“Do you believe in soulmates?”
My rational husband swears I asked this on our first date, but I’m sure I waited until at least our second or third. As far as I was concerned, time was a luxury I couldn’t afford. I was already aware of at least two obstacles to our long-term viability:
- We were astrologically incompatible
- He was math-and-science, I was liberal arts
We were probably doomed. So if I was going to go on watching action movies and dealing with his weird roommate, I needed him to grasp the Fundamental Principle of Romanticism: The Girlfriend is Everything You Have Been Looking for Since Forever. Otherwise, why bother shaving my legs?
“So do you?” I was leaning against his chest, so I couldn’t see his face. I waited, feeling pressure build in my chest and behind my eyes. Shit. Shitshitshit.
He was quiet for a long time. A looooooong time. Then:
“I think you become soul mates, you don’t start out that way. You spend time together, you get to know each other, and you make your own soulmates.”
Now, 20 years later, I can see a kind of practical romanticism in his response, but at 23, I was looking for a lot more nostril flaring. Damn it, was I The One or not? How long did it take to make a soulmate? A couple of months? That would bring us up to Valentine’s Day — what if we hadn’t become soulmates by then? What kind of Valentine’s Day would that be? I imagined myself in a silky bathrobe from Victoria’s Secret, eating Spaghettios out of the can and watching Sleepless in Seattle alone. That’s what kind. Bullshit.
But what could I do? He was an excellent kisser and I wasn’t willing to give him up, even if he was being stubborn about declaring his undying love for me. I would teach him. I would show him by example how to be Romantic.
And I have, but so has he shown me.
“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”
~Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet
As a young(er) woman, I wanted full possession, an exhaustive inventory of my lover’s heart and mind. And I wanted him to demand the same from me. True romance meant there could be no distance, ever. I was desperate to know and be known, to understand and be understood. I wanted the merging Rilke warns against, I wanted two-become-one. Tear down all the boundaries and there was love, waiting on the other side. I believed that, thanks to a dramatic, romantic nature and seeing Titanic in the theater six times. Love was all-or-nothing: you either grabbed hands and leapt into the churning, icy Atlantic together or you died alone.
Brian, who could barely get through a single viewing of Titanic, let alone six, didn’t see it that way. “I would find another thing that was floating, tie it to hers, break off a couple of pieces to row with, and find a rescue boat,” he said after the movie. “He wasted all of his energy at the end, talking to her.”
I mean, really. Sometimes it was as if he had never spoken to a woman before.
But I couldn’t help loving him. He didn’t talk much, but he was smart and funny when he did. He was a good problem-solver and impossible to rattle. He was disciplined about his work and never complained about how much he had to do, even in the middle of a surgical residency. Best of all — though it took time and wisdom to value this about him– he was a guardian of my solitude. He granted me the space and freedom to be wholly myself.
At first –for a long time, really– all the space he cheerfully gave me felt like disinterest, a rejection. Gradually, though, his easy support of friendships and projects that didn’t necessarily include him made me bolder, more confident, and more willing to grant him the same independence.
And Romance, confined for so long to one kind of relationship and diminished by my possessiveness and anxiety, grew to fill the “infinite distance” between Brian and me. He loved me and I loved him. He didn’t have trouble remembering that, so what if I took my worried eyes off of our relationship for a minute? What if I rested my gaze on the rest of my life, which had just as much of a right to grow?
When I did, the romance I had sought so desperately in my relationships showed up everywhere else –the kitchen, the garden, east-coast cities, northern lakes. I found it in hospital rooms, in restaurants, on porches and in living rooms.
“We do not want merely to see beauty … we want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”
That is what romance is –to become part of the beauty that surrounds us all the time, whether we are looking or not. Six months after my daughter’s brain surgery, I went up to my old summer camp to celebrate its 100tth birthday. I spent 11 summers there as a girl and a young woman — Camp Lake Hubert is what my heart looks like on the inside, I’m sure of it. My friends and I wandered up and down the old paths and sat around the campfire like we had when we were 14, sifting sand through our fingers and toes while woodsmoke perfumed our hair. My breath and pulse slowed, I slept without moving. I felt I was returning to a self that had been waiting there in the woods while I ferried my little daughter from EEGs at Children’s Hospital to surgery at Mayo Clinic. I was both a woman returning and a girl welcoming her back. I don’t know if that makes any sense — it does to me.
My friends and I were staying at my dear friend Lisa’s family lake house, right on Lake Hubert. I awoke early on the last morning of the reunion and crept through the semi-darkness with my camera. I let myself out and walked barefoot down rough wooden steps to the dock, where the sun was just beginning to rise over the lake. I knelt on the dock and wept from relief and gratitude for that sunrise. It was all for me, I knew it.
The September air smelled of earth and metal. The sun spilled golden light on the silver lake, diamonds flashed among the mellow waves. Like my wedding ring. I had never felt closer to the very center of my life. I was kneeling alone on the dock, but my friends were still with me. Brian was still with me. Everyone who had watched over me during the horrible months of my daughter’s seizures and tests and surgery was still with me. I had dozens of soul mates, whether or not they believed in the idea or would say I was theirs. I didn’t need them to.
Was that morning really romantic? Is that the right word? My people –and especially Brian– are present in all of the places I love and all of the places I love are present in them. They are always with me, part of the beauty surrounding me even when I am alone. There are infinite distances between us, yes, let us allow them to be there as Rilke urges. Let us “see each other as a whole and against an immense sky.” There is romance in that. I can agree to that and Brian taught me how.
Yet let us also invite each other now and then into the infinite distances between us, the parts we don’t easily share. The wildest, most vulnerable kinds of beauty live there in those spaces — the parts of ourselves we protect most fiercely because they have made us whole and recognizable to ourselves. That is right and good …we don’t have to dissolve into each other for love. But we do have to know each other. We can’t hide out in those infinite distances between us, floating alone in our imaginations while those we love stand on the opposite shore, guarding our solitude. The beauty we want to be part of includes each other. We can’t be whole without each other. That is what I know.
5 thoughts on “The Modern Romantic”
Beautiful. I love the part about what your heart looks like on the inside. What an indescribable emotion you have just put into words for me.
Beautiful, deep, insightful. The best valentine ever! Betsy >
Thank you for this, I loved it!
Dammit, Marta – will you get this book written and published please? I want it placed right next to my bed.
I’m working on it! 😉