After the excitement of successive relationships with two beautiful but troubled women, Mark Sherman finds lasting love when he trades drama for stability.
When my first marriage ended in 1966, after less than three years and one child, I was — to my surprise — overwhelmingly lonely. Of course I missed my son, but what surprised me was how much I wanted to be attached again. Here I was, a newly single guy of 24, a graduate student living in Cambridge, Mass., one of the places to be in the “Swinging Sixties” Now I could have the fun I’d never had. But as bad as my marriage had been, with me mostly to blame, I was hooked on partnership. I would fall in love three times in the next two years, but only with the last of these women would I find the ultimate prize: someone content and stable.
I was by no means either of those; I was neurotic. I still am, though today’s preferred labels are “needy,” “piece of work,” “damaged goods,” or “high maintenance.” I like “troubled soul,” though no matter what you call us, we are not easy to love and live with. There are our dysfunctional families, our moodiness, anger, low self-esteem—a potpourri of problems that keeps drug companies, mental health professionals, and publishers of self-help books in business.
We troubled souls do exert a strong pull on others, and I certainly felt that from the two beautiful women I fell for in the 18 months before I started dating the wonderful woman I would ultimately marry.
The first was three years older than me. Her dark-haired beauty enthralled me and her sexual eagerness amazed me, so I never considered for a moment that this combination might not be a good omen for relationship permanence.
Within a month she had taken up with one of my fellow graduate students, though it turned out that we were just two in a long line of men. After a while she and I were able to be friends, and one day she said, “You know I made a list of all the men in Cambridge I had slept with, and it was a long one. But then I realized that the list of men I hadn’t slept with would be even longer.”
Ten months later, on my twenty-fifth birthday, I met Mary.
Mary was 5’2″ and blond-haired, with just a hint of a southern accent, and a soft voice which soared exquisitely when she sang. Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint was still a year away, but when I read it, I realized that Mary was the dream girl for a Jewish guy like me. (Also, though only 22, she was already divorced — an immediate bond, since divorce was not so common back then.)
When, a week after we met, she surprised me by showing up to join me at our department’s Friday “happy hour,” she supplied me with one of the happiest moments of my young life. So lonely, feeling so hopeless on that cold Friday afternoon in December, I had just been saying to another graduate student, “Oh God, I wish I had a date tonight.”
The phone in the graduate student lounge rang, and he said, with no reason for either of us to think so, “There’s your date.”
And, yes, it was. It was Mary and she was downstairs.
“Come on up,” I said, and my joy at hearing her voice only intensified when I saw her. Her beautiful long hair was down and she was wearing a red velvet dress.
We had a couple of drinks, and then walked to the Harvard Square Cinema. She leaned against me as we sat there watching “Bonnie and Clyde.” And when we went back to my place, we became intimate. But she said no to actually having sex, and I am a man who, in those situations, always took no for an answer.
What did it matter? I was in love. Sex would happen next time. Or the time after that.
It didn’t. But in all other ways she was a “man’s woman,” a woman who knows how to drive a man to passionate longing, and, not unrelated to this, often has few female friends. I had never been kissed like she kissed me, and I had never felt so special—whether she was expressing her awe over the songs I wrote, the jokes I made, the serious things I said.
“Mary, why can’t we just do it?” I pleaded.
“Because I wouldn’t be able to put the brakes on,” she said.
What was I doing wrong? Desperate for an answer, I asked my therapist. He almost never gave direct advice, so I didn’t really expect it, but I was despairing. I described the situation in detail, the intimacies we shared, and how Mary drew the line. Surely this man of 35, some ten years older than me, would know the secret.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said. “I love her and she seems to love me, but she won’t have sex. And she’s been married! What should I do?”
“Mark,” he said, looking me straight in the eye, “she’s trouble with a capital T.”
Not the answer I was looking for.
Sometimes I would call Mary and not hear back, and wonder if she was done with me, and worry, and feel pangs of jealousy over another guy she seemed to be interested in. And then, as if manipulating men’s emotions was something she had studied in school, she would call me at 5 a.m. and say how sorry she was and how she just had to see me; and I would feel elated that she had called, and would say, yes, yes, when?
Ah, crazy love. I wrote a letter to Mary. I told her how much I cared for her, but how I simply could not go on with things the way they were. It’s in my journal, in my own handwriting—the reasons I was besotted: “Why do I like you so much? To me, it’s obvious. You’re pretty (very!), talented, intelligent, and witty. But most important, you usually seem to really like me. No girl has ever been as affectionate as you usually are. The little things—the spontaneous kiss, the hand-holding, the comment on my hair or beard—all these things make me feel just plain good….”
I never sent it, and the main reason I didn’t is because a few days later I started going out with someone from a world very different from ours—the normal world.
In the months I was seeing Mary I had become friends with a young woman who worked for a professor in my department. She was one of a threesome with whom I frequently had lunch, and because we lived within one block of each other, we would often walk home together—talking animatedly the whole time.
She liked me, I knew, but I was still involved with “Trouble” and wasn’t interested in going out with anyone else. She invited me to go to an art opening in Boston, and I said no. Then she invited me to a party at her apartment, and I said yes. I was still on good terms with my brief love of a year before, so I asked her to join me and, since I was still going out with Mary, I took her too. So there I was, a very pretty blonde on one arm and a beautiful dark-haired woman on the other, and there was my friend, who really liked me, but whom I had barely thought of as a potential date.
She was a “woman’s woman.” She liked men, but she hadn’t taken the course on how to drive them crazy with desire. She didn’t routinely flirt, and she had many female friends. But how could I trade in my fantasy girl for a nice stable one? Did I really want a life as sane as someone like me could possibly hope for?
No longer seeing Mary became relatively easy, helped along by her starting to see another Jewish guy, named Stanley. So my stable friend became what today we’d call a “friend with benefits.” She wanted a deeper relationship, but I was not ready to commit to someone who, in her own words, didn’t have the “pizazz” factor. After we had gone out for a few weeks, she was wondering where things were going.
“Don’t you want to get to know me better?” she asked.
“I’m really not sure,” I said.
Having self-respect, along with her other sterling mental health qualities, she stopped seeing me. I wasn’t all that broken up by this. Maybe we’d just go back to being friends.
A few days later I had my three-year-old son with me. Daytimes with him were great, but, asleep by eight, he was not much company at night. I sat there reading in my studio apartment, trying to keep loneliness at bay.
What about my friend? I thought.
She only lived a block away, so I called and asked if she’d like to come over. I told her that my son was with me—in my studio apartment this meant there would be no awkwardness about anything beyond quiet conversation—and within a half hour she was there.
As we talked I began to realize that this was a “keeper.” She hadn’t acted hard to get; she hadn’t said she’d come and than didn’t. In all ways, she had showed up. And, as always, she was so easy to talk to.
When it was time for her to leave, I said I would like to see her again.
“Okay,” she said.
I added, “But there might be more than just talk.”
“Okay,” she said again, and though she didn’t kiss me good-night, I was very happy.
It took me a few months to fall in love with her, and those feelings came almost as a surprise to me. I found myself saying “I love you” before I even knew I felt that way. She simply didn’t have what my brother has described as “neurotic power.” She wasn’t needy. She was strong and stable.
She was also smart and funny, and we never ran out of things to talk about. We still haven’t, after 42 years of marriage. But we also haven’t ever fully been able to deal with our basic difference. Always searching for contentment, I meditate, read one self-help book after another, listen to CDs of Deepak Chopra in the car, and talk to my fellow troubled souls about how they deal with life. My wife has never meditated nor read a self-help book. She already has what the rest of us are looking for.
Her biggest problem is the same one I have: Me.
A while back, as we drove to one of our favorite places to pick up our Friday night Chinese food, I was in good spirits; but on the way home all I could think and talk about were my dissatisfactions and frustrations with life.
“You sure are moody,” my wife said.
“Yes, I am,” I replied.
“You know sometimes I feel guilty for being happy,” she said
“Oh, no, that’s ridiculous,” I said. “It’s great that you’re happy.”
And it is. I know I give a lot to our marriage. I am a loving husband, I’m not boring, and I’m a very involved father and grandfather. But my wife has given me the gift so many of “my people” never seem to find: a stable partner. I am still so very grateful that at a time when my youthful passions and need for excitement were in full bloom, I listened to the quiet voice that said, “Don’t let this one go.”