Strangers on a train

We met in Scotland and fell in love. He never told me he lived with his mother.

Published February 29, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Feb. 29, 2000

Mr. Blue is on the road. In Scotland, this week, seeking the answers to life's persistent questions, the secret of happiness, the formula for longevity and how to write humongous bestsellers. Edinburgh, after all, is the home of J.K. Rowling, the mother of Harry Potter, who any number of craven editors rejected and who got published and chewed up the Times bestseller list.

From Edinburgh, Mr. Blue goes to Dublin, to commiserate with the spirit of James Joyce, a genius who had some of the worst luck you can imagine, and then to Rome, where Martin Luther spent a year in the 16th century and was disgusted by the sale of indulgences and went back to Germany and started the Lutheran church. And then to London, to trot around to the sort of sites that Midwesterners cherish, stationers shops and tearooms and ironmongers and chemists and theatres -- not theaters, but theatres, where you sit in stalls and the red lighted signs inside don't say "Exit" but "Way Out." And rent a car that you steer from the passenger seat and drive on the wrong side of the road. And then home.

As you can see, it is a high-minded trip indeed, no mere vacation, and I didn't even mention the novel that I'll be working on meantime, so the column will take a break for a couple weeks, except for updates on the trip and answers to Urgent Questions from readers. If you can, put your troubles on hold until I return and can address them properly. Or go into counseling. Or do as Dear Abby says and talk to your minister. Or talk to Dear Abby's minister. Or, if you have a really interesting problem, like maybe your boyfriend is having an affair with your cousin and her boyfriend is seeing your sister, and your sister takes in washing, and the baby balls the jack, call up your physician and tell him about it: He only gets to hear people complain about viruses and backache all day, he'd appreciate a good story. Maybe he'll prescribe drugs. Or maybe he'll recommend a long trip. In that case, maybe I'll see you in Rome.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I celebrated my 50th birthday by visiting Scotland. Twenty minutes after arriving in Glasgow, I met a chap from Nova Scotia. During a three-hour train ride, we became friends and decided to continue traveling together for the next 10 days. We became so close, it was almost as though we were honeymooning together, though we did not engage in any physical intimacy, other than kissing. Since then, we've kept in touch through beautiful love letters.

When I visited him in Nova Scotia several months later, it became apparent to me that he was quite attached to his mother, with whom he was living. We traveled together and stayed in motels and I thought we had fallen in love. However, once I returned home, I was awakened to the fact that he has no free will, no choice but to remain with his mother and take care of her until she dies. It seems rather hopeless to continue this romance. Am I justified in feeling the anger I feel? I am stumped and will not write to him until I can find a loving solution.


Dear Dreamscape,

You brought a world of happiness to a man in painful, straitened circumstances. Perhaps he imagined that he was free. Perhaps he is free and it is taking him a while to come to terms with it. In any case, the loving thing is to continue the correspondence for a time. Don't discuss the future, don't make any large proclamations, but as long as you enjoy knowing him and communicating with him, why not go on?

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 34 and am dating a wonderful woman of 35, the divorced mother of an 8-year-old boy. I love her dearly and can't imagine my life without her. She wants to get married. Fine. But I sense some problems. First of all, I have led the slovenly bachelor life almost forever and she likes things to be neat. Disappointment. And I've lived alone for so long that I don't know how to take the feelings of others into consideration. I want to marry this woman, but I fear I will make an awful husband. And I still lust very strongly over other women. I care for her deeply and have never been unfaithful to her except in my fantasies. But I fear that I am very weak. It would kill me to hurt her. I have never been unfaithful, but I fear I may be exactly that type.

Finally, there is her son. He and I get along quite well and think very highly of one another, but I am scared about what kind of father I will be. I can't imagine trying to help a young boy get through the same problems I faced at his age.

I have been alone all my life. I hated the loneliness, but I got used to it. I fear I have become so entrenched in the single life that it would be impossible to share it with her, despite the fact that sharing my life is exactly what I want to do.

Any thoughts would be welcome.


Dear Doubtful,

You are putting yourself through the agony of self-discovery, and don't let me interrupt you. You go right ahead: It's good for you. Take a good long look at the dishes piled in your sink, the hamburger pods strewn on the table, the deceased socks behind the couch cushions, the copies of Playboy under the bed among the dust hippos, the anxious face in the mirror, and ask yourself if this is who you want to be at the age of 40, or 50, or 60. There isn't an easy answer to this question. You're the one to answer it. You entrenched yourself and you can disentrench. (How's that for a wishy-washy answer?)

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 31 and have been in a live-in relationship with a man 12 years older for the past 11 years. We've had our ups and downs, but he loves me and I love him. He is the kindest man I've ever known. We enjoy spending time together, own a home, cars and a cat, have many mutual friends. We are two attractive, professional and intelligent people. And, Mr. Blue, we haven't had sex in years. Years! And we have talked about it, discussed "doing something about it" and nothing happens. I don't know if it is possible with him anymore. And the thought of spending the rest of my life sexless ... well, I just don't think so. Should we part ways? The thought of starting over gives me chest pains. But I feel an essential part of our relationship has died and I just don't think we can get it back. Any advice is appreciated since I would never divulge this confidence to anyone I knew personally.


Dear Undone,

First of all, I hope your man has had a talk with a capable internist about this. There might be some simple problem hovering here that a doctor could divine. And the simple act of going to a professional and saying, "I don't seem to be able to have sex" can, in itself, be therapeutic. To get the dark secret out of the trunk and onto the table. Then there is the dynamic between the two of you to consider. Sometimes two perfectly normal people can reach an impasse and be unable to get around it. A mutual fear that the other person doesn't want to have sex. A mutual feeling of unattractiveness. A reluctance to cross the line and perhaps make a fool of oneself. All sorts of things can go wrong. I am old-fashioned, though, and believe that lust is powerful and that a heterosexual male and a heterosexual female, placed in secure proximity, will find a way to rip the clothes off the other and fornicate for all they are worth. Before you decide to part ways, you should experiment with seduction. Candles, music, food and a low-cut blouse. Don't be too subtle. Seminudity, then nudity, and dim lights and music. You don't accomplish this by serious discussion of subtle nuances; you drop your robe and you say, "Touch me."

Dear Mr. Blue,

My husband and I have been married for a little over a year, and most of the time, it is wonderful and warm and I wouldn't trade it for anything -- he is sweet and caring and normal. The problem is, there are times when I just want to be alone. Not in-the-next-room alone, really ALONE alone. When this happens, I feel myself getting distant from him, which makes him clingy, which makes me worse, which makes him clingier, etc. We have talked about it and I've tried to explain that I just need a lot of space sometimes. I find myself having fantasies of moving away and having my own space and not being tied down to anybody. Is this normal and what can I do about it?


Dear Greta,

The way to do it is to do it. If you need to be alone, then find a way to go away. You want to be alone, and that's fine, but don't make it a rejection: Find a reason to be someplace else and then be there. It's not that hard. Writers have the perfect excuse, and probably most literary effort is merely to mask the writer's need for solitude. This only grows as you get older, by the way. You weary of small talk and the burden of company and suddenly Wyoming starts to look very attractive. But don't tell your husband that you "need space." Tell him you're writing a novel. Much easier.

Dear Mr. Blue,

One of my best friends is getting married in March, and he and his brother organized a bachelor party that includes a chartered bus ($40 each), dinner at an expensive restaurant (another $40 at least) and a trip to a local casino to gamble (at least another $50). This is a terrible week moneywise, you know, mortgage, food for the three kids, gas bills, etc. I've told the groom and his brother I just can't swing it, but they are going ahead. What to do? Not go? Drive myself? Skip dinner and the bus? Hope I can win back the money at the blackjack table?

Confused and Broke

Dear C&B,

You can't swing it, so don't go, and don't apologize. It isn't the height of brotherly love to throw a party that costs your pals $130 apiece, but that's their business. But don't go, pretending that you have the dough. It's no shame to be short on cash -- that's a basic principle of civilized life -- and anybody who makes you feel bad about it is a heel. If you throw a party, it's supposed to be free.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have a little problem. I am about to get married in April to a wonderful yet very boring man. We are both 19, but we love each other with all of our hearts. For the past month I have been seeing someone. Me and Someone have had so much fun. We go out different places and just have fun together. My problem is, I'm starting to like this Someone. I'm also having second thoughts about my marriage. Part of me thinks I like this Someone because he is giving me something that my fianci can't. I know I don't love the other guy. It's just the fact that I am now really confused about what I really want and what is best for me. Any suggestions?


Dear Confused,

Stop. Do not pass Go. Do not get married in April. First of all, you have no business marrying a boring man. Especially not a very boring man. You can't be partners with someone whom you consider less than an equal. Somehow you became engaged to him, because at several steps along the way you hesitated to hurt his feelings, or you thought that things would work out, but now they haven't. You have enlisted this Someone as a device to get you free of the Very Boring Man. Good for you. Use him. Tell the VBM that you are not sure of your feelings. If he is a good person, he'll accept this and not lean on you hard, not whimper, not berate you, and then you should consider yourself free to be with the Someone, to be with someone else, to learn more about yourself and where your young life is headed.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been married for 15 years to a man who spends his life driving a truck. He drives about the country, and I raise our daughter and care for our home and try to make my life as full and rich as I can, and have done pretty well at this. I enjoy my work, attend college, have bright and loving friends and am close to my parents. Until recently, this was rich enough. And then, recently, celebrating my 40th birthday with friends, I was caught off guard by the flirtatious advances of a very attractive man, and it struck me that I am so very lonely for companionship. I have tried to improve my marriage the last 10 years and my husband is very clear on not wanting to work with me on that. I would rather be alone than be lonely with someone. My biggest fear is living on my meager income and my daughter having to do without some of the financial comforts she has always had. What should I do?

Alone and Married

Dear Alone,

You're right, you have done pretty well -- better than pretty well, very well, terrifically well -- at making a life and I am going to assume that your husband has, too. He's in a tough line of work and has made it work for him, and no doubt he finds it a great pleasure to come in off the road and see his family, happy, thriving, well provided for. A man who does well in the trucking life has many good character traits and these may not include the ability to sit with you in a counselor's office and talk about his feelings and his view of the marriage. I don't know how you've tried to improve your marriage but if you're expecting your husband to transform himself, it's too much to expect. Loneliness is part of life, I'm afraid, and it comes and goes, and one does not take desperate measures to alleviate it: A certain cheerful stoicism works well, and then one accepts all the gifts of companionship that come along. Of which you've received many.

Your situation does have certain advantages, as you must admit. You are more in charge of your life, with this absentee husband, and free to have those good friends, whether they're his friends or not, and free to be closer perhaps to your parents than you could be were he always on the scene. You're like those sailors' wives who waved goodbye to their men for six months or a year, and then went about organizing their lives and creating a sort of matriarchal society. The cost is clear, and dramatic, but the benefits are very real. I suggest you wait out this wave of sadness and contemplate the good life you've made. If you decide that the marriage needs to change, then be straight with your husband and tell him that it doesn't work for you anymore and tell him what needs to be different. Do this as thoughtfully and lovingly as you can. But don't let the thrill of flirtation lead you to something impulsive that you'll regret.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I work in an office in which there is a variety of unusual behaviors. There's a woman who periodically sleeps under her desk during the day. There's a woman who comes in an hour late every day and is incredibly mean. One of the bosses does nothing but lumber around, spreading a weird odor and making strange noises and picking his nose and ears with a pointy stick. Is this normal? This is my first office job. Should I move on? Is my mental health in danger? Or can I stay at this job and watch the odd scenery?

Office Oddity

Dear Oddity,

Picking one's ears with a pointy stick is not normal and in fact is dangerous, but you shouldn't point this out to a boss. They do not like to be contradicted. The mean woman and the sleeping woman both seem within the parameters of normality, unless you're not telling me everything. Is there carpeting on the walls? Does anyone keep firearms in their desk? Is the weird odor incense? I doubt that your mental health is in danger from these folks, and I think you can stay around and enjoy the show.

Dear Mr. Blue,

After almost 25 years of marriage, four children, cancer, a new career, my wife's New Year's resolution was to tell me she wanted to separate. That for the past 10 years she had lost the spark, and now she intended to move out to an apartment. I know we had problems and I was depressed but I'm on an antidepressant and have come alive again. I love my wife and want to rekindle our love. We are not fighting, nor are we shouting, and our children (13, 15, 18, 21) all know and seem to understand what is going on. I want to have a marriage counselor and go through a church-sponsored marriage rediscovery program for troubled marriages. She tells me she did that 10 years ago and is not sure she wants to do that again. I don't want to push her out by being too loving, but I feel I can't just stand by and watch her go. Mr. Blue, what am I to do?

Coming Alive

Dear Coming,

Don't push your wife, don't argue, don't get her into a corner. Focus on your children, your work, your happiness and on keeping the deck level and the ship moving forward. Make sure your wife knows that you love her and don't expect anything in return. You can't reverse 10 years in two months. Give her time.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I used to think I was a bright, rational 20-something girl, but I've surprised myself by falling into a very stupid emotional trap. I'm having an affair with an older married man. At the beginning, I felt in control, and was confident that, when the affair tapered off, I could continue my life uninjured and free. I'm not so sure of that now. I know it must end eventually, and the idea terrifies me. Bizarrely, though I don't know her well, I like his wife and would be devastated if their marriage ended because of me. Somehow, I think I could feel better if I knew he and I could remain friends. I can't bring myself to ask him to release me. I realize I've given him all the power over the relationship; my fear of breaking relations with him entirely has me paralyzed. How could I have been so weak?


Dear Frozen,

You were weak because you found him attractive, I presume, and you felt that you would be able to author the affair and make it come out as you wished. Don't brood over that or think about your paralysis. You're not paralyzed and you're not weak. Make your move. Write the letter you need to write and make it stick and clear the decks and your fortitude will be rewarded. You'll find a new love that is not destructive, that doesn't threaten innocent persons.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have a friend who met a Canadian woman through the Internet, chatted with her for about a year, flew to Canada for four days, came back and declared his love for her. He said they were engaged. She has two young children; he hates kids. He has a great job with a major financial institution; he's been talking about moving to Canada and hopes that his company will open a branch there. I am afraid he is about to make a huge mistake and will regret it. Am I wrong to worry about my friend? I've brought up my misgivings gently a couple of times, but I know that to mention them again risks alienation. Any advice?


Dear Concerned,

You should kindly unconcern yourself and prepare to give your friend a going-away party. He is a grown-up and can be allowed to fall in love without your supervision. Maybe it's only your kids he hates, and maybe there's a reason. But if he's making a huge mistake that he will live to regret, it's his life and it's a mistake in a noble cause.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My husband and I just got married a few months ago after living together for a few years. We love being together; every moment is either dreamlike or hilariously funny. I never in a million years dreamed I would ever be so happy! He just moved into a brand-new position that places him at the top of his field. I am being offered a position that would advance me, but it's 1,800 miles away. It's an academic position, which means the semesters are short and the breaks are long, but I don't know that I am ready to give up the beauty of our day-to-day life to commute from the mountains of the West to Manhattan for a few weeks at a time. Academic jobs in my field are few and far between, just like wonderful relationships with compatible people. I know, everyone should have such problems. Still, it is a dilemma. What to do?

Conflicted Career Woman in Love

Dear Conflicted,

I don't know what you should do, but why should that stop me from offering advice? Don't grab at this offer. If you get one offer, chances are you'll get another, and maybe the next one will be from Columbia or NYU. Enjoy your life. Let the marriage start off with at least a couple of years of romantic glory. Use the time to read, to ponder, to write academic articles, maybe a book. That's Mr. Blue's advice, and that'll be $1.29, please.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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