By Susan Bono
I WANT TO BE in love again. It is my most exalted state. When my heart is held captive, my long, slumped spine lifts straight, my walk goes willowy. I am dazzled by my very breathing. Love sharpens my wits, but softens my tongue. I become an expert interpreter of gesture and glance. I can read secrets in my beloved’s eyes, gauge the intensity of his desire as he leans close, inhaling my perfume. With love, every moment is a dance whose intricate movements I have somehow anticipated and stepped into with unstudied grace. Lately, I long to hear the music that would accompany a new passion.
I am thinking about this as I walk with my husband in the coastal hills of Marin County. I have been married 11 years today to a man I love, but that, as we all know, is not the same as being in love with him. I follow behind as we walk a steep trail through live oak and manzanita. A strong breeze twirls the leaves like green lassos overheard. It rushes in the dry grass with the pulse of beating blood. We are alone under the violent red manzanitas thrusting huge and arterial from the spongy earth. We gawk at moss-covered oaks twisted into fetal forms. It’s as if the two of us are wandering in the womb of the world. But somehow all this primordial splendor serves only to make me long for those early days of courtship, when even a ride in an elevator could feel like a deliciously feral adventure.
We climb on without speaking, and I try to imagine what this journey would have felt like 18 years ago when we first met. I would have paced softly, almost stealthily, behind him on this narrow track, feasting on the movements of his slender hands, his sure but surprisingly delicate feet. The natural beauty of the scene would have served only to magnify his glory. Everything about him would have been perfect.
Today, I notice he needs a haircut. He breaks the silence only to ask me the time. A lone butterfly appears, drifts daintily earthward, and is crushed under my true love’s athletic shoe. A short while later, I am temporarily blinded by a branch he has let spring back across the path. He soon picks up his pace, engrossed in the uphill challenge, forgetting me entirely as he disappears in the distant foliage. I have to shout for him to wait.
As I struggle to catch up, I observe his still-handsome profile silhouetted in the slanting afternoon light. I am disappointed to note that the sunstar, captured for an instant between his slightly parted lips, fails to engender even a prickle of response in the dark, secret places of my being. The swirling wind that catches at us both does not send my spirit flying forward to seek his. As I approach my partner in life on this windswept hillside, my primary emotion is annoyance, for now that I’m finally able to stand beside him, he is already turning to continue on.
We eventually do pause on a promontory to consider the view. “Look,” he says, pointing, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what he wants me to see. So much for the days when I could practically read his mind. When he moves to give me a lukewarm kiss, we falter and bump noses. I get the feeling the party’s over. The orchestra has packed up and headed home.
BACK IN THE CAR, we settle into our seats without touching, unable to maintain a conversation that engages either of us. It’s so much easier to slip into what could be called a companionable silence and let the stereo fill in the gaps. I remember when we used to travel this same stretch of highway in his battered VW, my hand resting on his neck or knee, the music buzzing in the tinny radio speakers a perfect soundtrack to our romance. The songs that accompany this evening’s summer sunset speak of love, but put me in mind of all the aerobics classes I’ve been missing. This is music I do sit-ups and leg lifts to. My husband heads to the gym with a Walkman tucked in his duffel bag. I suspect we have both come to value a torch song primarily for its power to stir a desire for firmer stomachs and thighs.
The romantic restaurant has misplaced our reservation. When we arrive, the only available seating is at the long counter overlooking its famous grill. As we study our menus, I feel somewhat indifferent to what’s offered, for without the tender pangs of sexual appetite, I know the food, however excellent, will never enter the realm of culinary foreplay. I do not worry about my intake of garlic or the amount of daintiness required to eat my selection. Maybe the champagne we order will liven my palate.
As we sip from narrow flutes, I am startled to feel my husband’s arm around the back of my chair. I am drawn into the warm circle of his regard. At the same time, I compare this sensation of quiet pleasure to my long-ago cravings for his touch. We don’t hold our faces close as we once did, reading the secret signs of lips and eyes, but remain focused on the antics of the four men working behind the counter. Do those men like the feel of our eyes on their backs? Does our curiosity spur them on to perform more gracefully, just as I might under the watchful gaze of a new lover?
Three chefs command the grill area, whisking delicate sauces and searing bite-sized morsels of beef over sudden eruptions of flame. As they juggle hot pans and sharp blades in their cramped work area, they are, by necessity, rather like newly smitten lovers in their awareness of one another’s movements. I think of how seldom my husband works with me in the kitchen now, in spite of his inventiveness with food and my yearnings for assistance. We no longer view such cooperative endeavors as potential romantic opportunities. Reaching for the vegetable peeler at the same moment, we are irritated rather than thrilled by the touch of the other’s hand. We collide so often, so obviously in each other’s way, we both feel clumsy, out of step.
The fourth cook, tall, blond, a bit gawky, works in isolation off to the left. He is in charge of salads and desserts, creating abstract designs with crudités and sweet sauces on chilled plates. I have rarely even glanced in his direction, but as the check arrives, he turns and looks directly into my eyes. His angular face breaks open into a radiant smile, while his arms, loaded with salad plates, open in a gesture of embrace.
I am instantly flooded with heat, pinned helpless in the glare of this unsolicited flattery. Suddenly, I feel like I do sometimes when we are with another couple and I want my husband and woman friend to disappear for just a few moments so I might throw myself into the other man’s arms. It’s as if I’m afraid I’ll die if I have to look one more time into my husband’s all-too-familiar face and see my all-too-familiar self reflected in his eyes. I want to slide my arms around another’s warm neck. I want his whisper in my ear. I want to be caught in a cloud of scent and excitement. Surely the press of a different body against mine would allow the sense of my own mystery to come back to me. I seem to have lost the ability to bewitch my mate. Perhaps in the embrace of another, I could find that power again.
Under the influence of that intoxicating attention, I visit the ladies’ lounge. There, I am confronted by the ordinariness of my reflection in the beveled mirror. Dark circles haunt my eyes, and my hairdo and clothing seem frowsy and worse for wear after our trek in the hilly wilderness. I half expected to find myself gazing into the eyes of a newly awakened goddess. I suppose it will take more than the passing acknowledgment of a flirtatious man in a chef’s toque to transform me.
I take a deep breath before leaving the restroom. In order to rejoin my husband, I’ll have to pass that man in the tall starched hat. Will he see me and beam again? Will I trip on the carpet or collide with a hurrying waiter under his amused stare? As I make my way toward the man who has learned to wait so patiently after all these years, I feel as awkward as the teenager whose greatest thrill and dread is walking past that certain boy on the way to her seat in Algebra. But as I totter down the length of the restaurant, no one pays me any mind, neither my spouse nor the fickle man behind the counter.
When I stumble up against the edge of my husband’s shoe, I get his practiced hand under my elbow to steady me. I think of the times he puts gas in my car, watches the kids so I can go out, gets up first on winter mornings and turns on the heater. His capacity for maintaining the machinery of daily existence seemed sexy to me once. I am grateful for his touch now and follow him blindly toward the exit.
THE NIGHT air is surprisingly sultry as we step into the lively darkness and make our way among the weekend crowds. Afraid I’ll be left behind, I grab my protector’s hand, which, as usual, simply hangs from his wrist, warm, but wooden. I experience the sensation of carrying an object, a medium-sized book or clutch bag. Before I release my hold, I draw his attention to the music booming from an open nightclub door, knowing he will never suggest that we go inside and dance. I make do with imagining his fingertips on the small of my back, lightly guiding me through the smoky clamor of the bar onto a crowded dance floor. We could dance to the tune we’re hearing now, laughing and replaying the dance steps of our early adolescence–the Twist, Jerk, Pony, Swim. If the next number turned out to be a slow one, we could always duck out, since he has never really learned to lead, and I seem to have misplaced my ability to follow.
I look up at the bold-faced moon, languid on a blanket of luminous clouds, and wonder what it would be like to follow someone into the fragrant park across the way. Would our kisses become the velvet of rose petals open to the night air, or would my companion and I go hard and sharp as the pair I now observe emerging from a dark side street to join the other revelers? The volume of this man’s banter is turned up too loud, his cologne nearly overpowering. His date is pretty and young, but her eyes glitter in the darkness. As they pass us, I watch her snake a bold hand into one of his back pockets as she catches the glance of another prowling man.
More likely, I would find myself re-enacting my own version of the next scene we encounter. A woman my age leans against a whitewashed wall, arms crossed, shoulders hunched. She is trying to discourage the attentions of a slightly swaying man who leans too close and breathes blurred words at her averted face. Her reluctance is clear in her downcast gaze, but even now she is lifting her head and going into the bar with him.
More eyes and long teeth flash predatory in the moonlight. More loutish shouts and shrieking laughter, boozy clouds of scent and smoke. I had forgotten that being in love first requires the hunt for a lover. Even the capture of a sitting duck takes place in a wilderness of uncertainty. I remember those long ago days spent half sick with impatience and fear, waiting for calls or letters that could never have come often enough. I recall being mortified by a man’s indifference, humiliated by rejection. I remember dishing out my own helpings of dismissal.
Just before we reach the car, a couple steps out of a doorway ahead of us. They have obviously survived the initial hazards of the hunt and are frolicking in the phase of love I have been fantasizing about. As they walk side by side, the air between them seems charged, like the particles found in textbook diagrams illustrating magnetic flow. The two of them are generating an energy field that holds them close in a humming intensity nearly audible to passersby.
“Should we do something tomorrow?” the young woman asks sweetly, with a smile that suggests doing nothing would be equally delicious. When her small, playful hand brushes her lover’s bare forearm, he temporarily forgets how to walk. I nearly laugh out loud as she swiftly takes advantage of the pause, rising on tiptoe to taste the point of his chin as if it were an exquisite chocolate. He falls back a little, somewhat stupefied by his good fortune, then sweeps her joyously into his arms. He waltzes his pony-tailed Cinderella down the uneven sidewalk, confident that the toll of midnight will never strike.
I watch them disappear, and feel the smile lingering on my face. I imagine that wherever they go, this arduous pair is met with expressions as indulgent as mine. I think back to my tall, blond angel of the grill and wonder if his extraordinary grin was actually intended to include my husband. Did we present a picture of intimacy that gladdened his heart, triggering his blessing? In that man’s eyes, we, too, may have appeared to be dancing, not the bright, hot mambo of early courtship, but the slow sarabande of the undeniably coupled.
THIS POSSIBILITY does not dissipate my longing for those dances of a younger time. I still yearn to be lifted out of plodding predictability into the spellbinding rhythms of desire. I already have a partner, but I wonder what music is playing in his head.
We drive home on deserted country roads, looking out at strange glowing columns of clouds, lurid in the moonlight. “Crawling Eye weather,” my mate remarks. He mimics a few bars of soundtrack from one of the cheap horror movies we used to watch on the portable black-and-white TV in his apartment bedroom. I tentatively slip my fingers under the warm curls at the back of his neck, remembering a time they flowed past his shoulders. He keeps his eyes on the road, the earth maintains its steady spin, but we both know why the other is laughing.
Susan Bono is a local writer and teacher who edits and publishes ‘Tiny Lights,’ a journal of personal essays. This essay, written a decade ago, finally made it out of her files to win the creative nonfiction award in Copperfield’s Books ‘The Dickens’ this year. She is wondering what she might write about her 21st anniversary, now that she and her husband have figured a few things out.
From the February 1-7, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.