The Long Fuse and the Perpetual Burn

Forty-nine years ago today, I moved in with Michael. What a very long time ago and yet, I still remember what it felt like to show up on his doorstep with my suitcase, announcing that I was moving into his apartment. He asked me where I wanted to sleep and I said, “in your bed.” During our 8 month friendship, 3 of which we’d spent thousands of miles apart, we’d wound up passing out late at night, usually in my bed, after hours of conversation, smoking cigarettes and listening to music. Except for some snuggling, which admittedly, started feeling like more, at least to me, about two months in, we’d never shared a single kiss. And yet, there I was, ready to cross that sexual rubicon from which we could never return. Things worked out. But here’s the backstory.

Passport photo-December 1971

I don’t think smiles are allowed in passport photos any more. But in 1971 when I was twenty, that’s how I looked when I set off on my European tour, ditching school, my personal confusion and all that was weighing on my mind, driving me crazy, making me unrecognizable to myself. I let it all go for a few months except for one thing. Michael. My new friend, the guy who was friends with my friends, the guy with whom I’d made an instantaneous connection one hot August night at a raucous wedding. I remember wearing my royal blue slinky dress with a red cummerbund, the only dress I had at the time which was suitable for that event, in addition to my court case which preceded the wedding. That case was for obstructing the operation of an institution, otherwise known as a sit-in blocking the Marine recruiting station in our student union. Up to this point, I’d been in love with a man who was too young to bear the weight of my powerful commitment. We’d pretty much trashed each other and I was in a sorry state. I’ve never been able to adequately describe the intense connection that happened between Michael and me the night of that wedding. But within a few days, we were spending absurd amounts of time together while each of us was romantically involved with someone else. By October of that year, I knew something that was on a whole other level was happening, at least in me and I suspected in him. We were too afraid to rock the boat. But I was leaving in January and wasn’t sure what to do other than stick to the departure plan. In my journal entry from October 20th, 1971, I was waxing eloquent about the incredible level of our friendship, quoting Tintern Abbey by Wordsworth, having reached a level of communion with Michael which certainly seemed commensurate with anything old William had found in his “joy of elevated thoughts” in nature. “We are not lovers except in our minds. I don’t know if we’ll ever share ourselves in that lovely physical passion, but how irrelevant, suddenly.” Sort of. I ended that entry with an “I love you, Michael,” which he never saw in the light of day.

I moved home to Chicago at the end of December, 1971. I left my dog in Michael’s care. I was spending time with my family before my departure for Europe. I was so confused about breaking off my toxic relationship with my boyfriend of almost three years and really afraid that my feelings for Michael were some sort of fantasy. He showed up in Chicago, unannounced, to let me see my dog one more time before I left. Such a sweet thing to do. While doing dishes together a few weeks earlier, he leaned down to give me a lobsided kiss on my cheek which landed on the corner of my mouth. I can still feel the shock of it igniting what would become a long fuse and ultimately, a perpetual burn. But that was months away. We said goodbye and shortly after, my two friends and I took off for the drive to New York where we’d depart for Europe. I thought hard during that road trip and mustered up the courage to call Michael from Philadelphia to tell him I loved him, a relatively safe option as I fled reality. He said, “far out.” And off I went.

We traveled without a camera back then, with no cell phones to track all the sights we stuffed into our multi-country excursion. But I kept my journal and wrote dozens of letters to Michael and my family. As we hitched our way from country to country, I could feel myself gaining insight and clarity. I was still afraid and certainly damaged from the rollercoaster relationship that changed me from a relative innocent into a wiser but scarred person. I didn’t know then that for me, the single most important role in my life was to be a partner. Not a parent, not a careerist but a person sharing a life with someone. But all my behavior pointed in that direction.

When I came home, I sorted out the unfinished business of my emotional connections and wound up on Michael’s doorstep, ready to go all in to see if I’d found my person. We were never apart after that. Two youngsters, 20 and 22, we had a lot of things to learn about each other and life. But despite many bumps in our road, once that fire started it stayed lit, sometimes a high flame, other times almost embers. It never went out. Now, almost 4 years after his death, I’m still here with the same burn I felt for forty-five years. I had no expectations for what life would hold for me after he was gone. Before he died, he would ask me what I would do and said all those things you hear about spouses giving you permission and blessings to move on, to find partnership and happiness because you deserved that. We had been in his health crisis for so long. For years, I needed to use my intellect to transcend my emotions so I could be his best advocate, his clear thinker. At the time, I had a distant awareness that I was already suffering from PTSD. But in trying to live every moment with him and to extend his life as long as possible, how I actually was didn’t become clear to me for awhile. After the stunning shock of initial grief following his death, I slowly began to reorient myself, to reintegrate those parts of me that by necessity, were disparate during the intensity of that time. And in one of life’s great ironies, the perpetual burn from our very long fuse has come roaring back, in the space that’s been vacated by fear and anxiety and the relentless need to provide care. The Michael I now feel with me all the time is free from illness. Age-wise, I feel like we’re in our fifties, not in the first tempestuous years of our shared existence, but in the place we arrived after working through so many normal hurdles. In my dreams, we are talking about daily life or working on regular chores. Lots of times we’re in our garden where we both spent so much time and from which we derived so much pleasure. In the quiet of evening when the house makes its noises, I absentmindedly think he’s in another room or about to come in the door. Though his physical presence never arrives, I feel blanketed by his essence, particularly when I’m worried about our kids or just worried about the world. With the wealth of language that is my gift, I still can’t describe this internal cushion that is still us, any more than I can describe the power of what pulled us together in the first place. I was surprised in 1971 and I’m surprised today.

For years, Michael assembled favorite songs, his, mine and our kids’ that he put on our House Favorites CD collection. I think I have 38 of them. He introduced me to Aztec Camera who had a single in 1984 called Still On Fire. Maybe that’s the most apt description of how I’m still feeling now, coming up on May, which holds our wedding anniversary, the birthday of my friend Fern who died in 1988, Mother’s Day, my birthday and finally, the anniversary of his death, four days after my birthday and a scant week before his. I remember sending him silent messages, begging him not to die on my birthday. Maybe he got them as he did so many of my unuttered thoughts through the years, when he’d send me a note while we were both at work, telling me I was making so much noise in his head that he couldn’t concentrate. Peculiar as it sounds and astonishing as it is to me, I think our channels are still open and connected. Don’t ask me to explain – there isn’t a single rational thing I can say about that. As he would say, “it is what it is.”

And May is Coming

So Ive clawed my way through this 49th anniversary of our beginning. Next month, the hits will come, one right after the other. I’ve done this before so I’ll do it again with the personal commitment to accept whatever happens as I move through each one. What a mystifying and unexpected road. But the burning and still on fire part? Better this than to feel nothing. Maybe there really is forever. Still on fire.

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