Smoking in the girls’ room, sneaking a drink, napping
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My friend Ron is in California now, making movies or waiting tables; we never write and I don’t know when I’ll see him again. But I’ll always remember something he once said, which was one of the most honest things I’ve ever heard a man say. “The only time I’m happy, really happy,” Ron said, “is when I’m in a woman’s arms.”
I know, I know. . . . There are men about whom this isn’t true at all, or so it seems, men who are happy only when they’re making money, men for whom happiness is found only in another man’s arms, men who are devoid of passion for anything or anyone, because their heartache is too great or because their hearts were never broken — yes, men to whom women are no more important than poetry to a rock. Or so it seems. But I wonder whether this kind of indifference isn’t always a lie, whether it doesn’t mask the greatest need. There’s a howling in all of us. Some admit it; others say it’s the wind, and shut the window, and go to sleep. But in their dreams everything they touch screams.
What have I ever craved more than a woman’s arms? To be up half the night, talking, laughing, making love — have I ever been closer to heaven? The bed becomes your church; you pass the collection plate back and forth until you’ve given too much, then your poverty becomes your gift: your tears, her tears — I mean, when it’s right, who can tell laughing from crying? And though, in days or months or years to come, you’ll swear you were fooling yourself, you weren’t, it really happened: in the midst of all that fluttering, between the spilled wine and the giggling and the breathless kiss, your hearts billowed out like great white sails, and above you for a moment hovered the dove.
For a long time, I disparaged romantic love, even as I yearned for it; better, I said to myself, to long for true love, total selflessness without thought of return, saintliness. Better to crave God’s embrace than a woman’s embrace. What is romance, after all, but a golden chain that winds first around the heart, then around the neck? What sweeter lie do we whisper to ourselves than that another person can save us? The truth is they do, for a while — days or weeks or months, even years. But eventually we find out that no one can save us from ourselves. The realization is stunning, like seeing a photograph of the earth taken from space. How mysteriously alone we are! How tempting to imagine that if we’re loved our loneliness will be dispelled.
Yet here I am, celebrating with champagne and flowers my second anniversary, with my third wife. My conceit, lustrous as her skin in the flickering candlelight, is that I’ve finally learned something about love. She’s been married before, too: in the lines around her eyes, I trace the scars, but when she smiles, the pain is transfigured; I trust her pain, and what she’s learned from it, and the light in her eyes — how can I not trust that? It’s a beacon to me, a refuge; more than four walls can ever be, it’s home. Am I a man in love, which is to say, as big a fool as God has made? A friend, asked if she trusts eye contact, says, “I trust it foolishly.”
If I’ve learned anything, hasn’t it been how little I’ve learned? Norma and I sip our champagne; a breeze from the window slaps the candle, and my memory, like a breeze, calls up other nights, other eyes, other women I’ve lived with and loved — how with each, I built a temple of hope, and placed upon the altar the unclaimed future, with the sunny side up; how our hands and tongues and lives wound around each other as effortlessly as morning light filling a room; you could no more separate us than take the blue from the sky. Yet here we are, in the long night of disbelief we were sure would never follow: we’re together no more. With each, in turn, the tears became a rain, the rain became a river, and we rushed down the waters of life with about as much control as a barrel.
In the movie, “Last Tango in Paris,” there is a heart-rending scene which evokes, for me, the impenetrable mystery of loving someone: why two souls, different as sky and sea, are called from opposite ends of the universe to make together a home, a life.
The estranged wife of Paul (Marlon Brando) has killed herself. Alone with her, in the funeral parlor, Paul contemplates her lifeless body upon its bed of flowers, her face set in a smile that is nearly beatific — a death mask which betrays his memories of her as in life she betrayed him, as they betrayed each other, with bad decisions, indiscretions, broken vows. He curses her, vilely and furiously — it is shocking; we expect, foolishly, something different for the dead — and then, suddenly, he begins to cry, his hatred dissolving into remorse and longing and grief, as time itself dissolves, and she is again his darling, his tender love, the one he reached for across the aeons, and who reached for him, and then let go, and now has let go for good. “A man can live for two hundred years,” he weeps, “and never understand his wife.”
Is it the women I haven’t understood, or myself? The need to love and be loved — how much of it really had to do with them, their individual temperaments, charms, braininess, magic, their faces so ordinary and so adored? What have I looked for in their eyes but a truer reflection of myself? How passionate I’ve been, in pursuit of life through these other lives. What a devotee of desire! But not merely of the honey breasts and milky thighs, not merely of tastes tasted, the stuttering tongue appeased — but desirous, most of all, for desire itself. I’ve been hungry for hunger. I’ve come before my women like a starving man to a banquet table, laden with everything delicious and suddenly within reach, and sat there scowling, insisting that someone feed me, feed me with a smile, with her hair brushed back just so, with nothing else on her mind, with undying devotion to my hunger, my awful hunger. No one could do it right, at least not for long. And so we hurt each other, terribly — I, convinced I was starving; they, convinced my appetite was grotesque, for sex, for sorrow, for sympathy, but mostly for the party not to end. My need, finally, was to keep alive the possibility of deliverance, no matter that I knew, deep down, that no one would deliver me this way. To give up the yearning for a woman to save me was terrifying, because it meant facing an ancient anguish my heart just couldn’t bear. To give up the promise of love — the dizzying romance that someone else could meet my needs, fill my emptiness, still the howling — would mean acknowledging just how profound my pain was. To be lost, like a child, in my memories of childhood, to be drawn deeper and deeper into that maelstrom of grief — no, anything but that. Better the bruised look, the turned back, the slammed door. Better the quixotic search for the next shapely savior. But, of course, it would happen again. We seek our completion in the strangest ways, but seek it we must. We reenact the old hurts, we summon forth the ghosts of Mom and Dad and resurrect for them a new body, a new face, a voice with just a hint of the old, and we bid them to sit down beside us, here at the banquet table, and beg them once again to feed us, please, and please, this time, with a little love.
The truth is, there are no love substitutes. There’s love, and there’s everything which masquerades as love, all those diamonds that turn out to be glass: the world’s prizes, and the prizes of the flesh, and the prizes of the spirit, too, so that God became the one I turned to when the fairytale sputtered and the night came on: God as Mom, God as Dad, a God as distant and unattainable as the painful memories I used God to mask. But did it really matter whom I knelt before? What I worshipped was my own longing, what I loved was what I was able to get.
My children sometimes play a game called “Opposites,” in which everything you say is the opposite of what you mean; they are learning, as they grow older, that most of us speak that way all the time. Every time I’ve said, “I love you,” hasn’t it been a lie? What I loved was the way I felt when a woman talked to me, when I thought of her, when her sunlight slid across the big dark barn of my heart after a night of rain. I loved the end of storm and loneliness, the clouds opening.
But this is like loving the postman because he brings you a letter you wrote to yourself a long time ago, in a time before time when you were whole, and love was as natural as breathing, and you hadn’t yet bought the lie that you needed someone else’s approval to be complete, that enchantment resided in another’s eyes not yours, that security needed to be sought, that you could find yourself in someone else! Deep within us that knowledge still throbs, in our heart of hearts, the heart that can’t be broken, where the words God and love and truth are not distant signposts but closer than two bodies can ever be — closer than her hair, dark and storm-tossed the way I like it, splayed across my face; closer than her breath, smelling of me, and mine, of her, mingling above us; closer than her secret wish, whispered in my ear, for a finger here, and mine, for a tongue there, blazing like fire and going up like smoke; yes, closer than memory and regret; closer than that. Closer than my mother a thousand miles above me, bending down to pick me up; closer than my father at the door. Closer than close — where the tyranny we call “love” is seen for what it is: our human prison, to which we’ve fashioned the lock, and the key, and forever go on confusing the one with the other, and always in the name of love.
Have I learned a thing or two? Knowing what something isn’t, isn’t the same as knowing what it is, but it’s a start. Some humility about love is a start. I start with what is dead in me, what hungers for the kiss of life, what wants to live in astonishment — not through but with a woman — and I acknowledge how difficult this is: did I say difficult, or impossible?
For example, I learn to leave my wife alone. For someone as unsure as I of his self-worth — longing for the kind word, the hand-out, the pressing of flesh on flesh — this is no small accomplishment, and often I fail, but then I get the chance not to blame her for my pain. Of course, it’s always more complicated than that, for there’s her pain, too. Does she rub my wounds with the balm of a little lie? If I realize what she’s doing, do I merely get angry, or do I have to consider why? Do I, like a blind man, give her my hand, to run across her hidden face, so I might know her darker features, her fear? Do I lose myself in sympathy, or judgment — or reach through to real compassion? Do I stay the distance, or jump the wall — love her, or write a poem about love gone astray?
I have a desk drawer full of poems, for my ex-wives; for the other women I’ve lived with; for women I’ve known briefly, and slept with once, or known no less intimately for never having touched them; for friends who, had we cared less for each other, might have been lovers, and lovers who cared enough to become friends. Knowing that my love is nine-tenths lie, I say I love them still, that they’re here with me on this anniversary night as the men Norma has loved are with us, too, that if togetherness is mostly illusion so is separateness, and that everyone we’ve loved, however imperfectly, has left their mark on us, and we on them.
I fasted for a week before our wedding day, to “purify” myself, but by the time the ceremony started I was more dizzy than pure. I promised Norma the sweet air of me, but knew I’d deliver the meat. No angel touched me as I nervously recited the vows — which, two years later, seem both practical and preposterous: either you need volumes to get you through the hard times, or nothing so much as silence.
We lift our glasses and gaze at each other romantically, before one or the other of us breaks the spell with a wink. We both know what an absurd yet touching drama this is: this marriage rooted in human frailty and conceit but rooted, too, in God’s will. Yes, we know — until the next awful moment when we forget, and have to struggle against the amnesia drawn before us like the darkest of curtains. Then grief becomes our bond. Grief, joy — one turns to the other quicker than you can say, “How was your day?”
And who’s to say which is more love’s measure? I didn’t know I’d fallen in love with Norma until the first time I saw her cry. Through my tears and hers, which no lover’s hand can stay, I’m falling still: through our shared loneliness, gathered into our hearts like a wild bouquet, then hurled away; through the sounds our bodies make, rolling together like chords; through echoes of pleasure. . . .
One moment we’re “in,” the next moment we’re “out” of love; we agree, over the flickering candlelight, that we can scarcely say which serves us better. The pain of love always leads us down to a deeper, more compassionate love — but who can remember this? Who can bear the pain of love for what it is: the heart’s unbearable treasure?