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Monday, June 20, 2011

Reality Bites

Reality Bites

From my perch at the kitchen table of our borrowed bach (holiday home) in Pauanui, I watch rain bucketing outside. It beats down, rapid-firing at the picnic table, creating a pattern of dancing circles on the concrete slab below. The bach abuts an airfield – a grassy strip where rich retirees, hobbyists and tour operators can land their Cessnas, Pipers or Tomahawks in this jewel of a village on New Zealand’s ridiculously green Coromandel Peninsula.

The Boyfriend, Pete, had planned to borrow a 2-seater aircraft (they jokingly refer to them as “bug bashers”) to buzz up for the day. He and a mate would take turns flying the kids, my flatmate, Amy, and I above the Coromandel. Heavy rain and thick clouds have grounded the flight. Bugger.  Sure, the plane ride would’ve been fun, but mostly, I miss Pete. This is ridiculous. We’ve been apart all of – what -20 hours? I’m still enjoying myself, listening to Fiona, Finley and Amy’s daughter, Blythe, explain their drawings, “I love the blobbies,” says Fiona. “They don’t have heads.” I’ve no idea what this means, but the kids do. They’re happy. I’m happy, too, content with this metaphorical slice of cake, even though it lacks the icing (make mine chocolate, please) for which I’ve acquired a strong taste. Now that I’ve savored the drizzly sweetness of affection, the richness of companionship and the zing of love, I’m like chubby Augustus Gloop in the Willy Wonka factory, unable to resist chocolate icing and return to the average-ness of “plain-as” (“___ -as is a Kiwi saying, as in, “Sweet as; Not to be confused with “ass.”) cake. And you know what happened to Augustus, don’t you? He fell into the chocolate river and got sucked into a pipe. Reality bites, Augustus.

I’m not pining, I’m projecting – trying to shine a spotlight on an un-seeable future. If I miss Pete after 20 hours, or 2 days, or 2 weeks, how twitchy and bitchy would I be, spending 2 months apart? How about 2 years?  I was initially unwilling to ask tough questions required of a long-term relationship. I wanted to remain in the here-and now. To remain rooted in this iteration of dating like teenagers. “Do you like Earth, Wind & Fire? So do I! Do you like Thai food? So do I!” But even New Zealand, for all its back-to-a-simpler-era charm, lacks a time machine. This is not 1987. And we’re not 17 (although we both admit love has made us feel that way).

I’ve recently relented on my “no tough questions” policy. Because each day this “thing” (whatever this “thing” is), continues, the more difficult it becomes to imagine leaving Pete. We are forming a (gulp) attachment. I’m attaching, the kids are attaching – quick, someone get the barnacle knife.  It doesn’t have to be this way. I was and am, independent. If I can drag 2 small fries around the world, largely on my own, then I can return to Mother America and re-start our “real” lives. On my own.  Or rather, fortified by a small army of friends and family, pounds of cheap American produce, fish and baked goods, and gallons of Costco wine, I can do this.

The kids and I have hatched a plan: We’ll free ourselves from potential long-term entanglements with foreigners (i.e., anyone not living in the U.S.) by whinging them away. Finley, especially, has mastered the technique: “Ahhhh… I don’t WANT that lollipop! It’s yucky! It has crumbs. Fiona and Blythe have the good suckers! Wahhhhh!” Or, “Why do I ALWAYS have to close the car door? WHY? Fiona ALWAYS gets out first. I NEVER get out first!” And, if you have rug rats, you know this one (feel free to sing along) “I’m not gonna eat that. I don’t LIKE that. How many bites? How many bites?” Who wants to play/travel/dine to that eternal soundtrack? I’m whinging, but many times, I don’t want to hear the kids’ chronic complaints, and I’m their mother –half the unit that conceived, gestated and hatched these finicky fledglings. I’m their sole surviving parent, and many days I wonder whether I can take another hour or five of Whinge-Fest 2011.

I try to imagine how the scene plays out in the mind of The Boyfriend, Pete, who had nothing to do with the manufacture of these 2 small, bickering American small fries. Reality bites.

Rain has stopped and sun peeks from gray and white clouds, revealing the Coromandel Mountains. I wonder if I should continue pecking away at my netbook, if I dare reveal the issues rolling around my head like marbles on a tile floor.  Fact is, when I wrote in an earlier blog that I had met someone and fallen in love (and failed to mention, as my aunt asked, “Does he love you back?” to which the answer is a resounding, “Yes.”), I received heaps of “Atta girl,” and “Stay in New Zealand…” One of my favorite messages came from a church friend in Spokane, a writer who said, “Never let geography tie you beyond your heart.” I treasure this phrase and clutch it like a new-found coin.

All coins, including this one, have 2 sides: the bright, shiny side – inscribed with all I love about Pete: his wit, kindness, generosity, patience, affectionate manner, boyish face, thick brown hair, sparking eyes and mellifluous voice infused with smooth Kiwi accent. Oh, that voice. If I had to have a long-distance relationship, an over-the-phone relationship, I would choose that voice. Better yet, if I had the chance – indefinitely and in-person- to fall asleep and awaken with a single voice, I would choose that voice. Somehow, the person attached to that voice has chosen me. 

I’ve forced myself to flip the coin, to examine the “B” side. It contains the fine print - terms and conditions of the prize you’ve won. The “catch,” as it were. Because, as you know (if you’re over age 10), there’s always a catch, or 2. Or, in my case, 100,000.

Before I continue, you need to know I don’t write this callously or with intent to harm. In fact, you wouldn’t be reading this at all if the subject of this essay – Pete – had told me he’d prefer I not publish this account. Normally, I don’t allow sources to preview my stories. It’s the old reporter in me, not wanting a third party to influence tone or content. In this case, I’ve hog-tied my subject and shackled him to the clothesline post in the back garden. That’s consent, right?

I have 100,000 reasons to run from this love. The Boyfriend decided, years ago, to give up a successful career in sales and marketing to pursue his life’s dream of becoming a pilot. He tried the usual route, attempting to enlist in the Air Force. He disclosed he’d had a health issue that had since resolved and was unlikely to ever occur again. Farewell, Air Force. Hello, student loans. 5 years and $100,000 later, he meets an American widow (uh, me). At this writing, the hero of our story is handsome, charming and way beyond his Kiwi gumboots (galoshes) in debt. Pete has told me he “did everything backwards.” He said, “I left my mates in the dust when we were younger, in terms of finances. I had the house with the white picket fence and a good career… then I decided to return to school to become a pilot…I’ve tucked myself away the past 5 years during my studies, and have avoided serious dating. I didn’t want to bring my debt into a relationship.”

In a past life, Sean and I were smug about our debt-free-but-the-reasonably-priced-house position. Sean paid for university through a combination of soccer scholarships and employer subsidies. I took the easy route, choosing instead (yes, a joke) to be born into a family with the means and desire to provide most of the funding for my education (In my defense, I handled room and board by working in a chili restaurant called Skyline, the cumin/cinnamon scent of which I’ll never forget and probably still harbor somewhere deep inside my pores). While debt may be American religion (i.e., we worship at the altar of “If I want it now, I’ll get it and pay for it later, no matter how large the expenditure or how frivolous the object”), it was a philosophy to which Sean and I did not subscribe. Credit cards: Paid in full each month. Cars: Save and buy used. Debt, in our house (except for the house), was a 4-letter word (as an aside –a note of thanks to everyone who raised money to keep us out of debt during Sean’s four-and-a-half months in hospital. It meant more to him, and to us, than you could know. How’s that for no family being an island?).
 
And here I am, upside down at the bottom of the world, with someone who not only is NOT an heir to a New Zealand property dynasty, or self-made millionaire, but essentially in financial free-fall. I’m pretty sure Sean would’ve sent me a Lotto winner. Hon – hello? What were you thinking? 

I’m thinking debt’s still not a deal-breaker, even though part of me (the tiny speck, the single cell inside my brain able to crunch numbers or create a spreadsheet) says it should be. I love Pete from the tips of my paint-chipped toes to the top of my flat-ironed head of hair, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, completely, sweetly, joyfully. But I’ve never believed love is enough to sustain a relationship.  You think love is enough? Ask the 50% (or whatever the true percentage) of American couples who divorce. I bet they thought love would supersede money problems, family feuds, religious differences, infidelity, or addiction to drugs, alcohol, work, gambling, ritual goat sacrifices… Guess what? They were wrong. Their lawyers are getting richer by the nanosecond. Miscalculate when you have only yourself to consider. You’ll recover. Miscalculate when you have children, and you’ll help them recover for the rest of their lives. You could also help their therapists make yacht payments.

You can’t strip the gamble from love. We make our decisions with the data in front our flawed, human faces. We source that data from partners who may or may not be honest, either with themselves, with us, or both. I lost my One Great Love, not due to miscalculation or deceit, but bad luck. I asked myself, during long hours of waiting at the hospital, while Sean was sick, whether I’d chosen wisely. The man in the bed, my husband, was unrecognizable. He lay bloated with 20 extra pounds of IV fluids, purple from a flesh-eating bacteria and drugs designed to save his life, and was reliant on machines to filter his blood, to breathe, to live. Sickness burst into our home like a gun-toting thug wearing a balaclava. He stole from Sean what made him a husband and father – vigor, humor, ability to care for children, earn a living, good looks. If I peered beneath the veneer of quotidian acceptability, would I still say I’d made a wise decision, joining my life with Sean's? Eventually, he came off machines, and most of the mind-altering drugs and started talking, even joking again (Sean's first words after his ICU team pulled the ventilator tube from his throat were, “They’ve been jackin’ me around”). He spent hours re-learning to eat, stand, dress himself, walk… He displayed more strength and courage than any TV superhero. Indeed, I’d chosen well. Sean was goodness, kindness, patience personified. Even sickness couldn’t steal that.

My joy and my dilemma is I see similar qualities in Pete. Goodness. Personified. I listened the other night while Pete tried to negotiate Finley to sleep (Finn could broker Middle East Peace if he thought it would buy him an extra hour of awake time at night – the kid has hates going to sleep as much as George W. Bush hates broccoli). I sat in the next room, having given myself a “time out” to keep from strangling Finley after my 6th effort at putting him to bed failed. Pete didn’t know at first I was listening. I heard the whole exchange. Finley told Pete, “I need water. I’m STARVING.” Pete said, “No, Mate, you’re just stalling. Your mum wants you to go to sleep. Come on, Mate.” Pete eventually got the water, and sat with Finn for 5 minutes while Mr.-Never-Want-to-Sleep drifted off. I inhaled deeply and said a silent prayer, thanking God I’d met someone with reserves of patience far deeper than mine. 

My point is, Pete’s a good egg. A very good egg. A 14-carat, diamond-encrusted, nearly-ready-for-take-off-egg.

I’ve told the other significant man in my life, my dad, about Pete. Apparently, Dad hasn’t read this blog lately, because his advice was, “Take it slow. Play hard to get.” Slow is tough when you’re 40 and you know (or think you know) what love is. It’s a little like being an experienced botanist: When you find that special flower, you don’t have to consult your manual to learn its name – you’ve seen this flower before. You identify it from experience. You could be wrong, but you’re 99% sure it’s a rosa foetida and not a rosa laevigata. Playing hard to get? As another widow told me about her relationship with a new man, “…We have both been in long term relationships and didn't want to play any games. I didn't want to question, does he like me? Or do I have to play hard to get…”
 
 Life’s too short for dating games. But, in essence, I am hard to get. “I’m returning to my home country in 9 months” is about as catch-me-if-you-can a statement as you’ll find. Dad also told me there were “…plenty of Petes out there… maybe you could date a doctor from the Cleveland Clinic…” 

Maybe. Maybe not. I have a theory, if I’d plopped the kids and I in Spain, I’d be dating a Spaniard. If we landed in France, I’d be dating a Frenchman (or a Brit, because the “Bloody Poms” are everywhere). But Antonio is not Pete. Neither is Jacques. Pete is Pete, and I adore him. It’s like we’re tuned to the same radio frequency. We are, as they say, simpatico. On the same wavelength. Even Wikipedia can’t define this one. 

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I got Skyped the other day from a good friend I’ve been meaning to call for months. Jean-Marie and I have known each other since I was a 17-year-old exchange student in his home country, Luxembourg. We’ve seen each other through 2 marriages (his and mine) births of 4 children, (each of us has a girl and a boy), the death of his father, mother-in-law, and the loss of my husband. We meet once every several years and catch up over piles of Luxembourgish meat and potatoes and liters of French wine. Together, we’ve pleased our palates and pickled our livers. Jean-Marie, in true Luxembourger style, is methodical, thoughtful and precise. He’s the big brother I never had. I told him, during our recent conversation, about Pete. “I’m dating someone,” I said. “Wait,” said Jean-Marie, “My English – I may not understand – is this a MAN you’re dating?” (Jean-Marie, by the way, speaks perfect English). I told him, “Last I checked, he was a man.” We laughed. Jean-Marie said, “I don’t want to tell you what to do…” a common preface from someone about to dispense advice. 

“If opportunity falls on your head, don’t spoil it,” he said. “If you feel good, you should go ahead. You have lots of experience – you’ll go on with things with more care. Why not explore? You and Sean’s dream brought you to New Zealand. The fact this man is like Sean – I don’t want to go there and say it’s a sign – but you can’t ignore it.” I told J-M about the “B” side of the coin, the debt issue, which I likened to $50,000 Euros. “$50,000 Euros is not cheesecake, but I think working for an airline, he could recuperate that quite fast.  You have 20-30 years – you’re still young.”

I told J-M this was the time in my life I should most value security. Isn’t starting over, with heaps of debt, for 20-somethings? Jean-Marie said, “On the one hand, you’re talking like an old lady. I don’t want to push you, but if this should work out, you could have a job in New Zealand in media, a job that’s accessible to you. Yes, there’s probably someone in America that could match. Finding that person is not so easy. 40 years old? With 2 kids? Your opportunities are quite small” (for the record, this line of reasoning ignores one of my main tenants, that an independent life is preferable to one with someone who’s not a match).

Jean-Marie continued, “Joao (a mutual Luxembourgish friend and whip-smart attorney) would say – even if you would go to Spokane in March – take everything out of this relationship – not with the intention to abuse or offend, but I think you should go ahead…” I told J-M I knew exactly what he meant, because Pete had said it himself: “Whatever we are to each other, or will be in the future, I want us to enjoy each other’s company as much as we can in the moment.” My thoughts exactly. This is why I’m not afraid to love – completely, without games or pretense. Even if, (as they say in New Zealand) it all “turns to custard,” Pete and I will have had the satisfaction of knowing we’ve loved each other as fully as possible in the time we’ve had. It’s like the Dean of my home church, St. John’s Cathedral in Spokane, told me when I asked him, during my own health crisis, how to make the most of our short time on earth. He said, “We can only love as much as we can love in one day. That’s all we can do.”

Jean-Marie continued, “Dawn, go ahead – you’re doing the right game. It’s an open game with open cards. You’re on the right path. If it stops this weekend, or at Christmas… it’s still a beautiful thing. Leave every door open so if you want to stay, or return, you can. Even if this finishes after half a year, you will not be disappointed. It won’t be easy, but I think it’s fair. Profit [“profiter” in French means “to make the most of”]. Profit doesn’t mean abuse – you deserve this. Life should be about love.”

I run headfirst into the last statement time and again. Last week, a parent from the kids’ school died at age 48, just 10 days after being diagnosed with cancer. Chris was the same age as Sean when she died. She left behind 2 young boys and a husband. The week before, my dad told me one of his friends was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor. Doctors have estimated Scott has maybe 2 months to live. There, but for the grace of God, go all of us. These gone-before-their-time souls fly as canaries in our coal mines, warning us of the danger of taking a single breath for granted. If I knew I had 2 weeks left, what would I do? I’d spend the time with Pete and the kids. 2 months? Same answer. I already miss one man – one who’s dead. I’m asking whether I’ll allow myself to miss a man who’s alive. Could we spend 2 months apart? 2 years apart? As my flatmate, Amy, has said, “2 months? You and Pete can’t go 20 minutes without texting each other.” (this is an exaggeration, albeit only a slight one).

I’m going to wrap there, without giving you (or myself) an answer to this dilemma. What will I do? I don’t know. In fact, Pete may discover 2 whinging small fries and their impatient, slightly neurotic mum are more than he can bear. Or, we may split due to differences in the practice of religion (I do; He doesn’t). We could discover all manner of peccadillos and idiosyncracies about each other: Maybe he sacrifices goats in the back yard; runs an international blow fish smuggling ring; or worse yet, leaves the cap off the toothpaste. Perhaps he’ll run when he discovers my obsession with white teeth, clothes dryers and penchant for central heating (NZ has a paucity of the last 2 items; I’m not sure whether peroxide whitening strips are available here).

I’ve learned to live with ambiguity and have a degree of faith time will provide more clarity. For now, as my Luxembourgish friend said, it’s “open game, open cards.” And an open heart, to love as much as I can love. Today.

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