October 14, 2016
I used to be one half of the Answer Couple in Glamour. The other half was my husband. This was 30 years ago, when newsstands were overflowing with glossy magazines.
Every few months, he and I would have dinner with our editor and read the handful of questions from readers that had arrived in the mailroom. These were real letters, of course; there was no email or internet. We’d drink chardonnay and slit open envelopes and read the letters out loud.
“Dear Answer Couple,” they began before outlining their question.
The column was meant to illuminate the differences between men and women, to explain why men never ask for directions when they’re lost or have to control the television remote, and why women have to control the thermostat and ask, “What are you thinking right now?”
We had opinions on these things and could write about the time we got lost in Spain: My husband refused to ask anyone for directions, and I, who couldn’t read a map, was forced to go into a bar and have someone show me the way back to the hotel. (Dear Answer Couple: Why can’t women read maps?)
As I write this now, it all seems so quaint and sexist. Did I really believe any of these differences between men and women? Yet somehow the questions did reflect our own weaknesses and strengths, and we had fun choosing the questions and finding anecdotes to share with our fans. We also appreciated the good dinners at restaurants we couldn’t afford on our own.
But the truth was, the Answer Couple had no answers. Our marriage was rocky, and at least one of us was fantasizing about getting divorced and moving back to Manhattan.
I had always stepped boldly into love, unflinching, unafraid, foolish. At 15, I asked a boy to the Sadie Hawkins dance, and by the time he kissed me good night, I knew I was in love.
This pattern persisted for a decade. I thought I understood love and all its complexities. I gave advice on the subject freely and confidently.
By the time I fell in love with a passenger on a flight from San Francisco to J.F.K., back when I was a flight attendant, I knew I had my life all figured out. We would be artists in New York City, have children with quirky old-people names, and eat ethnic food with our fingers.
If love meant not ever having to say you’re sorry, as Jenny tells Oliver in “Love Story,” then our love was ideal. We never fought. We read side by side at night. We bought exotic ingredients in Chinatown.
One afternoon, as I watched him clean and then sauté soft-shell crabs, I thought there had surely been no love better than ours. The night he rescued my cat from a sixth-floor window ledge, I knew he was everything: chef, lover, hero.
When that relationship ended for reasons I am unable to sum up in one sentence, I did not believe I lacked the answers to the mysteries of the heart. Instead, I reasoned that a love so pure and true had failed because it lacked practicality.
What I needed was a solid companion, not a man who could make me swoon just by smiling at me. “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,” Helena says in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Love, therefore, must come in the form of a friend, I decided: someone I was comfortable confiding in and hanging out with. Someone with whom I could watch old movies in companionable silence, play a few rounds of Boggle with and have a whiskey over intense conversations about the state of the novel.
Enter the man who became my husband and the other half of the Answer Couple. Even when my latest theory ultimately proved wrong, I refused to admit what I didn’t know about love.
Opposites attract, I decided. No more actors or writers or painters. I needed someone traditional, someone coolly rational. And so once again I stepped forward into love with a certainty that I knew exactly what I was doing. After all, hadn’t Bertrand Russell warned, “Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness”?
I was by then in my mid-30s, living happily alone in the Far West Village. I taught writing to graduate students and gave little parties and made myself elaborate dinners: thick pesto sauce, tarragon chicken, spaghetti carbonara. I had two cats that pressed their warm bodies against my head or legs, the three of us in my big brass bed listening to NPR, happy.
But I threw caution to the wind and gave it all away for this latest incarnation of love: the love of my opposite. Well, I didn’t give away the cats. I corralled them into their carriers and took them along for what I thought would be a stable, reliable life in New England.
And it was. Soon there were two perfect blond children and a perfect house, red with a blue door, built in 1792. It was not unusual to see people stop and take pictures of my house. The two cats eventually died and were replaced with a curly haired bichon frisé.
Once the dog jumped into a lake and had to be rescued. Once my daughter shoved a Goldfish cracker up her tiny nose and had to be raced to the pediatrician. My son got a plastic pail stuck on his head, and its handle had to be carefully cut off.
There was a lot of snow and bundling of children into snowsuits and boots. We built Colonial New England dioramas, went to swimming lessons and soccer games and on warm summer nights we sat in the backyard grilling hot dogs in the fading light. All of this is to say there was a family.
I didn’t look up one day and have an epiphany. No. Slowly, over six to eight years, I came to realize that although I loved my children and my home and this family I’d built ferociously, I had been wrong about love.
Sometimes opposites don’t attract. Or they don’t keep attracting. Or they attract but remain opposite in crucial ways — in how they like to spend their days and what they want to do with the rest of their lives.
This time was different, though. I understood that I had been wrong. Not wrong to love so wholeheartedly. Not wrong to take chances, to jump in blindly. But wrong to think I knew.
What I know now is that I don’t know anything much. I don’t know why men won’t ask for directions. I don’t know how we find the right person to love. I don’t know if he should be just like me or have a different kind of job or cook me dinners or send me roses or enjoy playing Boggle and doing jigsaw puzzles. I just don’t know.
There is freedom, and even joy, in not having the answers. I wonder, if I could write to an Answer Couple today, if I would ask them what love is. I wonder what they would say, but I know they wouldn’t really know. No one does.
When I was 40, I was on Block Island with my husband and some friends, and they all wanted to rappel down a steep cliff to a secluded beach. I am afraid of heights. And I am not even a tiny bit athletic. I mean, I don’t even like to bowl.
But my husband climbed mountains and raced sailboats, and the friends were lovely people, and I felt like a party pooper, always the one afraid to do things like rappel down cliffs. So, terrified, I did it. Slowly. I clung to the face of that rock, trembling, crying, afraid to look up or down.
Eventually I got near enough to the bottom that my husband could put his arms around my waist and lower me to the ground. As soon as I felt that warm sand beneath my feet, I had one thought: I am never doing something like that again. And I haven’t.
What I feared recently as I stood in the room that we called the Puzzle Room, now empty, as I packed my shelves and shelves of books into cardboard boxes, was that like that day 20 years earlier when I vowed “never again,” some piece of my heart or brain or soul may feel that way about love: never again.
But then I paused, a dog-eared paperback in my hand, and looked around at the home where I had raised my family and loved hard and long.
There were dust bunnies everywhere, and more boxes to fill, and even though I felt so sad, as if I had swallowed stones, I knew that I would do it again. I would open my arms and let new love in. I didn’t understand anything about it, and that was exactly the answer I needed.