I found a picture of an old girlfriend, and oh my God, she was gorgeous. I immediately remembered everything about her -- how flawless her skin was, the delicate scent of her perfume, the touch of her lips on mine, her taste, and the way she felt against me when we made love. I remembered the sound of her voice when she told me she loved me, although the circumstances in which that was said may need clarification. We were in bed, and I suppose at that moment she did love me, but there was no more emotional content to the utterance than one might expect from a similar one directed at a particularly good bite at a tapas bar. I truly wanted to believe that she meant something more when she said it, but the truth of the matter was that she never saw me as more than a pleasant diversion. She went on to become a stewardess, or flight attendants they call them now, which allowed her to indulge her propensity for brief, shallow relationships.
I followed her blog for a while -- "Alicia's Magic Carpet" she called it. It was actually a pretty good travelogue of sorts -- lots of pictures, lots of anecdotes. She could fly almost anywhere she wanted whenever she wanted (a perk of working for an airline), and she took full advantage of it. Of course like every blog, the entries came less and less frequently, and the last time I checked, it hadn't been updated in four years. I found Alicia on Facebook, but she never responded to my friend request, and I tried not to read into that more than I should.
Do people remember everyone they've slept with? I do, but for me that's not a long list. What's the possibility that Alicia didn't respond because she doesn't remember me, and would that be better than her choosing not to respond because she did remember me?
"If you can find your way back to the real world, could you please pass the salt?"
"Could you please pass the salt?"
"Oh," I say. "Yeah." We're having dinner, Layla and I. Layla, like the Clapton song. Her parents were big Clapton fans. My mother's favorite song was In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, but fortunately she named me Paul, like my uncle, not the Beatle. Layla and I have been together for almost ten years, and I introduce her to people as my wife even though we've never married. I suppose you can't tell the difference at this point, and she's always said that a ceremony does not make a marriage. I don't like the term "partner," "significant other" is just stupid, and "girl friend" is a bit too adolescent, so what's left?
"You're awfully quiet."
"Yeah. Just thinking."
"Care to share it?"
I like Layla. A lot. She's very pretty, and I try not to critically compare her to other women, because I think that's pointless. There are countless ways for someone to be attractive. Some of the most attractive women I've known are not classic beauties physically. I worked with a girl who was a bit on the plain and pudgy side but who was really smart, had a great sense of humor with a truly genuine and infectious laugh, and who when you talked to her always made you feel like you were the most important person in her life, so it's not all about looks, I know that, so even in my mind I put a lot of caveats on the statement "Layla is not as beautiful as Alicia."
Alicia was one of those girls whose form and proportion was absolutely unblemished, and whose embrace of her own sensuality uninhibited. She was intoxicating, and I admit that I could not stay out of bed with her. In my entire academic career I had never had a C let alone a D, but I pulled my one and only D in my senior year, in my major no less, and it was the direct result of my relationship with Alicia. I should probably have failed the course, but I had a professor who actually cared about his students. He called me in and said that he had looked at my GPA to that point and asked if there was something bothering me. I was more than a bit contrite when I confessed that I had become hopelessly distracted by a girl. He said that I would not have been the first to be so foolish, and offered me the opportunity to submit a term paper on a subject of his choice, and said that if it was very good, I could possibly get a passing grade. He suggested that I provide an overview of moral development in adolescents. I managed to stay focused for two weeks and produce a paper that the professor said, and I quote, "indicates that you can pull your head out of your ass when you want to."
Sadly, or perhaps fortunately, the two week break from Alicia provided a breather that allowed my mind to become a little less addled with hormones, and I was able to see that in fact I may have been a bit unreasonable in what I expected from the relationship, and indeed perhaps a bit unrealistic about even what the relationship was. To be with Alicia was to be continually entering a frat party where everyone knew her. She was always greeted and greeting, always being drawn away to someone else, touching and being touched with an intimacy that made me angry and jealous. While she had never made any promise of fidelity, nor even hinted at any suggestion of interest in anything other than a casual relationship, I doubted I would ever be able to trust her. That could be an unfair judgment. I've considered the possibility that it was simply a rationalization for being incapable of obtaining something I so clearly wanted. Even now, I wonder what might have happened if I had confronted her with my concerns.
"Do you ever think about your ex?" I ask.
"Occasionally," Layla says. "But only in the context of dungeons, or water crossings in piranha-infected waters, or of chances of being at the precise impact point of an asteroid."
Layla was married once. It didn't end well. They were too young, she maintains, and he had no concept of what marriage meant, and while his actions broke the relationship, she admits to not having had the maturity to know what to have done with those circumstances. That marriage is the reason she and I have never married. I asked her once, actually, and have let it be known that the offer is open ended, but she is Catholic, and she was married in Church, so in her eyes and in the eyes of the Church, she is is still married. She could get an annulment, I understand, and to be honest I do not know why she doesn't.
To me, it doesn't matter. I am not really a believer. God, I think, is simply a conceptualization of order and chaos. Generally speaking order is good, chaos is bad, and if a particular concept of God helps with the understanding of that, great, but more often than not I've seen God used as simply a means to subject and to control. Layla's marriage is over -- the civil contract legally dissolved, the relationship irrevocably broken -- yet the Church refuses to accept what is.
I've had this conversation with Layla, asking her why it matters what the Church thinks. She said, simply, "Annulments are meant to preserve and to protect the spiritual order of things." When I asked why then she didn't get one, she had an even simpler answer. "I don't know."
"Seriously," I say. "What if your ex showed up and said he loved you?"
"I don't think he'd risk getting that close."
"What if one of my ex's showed up and still loved me?"
"I'd tear her hair out."
"And if I was still interested in her?"
"I'd kick you in the nuts and then tear her hair out."
"See? So why don't you get an annulment?"
Layla, who had been raising a forkful of vegetables toward her mouth stops midway and blinks at me.
"What?" she says after taking a bit of time apparently vainly attempting to follow the thread of my logic.
"I was just wondered if you ever thought, just in passing perhaps, that maybe you could get back together with him."
"And you think that's why I haven't pursued an annulment?"
I sheepishly shrug. I know that I am being deceptive, sort of. I don't want to be talking about Alicia here, and I know that the annulment issue is a trigger. It's one of those topics about which Layla has unresolved issues, and I know that she's sensitive about how it affects our relationship, and I really would like to better understand her side of it, but right now it just gets me out of explaining why I'm thinking about a girl I knew ten years ago. I'll deal later with whether that's fair later.
Layla puts her fork down, sits back and crosses her hands on her lap. She sighs. "I know you don't understand it, and I still can't find the words to explain it even to myself, but I truly appreciate your concern and your patience."
I nod once to acknowledge her sentiment. She looks at me, straight at me, her eyes locked on mine.
"I'll work it out someday Paul, but please know that I love you," she says and see, there's the difference between Alicia and Layla. I had heard the words "I love you" from Alicia, and I so wanted them to be more than an indication that she had gotten off. I wanted them to be claim markers on each other's body and soul, but the words were not actually spoken to me, or even particularly about me, they were directed at the moment. Even if I responded in kind, the relationship would not have advanced to more than it was just then. The same words, spoken by Layla, define a universe of possibility. She uses the words to promise care and support, to offer companionship and partnership, to invite and to pleasure. Her words give me permission to love her.
It is intimidating. I've never been entirely sure I can live up to her loving me. It is not unlike approaching a high dive platform. It is a captivating sight watching people plummet from such heights. As I imagine the feeling of launching myself off the platform, my heart races, and I think I know the exhilaration of the rush of free fall. When I am convinced that is what I want, I love the excitement of climbing to the upper platforms, and I am confident when I reach the top, but as I approach the edge, and the the full impact of the height hits me, I freeze. The surface of water looks so much farther away, and the idea of falling changes from exciting to terrifying. I can't bring myself to jump.
"I love you, too," I say, but I have to look away, like I'm looking for something on the table, the pepper maybe. I wonder if Layla notices that I am uncomfortable. I'm not lying, at least in the sense that I want to deceive her, and I'm even telling the truth in the sense that I love her to fullest extent that I am capable of loving, I think, but I know that there is a qualitative difference in her loving me and me loving her. Maybe that's just the way it is in humans, that women are simply better at that sort of thing.
Possibly Alicia had no better sense of love than I do, or that she wasn't ready to love, or that I was someone she could never love, yet loving Alicia seemed to be a less daunting prospect than loving Layla. There wasn't much more required than good sex, and really, that seemed good enough. Enough for a marriage? Maybe. The sex was really good.
"So what's to work out? Do you think God won't forgive you?"
"I thought you didn't believe in God?"
I shrug. "I might not, but you do. Personally I'd just tell the Church to fuck off and then live my life as I saw fit."
"It's not that easy," Layla says.
She sighs deeply and her arms drop to her sides. "It's complicated. The annulment process is a pain in the ass, but I can see why it's got to be that way. There's a lot at stake. Marriage changes you, and we all like to imagine that marriage changes us into a happily ever after version of ourselves, but obviously that's not always the case. Sometimes it's more of a Jekyll and Hyde kind of thing, at least it was for me. When my marriage went bad, it changed me -- I became bitter, spiteful, hateful -- and while I didn't much like the person that I had become, I embraced it because it seemed the only way to survive."
"It wasn't your fault."
"Yeah, it was. Maybe not entirely, and yes there certainly was sufficient provocation, but I chose to return hate for hate, pain for pain. But what happened at the end of the marriage isn't all that relevant, because the Church is going to be looking at what happened up until the wedding. They're going to try to determine if we knew what the hell we were doing when we got married, not how badly we screwed it up."
"So tell them you didn't know what you were doing."
"Here's the thing," she says and leans forward, elbows on the table, hands together with her index fingers pointing at me. "Maybe I didn't know what I was doing, maybe I did, but I do know that I'm not going to lie to the Church. I'm not. So what if I take a good hard look at myself and I decide that I did in fact know I was fully aware of the consequences of entering into a marriage?"
"Lots of marriage don't work out."
"But I said the 'for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health' stuff, and I said 'until death do us part.' I said that."
"I promised God, Paul. What if I'm honest with myself and I admit that I knew what I was doing?" She stops. Her lips tremble very slightly, and a single tear moves slowly down her cheek. She brushes it away in annoyance. "And so, if that's the case, what do I do? Just blow it off? Just say 'well, it doesn't matter?' A solemn oath, my word, doesn't matter? Then what kind of person would I have become? And why then would I ever expect you to trust me?"
"Maybe you didn't know what you were doing."
Layla wipes away another tear and laughs derisively. "Yeah, good news, I was a moron."
"That's not what I meant."
Layla reaches out and touches my hand. "I'm sorry, that wasn't meant for you. Actually you might be right. I've been told that often the whole annulment procedure can be a real healing process, that it can provide perspective and closure."
"Isn't that what you want?"
"Would be nice," Layla says and pulls back from my hand. She picks up her fork again and picks at her plate.
"So what keeps you from doing it?"
She stares at her plate and pushes food back and forth. She seems to be thinking very deeply. Finally, she looks up at me, and her eyes look very sad.
"I'm afraid," she says, puts her fork down, gets up and walks away from the table.
Seems we're both stuck on the same platform. My vote would still be to tell the Church to fuck off, but I will stand by Layla and support whatever she decides. Despite my own uncertainty, there is something about Layla that I can't walk away from. There is a goodness to her that is compelling. In my own theological terms, Layla brings order to my life. I readily admit that Alicia was wildly, wickedly, wonderfully chaotic, and I'm sure she would have consumed me and left me empty, and I'm pretty sure I would not have minded all that much.
While I may still be working through what it means to love her, I am certain I can trust Layla, and the fact that I can is a good indication to me that the good person that she was wasn't lost in a bad marriage. If there is a God, then maybe he can remind her of that.