Yesterday I got an email from an old friend, Julie. I hadn't spoken with her in months, not since the days when I was still clearing out and packing up in my old house, the one the ex got, back in May when Julie's life was still moving on in its wonderfully mundane ways: health, lovely children, work, home -- all the things I had lost or was in the process of losing. The email was short and to the point: Liz, I need your help. Don (her husband) is ill, in fact suffers from the same ailment that you do, and I have been diagnosed with cancer. Please call me when you have time with the name of your doctor.
Perhaps I should not have been surprised. It was the fourth time in the past few weeks that an old friend has reached out to me for help: marital problems in one case, health issues in the others. I feel blessed that, coming out the other end (for good, I pray) I can offer both advice and a sincere "I know. I have been there, in some ways still am there, but it gets better." Then Julie and I started talking, catching up, once she felt strong enough to talk for a little while (the chemo is making her very tired). She wanted to ask me, again, about what happened with Jo. "I was so shocked when I heard she had left you," she said. "I looked at you and saw the two of you together all those years, and I thought what you had was rock solid, like me and Don" (I didn't want to tell her that rocks can shatter in a day; hopefully, in her case, the rock will hold). "You always seemed like the perfect couple. I thought you would grow old together."
While I agreed with her that, yes, so did I, I started to muse, as I hadn't in a while, about what did go wrong, where the kernel that became my world of hurt began to germinate; ultimately, my mind wandered back to the very beginning, the beginning of my fourteen-year relationship with Jo, which in some ways coincided with the beginning of my adult life.
It was a summer filled with so much promise. I had just finished law school and taken the bar, and to celebrate I had driven my brand new Honda Civic down to Georgia to meet an old friend, whom I hadn't seen in years. With Wendy, I camped beneath the stars, played guitar into the night, and relaxed in ways I hadn't in years.
Waiting for me after this road trip was a job as a law clerk in a lovely little town in Vermont, in a quiet area popular with tourists and known for its quaint New England charm. My law school girlfriend and I had agreed to go our separate ways, and so I started dating again, meeting a variety of women, enjoying their company and sometimes more, relishing my freedom from school, my first (small, but adequate) professional income, the culmination of so much hard work. For once, my weekends were my own, with no homework to tackle and no obligations. I rode my bike all over town, I cooked healthy food for myself, I read books for enjoyment. And then I discovered this newfangled thing called the "internet." Who could have imagined the excitement of firing up the computer and connecting with people all over the world, sometimes even just playing at being different people just for the heck of it. Once, I flirted with a gay man, posing as a gay man. Another time, I pretended to be a straight man and chatted with a straight woman. Sometimes I was me, only a different version of me -- older, younger, with a different name, a different career. The writer in me relished the opportunity to inhabit other people, just for a little while, just to see what it might feel like. The kid in me was reminded of being twelve, and getting a Ham radio license just so I could experience the thrill of talking, in Morse code, with strangers on the other side of the globe.
So it kind of took me by surprise when I encountered Jo in a gay chat room and decided to be -- myself. We engaged in a mild flirtation which quickly evolved into phone calls and letters. I told her about myself, and she told me about her failing marriage and how unhappy she'd been with Helen for the past three years, how they were finally ending it, how it was breaking her heart but it had to happen. And how she had cheated on Helen, and how the pain and remorse of that cheating had her in such anguish she was at times suicidal.
Jo was not like anyone I'd ever known before, in so many ways. Somehow, what really lodged itself in my head, aside from her Mississippi drawl and southern charm, was not that she'd cheated, not that she was ending a marriage, but that she was a lesbian who had actually been married (not legally, that didn't exist yet, but with the house and the picket fence and the dogs and the circle of friends, straight and gay, and the joint bank accounts). For ten years. Ten years. My longest relationship by far had lasted two and a half years, and that was probably longer than any of the lesbians I'd ever known.
So here was this sensitive, sweet, incredibly attentive woman, who clearly had it in her, indeed clearly was longing, to be a family person, to build again all those things I had never thought I could have: a home, a marriage, a community. She loved to do yard work on weekends. I pictured what I had never dared to picture before: a house, shared with a beloved woman, with a dog in the yard and firewood stacked neatly in the winter and a sense of permanence. Sure, it was sad that her marriage was ending, but these things happen, I thought from the insouciant perspective that passed for wisdom at twenty-five. Look how broken up she was about what was happening. She'd married too young, tried for too long to hold it together, and now that she knew herself better, surely she would be ready to settle down with someone more compatible than her ex, all of whose problems and inadequacies I quickly learned, a list of difficulties I could smugly check off against myself. Spends too much money? Nope, I'm frugal. Can't hold a job? Nope, I work hard, am ambitious and steady. Uninterested in sex? Um, that would be a big no. In fact, I was eagerly counting the days until we could meet in person and give ourselves over to pleasure. Based on our phone sex, I was pretty sure we were deeply compatible in that regard. Based on our long-into-the-night talks, about everything from music to religion to children, I was pretty sure I had found someone who shared my values and who really sparked me.
I was smitten. I was hooked. I was in big trouble. Friends tried to tell me this couldn't be good for me, but I was sure I knew better. Even though so much in my previous life had schooled me not to trust -- to expect that any trust could and would be met with betrayal -- I was ready to try.