Baby, even the losers
get lucky sometime.
Something like a promise
Devotion and fidelity are not one and the same.
One perfect August night, I sat with Anna at the edge of an aquamarine lake seven thousand feet high in the Bitterroot Range, holding hands and hearing my heart beat. I stared with her at the stars and marveled at my undeserved good fortune. Never in my grandest hopes did I think I would have what I had in that moment. This remarkable, lovely person, who cared for me. This elation. This galaxy spread out across the sky just for us. It seemed so perfect, so brilliant: it was sublime. Two kids who answered something deep within one another had stumbled upon each other and I was lucky enough to be one of them. I couldn’t let the moment slip away without telling Anna how I felt about her.
But I was afraid to. I fumbled for the longest time, and she waited patiently while I got the nerve to tell her I loved her. Why did I feel I had to, and why was it so fearful to me? Why not just say, “I love you,” or, “Never mind”?
I had to say what I felt, so there would be no doubt what she meant to me. She had to know I didn’t think of us as a summer fling. But telling her so, that meant something more than feelings to me, it was something like a promise, a commitment, that reached ahead of us into an unknown future. I didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t control what it would be. I was afraid of what it might require of me, and how empty that made me feel. I didn’t think like an adult, but in some regard, I was thinking as though I already were one. Wasn’t I just a 16-year-old with a girlfriend I was crazy about? Couldn’t I just leave it at that?
No, I couldn’t. I was ready to move in, follow her across the country, order my life around being with her. I needed for her know that’s how I felt!
“I love you. I’m in love with you.”
* * *
We were on a 35-mile backpacking circuit that wrapped up the 7-week YCC program. We were at the Idaho-Montana border, hiking all day, and then camping at a lake every night. The loop started around 3500 feet and climbed up to 6900 feet. It took us to Fish Lake and the Upper and Lower Siamese Lakes. We walked along the Bitterroot Divide, and could see for miles, into Idaho on one side and Montana on the other. It was rough going, but beautiful.
And I was in love.
When we got back to Missoula, we were done with work for the summer, so we had a lot of free time. But Anna was only weeks away from leaving for college. Then, not fully expecting it, I fell off a cliff. Into an abyss, from the high mountain top and crystal air, to a black, foggy ravine.
My heart burns with feeling, but,
My mind, it’s cold and reeling
Is this love baby,
Or is it confusion?
At first I rode a roller coaster. Down: I saw her off as she boarded a plane to New York and a new life, and I felt the first pangs of her absence. I went to Oregon to visit my family and came back to start my junior year at Hellgate. Up: I got a letter from her and my heart soared. Down: after I read it three times over and wrote her back, every day I waited for reply was just anguish. Up: the next letter came. Down: I waited, and as I waited I went down further, and didn’t see the next up-turn. Then a darkness began to overtake me. Depression, no doubt. Now my thoughts and the other circumstances of my life kept me there. The only thing I could do is look forward to her visit over Christmas.
I wonder if I seemed different to her when she came home. I was. Less than a year earlier when when we first met at a activist group I helped start, I was energized, optimistic, cheerful. But my choices and circumstances had taken a toll. I was slowly slipping down and down. Also, she had just spent three months at Cornell. I couldn’t have seemed as wonderful as I did last summer, when I was the first boy she’d been close to. I was still a boy, no doubt about it. But there were probably a lot of interesting guys at Cornell, who were not boys. Or slackers. Or druggies.
If I hadn’t thought of that already, I sure did after she told me that we should be free to see other people. I didn’t realize it, but that was really the beginning of the end of our relationship. I think I may have wrestled with the real meaning of her proposal. For her, it was in truth an eventual breakup. That, I did not get at all. Ever. Until maybe a couple of weeks ago.
For me it was a change in our relationship necessitated by the 2200 miles between us. It was just a loosening. Opening things up a little.
My brain wasn’t really prepared to follow where this was going, which was: nowhere. It was going nowhere primarily because I wasn’t the man for her, because I wasn’t a man at all. I was the nice boy back home. A mixed up one at that.
If we were two cars that had briefly been driving together down the highway, she was pulling ahead and away, and I couldn’t keep up because I was slower and weaving from side to side.
And I was about to drive off the road altogether.
* * *
We didn’t actually break up for a long time after that. But a little seed was planted in my mind, a seed of separation that was not just the continent between us, but Anna’s decision that we shouldn’t be exclusive. When, shortly afterward, I left Missoula, and was adrift in Seattle, it gradually became clear that if I were to see someone else (highly unlikely) and never saw Anna, I had nothing to hold onto with her. Who was I to her, if she was seeing someone else in Ithaca?
Any basis I had for being faithful to the love I felt for her was unconsciously but assuredly undermined by the circumstances – but not my wishes. I would fantasize from time to time of somehow getting myself to Ithaca. But I knew there was no place for me there. Ever so gently, almost imperceptibly, I’d been kicked loose.
I should wonder if such a fragile relationship deserves the word love attached to it. The feelings are powerful, certainly. But, on my part, the demonstration, the commitment, the acts and gestures of caring and sacrifice and giving that should issue from it were absent. We both left its future to chance and circumstance, and in the end I wandered off, wishing we could be together but knowing that we probably never would be again.
In the end she wrote a letter to me and it was over. By that time so much had happened to me that I didn’t think of myself as the same person she first knew. How much had she changed in those two years? I had no idea.
This was a good person, one of very best I had known. Thinking I was holding onto her when it was hopeless to do so, being so blind to where I really stood, my oblivion to how different I and my situation (and hers too) needed to be for any continuation of our relationship – all this kept me from seeing that we broke up long before I knew it. We were together for the summer of 1981 when we both came back to Missoula, and I somehow had the idea that we would continue seeing each other like this, for just weeks out of the year. I would have saved myself a some pain and doubt over the next year and a half had I realized how unlikely that was. It was my waking dream.
I also called my affection and desire and elation love long before I had any idea what it means to actually love someone who’s not a blood relative. The feelings were very real, but of course a lasting relationship cannot be built on living by love as merely feeling, because feelings are beyond our control. They come and go, rise and fall, and to them must be added promises and commitments kept sacred. Only these can hold two hearts together over time and change and hardships.
Finally, I had yet to learn that if another person is no more than a mirror to me, that is narcissism, not love. I’ve simply fallen in love with myself through them. To truly love another is knowing, accepting, and giving yourself to another. Romantic love – or any kind of relationship – so often shipwrecks in a storm on the hard, destructive and immovable self.
Ours, though, just faded away: a good thing, I suppose. It hurt a lot less that way. And something immeasurably better was waiting.