When I was 18 years-old, I began to lose my way, as many young men and women do, no matter what generation we belong to. What follows is a passage from an older draft of my Costa Rica essays, recalling who I was, and 15 years later, who I wanted to be. This short essay ends with a question, one that all of us ask when we’re in love: “How did you ever choose me?” The answer refers to Costa Rica, but really, it’s another question: “Tell me again… I love the way you tell that story.”
Readers, let me know if you’d like to hear that story, too.
When I turned eighteen, I left home for college, claimed my independence, and fell in love for the first time. I’d never even kissed a girl before, but I was a fast learner. Soon we were making wedding plans and dreaming up names for our children. That Christmas, I bought what the jeweler called a pre-engagement ring. My fiancée-in-waiting always closed her love letters with the infinity symbol—a horizontal figure eight—shorthand for her secret sign off: “Forever and always, for time and all eternity.”
Then, a year later, I started noticing a pretty blond girl in my history class.
In college, romance turned reckless for me. I was hardly alone. In the late seventies, the age of AIDS was years away, and back then I’d convinced myself that monogamy was a creation of the church, institutionalized in loveless marriages. Who could ever love just one person forever until death do you part?
Back then, I couldn’t.
In the years that followed, I started graduate school, got married, but I also continued to see other women. My wife knew about my infidelities. Our arrangement seemed perfectly logical. I loved writing poetry, dancing, drinking beers with friends and listening to blues in college town night clubs, pleasures my wife didn’t share. So some nights, I was on my own, and not often—but often enough—such solo evenings led to other pleasures.
And why not? All my life, I’d had Mick telling me to get what I need, Janis screaming don’t you turn your back on love and get it while you can. And if I couldn’t be with the one I loved, hell yes, I should love the one I was with. I’d sing that song all night long.
I remember talking with a friend, who knew about my open marriage. He and his wife had been married for ten years, and after much soul-searching, they’d finally agreed to have a child. Suspended between panic and desire, my friend was both terrified and fascinated.
“Marty,” he said, “you have what every married man in the world dreams about.”
“Is that what you want?” I looked my friend in the eye, waited to hear what he’d say.
“Well, no, but it’s every man’s fantasy, don’t you think?”
By then I was thirty-two years old, childless, and I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that I remember feeling flattered by my friend’s opinion of my lucky life. But another part of me couldn’t dodge the question that had only recently begun to nag at me: If I’m living every man’s fantasy, why in the hell am I so unhappy?
Back in those days, I wrote long love letters to the women who touched my life, sent flowers to their offices or apartments, dedicated poems to them. What I wanted was passion, a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” how the 19th-century Romance poet William Wordsworth had famously described poetry. Of course, I’d ignored the rest of the poet’s advice, how poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Who had time for tranquility? I was on the move, and falling in love half a dozen times in twelve years.
Those days, I really thought I was in love. I meant every word in those letters I wrote. And those flowers I sent? I cherished each rose. I wanted those women to love me, to tell me that I was the man they’d waited for all their lives. Sometimes we’d talk about poetry, music, or nothing at all. We’d talk about the world in all its tragic glory.
I always told the truth about being married. I don’t know, maybe some women liked an honest man, even if he was married, while others liked a passionate man who came with no strings attached. Eventually, some were relieved that I drifted away, while others simply, and understandably, discarded me. As much as I’d professed passion, I wasn’t making any promises. Those days, I was living perpetually uncommitted, free to do as I pleased, and as I was learning, the price of that freedom was serial solitude.
When I reached my mid-thirties, got divorced—I know, you’re shocked—I realized that, despite all the logic, the love-the-one-you’re-with songs, what I wanted was damn close to what I’d believed in when I was eighteen years old. I wanted to love one woman, forever, and share the world with her. And I wanted her to love me as if I was the man she’d waited for all her life. For 15 years, I’d wasted my life.
And that’s when I met a woman named Libby.
Before we ever met, Libby had lived in Japan for two years, teaching English to school boys, bored housewives, and ambitious salarymen. When we met, she confided to me how she’d felt so at home in that faraway country. “I think I’m part Japanese,” she used to say.
Years later, in an old letter Libby had written when we first started dating, I found a forgotten gift of spring she’d sent:
…in the library today, I came across a book of Japanese Haiku written in the springtime—I flipped through and was immediately brought back to images of Japan—especially the cherry blossoms—so cherished and beautiful but very short-lived… Anyway, just wanted to share with you some gifts of spring.
Beside the English translations, Libby inscribed the Japanese kanji characters. Now, when I gaze again at her letter, I’m struck by her calligraphy, the bashful curves, the bold strokes. Libby once told me that, in Japan, humility and duality were essential virtues. How long had she labored to create those beautiful kanji characters for me?
Around that same time, I wrote a poem that I dedicated to her. But unlike poems I’d written to others, I surprised myself when I wrote lines that asked this simple question:
How did this happen,
that I am in love for the first time
with a woman, and not
the idea of a woman?
How did this happen? Surely part of me knew, even back then, but I’d only begun to tap the answer to a secret that had eluded me for 15 years.
On a hot summer day in 1995, Libby and I were sharing café au lait and beignets at the Café du Monde. I remember we’d left our hotel early, walking in the French Quarter before most tourists were awake, before the heat of the day turned the air to steam, enjoying a quieter and breezier New Orleans. In six weeks, we’d be on a plane headed for Costa Rica.
I’ve looked through all my old notebooks, and I can’t find any entry about our New Orleans weekend. I do remember sipping mimosas at the Court of Two Sisters and sharing Bananas Foster for dessert at Brennan’s Restaurant. I remember holding hands and strolling along the Mississippi Riverwalk. I found nothing I’d written about our weekend in New Orleans, but I did find tucked away a note. I don’t remember now what “things” Libby refers to. All I have is what she wrote, and what I remember later about living in Costa Rica:
…these are just a few things to prepare for our journey ahead. In order to prepare, of course, you not only need to pack a suitcase or read a travel guide, but need to prepare your soul… I hope you can use these gifts to do just that and to feel with all your five senses the spirit of another land, another people, another way of living. Looking forward to opening my heart with yours to befriend the wonder awaiting us in the world of possibilities…
Now, if I could turn back time, perhaps I’d go back to that little table at the Café du Monde and ask Libby the simplest of questions: Why me? Hell, for all I know, maybe that’s just what I asked her that New Orleans weekend.
“What do you mean?” she might have said.
“How in the world did you ever fall in love with me?”
Near our table, a lonely blues man blows into his old saxophone. As always, Libby tries to turn the question around. Sometimes she used to say—and how sweet she was to say so— that I could have chosen any woman in the world, why her? I always played along, yet my answer was also serious, and always the same: Sure, I’d say, and I chose you.
But this time, I’d pose the question all of us eventually must ask our lovers and ourselves.
“How in the world,” I’d say, “did you ever choose me?”
I’m sure Libby would pause, think about what she might say next.
“Do you remember that night when you asked me to run away to Costa Rica?”
“Of course,” I’d say.
And perhaps that long ago night was when all our questions and answers really started. But sitting at our little table in the Café du Monde, Libby would have waited, reached out and held my hand. She would have encouraged me.
“Tell me again,” she’d say. “I love the way you tell that story.”