(this essay first appeared in Purple Clover)
Frank* and I are like an old married couple except that we aren’t married, until recently didn’t live in the same house and for years didn’t see each other every day, or even every week. We’ve worked hard to get to this point—where our relationship isn’t always being questioned or parsed, discussed or denied. Where we can just be for days, even weeks, at a time.
I have a rather fractured romantic history, in which I usually walked away before things got difficult, or just uncomfortable, or not perfect. I managed a 20-year marriage by sheer force of will, even though I wanted to walk dozens of times. I stayed but my husband and I never fixed what was wrong. We had children and I was trying to prove something to myself. And proving I could stay became more important than being happy.
Which is not to say that I expected a bed of roses when I got married. I expected honesty, a shared vision and support. I got none of those. The thing is, I’ve always been a pragmatist and was OK with that. Until I wasn’t.
A few years after my divorce, another man entered my life—a man who adored me like I hadn’t been adored in years—and I married him. There were all sorts of reasons not to and not too many good ones to say yes, but it was romantic and seemed worth a try.
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And then my practical side took over again: I had a dying father, a mother just diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a son who had been “asked to leave” his prestigious first-choice university because he stopped going to class and a teenage daughter still living with me. My second husband was yet one more person on a long list of people who I had to take care of. And I just couldn’t do it.
I eventually began dating again, even though I had already set my mind to move out of state as soon as my youngest left for college. I thought it might be fun, but, as many of you probably know, it mostly wasn’t. Right before I had planned to cancel my online dating subscription, I received an email from the site: “You may like this person,” it said. I looked and did.
Despite having been married and divorced twice. Despite my having one foot out of the state. Despite his being only recently separated. Despite that he still lived in the same house with his soon-to-be-ex wife. Despite that I was still reeling from an on-again, off-again, between-two-marriages-after-the-second-marriage affair with a man I had known since I was 15, and had never completely gotten over.
The attraction was mutual and intense. We liked talking with each other. Our sex life was interesting and joyous. We liked the same food, movies, books. Our politics jelled. We got pissed off at the same stuff. So we ignored that he was barely out of a long marriage and I was soon moving 8 hours south. We ignored his clingy 12-year-old daughter who seemed unwilling to accept her father dating and, when I finally met her, hated me on first sight. We mostly ignored that we lived 150 miles apart.
Our weekends were tiny magical oases. For those two days, I chose not to face the reality of his ex dragging her feet about finding a new place to live while he dragged his about turning his separation into a divorce.
Eight months into our relationship, I made an offer on a dream place in Savannah—a condo overlooking the marsh and river. I put my house on the market and began to help my daughter choose from the several colleges which had accepted her. Frank and I continued the every-other-weekend visits to each other, all the while pretending that there were not several elephants in the room.
They eventually left the building. His wife moved out and I helped him rearrange the house that was now his. I assured him that my old lover was no longer in the picture. We were happy. A little over a year after our first date, we drove down to Savannah together for a vacation. It was wonderful.
A few months later, I drove my daughter to college and then came home to finish packing to move. Neither of us talked about the long-distance thing much, and we also continued to ignore the questions everyone else was asking: how long can you two keep this up?
He was there the night the moving truck unloaded me and things went fairly well for some time. Until the whole thing almost came tumbling down. Our second Christmas together, I was up in Virginia visiting before the two of us would head back down south for New Year’s. Frank’s daughter threw a temper tantrum. She didn’t want me around, and certainly didn’t want me interfering with her Christmas. Frank was furious and went for a walk—alone. I went to talk to his daughter and told her that her father loved me and that I loved him and that she wasn’t going to drive me away. But she almost did. As did Frank, with his passiveness and unwillingness to stand up for us.
The next few months were filled with short visits in which we tried to get it together, but somewhere along the way, I just lost the will to continue with a man 500 miles away. We drifted apart, and then came back together and went back and forth like this until we decided to, once and for all, figure us out.
He went to therapy to deal with his inability to escape his past. I stopped thinking about dating other men. And then Frank finally told me he was ready to make a change: he put out feelers for jobs in Savannah and got an offer. He had grown to love it here, with me, with my friends, with the life we had when he visited. He didn’t want to lose what we both had held so dear.
We recently bought a house together. We may marry.
I used to cut and run when the going got tough, but if the past six years have taught me anything, it’s that sometimes you stay and fight, even if it scares the hell out of you. And sometimes both of you can be scared together and still make it work.
A cautionary tale, maybe, but brave nonetheless. It seems impossible to escape the messiness of life as we get older, but I admire your hanging in there. Good luck with Frank!
How is life in Savannah?
Good afternoon. Reaching out because my mother, Anne Mercer Shields did a 15″X18″ oil on canvas portrait of you while you all were at the VCCA in 1990. She passed away 6 years ago and we’re cleaning out her studio. I’d like to send it to you if you’re interested. Please send me an email and I’ll send you a picture of it.