The dilemma of love
Illustration: Joe Magee

Years ago my boyfriend Geoff and I sat on the old twin bed we'd bought from the Salvation Army, crying so hard our noses ran and shirtsleeves grew wet with tears. At 17 it had never occurred to me that I'd ever be without him, my first love. But that evening—I don't remember why—we suddenly realized that death would one day separate us. Imagining my future without Geoff felt like imagining the planet without light and air. Still, three years later, I was in love with one of my professors, and Geoff was living by himself in a tiny apartment a good mile uptown. Life is like that: unexpected, fluid, fleeting, temporary—each fraction of a second of experience fresh and vivid, but then gone, replaced by the next fraction of a second of experience. Moment by moment we meet and are met by everything new—sensations, sounds, smells, tastes, sights, textures, feelings. And they change us. And we change them.

It is only by our powers of habit, and the strength of our will, and our attachment to the things we want and don't want, love and don't love, that we create lives that seem continuous and solid, the same from day to day. But that sameness is fabricated. Look: In my 50 years, gone are the Javan tiger and the West African black rhino, the Caribbean monk seal and the Arabian ostrich; gone are the Italians from Little Italy; gone is cheap housing. My father is long dead, and so is Kevin, the boy who taught me how to ride a bicycle. Eight of my pets are dust. Nothing is left of my youth but my memories of it, and those, more and more, are dissolving like clouds in the sky. There are bags under my eyes and wrinkles around my mouth. My hair is mostly silver, and my daughter, who it seems was just being born, is now grown. We are all, as the poet Galway Kinnell put it, "forever in the pre-trembling of a house that falls."

And so, perhaps in reaction to all this change, and as if to forestall loss, we lean toward cozy lives. We gravitate toward the familiar. We grow almost insistently attached to the people we love. The very last thing I want, after all, is for my lover to leave me, to be captured by some new thing because he or she is vivid and fresh and I'm not. Nor do I want to chase whatever siren calls me. There's so much to be said for partnering up and making a commitment. There's so much to be said for trying to make a life with someone, even if that life will never turn out the way we plan.

So that's the dilemma: the wish to be together forever, and the inevitability of change. We need to stay aware of that dilemma because it's the truth of how things are. And staying aware of how everything—everything—is impermanent brings its own gift: the possibility of real love.

If you're anything like me, you have grown so used to your mate, so sure of who they are and what they want, that you can't see them anymore. Your idea of who they are eclipses who they really are (though they're always changing too, and not really anyone for long), and you lose sight of them. They become like the tree outside your window or the old painting on your wall. And if you can't see them, you can't really love them.

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.


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