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PART 1 - AS THE COUCH FALLS...
Many have had a Billy in their life—a relationship that's thrilling and excruciating, that takes you to bliss and dumps you into hell and thereby hooks you. No matter how wise and experienced you may be, you ignore your inner voice, ignore the red light screaming, "Stop!" and the sage advice of everyone you know. When it ends badly, as you knew it would, the pain can be so engulfing that you wish for oblivion. I ended up literally on my knees at a meeting of SLAA, saying, "I'm a sex and love addict, and I am not in control."
For Sheryl Crow, it was Lance Armstrong, whom she called "My Favorite Mistake."
For me it was the man I named Billy the Bad, and I resolved that he would be my last mistake. Because Billy did not do me in; I did that myself.
I've lost money, had professional flops and humiliating reviews and I get over them quickly and move on. But loss of love cuts deeper and causes more anguish than anything I've known. As Tolstoy wrote, "Man survives earthquakes, epidemics, the horrors of disease and all the agonies of the soul, but his most tormenting tragedy has been...the tragedy of the bedroom."
I've been a seeker for decades, and know it's an illusion to expect that a relationship—no matter how wonderful—can fill the emptiness inside. And yet I can't stop the yearning. In telling the story of Billy, I want to unravel the whole ball of yarn—to take a clear-eyed look at love and the way it lives in the body and the heart and, with your participation, come up with insight and guidance so I can get off the bloody wheel.
If not now, when? I invite you to join me.
I agreed to meet Billy at the Grizzly Rose, a famous saloon and dance hall midway between Lone Tree, CO, where he lives, and Boulder, where I do. He'd sent me an email via match.com, but I'd been on the site long enough to conclude that most people on it have some dysfunction with relationships. (this reporter included)
So I was skeptical and did not take the bait. But he was persistent, for several months. We finally spoke on the phone, I found him boring and said I didn't think we had much in common. He said he was certain we did and would I at least meet him? I agreed, probably because he wouldn't take no, which is seductive.
I had trouble finding the Grizzly Rose and when I did there was no place to park. Kenny Chesney was performing and crowds were storming the doors.
I stopped my car near the entrance and called Billy on his cell phone. He came out of the Rose, got in the driver's seat and said he'd find a place for my car. He was wearing a large black cowboy hat and I couldn't see his face well in the dark. Driving up and down the rows, we found the lot totally full, but there was one space where an old couch had been dumped. I considered asking him to move it, but thought, I can't ask that. What if he has a bad back? He hit the brake and said, "I'm going to move that couch." He walked over, raised it vertically and held it balanced on its side for a moment. He was long and lean, silhouetted against the sky. He looked around, then pushed the couch into a muddy ditch behind the cars. And as the couch fell, dear reader, so did I.
We walked back to the Rose and he led me through the crowd and into the hall, having tipped the guard. We made our way onto the floor, but it was too crowded to dance.
As I stood in front of Billy, facing the stage, he pulled me back against him and we began moving to the music. A jolt of energy went through me, so intense I could hardly stand. What's going on, I thought? I had written off this guy. I'd checked his profile on match.com, where he said he had operated a cattle ranch and founded a fence construction company, then sold it, retired and was writing a play. "I have a tux and a tractor. I can work with my head or my hands. I can write a poem or a contract." Then came the red flag. "I have not succeeded at everything, however. I have failed to be truly loved by a woman, and this is what I desire most." That stopped me. He was 58, had been married twice, dated untold numbers of women and never felt loved?
As I drove home to Boulder, though, I was about to run right through the red flag. Billy called twice from his cell phone and when I curled up in bed, I was so electrified I couldn't sleep. He's sexy, funny, smart, solvent... I thought, This could be something.
PART 2 - BEST LAID PLANS
Fate in the form of a ski wreck almost saved me. For our second date, Billy wanted me to visit him at his place in Lone Tree. "The house is not typical," he said. "It'll show you a lot about me." I was about to leave for a week of skiing with friends at Vail, but said I could stop by Lone Tree on my way home.
The first day on the slopes, conditions were perfect: blue sky, emerald trees, brilliant sun and fresh powder. By afternoon, I was skiing as well as I ever have... I was in the zone... I could handle anything.
I followed a friend down a groomed run and then he swerved right and zipped through some trees. He knew the mountain better than I, so I figured he was taking a short cut to another run. Without stopping or slowing down, I turned the way he had, only to find myself in a patch of big bumps and trees so close together it would be hairy to turn. I saw a groomed slope on the other side of the trees and decided to shoot straight for it. When I came blasting out of the trees, I hit a bump I hadn't seen, flew up in the air and then I'm not sure what happened. There was a blinding pain in my chest and then I was flat on my back with my left knee twisted unnaturally and one ski broken off.
I could not move. I tried to sit up but any movement hurt and made me nauseous. Shit, what have I done? A strange man with soft brown eyes was kneeling over me, telling me he'd called the Ski Patrol. "I think you landed on your pole," he said. "May I examine you?"
Who are you?
"I'm a cop and an e.m.t. Can you move your neck?" I did. No pain there. "That's good," he said, "and there are no bones protruding."
Ten minutes later I was flying down the mountain strapped to a sled, crying out with every jolt. Then I was lifted into a waiting ambulance and driven to the ER, where they took x-rays and said I had a jagged break in my collarbone but my knee wasn't broken, although maybe I'd torn a ligament. They wrapped my shoulder in a figure of eight brace to immobilize it, put a sling on my left arm and told me to see an orthopedist as soon as I got back to Boulder.
But how would I get home? One thing was sure: I wouldn't be stopping by Lone Tree to see Billy. I couldn't drive, my friends and their kids were staying in Vail for the week, and even if one drove me home, how would I get my car back?
As it happens, I had another man named Bill in my life then, a friend who was 20 years younger. We'd met at a party, gone hiking a few times and he'd become the kind of treasured person you call when you're in trouble because you know he'll drop everything and come help. I will refer to him as Bill the Good, to distinguish him from the Billy I'd just met, whom I later named Billy the Bad.
When I told Bill the Good about my wreck, he offered to take two buses from Boulder to Vail so he could drive me and my car home. Then I called Billy the Bad, told him I'd broken my collar bone and wouldn't be able to visit as planned.
Bill the Good showed up the next morning and by noon we were at the orthopedist's office. The doctor examined me and went over my options: he could operate, put metal screws in the bones to hold them together as they fused and I could be active right away, but he would have to operate again a year later to remove the screws. Or, he said, I could go home, keep the shoulder immobilized, and "there's a good chance it will heal without surgery in about two months." I chose the second option, went home and after taking pain pills, went to sleep.
When I awoke the next day, I considered my predicament. I couldn't lift my arm at all. I couldn't put weight on my left knee. I couldn't drive, and needed help to get dressed and undressed, to remove and replace the figure 8 brace and to brush or wash my hair.
It's times like this, when you live alone, that you realize the price of not having a spouse or partner and not living near extended family. Your friends love you but they're busy -- with work and their families -- and they have limited time to give you after the first day or two. But Bill the Good stepped in. He also lives alone, works loose hours and offered to stay in my house as long as necessary so he could help me in the morning and at night, drive me to the doctor and shop for supplies.
Relieved, I went back to sleep. When I felt strong enough to check my email and the phone answering machine, there were three calls and a cascade of emails from Billy. He said that after I'd told him about the accident, he'd packed a suitcase and driven to Boulder, gone to the hospital but couldn't find me. He didn't know my address and I wasn't in the phone book, so he'd rented a motel room and called again in the morning. When I didn't answer, he'd driven back to Lone Tree.
PART 3 - SAVED BY A WRECK?
I felt terrible that Billy had made a trip in vain. I called him and said I was really sorry, but I'd been mostly unconscious the last two days. "I wish you'd waited till you spoke to me before driving up."
"How did you get back from Vail?" he asked.
"I called a friend."
He was silent. "What friend?" he asked.
"A guy named Bill, as it happens. Like you."
"You called another man."
"He's a friend, just a friend."
"You chose him over me."
"I hardly know you. We met once. Bill's been a friend for years."
"I would have taken care of you," Billy said. "I took care of my mother when she had a car accident. I took care of my sister when she broke her collarbone. I know how to do it. I would have done that for you."
"I really appreciate that, but I had no idea..."
He was becoming angry. "You made your choice, and it wasn't me."
I tried to explain that I'd felt vulnerable, I needed help getting undressed and going to the bathroom and wanted to call someone I already felt comfortable with. That didn't mean I wasn't interested in seeing him again...
But he was hurt and angry and there was no getting him to understand. I told him I had to go, my shoulder was throbbing with pain. "Let's wait until I feel better and talk then." Hanging up, I thought, this man is high maintenance. And presumptuous. I mean, I've only met him once! I can't deal with anyone else's anger right now. I have to focus all my energy on healing.
He called and sent emails in the following days but I didn't answer any and after a time, they stopped. My friend, Claire, said, "I think the universe saved you from a bullet -- an entanglement with a guy who's not stable. That accident was providential."
Did it have to be something so extreme? I said.
And that was that. Until Valentine's Day.
PART 4 - IF I DO NOT RETURN
Billy showed up at my house the day before Valentine's Day. It had been a month since my ski wreck, I was still black and blue, strapped in a brace and unable to sit up for more than 30 minutes without pain.
There'd been no communication for weeks and Billy was completely off my radar when a strange email arrived:
"Dear Sara. The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, and, lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I am no more. If I do not return, never forget how much I loved you. Nor that when my last breath escapes me, it will whisper your name."
It turned out to be a letter written by a soldier during the Civil War, who was going into battle and writing his wife Sara to say goodbye. At the end of the letter, Billy from Lone Tree, CO, wrote, "I'll pick you up at 6 p.m. on February 13 and have you back home no later than midnight. Just send directions. Billy."
I emailed back: "I must say I got scared till I figured out this letter was from someone else to someone else. You're the romantic, that's for certain. I've been feeling poorly, no energy, pain in shoulders and neck pretty constant, and not good news from dr. I see him again tomorrow for more xrays and news. Let's talk after that, if you'd like."
He shot back an email saying: Can't you just say yes or no to a date without talking to a doctor? I'm offering you six hours of thinking about something other than yourself. I really don't know if you can do that! You are not in the worst physical condition of anyone with a broken collar bone. Quit feeling sorry for yourself. Your life is nothing more than an outcome of all the decisions YOU have made, including tonight. I wanted to see you, I wanted to know you, before I heard your tepid, vague, inconclusive response. Do you always have to control with procrastination? Are you capable of answering a single question? Do you want to see me? Yes or No?
I was surprised at how enraged this email made me. I didn't care about the man, I thought he was nuts, and presumptuous, and in need of anger management. There's no way, I thought, any human being could respond to such an email other than saying "No," which I did.
Then came the final email. "I'm sorry to learn of your decision but pleased you've made things clear. My email that offended you was not hostile, as you suggested. It was blunt and provocative. I would rather push you to hot or cold than linger forever in tepid. Since last November, you've been constantly making excuses, telling me:
Wait till I finish this article
Wait till I get back from California
Wait till after Christmas
Wait till my "friend" and ex-lover leaves
Wait till I am healed.
I didn't like being left dangling as a remote possibility for you and didn't want that any more.
I would have quit dating anyone else to explore our possibilities.
I would have cared for you after your injury.
I would have introduced you to my children.
Without any hostility, only disappointment and best wishes and a prayer for your healing and happiness, with love, Goodbye. Billy.
I should have left it at that. But I re-read his emails and thought, he does have a point. I did put him off for months before meeting him, then came the ski wreck and I put him off again.
PART 5 - ROUND TWO
After reading Billy's goodbye email, I told my friend Claire, who's a psychotherapist, I was thinking of calling him.
"Why would you do that?" she asked.
"I want to apologize for putting him on hold for so long. And....there's something else..."
I was not sure what that was, what was making me so unsettled. "Some small doubt... like, maybe I shut the door on something that might have had a glimmer of possibility?"
Claire looked dubious.
The next morning, I called Billy and said, "I hate to end things by email. The next time you're in Boulder, why don't we talk in person?"
A few days later, he called and said he was driving up for the Boulder Film Festival and would be staying with his sister, who worked for a solar panel company.
It was a great day for solar panels – brilliantly sunny in February – when Billy arrived in a BMW convertible with the top down. I'd forgotten how attractive he is: tall, lean, with large blue eyes and a playful, teasing manner. He gave me a lithograph that a Western artist had drawn of Billy in his 20's. In between the lines of the drawing, Billy had written in tiny print you had to stare at closely to read: "I wish I'd kept you awake for more than one night."
Most surprising -- and disquieting – I felt the same jolt of energy pass through me that I'd experienced that first night at the Grisly Rose. My entire body wanted to connect with his. We eyed each other, cautiously, like two animals.
After lunch, we talked about what had happened since the accident. He said he'd felt rejected and dismissed. I said I'd felt he was unreasonably angry and quick to lash out. He didn't understand why I had to be so inactive with a broken collar bone. His sister and mother hadn't been that way. "If the bones are in the same area code, they'll connect," he said. I told him my doctor had said the nature of the break made it uncertain whether they'd connect without surgery, which I wanted to avoid because I have a history of phlebitis, which makes surgery dangerous.
We relaxed, and before long we were talking and laughing like old friends. When Billy left, he gave me a hug and we felt our bodies line up perfectly, as if they'd been cut to match. He said, with some surprise, "I thought you wanted to break up with me in person."
"I think we should keep the door open," I said.
PART 6 - EROS IS KNOCKING
We interrupt the story of Billy the Bad to ask: As we grow older, is it possible to find and keep love and sensuality in a committed relationship? Are we too set in our ways? I mean, every person I know is weird in some way. (I met a divorced doctor recently whose house is full of electric trains!) Or does our experience make us wiser and more able to compromise?
Not long ago I was asked by O, the Oprah Magazine, to write a piece about people who find deep love and lust after 40. I put out the word, and interviewed dozens who ranged from their 40s to their 90s, and who'd fallen in love with a person they consider a soul mate long after they thought that was possible.
The project gave me hope -- that it's never too late -- and that it's not just luck, there are internal changes we can make to release old patterns and create a healthy loving relationship.
One of the best examples is the actress Ellen Burstyn, whom I interviewed by phone. For 25 years, Ellen did not go out on a date.
Why not? I wondered.
"Nobody asked me," she said.
"I find that hard to believe," I said. "In 25 years, weren't you attracted to a man, or pursued by one?"
"I was busy living my life." She was working constantly around the world, won an Oscar for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and was nominated for five other films. She enjoyed being with her son, her friends, and her animals. Every so often, she would look around and think, Where are all the men? "I thought it would be great to go home and curl up in someone's lap, but I didn't sit around crying about it. I made a friend of solitude," Ellen says.
But this ease took her decades to attain. In her 20s, she said, she'd been "promiscuous. Since puberty, I'd gone from man to man, and I had three marriages that were all painful and ended in divorce." She knew she had to heal the wounds that kept her repeating the same pattern with men, "so that aspect of myself went into closed shop. I think I built an invisible shield that no one could penetrate."
She worked with a therapist, studied Sufism and reconnected with her Christian roots, which she describes in her book, Lessons in Becoming Myself. When she finally believed she knew how to do it right --"to attract a man who would treat me well and whom I could love," she feared it was too late. On a whim, she asked a woman friend from the Actors Studio if she knew a man who might be suitable.
"I'll have to think about that," the woman said.
Shortly afterward, this same woman was approached by a Greek actor who had auditioned for Ellen at the Actors Studio when he was 25 and she was 48. He confessed to Ellen's friend that he'd been in love with her for the 23 years since they'd met.
"What?!" Ellen said, when the message was relayed. "The Greek kid?" But he was 48 now, an attractive and successful acting teacher. He sent her an email, which she answered, guardedly. He wrote back, "I don't see the word 'no' in there."
When she continued resisting, he said, "Ellen, this is eros knocking at your door." (I would later repeat the same line to Billy, not getting the same results.)
Ellen has now been living with the Greek man for five years, in her house on the Hudson River in New York state. She says it's been an easy fit, "which is startling because he's from a different culture and a different generation." One reason may be her new approach. "Most of my life, if a man did something totally other than the way I thought it should be done, I would try to correct him. Now I say, 'Oh, isn't that interesting? You do that differently than I do.' It's the biggest thing I've learned," she says. "It allows for a stress-free relationship. There's not a lot of teeth gritting."
Ellen's challenge has been working with fear of abandonment. "I had so much anxiety in my former relationships—I was scared of losing men, all of them." She believes there are patterns we can only work on in a relationship, and this is one. "Right now, he's in Greece, teaching, and that brings up anxiety. 'He's away--what will happen? Somebody else will grab him!' I have to see that and keep releasing those thoughts."
She talks about how age can make love more poignant. "Around 65, I experienced my mortality. Not like 'Oh yeah, I'm gonna die,' but it's a possibility that's there all the time. And once that happens, everything becomes more precious.
"And to be in love!" she says. "To experience the joy of intimacy in the presence of death—that is delicious. When you're in love you feel so young, and at the same time, you're summing life up. So it's beautiful and rich, and you have to be aware that it's impermanent."
She says that she and her partner joke all the time about funerals and ashes. He told her recently that he was driving home and a song on the radio threw him into a terrible dark place....
"Oh, was I dead again?" Ellen said with a laugh. "Will you stop already?"
She says they don't plan to marry. "We have being in love right now. We know that life is short. Death is certain. And love is real. We're going to enjoy every moment of it."
PART 7 - VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE
Many of you have been asking why, after dismissing Billy twice, I opened the door again. Why did I cave, when I knew with every fiber of my being that it was unhealthy? From this point on, the story is not about how "bad" Billy was but how nuts I was, or addicted, unable to stop myself, pulled like the moth to the fire. It's as if the gods were swinging me by the feet, bashing my head into a wall, saying, "You want to get free of this? We're gonna hit you with our best shot. It will hurt so much you'll never want to do this again."
May it be so.
* * *
The day after Billy visited me in Boulder was Valentine's Day. He called and asked if he could bring me lunch and anything else I needed. I said the dimmer in my kitchen was broken. "I'll pick one up," he said. "I can fix anything electrical." He added, "I'm supposed to have a date for the opening of the film festival tonight, but it's snowing and my date won't drive in the snow. Are you free, if she can't make it?
"I wish I could go, but I can't sit up for two hours without pain."
He arrived bearing chicken soup and a bouquet of red roses for V-day. He replaced the broken dimmer in five minutes, and as I watched him fix it with ease and assurance, I had a repeat of the couch moment at the Grizzly Rose.
After lunch we sat down in two cozy, overstuffed swivel chairs in my living room. "What are we doing here?" he asked.
"Good question. I'm feeling a strong connection with you now, and maybe it's too late," I said. "If I hadn't broken my collar bone, I would have driven down to see you and who knows where we'd be now."
He nodded, saying he felt the same connection. "It's confusing. After you said no to me, I set up dates with three other women in Boulder that I met online. Now, there's good news and bad news. I met the first woman this morning and..." He wrinkled his nose. "No chemistry."
"And the bad news?" I asked.
"My second date - the one for tonight - won't drive in the snow. But..." He smiled sheepishly. "It's stopped snowing."
The irony was that we'd switched positions. For months, he'd wanted to date me exclusively and I'd put him off. Now, I was ready to go for it and he had three in the air besides me and wanted to get to know them all.
So off he went to the festival, and the next day, he called and asked if he could bring lunch again. I was working on a TV script, so he went shopping and without consulting me, chose things I love: ravioli with goat cheese and asparagus, flourless chocolate cake and a bottle of champagne. Sipping it, we settled into the same cozy chairs again and the electricity was mighty.
He said his date the night before "went well. Better than I expected."
I asked what her name is. Maybe I know her.
"Kitten?!" I said. "Sounds like a stripper."
"She's a lawyer, and writes adventure novels."
I fell silent.
"Don't shut down," he said. "Keep talking with me."
"It feels like you're running a competition, and I'm not up for that," I said. "I prefer to date one person at a time."
"So do I," he said. "But things are changing so fast." He'd thought I was a cold bitch who was jerking him around and just seeing him to break up in person.
Do you think that now? I asked.
I'd thought he was nuts, angry, too much trouble. But the past couple days, he'd been easy-going, willing to talk honestly about anything, and he challenged me when I fell quiet. I like being challenged, and we were constantly laughing. The laughter and honesty felt intimate and maddeningly arousing.
He said he wasn't sleeping with any of the women, and wouldn't do that with more than one at a time.
So pick one of us, I suggested. But he wasn't ready to do that. "I didn't expect to have this pressure on me to make a choice this weekend. I just came here for a vacation and to date some women."
Hours went by, we ended up in the bedroom, listening to music, and discovered we have exactly the same taste – he knows and loves every song on my ipod. I thought: he's witty, playful and sexy, oh Lord. How often do I have a chance to connect with a guy who's smart, verbal – and with whom the chemistry is so intense? And... I'm ashamed to admit this but... it did pass through my mind that if I slept with Billy now it would be a preemptive strike.
What sealed the deal was this: I've been learning, more and more, to trust the body. It's usually wiser than the mind. You can tell if something's right for you by the way your body feels. If you leave a situation and your body feels tense or upset, pay attention. With Billy, though, my body felt wonderful.
Later, when he was acting like a complete shit, one of the spiritual teachers who'd advised me to trust the body asked, "What was your knowing at the time?"
My knowing was: danger.
She nodded. "In this one area, when it comes to sex and relationships, I'd go with your knowing instead of the body."
PART 8 - LOVE IN A BRACE
I'm lying on my bed, wearing the figure 8 shoulder brace, trying not to move because I'm afraid of jostling the broken parts of my collar bone that are trying to fuse. Billy has his clothes off, but I'm keeping my blouse on because the bruises on my chest are turning black, purple and green.
For a month I've been telling Bill the Good, who took care of me after my ski wreck, not to hug or touch me, and now the other Billy is inside me. And it's a perfect fit: easy, natural, wonderful, and suddenly it occurs to me to ask about safe sex. I had an AIDS test before the last affair I had, and haven't made love with anyone since.
Billy says he's slept with two women since his divorce, but he hasn't had an AIDS test because he knows the two women are healthy. Damn! This is unprotected sex. I tell him we have to use a condom and that changes things, but it's still pretty great.
He keeps asking if he was good. (Is there a man out there who doesn't ask that?) "It was the best first time I can remember," I say, adding that I have a family history of Alzheimer's. He struts around, holding up the first finger of each hand and joking, "I'm number one. I'm number one!"
We have so much fun, laughing at and with each other and talking intimately and being as sensual as one can be with a broken clavicle. I haven't felt like this for eight years -- eight years! -- since my breakup with the man who, until now, has been the gold standard for love and sexual bliss. I believed I might never experience anything like that again.
"Do you realize," Billy says, "that we've made two connections here? One in the living room and a different one in the bedroom? And how rare it is to have both?"
Yes, I say. To connect with someone both intellectually and physically is indeed rare.
"I don't think I've ever had that before," he says.
"It's like... Eros could be knocking on the door." (I stole the line from Ellen Burstyn)
He nods, then looks around the room. "It may be knocking on three doors."
"What do you mean?"
"I've set up dates with the two other women I met online."
So much for the preemptive strike. I tell him if he makes love with any of them, "I need you to tell me, and we won't do this anymore."
Keep calm, I tell myself. Life is short. He said he's never had this before. Enjoy the moment, don't get hung up on what might happen next. If it's meant to be, it will work out. Trust.
PART 9 - SCENT OF A MAN
Smell. Let's talk about smell. Some of you have been appalled – as was I – at my clutching onto a guy who was insensitive and emotionally manipulative.
Part of it was smell – the intense animal chemistry that pulled me to Billy against my judgment, my insight and reason.
I remember, decades ago, dating a man who I thought was a perfect partner for me but I couldn't bear his smell. The natural scent his pores emitted even after a shower was, to me, sickly sweet, like something rotting. It seemed absurd to reject this extraordinary man because of his scent, but I did.
Some guys, I've found, are scent neutral – their smell is not pronounced or has no effect. But Billy's was like an aphrodisiac. I would set my head against his chest and savor it as if it were perfume. It reminded me of Dorothy and her crew in the Wizard of Oz, falling under the spell of the fragrant poppies and going to sleep. That's what happened -- the wise part of me went to sleep.
* * *
On Saturday, the day after we first made love, Billy brings over dinner from my favorite restaurant. We eat quickly and hit the bed, taking breaks to talk and laugh and soak in the hot tub, all the while playing "Name that Tune." We set my ipod to shuffle and see who can be first to name the song that starts playing. I have the advantage – it's my friggin' ipod -- but he beats me almost every time.
We fall asleep late and he wakes me at 7 a.m., fixes coffee for himself and tea for me and brings them to bed. Making love again, I have to resist the urge to arch and roll with him. I need to keep my shoulder still, but if we stop and lie motionless, so much energy is coursing through us that it's even more exciting.
Suddenly he looks at the clock – 9 a.m. – and starts hustling to get dressed. He says he's sorry to run and leave the house a shambles.
"Where are you going?"
"The festival -- to watch a movie."
"With number three?"
He nods, pulling on his pants and shoes.
"Who is this one?" I ask.
"Sally Burton. Actually, she knows you."
"She does? I've never heard of her."
"She's a marathon runner." He kisses me. "I had a wonderful time. I'll call you later."
Left alone, I start straightening the bed, picking up towels and I don't feel good. There's pain in my chest and it's hard to breathe. I try to be mindful: There's pain in your body, what is that? Just observe it, breathe into it. Know that you are larger than that sensation of pain, and it will pass. But as I'm writing this blog, I can feel the pain again – it's outsized, overwhelming, like my survival is at stake.
I meet my friend Claire for lunch and she says she understands, she just broke up with a man because he refused to be monogamous. "My experience," she says, "is that you can only go deep with one person at a time. And no woman wants to be strung along in an extended competition."
We've been studying the teachings of Adyashanti, and she reminds me of the distinction he makes between universal love – the love and sense of oneness that always resides within us—and romantic love for one person, which brings the duality of joy and suffering. I close my eyes and try to tap into that oneness and love.
We go for a hike and when I get home, there are three phone messages from Billy. I don't answer them. Let him stew. When I don't hear from him all evening, though, I start to get anxious. I've found that if I make love with a man and it's good, I inevitably want more with him than sex. As one of my women friends says, "Once he's penetrating me and it's wonderful, I'm in love."
With Billy now, there's a powerful wish, a need, an urgency in me to cement a relationship and a strong knowing to pull the plug.
He calls at 11:30 and I'm in bed, emotionally exhausted. "I didn't get much sleep last night," I tell him. "Someone woke me up early."
"I can arrange for the same guy to do that again," he says. "Want me to come over?"
PART 10 - HOW DO YOU FILL THE EMPTINESS?
Two months before I began seeing Billy, I went to a 5-day retreat with a terrific spiritual teacher, Adyashanti, determined to ask him about a subject that's not "spiritually correct" -- my relationships with men. What I learned from our interaction did not sink in immediately, but it prepared the ground, planted seeds for a new way of feeling and behaving in the arena of sex and love.
Adya, as he's called, was born Steven Gray in San Jose, CA. He came across the word "enlightenment" in his teens and became driven to attain it. He practiced Zen ferociously and read every spiritual book he could find, but after 12 years, felt he was getting nowhere. Then a question struck him: "Who is seeking enlightenment?" He couldn't really answer that, and realized it was futile to search any further until he found out who or what was seeking. This led to a spontaneous awakening in his 30s. He now has 5 books and hundreds of cd's in circulation, and you have to enter a lottery to attend one of his retreats. People call him the Brad Pitt of the spiritual world, because, well, you be the judge.
I expected to find about 60 people at the retreat in Monterey, CA, and was startled to see 350. We were asked to be silent the entire 5 days except during Adya's talks, when we could voice a question. I kept rehearsing in my head how I would phrase mine, and that was preventing me from hearing what Adya was saying. I was frightened: I knew lots of people in the room and was ashamed of what I had to say.
I decided to get it over fast. I raised my hand, walked to the microphone and said, "I've been married and divorced twice, and I still have this longing for an intimate partner. I know, I mean, I KNOW it's an illusion to expect that a relationship with a man will fill the hole inside. But the yearning is still there – I can't shut it off."
Okay, Adya said, keeping his eyes fixed on mine. "The desire itself is totally natural. Without that desire, you as a body would not be here." He smiled, and I had to laugh. "This room would be quite empty," he said. "All of nature – remember watching that show, "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom?" Apes, elephants, lizards, whales — we're all hard-wired to cuddle up with... nature. Right? So when does that desire become a problem?"
"When it makes me feel that something's missing."
"Right. There's something in you that feels there's a hole, a deficiency, that's crying to be filled. And this thing grabs on to the desire for a partner and thinks, Ah, that will fulfill me. Everything will be okay if I can get the right man. But you know better, don't you?"
"You've been there. You know that even if you find the perfect mate who never bothers you... (laughter from the room) ...and is perfect in every way... That empty hole will still be there."
"I'm totally aware of that. It's a bottomless pit."
"And this is not just you," Adya said. "Why do you think people scrape the bottom of the Hagen Dasz container -- trying to fill that hole? Or they try to fill it with money, success, cars. But the only thing that will ever satisfy it is... You.
Excuse me? I said.
He laughed gently. "You understood every word until then, right?
More laughter from the room.
Adya said: "The part of you that wants fulfillment wants... You. It wants you to turn your awareness to it completely. And that's frightening, isn't it? Putting your awareness in a hole that seems empty?"
Adya asked me to imagine looking down into the hole. "You couldn't put enough inside to ever fill it up, could you?"
Adya said, "You can't fill it because it's infinite space. It's what the sages call 'emptiness.' So when you look at it from the top, you think, I'm trying to fill infinite space."
I have a problem with 'emptiness,' I said.
"Of course you do." He asked me to imagine moving around to the other side of the hole, to the vast empty space below, looking up at the tiny hole. "I want you to speak to me from the emptiness. Take the view of emptiness. Just take it. Your mind will say, I can't, I have to jump off a cliff or go through a barrier. Never mind. Speak to me from the emptiness now."
I felt and imagined my way to the empty space. What came to my lips was: "It's all right."
"Does the emptiness feel deficient?" Adya asked.
I considered this. "No."
"Does it feel like it needs to be filled with anything?"
"Is the desire for a partner a problem? Do you have to fix it?"
Without thinking, the words came: "Just love it."
"There you go. Now you're starting to experience what we mean by emptiness. It's not just a blank void, is it? You'll find all kinds of things in that emptiness. There's a sense of well being. And love, unconditional love. It rises right out of that emptiness."
"It's powerful," I said.
"Nobody else's love will ever be enough. Until it comes from that place inside."
Aaaaah. It felt as if my lungs had been constricted and suddenly I could breathe. Freely. There's nothing wrong with desire, I thought. It's natural. We all have desires. And we all have that inner space where love arises.
When the retreat was over, I felt as if a weight had been lifted. Something desperate in me had relaxed.
Two months later, when Billy and I began seeing each other, I thought I was ready. I thought the breakthrough I'd felt at the retreat had prepared me to have a relationship without expecting it to fill an empty hole.
And God said, "Ha!"
Part 11 - IT'S YOUR TURN
I call you the commentatorati, and these days I live for your comments.
Want to know how the stream has been flowing?
When I started this blog, you saw Billy as troubled, a player, a fool, a jerk, a turkey, emotionally abusive, "ridiculously immature and frighteningly inappropriate," a control freak and master manipulator. You diagnosed him as a narcissist or borderline personality. One of you did find him wise, a few men cheered and several women got turned on. "I could feel myself being attracted to him, even though I knew he was a manipulative bastard." But the majority were saying: Run, Sara, run!
When I did not run, the tide began to turn. You pointed out, correctly, that I was participating in the game, that I'd had plenty of chances to bail and didn't and had no one to blame but myself. I agree! Many became frustrated: Why didn't you hang up the phone? Walk away? Just say no? When something about a guy just doesn't feel right, believe it! How could you fall into the trap? You knew better! An old boyfriend from high school said he'd lost all respect for me.
That was the main stream, but there was another stream that cried out, "That's ME."
Barb wrote, "I was with 'Billy' for 3 years. I was totally addicted. Willpower has nothing to do with it. This kind of guy is definitely like heroin. I feel so good when I am around him. I can't do without him. The longer it goes on, the worse it gets."
Others said it's a dopamine high. "The chemistry shoots through our veins like a good drug. We see the red flag, we know it's wrong but we can't stop ourselves."
But Self-respecter called it "sick! I don't understand the addiction excuse. Heroin would feel good too, but you don't do it. Why this?"
I'm not sure of the answer, Self-respecter, but I know that heroin is not my "bane," as they say on the street. My poison.
I never smoked or got hooked on alcohol, pills or controlled substances, and for a long time I refused to believe that I could be addicted to love and sex or that such an addiction even existed. But we'll be coming to that later in the story.
At this point in the tale, I'm aware that my mind is yelling, "Stop," my body is saying, "Go," and my inner knowing is: "Danger." I asked you all what you would trust – the body, the mind or the knowing. Not one of you said you would trust the body.
Some urged me to go for the sex and "don't make it anything more." Good advice, dear readers, but I'm constitutionally incapable of doing that. When sex is that great, when your tastes and fantasies and rhythms match and you want it to the same degree (not a common occurrence), feelings of love surge and I want both. Sex and love.
The discussion heated up when Rick, the Celestial Cowboy Poet (I'll call him CCP) became our agent provocateur. CCP likes to play games and suggests we aging chicks should be grateful if a guy wants to shtup us. "Look," he wrote, "Billy is younger than you, a cowboy who's free as a tumbleweed. He's sexually attractive just as you were when you were younger. But Billy wants to play the field. You are another flower on the hillside, just as Dinah Shore was with Burt Reynolds. Be content to play the field. A woman of your stature should date, dine, sleep with anyone who meets your fancy. After all...Sex is just a big Tickle."
Women shot back. "What a ridiculous moron you are," wrote A Grown-Up. "Playing the field is not what we have to accept and being free (being used) is not the only way to go! Sex will never be anything more than "a big tickle" for babies like you and Billy, who will never grow up and never grow the gray matter between their ears."
But one woman, Annie, wants to hook up with CCP. (He's interested, Annie. See his comment below.)
The debate was intense, but when I slept with Billy (which was fantastic) and he said he was still going to date two other women, the shit hit the fan. I heard: You're a masochist. I feel sorry for you. You are horny and lonely and vulnerable and he's playing you like a harmonica. You got what you deserve, sister!
Even CCP was disgusted, but with Billy, not me. "When he's just made love with you and starts talking about other women... UGH! The guy is beginning to sound like a Neanderthal ostrich. (Did such an animal ever exist?) On behalf of the entire male race, Sara, I apologize.
Joey applied salve to the wound. "You are NOT a fool. Did you sleep with the guy too soon? Yeah, well, we all have. We are loving, sexy and we want to be able to be vulnerable, to let down our guard with a man. You did that, and if he didn't cancel the other dates because he saw how incredible you are... tough for him."
Here's where we are now. You're still asking, Why are you doing this? Why stick around with that nogoodnik? What does Sara want? Dear God, what does she want?
As the old hymn goes, "We will understand it better by and by."
Part 13 - MY JOB AS A NATIONAL PENIS FINDER
I knew there was a bio of me on Wikipedia, but I'd only seen it once. Last week, though, a friend said he checked his regularly to make sure it was accurate. I went to the site, typed in my name and read: "Davidson's first job was with the Boston Globe, where she became a national penis finder."
I blinked. I read it again. Was I seeing what I thought I was seeing? Yes, there it was in the familiar blue type of the free online encyclopedia, the source people trust, the source that gets 30 million visitors each day and is said to be more accurate than the info in a professionally produced encyclopedia. "National penis finder."
How the hell had this happened? I tried contacting Wikipedia, which is like trying to contact a human at Microsoft. Anyone can edit anything on the site, anonymously. It's monitored by volunteers who can't possibly keep tabs on edits to 13 million articles. How do they prevent this from happening all the time?
I clicked the edit button on my bio, deleted the two words and restored what had been there before, "national correspondent." I saw a box that asked you to "describe your edit." I typed in bold: "I AM Sara Davidson and I removed "penis finder" as my job description."
I clicked "save" and the insulting phrase was gone. How long, I wondered, had it been up there for everyone to see? Had damage been done? I imagined my obituary stating, "Davidson once attained recognition as a national penis finder."
At least it was national, not local. The perpetrator gave me that. But what a strange choice of words! He (I'm sure it was a guy, but maybe not?) could have said, "national penis lover," or "national penis killer." What did he mean by penis finder? That I'm a dowser, a human divining road who can locate hidden stores of penises underground? Maybe this could be a career move.
Or was it like the children's book, "Where's Waldo?" A tiny image of Waldo wearing a red and white striped shirt is secreted in a dense pictorial page, and kids must search to find him. If there was a penis secreted, was I the go-to person to find it?
What had motivated someone to slime me like this? My friend, Tina, an artist and writer who always tries to put a positive spin on things, said, "It's probably an acknowledgment of your curiosity and sensuality."
"Tina, would you want this in your bio? I asked.
"Definitely not!" she said. "The perp doesn't wish you well."
We collapsed in helpless laughter, the kind where you can't stop, you gasp for breath and tears run down your cheeks. When it does subside, you feel so good.
I was sort of sorry, now, that I'd removed "penis finder." Without it, the bio seemed dull. And would people believe that the words were there to begin with? Would they think my eyes had been playing tricks, as they have in the past? This time they were not, and I printed the page as proof.
Maybe the words were some kind of message? Carlos Castaneda would have called it an omen. This wasn't the first time I'd read something strange and out of place that seemed an omen.
Ten years ago, I was suffering for many months from heel pain that might have been a bone fracture or plantar fasciitis. No matter how it was diagnosed or treated, the pain would not go away. I winced with every step, and finally, in desperation, I made my way to the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina to see a friend and spiritual teacher, Nina Zimbelman, hoping she could help me cure the pain. She couldn't, (or so I thought) and as I drove down the dirt roads of Appalachia on my way back to the Atlanta airport, I passed barns that had "Jesus is Lord" and "Jesus Saves" painted on them. When I reached a two-lane blacktop, I saw, in the distance, a billboard that said, "You Work for Jesus."
When I drew closer to the sign, though, it said, "Your Bank Has Loans." What?! I hadn't merely thought I saw, "You Work for Jesus," I had seen the words clearly. I took it as a message from my subconscious or the universe – You Work for God. And I was cool with that. Mission accepted.
I limped home and the next morning, I had made tea and read the paper before I realized: the pain in my heel was gone. I tested it – walked all over -- and the pain never returned.
Could this penile haiku, this anonymous jab on Wikipedia also be a message I need to hear? If so, what is it?
PART 14 - DATING ROULETTE
Billy drops by before leaving Boulder to return to his home in Lone Tree. When he hugs me, I don't respond. "What's going on?" he asks. I tell him how it felt when he jumped out of my bed at 9 a.m. to go meet Sally.
"I'm not asking for a life commitment. Just that...if we're going to explore where things might go with us, you don't explore the same thing with other people."
Billy nods. "Sally is saying the same thing. Pick one and be with her. Do one at a time."
Part of me feels threatened, hearing about Sally, and part of me can't believe Billy would prefer other women to me. As my hair stylist, Katie, had said that morning when I'd told her about the situation, "You've got bragging rights. You're pretty special, and if he doesn't see that...he's an asshole."
I ask Billy, "Did Sally tell you how she knows me?"
He says Sally hasn't met me yet. She was telling Billy about a conference she was planning and said she hoped to hire me as the keynote speaker. "I was shocked," Billy says. "I told her you were one of the women I was dating."
What was her response?
"She said, 'You must really like strong women.'"
I remember, now, receiving an email from Sally and googling her to see if I wanted to be involved in her conference. Her bio said she'd contracted polio as a child and her legs had never fully recovered, but at 50, she resolved to run a marathon – a regular one, not for people with special needs – and came in third in her age group. She was now doing endurance races and giving motivational talks. I emailed her back, but she was just leaving for Australia and we never connected.
"This must be great for your ego," I tell Billy, "dating three quality women. It's like getting a tray filled with delicious treats and being told to pick one."
"I'd still prefer to have one deep love than to sample all the goodies," he says.
"What's holding you back?"
"With you... we've had so much trouble getting started... I'm not certain things would work out."
We never know that, I say. "It's like buying a horse. You have a hunch it'll be good, you ride it a few times, then you take it home, get to know each other and sometimes it's magic and sometimes you move on to another horse."
He considers this.
"What do you want to do?" I ask.
He smiles. "Date all three of you. You're all busy, and I have time enough to serve all three of you."
We laugh but I make it clear we will not revisit the bedroom until this gets sorted out.
That night, while I'm working at the computer, the phone rings. I check caller ID: it's Billy. I pick up. "Hello."
"Can I please speak to Sally?"
"Sally! You've called Sara."
"I know. Just joking."
"That's not funny."
"Hey, ease up. I dialed your number because I want to talk to you."
"Jon? Who's that?"
"This other guy I met on match."
"Should I be jealous?"
"Absolutely. He's a stand-up comic, makes me laugh constantly."
When I hang up, the pain is back. I don't like this game. I can't concentrate now and it takes hours to get back on track. I quit work around 2 a.m. and in the shower – where I often get inspiration and clarity – it comes to me. When Billy is with me, he's charming, funny, sexy, and I figure, OK, this is too good to pass up. Then he talks and makes jokes about the other women and it hurts. I don't want to do this anymore. I don't want to be at the mercy of his whims any longer, wondering, when will he decide – in a week, a month? I'm taking my power back.
I sleep well and the next morning when he calls, I ask, "How do you feel about the situation? You've had a chance to to sleep on it.
"I... don't know."
"Then I'm going to make a decision. I don't want to play this kind of dating roulette. You're free to get to know the others, take 'em all to bed if you like. If things don't work out, you can get back in touch, but who knows where I'll be by then."
"Yeah, I know," Billy says.
"I want to be with someone who really wants to be with me. And you're not there. So I'm bowing out."
It's painful, but it also feels right. Not happy, but right.
Late that day, when I've finished working, I look up the email Sally Burton sent me months before. I write a reply: "Well, Sally, it seems we have Billy Stors in common. If you'd like to talk, give me a call."
PART 15 - DUMP A GUY, GAIN A GIRLFRIEND
Sally and I are at my kitchen table, eating buffalo chilli and drinking red wine. We like each other immediately. She's almost as tall as I, (Billy had said he only dates tall women) and she has natural red hair, a runner's body and a great sense of humor.
She'd called right after receiving my email and said, "I told you we'd have things in common. I didn't expect it would be a guy from match!" She tells me she's not interested in Billy and has been composing a kiss-off email in her mind.
We compare our stories of Billy, filling in the gaps, alternately laughing and wincing. He'd taken Sally to a concert in Denver long before he asked me to say yes or no. "The concert was okay," she says, "but I thought he was dull."
"So did I! He was boring on the phone. But when we met in person, the chemistry took over."
She says she never felt any chemistry, and she did not have a date with Billy on the morning he left my bed at 9 a.m. Whomever he saw, it must have been a washout, because he called me three times after that. He did take Sally to a festival movie that night, then called me at 11:30 and asked to come sleep over, knowing he'd just made a date with her for breakfast the following morning. He was planning to repeat his morning exit-from-the-bed.
Did he tell you he was sleeping with me? I ask.
"Duh...no." Sally says, "But I had a creepy feeling about him, and I kept him at arms length—literally. I didn't want him to touch or kiss me." She says Billy urged her to come visit him in Lone tree, just as he'd urged me and probably urged Kitten Rourke. (Number 3)
"When I walked away from our last breakfast," Sally says, "I thought, fat chance I'm driving to Lone tree. I think match is full of guys like that – double D's --deceitful and dysfunctional." We discuss whether she should send that email she's been composing or just go silent – not reply to Billy's calls or emails.
"Part of me wants to let him know he can't get away with this shit," Sally says. "You know, he made me wear Kitten's name tag at the festival? He'd bought one pass for himself and one for his dates, and they all had to wear Kitten's tag because she'd gone with him the first night."
I can't believe she's a lawyer, with that name, I say. Let's google her.
Sally takes out the laptop she'd brought along and types in "Kitten Rourke." (not her real name, which is even more preposterous, trust me) Up pops a website with pictures of her all over it.
"Oh....my...God!" Sally says. "I can't compete with that! I mean, my body's in good shape but she looks like a porn star." (Interesting, isn't it? A moment before, Sally had said she wasn't interested in Billy and now she blurts that she can't compete.)
In the pictures, Kitten is tall and slender with the face of a classic American beauty and long blonde hair that's spiky on top. The skimpy dress she's wearing shows boobs like Dolly Parton's, and a tattoo of a snake runs around her bicep, biting its tail.
We click on her bio, which says she graduated from Harvard, then got a joint degree from Harvard Business School and Law School, started her own venture capital business, retiring in her thirties because she'd made millions. Then she became a free-lance adventurer, going on dangerous missions and writing a series of books about them: "Adventures of the Cat." She'd sailed in the Americas Cup Race and did long distance ocean swims between the islands in Hawaii.
"This sounds way fishy," I say. If she's for real, what's she doing on match? And why is she dating Billy? She should know lots of brilliant rich guys."
Sally says that Billy told her Kitten was moving from San Francisco to Boulder and had gone on match so she would have men to date when she arrived. Kitten told Billy that she'd received a thousand replies.
"I don't doubt that," I say. "This is every man's fantasy: a sexy bombshell who's smart and rich."
"And available," Sally says.
I can understand why Billy didn't want to let go of this fish.
I look up Kitten's books on the net -- they're issued by a publisher I've never heard of. Probably self published -- the sample chapters are amateurish.
The following day, I call the Harvard registrar, expecting to poke another hole in this balloon. I say I'm writing an article and want to confirm that Kitten Rourke graduated from Harvard College and obtained a joint degree from Harvard Business and Harvard Law School. An hour later, the registrar emails me: "The person in question attended Harvard College and did obtain a JD/MBA."
Damn. If everything she claimed was true, why was she advertising on match.com? It didn't compute. But then, neither did my trolling on the site.
That night in my house, though, before we've even found out that Kitten did go to Harvard, Sally and I hit the dark chocolate gelato for comfort. We wonder if we should warn Kitten about Billy. We'd like to post a Beware notice on match.com, but they don't let you post reviews of your dates. They should. We could contact Kitten through her website, but then she might tell Billy....
"I'm going to send that email to him," Sally says, typing it on her laptop. The final line is: "Please do NOT call or email me -- ever."
She pushes Send. "There. That feels really good."
We relish the poetic justice: He plays the two of us off against each other, then we both dump him and become fast friends.
PART 16 - BUDDHA'S IN THE TEMPLE AND WON'T COME OUT
After my dinner with Sally, I buried myself in work, which helped take the focus off Billy. I was writing a pilot for ABC, a drama series based on my book "Leap!" Marta Kauffman, who created the TV hit "Friends," was collaborating with me, and Goldie Hawn had committed to star in the series. We'd already written a dozen drafts, based on notes we kept receiving from the "suits" – executives at ABC and Warner Bros. Then the Writers Guild had gone on strike and we'd been unable to work for months. Now the strike had been settled and the top gun – the president of ABC -- had given us radical new notes and a five day deadline to complete a total rewrite. We hoped that if we turned in a draft he loved, he would put the series on the air.*
While I was writing, Billy sent some chatty, superficial emails, and I told him I had a deadline and to leave me alone. Marta and I worked day and night, barely sleeping, and turned in the script the last minute before it was due.
An email arrived promptly at the end of the fifth day: "Are you going to talk to me ever again? With tender thoughts, Billy."
I called Sally and read it to her, like an alcoholic calling her sponsor when she's tempted to drink. "Tender, my ass," Sally said. "I hope you won't respond."
But I did. I knew that by answering him I was engaging again, but I couldn't help it. I was like a smoker who knows cigarettes will kill him and can't stop lighting up.
I emailed Billy repeating that I would not take part in his dating roulette. Then I pulled the pin on what I expected would be a grenade. I informed him that I'd had dinner with Sally, and we'd found discrepancies and deception in his stories.
Billy wrote back that he was happy I was keeping the lines of communication open. But he had his own story of how things had gone, a story in which he was honest, blameless and did nothing wrong. He was sorry Sally and I had been hurt, but not sorry about his behavior. In fact, it was my fault. "I feel you seduced me for the purpose of staking claim to me and making me feel suddenly obligated to you, after rejecting me for months."
I responded that I had hardly seduced him, he was the one who kept suggesting we go to bed, but "you did not twist my arm," I said, "even the good one. I threw caution to the wind, and I take responsibility for that. And I confess, I did hope that would lead to a one-on-one relationship."
He fired back: "I do wish to date one person, with hope that the relationship leads to marriage. I thought Sally might be the person I could do that with. She came to me at a time when you and I had nothing and expected we never would. If you and I had not made love, a relationship with Sally might have been possible. She and I went to one concert, a movie and breakfast. We never had the private time together to gain any realization of whether our attraction was a dream or a reality. You and I did have that time for discovery, but then I found it such a difficult decision that I could not allow you to hurry me into it. The irony is that my attraction, respect and admiration for both of you has resulted in you both hating me. After your meeting with Sally, she asked me not to email her. If you talk to her again, you have my permission to show her this letter."
I forwarded it to Sally, who was appalled. "He sends me a love note through you? That's sick."
As we were talking, another email landed from Billy, telling me he was watching "High Noon" and thinking about me. As if he hadn't just told me he'd wanted Sally!
I banged out a reply: "Don't contact me again." I was glad I had Sally on the phone to back me up. "Send it!" she said.
Relief washed over me. I kept repeating those four words to myself: "Don't contact me again." Good riddance to bad rubbish, as we said at Berkeley in the 60s. I wished I could add those words to the Paul Simon song about the 50 ways to leave your lover.
Then, of course, came the crash a few days later. It had been 8 years since I'd been with a man who loved me and whom I loved in return. In 8 years, I'd dated five men and met dozens of others and hadn't experienced anything close to that deep, nourishing connection. I can go for long periods and be just fine on my own, but after Billy, because I'd taken a bite of the apple -- tasted again what it feels like to have that juicy energy running between you and a partner -- I felt bereft.
I had the old pain in the chest, as if ribs have been broken and it's hard to breathe. (The physical pain, I would learn later, is a sure sign of addiction. The pain comes when the desired object is withdrawn, and the rational mind is helpless to quash the pain or the longing)
I called Sally to talk me down from the tree. "When I sleep with someone and it's great, I get screwed up. Meditation, psychological insight – nothing helps. Buddha is in the temple and won't come out."
"You spent a lot more time with Billy than I did," Sally said. "You had more invested. I feel like I dodged a bullet."
*The series based on Leap! is not to be. ABC killed it for "budgetary reasons" after asking us for several more rewrites.
PART 17 - IS LOVE MORE ADDICTIVE THAN HEROIN?
When I moved to Venice, CA, in the 70s, the first thing I did was plant a garden: tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and, in a corner by the 7 foot fence, I threw some marijuana seeds. I wasn't a big smoker but liked a toke now and then. The vegetables did not do well in the sandy beach soil, but the pot grew like Jack's beanstalk.
I was writing my first book, Loose Change, and late one night, when the neighborhood was silent, I sat at my desk, struggling to make the story come alive. I was startled by a sudden banging and thumping of footsteps around the side of the house. I ran to the front door and yelled, "Who's there?!"
"Police." Two policemen with guns drawn were shining a high-powered flashlight at my eyes. They asked if I'd reported a burglary. I hadn't. They said a call had come from 85 Windward.
"This is 58, you're in the wrong place," I said, wanting them to leave quickly. I glanced to the left. The police swung their flashlight to the left and there, in a pool of chalky light, stood the pot plants, five feet tall.
They handcuffed me and drove me to the Women's House of Detention, where I was strip-searched and locked in a cell with prostitutes. In California at that time, possession of pot was a misdemeanor but cultivation was a felony. At 4 a.m., they let me use a payphone to call my father, who called a bail bondsman and at 6 a.m., utterly shaken, I was released.
I had to go to court but, because it was a first offense, I was given "diversion" – placed in a rehab program instead of being tried. I had to attend group therapy twice a week for 2 months at the Venice Drug Coalition.
There were 9 people in my group and I was the only one not there to kick a serious habit. May, an obese black woman wearing a flowered dress and slippers, spoke in a groggy voice. She was addicted to speed, took 20 Dexedrine a day, had been hospitalized and given shock treatment and still, despite the Dexedrine, she slept all day.
The man next to May had stolen a TV from his grandmother so he could "get down," then fallen asleep with a cigarette in his mouth and burned down half the house, killing his cousin.
The leader of the group turned to me. "What's with you, baby? You gotta contribute here, not just listen."
What could I say? I grew some plants? I'm having writer's block? I wake up with fear and trembling because I'm stuck on chapter 2?
The leader asked me to bring a chapter and read it aloud next time, but when I did, half the group nodded off.
As weeks passed, though, I became more involved with these people and their stories and they with me. I began to talk about my relationships with men, and nobody went to sleep. In fact, they vied to give me advice.
I told them I'd fallen in love with a man who was married, someone I'd known for many years. I'd promised myself I would never get involved with a married guy, but once we'd slept together, I had trouble stopping. I told the group, "I keep thinking: Being with this person makes me happy. How could something that makes me feel so good... be bad?"
The man who'd burned down his house and killed his cousin stared at me. "That's what I used to say... about heroin."
* * *
At the time, I thought it was a funny story and repeated it to friends. "Is that what happens? If I keep sleeping with this guy, I'll end up strung out in the gutter?" But 30 years later, the analogy seems dead-on.
In the 70s, there was no concept of an addiction to love and sex. If you'd told me I was an addict, I would have laughed, because I was sure I did not have an addictive personality. I never smoked cigarettes or got hooked on alcohol or pills. Chocolate, maybe, but didn't everyone love chocolate?
The study and treatment of love addiction did not begin until the 80's, spurred by the publication of "Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous" by the Augustine Fellowship staff. Sex and love addiction are different syndromes but related. For men, it's usually a compulsion to cheat and sleep with lots of women. (Think Bill Clinton, Rudy Giuliani and Gov. Sanford) For women, it tends to be an obsession with one man. (Why are we not surprised?) What's true for both men and women is that we can't stop ourselves, even when we know our behavior could destroy a marriage or our sanity or the chance to lead a country. And this goes back to the earliest civilizations. Antony lost Rome because he couldn't keep away from Cleopatra.
The most helpful book I've found on the love syndrome is by Howard Halpern, "How to Break Your Addiction to a Person." Halpern calls the problem "attachment hunger," and lists three symptoms:
1. The compulsive quality -- you're driven to merge with a specific person, even when you know it's not healthy.
2. You feel panic at the thought of losing the person. Keeping or losing the relationship feels like a matter of life and death.
3. When the relationship ends, you have withdrawal symptoms, which include depression and intense physical pain, especially in the chest and stomach. "A person who has just ended an addictive relationship may suffer greater agony," Halpern writes, than heroin addicts when they go cold turkey.
Another sign is that you only feel fully alive when you're with a partner, and you're incomplete without one. Your identity, your worth, your very survival depend on keeping that partner.
Halpern and others who've worked in the field say the roots of addiction are in infancy: not receiving the love and acceptance you needed. As a result, you never develop the ability to love yourself. You're constantly seeking to merge with another to feel whole and safe. And because the problem began before you had words, it operates at the most primitive level, unconsciously.
Not getting the love you needed as a baby seems to be the source of most problems, and when I hear that, it's just words. But as I read Halpern's book and others, I would feel physical pain, my chest constricting, because the descriptions of attachment hunger hit home. Hard.
I've had wonderful and nurturing relationships, I've been married and raised a family, but since I've been single again, I find the hunger and pain are coming up in extremis – stronger than they did when I was younger.
The pain is increasing, I suspect, because the attachment hunger needs to be released. I can't live with it anymore. The books I read were great at defining the problem, but their prescriptions for ending it didn't help. I resolved to do what I'd done when I was suffering from heel pain that wouldn't go away: Everything. Therapy, body work, 12-step meetings, reading, journaling, prayer, meditation retreats. I was determined to do -- or not do -- whatever it took to reach the state where I could savor life to the fullest, whether I have a partner or not.
But before I arrived at this determination, I had to play out my fiery attraction to Billy. I had to hit bottom.
PART 18 - IS "NO" THE SEXIEST WORD?
I was alone, facing a weekend with no plans. I'd been invited to a party but was not up to going, fearing I'd be giving off waves of neediness.
I called a friend, Louise, picked up Thai food and headed for her house where we ate in the garden. She said what I'd experienced with Billy was a condensed version of what she'd gone through for 30 years with the husband she'd just divorced. "He always had to have a woman on the side," she said, "and I hung in because of the positives – his brilliance, his playfulness and warmth -- and of course our 4 kids. I kept hoping that in time, he'd come into a deeper relationship with me."
She brings out an unusual Tarot deck created by a local artist, and we each draw a card to reflect where we are. I get... Kali! Goddess of death and destruction, wearing a string of skulls around her neck. Someone called Kali "the poster girl for what happens when a goddess goes off her meds." In traditional Tarot decks, the picture is a tower being shattered by lightning. I can relate. An illusion is being shattered – the illusion that romance and physical chemistry will bring happiness.
We draw another card to show the future. I get "Healer of Wands," with the message, "Emotional healing is coming."
I wake up the next morning feeling better. I wash my hair, give myself a facial. Then I check the computer and my heart starts bumping. There's an email from Billy with no words in the message box. The subject line says: firstname.lastname@example.org
Shit, that gets me. "imissu." He overrode my injunction: "Don't contact me again." And of course I'm dying to see Crosby Stills & Nash. I call Sally, my "sponsor," to keep me from weakening, but she's not home. I call Gordon, a psychologist friend who's a wise counsel, and he knows men.
I start telling him the saga of Billy but don't get far before
Gordon stops me. "Sara, I've heard enough. This is a dangerous guy."
But, but... I tell him I haven't experienced anything this good (or bad) in eight years. Gordon says, "It's the takeaway that hooks you. The guy shows up and fixes your electricity (the kitchen dimmer) and creates another kind of electricity. You have doubts about the relationship, but when it's suddenly taken away, you want it. You both have taken it away at different times. Now you've said no and he's back in seduction mode. Where is your freedom, your wisdom in all this?"
"You deserve better," Gordon says. "Not a better guy, but a better place to be, where you can stand in your truth, your wholeness and be with another person standing in his truth and wholeness. And from that place, you embrace."
Yeah, I've heard the words before.
He says that when he met his current wife, they'd both been divorced for the third time and spent a lot of hours questioning their attraction, making sure it wasn't coming from neediness or neurosis. "I remember telling her: Here we are. We're in our 50s, we're in bodies that are transient and we're both gonna die. We're like two rain drops falling, and we love as we fall."
I hang up and send Billy a reply, "No thanks."
Two weeks later, another missive lands. "I have wanted to respect your order that I not contact you, but if you change your mind about communicating, please let me know. I keep remembering our happy times together, how I felt at the hardware store when I was shopping for your dimmer, then going to buy roses and preparing our dinner. I remember how much laughing we did. Can we just have one conversation?"
I have trouble sleeping that night, trying to feel what my truth is. This is what I come to in the wee hours:
- I've been wanting Billy to keep contacting me.
- I thrive on the drama. It makes me feel charged and alive. I get excited and nervous watching for email, composing responses and having conversations in my head.
- I still have hope -- that he'll see the light, be willing to commit. I want the upside of the roller coaster without the down.
- This is folly! Delusion!
But when the phone rings and I see his name on caller ID, I pick up. "Why are you calling, Billy?"
"I just want to know, how's your collar bone?"
"How's the script coming?"
"We're doing another rewrite. Billy, I'm not up for chatting..."
But he interrupts, asking if I've been listening to Oprah's online class with Eckhart Tolle. That gets me going; I've been listening to each one, and I'm in awe that millions of people—mainstream people, Oprah's people, who've never explored any spiritual idea outside the religion they were raised with — are listening to Eckhart talk about being present in the moment, watching one's thoughts without attaching to them, and letting go of one's "pain body."
Billy says a lot of the teachings have been "useful to me," and in no time we're throwing words back and forth as in a fast tennis match, laughing all the while. The laughter melts me. I tell Billy I have to go rehearse with a choir I've joined. We're going to sing at the Sunrise Retirement community next week.
"Ooo, can I come?" he asks.
"Why not? I want to hear you perform."
"Trust me, you don't," I say. "Last month we sang at the "Reminiscence Courtyard," a home for people who have Alzheimer's and who can't reminisce about anything. There were 15 people, most of them asleep in their wheelchairs or staring into space. When our leader, Michelle, said, `Hi! We're the Ecstatic Choir and we're here to sing for you,' she got vacant looks. We ran through four songs, making egregious mistakes, singing in the wrong key, but it didn't matter. When we finished, there was silence, except for one woman who started belting out random notes."
Billy is laughing. "Maybe if you learned your parts better, you'd get a better gig."
"Why can't I come next week?" he asks. "People with dementia can come, but not me?"
Every time I stop laughing, he says something or I do that sets us off again. Then he turns on the charm. "How many men have begged to hear you sing at the dementia home?"
"How many men have jumped out of my bed to go on a date with someone else?"
"You're tough," he says.
No, I'm vulnerable.
"Okay," he says, "I've made contact. It's up to you to take the next step."
I'm not going to take any step, Billy. My truth is: I don't want to be involved unless it's one on one. Your truth is: you can't offer that. Has anything changed?
PART 19 - WHAT DO WOMEN WANT, MORE THAN ANYTHING?
Well, lo and behold, we're in an exclusive relationship. "Diving in," as Billy says.
At the end of our last phone call, I'd told him, "I don't want to be involved with you unless it's one on one. Has anything changed?" I said, expecting the answer, "No."
"Well," Billy said, "I'm willing to be exclusive while we figure out what's between us. There's something that won't let go of either of us."
"What about Kitten?" I ask.
"I haven't seen her again."
"She picked someone to date exclusively, and it wasn't me."
So... He hadn't chosen me. The other two had dropped out.
Billy says he'll take his profile off match.com and tell the women he's been emailing that he's not available now.
I tell him I feel wary and guarded. He asks if he can come see me. "We won't have sex for a while."
"That's good," I say. "How long?"
Billy says, "That's completely up to you."
This moves me. I tell him about an Arthurian legend I first heard when I was in my 20s. In the story, King Arthur was riding alone in the forest when he was surprised by a strange knight in battle armor. The knight drew his sword to slay the king, but Arthur protested, "I'm not armed, this is against our code of honor." The knight relented, and made the King promise he would return to the same spot, alone and unarmed, in one year. The King's life would be spared only if he brought back the answer to this riddle: What do women want, more than anything?
King Arthur rode back to the castle and related what had happened to his nephew, Sir Gawain, the most handsome and chivalrous knight in the kingdom. Sir Gawain said, Don't worry, I'll ride in one direction, you'll ride in the other, and we'll ask every creature we meet: What do women want?
At the end of the year, Sir Gawain and the King had a book full of answers, but King Arthur knew he did not have the right answer. He was prepared to meet his fate, when he was approached by a hag called Dame Ragnell. She was fat, hairy and covered with warts, had a big nose dripping with snot and gave off a terrible odor. She told the King she alone had the answer and would tell him on one condition: "You give me Sir Gawain as my husband."
The King refused, he couldn't commit his nephew to such a fate. But Sir Gawain insisted he would marry the dame, gladly, if it would save the King's life.
So King Arthur accepted her terms and said, "Now tell me, what do women want more than anything?"
"Sovereignty," she said.
When the King rode back to meet the knight and told him the answer, his life was spared. But now he had to marry Sir Gawain to Dame Ragnell. After the ceremony, she turned up her hairy snout to be kissed. Sir Gawain could hardly bear to look at her, but shut his eyes and kissed her. And as he did, she was transformed into the most exquisite and sensual woman he'd ever seen. They spent the night making love and as the sun was rising, Dame Ragnell said, "My beauty will not hold, sir, so you must choose. Either have me beautiful by day, when the world can see, or ugly by day and beautiful at night for you alone."
I pause in the story to ask Billy: What would you choose?
"I don't know. Both have advantages."
I ask you, dear readers: what would you choose? To have your partner beautiful for the world or for you alone?
I tell Billy, "Just say what comes to you."
"Be beautiful when you want to be," he says.
I'm floored. Sir Gawain had said the same thing, in different words, to Dame Ragnell: "My lady, I leave it up to you." And when he said that, she became beautiful all the time.
I've been telling this story for 30 years, and nobody has ever given that answer. They choose one or the other, but don't think to leave it up to the woman.
I'm having to do some mental gymnastics now. Billy says he's willing to commit, and he's giving me sovereignty.
When he comes to visit and walks in the door, I extend my hand. "Hi, I'm Sara." We go out to a neutral place—a tea shop with cozy sofas—and spend a long time hashing and rehashing what happened between us. I come to understand that, for him, the relationship began when he first contacted me online in November, so he went through months of rejection and no encouragement. For me, the relationship began when he came to see me after my ski wreck, and promptly started dating two other women as well. He says he was shocked when I switched horses on him, and didn't trust that I was sincerely interested. He says he didn't really grasp, until now, how pained I was by his dating other people as we were becoming intimate. He thought I was trying to control him.
In addition to talking, we do a lot of laughing, which has strong healing power. After dinner, he sleeps in the guest room, and the next day he suggests we drive to an obscure theater in Denver to see "Chicago 10." Billy has a knack for finding interesting, out-of-the-way cultural events, and the film captivates us. It uses animation and archival footage to recreate an iconic moment in time. I knew many of the players in the Chicago trial—Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, Rennie Davis, and the lawyer, William Kunstler—and it's enthralling to see them revivified in their prime.
Billy wants to drive to Lone Tree afterward to show me his house, but I suggest we take a break. We need time to regroup, readjust, for me to begin to trust him and he to trust me.
Not much time. Two days later, after confirming our agreement of no sex, I pack a bag to visit him in Lone Tree. His house is a McMansion—7000 square feet—in a development of luxury homes that are not well designed but built on a scale to impress. He'd bought it with his second wife and kept it after the divorce. But it's an absurd amount of space for one guy—three floors of rooms upon rooms. Billy had treated it as an art piece and furnished each room differently. One guest room has a safari theme, with a giant giraffe sculpture, zebra rug and tented bed as in an African camp. I choose the safari room to sleep in.
What's enchanting is that the house is set among massive pine trees, with nothing else in sight. The windows run from floor to ceiling and aren't covered, so at night, I see the dark shapes of trees close up with a full moon shining through branches. It's like sleeping outdoors, but warm and enfolded in a regal bed.
We spend another two days in nonstop conversation, punctuated by laughter, great meals, music and movies. When I hug him goodby, I tell him... I think I'm ready.
PART 20 - LOVE IN THE TIME OF VIAGRA
What's it like to go for AIDS tests at a public clinic when you're over 50? We're about to see. I know that I'm clean, and Billy believes he is, but I don't trust that because he's had unprotected sex with two other women since his divorce. If I'm asking him to get tested, it seems only fair that we both do it together.
As we drive to the County Health Department, Billy asks why the test will take an hour. I say they'll probably ask questions and try to educate us about safe sex.
"What! I'm not going to answer personal questions," he says.
Please don't be rude, I say, nervous, knowing Billy can be a wild card.
"I'll tell them I'm just there for the test. That's it."
We're the oldest people in the waiting room--by decades. They give us forms, asking for name, address, phone and social security number. That stops me. "I thought the test was anonymous."
The attendant, Sheree, says, "It's confidential, but not anonymous--where you just have a number. No one does that kind of testing in this area."
I glance at Billy. He wanted anonymity for insurance reasons. "Are you OK with this?"
He hesitates. Sheree says, "You can say your name is Donald Duck, or whatever. We don't ask for ID unless you want a paper copy of the results."
"We don't," Billy says, and we sit down to work on the forms. He puts "Tom" as his name, saying, "It's a good cowboy name." I write "Jane." He puts "Hayden" for his last name. I put "Fonda." I start to sign the release and he says, "Don't sign your real name!"
I was doing it by reflex, so I tear up the release and ask for another.
Moments later, a beefy, hirsute man with a thick Slavic accent calls out, "Tom and Jane?" We walk toward him and he holds out his hand. "I am Bojan." He says he's from Bosnia. "I know you are couple, but I am government, and rule is: One test at a time. Who goes first?"
"Tom" says he will, and I excuse myself to use the restroom. When I return to the bench outside Bojan's office, I hear the two of them laughing hysterically behind the closed door. That's a relief, Billy's not being rude.
Then Bojan sticks his head out. "Tom would like to share his results with you."
I walk into the room and he shows me a small plastic strip on the table with one line in blue. "Is negative," Bojan says. I throw my arms around Billy.
"Test is 98 per cent accurate," Bojan adds.
"What?" Billy says, in mock indignation. "I didn't come here to get a 98 per cent chance of getting laid! I want 100 per cent." He gestures toward me. "I was 98 per cent sure I didn't have AIDS last weekend and she wouldn't go for that." Bojan laughs.
"I accept the test results," I say.
Billy points to a grimy macramé peace sign on a necklace hanging on the wall. "See," he says, "I knew that peace sign would bring me luck."
Bojan tells me it was a gift from a client who didn't have money for the test but he gave it to her anyway. "She take off her necklace and ask me to keep it. I say, I am government, I am not allowed... But she say, if I don't take it, I will assault her."
I'm puzzled, then say, "Do you mean... insult her?"
"Yes, insult her." The peace signs looks creepy and germ-ridden.
Billy leaves the room and Bojan starts down a list of questions, checking off my answers on a clipboard. "Have you had sex in last 3 months?"
"Sex with man?"
"Sex with woman?"
"Sex in anus?"
"Sex through hole?"
I start to laugh. "Sex through hole? Like, glory holes?" When I'd written a book about Rock Hudson, I learned that at gay bath houses, there were holes in the walls of adjoining rooms and men could stick their members through the hole and wait for... glory.
"Yes, glory hole."
"I can't believe these questions. Did you ask Bi... I mean, Tom, all this?"
"Yes. He make jokes for answer."
Bojan pricks my finger and after a minute, we see the same blue line as on Billy's test result. "You are fine," he says.
Billy and I leave the office holding hands. This is love in the time of Viagra, I think. We're certified by the health inspector, good to go.
But when we return to his McMansion in the pines, there's an awkwardness, and it feels like we're do-si-doing around each other.
PART 21 - DID YOU EVER PET A BEE?
Billy asks me to come and lie down so he can hold me. He folds my body into his arms on the kingsize bed, with its dark leather frame. “It’s okay to cry,” he says.
Tears come, and I confess that I wanted him to contact me, despite the fact that I told him not to. He says he must have known that because he refused to give up.
We start to make love, slowly, for hours. Sunlight filters through the massive pine trees outside the windows, and he’s playing his favorite kind of music, which is also my favorite: singer-songwriters, from Tom Russell to Sheryl Crow to Leonard Cohen.
The bedroom suite is so big I keep losing my way, opening the wrong doors as I look for the bathroom. There’s a closet so large it has an island in the center, a sauna, a TV nook, and two separate toilet enclosures
The next day we go for a walk and eat lunch at an outdoor café. A bee lands on Billy’s plate. “Did you ever pet a bee?” he asks.
“God, no. I’m allergic to bee stings.”
He runs a finger, ever so softly, along the bee’s back, barely touching the fur. I brace, expecting the bee to freak, but it just sits there as if hypnotized. After a while it flies up, circles and returns to the plate for more. Watching Billy stroke its back, I want him to touch me that way. When I tell him, he laughs and starts referring to me as “the bee.”
Billy’s not working these days, and I’ve just been told that ABC is canceling the pilot for the series based on “Leap,” which I’ve been working on for a year. It feels as if I’ve been racing on a treadmill and suddenly, the switch has been turned off. I’m at loose ends, so we’re both free to lie in bed the rest of the day and evening.
I drive home and have 2 days to catch my breath before Billy shows up at my place. For the next 4 days, we don’t leave the bedroom except to eat. When Hunter Thompson drove to Las Vegas to write “Fear and Loathing,” he loaded his convertible with bags of grass, speed, acid, a salt shaker of cocaine, beer, loaded guns and a pint of raw ether. Billy and I packed in Prosecco, wine, grass, frozen entrees from Whole foods, energy bars, vibrating toys and loaded iPods. It did not occur to me at the time that this was excessive. I thought, as did Billy: it’s the only way to fly.
Not until a year later did I see what it was: a binge, a four-day bender, our days of wine and roses. As with any addictive substance, the more we indulged, the more we craved. Billy marveled: “I’ve never made love like this.” I’d made love for long expanses with the cowboy artisan I’d been with for 7 years. But when that relationship ended, I believed it was best in show, the sex of a lifetime. I doubted I’d ever come close to those heights again.
Well, what was going on with Billy was… no doubt… absolutely… even better. Can you imagine? It was like an exorcism. I was free from the massive belief I’d been holding onto for 8 years: that the best was in the past.
On the afternoon of day 4, my friend, Wendy, a Buddhist psychologist, calls from Chicago. Both of us have been out of relationship for some time, and when I tell her what’s going on, she’s so happy she’s chirping. I put her on speaker phone. “Billy,” she says, “we haven’t met yet, but I want to welcome you. Welcome to my friend’s life!”
“Thank you,” Billy says, smiling, and there’s a loud pop.
“What’s that?” Wendy asks.
“We just opened a bottl of Prosecco,” he says, “and the cork hit the bed post…”
“You guys!” Wendy says. “It’s not even morning anymore.”
Not only is it not morning, but after four days, we’ve run out of food. I have to write an article now and Billy has to meet his daughter in Lone Tree, so there’s no time for a final meal. Right after driving off, Billy calls while I’m in the shower and leaves a message: “I want you more than I want food.”
PART 22 — HE'S OLDER, SHE'S YOUNGER, SO?!
The next time I visit Billy, he gives me a lifeless peck on the cheek.
“Is something wrong?” I ask.
“Your age is troubling me,” he says. He’s eight years younger than I, and this is the first I’ve heard it troubles him. The last two men I’ve been with, including my ex husband, were ten years younger, and their response to the age difference was, “Who gives a damn?”
Billy does. He says he’d rather be with someone who won’t get old before he does. I point out that he knew my age from the first time we met. “Maybe your mind is throwing this up now because it’s one thing we can never fix, talk through or compromise about. I’ll always be older.”
He nods. “It’s a brilliant way to check out, don’t ya think?”
I sigh. I have my own doubts about the viability of this relationship. Billy’s not working and has no focus. He shows no ability to see the other person’s point of view—his perception is always “correct” and mine is wrong. He has few friends. After living in Colorado all his life, he has one male friend with whom he never talks intimately, and two women friends who’re ex lovers.
More important is his skittishness. Because of my own ambivalence, I do best with men who really want to be with me and consistently hang in there. “That won’t be the case with me,” Billy says.
What to do? Months later, I’ll read in Pia Mellody’s book, “Facing Love Addiction,” that the love addict has a fatal attraction to the avoidance addict. But on the day I feel Billy pulling away, I think: Okay, here’s a chance to work on my own stuff. Can I let him have his doubts, say what he needs to say and not react? In meditation, I’m using the practice of “allowing everything to be as it is.” Allow Billy to be troubled. Allow me to be troubled that he’s troubled. Allow it all to be as it is, and when I do that, peace drifts in.
Billy motions me to join him on the sofa and we hug, stretching out. “Do you want me to leave?” I ask.
“I’ve been asking myself that question.”
I shift into a different position and feel his body soften.
“That feels… really good,” he says. “I just relaxed.” He begins to stroke my skin with tenderness. I love the feel of his chest, I love his smell, and in a short time we’re in another land. In this breezy, sun washed country, he can let down his guard, shut off thoughts and let the doubts recede like mist. In this realm he’s playful, inventive, always trying new things, and he wants to make me happy at any cost.
Anne Cushman, a writer I admire, wrote in "Enlightenment for Idiots:" “In bed with him, my body hummed… His touch hooked up two loose wires inside and I was electrified. The more I had of him, the more I wanted, as if in the very act of satisfying my craving, he was carving a deeper and deeper pit of hunger within me.”
That’s what’s happening with Billy now, except we’re both doing the carving. Day becomes night; he says he’ll leave first thing in the morning but he doesn’t. We sip Prosecco with peach nectar, take a couple hits and keep going, headed for the place Ken Kesey painted on his psychedelic bus: FURTHER. It flits through my mind: Is drinking and smoking and fucking the way to enlightenment? Or to oblivion? But I sweep the question aside like a filly swishing off a fly. Besides, the gurus say the way to nirvana is through samsara—the dark unconsciousness. So dive we must.
As the physical pleasure intensifies, so do feelings of merging, union, love. Billy says, “I’ve never felt so close to anyone.” The problem is: when we reach this closeness, I want to sustain and build on it, raise high the roof beam, carpenters. He wants to run. And the more we let go with each other and love flows, the more violent the backlash. When we’re together, he never wants to leave, but when he does, his mind takes over, carping, judging, finding flaws. His emails and calls fall off, and when we meet again it takes hours, sometimes 24, before he relaxes and we can find our way back to that sun washed isle.
“This is his mating dance,” says Wendy, the Buddhist psychologist. “It’s not about you. Just try—I know it’s a challenge—but try to stay detached.” Okay, I think, I’ll try to let go of my expectations. I can’t control Billy, the future or my feelings, but I can allow it all to be what it is. Surrender—that’s the game. And when I feel myself do that, the clouds part. There’s a knowing in me that whatever happens with Billy, it’s not going to do me in. Whether he leaves or stays, I’ll be okay. Really. And when I feel that … I’m free.
Part 23 - Mick Jagger and Mary Oliver
Ahhhhhh, but that expansive sense of freedom doesn't stay fixed. It's not a state you reach, hoist your flag and dwell there forever. It's something you taste and cultivate and, over time, can inhabit more frequently. Like all experience, it's impermanent.
Billy wants to move to a different part of the country. He's lived in Colorado all his life, so he's eager to try a new region. Maybe New England? As it happens, before meeting Billy, I signed up for a 7-day retreat at a meditation center in Massachusetts. We decide to fly to Boston together and spend a week exploring the coast, from Gloucester to Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod. Then he'll drop me off at the retreat, do some serious property hunting, and we'll meet at the Boston airport to fly home.
The problem is: We had a fight the night before leaving, and I became so frustrated I yelled, "Shut up!" I was startled by the intensity of my rage. How the hell had my newfound sense of freedom and detachment been knocked out? I apologized immediately, but Billy turned his back to me in bed and refused to speak.
On the flight to Boston, we exchange nothing but small talk. We don't get around to discussing the problem till late that evening. I spend a lot of time apologizing for my part, but his body stays rigid, locked. Like he wants to keep fuming, nursing his righteousness.
In the morning we try to make love, but our hearts, literally, aren't in it. We drive south, listening to music and not talking much, and I think, Why do I want to be with this person?
When we reach the resort where he's booked a room, the views make us gasp: sand dunes, ocean and sky bathed in that lambent gold light that draws painters to the area. Like many people who have money, Billy is frugal and loves to hunt for deals. He found a coupon online for a free room upgrade, so we're given a suite with glass doors opening to the sea, a fireplace, sunken tub and thick terrycloth robes.
At dinner we eat fresh caught lobster infused with sweet butter, corn that's so sugary it's like candy, and heirloom tomatoes dressed with 18-year-old Balsamic and white truffle oil. Even Billy can't stay angry through this. We walk along the ocean afterward and put our arms around each other. Tucked under fluffy white linens in our room, we listen to the rising, cresting--shoof!--of the waves and, at last, all's right with the world.
The next day we drive to the Province Lands, a preserve of sandy forest and freshwater ponds which Mary Oliver has claimed as her terrain, just as Willa Cather claimed the prairie. I've brought a book of Oliver's poems, and we hike to the site of one, Blackwater Pond.
We set out a picnic--lobster rolls and Pinot Grigio--and read it aloud:
At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have settled
after a night of rain.
I dip my cupped hands. I drink
a long time. It tastes
like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold
into my body, waking the bones. I hear them
deep inside me, whispering
oh what is that beautiful thing
that just happened?
The words haunt us. "Waking the bones." "What beautiful thing just happened?" After making love that night, Billy says we should give titles to our sessions in bed, because each has a distinct flavor. "This one," he says, "was the Mary Oliver."
A few nights later, we find a movie theater that's playing "Shine a Light," Martin Scorsese's film about the Rolling Stones. In my 20s, I had a case for Mick Jagger, big time. I flew to Denmark to cover a tour the Stones were doing in Europe. I was wearing a long, lavender nightgown as a dress, with my hair ironed straight and falling to my waist, when I found myself face to face with Jagger in the hotel elevator. I trembled, this was my chance, I'd had endless fantasies about him, and here he was in the flesh, but I froze. What came out of my mouth was: "I... uh... really like your music." Eeegods! That was dumb! I wanted to shrink and disappear. But Jagger smiled, said "Thank you," and asked if I wanted to play poker with "the boys." Suddenly I'm sitting on the floor of a hotel room with the goddamn Rolling Stones, who think I'm a groupie, and I'm wondering what they'll do when they find out I'm a reporter.
All this comes rushing back to me as we watch the Stones perform, three decades later, on the big screen. Out on the street, Billy does an uncanny, spot-on imitation of Mick, skipping across the stage, swinging his lank arms and jutting out his chin. Back at the resort, we have a raucous time in bed. Billy calls it "the Mick Jagger."
The week flies to a close and Billy drives me to the retreat center. "I wish you wouldn't go," he says. "You've already been to one, didn't you learn what you needed to? Why do you have to go to another?"
I tell him the learning is ongoing, evolving. "It's the same with people who go to church every week..."
"I never understood that either," he says. "After years, you'd think people would get the message."
I try another tack. "I go because I love to go. Some people love to fish. You wouldn't ask them, why do you keep fishing? Didn't you already catch one?"
"Oh," he says. "I get that now."
We hug goodby, he drives off and I prepare myself to drop into the rhythm of the retreat: meditation, breakfast, a talk by the teacher, lunch, more mediation and walks--all in silence. On day 4, I'm in a rich state of quietness, walking out of the meditation hall, when Billy steps in front of me, putting a finger to his lips and saying, "Shhhh." Startled, I take a pen and paper from my purse and write, "Why are you here?"
He says he was driving by and thought he'd stop.
"I'm happy to see you," I write, "but I want to finish the retreat." He asks if he can join us for the day. "Sorry, they don't permit that." He takes a room in a motel nearby, and the next morning, as I'm walking with the group in silence, he appears again in my path.
"I just want to tell you, I won't be flying home with you," he says. "I found some properties I'm really excited about, and I'm gonna stay longer. I'll see you back in Colorado."
PART 24 - Goodby Billy, Hello Love
His car's not here. I ring the bell at his massive front door. No answer. I try calling Billy on his cell but it goes straight to voice mail.
What the...? I'd called him from the road, saying I'd be at his place in 30 minutes. We haven't seen each other since we parted in Massachusetts, and I thought he'd be champing at the bit.
I pace for a while and call again. No answer. Should I drive home, wait? How long?
Twenty minutes later, he drives up, saying he took his car to be washed.
As he fixes us drinks, he tells me he found two properties on the Cape that he's bidding on. "I'm going back in a few weeks."
I'd love to see them, I say.
"Well, that's the thing. I don't picture you there."
"What do you mean? I wouldn't want to live there full time, but I could visit."
"I've been having a lot of doubts since our trip. The fact that you went to the retreat on your own, and wouldn't let me come..."
"Guests weren't permitted."
"Whatever the reason, that's what happened," he says. "And I made offers on two places. If I were in love, I'd never think of buying a piece of property without showing it to my woman. I'd be bending over backwards to make sure she was happy with it. He shakes his head. "I'm not doing that with you. So this tells me is: I'm not in love with you, you're not in love with me, and that's where it's at."
I tell him love unfolds in different ways. "We've only been seeing each other exclusively for 4 months. Can't you just enjoy what's going on, and not label it or worry whether it's love?"
He puts out his arms and draws me close; as always, the electricity is mighty. "Are you just hanging out with me for sex?" he asks. I stare at him. Why would he ask this? Maybe he's wondering, is he just sticking around for the sex?
"Would 'Yes' be the wrong answer?" I say.
He laughs, loosening up.
"I don't want to be with someone who doesn't want to be with me," I tell him. "Shall we kiss and say goodby?"
He shakes his head no and pulls me closer.
Two days later, I have to go back to my house to take care of my cat. He begs me not to go. "These have been the two happiest days of my life. That's the truth."
"And you're running away from me?"
"I'm trying to keep you, too."
I know this sounds strange, but after two days of physical intimacy and joy, I'm in an altered state. In spite of Billy's words, I know we've touched love. I've felt us connecting on so many levels, deeper than skin.
He calls me twice as I drive home. "The house is empty without you," he says. "When can you come back?" I get stuck in traffic for an hour, but it doesn't bother me a bit.
One of you wrote a comment recently: "Great sex always feels like love." The corollary for me is that without love, there's no great sex--the sex that bonds two as one and nourishes every cell. I assumed the same was true for Billy.
He calls that evening to say goodnight, then calls in the morning as he's cooking breakfast. No word the rest of the day. No word the next. Or the next.
Stupidly, I had hoped it wouldn't happen this time, but damn if he isn't pulling away again, after the "two happiest days of my life." And this time, it's Waterloo. I can't go on. Not because of him but because of me.
I can't stay detached--it's a great concept, a worthy goal--but I'm not there. As blissful and high as we've been, that's how low I fall. The chest pain is excruciating and I'm struggling to breathe. I fly to New York to do an interview and then go to a reunion of college friends, but I'm just shuffling through the motions. I don't really hear what anyone says. I walk past beautiful vistas and don't see them. I chew what I know is delicious food and don't taste it.
All the while, I'm aware that this reaction is way out of proportion to what's happening. I haven't been diagnosed with a fatal illness. No one I love has died. I'm being left by a guy I've been dating for a short time--a guy who doesn't have the maturity or compassion to even be considered as a long-term partner. But here's where my mind goes: I don't want to live.
Fortunately, I've retained a large enough shred of sanity to grasp that this has to be a major turning point. The problem is not with Billy--he's not "bad" as I've been calling him, he's an imperfect human like the rest of us, doing what he does. His frantic need to run has almost nothing to do with me. And my panic, my chest-crushing pain and wish for oblivion, have almost nothing to do with him.
I've read a piece recently in the New York Times by Laura Munson, about how she responded when her husband demanded a divorce. When he told her, after 20 years, he didn't love her and doubted he ever had, it was like a sucker punch to the gut. But she ducked the punch and said, "I don't buy it." She let him rage, run away, ignore her birthday and miss family events, and she kept saying she knew the marriage wasn't the problem. He was forced, ultimately, to confront his own demons, and after six months, returned to the family with gratitude.
If I'd been able to say that to Billy when he declared he didn't love me--"I don't buy it"--who knows what might have happened? But at that moment, I was incapable of ducking the punch. It landed smack in my most tender and vulnerable place, like the soft spot on a baby's head: the fear that I'm unlovable.
The good news, the fortunate aspect, is that this episode with Billy brought me so low that I knew there was no one out there who could help me. I would have to find my own way out of the ditch, the rut I'd been running in: a man pursues me, I fall for him, he runs and I want to die. Because the pain gets worse with each recurrence, even if I hardly know or care about the guy. It's coming up in extremis, I believe, because something in me has to change, to heal, to be made fresh. And I've resolved to do whatever it takes to accomplish this.
I ended my relationship with Billy a year ago. As the pain has subsided, my goal has changed: from yearning to connect with the right man, to yearning to experience and savor life and love in all their fullness, whether I have a partner or not.
So ends Part One of Sex Love Enlightenment. We're going to take a break as I do more research and field studies. The next part will be the road to Wellville, to healthy love and sexuality, and a commitment--like the one Laura Munroe made when her husband said he didn't love her--a commitment to the end of suffering.
It will be about cultivating many sources of love--besides a romance with one person that's supposed to last forever. Among the sources that are giving me that same sense of aliveness and joy as a romance are: learning to play piano, singing with a rock 'n roll choir, hanging out with friends I adore, and writing, of course, always writing and reporting.
Thanks for coming this far and sharing your ideas. I know we'll make it to the light.
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