Lessons in Love

by Denis Clifford © 2004


Since adolescence, I was sure that the core of life was passionate, romantic love. Not that I had a glimmer how to find it.

An Amherst freshman in 1957, shy with women, I was alone at a Mt. Holyoke mixer, awash with pretty girls and suave upperclassmen, when I saw her across the floor. Inexplicably, I walked to her and bowed slightly. "Hello, I'm Denis. I've been assigned by the Social Committee to be your escort for the evening." She laughed. "You're the most attractive, intelligent woman here, so the Committee selected me, the most desirable man, to be with you."

"Well," Kate laughed merrily, "I guess it's out of our hands,"

It was certainly out of mine.

We went out for months. Talked - friends, school, families, hopes. Laughed - first time I'd really laughed with a date. Two book lovers, seekers, dreamers, we danced tenderly to Johnny Mathis' "The Twelfth of Never" and made out. I never mentioned the deep stirrings I felt for her, nor heard words of love from her.

She left me for a Junior, handsome guy with a car. I acted indifferent, banishing pain with my awesomely unconscious denial skills. But something kept drawing us together. We had reunited, parted, and were together again at the end of our sophomore years when she tearfully announced that she was transferring to the University of Missouri, in her home state. Gone. But the next spring she visited Holyoke, called me and we met for one passionate evening. We'd revealed how much we missed each other when she sighed sadly. "Maybe it's better. I always knew it wouldn't work out."

"Work out?" A new concept.

"Yes ... you were a Catholic."

"A Catholic?" Already "ex," it seemed no more significant than my shoe size.

"I always knew we wouldn't get married ... because ... my parents ... they just couldn't take it if I married a Catholic."

Uh ho, I'd missed something. I'd believed that love was magic that would, somehow, come over me and her (whoever she was). I hadn't felt full magic with Kate, but maybe we could have gotten there. However the magic worked, I did sense that it drew on far deeper qualities than mere looks. It better. I couldn't base my dreams of magic on my appearance. Tall, lean, with the blue eyes, dark curly hair and roundish face of the black-Irish, I sure couldn't pass for one of the those blond straight-haired Yalies.

Kate's lesson didn't shake my faith in love-magic. I'd never heard my parents talk of their love, but they proved it existed, frequently going off together for long Sunday walks, and returning alive with enchantment, chatting vivaciously.

When I was sixteen Dad called me into his study announcing we should have a talk, a unique event. We sat silently in mutual embarrassment a few moments. I was looking down when Dad announced that he knew I was getting older, and would be thinking about sex soon (Thinking about? Soon?). "I want to tell you something about love and sex." He paused. I looked at him, interest overriding my awkwardness. "About marriage," he perhaps smiled. "Remember, whoever you marry, you'll have to talk to her at breakfast for fifty years."

An astounding notion.

"And love. You really can love a woman. It's not just sex. I remember my brother Steve saying 'That's like kissing a woman after you've fucked her.' He was wrong. If you love a woman, you do want to kiss her after you've made love with her. Maybe not as ardently, but you kiss her ... because you love her."

We never discussed love again, and I never forgot his teachings. Through college, I didn't find many other clues about

what love was. My English-major friends loved to talk (day and night) but I don't recall a single talk about love, or passion. I sought the truths of life in novels, but those which spoke directly to me, were tales of loveless, money-making males - Marquand, O'Hara, Fitzgerald, Lewis, The Man in The Gray Flannel Suit. I never conceived of seeking out writings that described and evoked passionate love. And certainly the subject of "love" was not part of the English curriculum.

My senior year magic arrived in Lisa, a beautiful redhead, artist and Smith student. In a haze of enchantment, we kissed passionately and explored each other's bodies. Dancing sensuously to Jimmy Reed or talking was equally enthralling. We were both mildly bohemian rebels; she dreamt of sculpting, me of books. We spoke of our families - her unhappy mother, my angry father. I sensed our spirits had touched, and thrilled at her image when we were apart, though fears I was profoundly unconscious of checked me from revealing those emotions.

Occasionally, she was busy on a weekend. I didn't ask why. It didn't matter. We were veering closer and closer to declared love, I knew. Besides, her departures enabled me keep on with Betsy, my crush, if not love, from last year, now back at Holyoke after several months off for a mysterious liver disease (in reality, a suicide attempt, I learned later.)

Senior prom. Lisa and I at last slept naked together. The next day the warm spring air felt as if we could float on it. She twirled and danced down a street, youthful Aphrodite, her long red hair waving, trees seeming to flow with her. A week later she told me she was getting married to her love from prep school. "It's what I've always wanted." But I knew we both still wanted each other too. We met, cried, hinted at eloping. I knew what that meant: marriage, kids, responsibilities, necktie-jobs, inauthenticity - ME in the Gray Flannel Suit. I couldn't become a grown-up yet. So I received my initiation to love turning to heartbreak, pain as sung in blues songs.

I was working in Manhattan. Occupation? "Employee." I'd learned love could bite, but otherwise I found women as intimidating and indecipherable as ever. How to get a hint what was inside their hearts? They were weird. For instance, I couldn't fathom high heels. If they'll make themselves suffer so much, I wondered, what would they do to me?

Forget weird, women could be glamorous and I was hooked on glamour–flashy beauty, flashing wit. Michelle had it. Better, we loved the same books and movies, as well as partying and talking. Best, she wanted me. We made love wildly on our second date.

A Californian, Michelle had lived bohemian - smoked dope, been an actress, divorced at twenty. She didn't like to talk about her marriage, so I quickly ceased asking questions. Nor did I probe, or even ponder, her penchant for thievery, or other foibles. She like to quote the Duke from Thurber's Thirteen Clocks. "We all have our faults, and mine is being wicked."

We'd been going out almost three years. Much fun: playing with friends, making love with continued intensity, exploring Manhattan, becoming devotees of Balanchine. The subject of marriage started coming up. I know I didn't raise it. I stalled, hoping for years free until I had to be an adult. But I conceded that we'd get married eventually. Our fun and desire was sufficient magic for love - wasn't it? Negotiations ensued. Pressed, I surrendered to I later dubbed the "three year rule." If you went out with a woman for three years, and she wanted to marry you (and of course she did or why would she have wasted three prime years on you?) you had go along.

By l969, I was a long-haired sort-of radical working in Oakland legal services, and content with marriage. Sure sex was no longer sizzling, and I had the beginning of a paunch, but didn't that come with being a husband? Then Michelle devastated me by announcing she no longer loved me anymore and was leaving. Alone, I felt a pain in my chest as if a heated steel band had been placed inside me and someone was maliciously tightening it.

Night after night I paced the floor, flipping a quarter, trying to get up the courage to call Kaitlin, the witty beautiful blond I'd encountered at school reform meetings. Ah, why seek more rejection? Surely someone as sharp and stunning as her had more desirable men pursuing her, perhaps some debonair journalist with a sports car. The quarter came up heads five times in a row. I picked up the phone, shook, put it down. A week later I managed to call. We went for drinks in San Francisco and soared through an evening of laughter and talk.

A few days later my colleague Adrian fixed me up with Helen, a graduate student in English at Stanford. Slender and alluring, she vibrated intensity like a taut, glowing wire. We shared rebellious spirits, hating the Vietnam war, drawn to the counterculture. Deepest, we shared a passion for books. With her I could be the real me, no longer buried under my public self of a leftie lawyer.

Within two months I'd told Adrian I was in love with both of them. Even more astounding, each seemed to be in love with me. Life was too thrilling a swirl for me to pause and wonder how I could use the word "love" to cover the flood of intense, gnarled feelings coursing in me. I wanted to be with each of them, loved making love with each, and didn't reveal anything that wasn't probed for, which was little. Then, abrupt as ever, Michelle announced she'd realized she did love me, though she wasn't quite ready to move back. Asleep with Kaitlin at my apartment, I was jolted awake long after midnight by the sounds of a door unlocking. Bolting out of bed, I ran to Michelle, whimperingly jabbering like a character in a French farce that there was someone else here. She exclaimed "Oh," and left.

Seven months after we met, Helen suddenly married her thesis adviser. "I never knew where I stood with you," she wrote. I continued with Kaitlin but couldn't pull free of Michelle. I told myself I was married, which meant you stuck it out; there'd never been a divorce in my family. Some flickers in my soul knew that dark, needy desperation drove me to cling with Michelle, and that love couldn't be grim endurance, but our marriage ground on, on Michelle's terms now. She'd continue to be the artist, pursuing (unpaid) actressing. I'd be the provider, the dull one. She insisted we buy a house; we bought a huge one I hated. She insisted we adopt a child. Sourly, I went along, knowing the proceedings took over a year, and I'd do ... what? ... somehow, be gone by then.

At an outdoors party, I took my first acid trip. The poor man's psychiatrist. Terrified, pressed against a tree, more alone than I'd ever conceived was possible, I shuddered in the void of knowing almost nothing as true. Love? I hated Michelle. A darker wave washed over me: I hated myself, particularly my body. That was all I really knew, plus the truth that I was alone.

Two months later, I got a phone call from the adoption service of the county welfare department. They had a lovely girl for us. Because they admired the legal work I'd done, particularly against Governor Reagan's illegal "reforms," they'd given me special priority. I said I'd call back. I knew at once that I couldn't bring a child into my loveless home. Michelle screamed, cried, berated, tried all the wiles she'd used to dominate me for months. I left, moving in with an Rick, an actor friend and his fifteen year old actress girl friend, Brenda, a budding flower.

Kaitlin and I voyaged to Guaymas, Mexico with some of her friends, including her college roommate, Suki. Days of bliss, except when I was haunted by the knowledge that something was very wrong with me. Why had I had no core? How come I still knew nothing about love, except in the disaster department?

I had long discussions about love with worldly Adrian. What did he think was going on? He shrugged "People have needs." When I pushed, he admitted that he too hoped for romantic love, though he'd never found it. He knew the key - trust - expanding on what that was. He's so obviously right, I gnawed myself. How come I never perceived that magic required trust? Maybe, Adrian offered in another talk, because trust requires telling the truth. Which started, acid had taught, with admitting the truth to yourself. I made standard California moves - beginning to work out regularly, seeing a therapist, struggling to pay attention to what I was "feeling" - fumbling for self-love, so banal to state, and such an onion-peeling process to try to live.

Kaitlin remained loving and my bitterness at "women" faded as I realized that my nasty generalizations were based on a sample of one, Michelle. When someone asked me what I learned from my marriage, I answered "I'll never marry her again." At least I'd learned that novels were unlikely show me how, or who, to love. Middlemarch had been my favorite novel in college, but I'd married a darker version of Rosamond. I waffled with Kaitlin and slowly saw her goodness. She was so beautiful I'd unconsciously assumed she must be spoiled. I was the sneaky, selfish one.

My friend Mike introduced me to Elizabeth, a Cal English student, a shimmering, somehow a bit ominous, hummingbird, aflame with skewed brilliance and sensuality, hungering, like me, for authenticity. My virulent insistence that I would not be a provider was met by "So what?" She was a feminist, even if she drew some cold female glances for her provocative dressing. Lovemaking was ecstasy. One spring evening, a few weeks after we'd met, we were walking towards each other, yards apart, when we both felt pulled to each other together as if some mystical energy field had seized us. Magic struck again. I'd fallen in love, I knew. Muffled doubts pestered me for some time, nagging that my falling in love remained based on instinct. Why did I trust that kind of magic?

Trust it or not, I was hooked. I love Liz, I sadly told Kaitlin. "I wish we'd talked," she answered.

Liz and I shared soul secrets, revealing our torments. Love was merging in the intensity of our lovemaking and sexual explorations, or consciously revelling in our rapture. Our conversations, the best kind, reached where neither of us could go alone. When I felt something troubling between us, I usually managed to call it, at least within my week's grace period. We agreed we were dealing with the dark stuff. What about monogamy, we discussed. I told her I'd discovered (surprise, surprise) that I wasn't by nature monogamous. She told me the same. I heard only what I'd told her.

Suki, radiant as a butterfly, was now working in my Legal Services office. She brought me a note from Kaitlin asking me how I was. We met. "It took me a while," Kaitlin said, "but I figured if some man doesn't want me, that's his problem." We evolved to friends.

Suki and I encountered each other often. She'd been with Jules for over three years. Kaitlin disliked Jules, who insisted on non-monogamy, but that no longer upset Suki. "I know he won't leave me," she told me, "and I like my freedom. I used to worry that I was letting Women down, not policing my man, but I realized if someone's upset by that, it's her problem." We decided to draw together, hiring a model at my apartment once a week. A couple of months later she joined me in a wine tasting class in San Francisco. We'd ride in, talking to each other of what we'd learned about love, what love was. Pure feeling, she said, spirits sharing, giving, in the present. A big reason she and Jules had stayed together was because they'd never looked more than a month ahead. Liz and I were leaving in five month to live a year in Ireland. Suki and I spoke abstractly of love when you knew it would end. Wouldn't it be pure because you couldn't - didn't - have expectations? After a week's vacation, I returned to get a call from her, asking about the next wine tasting class. I felt a thrill. Something in her voice? Nah, I told myself, you're inventing. (Later, I realized that whenever I had that feeling I was almost never inventing.)

We returned from the City, parking outside her house. Without speaking, we looked directly at each other, understood, and began laughing. We made love freely, laughing joyously. Living a love of once or twice a week, a gift without future, we joyed in openness and passion. She described how she saw me, and I heard my best self presented, with flaws seen. I gave myself, not sure what I was giving, but sure that she loved what I gave. One sunny weekday, we set off for a motorcycle ride and stopped at a light. Suddenly, she exclaimed "There Jules!" and shouted greetings. He called back to us, telling Suki he'd see her Friday.

A bit more evolved than me, who'd been telling Liz I was out drinking with one male friend or another, and would be home late. I had promised myself I would tell Liz what had happened, as we drove across the country ... well, surely once we were in Ireland.

Adrian hosted a monster good-bye party for us. Stoned, drunk, I stood alone in the middle of the hubbub and suddenly knew - me who was rarely intuitive - that Liz and I had betrayed each other. Mike noticed my stricken face and led me outside for a walk. Liz was on the front steps, talking to Pat, one of my closest friends. I snarled at her "Get out of my life." Shocked, she ran to me, crying, demanding what was the matter with me. We walked up the street, me insisting things were disastrous, her responding that I was crazy. Suddenly, I knew. "This is never going to work if we don't tell each other the truth. I've been sleeping with Suki." She stared at me, looking desperate. "I knew you were sleeping with someone," she moaned. "I've been sleeping with Pat." Two days and many denials later, she admitted she'd slept with five others while we'd lived together, including one where she admitted it'd been sick. Very sick, I tormented myself.

Karma had caught up to me, with lessons galore: I'd secretly excused my affair with Suki because I was hip, not straight, as if morality tuned on whether I wore a suit; a woman I loved could be conniving and sexually predatory; I'd assumed I was as deceptive and wicked as they come, and instead I was naive; maybe I couldn't be loved for who I really was. Sharpest of all was the old-fashioned truth that lying was wrong. At least it was for a liar like me, who's

inept but believes he isn't. Lying to a woman meant I needed her more than I loved her. Where was the magic in that?

After three tortured months in Ireland, we returned to separate apartments in Berkeley. Liz insisted I was still her man, but the more I probed for her core, the more confused I became. I found only calculation, no center. Who was she? All these wonderful qualities, but what was her essence? Mike observed that we were beginning to learn that everything is filtered through your soul. Over more tortured months, I reluctantly came to believe Liz's' soul was very disturbed indeed. We'd try to break up, then see each other on some excuse and be writhing in sexual ecstasy within an hour or two. An upsetting lesson: sex could remain fabulous, even as the remains of love writhed towards final death.

When I finally left Liz, I told myself I was at last capable of loving. No more holdbacks, no more emotional balloon payments. I wouldn't let myself fall in love without have some sense of the woman's soul. Well, however adept I proved at that, I'd let her see into mine. The only thing lacking as Ms. Right, who proved elusive. Solace was involvement with some wonderful women, often more than one during the same period. I didn't lie, even if I didn't always volunteer unasked-for details. Adrian observed "It easy to be honest if you don't care." When I told Kaitlin that I wasn't hiding my romantic entanglements she said "You bastard, now it's their problem."

Over years, Brenda, now a blooming flower, and I met randomly in Berkeley. I developed a crush on her, but she preferred me to remain a friend. Then, after a dinner together both old-pal comfortable and intoxicatingly romantic, we made love. Blam! Felt like magic, but I wasn't falling just for that anymore. A few weeks later my friend Lily remarked "You've been seeing her a lot. Ever think of living together?" I laughed. "Lily, she's fourteen years younger than me. And an actress. Not a chance." On a rainy night a couple of weeks later, Brenda mentioned that she'd thought of us living together, but quickly decided it was a silly. I agreed. As we continued to discuss how silly it was, magic enclosed us. Two hours later we'd decided she would move in within the week. I told Kaitlin "I can't see what I have to lose."

"Just time," she shrugged. But time was something I was prepared to be extravagant with. Opening to love with Brenda was a gamble. If it blew up, I vowed, I'd recover faster than the year plus Michelle or Liz had cost.

Brenda left after eight months. I felt far more lacerated than I could have guessed. For a couple of weeks I sank into torpor, smoked many cigarettes, slept little, sought advice from Liz. It was only two weeks until I'd run in my first Bay to Breakers with Mike. I'd trained for over a year. I willed myself to more steeliness with wounds of rejection and managed to resume working out. Healing followed far faster than in the past.

Time. Some women I knew were sensibly worried about their biological clocks. What time was it on my clock? Publicly, I laughed it off. After dinner with a dear friend in Manhattan, she asked about the children I'd years before told her I wanted, sometime. Wasn't I getting worried, gaining on forty? "Hey," I shot back, "I'm still trying to get a date for Saturday night."

More years passed: infatuations, escapades, affairs, wild women, wonderful friends, now including Brenda, who continued to spark my soul. But sometimes when alone, I'd ache with yearning for intimacy and passion, perhaps listening to one of my secret songs, the Moody Blues pining "I'm looking for someone to change my life. I'm looking for a miracle to happen."

I spoke with my sister Catherine about what I now knew I wanted. First, I wasn't going to fall fast; I'd evaluate, try to see. Glamour was no longer important, though beauty and brains remained so. Sanity was vital, a good soul. And someone who'd been through love a couple of times, "pre-shrunk." And someone with ability to pay her own way, unlike Brenda. And ... "Ah, I see how it works," Catherine cut in, "as you get older and the pickings get slimmer, your demands get higher."

Did all this add up to the dream of finding myself perfected in someone else, as Sally, my year-long unrequited crush from yoga class, defined love? Whatever it was, was I capable of living it? Speaking with Liz about my mother's cold side, I wondered how much of that it I had. She flicked me a hard, appraising look. "Some. Definitely some." Suki joked that I was the most unattached person she knew. At a party of my friend Lily's I met a woman, Nancy, who was taken with me. A friend of hers asked Lily what Nancy could expect. "It'll last nine months," Lily responded, "and she won't regret it." Lily proved right on both counts. A legal services friend returned to Berkeley and asked Adrian how my love life was. "Multiple," Adrian answered. "Oh good," she replied, "that's how he likes it."

At a party of my painting group, I saw a dark-haired, lovely woman, dancing alone; I joined her. In two dates Rachel and I discovered we shared much: both defined ourselves as creatures from the '60s, insisted that work wouldn't dominate our lives, preferring to live (comfortably) on the margins. She was a dancer inseparable from her dance, in love with motion. She was also Jewish, intense, passionate, a fellow reader, wanted kids, as well as being attracted to my spirit, quick tongue and my body (fortunately for me, her type). A few weeks later, lying in front of my fireplace after having literally made/love, our faces inches apart, we looked deeply into each other's eyes. Thrills expanded through my body. We'd seen into each other's souls and connected. I knew she felt the same. Wow! So falling in love was magic after all.

Staying in love proved more difficult. Her ex-husband returned, wanting her back after rejecting her months before. After a yoga class Sally and I continued our custom of occasional drinks together when she sprung that she'd decided what she wanted to do. "Let's get married and have babies." Soon after, Brenda, definitely still a flower, returned from Hollywood and told me she'd realized she wanted me back. When I hesitated she exclaimed in certainty, not anger, "You Love Me!" Turmoil, tears, tempests, tensions. Brenda asked "How come life's so much like a soap opera, except it's nothing like it?" The decisive reality turned out be that night by the fireplace. Rachel's and my soul had truly connected. A few crazy, tormented months behind us, we soared along in what we called stage one, defined by a friend of hers as "laughing and screwing all the time."

Falling in love was a great drug, but we both knew we'd evolve to stage two, real life: keeping love alive. New terrain for me. E.M. Forster had educated me that "The heart signs no documents" and I promised myself, and Rachel, to tell the truth, follow feelings, "process," the whole contemporary relationship bit, easily mocked but probably essential for love to survive. We mostly loved discovering each other, two strong-willed people, from cultures in some ways very similar, valuing humor, with a history of oppression, and in other ways so opposite, hers a family culture of overmeshing, no boundaries, mine one where you never asked for help, dispersion.

We struggled over "Commitment." Why, I insisted, would I promise to stick around no matter how bad it got? I noted commitment was also the term applied to involuntary incarceration of mental patients. Besides, I wasn't monogamous, although she insisted on it, having experimented with open marriage and concluding it was destructive.

"Love is the crooked thing. There is nobody wise enough to find out all that is in it." Yeats got that right. The tale of how we managed to keep love alive requires a novelist: tragedies, conflicts, opening hearts, angers, understanding, joys, good luck - turns out we're both tidy, and agree on so many other matters that are insignificant when there's accord, and major if there's soul-conflict. AIDS, and my age, rendered non-monogamy at best too much trouble, at worst deadly. After years with Rachel, I realized I'd evolved into commitment, even though I'd never "made" one. Living it felt more enhancing than confining. Not that it can't chafe. Dailiness grinds at romance. And what a drag it can be, having to "communicate." As some lover put it, "If he really loved me, he'd know what I was thinking." And what discouragement when talking doesn't bring harmony but clarifies differences. Then there's her flaws. And mine. Depressing, all that magic can't eliminate. How mundane that the therapy-folks are right when they talk about all the "work" necessary to stay in love, "dealing with your stuff." Right but limited. Because no "work" can guarantee magic, only remove barriers to it. Only by dwelling in magic often enough, as Rachel and I have been gifted with, can love continue, evolving.