Young love

Can a teenage romance survive 18 months of being apart? Plus: How can I let my best friend know my interest is more than friendly?

By Garrison Keillor
Published April 25, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

It's spring at last, and the voice of the turtle is heard in the land, and the thoughts of young men turn to love, so let us begin with two queries from young women.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 17, a junior in high school, and I've fallen in love with a young man who is intelligent, funny and kind, but we live 1,300 miles apart. Next year, when I go to college, I'll be in the same city as he is ... but 18 months is a long time to expect him to give up dating. Is it reasonable to try to wait for each other? I have no interest in seeing other guys, and he says he doesn't want to date any other girls, but do you think this relationship could survive until I go to college?

Long-Distance Love

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 18 and stewing in confusion because I have a wonderful best friend who I have, shall we say, more than a friendly interest in. We've been friends since we were 12. He has no romantic interest in me, I know, because he talks frequently of a beautiful young woman whom he's been after. I'm going out of my mind about whether I should tell him my feelings or keep my mouth shut. I don't want to lose his friendship, but the situation depresses me. Young and Confused

Dear Young Women,

The guy talking about a beautiful young woman doesn't mean he isn't attracted to you. It could mean that he is and is trying to tease out your feelings for him. Or he may not be clear about his feelings. You discover what you feel by engaging in playful interaction with others, flirting and dancing and hanging out and talking, talking, talking, and this is why we ancients like to see you children enjoy a lighthearted social life among a wide circle of friends, postponing serious Couplehood, dating without chains, learning to hang out in a group, acquiring the basic social skills. You don't learn these skills by clutching onto someone and steaming up the car windows. Nor do you get them out of a book. You need to learn this stuff in real time, like how to be pleasant and empathetic and still maintain distance, how to control your temper, how to converse with a stone wall, how to fend off weasels, how to charm people and get them to do what you want without having to ask, when and how to tell the truth. And that's why I'm leery of Long-Distance removing herself from the social hurly-burly and pledging her heart to a nice boy's photograph. Yes, it can be done, but your surrogate dad here would rather see you busy with four boyfriends, learning to hold your own in company. As for Young and Confused and the best friend, affection is a physical language, and you can learn something about how he feels simply by taking his hand. Kissing is exciting, but the expressiveness of hand-holding is vastly underestimated.

Ciao Mr. Blue,

I am married and very happily so. My husband and I have had many ups and downs and love each other very much. The problem is my in-laws. I come from a very warm and affectionate Italian family, and when my husband visits it is always fun and rowdy. His relatives never seem interested in us, although we were always trying to tell them what was going on in our lives whenever we got the chance. It got to a point where they were actually hostile and rude, accusing me of not caring about their family, though I am always friendly and supportive. No one calls to see how we are doing. When we go out with his family, no one takes any interest in me, and I'm tired of trying to win approval. Invitations to visit our house are turned down politely, but hastily. My husband is disappointed and I am confused; as far as we know, I haven't done anything to offend his family. What should I do?

A Roman Expatriate

Dear Expat,

What grim miseries a cold family can inflict and what can one do indeed? People's attitudes get dug in and the poor sister-in-law is cast in the role of evil alien or human furniture and sits in the corner wearing a wan smile and it's so unfair. When you're treated unjustly, the first rule is: Let it be their problem, don't let it cow you or sour you or give you conniptions. Three suggestions. 1) Try to get to know some in-laws individually rather than taking on the whole clan. The women are the social arbiters, I'll bet, so get to know a couple of them. People often behave badly in groups but warm up when culled from the herd. 2) Give the in-laws an invitation they can't turn down -- say, your husband's birthday -- and get them inside your house. Very important. You be the host and kill them with kindness. 3) Don't discuss this situation with your husband. It'll only cause grief and become a major issue and lead to dissension. Speak well of his family to him, even if you have to search hard for things to say.

And remember, my dear, that you have the ultimate advantage: You will be the mother of their grandchildren. This is the ace in the hole. If they don't care enough to make nice with you then, they're not worth worrying about.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 25, married to a wonderful man who adores me and whom I love
with most of my heart. I recently got back in touch with a man I
was engaged to marry years ago. He ended up marrying my best
friend. We talk nightly and agree that we are both still in love
with each other. He planned to come visit me secretly, which I
canceled at the last minute, wanting to be faithful to my husband, but
I just can't let him go. I think about him constantly and feel
like I must tell my husband what's going on. I believe my problem
is guilt. However, nothing has happened. What should I do?


Dear Confused,

This is destructive behavior on the face of it, the getting back
in touch and the talking nightly and the toying with the idea of
a secret meeting, and if you're a rational person, you stop doing
it. You don't tell your husband about it, and you make sure
there's nothing to tell him about. The road you're on leads to
Miseryville, and if you don't want to go there, get off it. The
happiness in marriage is the happiness of the whole heart, the
undivided love. You can find this if you hang up on the ex-fianci.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 46, have two teenage children, have never been married. I
have a history of relationships that didn't work out, with men
who were either unstable or unavailable. Now, I have met a really
great guy. And we've been together for only a couple of months.
However, I'm full of fears that it won't work out. He is
separated, filing for his divorce after 30 years of marriage and
has this major fear of getting stuck in another bad relationship.
He wants to take his sweet time and I feel like my time is
running out. I'd like to settle down. How do I know if I am
wasting my time? I have this fear that he is using me for sex and
to find himself. I have already found myself. I know who I am
and what I want. How long should I wait? And am I a hopeless

Scared and Lonely

Dear Scared and Lonely,

Two months is barely time to learn how he
likes his coffee in the morning and whether he starts with the
sports page, the comics or the stock prices. He is still
figuring out what kind of jokes make you laugh and how much you
want him, to talk about his marriage. I know you don't want to
hear me say this, but it's all one can say: Be patient. Make the
time as sweet as possible, focus on work and the kids, enjoy the
blooming romance, don't overwater. Don't rush him, don't study
him, don't initiate deep discussions about the future, don't keep
asking, "Are we almost there yet?" You'll get there. Or the car
will break down. Who knows? Enjoy the spring, the summer, the
fall, and maybe next winter you can revisit this subject.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a woman in her early 30s who is at odds with her life. Work
is great, and I just moved to an amazing new apartment. But I
have been dating someone for three years who keeps saying he
wants to be with me, but has made no moves in that direction. I
have an ex, with whom I am still friends, whom I have never gotten
over. And lately I have men expressing interest in me. I want to
marry and have a family, but I cannot for the life of me decide
what to do. I told Mr. Current I was not happy and felt like I
was running in place, and he said that if I wanted to break up,
I'd have to do it myself, because he refused to.

At Sea

Dear At Sea,

If a woman I was dating referred to me as Mr.
Current, I'd know that it's all over and time to move on. A
relationship such as this can be a convenience, I suppose, like
take-out food, but for three years? Why make it four? It
shouldn't take grown people three years to figure out whether
they're crazy about each other or not. He's not. Neither are you.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I grew up in a house of free-thinkers, a loud, messy household
where you had to shout to be heard over the bustle of people and
animals and laughter. I have a boyfriend whom I desperately love,
but he recently asked me to marry him and, frankly, I'm dismayed
at my in-laws. They're very, very normal. They jog. They
write thank-you notes and live in suburbia and have dinner
parties. They smile serenely and talk about the weather. We are
from completely different worlds. Am I just immature?

Engaged and Worried

Dear Engaged,

This will be a good foreign-exchange experience for
you, dear, and what you may discover is what travelers have been
discovering for centuries, that our preconceptions of people are
often wrong. Middle-class manners often conceal thoughtful,
original and witty people who choose not to wave their
individuality in your face, but who possess it nonetheless. (And
some of the most shallow, hidebound and thin-skinned people
I've known have thought of themselves as crazy iconoclasts.)
What dismays you about the thought of someone writing a thank-
you note? Or the fact that outside a city there are clusters of
smaller communities economically dependent on the city but
politically separate? Or the thought that people invite other
people over for dinner? You needn't stifle your free-thinking
there, you simply learn not to shout. Speak softly and don't chew
with your mouth open.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 33, an artist and sailor, with a wonderful wife and
beautiful young children, and I want to sail our vessel straight
out of harbor and live a free life, but I'm trapped in a long-established family business and find it hard to escape. I have
enough dough, I have the resources to make a living in just about
any civilized port and I have the right vessel. I have detested
the family business since childhood and feel I was manipulated
into joining it, and if I left now, I'd risk being ostracized.
I want my dad to pat me on the back and tell me how much of a
help I have been, hand me a big-ass check and wish me luck.
Life is not a dress rehearsal. What to do?

Let My People Go!

Dear Let,

Sounds like a plan to me, and the only question is
whether to accomplish it more responsibly or less responsibly.
More responsibly takes longer, but minimizes the long-term pain
and guilt. Family businesses are tight and complicated
arrangements, as you know, and you're undoubtedly a crucial cog
and not easily replaced, and your overnight departure would cause
real suffering, but with two years' notice, the family might be
able to weather things. You drop the bomb as soon as possible --
announce that you're leaving -- and get the shock and anger
over with, but with a departure date far enough in the future so
that they can recover. Don't bring up your feelings about the
business, unless you're pressed hard. Try and keep a smiling face
on it. And don't touch the issue of your being manipulated in the
past. Look to the future.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 21-year-old woman unlucky in love. Disastrous, actually. I
haven't had any kind of romantic relationship since little Billy
passed me a note in the seventh grade. I believe myself to be
somewhat attractive, funny and intelligent. I don't have large
quantities of emotional baggage or "issues"; I am passionate
about my work, art, writing, etc., but I seem to have the sex
appeal of a nun. I talk and flirt, but this never goes beyond a
kind of friendly banter. I get the standard leers from aging
drunks, but I do have my pride. What is the message I'm sending?
Help me, Mr. Blue, or else I really will have to go off and join a

Ophelia in California

Dear Ophelia,

The word "somewhat" leaps out here, a telling lack of confidence
for a young woman, and somehow we need to get you to remove that
qualifier and move up to Attractive and thence to Beauteous &
Fair. Everyone gets in a rut appearance-wise sometimes and needs
to break out and do something different. Decide you're going to
change your hairstyle and go to a real stylist to have it done,
someone who takes hair Very Seriously, not Bob's Butcher Shop.
Then you go to the makeup counter of a good department store and
get a makeover. (If you don't like it, wash it off and start
over.) And then you get one of the store's personal shoppers to
help you pick out some clothes. You say, "I want to spend $300
and get a classy pile of stuff that can be combined in various
permutations." ("Permutations" is a good word to toss into almost
any conversation.) And off she runs and gathers up thousands of
things in her skinny arms and brings them to you in the dressing
room and you dress and undress for the next couple hours and
maybe you hit on something that makes you feel terrific. You know
it when you find it. The aim is not to make you a new person
unrecognizable to your own mother, but simply give you a loose,
light, jazzy feeling that makes you glad to be in the company of
others. We all want this. Mr. Blue is stuck in the navy-blue suit,
white shirt and black shoes rut, but he is an old man. You're
young and cool. Shed the blues and have a great summer.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 26 and have dated the same girl for eight years. She
is the only girl I've ever dated. We are best friends, but I am
not physically attracted to her. I've been too weak to end the
relationship, and now the pressure to get married has become
intense. I'm not sure whether to get married or leave her.
I've never experienced passion, and I can't help but feel that
I'm missing out on life. She would be a good companion and
mother. Breaking up with her after all this time would destroy
her. Should I be selfish and look for the girl of my dreams, or
should I settle for the passionless stability of a life with her?


Dear Troubled,

Whatever happened between you in the past eight
years was the work of both of you, not you alone, and if you've
been too weak to end things, then she's been too needy, or too
passive. You can't marry someone for whom you feel no physical
attraction; it would be dishonest and take you down a path of
misery and loneliness that is unthinkable. Get free of this
situation so you can think clearly. Write her a letter and tell
her you're in the midst of a personal spiritual crisis that only
you can deal with and you need to be alone for a while. Do this
right away. If she is concerned, fine, but you don't want to
discuss it. Tell her you need to get a clearer fix on your life,
that you feel you've been drifting, that you don't want to find
yourself still adrift when you hit 30. That's as much as you
need to say about this. Anyone on God's green earth is entitled
to some time alone. Take your time, and see how you feel. If you
decide to break up, don't worry about it "destroying" her. It
won't. And if she is that fragile, then there is no hope of
having a real relationship with her in the first place.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 34, educated, a woman starting a new career with good
prospects. But my personal life is a mess. I don't seem to have a
great talent for making friends, and my long-term friends are
scattered around the globe. I had a short failed marriage, and no
romance to speak of for several years now. I've taken up pottery,
learned to play guitar and I'm still alone -- no romance, and
few friends. Why? How do I figure it out? I feel I'm wasting the
best years of my life. Any advice?


Dear Lonesome,

Where are the old-time matchmakers when you need
one? This situation calls for kind people to invite you to dinner
parties, introduce you around, let you shine, let you enjoy the
talk, the jokes, the arguments over politics, the b.s., the
flapdoodle and hokum, the give and take around the dinner table.
Talk is where friendship and romance start, and if you've been
off by yourself, feeling lonely, strumming your old guitar,
throwing your pots, then maybe you need to get back in the
conversational pond and splash around. And if nobody is inviting
you to their soiree, then make your own and invite people from
work. Loneliness is a bad habit. I suffer from it, so do most
people from time to time, and the great remedy is the
rambunctious company of people you like to talk to.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a freelance journalist who is finding it harder and harder
to dig up work in this town, and I think it's because I've gotten
a reputation (largely unfounded) of being "difficult."
There's never a complaint about the quality of my work. In fact,
there's a lot of praise for it. And most of the time I'm pliable
as a kitten. But I've had a few fallings-out with prominent
editors about town (and the media circle here is tiny and
incestous) about their mistreatment of me or my copy, and now I
find myself blacklisted. Friends of mine have confirmed this. I'm
thinking of moving to another city and getting a full-time
job, maybe in journalism, maybe not. Is that cowardly? What's the
right way to deal with this?


Dear Pariah,

It isn't cowardly to walk away from trouble that you
can't do a thing about. You sense a chill among the bosses and
you think you know why they're shutting you out -- because you
were impertinent and talked back -- and this is nothing you can
fight. It's a tar baby. So you walk away and use your sense of
being wronged to goad you to do better things. And then one day
you write a novel about journalism in Podunk and you kneecap
them, one after the other.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 28-year-old woman, a reporter at a small-town paper that
seems far, far removed from true journalism. I commute over 100
miles each day from a larger city where I live in an attempt to
retain my sanity, but it isn't going very well. My one real
attempt to be hired on at a larger newspaper failed, and I am
terrified to apply for anything else because I can't face the
prospect of more rejection in my life. I have never had a very
active social life -- a few friends who are peeling away from me and
one brief sexual relationship four years ago, though I have no idea what
was different then and no reason to believe it could ever happen

I am seeing a therapist and psychiatrist, but very little
progress has been made. I'm terrified of failure. The main thing
that has stood between me and suicide all these years has been a
paralyzing fear of death, plus the guilt involved with being the
only child of parents who didn't do anything obvious to screw me
up. Is there anything, anything I can do?


Dear Suicidal,

Three things to do. The suicidal thoughts need to
be made absolutely clear to your therapists. (I assume you trust
them and are seeing enough of them, that you're not caught in one
of these hellish HMOs with the terrible rules cooked up by
accountants.) You're walking through the dark over rough terrain
and you need a steady hand. The main cause of suicide is
depression, which is treatable. A dear friend of mine killed
herself 13 years ago and I still miss her and think about
her with acute pain almost every day and wish I had intervened at
one point when I had a brief glimpse into how she was suffering.
Second, you need to keep in contact with your family and your
closest friends. Let them know you're going through a rough patch
and make a point of talking to a human being at least twice every
day who is close to you. It's important not to be alone. Third,
write a detailed account of what you're going through so that you
can read it someday and be grateful for having weathered the

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a single, 29-year-old professional woman in Philadelphia,
where I have lived most of my life. I manage to make a living, but
I am feeling unfulfilled and restless. My family is wonderful,
but I desperately want a rewarding career, a marriage and
children of my own. Nothing in my life right now is exactly what
I want. What I truly believe I want is to move to California.
I love my family and would miss them terribly if I moved, but I
feel the desire to strike out on my own and build a new life for
myself. I am afraid of moving far away and feeling lonely in an
unfamiliar place, but my greatest fear is of getting trapped into
staying here forever -- alone, unfulfilled, longing for a life I
could have had if only I had taken a risk.

Is it unwise to think of leaving what is familiar and safe (and
unrewarding) to start over again, more or less from scratch?
Maybe it's already too late. Am I brave or insane?

California Dreaming

Dear C.D.,

Hey, it's America, kiddo, and this is the American saga
in a nutshell. You feel dissatisfied one place, you pick up your
marbles and move to some shining city on a hill. You get a jolt
from it. Big drama. A new start. Sometimes it's cathartic: You
get away from the place where you were schlumping around feeling
sorry for yourself and arrive in Zion and lo and behold, your
schlumpiness and self-pity are reduced 20 or 30 or 40
percent. You put away the sad rags and put on the glad rags. Of
course you'll be lonely in California, but it will be a thrilling
loneliness. Take it as an adventure.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 25 years old, attractive and smart, living with an older man
whom I love. Here's the problem: Every month or so we talk about
breaking up. We can't seem to make up our minds as to whether we
should be together. We love each other but sometimes we want the
freedom of being single and we feel insecure about our
relationship. We just can't make up our minds. Does this mean
we're both afraid of commitment?


Dear Confused,

You shouldn't be living together if you keep
talking about breaking up. Maybe you want some other arrangement.
Maybe you want to go back to dating. Maybe you just want to be
friends. But this conversation is a broken record. Change the
person you're conversing with. Get a new person with whom the
subject never comes up.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 26-year-old woman in a long-term monogamous relationship
with a man who is charming and gorgeous. He is also a
procrastinator with no discernible social skills. We have agreed
on exclusivity with one another, but I am naturally polyamorous.
I am bisexual and am attracted to my best friend, and although I
refuse to act upon my urges, the urges themselves bother me. I
vacillate between deep unbridled love and feeling trapped and
depressed. I can't imagine my life without him and I could not
bear to hurt him. We separated once, and were both unimaginably
miserable. Help!


Dear Twittering,

Sorry, I didn't hear the question. You have
bisexual urges, which trouble you, but which you've decided not
to act on because you and Mr. Charming have an agreement. Where
does Mr. Blue come in? If I were nearby, I'd make tea for you,
but I don't have an answer if there's no question. I personally
doubt that this is a long-term relationship, but it's none of my

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 32 and have spent my entire life as a rolling stone. It's
been more than a decade since I spent a whole year living in one
place. I was raised overseas, attended three different schools,
and worked on short-term temporary-duty assignments in Asia. I've
spent the last year bouncing around Southeast Asia getting by on
freelance work and street smarts.

My dear, eminently responsible family wants me to come home and
settle down. Get a job and a "real" life with a "real" future. I
on the other hand feel (and hope) that my calling will find me
wherever I happen to be roaming. I like it out here and most days
I'm perfectly happy, but there's this nagging fear that I'll wake
up one day alone, poor and too old to remake myself into the
respectable citizen of my middle-class origins. I am way
behind my peers in terms of career progression and still have
little if any idea what I really want to do. Academia scares me,
I have no solid work experience and no capital to start a
business. Is too much travel too much of a good thing? Am I a
pathological wanderer? Or am I just taking an exorbitant amount
of time finding myself?


Dear Grasshopper,

Frankly I think you're bragging. You like your
life just fine and you feel pretty much OK about it. Of course
you have nagging fears of waking up poor and old, but so do us
pitiful boring middle-class citizens back in America. It's all
well and good for you to look down on us for leading "real" lives
and to sneer at our respectability, but don't flaunt it by asking
phony questions. What you're missing out on in your gypsy life is
the experience of living in a culture, American culture in this
case. You're a tourist. Good luck.

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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