I WAS DRIVING in the car with friends and my old love when the topic turned to a couple we knew. The gang in the backseat proffered their opinions, and as I opened my mouth to respond, he said, with the perfect note of resignation, the words I intended to speak: “You never know what goes on between two people.” I smiled. “That’s my line.”
In fact, it’s one of the two principles that govern my life. The other, which I also like to say with the perfect note of resignation, is, “People do what they want to do.” When I was a child, I was praised for being intelligent, and for having a high tolerance for pain. As I am jealous, possessive, and irrational when I care deeply for a man but he has not spelled out his devotion with an obviousness that would be rendered subtle in neon light, I must remind myself of these phrases, and return to my resting state of wisdom, stoicism and equanimity. Most of the time, I’m remarkably calm. When I’m uncertain, I feel undone.
I was thinking about this today, and came to the conclusion that although I have been constantly exposed to extremely successful business and economic models since birth, relationships were a different matter entirely. I have a vague memory of being asleep, bundled into the car as my mother drove past another house my father owned in the posh downtown neighborhood of Georgetown, to confirm that his Mercedes was out front, a sad fact given that her best friend, who’d been staying with us until my mother threw her out, was living there at the time. I remember feeling tired and confused and helpless and understanding, with perfect clarity, that this is what men do to you, if given the chance.
I spend a lot of time practicing forgiveness, because it feels like the only way to live. I like to think of my parents as people who were too overwhelmed to amicably call it a day, and I fantasize that, if given similar circumstances, I would gamely rise to the occasion as a beacon of tolerance and understanding. I contemplate, too, how flawed we are by nature, and how the flaws can teach us all we’re supposed to learn in this short, sweet, messy life.
Sometimes I feel like I have given up on love, even as I’ve been so very lucky to have a few serious, long-term relationships, and no shortage of admirers. I never really felt, though, that the men I was involved with understood how much I had to try, all the time, to learn to imitate, and thus model convincingly, the customs of a country where I’d never been.
Recently, I was sent a picture of my maternal grandmother, who, due to various family estrangements, I hadn’t seen at all for the last two decades of her life. I saw this photo of her, young and impossibly beautiful in my inbox, and I wondered who she really was. The only story I know about her is that before she was a farmer’s wife, and she raised six children, she ran off to work in Washington, D.C., where I would be born a half century later, to work as a secretary in the New Deal, and that my grandfather had made the implausible trip up from Jones County, Mississippi, to bring her back and marry her.
It has made me wonder what stories my granddaughter will know about me, if I ever have one. Would she know how curious I was? How impulsive? How romantic and up for anything? Or would she just see the glamorous sheen over the impossibly dedicated life? The girl who firmly decided, as a teenager, that she could only depend on herself to survive and spent decades believing it?
In the quietude of midnight, as he mixed gin-and-tonics for us, me, curled up on my celadon couch, I was saying not too long ago to a man I know that I’m a very private person, and he scoffed, pointing out how much I had revealed at the dinner party I had just hosted, and how much he had picked up sitting next to me. I agreed, but noted that, if you listen, they’re the same stories I always tell, and there are only a handful at most.
Here’s my favorite one: I’m at a cloistered event in a rarified venue in London, and as my friend and I continue on to dinner, I tell her that I’ve heard there’s a champagne raffle, and I’d like to win. She says she’ll go to the ATM for us and get some pounds. As I step onto the sidewalk, clad in a magenta chinoiserie custom-made ballgown covered in cherry blossoms, my gold sandals cut into my feet, and I tell her there’s no way I can walk. I’m going to take my shoes off. She’s horrified. You can’t do that in England. I suggest we run, and we do, arms linked, all the way down one of the finest streets in Mayfair, my voluminous skirts bunched up around my knees. We’re laughing, and free, the sight made more striking by the men in tuxedos gliding by us, a sea of unflappable penguins at dusk.
We regain our polish and I put my shoes back on at the door of the venue, and we make our way into dinner where a handsome man I’d heard about asks me several times if I’ve seen his placecard. It turns out he’s sitting across from me, and we have much in common, at least in a superficial way. We go out for champagne afterwards, and spend hours talking, and in the dim light, much later, he says something about realizing the moment he saw me that he has to know me. “Over that chicken?” I say, laughing. “No,” he replies. “As soon as I turned from the ATM, and I saw you coming right towards me.”
Many months later, I was talking to him late at night, where he was at least, on the telephone, about how shaken I was after a man I’d gone out with a few times had dumped me on a street corner in SoHo and how briskly I’d left him standing there. He sighed. “There’s no one like you in the world, and don’t forget, I saw you before you saw me.”
Back to my old love: he left suddenly and, given the terms, I was too mad to say goodbye. Conflict is a much more familiar terrain. Later, I remarked to a friend that I think that happiness upsets his equilibrium. Besides, I added, People do what they want to do.
Just a few hours later, I had hopelessly lost my way, and couldn’t make it where I wanted to be. The person who had issued the invitation offered to get in his car and come and get me, in the darkness on the country road, late at night. But it was just too late, I thought. Changing directions to drive two miles into the pitch black seemed impossible, and I was supposed to be back where I was staying by then because I’d blown off dinner for this. People had expectations, and I was letting them down. I was doing what I wanted to do.
And then I wasn’t.
Next time, Miss, turn around. Or, at least, let him come get you.