Still in love

I am crazy about my ex-girlfriend but stuck in a trial-and-error dating lifestyle. What should I do?

By Cary Tennis

Published September 10, 2002 7:15PM (EDT)

Dear Readers,

Last week this column asked you what it was like these days to be young. You -- those of you who are young and many who are not -- responded with an avalanche of tears and rage, introspection and vituperation, wisdom and pain. We received about 200 replies, deeply felt and carefully reasoned, by turns angry, funny, trenchant and kind. It was humbling and inspiring to read them all.

Starting Monday the 16th and continuing all next week, Salon will run a selection of those letters each day. I hope you find them as thought-provoking and moving as we did.

Dear Cary,

I am a 23-year-old guy, I just finished college a year ago and moved out for grad school in San Francisco, and everything is seemingly going according to plan (that being "the greater plan"). During college I had my first serious relationship starting my freshman year, which lasted until midway through my senior year. She is perfect for me in every sense. She is challenging, intelligent, driven, extremely beautiful, and best of all, like me, she is passionate about everything she does, and the combined passion makes each of us better in all of our endeavors. Why did we break up? Well, we both grew a lot in college and there were aspects of the relationship that suffered during this growth, and even though we both could still admit to loving each other, we were in essence driving one another crazy.

Fast-forward one year. She moved away from the town where we went to college, supposedly to go to New York or Europe, I didn't know which. We had each dated other people since this time and moved forward in our lives. I didn't see her before she left, though she had wanted to meet, as there were things that would have made it very emotionally difficult; those things aren't relevant now. A year later I had dated in the realm of 10-15 more people, with varying but overwhelmingly negative results, and never found anything that has really clicked with anyone in the way it did with the ex-girlfriend. Shortly before I decided to attend school in San Francisco she calls from out of the blue and informs me that she is living in L.A. and thinking about moving to the Bay Area. In fact, just this week she visited and despite current casual engagements we have fallen right back into a romantic situation.

Now I am a very introspective person and understand that the thrill of this reunion is largely a result of pent-up emotions and the comfort of being with someone very familiar. However, I can't help but feel even stronger about this than ever before! I feel like I am falling and all I want to do is be around her! I know that I am very young and in a city full of fun, single, interesting people and that I should be exploring new opportunities but I can't help feeling that if I let her go again I may be making a mistake that will haunt me for the rest of my life. I have no doubt that I love her and we are both open about the current impossibility of a relationship. The time is just wrong. She believes in fate and that what is meant to be will be and that in time we will find each other just as we did recently; I am more realistic about the possibility of losing her forever.

Should I pursue this girl who makes me feel better than anyone else in my life has ever done, or should I look for new avenues and continue with this trial-and-error dating lifestyle as we both have done for the past year or so?

Not Quite So Helpless Romantic

Dear Not Quite So Helpless,

Propose marriage. Tell her you want to be with her for the rest of your life and that's that. Get a yes or a no.

By invoking fate, by saying "What is meant to be will be," she may have already tried to signal to you that she has no intention of settling down. It may just be a kind, if somewhat roundabout, way of telling you no. But the only way you can find out is by giving her the question not in essay form, not as multiple choice, but as yes or no.

I'm not saying you'll get a yes. There may be aspects of the relationship, or of her feelings toward you, that you're not seeing clearly. Because you've referred only obliquely to certain past difficulties, it's hard for me to judge. But there's only one way to find out.

Dear Cary,

The new love of my life is the most easygoing, kind, generous, tender, loving person on the planet. We've fallen in love with each other and it feels wonderful. His best friend and roommate is a woman who is also a close friend of mine. Roommate told me that my new love had been in love with her, but that she was never interested.

A few days ago, after a few drinks, my New Love told me about his feelings for Roommate. He's very self-aware, but he is normally very tight-lipped, so this was quite a confession for him. He said that he had been painfully in love with her for two years. He said they had never kissed and she had never shown him any interest and it was painful. He used the words "pain" and "painful" a zillion times. He says he still has feelings for her, even though he's in love with me and he's very happy with me.

New Love is 21 and I'm his first serious girlfriend. Roommate is his first love, albeit unrequited. I'm 26 and have been around a little more.

I know without a doubt that we do love each other, and that we're compatible together, and that we want to be with each other. But I'm worried that this situation is volatile. Can we all work out as friends? Will he get over her? Or am I destined to get hurt here?

Nice Girl in Love

Dear Nice Girl,

Well, someone is destined to get hurt if he keeps living in that apartment. If you're serious about making a go of it with him, he should move out of there -- but not in with you, that's too soon. He should move in with some guys who work on motorcycles in the garage and have guitars lying around that are all sticky from being played too close to the Cheese Doodles. He's a frigging kid is what I'm saying. He needs to grow up a little. It sounds like his emotional attachments to women are insufficiently differentiated. It doesn't sound like your best shot, frankly, but if you want to make a go of it, like I said, see if you can get him to move out of there. And splash some cold water on his face.

Dear Cary,

When I met Sean, he had already bought his dream house, a one-bedroom, one-bathroom place with 660 square feet plus a half basement on one-quarter acre with redwoods, oaks and various fruit trees. It's a nice place, especially the yard. I used to hate the bathroom, and we recently had it remodeled and now I like it. We tried to do an addition last year when I got pregnant, but the county gave us so much trouble that we gave up after having poured a bunch of Sean's money into the planning and permitting process. Since we gave up on the addition, for Petey's room we're planning to partition the living room by putting up a wall. And then maybe when he's older we'll turn the half-basement into a room, or put a trailer in the driveway, or turn the tool shed into a room. I know it could work. We can afford this house on one of our incomes, so if one of us is out of work we can still pay the mortgage, which of course is very nice and secure.

The problem is, it's his house. It has never felt like my house even after we got married. He paid the down payment, and he pays the mortgage. I pay a car payment, and I pay for daycare, so I'm not a complete freeloader. Part of my problem is I've never lived in a place that I fell in love with and chose to live there.

There's a house that just got put up for sale. I drove by it yesterday. It's romantically perched on the side of a mountain and has a deck with a beautiful view, two bedrooms and two bathrooms, plus a bonus room. I think Sean and I could afford it on what we make. I am dying to see the inside of it. This bigger house I'm not sure we could afford on one income, but we're both working! Why are we both working and not living in an adequately sized house?! I guess I just think that for all our trouble, we should have more.

But Sean and I split the cost of the bathroom remodel, and he just replaced the wood stove with a gas heater, so we have invested a lot in this house without yet getting the benefit of those investments. Most importantly, he wants to live in the house we're in until he dies. And I'm afraid that even if we did move then I'd become one of those people who is never content with what she has. And I know he would think that of me if I suggest that we move.

I'm thinking of making an appointment with the real estate agent to show me the bigger house just to see if I really love it. That way I'd know if it's worth fighting for and dreaming about. But would that be almost like cheating, seeing the house without telling Sean? Yesterday when I drove by it, I told him I was going to the post office, so I've already told one lie. Am I just being super-bourgeois for wanting to love my house?

Thinking of Cheating ... on My House

Dear Thinking of Cheating,

We might put our bodies next to lovers, but we put our dreams in houses. If the chemistry is there it can feel like adultery. I hope you came back from the "post office" with some mail, or some stamps!

Even though it feels a little disloyal, I think you should make the appointment with the real estate agent and give the place a look. It's not really adultery. It's just a house. This kind of desire is no threat to your marriage. It's a positive thing. You need to test this desire against the possible.

It's true that your house is too small, and it's going to keep shrinking as your kid grows. But it sounds like it's also in a very wonderful place, and it represents a lifelong attachment to the land for your husband. I have a feeling, given economic reality, that your best bet is to stay there and continually improve the place over the years.

You have options, though. You gave up on the addition, but you didn't burn the plans, did you? There's a possibility you could still build the addition, either without a permit or after steeling yourself against more paper torture. It does seem a shame to give up on it. Good luck.

Dear Cary,

I love my boyfriend very much, and while our fledgling relationship (going on a year now) may not be perfect, I treasure it. He spent much of his adolescence abusing, and being abused by, drugs. He dealt drugs, he dropped out of high school, and he learned to hate himself. Several months before we met, he came to the decision that he hated who he had become, and he quit. The town he lived in is absolutely inundated with drugs, and there's barely a person in his peer group who doesn't use them. In order to quit, he had to isolate himself completely, since no social circle was safe.

The wisdom, strength and determination it took for him to make this decision were qualities I greatly admired in him when we met. Though I have never done drugs, they've played a terrible and destructive role in my life. I was able to completely appreciate the magnitude of his decision. I fell in love with him for many reasons, but what this action said about him was certainly one of them.

The first half of our relationship was long-distance and at times extremely trying. Then I found out that he had smoked pot again, once or twice. He confessed it to me in a conversation we were having about adultery. I made a comment about it being possible to be unfaithful to your lover on a similar level, without it being of a sexual nature. I used a hypothetical example of him abusing drugs behind my back. There was a long and horrible pause, and then he said, "I think I'm going to throw up."

It hurt like being cheated on hurts. It made me feel inadequate, betrayed and lied to. I cried so hard I lost my voice for a day.

He had told me the truth, immediately after I had casually stated that if such a thing ever happened I would consider it a total betrayal and probably have to break up with him. We talked about it, and he swore he would never do it again. He seemed to understand exactly how important it was to me and the reasons it mattered so much.

I'm not just some over-the-top anti-drug loon. My father became addicted to pain killers and, in the fugue of depression and self-loathing, killed himself five years ago by overdosing on the same drugs. My stepsister and childhood hero killed herself while tripping on acid when I was 8. One of the best friends I ever had died in a drunk-driving wreck, a week after confessing to me that he feared his friend's and his own chemical abuse was going to kill him.

Because of that, I didn't feel out of line when I told him that if he did drugs again, the second he swallowed, injected or inhaled, he broke up with me.

Now we live together, he's 1,800 miles away from that town full of addicts, and I've been slowly rebuilding my trust in him. But last night our friend and his roommate got into a long discussion about drug use with my boyfriend. Chad, the friend, went on and on about how he misses it, and when my boyfriend said, "You've been clean for two years. It must feel like ancient history to you," Chad replied that "clean" really meant just smoking pot sporadically. They kept talking about how good it felt and how much they missed it, and my boyfriend just sat there and listened, but the look on his face scared me.

In the car, I said something about being uncomfortable with Chad's substance abuse (he drinks heavily, it appears), and my boyfriend replied that there's nothing wrong with casual use. And I said, "Casual use isn't OK for some people, though." And he said in an angry voice, "Casual use is OK for some people!" I wonder now if maybe he thought my ultimatum before was only in effect while he lived in the drug-infested pit 1,800 miles away from me.

I'm scared and I want to talk to him about it. I think he's beginning to justify it in his mind, so that casual use is OK. But for him, they have connotations that are sad and terrible. This fear is gnawing at me, but I don't know if I have a right to bring it up with him, since he's done nothing wrong. Since he'd feel like it was an accusation. And if it happens again, and it's "casual," would it be wrong of me to end it? Either way I think I come off as an intolerant, uptight wench. I just don't want to feel the way I'm feeling.


Dear Miserable,

It's strange how tragic pathologies cluster about certain people, how we repeat the tawdry melodramas of funeral homes and rehabs from coast to coast no matter how many thousands of miles we run, how always right next door lives the thing we fear the most, how once we're marked by suicide and addiction other addicts and potential suicides can spot us in a crowd as if "Fuck with me" were written on our forehead.

Well, it's strange and yet not strange; it's amazing and ordinary at the same time, like the turning of the earth.

The fact that your boyfriend quit in isolation worries me. I tried to kick alone once, in a hotel room up in North Beach, me and a typewriter and Mao's "Little Red Book." I've told the story many times, how I thought doing 50 pushups a day might get me clean, how a woman came along who was impressed with both the poetic nature of my habitat and the promptness and reliability of my drug connections, and that was pretty much the end of "Cary gets clean all by himself."

I'd strongly suggest that your boyfriend get involved in some kind of community of recovering addicts. Ironically, the first thing he'll hear is that "it's a disease of isolation." By trying to quit alone, he's playing into the hands of his pathology.

And you, poor young woman, can scarcely afford to watch a loved one die because of drugs.

Casual pot use might be OK for some people who are not addicts. Theoretically, it might even be OK for your boyfriend, if, theoretically, he was not an addict. But given your history, any use by him is definitely not OK for you.

When addicts are not healthy, or slipping, or chipping, or just getting caught up in their old addict ways, the words that come out of their mouths don't have any causal connection to their behavior. They're just a byproduct, like sparks thrown off by a grinding wheel. So don't get caught up in what he says when he talks about casual use. For an addict, "casual" use doesn't exist. It's use. Or it's not use. Mild use. Rare use. Occasional use. It's just use with an adjective chaser. Most addicts have a history of noun-modifier abuse. They shouldn't be allowed near pot, or near adjectives.

Watch what he does, not what he says. You should bail if he so much as looks at a joint.

Cary Tennis

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