Drunk with love

My musician boyfriend says he needs to be burning for me all the time but now he doesn't feel the spark.

By Cary Tennis

Published September 3, 2002 7:19PM (EDT)

Dear Readers,

I have a question for you. In fact, I need some advice. But the advice must come from those of you who are young. Because youth has slipped away from me. It slipped away just as my parents said it would. It slipped away just as yours will slip away. But before yours slips away, I want you to write to me and tell me what it is like.

Of course, I want to know what it is like to be young and be in a relationship, but I want to know how your larger world affects that. When I was young, there was a war on in Vietnam and there were riots in the streets and there was no AIDS and the birth control pill had just come on the market and all those facts influenced the relationships we had, and who we had them with. When I was young, speaking at a demonstration could get you laid.

I have the feeling that today things are different, but I am not so presumptuous as to think I could know just how things are different without asking those who know. And those who know means you, who are young and articulate and bursting with visions of how life should be. (Or am I, even in that phrase, reproducing a '60s notion of youth?)

No generation ever celebrated being young the way mine did. We are therefore profoundly unsuited to be old. Yet we are old. By any measure, face it, we are old. I wonder what we look like to you. Do we look like doddering fools? Do we look like people who have not accepted our age? Do we look to you the way our parents looked to us? I wonder. (Until a few years ago, I did not feel like an adult. When I was around other people my own age, if they had children or responsible jobs, I still felt that they were adults but I was not. I felt as though I needed their permission to go outside. Isn't that strange?)

Please tell me what you think. You can write to me at advice@salon.com as usual. It will help if you put "youth" in the subject line. I look forward to hearing from you. I think it will be fun and it might also be profound and useful.

Dear Cary,

I am friends with a girl, Lily. Her friend Della is also an acquaintance of mine. Recently, Lily let me in on a philosophy that made them feel better about their singlehood, but which deeply offended me.

Della is a recent law school grad who left a potential boyfriend back in Albany. Although she really liked him in every possible way, one reservation kept her from dating him: He was a mechanic. Blue collar vs. professional. Della spoke to her priest about her dilemma and its resolution and his response was, "Well, life is like a tree and everyone has to find someone on their branch."

Am I just naive about the way the world works or is this incredibly snobby and elitist? I can see how perhaps class differences could manifest themselves in other ways and therefore cause problems. However, that wasn't the case here. Della just felt that a mechanic wasn't quite good enough for her.

Does everyone have to find someone on their branch? How are branches defined? Some of the most intelligent people I know never went to college and are not professionals. In fact, Lily, who agrees with Della's opinion (she only wants to date professionals), is very intelligent and changed careers last year and became a catering chef. That's not exactly exalted work by her measure (it took her less schooling to get her culinary arts degree than it does for most mechanics to get through school), but she's decided her "branch" includes doctors and lawyers? We all grew up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood alongside folks like mechanics, so it seems bizarre that they would think this way. Am I silly to think this is hypocritical?

Blind to Branches

Dear Blind,

I'm passionately, patriotically egalitarian. I hate snobbery. I don't see much hope for democracy in the face of such class-based blindness. Sure, there are cultural differences, but if someone can't appreciate the skill and intelligence it takes to be a good mechanic, or a good baker or garbage man or cop or Sheetrocker or roofer, they're just small-minded.

On the other hand, I am moved by the way education and careful choices in life can allow one to improve one's family for generations to come. The first generation of a lower-middle-class family that goes to college and learns the language and manners of the professional class can profoundly affect the prospects of their progeny for the next hundred years. Think about it. How did my father's ancestors -- hardy, rough-hewn Celts, seamen and adventurers -- acquire the manners and social standing that allowed them to grasp a shred of respectability in the South? Well, they were white for one thing. That helped. And my grandmother at least, so I understand, converted to Episcopalian. But they also became educated. They were, I sense, gifted with language, as many Celts are, and they learned Latin and Greek, the languages of learned people.

They are still rough-hewn individualists but what they bequeathed to us kids was a facility for language and subtlety of thought that has allowed us to pass, as it were, among the professional classes -- even though we are still wild pagans at heart -- and thus improve our lives and the lives of those who will follow us.

So I think that class striving can be a good thing. The ways in which we all find ways to pass in society, to impersonate those who are in favor, to play down the telltale signs of our humble origins, is wonderful and amusing and ultimately a good thing. On the other hand, simple class prejudice is horrific and deadly, and I abhor it.

Making inflexible class judgments turns people into objects, or products. Are you going to have a relationship with a bottle of shampoo? Are you going to have dinner with a brand of mouthwash? I know you have to be practical, but rigid class distinctions just contribute to misery and oppression, and I'm sorry but I'm totally with you -- that's bogus. If she likes the guy, she should at least go out with him and see what the possibilities might be.

Dear Cary,

I don't know what to do. I have been with my boyfriend for almost four years and we've been living together now for six months. For the most part we are happy, everything is fine and we don't have real problems but lately things have been a bit "weird."

We've both been busy and haven't seen a lot of each other. (I am working full time and going to grad school part time. He is a jazz musician who has gigs and catering jobs on weekends and in the evenings.) I finally was about to get him to talk about it (like pulling teeth!) last night. He admitted that although he loves me, lately he's feeling that we don't have that spark. He wants to be burning for me and feel drunk with love all the time. I think that's a lovely thought and would love to feel that way too but I have to admit most days I don't. But is this even possible? The day-to-day routine and mundane chores of everyday life get in the way.

Is this just what happens to couples who have been together for a long time? I dread that I am going to start becoming the sort of woman who buys those silly books to try to spice up our relationship. I think we just need to spend some more time together, try to reconnect. But I'm afraid he's already withdrawing -- he says he feels bad and doesn't want to waste my time because I deserve more blah blah blah the usual cowardly male cop-out. What do you think? Are we destined to fail? I do really love him and want to work it out. How can I explain to him the ebb and flow of any relationship?

Loving and Losing

P.S. Here's some background -- we are 29 and 28 and moving in was his idea and I'm not pressuring him for marriage. He says that he doesn't feel trapped by us living together. And I know that there is no third party involved, though he did mention a relationship he had eight years ago -- he said he felt head over heels in love but obviously it didn't work and he was young so maybe more starry-eyed? Anyway, he wants to feel more like that with me. Why didn't this come up sooner? He's also way too wishy-washy for my taste on this issue -- why can't he just make a choice and take control of his life? If he continues this uncertainness, I am going to have to break it off, which I will. I just think we had/have something really good and it's getting ruined by insecurity and doubts. Is anyone ever 100 percent sure? Sigh.

Dear Loving and Losing,

So he wants to be burning for you and feel drunk with love all the time? That's nice. Well, he's a musician. Musicians are children. They're courageous children but still, only a musician -- or a poet -- would be nearly 30 and say he wants to feel drunk with love for you all the time.

Musicians need a lot of care. They aren't really equipped to deal with the world. He may need to go off and feel infatuated a few more times. But face it, what this also means is that he and you are both facing adulthood, which is a kind of unconscious code word for eventual death. That's what it's all about. Adulthood is about dreary day after day dealing with immovable reality. Why do you think, when I had to take that job at Chevron, I ended up writing a strange novel on the train every day? Because it is intolerable to the soul of a creative person to be marched day after day through the dreary halls of ordinary life. It's soul-killing, and I'm sure that what he is feeling is much like soul-death because he equates intoxication with life, spirituality and creativity.

The key point is that the two are not the same. Because if you talk to a composer who has actually done a lot of work, or a painter, or a novelist, he or she will tell you that the spirituality of the work comes in the dreary, regular, day after day work, applying the paint, filling in the notes, putting the words down on paper. Art and creativity, though Dionysian in certain respects, don't move forward until you actually do accept the awful tedium of adulthood. The same truth applies to relationships.

OK, so there was Charlie Parker and there was Arthur Rimbaud. Is your boyfriend a creative genius? I doubt that he is a creative genius. He is probably like me and most other artistic people who dream big and struggle and were nearly shocked breathless with fear when they realized that that spark, that intoxicating spark that took away all the pain and made the future seem golden, was not coming as often as it used to. You know when something so awful and frightening strikes you that you can't breathe? It's probably hit him. Maybe he hasn't read enough, maybe he hasn't thought about all the other visionaries who faced this exact same problem, and he thinks he can maybe beat it. Like Charlie Parker and Kurt Cobain beat it? Sure.

The most heroic thing a creative person can do is live an orderly life so that the work can get done. Like Wallace Stevens. Or like Gerhard Richter. You have to separate those elements of intoxication in your work from those in your personal life. You are not a painting or a work of music. You are a human being and so is he. If you and he can seek a deeper, more passionate understanding of each other as creative people, perhaps you can fall back into each other's arms with a richer understanding of your purpose together in the world.

Dear Cary,

A recent business trip took me by the town where my ex-boyfriend lives (with wife, and dog, and cute little house). He had tracked me down by e-mail a few months before, and we had exchanged a few chatty how's-your-life letters, so, while I was in town, he and I had lunch, and certain feelings and memories rose to the surface and stubbornly refuse to leave. I wonder, now, whether lunch was a bad idea.

Back in college, Ex and I had a tumultuous, intense relationship. There was an incredible energetic connection. We picked up on one another's feelings -- too much. Even our thoughts seemed shared sometimes. The sex, or, for that matter, just sitting in a room together, was almost spiritual and that intensity never abated over four years. For that reason, I think, the relationship never quite seemed to end, even once we began seeing other people. Rather, it did end one night when, finally, I said, "Her or me? It can't be both," and, without a flicker of hesitation, he said, confused, "But ... she's my girlfriend." I don't pretend to understand his relationship with her, but I think that he probably felt most satisfied during the relatively short interval when both she and I were accessible, and, while I know he knows us as separate, I think that in some corner of his mind an amalgam of us exists as The Woman.

That girlfriend has since become Ex's wife, and years have passed. I am married and happy in my marriage. My connection to my husband, though not white-hot, is absolutely the finest thing that has come to me in this life. More like mahogany than like champagne bubbles. My husband is a generous, supportive, adventurous man; he makes me laugh often and well and is a fabulous travel companion. We balance beautifully.

And yet, this Ex troubles me. He desperately wants to know me again, in some capacity, and given that sitting in the same room with him makes everything seem brighter, makes the world turn more slowly, and probably always will, maybe I want to know him, too. However, there is no place for whatever connection there might be between us -- managing even the most rudimentary public friendship would be awkward. And yet, there are whole tracts of my being and his that no one else will ever know as completely, that do not live when we are out of one another's lives. I always learn from talking with him.

My heart was more peaceful before I was reminded of that. It's hard now for me to feel happy with the thought of not knowing Ex, equally hard to feel happy with the thought of knowing him only at the secret edges of our respective lives. Stealth gives beauty a bad name.

What to do? Is this much-vaunted connection between me and Ex really such a big deal? Did everyone have The Relationship sometime between the ages of 19 and 23? Is this particular affinity precious enough to keep as a living friendship, despite difficulties, or should the memories go into a box on the top shelf of my closet along with my first short story (terrible) and the head shots from my first and only acting role? Is there a way to recycle what exists between us into something that we can use now?

Me and Ex

Dear You and Ex,

It would be a tyrannical marriage indeed that allowed neither partner private emotions and thoughts. You are responsible to your husband for what you do, but not for every thought you have, and not for your private hunger.

It's a question of your hunger and who has the power over your hunger. This hunger you have for a lost feeling is a spiritual hunger; if you slept with him it wouldn't solve anything. You would still be hungry. You will always be hungry. Life is a long, hungry walk. You learn to live with the hunger and use it. Because if you weren't hungry you wouldn't write letters or short stories. You wouldn't get married. You'd be dead. So the trick with life seems to be to learn to contain the hunger, to carry it around with you, to reach some rapprochement with the hunger so that it doesn't eat you, to direct your hunger at the world so it doesn't turn back on you. Because the hunger, it is hungry for you too. It wants you. If you don't feed it something, it will eat you. But you can't feed it what it wants because what it wants is to sleep with this boy again and then it will control you and destroy you, it will walk over you to get what it wants. So you have to give it something else. You have to redirect your hunger. You have to be in charge of your own hunger.

Dear Cary,

You seem like a man who's seen much and done even more. You're just the person to help me with this crippling problem.

I have no life. I'm a young professor, and during the academic year, the job of professor becomes incredibly busy. But during the summer, my social life still consists of TV and dinner with my cat, Monday through Sunday. I have great friends who live across the country, and my family is confident that my social life will turn around. But I'm not so sure. The speck of a college town I call home (for now) offers nothing but beer-battered chicken fingers and 25-cent cups of beer during happy hour. Most of the men I come into contact with are married or have girlfriends, and many of my single woman friends in the area find themselves in the same boat.

I can't help feeling that the endless tedium of work is souring the image of a swinging gal in her 30s. Mostly I'm fearful of being married to my job for another academic year, and I would still have no social life. I have more money than I'm used to, and I do get out once a week to the big city.

Can you suggest something more than day trips to Cleveland? Thank you in advance,

Perky Professor With No Life

Dear Perky,

I would suggest that you travel to see some of your friends. It sounds like your town is getting you down. You can travel during the summer, right?

And you're probably thinking too much. Professors think too much and it makes them feel sad. It's not like thinking is a bad thing. Heck, I think a little. But too much thinking will make you sad. So you have to do some silly things to get out of your rut. OK, right now, here is what you do: Get down on your floor and do some pushups, just the kind where you put your knees on the floor. Do 10 pushups. Now do 10 more. Now run in place for 10 minutes. There. Now put on some loud music and dance around the room and yell and scream and sing along.

Then call some of your friends and schedule a trip.

Dear Cary,

This past Monday, my fiancé broke my heart. We had been engaged for seven months and dating for close to three years. He came home from work and told me it "hit him on the way home" the night before that he wasn't ready for our type of committed relationship, that he felt too young to get married (which, of course, prompted me to ask him "Well, then why did you ask me to marry you?"), and the like. As devastated as I felt considering I did not see it coming in the slightest, I was still able to respect what he was saying. He then told me he "never truly loved" me and that he "didn't know what love was." This was the man I had loved completely, supported through hard times, and helped unconditionally. But he still wasn't done. Apparently, in an effort to cleanse his conscience, he told me he had cheated on me twice about two years ago.

Do you think someone can actually pretend to love someone for that long, send the flowers, write the loving birthday card messages, and say it over and over? Or was he just fooling himself? How do I deal with this breakup knowing that every memory I have of him is tainted by this doubt that he even loved me at the time? I know I need to move on and get over him, and I wholly intend to do that, but this question of what he felt all along has stymied me.

The World Is Spinning Sideways

Dear Spinning,

Wow. What a jerk. But here are the facts: Yes, it is possible for a guy to do all the things he knows he has to do if he wants to have a girlfriend, all the while having no idea what he feels.

Some guys are remarkably obtuse about what they are feeling. And because they are so obtuse, they think others are obtuse as well. They do not understand how acutely others can identify and distinguish their various emotions. Such guys will say things that are transparently idiotic and they will not even know that you are seeing how transparently idiotic it is. Meanwhile, having no idea how they actually feel, they will be sending cards, writing notes and bringing flowers. Those are all learned behaviors. In fact, they are the behaviors that women have taught men to adopt in order to be acceptable as boyfriends.

If you do not want to be surprised so painfully again, you must learn to be like a detective, to shine the harsh light of truth on the guy, interrogate him, analyze his statements about his emotional whereabouts, hammer away at the contradictions in his alibi of love.

Remember: Anybody can buy flowers.

Cary Tennis

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