Saturday, August 16, 2014

I'm (so not) Ready For My Close-Up, Episode Two

Corolla, NC with Celeste and the film crew 

Starting a new relationship is a risky proposition, and whether we realize it or not, we often go through an inner bargaining process before we take the plunge. We negotiate with ourselves over this basic question:  is our desire to experience something wonderful stronger than our desire to avoid painful loss?

     Economists and investors refer to this behavior as “loss aversion,” and studies have shown that we humans have a much stronger desire to avoid loss than acquire gains of the same value.  I think this tendency can exist in the realm of the heart, too. We all know someone who’s given up on romance because the last time they entered the tunnel of love they crawled out with a fatal case of black heart, and swear they’ll never go prospecting again. Maybe we are that person.

     I bring up the concept of loss aversion because it came into play back in the summer of 2013, when I had to decide whether my boyfriend should become part of the Love Between The Covers documentary in which I was featured. Filmmaker Laurie Kahn and her crew had already spent quite a bit of time with me by then. They’d gone with me to the gym and to appointments with my prosthetist. They’d filmed me in my writing studio, sitting under the trees on my back deck, and hanging out at home surrounded by friends and kids and dogs. And now Laurie and her crew wanted to join Celeste Bradley and me on our annual beach writing retreat to Corolla, NC. There was a catch:  Celeste and I planned to bring significant others along for the first time, which was a risk in itself. Would the two men – who had never met – like each other? What would Celeste and I do if they didn’t?  And did we really want a film crew there to document the unknown?

    On a personal level, I had to ask myself whether my ten-month relationship with Martin – and the twenty years of friendship that preceded it – was solid enough that I wouldn’t one day look back on the documentary and cringe. Were Martin and I going to make it in the long run?  Would we stay together through the years, as we both hoped? Would we even make it to the movie premiere?
I was a little surprised that Martin had no concerns about being in the film and happily signed up for the adventure. I assured him he could change his mind and not appear on camera if he wished, or even choose not to go to the beach at all, but he seemed genuinely happy about the whole thing. His enthusiasm helped me kick my nagging loss aversion tendencies to the curb. Besides, what would one more leap of faith matter? My entire relationship with Martin had been nothing but a grand, go-for-it, no-regrets kind of risk. And once we were there at the beach house, there were many moments when I would see the gentle, fun-loving glint in Martin’s eye as he hugged and kissed me –with Joe’s camera shoved in our faces and Dan’s tiny personal microphones clipped to our shirts --  and my doubts would disappear. 

      At this juncture, you might be waving your hands around trying to get my attention. “Uh, Susan?  Hello? Did I miss something? Who the hell is this Martin guy and when did you become a couple? How did you meet?”

     Those are valid questions and you have a right to ask them, since I did sort of spring this on you. I met Martin in 1994 at a gathering at my best friend Arleen’s house. I really enjoyed his company. I spent time with him off and on through the years, and always thought he was funny and charming. Then, in 2005, I went on a trip to New Mexico with a group studying the similarities between ancient Celtic spirituality and Native American traditions. It was a life-changing trip for me, and Martin was there. We got to know each other. At the time, I was on the cusp of leaving my husband and going through all the emotional turmoil that entails, but I remember Martin was kind and attentive to me, making me laugh when I was on the edge of tears. It almost felt like he’d taken it on himself to help me through the chaos. And, unless I was mistaken, I sensed that he might have had a little crush on me.  The time wasn’t right for anything like that, of course, and we parted with a big hug and best wishes going forward, the way we always did.

     The years went on. Martin lives about an hour and a half from me, but we kept running into each other at get-togethers. I always liked him. Arleen and I went to visit him when he was in the hospital after Achilles tendon surgery. I went to his wedding. He came to visit me in the hospital many times, bringing all kinds of gifts, and sharing with me that his marriage was over. On Thanksgiving of 2012, I noticed that Martin was flirting with me outrageously, in front of his whole family in fact, and I realized I liked it. A lot. And for the first time I really thought this might work – I might be able to date my best friend’s brother.

Flirting at Thanksgiving Dinner, 2012
     Yup, you read right. I’m sorry for burying the lead. Martin is Arleen’s older brother. We began seeing each other after Thanksgiving, 2012. He was so good to me and I had so much fun with him that I fell in love. He did, too. Martin enjoyed doing things for me like cleaning the garage, fixing my back-yard pond, and helping me purge and plan for the inevitable move from my home. It’s nice having a German engineer as a boyfriend – he gets things done and he gets them done on schedule. With Martin at my side, all these stressful and dirty jobs were almost fun.

     Martin brought me flowers often and for no reason – big, beautiful, extravagant bouquets. He held me while I sobbed over what had happened to me and all the challenges I faced. He even took me tent camping, and was willing to deal with all the extra crap required for camping with a one-legged, pain-ridden, middle-aged woman who couldn’t even walk to the campground bathroom. Basically, Martin was wonderful, and he took care of me in a way that no man in my life ever had.  We started dreaming about the future. RV trips we would take, mountain cabins where we’d live, and our eventual return to New Mexico – together.

      So I suppressed my loss aversion long enough to be okay with him being documented on film for all eternity as my sweet, patient, loving, and devoted boyfriend.  I told myself that my relationship with Martin was part of my journey, a journey I had agreed to share in the documentary. True, I have no idea how much of Martin will end up in the film and how much will end up on the cutting room floor. I don’t even know how much of me will appear in the final cut. But I do know the crew was there for some extremely personal moments, especially the first time I stood in the sand on a prosthetic leg.

      Simply put, one of the things that kept me alive while in the hospital was the dream that someday, somehow, I would walk on the beach again. I wasn’t ready to try during the 2012 beach retreat – I couldn’t even fathom how I would go about doing it. But Martin made it possible the next year. The cameras rolled as I trudged up the wooden steps bridging the dunes, in horrible pain. But Martin was at my elbow, whispering encouragement to me, and keeping me laughing until I made it to the top of the steps. He hugged me when I cried in relief. Everything – on camera.

Martin reading one of my books, 2010
Once on the sand, Martin pushed me up and down the surf in a beach wheelchair, pulling wheelies and racing around while I laughed and screamed with happiness. All on film. We flew a kite together, me standing in the sand with Martin helping to keep me balanced. Documented. Martin sat with me on the deck and held my hand as we watched the sunset. Documented.  Kisses and hugs. Documented. Martin even happily agreed to do a solo interview with the crew, during which he told Laurie how we got to know each other on the New Mexico trip and all the reasons he loved me the way he did. Afterward, Laurie said to me, “You’ve got a keeper, Susan.”

With Martin at the beach, 2013
      Soon after we returned from North Carolina, I found out why I had been in so much pain – I had a malformation of my right hip and I was going to need surgery. The news devastated me. I completely freaked out knowing I would have to go back into the operating room, and all those horrible traumatic memories and fears got the better of me. Martin held both my hands in his and told me everything would be all right, that I would not go through it alone, and that he would be with me every step of the way. I have to admit that hearing this made the idea a lot less terrifying for me.
My mother died on October 22. Martin didn’t come up to see me. He did come the following Sunday afternoon, however, and we went on a drive and out to lunch. I felt it – there was something wrong. He was impatient with me, annoyed that I needed extra help getting out of the car and walking into the restaurant. But you know what? I didn’t have the energy to make a big deal about it. I was exhausted over my mother’s death and just happy to have Martin around.

       Listen, I didn’t live in denial. I knew it SUCKED that I couldn’t join my boyfriend in many of the things he loved – biking, walking around D.C., going to Nationals games, hiking, sharing outdoor art shows, dancing – but he assured me those were minor issues, and besides, we knew that after my hip surgery I could go back to physical therapy and in time I would walk again.  But after that rather awkward lunch, Martin began to disappear from my life. He was busy. He was sick. He couldn’t help me move because he had plans to play Frisbee golf with his friends. I was supposed to be joining his family – Arleen’s family – for Thanksgiving again, but one day before the celebration he texted me with this news flash: I think we should just be friends. You can still come to Thanksgiving if you want. I promise I won’t be an *(&hole.”

     Dear blog reader, if your mouth is hanging open, I understand. My mouth hung open, too. Arleen’s mouth hung open. My kids’ mouths hung open. Celeste’s mouth hung open. And when Laurie found out, her reaction was “WHAT  THE (bleep?) HAPPENED?

     I had no answer for her. I had no answer for myself, let alone anyone else.

      Despite the enticing invitation, I didn’t attend Thanksgiving dinner. Martin didn’t help me move, I didn’t see him over Christmas, and he won’t be at my side when I go into surgery in two days. In fact, we’ve never seen each other since that uncomfortable afternoon together in late October. We wrote a lot of emails back and forth and we did talk on the phone once, back in January. As he explained to me, there was no real reason he broke up with me except that he wanted his freedom, and he couldn’t deal with the possibility that he had disappointed me or made me angry. He still loved me, though, he said. He just didn't want to be in a relationship with me.

      The moral to this blog story? I guess there are two.

       1.      Don’t date your best friend’s brother, especially if you’re already like a member of the  family, because if it doesn’t work out, you’ll lose a boyfriend and a family;

      2.      Taking a chance on love is fine --  just think long and hard before you let a film crew document that chance-y love for all of eternity.

      Laurie has invited me to the premiere of Love Between the Covers next  February at the Library of Congress. She’s also asked me to sit on the panel and answer questions afterward. Honestly, I don’t know if I can do it. I’m not sure I am brave enough to watch that movie.  I know it will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I’m not sure I could handle it. I’ll have to answer this question for myself:  Do I desire to take part in this fabulous and important event more than I desire to avoid having my guts ripped out in front of an audience and then answer questions about it afterward?        
Thank God I have a few months to figure it out. But I can tell you this – if I do go to the premiere, I will walk in there under my own power, without Martin (or any other man) at my elbow. It may sound hypocritical coming form a romance writer, but I think I better keep my heart to myself for the foreseeable future.  I've had all the loss I can take.

1 comment:

Liz Flaherty said...

I wish there'd been a happy ending there, but I know sometimes there just...isn't. I hope you go to the premier and sit on the panel and that the next time you see Martin, you smile really, REALLY big as you brush by him.