After Thirty-Eight Years, a Look Back at “Romance”

Jose Luis and me, 1986

Sometimes I ask myself, What went wrong? The question doesn’t come up too often anymore, especially in the last five years, a long period of relative serenity and freedom from obsession.  But the other day, with my guard down and me actually feeling nostalgic for a bit of intrigue and excitement, I had a long chat with someone on a dating/hookup site, CVsouthland a.k.a Caleb. It was a moment of spring, a moment of potential and hope…

For about an hour or two afterwards it felt like a refreshing change of pace, a bit of frisson that’s been lacking for so many years. I was once again experiencing something like that special thing most people live for, most people want. But then those pleasant feelings evaporated and I remembered what I am.

I had my first encounter in my dorm room at Columbia in New York back in 1980; it was with someone I’d met in a bar in Greenwich Village. Thirty-eight years ago now. In those thirty-eight years I’ve had many, many (very) casual partners (it would be impolite to state how many, but I have a rough idea). I’ve had only four relationships in these thirty-eight years. Even to call them “relationships” is a generous way of putting it; they were more like extended one-night stands, or affairlets. I’d say all four added up to about three-and-a-half months.  The third of those, with Jose Luis in 1986, resulted in me seeking therapy, and I’ve been in therapy in one form or another for the last thirty-two years.

My first therapist, a Freudian in Barcelona, thought it was helpful that I was taking a step back from all the insanity to just lie on her couch and analyze…and analyze and discuss and remember and ponder.  She said to me explicitly, “I don’t think you are looking for a real relationship.”  In some ways I think she understood me better than my later, American, male therapist who said, “Yes, I think you do want love” and “We grow through relationships: they are a classroom.”  Whereas her idea was that I’m looking for intrigue and sexual fantasy and an idealized version of myself that I can only find in me and not in others, the American therapist’s idea was that however painful relationships are, we grow and learn through them and come out knowing ourselves better. Also, he believed the more I dated, the more I would get desensitized and hardened to all the turmoil involved in man-to-man love. These therapists had very different backgrounds and perspectives and both are right about some things.

If I were much  younger than I am, I might still hold out hope of a lasting relationship, but since thirty-eight years have gone by and all four of my affairs were nasty, brutish and short, I wouldn’t go into any future endeavor with confidence that anything has changed. And I’ve always clung to the notion (I know it will sound simple-minded) that some people are meant to merge, and others aren’t. The ones who end up merging, I’ve always intuited, are looking for friendship and companionship more than anything else. The ones who don’t merge, and go from partner to partner, are living more in fantasy, and more than anything else are looking for excitement, intrigue, and drama; for them, the long-term marriage bed is a graveyard of dreams. During my time in group therapy and twelve-step groups, I constantly saw people who fell into one category or another.

But not to talk about them, and those people, but rather to make it more personal here: in the last day or so, when I asked myself what happened over all these thirty-eight years and why I had little trouble finding sex but a lot of trouble finding even short-term romance, I came up with the two characteristics of the ideal young man and, more importantly, the one characteristic in myself that made a relationship so challenging.

First the young man. He should have these two attributes: he needs to be very different from me; and he needs to give off an atmosphere of unavailability. Only then can I start to feel excitement. I was adopted by an older German-Jewish couple—Henry and Vera Frankel—who were uptight and so very different from the beautiful hip American people who parented most of my classmates in grade school. I was brought up wearing a bow-tie, carrying a briefcase to school, being bullied, being bad at sports, and so on. During my first days in junior high school, I saw near the edge of the schoolyard some boys who were maybe a year older than me, very pretty and tough, who were smoking cigarettes (they weren’t bullies, by the way). When I think back to them, I see the ideal. And it’s also clear that that kind of person would never be a good fit to spend the rest of my life with. I like opera; I read books. They listen to rock or rap and watch TV. And so on. I never liked the person that Henry and Vera Frankel brought up. I always preferred the young, sexy birth parents who gave me up for adoption. And by the time I did meet my birth parents in 1990 they were of course not young and sexy anymore, but they had some of the same characteristics I admired, especially my birth mother: coldness, nonchalance, unavailability…

All four of the young men I was involved with, and virtually all of my one-night stands and quick partners, were people much younger than me. It wasn’t just their age, though. They were masculine, tough, often working-class, and, even though they slept with me and were attracted to me, were incapable of returning any sentimental feelings. Well, I’ve known that for a long time, but a few years ago, when I saw someone’s profile on a dating site and read how much he wanted a nurturing partner in his life, I was suddenly and depressingly made aware that that’s the last thing I want. I don’t think I would have been able to come to this conclusion twenty or even ten years ago. I couldn’t have faced it. It’s a sorry state of affairs. Who’s the ideal? This guy—at least the fantasy of him:

So far I’ve been talking about the ideal youth. As awful as his attributes may sound, they would not be insurmountable barriers if it weren’t for the one characteristic in me that makes relationships hard. It’s not just the kind of people I choose. It’s the way I react to them inside me.

With all my partners, major and minor, after the moment I first met them I didn’t have a life anymore except to focus on them. I ate, I slept, I worked—but my mind was on one thing and one thing only. I lived for the moments I could spend with them. I sat by the phone waiting for them to call (not daring to make the call myself). I would lose weight, usually ten or twenty pounds. I couldn’t sleep. I would go out with friends or watch movies and not really pay attention to the friends or the movies.  From the moment “romance” began, depression also set in. And the depression could only be temporarily lifted if I was in the loved one’s presence. How many laundromats and hardware stores have I sat in or walked through and felt the impersonal ugliness of everything; how those places dragged me down because inside I was desperate for Him to reach out and lift me up.

Of course, this state of affairs couldn’t last. What really doomed the relationships was mostly not the fact that these people were so different from me or that they weren’t nurturing; it was that inside me the turmoil was so profound that, try as I might to conceal it, the young men had to have noticed—even unconsciously.  I didn’t act in a clinging way; I’d never say “I love you”; I tried to act nonchalant. But they always could pick up my desperation.  And who wants to be around that? They sensed the power they had over me. They got their fill of rubbing meat together and whatever else they were looking for, and then it was time to move on.

Here’s the number one characteristic of the love addict according to Pia Melody:

Love Addicts assign a disproportionate amount of time, attention, and “value above themselves” to the person to whom they are addicted, and this focus often has an obsessive quality about it.

And so…thirty-eight years have gone by since that first encounter in my dorm room. And thirty years of therapy and many of twelve-step work and group therapy. Maybe some would say that I’ve been lazy and I haven’t done the work. But I’ve seen from other people around me (in programs and groups) that I’m not the only stubborn one. I’ll say a controversial thing: it’s as hard to change your “type” and your “relationship style” as it is to change your orientation. You can grow; you can be more aware, more mature; you can give up destructive things like drink and drugs and overeating; but change whom you’re attracted to and how you feel inside whenever someone shows you a little attention? I doubt it. I guess I’m a kind of dry drunk. And my lack of relationships over the years has resulted in a lack of relationship (and dating) skills. A kind of stunted growth, you could call it. I know less about the give-and-take of real relationships than your average sixteen-year-old.

What went wrong with all those young men all those years? Freud talks about an id, an ego, and a superego in the mind; others talk about the self being divided between the gut, the heart, and the head, or the primal brain, the emotional brain, and the intellectual brain. There’s also the theory of the “operating ego” versus the “disowned self.” What happened all these years is that I responded to youths with just my lizard brain, with just a part of me, and they in turn just responded to me with their lizard brains. I heard this quote: “You pursue someone out of lust; you have affection for them out of romantic love; you bond with them out of desire for family.” I pursued out of lust which was, often, returned; then usually romantic love was ignited inside me but it was only met with lust on their side–but dying lust, lust that quickly shriveled up, and they moved on. But if they started to have romantic feelings for me, then my romantic excitement would fade. I needed them to be porn-star tough and jock-inaccessible. I’ve spent a lifetime looking for love from hustler types.

I should qualify the last sentence: Unlike a lot of love addicts, I haven’t madly flung myself from one train wreck to another. Because of my sensitivity, and the unlikelihood of extracting anything promising from my “type,” I’ve been content to be single most of my adult life. I’ve only slipped and fallen occasionally.

I came out at a time of the gay baths in New York City in 1980 when you could go to any one of several establishments and stay all night and have loads of partners. Those were also the days of the Mineshaft, the Anvil, Alex in Wonderland, and the great St. Marks Baths. They were like opium dens. I thought the late ‘70s and early ‘80s would be the rest of the future. They weren’t. Now the bathhouses are dying, and we have apps. Apps?!? In the old days, anonymous sex was great for love addicts:  there was less chance to get hooked/trapped. Now, with apps, you have to spend hours on your phone chatting people up and then inviting them to your home, going to theirs, or finding a motel. What times we live in. And this is the perfect storm for the love addict. Having a long cyber-talk plus an hour or two at my place is a recipe for a horrific obsession. I ought to know. It’s happened before:

I chatted with the great Chuy Barajas. Must be some years ago now. He was a swimmer and water polo player from South LA, and the next day we spent two hours together. Perfect “union” and then a shower and then good-bye; I watched him coldly walk away and wait to cross the street, never to be seen again.  A few days passed and I sensed I was in love—in “love” and in “loss” simultaneously. One of those nights I happened to watch Once Upon a Time in America and the harrowing theme by Ennio Morricone for pan-flute, chorus and orchestra became the anthem of my passion and my loss. I still cry every time I hear that music.

And what happened to CVsouthland, a.k.a. Caleb? I ran into him on the same dating/hookup site a week after our memorable chat. He remembered my name! But then after half an hour he drifted away from the conversation and was never heard from again. I was somewhat relieved, to be honest, and quietly went back to my life.