My Internet romance fizzled after I moved to my lover's city. How can I start dating other men and still keep the friendship?

By Garrison Keillor

Published June 13, 2000 8:42PM (EDT)

A lovely week out here in the Corn Belt, at least at the Blue residence, where days of writerly struggle and child-rearing and domestic adventure come to a blissful pause around 6 p.m. with a glass of wine and a salad on a brick terrace next to the garage, surrounded by potted plants and children's paraphernalia. The child sits at her table and tucks into her fruit salad and rice and broccoli, and the parents and any guests sit around a table under an umbrella and enjoy the art of conversation. The sun descends and the streetlight in the alley switches on and the voices of gentlemen and gentlewomen are like waves lapping on a lakeshore. Slowly, the world is put right, the shore is evened out, the false sand castles are brought down, the holes are filled, by talk, sheer talk for the fun of it.

The letter two weeks ago from the depressed writer worried that antidepressants would dull his creativity drew heavy response from readers, some of them writers, all swearing by the efficacy of pharmaceutical boosters. One wrote: "I have suffered from depression as well, and am on an antidepressant, which helps. I can write whether I'm depressed or not, but the stuff that comes out when I'm down has an anxious, emotional, fatalistic, churlish tone to it, while my non-depressed writing tends toward the cheerfully cerebral and a kind of detachment that's impossible when you're mired in a down phase. I have a good friend, a short-story writer, with much deeper depression/anxiety problems than mine. Prozac made her a little too 'blissed out' and took away her essential, anxious urge to create, but later she tried Wellbutrin, which elevated her mood without dampening all her anxiety and ambition. I think what it comes down to is that as a depression-sufferer-slash-creative person you've got to try a number of different things, including more exercise, better eating habits, more sunshine, different prescription drugs or herbals, and see what helps you get up in the mornings and do the work that sustains you. It's a lifelong process, as complicated and changing as the process of becoming the artist you want to be."

Dear Mr. Blue,

Three years ago, I met a wonderful man on the Internet. We became pen pals, then lovers. Although we lived 900 miles apart, we met for weekends every month or so. Things were lovely. So I moved to my beau's city to give the relationship a chance to develop. Guess what? It didn't. After a year, we live separately and see each other once or twice a week. We have wonderful times together, but there are no "serious" plans on the horizon. I'm sad that we lost our momentum. I want to start dating other men. He loves me -- but is curiously satisfied with a casual relationship. I love him -- but would like to think there is a man out there who wants to buy towels with me and settle down in a tasteful Arts & Crafts cottage. I won't find him if I'm parked in a dead-end romance. How can I do this and not lose this friendship? I don't want to hurt anybody. Now what?


Dear Yearning,

I guess you're going to move on. Maybe you'll need to leave town, if you feel self-conscious walking around on the street with another man in hand. Let the friendship go back to being a cyber-friendship for a while, and of course he'll be hurt, deeply hurt, and maybe friendship won't be possible for him at all. A wonderful time twice a week is good enough for some people, and he's one of them. He's afraid that if he goes with you to buy towels, they'll really be your towels, in your color, that he only assented to in order to keep peace. The towels he likes are hideous ones, green with golden retrievers on them, and he knows they're hideous but he likes them anyway. The towel compromise is only the first of many. Then there's the Arts & Crafts cottage. Tasteful to some, perhaps, but to him, it's a dark and cramped and dour style that seems more appropriate for elderly and embittered English teachers -- he yearns for a big rambling log lodge with a fireplace large enough to roast an antelope in, but he doesn't dare suggest such a thing. So he accepts your towels, your A&C cottage and a lot of other things, and pretty soon those two wonderful times per week vanish in a slough of despair over all the compromises he's made, and soon he's back on the Internet making friends with another lady in a distant city. The gentleman seeks to avoid this turmoil and pain; thus he is satisfied with seeing you twice a week. If you want to throw him overboard, it's your perfect right, but don't expect him not to feel pain. Are we not human? When we are stabbed, do we not bleed?

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am in a relationship that I once enjoyed, but now I want it to end. I like my boyfriend and who he is, but he isn't very attractive, and I feel disgusted when we kiss. I felt the same way when we first kissed. He compliments me on my looks, and I feel horrible for feeling disgust when we kiss, but I do. Is there a way I can overcome this?


Dear Guilty,

I speak for all unattractive men when I say: "Please! Leave me. (Sob!) Leave me here in my lonely hut, far from the village. Don't pretend to love me! I know I disgust you! (O God!) Go! Go and God bless you and I'll struggle on alone! Somewhere in the world, there must be someone -- Someone -- for me! Someone who can love me for what's inside, and not see these (gasp) hideous scars left by that fiend Frankenstein in his horrible experiments. Would that he had used fresher cadavers! I curse him for creating me! Go, my darling, and here is a loaf of bread for your journey! And I will have my old blind friend play you a parting tune on the violin!"

Dear Monsier Bleu,

My romantic life centers around a man who was my boyfriend but is now my friend, who has called me his soul mate and "partner," who I broke up with over a year ago and yet we still see each other several times a week, talk and laugh for hours, occasionally slip into each other's arms. And we fight. After we broke up, he wanted to get back together and I didn't. Then I wanted to and he didn't. Then the reverse again. It feels like we are bonded, and I can't walk away. I have dated other guys, but I still have feelings for this man. And every time I walk away he pulls me back, emotionally and physically. Can you inject some reality into a situation in which I've lost perspective?

Lover in Limbo

Dear LIL,

The reality is that you have an important and loving connection to this man, love in a puzzling and variant version, not the Mr. and Mrs. model, but good nonetheless. This precarious but enduring partnership gives you companionship and sex and also a certain freedom. Perhaps you can simply accept this for now, be grateful, enjoy the good times and don't try to make your lives fit the mold. I'm only guessing now -- perhaps attempts to regularize the partnership are what lead to the fights. Maybe if you accepted and enjoyed each other, you'd figure out a way to segue into something closer and steadier. But maybe not. There have been enduring love affairs between people who couldn't bear to live under one roof but who nonetheless cared deeply for each other. You have something good, and why not let it be?

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am in love with a woman from my past with whom I rendezvoused, after a divorce, and found her, also divorced, living in the Bay Area with her 10-year-old daughter and three cats. Romance sparked. Now we are a couple, insanely happy in our 50s, proving that second acts do happen in American lives.

So what's the problem? My love is not happy with having my old dowager dog on the premises. She wants to exile Betty to the kitchen. When I invite Betty upstairs to the bedroom, the dog is contented, but the lady is not.

I believe that a woman of her breadth of spirit ought to tolerate this gentle, innocent soul in our midst. This is the only source of friction between us. It breaks my heart to see either of these creatures unhappy. What do you think? How to reach ditente?


Dear Baffled,

The idiot dog can spend the night in the kitchen. She doesn't need to sleep in the bedroom. Anything cozier than a garage is pure gravy to a dog. Give her a filet mignon for a bedtime snack and she'll be even happier. You're living in the lady's house. Be smart and don't rub her the wrong way. You mess this up, and you'll find yourself sleeping in the park and drinking wine out of screw-top bottles. Really. The cliff beckons. Don't go that way.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Clearly age makes a difference, yet how much different are the answers at 66? In 50 years I've gotten a little smarter, can dimly see how all my failed marriages were poorly based, but I still don't know what to do. When my last wife left, I was saddened for years. Now I'm seeing a woman of 55 and it works pretty well: We're considerate people, enjoy outings and lots of good sex, which is a big thing. She has her own life, and when we get together in many ways we're happy. She thinks I'm great, I like her, we get along. The Love word keeps coming up, but there's a problem: She's not at all my ideal -- not even near. Not educated or well-read, not a beauty, not stylish, not interested in stuff I like such as skiing, sailing, cooking, gardening. Not so interested in ideas, certainly not intellectual. Given that I've always wanted the whole package, struggled hard for it and feel I've much to offer, should I ditch her and start looking again -- fast? Or make peace with fate's small helpings?

Mr. Crass

Dear Crass,

The lady may think you're great, but if she knew you had referred to her as one of fate's small helpings, she'd think you're a jerk, and she'd be right -- to speak so dismissively of one's lover is truly cheesy, low-rent behavior. And when did a woman become a package? How does a man get to 66 and go through several failed marriages and not learn a little humility and self-knowledge? I think you should ditch her and look again. And hope to find someone as great as yourself. A great beauty and a brilliant mind who dresses well and skis and sails and who thinks you're great, too. If you don't find her by the time you're 75, then write back for new advice.

Dear Mr. Blue,

About 18 months ago my lover of 10 years (with whom I was deeply happy) left me suddenly and had a torrid affair with a man and told me that after 20 years of living as a lesbian she has decided to pursue men. I was disbelieving and waited for her to snap out of it. Then I moved away because it was too painful to live in the same town. Now I'm in Boston, getting settled and still missing her desperately. I have started dating a wonderful woman whom I think I could get serious with. But I still think of the old love often and wonder if I am being fair to the new love, or if I have stayed single until I was done missing the old love.

Still Hurting

Dear Still,

Your old lover won't ever vanish from memory, and you won't be done missing her for a dog's age, though the memories will lose urgency. Meanwhile, you're doing sensible things: You've started up in a new location and you've jumped into the social swim. Enjoy getting to know the new love. Don't burden her with a lot of reminiscence. Be grateful for those 10 years, keep some sunny memories from then, forgive her the big mess at the end, and know that the decade wasn't a mistake, that gifts of love are not wasted, and that, thanks to her, you come to the new friend a changed person, charged, generous, mature, the person you are now.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've been dating a wonderful guy for almost two years; he's sweet and smart and we get along great, and then there's his mother. She and I get along well, despite her daily drama that seems to come whenever he and I have plans. She needs him for everything from waxing the floors to balancing her checkbook. I've remained mute on the issue -- I think it's important he help his mother (his father died a few years ago) -- but I wonder if she will ever be able to get on with her life and if we can ever get married with her being so needy all of the time. Am I being terribly selfish or is this a genuine problem?


Dear Wondering,

It's a genuine problem, awkward but not so big, and there's no reason to let her neediness stop you from marrying. You're right to keep mute so far: The worst thing you can do is complain. You don't say how capable she is, but assuming she is up and around and has all her marbles, she can learn to live her life and you can live yours. If you're intending to marry into this family, you should offer the old lady your own services. Maybe a daily visit or phone call would alleviate the daily crisis. Your helping her gives you some leverage in the situation, and you can discuss with your guy what help she needs, what help she can get elsewhere, what she should be encouraged to do for herself. Don't be an outsider complaining about his priorities, but a partner with some practical knowledge of the matter.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a 26-year-old woman, engaged to be married. My fianci and I have been together for six years now, and he has put up with more from me than I can tell you. I love him but I'm restless. In a way, I resent him for holding me back from seeing more of the world. I don't want to be tied down. This is a pattern for me. I can't seem to stick to anything. I went to six different schools K-12, four different colleges, many different majors (still haven't graduated) and have never stayed in a job for more than one year. I get these wonderful ideas to do amazing things (open a bookstore, backpack around Europe, get scuba certified, play rugby, etc.) and throw my heart into it for a few months, then run out of steam and move on to the next exciting thing. Now when I think about getting married next year, I have fantasies about joining the Peace Corps. How can I become more focused and stable?


Dear Hummingbird,

I suppose a bipolar disorder could act like this, but it sounds as if one pole is missing. Maybe you're simply evanescent. You don't sound terribly distressed and the only big problem is what do about the fianci. Surely he knows he's marrying a hummingbird, and maybe this is one of the things that attracts him to you, even if it drives him occasionally mad. But it's not fair to him to enter into marriage in a mood of resentment, chafing at the thought of marriage, and if you don't want to settle down, then don't marry now. The date is a long way off. Postpone. Two years in the Peace Corps might not be a bad idea for you. You work hard at one thing for a set term and then it ends. The ending of a marriage after two years is nothing you'd ever want to go through, my dear.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a struggling playwright in my mid-30s, working shitty little office jobs for a long time. The rest of the day is fine, filled with family, friends and writing. But I long for something to grab onto for eight hours a day. Should I consider looking for a more satisfying job or keep struggling? I'll write no matter what, but I fear losing my focus if I do gain a career.


Dear Unsure,

In your mid-30s, yes, I think you should pay attention to those eight hours a day. The years add up quickly, and an s.l.o.j. comes to feel heavier and heavier, a big blank in one's life. Of course a sinecure would be advantageous, and when I was young, working as a parking lot attendant, I was grateful for the long hours alone in the shack, after the lot had filled, when the shepherd of the cars could sit and scribble on a yellow legal pad. The lack of status didn't bother me a whit: It was a darned good job for a writer. But I couldn't have done it in my 30s. It wasn't a career I needed, but work that was engrossing. Writers need to have a life, too.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a woman in my mid-30s, pledged to the woman of my heart for the past decade. I can't imagine living without her and she appears to feel the same about me. The problem is babies. I want one, she doesn't.

She's pretty clear about not wanting to tromp down the damp path of parenthood. She'd make a great mom, but I don't think it's possible to shift someone's stance on this issue. I don't want to leave her, and I can't imagine raising a child with anyone else. And I just can't imagine rolling through the rest of my life without having a child, either -- it was always part of my basic understanding of what I'd do with my life. So? Where do I go from here?


Dear Mama,

If this child is what you've always believed in having, then you should go ahead and make plans to get that child, while being perfectly open and clear about it, and let the woman of your heart deal with this herself, step by step. You can shop for a daddy and read up on prenatal care and save your money and get yourself in shape and learn how to function without sleep, and she can decide where she fits in the picture, as a distant aunt, as a surrogate dad, or if she wants no part of it whatsoever. She'll figure it out. Don't talk the question to death, simply make your announcement and go down the road to motherhood.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 25-year-old who has spent the last year applying to M.F.A. programs in film, film being what I've been always been told by parents and teachers I was meant to do. But now that I've been accepted by a fine program, I realize it's an enormous mistake, that film doesn't inspire me, and I want to travel and figure out where I'm headed. But I have no idea how to tell family and friends. They'll be shocked by my out-of-left-field decision. Is there any way to inform people of my change of plans without having to explain and explain and explain my rationale?

At a Turning Point

Dear Turning,

You may be surprised by how well people take this news. It may not be so all-fired important to them that they'll want to explore your reasoning at great length. They all have busy lives and the ugly truth is that they're thinking about themselves more than about you; and though some of them may feign alarm and distress, it doesn't bother them at all. Not really. They'll only ask for explanations if you yourself signal that you're troubled and upset. Be confident and they won't. Every thoughtful ambitious person has to make a few sharp left turns in his or her life. Enjoy your travels.

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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