Cut in Two

It is four weeks today since I left Paris. It feels like forever ago.

Not for the reasons most people think. Not because I love Paris, have dreamed of living there for as long as I can remember (even before I had ever visited), and occasionally wake up with French words on my lips – even though I don’t speak the language. Not because a reiki practitioner once told me I have “agreements” with Paris. (I still don’t know exactly what that means.) Although all of that is true.

Quite simply, I left my heart there … and I miss it, and him and what we shared.

What was meant to be 14 days together, zipping up to Normandy on his motorbike (“It will be like our honeymoon,” he said.) was goodbye instead.

I never saw it coming.

We met in October, on my way home from a writer’s retreat in Girona, Spain. It was, as my friend Michelle likes to say, “A romance for the ages.”

We found one another in a church basement – the kind where we both learned how to get and stay sober a number of years earlier – on his birthday, the day before mine. What began as coffee led to a meandering walk through Paris — sharing our stories, and a piece of cake — and ended with three knee-buckling kisses at the Bastille roundabout, my salmon-colored wool and silk scarf blowing in the breeze. One for his birthday, one for mine, and one to “tide me over” until we saw one another again in two days. The stuff of Hollywood movies.

Four days later, my last in Paris, he told me he loved me, and that he was in love with me.

“Is that crazy” he asked over a steaming bucket of mussels and live accordion music that wafted up the stairs.

“Yes,” I replied. “But I get it.”

He also told me he didn’t want to think about me every day, that he didn’t want to know how I took my coffee.

“But you already know how I take my coffee,” I said, smiling.

We agreed that we wanted to continue getting to know one another and that neither of us knew exactly what that meant. The next morning, boarding a plane back to the United States, I received a text, “Still love you, babe.”

locks of love paris
Love Locks in Paris.

Later that week, during the first of many marathon phone calls, he asked if I would come back in the spring. I said yes without hesitation and purchased a non-stop return ticket from Chicago to Paris for $500 the following day. I had never paid so little to fly to to Europe and chose to see it as a sign — a nod from God.

We spent the next six months writing long emails and sexy Facebook messages, talking on the phone for hours and eventually Skyping. What joy it was to finally see one another again.

I felt like I had met my twin. Funny enough, one of the last things he said to me was, “I met myself when I met you.” That was four weeks ago, when we said goodbye.

One month earlier, I had received an email, “I have some difficult news …” he wrote.

His son’s mother had asked once again if they might get back together. This time she said “all the right things.” This time, it was he who didn’t hesitate to say yes.

Brokenhearted would be an understatement.

Ten days later we Skyped and I asked if I might see him in Paris … to say goodbye.

“You’re still coming?” he asked, visibly surprised.

“My ticket is non-refundable. I’m going on to Barcelona, but I’m still flying in and out of Paris.

“Can I see you? To say goodbye?”

He agreed, and so we did. And when we did, he reminded me that his nine-year-old son lives in Paris … so he lives in Paris.

I knew he had certain ideas about the family he wanted – what it looked like – and believed he was healing some childhood wounds by giving his son what he had wanted most, stability and love, and the picture of family that he himself craved.

“I’m portable,” I said, reminding him I had said this all along.

He said I wouldn’t like living in Paris. (I disagreed.) That it is extraordinarily hard to get work there as a non-Parisian, even teaching English. That he never wanted a long-distance relationship.

He also said that we were “magic,” that I was his “vacation” and his “fantasy.”

What he didn’t say was, “Move in, lean in … we’ll figure it out.”

And so, with seemingly no other choice, I dropped the rope.

eating cake in paris
In October, sharing a piece of birthday cake.

The day I had asked if I could see him in Paris, he asked if we might still be friends. “This,” he said, gesturing heart-to-heart, “I’ll miss this.” I said probably one day, but that I would need time — brave words that fell apart once on the other side of the Atlantic, when I hopefully asked, “Will we stay in touch?” even though I had been the one to ask for space after our goodbye.

“I don’t think so … I’d prefer not to,” he said. “I want you to go back to Chicago and write to me and tell me you found a man there who can give you a real relationship.”

I was crushed. Writing these words now, my heart aches.

But a funny thing happened when I returned to the United States, something that had never happened after a breakup before — I respected his wishes.

We agreed I would let him know when I arrived home and that I would send some of my writing to him – musings about our time together. I did both and he responded warmly, but without opening any doors. “I’m not ready to read this just yet, but it’s good to know it’s here” he wrote, and thanked me for sending. Seems this ending is difficult for him too.

Now there’s nothing left to do but grieve.

I’ve never had a clean break before.

In my 20s, breakups included language like, “Of course we’ll be friends,” which seemed to mean something entirely different to my former partners than to me, which looked like me acting as if nothing had changed, except for the addition of some teary, “I miss you’s” and “Are you sure’s?” In the end my ex’s usually had to push me away, it seemed the only way I could give time and space apart.

Since my divorce five years ago, I’ve had only one other relationship, which only sort-of ended when I moved to Madrid in 2015. We spent my year abroad in a liminal space which, while not exactly ideal or exactly what I wanted, seemed to suit me on some level. It was never entirely over until I moved back to the United States last July.

So this is new, this clean-break thing, and here’s the rub – it still hurts like hell. There’s nothing to do, nothing to be done. This clean break means there’s no drama around calling or not calling, writing or not writing, dissecting every bit of conversation. The not-clean-break means I can feel like I’m still in something. There’s some kind of crazy hope, but with this there is none.

Just memories. And sadness.

Yes … I have days where I’m not really sure we’re done. Others say that about us too. But I know, at least for now, we are.

Michelle was right. I did have a romance for the ages … and I haven’t even shared a tenth of it. I haven’t written publicly about it at all, until now. It was tender and private and new. It was ours. It still is. But it is my story too and I am a storyteller.

at shakespeare and company
With heartbreak comes a story. Paying homage.

Last night I listened to a TED Talk by Anne Lamott. In it, she said, “You’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your own heart, your stories, memories, visions and songs – your truth, your version of things – in you own voice. That’s really all you have to offer us, and that’s also why you were born.”

It was those words that inspired me to write. That, a fire in my belly, and the memory of blogging about every other romance gone astray since my divorce. Sharing my story and opening it for conversation had felt both vulnerable and healing. There is something about speaking one’s truth, being witnessed, and hearing, “me too.”

It’s what we do in those church basements where he and I got sober and where we keep going so we can stay sober. As my friend Bob likes to say, “A problem shared is cut in two.” If that is so, then posting this hits it with a sledgehammer – cracks it right open sending sharp little shards in every direction that I will be picking up off the floor for months to come, even when I’m certain I’ve vacuumed them all up. The sun will hit the hardwood in a certain way and I’ll find another little piece.

I guess that’s what great love does – cracks us right open and destroys us. I hate it. And I wouldn’t change a single thing.

 

 

 

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Not 10-Years-Old

rxHalloween 1979. I am 10-years-old. And too sick to go trick-or-treating.

In my diary, the one I have received earlier in month for my birthday – covered in blue flowers, with a lock, and the smell of old-lady perfume – I write, “I still have the ammonia.”

My mother cannot bear to tell me it is pneumonia, not ammonia that has me walking to the bathroom on tiptoes, holding my head, because full steps hurt too much.

This is not the first time. For three years in a row I have been diagnosed with either pneumonia, bronchitis or both. Always at this time of year – the season of ghosts and goblins, copious amounts of candy, the addition of one hour, and my birthday.

And then one day…nothing.

Seems I have outgrown my respiratory weariness.

Until now.

I am walking up the stairs of the metro station at Puerta Del Toledo. My head is spinning. My eyes are dry. My throat, itchy and sore. I felt this coming on at lunch yesterday but had hoped to ward it off by jumping into bed early that night. I have already been sick twice this season.

But this time is different. I feel it in my lungs.

They are heavy. It is as if I can feel each alveola filling with air. I walk to my student’s home, trying to will the illness away. By 1 p.m. I am canceling my Spanish lesson and sending texts in hopes of finding others to take on my evening responsibilities.

I receive a deluge of responses, all with the same message – “Go to the doctor.”

A friend of mine, a native Madrileno, offers to make an appointment for me.

“Tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. Text me when you arrive.”

“Does the doctor speak English?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”

A little more than 12 hours later, I text her.

“Call me if you need help,” she writes.

Somehow I have gotten it in my head that she is meeting me here, but clearly I am confused. She is at work and I am fuzzy and unclear about pretty much everything.

“Okay,” I write back.

I check in, more or less without incident. And at 9:30, the doctor herself calls me into the exam room.

“Habla Ingles?” I ask, crossing both fingers and toes.

“No.”

I burst into tears.

“Lo siento. Lo siento. (I’m sorry. I’m sorry.),” I squeak.

I am sick. I am overwhelmed. I am scared.

I am 10-years-old, holding my head and walking on my toes, missing Halloween.

And yet clearly I am not. I am 47 and in Madrid, typing back and forth with the doctor using Google Translate – telling her about my symptoms and my medical history.

She takes my temperature. She listens to my lungs. She checks my oxygen levels.

No fever. My lungs are clear. But she wants to run a blood test to find out why I keep getting sick.

I do not understand what she is saying, even with the translator. Probably because this idea is foreign to me.

I remember being in the emergency room in Chicago. Once a heart attack was ruled out, they sent me home.

“So what is it?”

Shrug. “Not a heart attack.”

The doctor calls my friend the Madrileno, who translates.

I get a prescription for ibuprofen and lozenges, as well as for blood work. The doctor schedules an appointment for a follow-up visit – with her English-speaking colleague.

I look at my watch. I have been in her office for an hour. A line of patients sit waiting in red chairs in the hallway.

I go downstairs and have my blood taken, then walk to the train – gingerly, nearly on my toes. On the way, I call one of my girlfriends to tell her “it is not the ammonia.”

“Good,” she says. She tells me that I have done a brave and scary thing — navigating the healthcare system of a foreign country in a language that I don’t quite know.

“Guess you can handle more than you think,” she says.

Guess I am not 10-years-old.

Surprise! You’re Divorced!

From Tim Burton's 2010 Alice In Wonderland.
Considering the other side of the rabbit hole. From Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland.

I haven’t heard from my ex in more than a week.  This isn’t unusual, except I have reached out to him twice during this time — once to ask for medical advice (I forget he is not my doctor), a second time to ask if he might talk with a friend of mine about the later-in-life path to medical school — and that is unusual.

Except for when it isn’t.

We recently saw one other for the first time since I moved out of the house we shared in Seattle and returned to Chicago, more than two and a half years.

I cried when I saw his blue polar fleece stocking cap — the one that makes him look like a tall Smurf– bobbing above the crowd as he got off the train, across from our favorite Lebanese restaurant.  Again when we embraced.  And again when, looking up for the menu, I inquired “The usual?” to which he replied, laughing, “That is what I was going to say.”

And so it was over chicken schwarma, hummus and fattoush that he admitted that the times he hadn’t called me back — there weren’t many — he simply, emotionally, could not.

This may be one of those times.

At first, I didn’t think too much of it when I didn’t hear back from him.  It was Valentine’s Day weekend.  I thought, perhaps, he might be out of town with his girlfriend.  A thought followed by strong intuition — “He’s moving in with her.”  I said the words out loud, as usual, to no one in particular.  “He doesn’t want to tell me.”

Later that day, I saw an MLS listing for a bungalow on his Facebook page, forwarded by his girlfriend.

When I reached out to him a second time, a week later, and again did not hear back, I was fairly certain of my inner knowing.  And much to my surprise, I felt rattled and sad.

Not so much because he may or may not be buying a house with his girlfriend. (I still do not know for certain, nor is it really any of my business.)  But because, in that moment, I realized I had been holding on to an unspoken agreement we never made.  Something like, “We may be divorced but you and I are in this together.  Forever.”

I was shocked.  I had no idea.

I have often referred to mine as the “lucky divorce.”  (Which sounds like it should come with soup, egg roll and an almond cookie.)

For a long time we were one another’s “In Case of Emergency” person.  We left passwords unchanged, and nursed each other’s broken hearts in post-divorce attempts at romance.

I never had to hunt down my spousal support.  I knew the money would be in my account on the 15th of the month, the same way I knew he would always be there.  Until he wasn’t.

Perhaps my divorce wasn’t so “lucky” after all, as it seems more than possible that this underlying, unspoken (not even to myself) agreement may have kept me from truly seeking out another partnership, or at the very least, being open to one.

I shared all of this with my friend Robin.  She replied, “He’s not your husband anymore.”

Not exactly news.  And yet, on some deep, gut, primal level — it was.  And I finally “got it.”  So perhaps I can finally let go of it.

It reminds me of when I returned to an old boyfriend, many years after we had broken up, to make amends for where I had been wrong in that relationship.

“You wanted a partner, I wanted a parent,” I said.  (Not surprisingly, he was 17 years my senior.)  Tears streamed down his face as the words slipped past my lips.  He hugged me hard, harder than he ever had in the time we were together.

“Why are you crying,” I asked.

“Because I am.”

I nodded.

I understood.  I saw the truth.  I saw what he knew all along.  Finally.  It was as if I had slipped back through the rabbit hole and we were living in the same reality, more than 15 years after the end of our brief relationship.

At least this time it only took three years.

Artist Date 68: Power Cords

I have given my power away.

Valley, by Nilima Sheikh
Valley, by Nilima Sheikh

I feel vulnerable.  Ashamed.  I am “that woman,” wringing her hands about “that man.”

Disgusting.

I gave my power away when I said, “I can’t do this.”  Telling him I needed more.  And that he didn’t seem capable of giving it to me.  And did it anyway, becoming more and more deeply entwined in our long-distance intimacy.

I did it when I told him I could not Skype with him.  That it was too hard to look into his green eyes.  To see him look back at me in a way I can’t ever recall being seen.  And did it anyway.

I did it when I promised myself I wouldn’t reach out to him for 30 days.  Not as a game or a test.  But to find out how he shows up.  And reached out anyway.

I did it every time he mentioned bad timing, money or miles between us, and chose not to listen.  Only paying attention to the part where he changed his mind, usually about 10 minutes later, saying he did want to “find out about us.”

I made the rules and I couldn’t keep them.  Just like when I used to drink.  And it left me feeling the exact same way – anxious, obsess-y, over-thinking.  Knowing in my heart that something isn’t right, and trying to make it work anyway.  Somehow believing “this time will be different.”  Powerless.

***************

I am standing in my bedroom in front of a batik wall hanging of Ganesh — Hindu boy with an elephant head, Remover of Obstacles – like I do every morning.

I kick my meditation cushion to the side, put my hands in prayer, in front of my third eye, and inhale deeply.

“Lord Ganesh, give me back my power.”

I feel a surge through my body, a response, and am flooded with words of direction.

Ganesh batik in my bedroom.
Ganesh batik in my bedroom.

Carry Ganesh with you.  Visit India.  See Nilima Sheikh’s “Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams” at the Art Institute.  Artist Date 68.

***************

It is the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day.  The train headed downtown is filled with drunk twenty-somethings in oversized green, foam hats, green socks and beads.  I put on my sunglasses and turn up Nina Simone and try to forget that he did not show up last night.

That he has not responded to my text.

That I am the one with the problem.

I get off several stops earlier than necessary and walk.  It is cool and sunny and I feel happy in my grey wool coat, knit hat and red ankle boots.  I make note of the galleries on Superior Street.  Future Artist Dates.  I feel my power growing.

***************

I step inside the Special Exhibit Gallery.  It is quiet.  Still behind glass doors.  I stand in front of a painted scroll titled “Valley.”  The canvas is green.  Lush and gentle.  A verdant map.  I begin to cry.

“That really affected you, huh?”

It is the museum guard –a woman named Denise.  She wears long braids gathered together.  I nod.  She says a few more things but I cannot take them in.  I am lost.  I politely tell her I need to be alone in my quiet.  She nods.  I feel my power growing.

I approach the canvas, “Farewell.”  Red, with two entwined figures – one holding open his robe, displaying a map of Kashmir where his heart should be.

Farewell, by Nilima Sheikh
Farewell, by Nilima Sheikh

“If only somehow you could have been mine.  What would not have been possible in the world?”  The words stenciled in gold at the top of the canvas.  “We’re inside the fire, looking for the dark,” on the back.

I feel like I have been punched in the gut.

The tears return.  I am breathless.

I return to “Valley.”  “…And though the guards searched for him with the sun in one hand and the moon in the other the demon baffled them.”  Stenciled on the back.

He sought me.  I am baffled, wondering where he is now.  But knowing I must continue to seek myself.  I feel my power growing.

***************

I share a bench and a cup of tea with a couple in the member’s lounge.  We talk about shoes.  About art.  About recovery and vibrators and relationships.  They tell me I need a man who is here.  I know they are right.  I feel my power growing.

***************

In some ways I feel like I have been waiting all of my life for this man.  And I am “Dying Dreaming.” (The words, like all those in quotes, names of Sheikh’s canvases.)

But I also know that his life is still a “Construction Site,” while I am “Gathering Threads” — stringing together the people, places and pleasures that bring me joy, that make me whole.  Power cords.

Pretend Boyfriend

I tattooed my aspirations on my body lest I forget them.  Lest I again consider leaving myself.
I tattooed my aspirations on my body lest I forget them. Lest I again consider leaving myself.

“You want a relationship, right?”

The words tumbled out of my Rabbi’s mouth.  Innocuous.  More a statement than a question.  Nearly an afterthought as we wrapped up our monthly meeting.

“I…I think so,” I stammered.

We stared at one another.  There it was.  The truth.  It fell flat on the floor, spreading out in the space between us.  Consuming.  Shocking.

We’d spent an awful lot of time talking about relationships over the years.  Talking about my fathers – both of them, the biological one and the one who raised me, my Dad.  My husband – now my ex.  The smattering of men who had come in and out of my life since the dissolution of my marriage.

My Divorce Buddy.  The one I talked to each night, into the wee hours of the morning.  Half a country apart.  Both of us alone, in the dark, navigating our way through the sometimes messy endings of marriage.

The Southern Svengali.  Genius artist in a Johnny Cash t-shirt.  He guided me through Charleston and my last visit with my biological mother before she died.  Pressed his lips against mine and nothing more.  Called me “Lil Pearl” and taught me how to be a better artist.

And most recently, the man I have affectionately come to call Mr. 700 Miles – referring to the physical distance between us.  In our hearts…it is just inches.  But in our lives… oceans and continents apart.  He is clearly, plainly, 100 percent unavailable.

Separated, but not quite divorced.  ”Kinda dating” someone in his own zip code.  He is finding his own center – spiritually, emotionally, creatively – and his own truth.  Work I have already done.  Work I continue to do.

And yet, when we talk or Skype, there is a familiarity that speaks of karmic attachments and lives shared.  Quite simply, I am in love with his heart.

He is, what my friend Rainey calls, a pretend boyfriend.  They all are.

A "selfie," on the road with my Divorce Buddy.  He never wants to show up in pictures. Hm...
A “selfie,” on the road with my Divorce Buddy. He never wants to show up in pictures. Hm…

She uses the words in a matter-of-fact way that implies everyone has one.  Has had one.  Like a cell phone or email address.

Deep friendship.  Emotional intimacy.  Trust.

Companionship.  Connectedness.  A shared sense of not being alone even though you are – when you are one instead of two.

But without a physical dimension, or a commitment to anything more.

She assures me that she has had several over the years.  And that sometimes, pretend boyfriends become real boyfriends.  But mostly they are pretend.

This has been my experience too.  Although I am usually too blinded by hope to see it at the time.

Good for practice.  For reminding me of my loveliness.  What it feels like to be close.  And allowing me to believe in possibilities.

No good at all in moments when my bed feels cold and lonely.  When I want nothing more than to feel arms wrapped around me.

Downright disastrous when I bring expectations of a real relationship to it.

My friend Kerry called me out on my penchant for pretend boyfriends this past weekend.  He wanted to know what I was afraid of.  Why I wouldn’t try online dating.  Why I wouldn’t make myself available to someone who is available.

A gift from one of my pretend boyfriends.  He said that I fell out of his head and on to his sketchbook.
A gift from one of my pretend boyfriends. He said that I fell out of his head and on to his sketchbook.

I felt sick inside.

“I don’t want to be left,” I said quietly in a voice that did not seem my own.

Was I referring to my partner of 15 years “leaving me?”  My birth parents “leaving me?”

Or was it me leaving myself?  Pushing aside my art, my values and my aspirations for someone else.  Someone who never asked me to.  And for something else – a relationship.  Believing that alone I was somehow less valuable.

Earlier that day, I left a voicemail for one of my girlfriends.  “I want a real boyfriend.  Not a pretend one.  I just had to say that out loud,” I announced into the digital abyss.

And I do.  Someone who is here.  Who I can physically feel.  His lips over mine.  His breath on my neck.  His hands on my body.

Someone to hold on to me.  And who I can hold on to.

Someone to eat with.  Sleep with.  Dance with.

A partner.  An equal.  Someone I can grow with.  Grow old with.

But I want me more.  The chance to be with myself.  To not leave again.

Yes, I want a real boyfriend.  I just don’t want one yet.