a weary heart, a cautious heart

My friend C. is in love with a man she cannot have, and the fact that she cannot have him, I think, is part of the appeal. We meet up when I am back in town, and she tells me about the books he has written, the books he continues to write.

Do you know she never reads them? She is talking about his wife. Even when he asks her to, she doesn’t. I mean, think what you want to about the marriage, but the man is brilliant, he asks you to read this manuscript, you’re his wife, for god’s sake, and you don’t just read it?

She pokes at the ice in her glass with a plastic straw. Her hair has gotten long, and there are a few strands of gray. She has it pulled up high on her head, in a black band. I mean, don’t you think that’s just cruel?

It is not that I am not sympathetic. I am tired, though, and the conversation is the same one we’ve been having for years. There are many forms of cruelty, I think, but I do not say this aloud.

I mean, is it really worth it to stay together for the health insurance? Because that’s what it seems like it is, to me.

After my father left New York, he moved to Florida, into a retirement community of sorts. It was there he met the woman he’d eventually marry, and call his “soul mate.” Although he stopped short of describing their love in so many words, his effusiveness over the way their intimacy made him feel “so alive” made me uncomfortable. It’s a natural thing, honey, he would say, into my silence over the phone. It’s beautiful and it’s natural. Be happy for your old man.

I never met his wife, but she would write notes on the occasional birthday or Christmas card I received from him. “With all my love,” she would sign in a big, looping hand.

Now when I meet up with friends, we sit at the bars of the restaurants we love, but sitting at the bar is a new thing for me, and I am a bit tentative about its etiquette. I don’t sit at bars to meet new people, or even to have a casual conversation with someone I don’t know, but it seems as though that is expected more often than not. Last night, when I meet up with J., the bar is crowded. A man sits next to me and tries to talk to the man on the other side of J., about the book he has brought with him to the bar. I don’t recognize the title or the author, but as the man explains it, I am reminded of an interview I heard on the radio. About a crime writer retiring a beloved character. They chat for a few moments more, loudly enough so that J. and I must suspend our own conversation and participate in this new one that is playing itself out in front of us. I am not proud of my impatience.

A friend of mine, twenty years into his marriage, tells me this: The betrayals in a marriage are not necessarily what you might expect. Often you can recover from infidelities. What is more difficult is the failure to dream together. To share the same vision for your future selves.

I consider this, turn if over in my mind a bit. I don’t think of it as a vision necessarily, but perhaps more as a lens. A way in which you both view the world. The frame through which you see your places in it. B. and I never had the same lens. Never moved through the world with shared expectations of it. Perhaps the result is the same. If you do not see the world through a similar lens, you cannot hope to light upon the same vision for the future.

When M. and I met, I described it this way: that something in me recognized something in him. Something old and deep. A weary heart, a cautious one, but one still open to joys, however fleeting they might be. Your vision for the future can change over time, I think, but the qualities and capacities of your hearts – I don’t think they do. Those you carry with you through years.

C. calls me when I am back in Providence. The story is the same. What should I do, she asks, as if this is the first time she has considered this question, as if there is anything, really, to be done. She is helping him through a third draft of his new book, making her meticulous notes and sending back pages adorned with the smallest post-it flags I have ever seen. She refuses to help him, she says, so I do it.

I tell her about the shared vision, about viewing the world through a common lens. Perhaps, I say tentatively, the dream they have together is bigger than his manuscripts.

There is a long, bruising silence on the line, and I know that I have gone too far.

You are right, she says finally, barely above a whisper. But you are also cruel.

Toward the end of his life, my father sent me a letter. It was barely legible, his handwriting so shaky and small. I have not been with Ruthe for very long, he wrote, but it was as if we have known each other all our lives. It was as if, when I was a kid growing up in the Bronx, she was there. And when I was stationed in Virginia, she was there. And when I lived in that cramped apartment in Yonkers, after your mother and I divorced, she was there. She has always been there. She is the love of my life and when I die, I will die knowing that I met my true soul mate. How I wish the same for you. With all my heart.