Love’s Geography

My first real marriage was to a place, not a person.  As a young man from Pittsburgh starting out in life, I fell in love with and married New York City.  She was my first in a number of ways: first time on my own outside the cocoon of academe; first real job, first time making money, first taste of big city life.   The usual.   I fell in love with several women there, but my first love was the city itself.

I had gone to New York because of my college girlfriend, who had grown up on Long Island as an only child, and thought our little Ohio campus just slightly less remote and isolated than the dark side of the moon.  She was homesick, for her home and her family, but also for Manhattan, where life, she assured me, was really lived.  So I got accepted to Columbia Law School and we moved to New York — separately, to be sure, but linked like a double star, rotating around each other.

In my graduate student dorm at Columbia, I lived as close an approximation of abject poverty as I’ve ever experienced, but I still found real beauty in the city, in the way the afternoon light coming across the Hudson tinted the brick of the old West Side buildings, in the way the Village really seemed like a village, in the way the tangle of ethnicities managed to live together in a semblance of peace and order. I became a New Yorker, feeling the kind of pride in myself and in the place that pioneers must feel.

Every Friday night when my classes were over for the week, I would take the 7th Avenue subway down to 86th Street, then catch the crosstown bus over to my girlfriend’s east side apartment, in a big new high-rise that looked like it had been built out of discarded refrigerators, all white and shiny and cold.  There, when her roommate was away, which was usually, we learned the rudiments of domesticity and sex, and that we were still very young, and that we could not imagine a life together except as an outcome of a brand of social logic as chilly as the building we slept in. 

I went south.  South to the tapered end of Manhattan, the big spikes at the end of the island’s EKG printout, down there where the World Trade Center’s towers still held sway over them all,  over all of us, in my law firm’s prim warrens.  There I fell in love with a terribly bright, brash, cigarette-smoking, bespectacled smarty-pants from Iowa with hair down to her butt and a stevedore’s sense of wordplay.

Dear reader, I married her. That summer, I moved into her apartment on West 9th Street in the Village, and six months later we were wed. She already had a six-year-old daughter and a lurking ex-hippie ex-husband. She was brash and vulgar and funny, and feminist in that card-carrying, in-your-face way that women were in those days.  I argued politics and movies with her constantly, loved her command of language and admired her stick-straight hair. We’d sit up half the night sipping Dry Sack and reading and listening to Joan Baez on the stereo and looking out the windows, flung open and screenless in the summer heat, looking south over the roofs of the buildings across the street and all the way downtown to where the World Trade Center’s towers loomed up in the night with a drama and hubris that made you gasp every time you saw it.  

She took a job in Washington, D.C. and I followed her there and we had a little girl of our own and, under the weight of all this, almost immediately split up.   She moved back to New York,  to Greenwich Village, and again I followed her, but only as far as Gramercy Park.

Where, oh where to go then?  I hung in there for a few more years, enduring the child custody commute, enduring my daughter’s endurance of me, falling in love with another kind of uptown girl, another intellectual, a writer, what I really wanted to be, ‘way up on 96th Street, where the East Side eventually becomes Harlem and things threaten to get out of control. 

For love of a friend and mentor I eventually moved out of New York to California, with which I’d had a long flirtation through the songs of Joni Mitchell.  This was in the pre-AIDS ‘80’s, when sex was casual to the point of recreation and life was thought to be good.  My friend had been the president of my college, was divorced himself, and took an unexpectedly intense and generous interest in my post-graduate life, including, most caringly, my failed marriage. 

He was trying to save me from myself, or at least from my sadness and perverse sense of duty, and he convinced me that the antidote could be found, well, where he was, in California. So I moved to be near him and his family.

But it was back in Manhattan, on those many trips to see my daughter and for work, that I fell in love again, crashingly, foolishly, with one of her teachers.  The sex was anything but casual, and sustained us in good times and many, many bad ones for years to come. There are several ways to pay for this sort of near-incestuous folly, and she and I and my daughter worked our way through them all.  

She was a transplanted California girl with her own child, a son, and longed to raise him where he might see a tree and develop some familiarity with the concept of grass.  So she and her boy joined me in my bedroom town outside San Francisco, and came home from work one day to say she’d found the perfect house for the three of us.  (This was when you could still buy a house and not be Steve Jobs.)   I borrowed some money from my very doubtful father, took out a very large mortgage, and we moved in.  It was a little place in the woods, but it was the first home that was actually mine, a piece of land I actually owned, with a couple of big redwoods on it that by inference I also owned. 

At night I would wander outside and look up at the constellation Orion and his even more sketchy friends hanging in the crystalline, pine-scented darkness and breathe, “California” – rolling the word on my tongue like the delicacy it was to extract all its rich meaning.  Thank you, Joni.

Somewhere out under the Pacific, tectonic plates were grinding, somewhere back east maniacs were plotting to bring down the World Trade Center, other points of the compass were still pulling at me, and this life too would end, but under that canopy of stars in that balmy woodland breeze I had briefly found a place that felt like home.

We never married, and kept that ambiguity going as long as we could stand, which was for many more years than we should have.  When we parted I stayed in the house in the woods, and never thought I’d leave it, nor fall in love again. I was done with all that, just wanted to be a vagabond father to my daughter back east.  I imagined selling the house, quitting my stuffy lawyer’s job and traveling the world with her.  The geography of love, taken to its logical conclusion. 

But my daughter, now out of college, surprised me.  She came to me instead, moved to San Francisco and went to law school and made her final lunge into adulthood right there in front of my eyes.  It was wonderful to watch, to be there in that time and especially in that place. 

I had by this time remarried, and wasn’t going anywhere.  We lived in my house in the woods, and my wife and I would make little trips here and there – New York; Paris – but no place or person seized my heart the way that house (now remodelled) and my daughter had.  Except one place.  My wife’s parents had a little summer house on Priest Lake in Idaho, up near the Canadian border, and we’d go there every summer for a week or so. 

It was an old ramshackle cabin, accessible only by boat, and it often rained there and kept you indoors, but the lake was vast and cold and deep blue, bounded by thickly wooded shores. There were no cars and you could hike for hours and swim for maybe thirty seconds.  And I fell in love with it even as my wife and I fell out of love with one another.  So that when, after many years of visits, I last left the house on Priest Lake, my wife’s father stoically piloting us across the water in a little dinghy, I knew it was for the last time, that I would never see it again, that it would become forbidden to me, as had so many other places and things. And that stove in my heart as nothing had since my daughter’s mother left me for New York those many years before.  When the time came for my wife and I to part, I found that the most painful separation had already happened, and Priest Lake had become as inaccessible to me as a distant planet.

When the divorce was nearly done, my mother, whom I had convinced to move to the Bay Area a couple of years before, was stricken by an e coli outbreak and lay dying in Stanford Hospital.  She made sure I knew where all her important papers were, and after she was gone I dutifully went through them.  Among them was a hand-written itinerary of her married life, year by year, place by place, some 20 different homes in all, stretching across 50 years and two countries and crisscrossing the American continent.  And I saw again how place girds our lives and structures our loves, and that I was, in this way as well, very much her son.  My daughter and I scattered her ashes on a high hill near my house in the woods.  From the top, you faced one way and saw the Pacific, faced the other and there was San Francisco Bay.

A woman whom I’d met in San Francisco, recently divorced herself, made it clear that, for her, I was the one.  World-weary as I’d become, this was hard to believe, but I set about trying to believe it.  This was not the oblique, edgy, ambiguous love of my youth; this was love, directed at me, as undiluted and strong as summer sun.  At first it hurt my eyes, but eventually I learned to reflect some of it back on her.

We planned to marry, and it was time to move out of my house in the woods.  While we looked for a new home that would be ours and not just mine, I took her on a tour of the places of my youth — New York, Pittsburgh, and the little town in Ohio where I’d gone to college and met the girl who would later draw me to New York.   In that town, which I loved with both an alum’s nostalgia and a middle-aged man’s appreciation of what ends up really mattering in life, my new wife found herself an unexpected answer to the question of where she belonged on the planet.   On near-impulse, we bought a house there for what seemed like little money — a placeholder for our future together — and went home to real life back west.  

We moved to San Francisco, to a house on a precipitously steep hill, at just the time my daughter, now engaged herself, announced that she and her fiance’ were moving to, of all places, Pittsburgh, so that he, a college professor, could pursue a tenured position there. Suddenly Ohio, across the border from the Steel City,  seemed a prescient choice for a second home.  And soon,  a first-and-only home.

And so we came to what seems a resting place, the hoped-for destination of two hearts’ desires.   Does how you love dictate where you live, or the other way around?  In love’s geography,  the two merge into one great longing and, in my lucky case, fulfillment.

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