Thursday, February 12, 2009

“Loving is not just looking at each other, it's looking in the same direction.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand, and Stars, 1939


In the Hallmarkian spirit of “Greeting Card Day” I will aim to deconstruct this thing called unconditional love. What exactly is unconditional love? Does it wield the same clout as unconditional friendship or unconditional hate? Or, for that matter, is there such a thing as unconditional shopping, eating, or even unconditional politicking? Do dogs who are popularly credited with unconditional love for their owners even know what a condition is? Cats, on the other hand, invented the word, having no patience for conditionals of any kind being foisted on them. What in life is absolute or unreserved? A brand of vodka and a table in an under-populated restaurant comes to mind.

My bffwwbbus (best friend forever who was born before urban slang) was married on the same day as The Mister and me almost twenty years ago. I don’t recall why exactly except, as friends, we had a raw artistic connection to our younger darker sides and possibly saw the light at the same time. A judge at his humble home in Yonkers, New York married them before noon. The Mister and I were making jittery vows at approximately the same time before a City Hall clerk in lower Manhattan. My friend has now two brilliant and creative children who were home schooled, a house she and her Sam Shepherd look-alike husband built themselves in rural Ohio, a number of dogs I have stopped counting and an enduring partnership with her husband. She laughed when I told her I was going to write about unconditional love.

“Ha!” she retorted, “Is that what you call what we've been up to these last buncha years? Unconditional love?”

Is it? Because we both know what conditions we have put up, torn down, redrawn, and crashed through with our partners over and over again. There must have been conditions otherwise where did all the battles arise from on that minefield of conditions we’ve negotiated?

Bernie and Ruth Madoff probably had at least one condition: “If this fercockta scheme of yours goes south, Bernie, you’ll take the fall but not before I withdraw a few million for expenses and I promise I’ll be waiting for you when you get out.” 

And we probably shouldn’t be showering our hopeful president with unconditional love. Our president, our politicians should be conditional. "This is what you promised, now get on it already." Okay, so this president can at least pronounce nuclear weapons but I’d like there to be a condition that we don’t build new ones. Seems like the only ones not being handed any conditions are the bankers. "Oooh, Happy Valentine's Day. Is that a stimulus bill in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?"

Okay, I had to go there. Now, where was I?

Like "true love" and “man of my dreams” the notion of “unconditional love” never made a helluva lot of sense to me.

The first time I laid eyes on The Mister was in France. Circumstances brought me to his friend’s flat in Paris while I awaited the arrival of my Parisian friends from their holiday in the south. He was immediately attracted to my snarky side, and unlike his friends, laughed at my jokes. I thought his bright green eyes, skin-tight jeans and long hennaed hair adorably rock and roll. Oh, and those Brothel Creepers covered in pony fur! We laughed and drank and laughed and drank; toured the city with our friends. We confounded some, irritated others and proceeded to do what a couple does in The City of Light—we stayed up all night in my room at my Parisian friends’ luxurious hilltop duplex apartment in Belleville, drinking and spilling their irreplaceable gazillion-year-old scotch while making mad love until the sun came up dazzling all of Paris below for our bloodshot eyes. I gave him a little painting of mine, which still hangs in our apartment. The Mister—the bass player in a band called “Swimming In Sand”—returned to London, and after a few more weeks in France, I returned to New York.

Neither of us was especially good at looking before leaping and trusted the fall would never be as bruising as might be. He came to New York to visit me a few months after our meeting in Paris. We rarely got out of bed before nightfall, two romantically entwined vampires stalking the great adventure on the streets of Manhattan. I discovered his green eyes were contacts. His hair had been dyed. The pony fur was fake, and that was a relief. He discovered I had a temper. He went back to London.

This was before either of us had access to the Internet: no e-mail, no Skype, no instant messaging, no—er—blogging. I wrote letters and though he was a self-professed non-letter writer he wrote to me. We wrote often and lengthily. He sent me cassette recordings describing his native village of Huncote in the midlands of England illustrated in an accompanying album with the photos he’d taken. Long distance telephone calls were bravely (or stupidly) made on a whim at any hour and indulged at length. We were reckless with the time difference and there were late night calls from me that lasted until I could hear birdsong in the garden outside his bedroom window. Once we kept up the telephone connection while “The Wizard of Oz” played out on my television screen. Telephone bills landed on my doorstep with a resounding and threatening thud.

His convoluted proposal of marriage—on the telephone from a recording studio in London to me at my job—came out in a stuttering rationalization that, should it all go wrong, we could always divorce. What divorce? What was he talking about? Well, it turned out he was talking about fifty pints of lager so I asked him to call me again when he was sober and he did and I said, “Yes.”

We had two weeks in New York as a married couple before he flew back to London and the band for what would turn out to be a distance of three months. On the long subway journey back from JFK I breathed a freakish sigh of relief.

A few months and multitudinous long distance calls later (that undoubtedly saw profits skyrocket for the utility companies) we took up the cudgel of marriage and started beating a path. He arrived at Kennedy pushing his possessions on a cart. It was then that we discovered we were strangers. About all we really knew of each other were our bodies. Our interview with INS was successful primarily because the interviewing officer had spotted us in the waiting area, arguing she said, “…like an old married couple,” and she casually dismissed the mountain of evidence we had painstakingly accumulated from friends and family and stamped The Mister “APPROVED.” Green cards are not green, by the way; they are pink!

The Battle of the Egos was fought for the next, oh, five years. But, there was also an unspoken pact between us that said, “Right. Married now—for life. Get on with it.” We fully agreed we wanted no children of our own; that I would never be on the front pages of the tabloids having given birth to nonuplets. The Mister spared no effort in helping me take care of an elderly aunt and he became very dear to her. His family came over for lively visits.

“Meant to be” is about the closest phrase that aptly describes our endurance as a married couple. We’ve weathered emotional storms and there have been many of them; big ones that crashed over us and as we picked ourselves up the aftershocks knocked what little wind was left out of us. And just when we thought it was safe, the Menopause Monster galumphed into our house, red-faced, shouty and upsetting the psychic furniture but teaching us how to build stronger furniture.

We’ve written a song called “Perfect Storm.” We’ve written many songs that reflect our love story. Because that’s what it is—a love story with all the elements of a good romance, with mystery, horror, comedy, and drama to boot. Unconditional? I don’t think so. Conditions keep you on the straight and narrow when the path gets rough and seemingly impossible to navigate.

Unconditional friendship?

There are friends who don’t think twice about lending a helping hand. We hit a rough patch after I lost my job, and generosity abounded in our friendships both here and abroad. When The Mister’s mum died unexpectedly two years ago this April we flew back to Leicester. We were broke and what got us there was the friendship that every person deserves. It was not unconditional. It was human and negotiable. “You have done things for us,” they declared and promptly paid for our flights. When his sister’s selfish act left The Mister heartbroken we found comfort in the house on Greenhill Road we’ve also ‘immortalized’ in song.

On a return trip to Leicester some months later we ended that trip at the Royal Oak where we danced to the music of The Leicester Big Band. It seemed a fitting tribute to The Mister’s mum who loved these events and it was possibly the last place I remembered seeing her; nodding her head to the music she loved, smiling and laughing at my jokes. The Mister and I let the sadder bits fall away and while the band played we danced to “The Story of Love.”

You've got to give a little, take a little
And let your poor heart break a little
That's the story of,
That's the glory of love
You've got to laugh a little, cry a little
Until the clouds roll by a little
That's the story of,
That's the glory of love
As long as there's the two of us
We've got the world and all its charms
And when the world is through with us
We've got each other's arms
You've got to win a little, lose a little
Yes, and always have the blues a little
That's the story of,
That's the glory of love
That's the story of,
That's the glory of love.
   —Bette Midler


zbelnu said...

Wow, Happy St Valentine (with delay), I liked very much the picture and your story. I always thought there is no unconditional love, that love needs always conditions and negotiations and adjustments, but maybe this is only IMHO...

zbelnu said...

And I liked The glory of love! Lou Reed sang something of this, dins't he?

Linda Danz said...

Yes, Bel you and I think alike. I wonder: Did Lou Reed do a cover of "The Story of Love"? That would be awesome. Actually, I could title my marriage as "A Walk On the Wild Side!"