I’m watching my body a lot, a habit of may my age, since ones fifties are, on average, when the changes start to accelerate, or seem to. In reality for most of us it’s gradual, but the sudden realizations of the gradual changes are punctuations in the gradualism. Like, suddenly I have three gray hairs, five inches long–where did they come from? Or, how long have my eyebrow hairs been so coarse, my bunions so pronounced, my eyelids this drooping?
I’m pleased, actually. I feel fit and healthy, strong and wiser, and for some reason have less cellulite now than a decade ago. My hair doesn’t fall out as much as it did a few years ago, and I kind of like the veins in my hands. Also, I’m having a resurgence of interest in, and time for, connecting with friends and making new ones, in going out and having fun, and even dating. Not that I get out much, certainly not on dates. I still feel that’s premature, as I am only five months a widow. But as I admitted to a friend and colleague a few weeks ago, I’ve been interested in dating for years, since before my husband got sick. When times were hard between us, and I wondered what the future would bring, whether our paths would stay aligned, I imagined what it would be like if I became single again. I thought I’d enjoy it very much–I’ve always got on well with men, found them easier, in many ways, less intimidating, more accepting and more open to in my style of communication than women.
Not that I ever cheated on my husband, or flirted, even. It was all in my mind. Nor was he unfaithful even through the hardest times, though he would flirt too, in an innocent way–more like being a good listener and making women feel important and worth conversing with. Once we were very secure in our relationship, after the first few years, I never had a problem with that, though I’d tease him at the way he’d get waitresses, church ladies, salespeople, older and younger women, listening to his every word. We talked about the temptations we began to have later, although I kept my confessions at a theoretical level. I had learned how tender and fearful he could be, how insecure, once by a strange circumstance, which I’ll describe below.
I was extremely careful with my attentions, assuming any man could, if I was not very careful, get the wrong idea. Even married men, even churchgoers, younger or older. Because of what my husband had shared about how most men think, and because so many times in the past I had naively pursued and nourished friendships with fellows I had no romantic interest in (but being more comfortable with guys), be my relaxed self, and end up receiving their amorous attentions and having to drop the friendship, not really knowing how to recover from that embarrassment. Though I learned to give hints that I was not interested in that way, which helped. Also, if in a relationship with someone, I was always very careful to be loyal to that person until we parted, and spend little time on other friendships with guys. Just so it was all very clear, because that’s what I would want.
Except that time, after holding out for months against the attentions of an extremely attractive grad student whose passions were, I think, further fired by my attempts to keep my distance and be faithful to my nice Christian boyfriend and my faith. Meanwhile, my secret passions for him were fired by his respect for me, his self control, and deep, intellectual conversations over coffee in the graduate student bar. He’d found the surest way to win my heart, which he did fully and completely, and I apologized to my Christian boyfriend, confessed my weakness and decision, and soon brought the new fellow to my college Christian fellowship. He was only intellectually curious as wasn’t willing to take on the yoke, however, despite my explaining that I couldn’t get serious with a non-Christian. I refused to let the relationship proceed past the sex before marriage point, for example.
He was unphased, and would not give me up. I was conflicted (he wrote a poem about that, which I later destroyed, but still of which remember the final line). I’d bought tickets to Bruce Cockburn, and we argued about this during the show, with touches and kisses in the dark.
It didn’t help that the wife of the staff worker in our student fellowship, when I brought the fellow for the Friday night worship, sidled by me and said in a low voice, “Now that’s the kind of guy I used to go for!” I had given my ultimatum about the conditions of the continuance of our intimacy. He refused. We spent a glorious spring and summer traveling around Nova Scotia, sleeping at my insistence, in separate tents, surveying fields for drainage, and writing for various environmental projects. The separation didn’t last, as I couldn’t hold out any longer, and, whatever–he was worth it, I thought. Then he went to Dominica, and after being invited there and me paying for my ticket, he called me at work to read the breakup letter. I remember pain in my gut, clenched teeth, and curling up outside in a snow storm almost wanting to freeze to death. Whenever I thought of him for the next fifteen years, I pictured myself punching him in the gut. He probably would have taken it as his due. Apparently I was some kind of project or experiment, to see if he could get me to love him, and if he could love me. Always the gentleman, he confessed that he did, but also didn’t. Something about his heart having been broken previously.
For years, I didn’t know what I would do if I saw him again–would I punch him in the gut? II felt his presence everywhere, as if he was watching me. I imagined running into him on the bus, in a pub, even across the country when I moved there.
That was a relationship I had to talk about with my fiance (a committed Christian, intellectual, multitalented, and tall, dark, and handsome) as we worked through our pasts. Had I bonded with the gur? Was I over him? The fact that I still wanted to but punch him favored a no answer. Does one ever get over that kind of young love and heartbreak?
The other relationship of note–one realizes this after reflecting all these years–was a purer, chaster love, with a sweeter, more friendly attraction. That was the fellow I still call my first love. Had I not gone away on a six month cultural exchange and as a consequence been emotionally exhausted by the experience, we might still be together today. He was sad when I said I just couldn’t be with anyone, and he went in another direction, married a woman I didn’t know well, but liked and respected, and is a happy father of three boys, a teacher and basketball coach.
In some ways, I think I was too much for him–I’m too stubborn, maybe too sarcastic, too many ups and downs, him being sweet tempered and kind, very outgoing and social, but tender–I might have hurt him. The man I married was made of stronger stuff (as a mentor once told me American men are in comparison with Canadians; he said I should marry one, which I thought funny, as well as highly unlikely). So I think it’s just as well. But I still feel tenderness toward him, and always will. I finally let myself look him up online, and there he was, handsome and smiling as ever, and I was sorely tempted to send a friend request! Didn’t seem like a good idea., though I wish I hadn’t sent back the mementos I had from him (which I did when I got engaged). I fancy that he can’t trust himself to friend request me either, for I’m easy to find and he may have checked. We had that kind of parting.
My husband wasn’t as concerned about that fellow, it not having been a consummated relationship. He had the wrong idea about that, but oh well. I’m glad he didn’t worry.
It was strange for me finding out what did worry him. When I caught a ride to my daughter’s fifth grade multi-day trip to the mountains with a divorced dad of her classmate, I didn’t think anything of it. We chatted there and back, and that was that. But when I casually mentioned the drive to my husband, I found out about the tender insecurities in the heart of my otherwise extremely confident, unselfconscious mate. I had to reassure him over and over that there had been nothing, nothing! of any concern, and make sure he believed it. So when I actually did feel attractions, my thoughts remained my thoughts, and I would never hurt him with them, and certainly would never betray him with actions. Over the years of our marriage I’ve had at least as many crushes as the next woman. As my mother, for example, who was fond of mentioning hers, for example.
I feel like my secret attractions helped, in a way, as they had a way of spicing things up in our bedroom, without his even knowing why. And if it was the same for him, I forgive him–whatever! Some might say those are emotional affairs, and just as harmful, but I disagree. Iit’s not as if any were based on an actual relationships, only thoughts, never communicated to the men in question. I was always relieved when an attraction, fizzled, anyway–it’s not as if I wanted to be attracted to anyone but my husband, especially anyone I’d see regularly. And although our marital passions were mellower after over twenty years of marriage, they were still there for both of us, along with all the familiarity and companionship, such as it was, and never perfect. One can never appreciate enough the miracle of another mortal, let alone one’s chosen mate, one realizes after losing one.
Mark, I feel your kindliness toward me, your understanding and releasing me into my new life. It’s not you who’s holding me back. Our children seem okay with the idea of me dating too. I’m just really enjoying my independence, honey, and you know that about me. I love making decisions without consulting anyone, love having all this margin in my days to go out and do whatever I have time and energy for. And also, I want to honor you to your family and not minimize the significance of your presence in my life, to honor your memory. They’re in a different position in relation to you than I, they have different personalities, and their bereavement is different than mine. But they also don’t want me to be lonely, and might think I “need” someone, which I don’t think I do,or not specifically a man. I need people, co-workers, friends, and close friends, as well as people to serve and care for. I’m of two minds, yes–I want to flirt, date, party, be pursued, but I also want to stay free. Freedom and opportunity–two of my most important values, as I told you, when you asked.