By Donna Baier Stein
Featured Art: Sibylle by Camille Corot
What follows is by way of explaining what happened last Sunday, when I had more of a brush with sex than I’ve had in the five years since my divorce. What follows may explain my disappointment.
You see, the first man I fell in love with turned out to be gay and hanged himself from a tree along Highway 1 in California.
The second left me when I got pregnant. He was much shorter than me but had lovely lips and gentle eyes.
The third seemed promising: great sex, red-gold hair, tall. We met in a magical way. At a certain time on a certain day of the week, we passed each other going opposite directions on the campus of the University of Kansas. This was the sidewalk near the Student Union, which was burned down by hippies in 1972. I may have known one of the people who did it but I’m not positive about that. If it was the person I’m thinking of, he’s now an executive at an insurance company in Florida, with two kids.
Back to how I met #3. When I noticed him walking on campus, near the Student Union, I thought, That guy’s really cute. He usually wore a jean jacket. Gold wire-rimmed eyeglasses, a red-gold beard. He may have worn cowboy boots but I’m not sure.
I do remember that #1, the first man I really fell in love with, who turned out to be gay and killed himself, wore wonderful white tennis shoes. He bounced in them as he walked, and his smile spread all the way across his face.
I know it is unfair to reduce these men, all of whom are as wonderful as people can be, meaning they are imperfect, to numbers. The men I’m telling you about are not men I hate, and in fact I probably don’t really hate any men. But sometimes there’s a particular gut reaction I have that can feel like hate, or a neighbor of it, like it did last Sunday.
Back to #3. The second time I saw #3, I thought again, That guy’s really cute. And probably something like, I’d love to have him as a boyfriend. Maybe it was something saner, like, I’d like to get to know that guy and see if we get along.
The third time we passed each other, #3 smiled at me. He also had a great smile, and his blue eyes crinkled behind those wire-rim glasses. He was so tall and lovely!
I smiled back.
We passed each other maybe two more times, smiling wider each time. I started looking forward to seeing him. Then one day he said Hi and something else that I know brought joy to my heart but which I can’t remember all these years later.
He asked if I wanted to walk to the campanile on campus. I’d lain on the hillside there just the week before, with friends, looking at the sun through a colorful quilt. We’d taken Orange Sunshine on blotters. Everything we saw was in a rainbow; even the colors smelled.
At the campanile, #3 and I talked a lot. Before we parted, he kissed me. He was a great kisser. We dated. We were in love, I’m sure of it. That summer he took a job in La Jolla but we spent long hours on the phone and missed each other’s bodies.
That fall, as far as I can remember, he was still my boyfriend.
The next thing I remember is me standing at the black phone on the wall at Ginger Sterrett’s house. It was late afternoon, December 31st. Ginger lived with her ponytailed boyfriend Ryder who loved jazz and basketball and was smart but not ambitious. I don’t think any of us were back then. Many years later, Ginger went home to Bird City, Kansas, and married a rodeo cowboy, then divorced.
That December 31st, Ginger had handed me the phone. It was #3 calling. I’d assumed he was calling to tell me he was coming over to celebrate New Year’s with us. Instead, he said he had met someone and was going out with her that night. I know, I know—I must have been totally blind to have missed that coming. Later, I would be blind when it came to #4 and #5 as well and then again with what happened last Sunday night.
#3 ended up marrying the girl he went out with that New Year’s Eve, which I sometimes told myself made it better. It somehow absolved me of unworthiness.
Many years later, I emailed #3 out of the blue. He’d become a lawyer in D.C. He wrote back right away, saying he still remembered my wonderful smile. That brought me joy.
The relationship with #4 was intense but immoral. Actually those two things go together. Right after I met him, I had the following dream:
I am in a large, sloping green field in a place that looks like England. I walk toward a stone castle up the hill. When I enter the courtyard, a jester with bells on his silk hat hands me an ice-cream sandwich. He says, Eat this and you will meet the true love of your life.
I walk back down the hill and sit at a long picnic table. The people sitting with me are people I have just started working with—in real life. The man who hired me—and became #4—walks up behind me and lays his hand on my shoulder.
For this reason, and others, I fell in love with a married man. I was very ashamed of what we were doing and never once urged him to leave his wife. I thought, I don’t have that right. But I did seem to assume I had the right to succumb to the most powerful chemistry I’d ever experienced in my life. Many years later, I realized this chemistry was heightened by the illicitness of our affair but still, it was a very intense love, or at least passion, for both of us.
It lasted nine months. #4 now has three children, has been married thirty-five years, and spends more than half his days working on the other side of the country from his wife. Sometimes I think he should have left her. They didn’t have kids at the time we had an affair. In fact, what led to our breakup was his wife getting pregnant. Right, I know I was blind. When I’ve seen photos of their first-born son he looks sad, and I think that if these things make a difference, this son somehow, on some level, knew that half of the coupling that made him was ambivalent. His younger siblings, both girls, look beautiful, happy, and confident.
Sometimes I wonder if #4 would feel a need to work so far from home if he had married me. I don’t know the answer to this, and the chemistry between us is long gone.
I had a terrible time with each of the breakups with #1 – #4. I spent months, even years, full of heartache. After each one, I thought, That’s it. There will never be another love.
I also, at some point during each breakup, got very angry at #2 – #4. Not at #1, the one who turned out to be gay and hanged himself from a tree along the coast in California.
The summer I was in love with #1, I lived with five people, including him, in a trailer in Steamboat Springs. Sometimes #1 and I lay on a very narrow mattress that basically filled the tiny, paneled room that was mine. We would kiss, but nothing more. I assumed this was my fault.
One afternoon the five of us sat at the table in the trailer. We drank peyote tea. It was dark outside when #1 stood up and said, I’m a homosexual. We were Midwesterners, and this was 1972.
I immediately ran outside toward the stream that ran through the trailer park. I was crying, loudly. Right, I know that was narcissistic, which is one of several personality disorders I sometimes think I have.
I thought, How could he do this to me? I am heartbroken. My life is over. It wasn’t.
#1’s life ended six months later. Back at school, we had remained friends but I always kept hoping my sexual charisma—weak to begin with—would somehow turn him around and bring his love to me.
Then #1 went to California, for a short stay at a commune with the friend who may have been involved in blowing up part of the Student Union. That friend wasn’t gay. #1’s eyes were kind of wild by then, and his smile had grown frantic and too wide.
A week after he flew across the country, another friend came to my apartment in Lawrence—I didn’t have a phone, both because of money and principle—and told me #1 had driven north on Highway 1 and hanged himself from a tree by the side of the road.
There was terrible, gut-wrenching heartache.
I’ve read that maybe 9% of Americans have some kind of personality disorder. As I’ve read some of their descriptions—avoidant, ambivalent, borderline, dependent—I could pretty much see these traits to some degree or another at some time in everybody. And certainly in me.
An interesting fact: in 2005, two psychologists from the University of Surrey compared personality profiles of high-level British executives with those of criminal psychiatric patients. Three personality disorders—narcissistic, histrionic, and obsessive-compulsive—were more common in the executives than the criminals.
#5 is the man who actually turned out to be my true love, in a real way, not fantasy. He married me, loved me, made me very happy at many times. For nearly twenty-seven years I knew he would never leave me. I loved this. There were other things he did that I didn’t love and were, in fact, unacceptable. I don’t need to go into those here. Suffice it to say that I ended up being the one to move out though I quickly regretted it and tried hard, begged really, to stay married. Borderline personalities are prone to think, I hate you, don’t leave me. I also definitely saw personality disorders in #5, including narcissism, histrionics, borderline as well. Ultimately, he filed divorce papers. I spent five years heartbroken, sometimes to the point of catatonia and suicidal thoughts.
I don’t hate men, I really don’t. But my reactions to them have certainly led to a lot of depression in my life.
The other day I heard an interview on NPR with Kenny Rogers. It surprised me that he would be on the show. He never seemed that special or interesting to me. I think even the interviewer—Leonard Lopate—sounded disdainful at some of Kenny’s answers, as I was.
I learned that Kenny’s been married six times. He’s now seventy-four and on wife #6, with whom he has twin boys, age eight.
I don’t have any trouble committing, he said during the interview, laughing.
He said, There is a fine line between being driven to succeed and being selfish. I crossed that line.
My gut twisted when he added, I loved every one of my wives.
This is the stuff I sometimes hate about some men.
Kenny blamed his divorces on the fact that he spent a good part of his life touring the world. What he didn’t say, but I suspect, is that his wives stayed home and raised his seven children.
Next week, he said during the interview, I will go to Singapore to tour. His current, and I assume much younger, wife will stay home to raise their twin boys. There is a fine line between being driven and being selfish, he said, explaining his past.
One more thing about Kenny: He was on the radio plugging his new book. At some point during the interview, he mentioned an earlier book he’d published with photographs he had taken of famous people: Elizabeth Taylor. Michael Jackson. Four presidents.
Lopate, noting that Kenny had met presidents of both political parties, asked if it was easy for him to maintain a nonpartisan stance. Oh yes, Kenny answered, in a voice meant to be charming, honestly, I didn’t even know what party each president belonged to. I’m a guy who likes to get involved with the concept more than the people. He must have felt that way about marriage, too.
It takes a while but I always get over, at least on some level, the uncomfortable feelings that came with each of my unwanted breakups. Though I also know they are embedded so deeply they will never disappear completely.
Last Sunday was a case in point. I experienced in one day a speeded-up version of the unhealthy patterns set by my relationships with #1-5.
A year ago, my neighbor’s wife died. They had, I believe, a good thirty-year marriage. They were, I believe, monogamous.
I live in a very conservative town. The fact that my neighbors were former hippies—who had even lived for a while in Steamboat Springs—made me happy.
After Ellen died, I knew Randy grieved. I answered his emails and phone calls, even asked him if he’d like to go out to dinner a few times. These weren’t dates, but he always drove and paid and kissed me on the cheek when he dropped me back home.
Then a friend urged him to go on Match.com. We compared notes on our dates, laughing. I told him about the guy who told me he liked working on his Jaguar and Porsche and other cars but when I asked if he also liked to drive them said, Oh no, these are Matchbox cars.
Good Lord, I thought, what am I doing out here? Randy told me about the woman who said she was sixty-one but was really seventy-five. I considered Randy a friend, though also a man who would have interested me if I had not known his wife and known that he was a very new widower.
Then last Sunday, Randy emailed on a Saturday night asking what I was doing. I said nothing. I’d actually just left the kitchen when my father’s favorite show, Lawrence Welk, came on. My parents, who had moved into my house after my divorce, sat at the table holding hands.
I said to Randy, Do you want to come watch a movie?
When he came to the house, we went downstairs to use the big TV. I found the right remote and was pushing buttons when he said, I can think of something better to do than watch TV.
Our clothes came off quickly. It surprised me how good, even how familiar it felt to be touched, kissed, licked. It surprised me that my body really hadn’t abandoned me. And, after about half an hour, it surprised me when Randy said, I love sex. I want to have sex with everyone I can.
I don’t know what I’d been hoping for. Hope wasn’t even in my vocabulary any more. Nor was the word relationship. But right away, as soon as he said that, my stomach dropped. I wanted him to go home, and I wanted to go into my own bedroom to watch TV or not watch TV by myself.
But I faked it.
I brushed my hair back from my eyes and looked at him, stupidly smiling, and said, even with a little laugh, So this is just a booty call? I wanted to show that I was cool with anything. I wanted to show that I knew we were getting up there in age, or rather actually already were up there in age, and life is short, and seize the day and all that good stuff.
I laughed though I really didn’t feel like laughing. The first therapist I ever saw asked me why I was smiling when I was telling him sad things. At that point I would have been telling him about the suicide of #1 and the abortion and the disappearance of #2. But I didn’t want to be a downer.
In the same way, I faked it with Randy. We kept kissing and doing other stuff for a few more minutes and finally I said, I’m really tired, and got him to leave. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
I don’t remember exactly what Randy said when I asked if this was a booty call. And at this point I don’t think he really qualifies as a #6. What I do know is that although hope proper isn’t in my vocabulary anymore, some days, when I see Mom and Dad sitting on the couch together or holding hands, I want to imagine a day when I can stop counting.
Donna Baier Stein is the award-winning author of The Silver Baron’s Wife, Sympathetic People Letting Rain Have Its Say, and Scenes from the Heartland. She founded and publishes Tiferet Journal. She has been an Iowa Fiction Award Finalist, Bread Loaf Scholar, Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars Fellow, PEN/New England Discovery Award winner, and more. Donna’s writing appears in Virginia Quarterly Review, Writer’s Digest, Washingtonian, Saturday Evening Post, and many other journals and anthologies.
Originally appeared in NOR 14.