I have been in love a few times in this life, and each has left its mark on me. There are metaphors that come to mind, cloud nine, a rose by any other name, love birds, entwining branches. But at this age, I see love more as a mirror. I find myself. I witness my impact and consequences. I follow the ripples of me on his face. He is my muse. Ink on my brain. The mark on my heart.
My first true love was a boy I knew in school when I was 15. He was smart, oozing brilliant sarcasm, but also talented and serious about his future. We shared friends, sang in the same choir, lived just a mile apart. He took me seriously at a time when I was a target because I was pretty, vulnerable to flirts and predators. He and I were in advanced placement classes together. We studied together. He respected my intelligence. He encouraged me to be myself. I went to his house, and we listened to his dad’s Dave Brubeck albums and talked about music. I felt safe with him. He sent me love letters, which I still have, with transcriptions of song lyrics and John Donne poems. Then his father took a job in another state, and he moved away. The end. I was bereft as one can be when love is lost.
In the years that followed, the early me was on a quest to replace that feeling of acceptance, the embrace and comfort, the intimate whispers and tenderness. I chased rainbows and fell for fast talkers, churned through a turnstile of men, one after another, often disappearing into their lives, missing myself. Those adventures made entertaining stories, but my inner life was bleak. I was aimless as a young woman, alone in the world thinking a man was the answer. Love. I needed a man to feel love. That girl needed a hug, a role model, and a mentor. I see that so clearly now. But I was a child without supervision, stuck on a carnival ride.
I met the man who would become my husband when I was 22 and stayed with him until he died when I was 54. Now I’m 68 and I’m beginning to understand how we glued ourselves together for such a long time. We were friends first, almost siblings in our similarities and common origins, middle class white kids from the Midwest trying to make it on the East Coast in the performing arts. We became adults together. The life we chose was exotic as a nightclub dressing room and yet we were home makers. We invested in our personal space, interior design, a menagerie of cats and eclectic objects. We hosted house guests and threw parties, kept our social circle close and organized group camping trips, river floats and drug enhanced star gazing. We co-produced our festive life to the very end. And then he died.
But we had secrets. If love is the perfect reflection of our self-image in the eyes of another, I didn’t like what I saw. For years after his death, I pondered our history, mastered infidelity forensics, discovered exonerating evidence, but was unable to set myself free of the conviction that I had made a huge mess of my life. I wrote a memoir about it, and even after the book was published, I continued to exhume incriminating details in my stuff and my dreams. That experience illuminates my understanding of memory and how it can’t be trusted. And though my love for him stands, my rage remains a ghost ship unmoored in my heart.
So, in the years after his death I built a wall of anger around myself and learned to live without love. My friends were affectionate and protective, and that was enough. I stopped looking for a mate. It was a good feeling to be whole again. I made a life for myself, a life for one. One plus my dog, Moon. With a Weimaraner as my life partner I began to explore the world one road trip at a time until 10,000 miles later I found myself in Portland, Oregon. I expected it to be a long visit, but I wasn’t planning to stay. I had lived on the East Coast for 40 years. My ocean had always been on the right. Now it was on the left. The disorientation is ongoing.
When my cohabitant reached out to me the first time, just as the pandemic was beginning in 2020, I was on Facebook. I paid him sparse attention until he read my memoir and posted a review with a picture of himself holding the paperback. Touchdown. Still, what really pushed me over the top was my dog. Moon loved everything about him and his home, and that opened my mind to the possibility of living with him there in partnership. We are dog lovers. But, of course, there’s more to it.
I had been isolated and self-absorbed for a decade, and I didn’t realize how easily my harbored rage could be uncorked until the first few times I shot a torpedo of hot lava in his face. Then the most remarkable thing happened. He treated me like a re-homed cur rescued from death row at the pound because she had biting issues. He didn’t yell or bite back. He wanted to keep me. Even though I bite. It took months for me to stop snapping. But without channeling his injury into hostility, he gently redirected me. He was consistent. Because he is emotionally resilient. He believed he could win me over.
He knew from reading my book that I could be harsh. But he also knew I enjoyed animals and outdoor life, I wasn’t afraid of hard work and rural isolation, I had the skills to be self-sufficient, and I wanted to spend time alone. That is the description of the woman he was looking for. Now I see myself reflected in him. I’m a much nicer person than I was when I got here. I’m more stable, my mood swings are less extreme, I don’t slip so easily into depression. I’m a different person because of his love, getting older in all the ways one dreads, but feeling better about it, occasionally giddy, because when I look in the mirror, I’m in a beautiful place. And I know that’s the mark on my heart. Love.