The dental hygienist was up to her elbows in my mouth when she started telling me about the upcoming wedding of her son.
Her son is roughly 10 years older than mine. I've never laid eyes on her kid, but I know him anecdotally—every six months or so for the last 15 years, the hygienist and I have exchanged updates. A good lookin' guy, a former club baseball player who went back East for college. Since graduation there have been some far-flung romances—including a foreign-exchange student and an extended trip to Brazil. (And the real worry: Would he ever return home?) Later there was a benighted, Before Sunrise-type liaison that played out in some suitably offbeat Eastern European locale.
Now he's 28 and feeling ready to settle down. He's finishing grad school. He has a fiancée. He's got a job offer from a big firm. His whole life is laid out before him.
"The fiancée wants the big wedding—$360 a person just for the food," the hygienist vents.
The chair motors upward for me to rinse: I hope her daddy's rich, I offer.
The hygienist was wearing the usual blue mask and fluffy disposable hat. She shook her head. "They cut the guest list way down. Like out of eight cousins, only two are invited."
I swirl and spit. What does your son say?
"She's always wanted the whole storybook wedding. It's what little girls dream about, right?" The chair begins to motor back down. "Of course, his father and I eloped."
She rolls her eyes, big and blue, accented nicely by the blue of her scrubs and accessories.
Back at my desk, I check my e-mail. I pull up a thread of an ongoing, if infrequent, back-and-forth with an old flame and former co-worker. She's got three kids and a longtime companion. "We both love sleeping by ourselves," she wrote. "He says I keep the room too hot (guilty as charged) and stay up too late (also guilty). Blah, blah, blah. He snores like a motherfucker and likes to listen to books on tape. WITHOUT headphones. Oy vey. Even if I COULD sleep, I couldn't.
"No more kids here, lots of empty bedrooms—problem solved! Which is not to say we don't spend 'time' together, but sleep is sleep. People think this is strange. I think it makes perfect sense. We are each fully formed people with our own lives. We intersect at the places that are comfortable. It suits us."
My mom and dad met when he was pressed into service as her escort to the junior prom. They dated throughout high school and college and his med school (interrupted by his service in the Korean War) before they wed. They were married for 56 years, until my father's death. Of course, the relationship still lives strongly within my mom. She keeps fresh flowers at his grave.
When I was young, I will admit, I also had a storybook notion about my romantic future. Though I didn't envision a big wedding, white dress, kids or a picket fence, for many years I envisioned having a partner for life. Someone with whom I'd grow old. You know, a relationship like my parents.
But looking back over the four or five decades of my dealings with the opposite sex—I can remember "having a girlfriend" as far back as the third grade—my experience of love hasn't been like my parents' at all. Instead of one great romance, it's been more like a series of romances, all of them great in their own ways, some of them terrible, too. The hometown girl, the first woman with whom I co-habitated. The fiancée whose father appreciated my power to earn but didn't care much for my particular religious heritage. The ad saleswoman. After three months of dating we married spontaneously—in Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands, on the same day the NASA spacecraft Challenger crashed, January 28, 1986. She went packing after four months, though the divorce took a year to work through the courts.
What can I say? I was 29. Looking back, I spent my twenties trying to get hitched. Unconsciously, I just thought that's what you did.
The thirties had a different tenor. The quiet hairdresser who was so sweet and willing. (She drove over to my house for booty calls!) I was traveling a ton at the time; her last relationship had been with her married Moroccan boss. I called it off after a year. It was kind of perfect in a way, but it didn't seem fair to continue. Then nearly two years with a smart, sexy editrix. We once fucked in broad daylight in the shadows of a guard tower at that fort in Puerto Rico. She later left me for the guy she was cheating on me with—exactly the same way we met.
After a few more dalliances, I found what I thought was my dream girl and I married "for real." Two years later, there was a son. Diapers, army men, flashcards, little league, the annual school fundraiser, basketball tournaments in East Jesus.
Eighteen years later, the wife got happy feet and danced away.
Four years later, I'm on the other side.
A side, like the backside of the moon, I could not have envisioned.
The boy is in college. I'm divorced.
My bank account is lighter by half, but my spirits—the usual angst and my touch of clinical anxiety notwithstanding—generally soar. I live by myself again. I can do whatever I please.
And the serial monogamy continues.
She wants me to call her my girlfriend. I'm trying. It seems odd for a man of 57 to use that term, which sounds so teenager-y and embarrassing. Can there not be more dignity in middle age? I'm not a boy. And she's not a girl. She has an important job and substantially out-earns me.
When I break it down, however, the term might not be so far off. We are a lot like high school sweethearts. We have separate domiciles and separate lives and pretty much separate friends. (Although unlike high school, we have multiple places to do it whenever we want.) At the end of the evening, we sleep alone, content in our houses.
It might sound weird, but at this stage of our lives, the thing my girlfriend and I have most in common is each other. Neither of us is looking for their missing piece. Neither of us wants a warm lump on the other side of the bed. We are both complete on our own. And she has several furry canine lumps. And I have to get up and write. And we are from very different cultures. And we have our odd little habits. And we like our lives how they are.
But people have to eat and drink and watch movies. And people need someone to whom they can talk and confide and complain, someone to depend upon, someone's hand to hold, someone to hug. And there is chemistry between us that is the stuff of love, an inexplicable urge to be with that person—and also to get it in. It's great being so darn mature this time around.
The hygienist said to me: "Why should they spend all that money on food and drink when they could just take a nice trip? They'll probably end up divorced anyway. Most people do, right?"
But he should do it anyway.
If memory serves, the celebration of my now broken second marriage was the best party I ever attended. It featured some of the finest jazz players in Washington D.C., all of whom were our friends (or their friends) and played their asses off. I enjoyed myself immensely. I might not care to see the mother of my child ever again, but I will always remember how great our wedding was. And, of course, bitter or not, there were other milestones of life that we shared together as well. Things that have made me the man I am today, not the least of which was fatherhood, which I fought against at first with a zillion stellar reasons and all of my being. What an idiot, huh?
I entered this adulthood thing believing in our culture's notion of One Great Love. But what I've learned is that love is more like a television series than a movie. Meaning that there's not just one story arc, there are multiples—a series of story arcs. I have also learned that love is a condition that's ongoing and ever-maturing, that intersects with others at times in similar and wildly different ways but exists most strongly within ourselves. As we grow, hopefully we learn to better be who we are. What we need from others changes. We learn how to ask.
I'm not sure if the hygienists' son will stay with this girl four months, twenty years or half a century. But what I'm sure about is this: Love is different at different ages. It presents itself in different forms. Only one thing remains static: You can never, ever predict how it will go.
Photo by Alamy