I feel like a fraud when I read my love poems. They’re spun out of thin air and imagination. From a lifetime of reading romance novels. From watching friends fall in and out of love. From TV. And movies. I feel I should read a disclaimer before I read any of them: “I know not of what I speak. Enjoy the poem!”
By writing about my father I have written my way into looking at him with tenderness. Perhaps by writing love poems I’m writing my way toward falling in love? Am I writing my way toward openness? Toward vulnerability? Or am I merely writing about the love story that might have been If I’d had a different set of wounds? Will the poems ever be more than the made-up stories I tell because I don’t have any of my own?
I think that’s why C crosses my mind every so often. I want to be able to say, “Yes, I’ve been in love. His name was C— and he played soccer.” It feels so aberrant to not be able to declare that authoritatively. Not having been in love can make me feel like I’m broken. It can make me feel even worse than you feel when you get picked last for the team.
It makes some conversations so uncomfortable. The kinds where over a couple few martinis you’re dishing with your girlfriends about the boys, the men (or women) you’ve loved and lost. I resort to talking smack about my celebrity crushes (Hi Armie Hammer!), hoping to get a laugh, hoping to disguise the fact that I have nothing to say and that my lack of romantic history is my sunken place, and the outside me who smiles benevolently at happy couples is just a facade.
That’s why nearly 30 years later it still feels so important to put a name on what I had with C. It hardly matters now, and also it matters terribly.
Please don’t misunderstand: I know I am beloved. I know I have many people in my life who I love and who love me right back. I expect that unless I outlive everyone, there will be people at my funeral who will wish desperately I was still around and will feel a little empty in all the places I used to be.
I also know that I don’t need a man to complete me, that I am a complete person in and of myself even if I never have a romantic partner. I won’t die alone. I won’t die unloved even if I may die with the world’s record for celibacy by someone who’s not a Catholic nun or the Pope.
I’ve known longing. I’ve known hunger. I’ve known exactly what Lenny Kravitz meant when he sang, “I just can’t get you off of my mind.” And yet I still don’t know if I’ve ever really been in love.
This is a lightly-edited version of what I found myself journaling about this morning before church…
I love my life, but still, there are sometimes those moments when I wonder how I’ve made it to 43 without the expected benchmarks—a husband, kids, a few heartbreaks. Truth is my heart was broken so early, so repeatedly before I was even a teenager by people who should’ve known better that I couldn’t see past the wreckage for a really long time in order to let someone in. I’m wondering why it seems the only men I can ever expose all of myself to are married or gay. Is it because they won’t demand anything of me more than what I’m willing to give? Or is there just a certain type of courage I lack?
With a married or gay man, I can have a deep and intimate friendship but I still retain—I’m not sure what the right word is—is it my identity that’s at stake? Is it my selfhood? What is it that we give up when we enter into an intimate, romantic relationship with someone?
I have platonic friends of both sexes who have seen both my best self and my worst self. They’ve known me to be kind and generous and sweet, but they’ve also known me to be arrogant and jealous and mean. So, if I’m okay with giving all of that to my women friends, my married male friends, what is it that I’m withholding or scared of showing possible romantic partners and why? What is it that I’m afraid they’ll demand of me that I haven’t already willingly given to my friends?
I’m fairly certain it’s not just sex. Will it be fumbling and awkward given that it’s been more than a decade since I’ve even made out with anyone (and didn’t have much practice before that)? Sure—but I also know without a shadow of a doubt that it also will be so much easier than before cause I don’t intend to sleep with someone (or marry someone—they go hand in hand for me) until I feel utterly and completely safe.
Is it possible then that I’ve kept myself closed off from true romantic love not because I’m unwilling to open myself up but because I was raised with the deep knowledge that men are in fact bogeymen, that the most tragic thing that can happen to a woman is heartbreak, is being abandoned with mouths to feed and school fees to pay? What if I’m not actually afraid of romantic love but rather I’m scared of its aftermath? What if the real bogeymen is the dread of heartbreak turning me into a reflexively controlling woman who lives her life from a place of fear, becoming more and more impervious to receiving and giving love as I get older?
Growing up in my family of strong-willed women, I saw few happy endings. I learned that men always cheated and women (and the children) always suffered. As an adult, I can look around and see the relationships that have lasted, where there is mutual love and respect and tolerance, but those stories came a little too late.
So my real challenge is, I think, not just learning to be open, but convincing myself down to every fiber and cell, down to the DNA level, that the story of my mother, the story of my grandmothers, are not my own. That a happy ending for me is not only possible but is absolutely and positively worth the risk. The challenge is remembering that even if I do suffer a broken heart, I am resilient. That a broken heart or a string of broken hearts won’t make me brick myself up again unless I let it. I can not only be free to love, but I can be free to heal and free to love again, wounded, maybe, but also wiser, with a heart broken open to let love in, not keep it out.
Okay, it’s time to begin…