A Love Story

I’ve spent my entire adult life in love with only one person. What follows is the story of that love. Despite the title of this blog, it’s not a love story. Far from it. It’s more a story of delusion, heartache, forgiveness, and redemption.

The events of this story occurred across a span of over 40 years. Most of the details of knowing have long faded away into the past. What remains are just my memories of what I believed happened. Those memories are this story.

It’s not a fairy-tale-Hollywood love story. But I want to tell it. Because it’s mine. And maybe you’ll find it interesting. And maybe by telling my story, I can figure out how I managed to take such an awkward journey and still end up in a such a good place.


 

I met Diana during those pointless years between college and the Navy. I was 23 years old and working second shift at a south Chicago steel mill. Between the steel mill and the hours I spent hanging out in the tavern after work, there really wasn’t much else. No girlfriend. No ambition. No life. As I said, it was the pointless years.

Diana tended bar at the tavern. She had gotten married at 17, moved with her husband to Chicago, had two kids, got divorced, and at the age of 24 had already made her fair share of bad decisions. But all that shit didn’t bother me. Because she was also the most attractive woman I had ever seen. And between my lust and the beer, it turns out she didn’t have a monopoly on bad decisions. Fact is, bad decisions were pretty easy to come by back then.

One early morning after the tavern had closed, Diana and I went for breakfast. 4 AM. Me mostly drunk. Her mostly tired. I’ll always remember that conversation. If only there was just lust. Then the conversation might have been something like “Do you want to fuck?” But I had zoomed right passed lust weeks ago. I was full of smitten. And smitten is a pretty bad place to be by yourself. So the conversation went sideways and came crashing to an end when Diana uttered those seven dreaded words, “I like you. But not that way.” No confusing that signal. Even my booze-soaked brain knew what that meant. Hopes dashed. Time to move on. But that wasn’t the end of the conversation. If only it had been. Though I couldn’t have know it at the time, her next comment turned out to be unintended cruel. She said, ‘If ever I get married again, it’ll be to someone like you.”

I should have ignored that last comment and focused on the first. But I was a boy, inexperienced, and an incipient alcoholic. My hearing was selective. My imagination overruled reality. Crush became delusion. Delusion fucked me up.

She worked at ‘my’ tavern. I saw her almost every night after work. I found myself in that really awkward place between platonic friend and serious fuck buddy. Maybe I drank too much. Or maybe Diana was just more emotionally mature than me. For whatever reason, Diana had a better handle on being in that place than I did. So being there didn’t seem to bother her. But it bothered me. A lot. Emotional stability vanished from my life. When I wasn’t elated, I was depressed. There was no in-between. I was confused, insecure, and horny. I started driving by her apartment late at night. And then on the weekends. Just to catch a glimpse of her. Just to see if she was there. I was stalking her, but I didn’t know it. All I knew was that when it came to getting from Diana what I wanted most – love – I was pretty much dead meat.

I was pathetic, but I wasn’t hopeless. I knew my life’s situation had become the perfect storm of shit. Job sucked. Love life sucked. Too much booze. Too little common sense. I had to do something or I would end up like that guy sitting down at the end of the bar. Sitting on the same stool every night. Staring into that same half-empty glass of beer. No hope. No way to live. So at 24 years of age, I joined the Navy.

Turns out joining the Navy and living on the other side of the world from Diana didn’t help as much as I thought it would. My hope for a life with her just wouldn’t vanish, just wouldn’t die. And I fucked up. In my loneliness, instead of killing that hope, I nurtured it. When it came to Diana, my heart, not my head, was in control. Also turns out that smitten is a tough place for the heart to leave.

We stayed in contact, wrote each other short letters, occasionally talked on the phone. My life was fitfully gaining traction in the right direction, but hers … well, not so much. Despite finding a job as an accountant, she lost custody of her kids to her ex-husband. That was a real emotional punch in the gut for her. She still worked part time tending bar on the weekends; unfortunately, taverns on the south side of Chicago aren’t exactly known for their higher class clientele. Drugs were easy to get. When she lost custody of her children, she took solace by losing herself in coke. Long story short, she got in debt with some unforgiving people. So I helped her out and sent her money. Which for any other person, would have only been an act of charity or kindness. For me, however, it was that … and a bit more. Because during those years the mental linkage between sex and money was becoming firmly imprinted in my brain.

There’s a line in a Beatles song, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Back then, I often mistook song lyrics for wisdom. So I believed reciprocity would lead to equality; I thought the love I gave would be reciprocated and equally returned. And I believed, given her situation, sending Diana money was the best way to demonstrate my love for her. So I continued to send her hundred of dollars each month. I was delusional, but I didn’t know it. Worse, I didn’t listen to my friends. When it came to Diana, the casual sex-money mental linkage had morphed into something more intimate, something infinitely more capable of being hurtful. So when I received a short note in the mail saying she was getting married, I was devastated. That night was 35 years ago, and it still remains the most painful of my life. I got drunk. Stinking shit-faced drunk. And then I cried. Not the sort of cry a person has when their dog dies. But a cry of misery, anguish, and deep mental pain. It was an end-of-innocence sort of cry.

Then I passed out.

They say time heals all wounds. Which is true. But that time of healing can be very painful. And there are scars. There’s always scars. A few month later, I flew home to spend Christmas with my family. And to see Diana.

Turns out, she had actually done some good with the money I was sending each month. She quit the coke and the lifestyle. She moved into a better apartment and was seeing her kids regularly. She had met a Christian man and found Jesus. She had also gotten pregnant. And that’s why she was getting married.

I was genuinely happy for her. And I surprised myself when I found I wasn’t angry, just deeply saddened that things didn’t work out the way I hoped. Still, she had come through some really rough patches. She was a survivor. And I loved her even more for that. It was a different sort of love – elevated yet deeper. I admired her for turning her life around. And it felt good that I had helped. I was a little proud. A little happy. And more than a little aroused. We kissed goodbye. But my Navy leave was up, and once again I left. Once again I was using distance to help me cope. Only this time, I hoped I would cope better than before. This time, I hoped I would think more clearly and be able to put Diana safely behind me.

Which I tried doing for the next year or two in a semi-stilted reluctant sort of way. And it helped that I was at sea a lot. We still wrote each other, exchanged cards on birthdays and Christmas. Stuff like that. My passions hadn’t subsided, but I understood them a bit better. And I had learned, for the most part, to keep them in check. Until I received a card from her saying she had gotten divorced again.

The thing about passion is that however hard you try to drive it away, it always seems to be just around the corner. Ready to be embraced. Passion has an incredible power to override a person’s logic. It cajoles us into making less-than-stellar statements and decisions. It disguises reality and misleads us into justifying bad behavior. There’s a reason “crimes of passion” is a real thing. I wasn’t gong to commit any crimes, but I was going to do harm. Not physical harm. Just hurtful harm. Unintended harm. Relationship damaging harm. And I was too stupid to see it.

It had been five years since that early morning drunk breakfast with Diana in the diner. That breakfast in which she said if ever she’d remarry, it would be to someone like me. Well that turned out be an untruth. But that didn’t deter me from pursuing my passion. With her note, I was suddenly back in the game. And she wanted me in the game, right? I mean, why else would she send me that note? Yeap. I was still delusional. Still selectively interpreting signals. Truth was, she was in the friend zone and I wasn’t. But I told myself I was trying to be. It was a bold face lie to myself, of course. I knew my feelings. I was all confused and fucked up. So, sure, I chose to be her friend. But I also chose to make her the object of my affection.

And that was the problem, wasn’t it? Over the years and across the distance she had become an object. A trophy. Something to win. And this time I was determined not to let the trophy slip away. I was going to win her. And we were going to live happily ever after. I was 32 years old and, in many ways, still just a fucking man-child.

As luck would have it, a three year duty assignment had become available back home near Chicago. I took it. It would be good to be back home to reconnect with family. And it would be better to be back home to reconnect with Diana. It was my opportunity to win her love.

Those three years were the worse of it. Diana had given up her accounting job to raise her infant child, and was trying to make ends meet by waiting tables. The more I saw her in that situation, the more I wanted to rescue her. So I gave her even more money. I knew what I was doing. She was vulnerable and I was taking advantage. But I lied to myself and convinced myself I was doing more good than harm. It was my unacknowledged strategy to win her love. And, of course, it wasn’t going to work. Because people aren’t objects. And you can’t try to manipulate them like that and expect them to love you in return. But, as I said, I was fucked up and stupid.

The rest of the details for those next three years aren’t important. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then I was insane. I was too stubborn to accept the fact she didn’t want what I was offering. I gave her more money; tried to make her dependent upon me. And she’d reluctantly take it, because she had no choice. She needed it. And I was too blind to see how much she hated herself for taking it. I only saw what I wanted to see. My behavior was destroying whatever relationship we had, but I didn’t want to see that. So I didn’t. Eventually she started avoiding me. In my pursuit, I was driving her away.

Diana eventually moved back to her childhood home in New England. Back to the comforts of familiar surroundings and family. To be clear, she didn’t move back just because of me. There were other larger, harsher, issues in her life. Her two ex-husbands. Her infant child. Her unsuccessful attempts to regain custody of her two older children. Her just barely getting by financially. A lot of her life had turned to shit. But instead of helping her, I had made it worse. Some fucking friend I turned out to be.

And so it finally sunk in. I had fucked things up. I don’t know if they were repairable, and for the moment I didn’t care. Because I had to take care of myself first. I had gotten so deep down the rabbit hole of selfish love that I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to get back out. I was sick mentally and emotionally, and I knew if I was ever going to get my head and heart right, I needed to get away from the situation I had created. So I got involved with another woman. I guess you could say it was my rebound relationship. It was a semi-serious sort of thing; serious for her, not quite so serious for me. Something to distract my heart from where it really wanted to be. It eventually became clear to me that I could never give this other woman what she wanted. If the whole Diana thing had taught me anything, it was that emotional pain hurts. And I liked this other woman too much to inflict that sort of pain on her. So we broke up. I may have been a shit, but I wasn’t an asshole.

Shortly thereafter the needs of the Navy thankfully intervened. My three years near Chicago were up and I was ordered back to sea.

Life aboard a warship is best described as routine. Everything is a routine. A routine of mostly work, sleep, and more work. There aren’t a lot of things to distract you from the routine. No sex. No alcohol. No drugs. It’s a good place to regroup and get your shit together. For the next two years I lived the routine. And slowly I figured things out. I didn’t give a lot of conscious thought to what happened in Chicago; mostly I just let the boys in the back of my brain do their thing and mull over what I did wrong. And what I should have done right. There were no epiphany moments. But there were gentler moments of clarity. And usually on some quiet mid-watch alone on the ship’s bridge, staring out into the dark nothingness of open ocean with only the stars and silence inviting my thoughts, that’s usually when those boys in the back would let me know what they had figured out.

What they let me know is that I loved Diana. The foundation chemistry may have been soured, but it was still was there. It wasn’t the same sort of love or chemistry of that first year or so, a love mostly fenced in by lust and passion. The past three years had been a crucible of sorts; that old romantic love had become more realistic. It was deeper, wiser, more sublime. So I started with that. And I reluctantly let go of my expectations. That was hard. But I knew I had no right to them. They had been driving the love train for a long time. And that love train had gotten way off the tracks. Letting go of an old way of thinking and of a decade long dream was hard work. But I put in that work. And rebuild my thoughts and notions of love. And eventually I came to accept that love wasn’t about me or my wants, but something different. What had been unrequited was transforming into unconditional.

Those should have been rebuilding years for Diana too, but life continued to throw shit in her direction. Her aging parents were both disabled, so when she returned home she became their primary care giver. She was a single mother, living in rural New England, raising a young daughter, with just a high school diploma and a bachelors’ degree from the school of hard knocks. Money was tough for her, so I helped the best I could. I set up a monthly direct deposit of cash into her bank account, and even had a second credit card issued from my American Express account in her name.

My belief and trust in her wasn’t misplaced. Eventually she got an associates degree in accounting from the local community college, found a job, and remarried.

That marriage didn’t last long. Maybe a couple years. Maybe less. I can’t remember. Probably because I was trying not to care.

The next years, I pretty much threw myself into the job. Though Diana was never far from my thoughts, back-to-back duty assignments in Monterey, California and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii helped push those thoughts into the background. I dated a bit. But being nearly 40 years old and never married turned out to be a “red flag” for a lot of women that age.

I still spoke with Diana on the phone once a week or so, but those calls were mostly just the keep-in-touch variety. And she became a sort of sanity touchstone for me; someone I took comfort in talking with. She was that person I turned to when I wanted honest advice, or when I needed to hear a kind word. So we settled into a comfortable long-distance friend zone relationship. Until 1993. When my next assignment was in Washington DC.

Washington DC is within sort of weekend commuting distance of New England. So I started making the drive up to visit with her. What started as a visit once or twice every couple months gradually became a once-a-week routine. My passion was inflamed again, only this time the faulty expectations of my youth had been replaced by a more realistic and unselfish respect for love and sharing. We were living in the moment and enjoying each other’s company. Then one evening while out to dinner, Diana said we should get married.

“Are you sure this is what you want?” I answered. Because I wasn’t sure getting married to Diana was the best decision for either of us just then. My tour of duty in Washington DC was winding down and I was being re-assigned back to Hawaii in two months. I had just passed my 17th anniversary of joining the Navy and was within 3 years of retirement and a nice government pension. So unless she was willing to give up her life in New England, unless she was willing to uproot her daughter from school and move to Hawaii with me, unless she was willing to make the same commitment to marriage that I was willing to make, then getting married didn’t seem right. And she didn’t want to move.

So this time I didn’t follow my heart. And I moved on to Hawaii. A few months later, she called. She told me she had “met some else.” Years earlier I would have devastated by those words. This time, I was almost relieved. We were back in that place I had grown comfortable with. Back in that place I had come to appreciate for it’s rarity and value. We were now the best of friends. Our lives were interwoven, our friendship was a priority. Through our friendship, our lives were unencumbered and enriched. And so we continued to stay in touch. Weekly phone calls just like before. We exchanged gifts just like before. Sometimes for birthdays and Christmas. Sometimes for no reason at all.

Diana re-married and I continued focusing on my work. Continued to follow the ‘gypsy gene’ and pull up whatever shallow roots I had put down when each new re-assignment came along. Diana and I continued to stay in touch. Once or twice a week we’d chat over the phone. I’d tell her about my week, she’d tell me about hers. And hearing her voice would brighten my day; hearing her laugh infuse joy into my life.

I eventually retiring on 2004 and bought a house near Chicago where I’ve lived for the past 13 years or so. I’m now 65 years old. Too old and too comfortable in my single lifestyle to try and find a woman to live with. And it would never work out anyway. Because I love Diana. The sort of rare deep love defined by unconditional commitment. And if I’m sure of anything, it’s that I could never give that sort of love to anyone else.

Diana has been married now for over 15 years. She still lives in New England. The hard days of single near-poverty motherhood are well behind her. She’s a grandmother and relishing that role. She’s happy and I’m happy for her. We still talk on the phone once a week. And we see each other once every few years or so.

In some ways she’s been the worse part of my life. In all other ways, she’s been the best. And when I look back, I have few regrets. Diana and I are in a good place. I love Diana. Because knowing her is a joy.  Because she’s still making my life better.  Because she’s my best and truest friend.

 

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