Dancing… pretty women.
Are a wonder.
Sitting in the window or
Standing on the stair
Something in them cheers the air.
Stay within you,
Glancing… stay forever,
Blowing out their candles or
Combing out their hair,
Even when they leave
They still are there.
—Stephen Sondheim, from “Sweeney Todd”
It’s always been my fortune in the latter part of my life to find myself caught up with women who others cannot help but love. They drew affection naturally, draw it, rather, as the luck continues. There is something in each of them, or was, that brought out a sense of affinity, a sweetness, a joy, a natural allure. I cannot speak of physical appeal, not objectively, because to me—and not only to me, but that’s not the point—they were and are beautiful. But I don’t think attraction of a carnal sort is a necessary component of this common response, this spontaneous response. For one, it has always been both women and men who were drawn to these women who were, and are, oh so important to me in my life.
I had some premonition of this as a younger man, but my own interests were more strictly passionate, more singularly objective. And the goal was always bound up in a natural tendency in myself to devotion, specifically to uxoriousness. I sought a mate, always. And my tender efforts, mixed up, confused no doubt and entangled, with more hormonal derivations of my attractions, always ended up in bad judgment, for reason had little part in it. As much as I am by nature analytical, observing, perceiving, processing, ruminating and digesting through the great maw of my intellect (likely itself a very small thing), reason always came last in making my choices, if it came at all. I do not mean to suggest that I am some brilliant philosopher or that I was precocious in any kind of wisdom, though, in retrospect I always showed glimpses at least of a kind of prescience. In the case of women, however, in my youth there was no sign of the reliability of my intuitions. These instinctual habits of mind, upon which I have come so much to depend for my judgment for several decades at least, and reliably so, had they not developed fully, if they had developed at all.
I made mistakes in my choices, as did my partners. And we came to grief. The rupture of any bond, especially those meant, from the first moment one is conscious of being bound in intention, to be long-lasting, dare I say life-long, is overwhelming in its initial shock. Recovery is sometimes hard won in time, if not in emotional stress and in the diminishment of one’s capacity for engagement with life in general. The rupture of the bond of marriage raises the outcome of such breaks, and their collateral effects, to a higher power. I have been married three times so far. Twice, youthful couples that we were, these marriages ended in divorce. The immediate cause each time was a discovered infidelity, neither of them (or any, to be mathematically accurate) mine, but I came to discover this was irrelevant. There are those who would also say that, indeed, the infidelity or its discovery was not an immediate cause at all, given that in each case, my wife decided to take the long walk out the door to our home together. Alone. And I must add: if only momentarily so.
But this is not a narrative about what life they found for themselves with others, after our separation and divorce. Indeed, it’s not even a narrative necessarily about me, and my misadventures. The point is, at least twice in my life I entered into an agreement, a formal joining based on trust, bound by a mutual avowal of that trust, and it was sundered. I take nothing away from these women, as they were themselves lovable in the way I describe in my opening. Were they not, at the very least, there would not have been the one additional set of arms willing to enfold them in loving, trusting embrace that was in each case waiting to do so.
No. I’d say, much as I cannot deny there was a sundering of that trust, a betrayal, the blame, which is the better thing to ruminate upon, lay with both of us. Anyone reading this may infer what they like, but I learned the hard way what to set my thinking upon. And it was necessary to do so, if I had any hope for what remained of my life after the second divorce, never to experience such a sundering again. After the passing of what has been as many years, and more, as an adult since that second split, I can say, I’ve managed not to. There has been another marriage, and another end to it, but that resulted from a far more irrevocable, and undeniably the proximate, cause. In that sovereign state called marriage, I am sorry to differ with the Reverend Dr. John Donne, but death does have dominion, without question as a matter of terminating the earthly condition of it, no matter how loving and strong the bond.
And it has been more in reflection on my years together with my third wife, than through any active contemplation as we lived them, that I came to understand the depth of her innate, her absolute, lovability. I mean that quality as I mean to have you contemplate that quality in others, at least in women, when and if you should come upon it. Since her death, I have had the fortune of meeting other women, some of them more quickly and consciously identifiable to me as possessing that quality. Not with any allure or attraction beyond admiration and a wish for friendship, as differentiated from other kinds of desire, but with the difference that I could, for a change, substantiate any spontaneous draw I might feel, or not, with a conscious awareness of each of them as a person, wholly separate, with an inviolable integrity, which included this quality I am calling lovability. I mean of course a personality and a character intertwined possessed of what could be a long string of associated qualities that constitute them. Qualities like those already alluded to, of sweetness and joy, but also gentleness, and modesty, of guilelessness at bottom. However, such a listing might end up being endless, without enhancing or clarifying the point if I have been at all successful in making it.
I began by speaking of my good fortune, and, I do so despite death and the disaster it wreaked upon my life, that is, the destruction of the very everydayness of my life being the worst part. I say this, because grief does subside. There is nothing equivocal about death, sudden or expected. In its wake, you learn the meaning of absolute, of being definitive, of an end to all that. And you learn to submit to that grief, and you learn to let it overcome you, and then to let it leave by leaching away, bit by bit. As much as there is such a thing as a slow death, there is such a thing, too, as a slow resurrection, an exquisite incremental return to life.
One lesson in this should be enough for any lifetime, but as the healing occurred for me, I had the continuing fortune to meet another, it seemed, of these lovable women I speak of, I hope it is clear, with adoration. I was only beginning to get to know her, however intensely we permitted ourselves to be with one another. In terms of temporal commitments to be together, in terms of openness of consciousness, in terms of being confessional. I speak for myself of course, because, in a way I had not expected, one result of my experience of my first, impossibly (or so it seemed) glorious re-flowering of a life that had begun to emerge from a long winter of losses and killing frosts, was that I felt free. That freedom was a new experience, for all my experiences, generally, and specifically in my eternal commerce with women over a life growing ever longer. It was a freeing sensation, rather, existential, more than a notional abstraction of the sort we speak of when we speak of politics or public discourse. What was freed within me was my self, my sense of who I was, and of what I could permit myself to be or to say. Without, in fact, granting a conscious reflexive act of permission, however unspoken.
There was a lesson in this too, which I could not learn in full until later in this very late period of the history of my own life. And it was death that once again was the agency of delaying my full mindfulness of what I was experiencing even as I lived it. For death made another visitation upon someone I had come to love, whether for her lovability, which seemed amply proved by the reverence and affection displayed by all who knew her—my newest set of friends—or because I simply had met another woman in the course of my sojourn on the earth with whom, and for whom, I felt such things. I will never learn whether there was a chance for the sort of permanence I have sought since I was reasonably old enough to think about such a conjunction. You’d think I could tell, given my knowing at least that it is in my nature, de rerum natura, truly, or at least insofar as the “thing” whose nature was to be known was myself. But I could not. We learn about the permanence of things, I now believe, by living them, all the way through. And, as I’ve already noted, the only definitive end, the probative finish to a matter of permanence and whether something has truly endured to that end, is death. And so death provided some definition, but not of the sort I, or anyone sane and loving, would wish.
My second lesson (among many, I am sure, but these will require more reflection, and hence, more opportunities to speak and write of them separately, with the focus each deserves), occasioned by a death, by my bearing witness to it, and the suffering of another soul within its grip, was this. I learned, with greater force, what I thought I had already learned long since in my struggle to understand how to live with another human being, my counterpart, my equal, but given my preferences and disposition, differentiated nonetheless by secondary and apposite manifestations of gender. I learned, once again, there are boundaries, and they define not only where one ends and another begins, but where, and under what circumstances, and within what terms I may exercise that freedom to be myself I thought I had finally discovered. I am sure whatever other lock there is in my being, that binds me by turns, or keeps me out of places I have a right to go, but have never before ventured—whether from fear or ignorance I still cannot say—has its key in this quality of being lovable. It’s a theory that posits in such a quality being inherent in the other, in women, because, much as I have a love for friends who are men, it is a different kind of love and satisfies a different instinct. I cannot even say that such men as I know who are true friends, and reciprocate my friendship and love unquestioned (and I am, I am sure, if only by dint of some of my behavior, disposed not to make it easy—not at first efforts) possess the lovability of which I write here.
I am sure of that quality, so sure that I can write of it, as I never have before. There are no instant revelations here. No epiphanies at all, least of all good news, as if these insights had occurred just yesterday. In fact, even as I write this, I must note that I began this essay more than two months ago, and have learned that much more in the interim. This is undoubtedly why I could finish it. What has happened is another stroke of luck, not a mere single stroke, but a painting full of them, I have a sense of possibly a gallery of luck. I have met another who is, in fact, the purest embodiment of that lovability I have ever met. I am sure that one reason for my life is that I might live it, willy nilly as I might and did live it, so I could in fact be ready at this time—more or less—to meet such a one, so pure a one and appreciate her and have the chance, once again, to live it right, to be free, but only so free, to let her be free, in all her gentleness, and sweetness, and modesty, and, yes, vulnerability, and to know how to honor these qualities and cherish them, and avert any risk of sundering what I would prefer never again to have sundered. And also, yes, of course, to love her, as a sign, if of nothing else, that I recognize that capacity in her.