A brief note to the young man who approached me recently after a reading at the Canvas Gallery in San Francisco:
You see, I had given a fiction reading and was threading through the crowd, sullen and abstracted, and he came up, shook my hand and said he read the column and simply wanted to say thank you. It was a nice, concise statement. I appreciated the brevity.
But my wife says I gave him a cold, uncomprehending stare, a classic brush-off, and left him stranded with his mouth open. I do not recall that, though it sounds like something I'm capable of, and I was caught a little off-guard, like a man awakened from a nap, embarrassed and awkward. I do sometimes give the inadvertent stink-eye, crawling out from whatever dank hell I am inhabiting to greet the bright and shining other. I'm wary of the stranger, always armed against the angle, the hustle, the sell. I expect the con, the empty promise, the condo in Tahoe with hidden costs. Got a new demo you want reviewed? That I understand. Got a restaurant opening up? Gotcha.
But you just want to say thanks for the column?
That's a new concept.
I could get used to it. But it might take some time.
So, to my dear fan whose face melted into the gallery crowd, I just want to say: You're welcome! It's an honor and a privilege!
'Nuff said. On to the letter:
I've been in a terrific relationship with a man I love for close to four years now. We began as an Internet romance, then I got a job transfer so we could share proximate zip codes.
Here's the flaw: Although he has been very honest from the beginning about not wanting to get married (or even shack up), I convinced myself that he would grow out of it. I keep opening the little boxes at birthdays and Christmas hoping for a ring rather than earrings. (He's gotten amazingly good at picking pairs that look great on me, and he's obviously putting a lot of thought into them.)
Though we're in synch with interests, and the sex is great, we're definitely at different stages in our lives. I'm 40, divorced, steadily progressing with my career, and ready to share my bed more than a couple of nights a week. He's 31, I'm the first truly serious relationship he's ever had, he's not career tracked, and he is very gun-shy about a "formal" commitment. But neither one of us has dated anyone else since the night we clicked -- we talk on the cell phones 15 times a day at least, and we probably know each other's schedules better than if we were sharing the same living quarters.
I'm not unhappy with the status quo -- right now. But the little voice in my head and the increasing number of white hairs between dye jobs leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling that if I'm really serious about wanting a formally committed relationship, I have a finite amount of time before I'm relegated to the sidelines, and I'd probably better get after it. I want it to be him -- and I want him to want it to be him -- and I don't want to hang on to this and end up resenting him for being truthful with me from the start.
How do I decide what to do? I can't imagine giving him up, but I also can't imagine being 45 and no closer to being settled than we are right now. Am I being unreasonable for wanting the one thing from him that he may never be able to give me, when he's exactly what I want in so many ways?
He knows how I feel, and he's said that he would understand if I need to end it. I know he loves me and he needs me. Part of me says that I should end it, and that would be the catalyst for him to get over the commitment phobia, but I don't want him to get there via my emotional blackmail. You're a guy, Cary. Do men ever get over this commitment thing? Or should I just tell my little voice to shut the fuck up already? Because the thing is, I really am the happiest I think I've ever been and part of me likes to have my bed all to myself some nights. Is this just that I feel I need the conventional public validation and the ring to display?
Wearing His Earrings, Not His Ring
Dear Wearing His Earrings, Not His Ring,
It seems to me that you have a rare opportunity to shape a life that can be happy, secure and fulfilling if a little unorthodox. It might take courage and some hard, introspective work, but there is nothing concrete standing in your way. There is no family or church saying you must either marry this man or abandon him. There are only your various deep beliefs, desires and assumptions. You must clarify those.
Some of your desires may be speaking in the only language they know, the hieroglyphics of cultural memory, in which virtue is symbolized by a village church and security by a wedding ring. It's a deep and powerful language, but it is not always to be taken literally.
So give it some honest, careful thought: Is it marriage you desire, or is marriage a kind of shorthand for having things settled between you, for being able to trust him, for knowing that he places you first in his life, for knowing that you won't be lightly abandoned. Since he objects in some principled way to marriage, yet seems to love you, why not try to clarify your actual needs and see if they can be met outside of marriage. After all, since you have already been married once, you know that marriage itself doesn't solve everything.
In fact, since things sound so good between you now, beware of trying to change things in order to keep them the same. You are now in a happy relationship. Do not assume that this relationship could be just as happy if you changed everything about it -- if you removed the intervals of distance, the freedom from constant mundane interaction, and added the work of running a household with its shared vehicles and magazine subscriptions, the fine print of taxes, dual income and joint tenancy, the constant care and feeding, the washing, the dressing, the hidden miniature passions of a thousand domestic rituals.
Do you fear that if you don't get married, you will lose him? Then perhaps you need to seek some assurance from him. Otherwise, in trying desperately to keep it, you could lose the very thing you cherish.
Perhaps it's the ring itself that you really want? If that's what your soul desires, he could give you a ring to speak all that is real between you. A nice big ring to wear maybe on your right hand or maybe on your left? It doesn't have to symbolize engagement and intent to marry. A ring could symbolize simply the perfection of your union. It could be a very private thing. In other words, if his word is too impermanent, look for things to ground your love in. Look for ways to nail it down, short of vows freighted with fiery deities.
It may be that your very soul desires the ballast of a wedding, the magical stabilizing weight of that paper certificate that keeps you upright in a storm. It's not strictly rational, but it's what some people need. Me, for instance: If I'm ever in doubt about who I am I can take a streetcar down to City Hall and look at the marriage license. So if your soul requires ballast, perhaps you can use some other material -- a garden to till with your hands, old timbers to sit on, cobblestones to lay a walk with, photographs of ancestors to hang in your kitchen, anything old, durable and true to cast anchor with. (Ships used to come into port with wheat or barley or molasses and leave with nothing but stones. They needed ballast, be it cargo or deadweight.)
I'm not saying rule out marriage. If after deep and careful thought you conclude that it is indeed the marriage itself that you need, the daily contact, the one residence, the bills and the business and the name, then you may very well have to move on. It would not be right to stay in this relationship just hoping that he'll change his mind.
But you have a good thing already. Maybe it's best the way it is. And maybe, if you honor it as it is, it will change when the time is right.
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