I knew a woman who declared every Sunday a silent day. One Sunday her husband came home from the gym, having had his wallet stolen. He spent an hour freaking out, pacing in front of his silent wife, waving his arms and ranting, not only repeating the story of what had happened but providing her reaction: "I know what you'd say," he told her. "You'd say, 'It's okay—just cancel the cards and get on with your life.' But I can't—I'm angry. And I know you hate that about me. You'd say, 'What's the point of wasting time being angry—the wallet's gone....'" The woman, listening, was surprised and a bit miffed at how wrong her husband was about her. But that's what we do with the people we love: In large part, we make them up, based on past experience. We bring the past into the present, and fail to experience, in any given moment, the people we love unencumbered by our projections.
It's our wish for continuity and cohesiveness that gets in the way, and our fear of starting over every moment, as if it were the first. I knew a couple who had been married 30 years when the wife died of a heart attack. They'd seemed content enough, but after the wife died, the husband felt very guilty: His wife, it turns out, had been miserable for most of their time together. He kept asking himself why they hadn't done something early on to change that—even if it meant splitting up. But he knew why: They'd grown attached to their routines, which had quickly become ruts. And they viewed this situation as Their Life. Someday, the husband had told himself, they'd change things, break out, have fun. And then she was gone.
I have a girlfriend now, Julia—that's how much things have changed for me. Julia, who's much younger than I, was married to a man who died four years ago, in his early 30s, of a brain tumor. She and I don't talk about forever—about love being permanent—because we know that it's not. Though we love each other, we know that our inclination toward getting too attached, the way Geoff and I did, inevitably causes us pain—makes us clingy, jealous, angry, resentful, and afraid. As much as we like each other, we start to dislike each other, threatened by loss.
The trick is coming back to this moment with Julia, whoever she is right now. It's hard work, cutting off the last moment and entering this one, but when I remember to, I practice doing just that: I look at Julia as she comes toward me in the morning, and drop all my projections. There she is, unknown to me, with a cup of coffee dangling from her hand, and an armful of laundry, and she is alive and beautiful and brand-new. Most times I fall in love with her all over again. But then, whether I want to or not, I have to let her go.