By Zsofia McMullin
It is so easy to get into a rut. The toenail clipping, burping, morning-breath kind of rut of busy days and exhausted evenings. The no-sex rut, the no-talking rut, the not-holding-hands rut follow quickly behind. It doesn’t take long to get there—not as long as you’d like to think.
I am sort of baffled by this. I married for love. I married for great sex. For friendship. For a deep connection. We were mature and intelligent and in love. Isn’t that all you need?
But now it all seems muddled and not so easy. I feel like it’s unfair, because I can’t even put a finger on that nagging feeling between us. It’s everything. It’s nothing. I remember that sweet tingle, the antsy anticipation, the burning lust. But now love just feels like a promise we made a long, long time ago that we’ll stick with this, even when it’s so, so hard. And it’s hard on most days.
So we work at it, because that’s what we are supposed to do—and because we want to. I buy the lingerie and wear makeup and we schedule date nights. But it all feels forced and not like the real thing. So we settle into that feeling—that the real thing will never be ours again. And I start to wonder: would it be different with someone else? With the young men I knew way back when? Are they still sweet and caring and romantic? Are they still funny and horny? Am I? Or is it inevitable that we are all tired and comfortable and settled into life with soft bellies and graying hair?
It is a bit of a joke between us. Drew likes to tease me about “my men”—all of the former lovers I still stay in touch with and talk to on a regular basis. I have to admit—I ask a lot from my husband to understand and tolerate these connections. I didn’t end up marrying these men, but I easily could have. Time and circumstances made these relationships fizzle and go from romantic affairs to occasional friendships.
But still, there’s something there. Love doesn’t just disappear into thin air. It doesn’t just leave the heart on command—that’s not how it works. Little bits and pieces of love linger. What do you do with that love when you are only supposed to be in love with one person?
Kevin picked me up at my hotel on my third day in L.A. After a long New England winter, I was softened by the palm trees and the warm sun on my skin. We hugged and set out in his car across L.A. We worked together at a small newspaper right after college and spent many evenings as friends, watching Law & Order reruns and eating cheap pizza in my crappy apartment. One night, a bit tipsy from vodka and grapefruit juice, we devoured each other and only came up for air an hour later, breathless, our lips chapped.
But Kevin was not the boyfriend-type. He was—is—a flirt. Goofy, funny, smart, with an encyclopedic knowledge of movies and TV shows. A bit hippy, a bit grungy, he really wasn’t my type and despite our fondness for each other, I assume I wasn’t his either. My reaction to the uncertainty surrounding our relationship was physical—I would throw up before dates with him, or even worse, get horrible stomachaches as we ate dinner together. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t the food—it was him. It was being unsure of my role in his life and of our future, if we ever had one.
A few weeks into this up and down Drew—who was then a mutual friend—gently informed me that he noticed Kevin’s car in front of another woman’s apartment building at 6 a.m. The reason proved to be innocent, but I was devastated that he slept down the street and didn’t come to me. Kevin moved on to another job, another town. I started dating Drew. Kevin and I remained close and talked often, but the romance was over.
I had the same stomach churn as I waited for him at my hotel. But once in his car, it all came flooding back, all the reasons why I loved him back then: his sense of humor, his over-the-top laughter and bubbly personality, his kindness, his soft eyes. We had drinks and dinner and our conversation flowed with the same ease that I remembered. When he showed me around his work he spoke with such familiar enthusiasm and passion that I briefly considered pushing him up against the wall to kiss him. I could almost taste the grapefruit juice on my lips.
But his girlfriend was waiting for us down the hall. The moment passed. I was happy to sit in the back seat as they drove me around L.A. in the darkness.
I dated Michael during my senior year in college. He was an exchange student at my small middle-of-the-woods college, and I picked him out as soon as I saw him: tall, blond, with beautiful hands, a charming smile. His accent—a mix of German and British—didn’t hurt either. He was a chemistry major and once he explained to me the chemical reasons why my hair was so curly. He also had a much older girlfriend waiting for him at home. She would later become his wife, but for those nine months, he was mine. We stayed up all night, went to dances and parties together, smoked cigarettes after dinner on the dining hall’s porch. He called me “Miss Sophie” and I could not believe that he wanted me.
After he returned to home his girlfriend discovered his e-mails to me and gave him an ultimatum. We lost touch and connected again just recently, after almost 15 years. He told me he was getting a divorce. I was going to be near him in a few weeks for a conference. We had to meet.
He picked me up at the airport. He was everything I ever wanted in a man when I was 20: handsome, wearing a nice suit, driving a nice car. He took me to my hotel and thankfully I was too jetlagged to be freaked out by the absurdity of sitting next to him.
At dinner Michael told me about how his marriage disintegrated, how he faced a serious illness alone, how it gave him time to think about where he wanted his life to go. His story went on and on, through our aperitifs and appetizers and main course and almost into dessert and I knew that something big was coming at the end. I ate quietly, nodded and listened, but I was barely able to breathe, because I felt it in my core what he was going to tell me: just a few months before, he realized that he is bisexual. He has a boyfriend.
It’s weird to think back now to our college days and to say that I suspected this all along. But hearing him say the words, I knew it was true. I didn’t know what to call it at the time, and I probably wasn’t able to put a finger on it, but I knew.
“We did have a relationship back then, didn’t we?” he asked as we walked back to my hotel. I shrugged. He laughed and said he remembers that shrug, that it was so me. “Good night, Miss Sophie,” he said and his cheek was cool from the rain when we hugged good-bye.
Peter’s been my old love for the longest. I have known him—and loved him—since I was 19. He came in an out of my life for the past 20 years, showing up with his blond hair and his silliness and his lost-boy smile every now and then, causing havoc and so much joy and so much doubt. We rendezvoused in Budapest and in the U.S., at international airports, and tiny hotels. We talked on the phone for hours and when we saw each other we couldn’t wait to be alone, for that first touch of skin on skin after such a long time apart. I can still remember the scent of his neck, right where soft, blond hair meets skin. I once spent an entire night next to him, staring at that spot.
Back then, I always doubted he loved me. He was so shiny and unreachable, always too busy, too important, too popular, too far away. The first time I was sure he loved me was when we held each other again, now as adults with families, with histories, with aging bodies and graying hair. But as I embraced him all I could see was the boy I loved at 19. The evening and the following day we spent together were both exhilarating and tragic. How magical that a connection like this can survive distance and time! How devastating that we can’t have this every day.
It is hard to think back and say why he didn’t end up being “the one,” why we didn’t end up together or what would have been if we did. I assume it was mostly practical things like the geographical distance between us, my desire to stay in the U.S., and his responsibility to the family business. Many things that back then seemed insurmountable. Maybe even today they seem like that.
We shared pictures of kids and houses and spouses. The teenager in me wanted him to be unhappy without me, to have realized the huge mistake of letting me go. But his photos and our conversations revealed an ordinary life, maybe even a happy one, not that different from mine. The same arguments. The same struggles. The same worries. The same coming to terms with what is, what was, what could have been. The same desire to grasp what is left—of life, of love, of last chances.
I sit by the kitchen table while Drew makes chicken soup for me. I returned home from my travels with an ear infection and a cold and all I want to do is sip hot broth and crawl into bed. He dumps frozen vegetables into the pot and a couple of chicken breasts—not my mom’s chicken soup, but I can’t wait to feel its saltiness trickle down my throat.
“I’m just glad you are home,” he says as he stirs the pot and watches me sniffle and cough into tissue after tissue. He puts the kettle on the stove to make tea while we wait for the soup. “I was worried,” he continues and I know that he isn’t talking about my cold. I feel beaten up inside and out from this time-traveling exercise, from entertaining so many what ifs. The kitchen chair is cold and uncomfortable to my aching body, but it is also a familiar place to perch in the warm half-light of the afternoon sun.
I am happy to have this comfort—of being miserable and snotty and sick in the presence of someone who knows me so well. Of not having to prove that I still have it, that I am still cool and smart and so over whatever drama my old loves provided years and years ago. I want to feel my age, with my lumpy stomach and thick thighs and the circles under my eyes.
Before each meeting I had hoped that I had outgrown my awkwardness, my inhibitions, my insecurities. I wanted to play it cool, to be the sophisticated, wordly, smart woman that I really am. But no. Deep down we all remain 19, no matter that we dress nicer or have expensive jewelry or nice cars and good jobs. Our essence never changes: the shrugs, the laughter, the scent of our skin, the graceful fingers all remain the same.
I am not 19 anymore. And it is a relief.
My old loves—they are still 19. They never had the chance to mature and fade and turn into real-life love. Comfortable, compromising, ripped t-shirts-in-bed love. The kind of love you work so hard to achieve in a marriage. The kind of love you settle for because it envelopes you with its familiarity, its comfort, its lack of need for questions or answers.
Sitting there in the kitchen, I feel ashamed for discounting this love so easily. I question its realness, wonder why it lost its sheen, its passion, its excitement. When really, it hasn’t lost anything—it gained years and wisdom and lovely scratches and bruises from being used every single day.
Zsofia McMullin is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Butter, and she is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She blogs at zsofiwrites.com and she is on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin.