LONG LOST LOVE
How did I lose thee? Let me count the ways
After that night, we were rarely apart for more than a few days at a time. I was hopelessly in love, so distracted from my usual concerns that I missed the deadlines on two freelance articles that month alone. And yet those small lapses didn't bother me; nothing did. Before I met Mari I had seen myself as rigid and shy, but now I felt relaxed, flexible, easygoing. Like most people, I was at my best in love.
During our first year together, I introduced Mari to a Chicago she had not experienced -- the Art Institute, the Goodman Theater, Second City, the Chicago Symphony, Regenstein Library, the Chicago Bulls and the Cubs, soul food restaurants on the South Side, blues on the West Side. She turned me on to live jazz, the vibrant night life in the Near North and shopping on Michigan Avenue.
Together we journeyed to my native Florida, where I had the thrill of treating Mari and her children to a day at Disney World, their first ever. We also visited my family in Crescent City and Fort Lauderdale and spent three days in Key West. One day, my mother surprised me by asking me if Mari and I would be getting married anytime soon. I already had thought of that prospect, but hearing the words filled me with fear and delight at the same time.
In 1975, I accepted an offer to teach English at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. I was to start work the last of August, just a few weeks away. Mari wanted to go with me, but there were problems: Her children did not want to leave their friends in Chicago, and their father, a jazz pianist, did not want them to live so far away.
Mari decided not to move to DeKalb when I did. Instead, she would wait until the second semester, giving her family a few months to get used to the idea of relocating.
We spent the rest of the summer dreading our impending separation. She cried a lot; I neglected my writing and drank too much bourbon and red wine. Two days before I was to leave for DeKalb, Mari came to my apartment and crawled into bed. I joined her. For five or six hours we lay there caressing, talking and reading poetry. We were committed to each other.
Then I had to go. In DeKalb I occupied a four-bedroom house about four miles from campus. I had chosen it with Mari and the children in mind. It had a big yard, miles of cornfields in every direction, blue skies stretching to forever. The rooms were large, with plenty of space for my ever-expanding library.
And yet I was miserable there, as lonely as Kane in his terrible vast Xanadu. During the first week I missed Mari more than I could have imagined. I could not think of anything but her; I telephoned her at noon, after work, and several times each night. That Friday after my last class, I pointed my VW toward Chicago and drove as fast as I dared.
Mari was waiting for me on the front stoop of her apartment building. The kids were with their father, so we had the place to ourselves. We made up for lost time.
For three months we had a commuter love affair. Finally, at the end of December, Mari and the children left Chicago and joined me in DeKalb. Within a week the kids started school and Mari enrolled full time at the university, where she also found a part-time job in the print shop. She often visited my office and joined me for lunch in one of the campus diners.
Life could not have been better. We bought a small camping trailer and fishing gear and spent weekends exploring the wilderness and state parks of western and northern Illinois. The kids usually joined us, though they fought constantly, as kids that age do.
Mari became a pretty good outdoor cook and fisherman, which endeared her to me even more. Everything she did seemed perfect. More than a year after she first strode past my doorway, I still could not get enough of her. One day, during our second year in DeKalb, I asked her to marry me. She said yes, and we set the date for my 36th birthday, six months away.
We were planning the wedding when our lives took a new direction. A former Kennedy-King colleague, now at the University of Wisconsin, telephoned to let me know the school was offering a master's degree program in African language and literature. He remembered that I had always dreamed of traveling to Africa and thought the program might interest me.
Indeed it did. I asked Mari if she would like to visit Africa and she was enthusiastic. Like me, she had wanderlust and saw travel abroad as an adventure and a challenge.
We moved to Madison, where we rented a three-bedroom place a few blocks from the house where Mari was born. She took a full-time job with the utility company and renewed many old friendships. The children adjusted quickly because they had lots of cousins in the city. We were happy.
Then, for the first time, Mari and I began to have problems our relationship. The children's father, who often played in Madison's night spots, stopped by often to see them. I didn't like it. They were his children and he had every right to come by, but his visits left me feeling diminished, displaced. Their obvious affection for him only deepened those feelings.
Slowly, I realized I had always resented Mari for having borne another man's children. It was absurd and unfair: She and the children's father had loved each other years before she and I met. And yet I couldn't put aside my feelings of jealousy and betrayal. Although I had no evidence, I became convinced the kids and their father were trying to drive a wedge between Mari and me. Mari and I began to argue over little things, things we once would have dismissed as part of the price lovers pay to be together. We stopped talking about marriage.
The sad truth -- one that I had a hard time accepting -- was that I was too immature to accept another man's children. Mari couldn't take any more of my immaturity; no one could. In love I was at my best, but my best wasn't good enough.
The voice in the background
I was grilling northern pike in the back yard one Saturday afternoon when I turned and saw Mari looking at me in a way she had never done before. The love had gone from her eyes; the ready smile did not appear; her expression was cold and hard. That night, we did not make love. Instead, we simultaneously turned our backs to each other after I turned off the light. Neither of us even said good night.
For more than a month we went through the motions of our relationship. We may have made love twice. One morning I knew instinctively that Mari needed time to think. I drove to Chicago and holed up for two days with a former roommate.
When I returned, Mari and the children were gone. They had taken all of their possessions with them. She did not leave a note. I stood in the middle of the kitchen and cried, for how long I cannot recall.
I could not imagine living without Mari. We fill our days with small comforts, little rituals that sustain us in love -- the inside joke, the reassuring smile, the familiar touch. All my comforts were gone. No more would we read Prufrock and listen to Miles Davis. No more would she read the rough drafts of my articles and fuss at me for dressing too casually. After three years, it was over. We had opened our last bottle of wine, had our final toast.
A few weeks later, I withdrew from the university and made plans to go to Nigeria, where I would spend a year recording the oral legends of the Hausa people. I did not want to leave the country without seeing Mari, but didn't dare seek her out for fear I would be rejected. Twice I called her office, but hung up when I heard her voice. I left for Africa without seeing or speaking to her.
In Nigeria I threw myself into my research, exploring countless towns and villages with my fellow Americans. The year passed quickly but the pain of losing Mari did not. I returned to Madison but not to the university. I wanted to see her but, again, because I was afraid of rejection, I did not.
Seeking an escape, I lined up a teaching position at the University of Illinois, and eventually the almost unbearable sickness in my gut changed to a persistent dull ache, one that never subsides.
Some years later I married a beautiful woman in Key West, and we have a wonderful daughter, who is now 16. In too many ways, though, we were incompatible. I am the loner, the writer, the vagabond; she, the home body who likes to throw a party. We divorced in 1989 and I have not married again. And yet I have created a new life, with new interests and new attachments.
A few weeks ago, I mustered the courage to call Mari, to whom I had spoken only once since we parted. For a fleeting moment, I wanted to turn back time, to bring back that tender feeling. Maybe for a few minutes I could make her mine again. The voice I heard when she answered the phone was the one of old -- soft, intelligent, friendly. There was a long silence when she realized who was calling.
"Yes, this is Max. How are you?"
She started to answer, then paused. In the background I heard a man's voice asking whom she was talking to.
The man was her husband. "I can't talk now," she said.
I told her I understood. Mari has moved on; she takes comfort in someone else now. Whatever we had together was over years ago, and there is no going back -- not for old times' sake, not for anything. Mari will remain my persistent ache, the love I lost because of my own immaturity and excessive pride, the one who got away.
"I'm living in St. Petersburg, Florida," I told her, although I knew it was no use. "My number is listed if you ever want to call."
Let me count the ways: Part 1