throw your hearts open wide

At the bar, K. and I talk about her divorce. “It’s moving along,” she says, although he is angry and spiteful sometimes. “If that’s the way he needs to play it, whatever,” she says, “I just want it to be done.”

The owner of the restaurant sees her, comes over, asks about some meeting they were at earlier in the day. They talk together for a while, in a language of local politics. I hear a few words: council, pension, licensing. A man I know walks in and from across the room, waves. I wave back, turn back to the bar. He makes his way over and we talk about a work project. “We should catch up some time,” he says as he moves toward an open table. I say: “Oh, definitely, yes.”

Later in the evening, our friend comes over with pie. We all stand around together in the kitchen while M. puts away dishes. It’s good to see him – he is an old friend and we’ve all seen each other through some trying years. There is little trace of those difficulties on him now, and I marvel at his resilience, the path that he has taken. There were moments – for all of us – where it could have gone very differently.

It is easy to be is his company. We catch up on the usual things – our jobs, our families, the friends we have in common.

People all around us, it seems, are ending relationships of decades. The news of one couple, in particular, is unexpected and saddening. I think of my friend whose mother, now in her seventies, talks about leaving her father after forty years of marriage.

“I think after a certain number of years, it should be illegal,” I say, “like the statute of limitations just runs out after a time.” I mean this to be a joke, of course, but not without its point. Building love together is a wearying thing: You put years and years of love and work and care into tending this bond. Isn’t there a time at which the benefits of that outweigh any possible promise of starting anew? After a time, isn’t the comfort of knowing and being known – to the extent, at least, that any one of us can know any other – its own reward, its own gift?

But I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of our human hearts. I am just grasping here, really.

Before he leaves, we promise to stay in better contact. To see each other more frequently. I walk him to the door and he shouts something through the mail slot, something to make me laugh. I watch him walk down the front steps and to the driveway before I turn off the light on the porch.

Later, I tell M.: “We have to stay together forever because I want you to take care of me when I am old and sick.” He says, “That will be difficult, since you will be taking care of me.”

Over the weekend, J. comes into town, but we hardly get to talk at all. At a café, we run into a man she used to know here, and he lights up when he sees her. “Wow,” he says, “it’s such a treat to see you. Wow.”

“Yet another reason to move back,” she whispers as he walks away, but later, when she shows up at the art opening that he invited her to, there is a woman with him. “I don’t think he was avoiding me,” she says, “but let’s just say he didn’t seem dying to talk to me, either.”

I remember my mother once saying that to be lonely in a marriage was far worse than being alone. The idea has lingered with me – this notion of the dangers of loneliness – and with it, her sense of foreboding. As if the feeling, once felt, becomes its own irreversible truth. As if love was a static thing that could not accommodate a multiplicity of emotions – as if the very elasticity of love was not itself its greatest, most redemptive gift: Let me offer up my loneliness on the table of our love and you can set down your own. Lay your burdens down here. Here, where we can share them.

Before we leave the bar, I ask K.: “Are you alright? Will you be ok?” We hug. “I don’t know,” she says, “can I say that I really just don’t know?” We stand there for a moment longer. I nod, of course, and say the only thing I can think to say. It sounds trite and hollow as I hear myself say it, but I mean it: “There will be a time when it will not feel this way. You will be fine – maybe not right away, but you will be.”

The bar has filled up now – clusters of men and women encircling the tall tables, holding their glasses, laughing. At a table nearby, a couple sits side by side, their heads close together, their fingers touching. As I walk past them toward the door, I can’t help but think: Go forth, brave lovers. Go out into the night and throw your hearts open wide. If in the morning, you find them empty, don’t lose hope. They will be full again.