Angela laughed from stage. “And you married people have the vehicle for it and don’t understand why you don’t have hot-sex all the time.” I traipsed to the pool, to spend 90-minutes in sun filtered through LA’s smog. Ron was long and lean, the body habitus that reliably pings my radar all day, every day. He wore a thick thatch of dark, wiry hair unparted and combed straight back, jeans and a plain, short-sleeved, button down shirt, sans tails. In a course of 300, he’d gone unnoticed. I read his a nametag. “Hi Ron,” I sat and stripped to my bikini. No Hi or Hello, no social small talk, Ron dove right in. “So what about you?” he asked in telltale Brooklyneese, “Are you interested in hot-sex all the time?” Deer… headlights. My eyes seized the size of saucers. Thank God for sunglasses. I paused and inhaled deeply the jet exhaust permeating the LAX surrounds. “You know,” I visibly calmed, “I am interested in hot-sex all the time but that seems to be attached to a committed relationship and I’m not so committed to that.” “That’s interesting,” he said, ending our conversation before it began. Not threatened, thoughtful. No fastball, simple truth. The vague smell of pipe tobacco always clings to clothes impeccably pressed and white lab coat, stiffly starched. His eyes always brighten when they find mine. Andar is a short, thick man with cropped silver hair and English usurped by Portugal. A broad, gold cross hangs from a substantial gold chain. He is soft spoken and unpresumptuous. I love his rolling R’s and dark, golden skin. I love too that he claims me for his slice of Portugal. On occasion, when my patient load is anything but overwhelming, we sip coffee in the hospital cafeteria. “I don’t suppose we could meet sometimes… outside the hospital?” “I don’t think that’s a good idea Andar.” I shook my head. “I’m very good with tools,” he stammered, “If you need help fixing things.” I watched him struggle, stumbling over his words. I forced myself to silence, to let him finish. He probed the woody grain of his chair with a fingernail. “In your house,” he glanced up momentarily, “In your yard. You have my pager; you call me. Sometimes is good to have a man around.” His smile was fleeting and sheepish. I smiled back. Married forty-something years, his union was no longer happy. Given the state of many marriages, one could surmise his unhappiness – spanned decades. Too long we ignore the slow leak at the seam. “At my age; where else I go?” He shrugged, palms skyward before returning them to work the wooden armrests with fingers as thick as sausage. Andar goes. He disappears for months, home to Portugal or Alaska’s inland passage. He loves to travel and returns filled with stories and life, the spark in his eye rekindled. Over many months, he’d settle into the drudgery of his work and marriage or they settled upon him, like dust on a comfortable old chair. Until another excursion called, an escape from drudgery and dust to that which breathed life into him once more. Behind halting, broken English and the façade of an aging man, beneath a morass of morals and mores, dressed in bright eyes and tentative courage, his shadow-self dipped a toe to test my waters. Pushback and resistance are automatic, like deep tendon reflexes. I always wrestle with my want, with swift, harsh hand, to reestablish immutable and immovable boundaries. And yet, is there any such thing? If there is one conversation for which I have compassion, it is this one. That of, not unrequited or unreturned love, but love seemingly tethered by societal expectation. There is an order to society at large that provides workability and structure to our relationships. We grow-up with fantastical pictures and fairy tales more convoluted and invasive than Jack’s beanstalk. When life does not match the picture, we have opinions of how life should be. How life should be rarely includes people that captivate us from their point of entry ad infinitum. God forbid they are gender opposite! And love doesn’t match our picture. How life should be never includes those, excepting our children, who capture our hearts Stockholm-style, a captured heart freely relinquished to one’s captor. And love doesn’t match our picture. How life should be excludes another’s spouse, albeit statistically prevalent. And love doesn’t match our picture. How life should be ignores friends who love. There is no condoning extra-marital, loving friendship of opposing genders, however common. And love doesn’t match our picture. We have rules for relationships. We reestablish boundaries, harshly, swiftly because to let them love us threatens… what does it threaten? “It challenge our assumptions of right and wrong,” Keoki asserted. “How much love can I have in my life?” I asked. “That’s a good question,” he said, “And one I struggle with myself.” “Can I let this man love me without pushback? There was no request of me; can I be with his love and care? Who says I have to cut him off and cut him out? And why my penchant for it?” “Thank you for your offer Andar; you are very kind. I appreciate that you care for me and want to take care of me. How lucky am I?” Our coffee mugs drained, he departed for Portugal. He will return with English folded in Portuguese like heavy cream in coffee. Listening to his stories will require both eyes and ears, watching the words form on his lips to extract English from brogue. I will love the resuscitation and rejuvenation in him and find nurturance in love that challenges my assumptions of right and wrong. How much love can I have? The more salient question is: how much love can I stand? Can I let them love me even when it doesn’t look like it should? Or thought it would? How much love can I have? As much as I can stop pushing away.