Why Am I so Cynical about Love ?

I am not one to dwell too much on the past. At times I am grateful that I committed so much of my story to the blog. At other times I shy away of the visceral pain I experience when I read one vignette of the past. The pain I feel is not about lamenting lost love, it is about the amount of hurt and injustice I suffered at the hands of the disturbed person who used to be my husband. It is no wonder at all that I have sworn off men completely, apart from a brief relationship I had in New York.

When I met M. in New York, I was attracted to everything that contrasted him sharply with my ex. I fell hard for his dark, thin, and scruffy look. I was impressed by his poetic use of language,  more imagined in my head than real. He told me about his rural upbringing and his large family, his immigration to Canada, and his life as a perpetual student before starting work at the organization with me. Even given my few accomplishments in life, I was far more mature than he was. However, I wasn’t yet completely cured from my chronic low self-esteem. I still felt that this man was more accomplished and would never look at someone like me just because I was divorced and a couple of years older than he is.  For a time I oscillated between hope and despair, then finally convinced myself that this could work. A friend of mine even invited him along with me to dinner once, accepting us as a dating couple. For cultural reason we had to keep our involvement a secret at the workplace. But fortunately I did not have to keep this charade for a long time. It was exhausting for someone not used to telling stories, and lies.

Things quickly changed, when my beau became increasingly controlling. Once I arranged to meet with him but my former sister-in-law was in New York for a short visit and spent time with me, my son and my mom. I could not get out of this meeting soon enough for us to have time together in the afternoon, and he did not accept my apology for this delay. At another time I spent an hour or so chatting with friends in the cubicle next to his and did not come to see him at my usual time, and he was offended that I preferred others. The final straw however was when one evening he called me inquiring what I did with my afternoon. I was puzzled because I am usually very pressed for time between work, errands and caring for my son. I recalled going to the bank in the building next to our office, then picking up my son from day-care and going home. He insisted that I tell him again and again my exact movements. At the end it turned out that he saw me leaving the office to the bank that afternoon and later saw my only male friend, and the husband of my New York sister and colleague, heading in the same direction a few minutes later and he came up with his own sick version of how my afternoon proceeded having a tryst with my best friend’s husband.  This accusation was so shocking to me that I completely lost all respect and love for him, it was the equivalent of throwing an ice-bucket over my lovelorn self. I was completely cured out of this crush. Shortly after this I flew home to South Africa and on my return I was able to break off with him completely. It took some time of course, but I no longer went out to him or spent time at his home, and in the end he understood. I wanted us to stay colleagues and maybe friends but his passive aggressive reaction was to stop talking with me completely and surprisingly this did not hurt much. I have been single since.

I still experience the occasional crush, but if the person I fancied was involved or uninterested I quickly forget. I am not young anymore but I get hit on by younger African guys, and I let them down easy. An affair, a fling, or a purely physical relationship will not work for me, I know. I have learned to look at the people I fancy with a critical eye, and as my male friend from New York advised once that I should, I have become better at reading danger signs. I now try to trust my instinct more.

It is not an easy task, when the intuition is miles ahead of the intellect. I now accept that my reasoned assessment of people is flawed. Out of all the people I fell in love with, there is perhaps only one, my childhood sweetheart, that I consider still worthy of romantic love.  Thirty years after our brief romance, he is still a person I would like to talk to, and above all he is a good human being and a wonderful father. When I fell in love with him, my instinct recognized these qualities from the start. But instead of believing my intution I went with an analysis of all the artificial differences that separated us. Thirty years later, the imagined barriers are ironically all gone and we now have similar lives, albeit on different continents. He also has a partner who appreciates him, having gone through a divorce herself.  He became the person I envisioned by intuition, and a true father to her children before they had their own together, I have never lost respect and appreciation for him as a person. Even after my broken marriage led to adventure, brought me places and gave me true independence. Sometimes I wish I chose intuition over intellect.

My track record since that first innocent love has been dismal. I am hopelessly attracted to interesting types, with problems. Men who charm me with their adventure, intelligence, or mysterious pain. Then, they turn out to be show-offs, sociopaths, or irresponsible womanizers. I learned to be cynical about my feelings. I simply see the signs, tick them off, and wait until the penny drops. It usually happens within a few months. Now I only have lighthearted crushes that never go very far beyond flirting. I enjoy the sense of power this gives me, sometimes I even enjoy the lightness of step, butterflies in the stomach, along with the curiosity of getting to know someone, and the sleepless nights of thinking about them. Those feelings make me remember again the flush of first love. In the end, however, they all fizzle to nothingness when reality sets in. My hard-won cynicism about love is vindicated, when the man in question turns out to be a player or a cad. I am safely again agnostic in matters of love, as I am agnostic in faith.

The upside is that I do not do heartbreak anymore. I haven’t experienced this desolation since my first relationship some 20 years ago. The downside is that I became doubtful of my capability of romantic love.  That said, I am still human, and despite everything I said here, a small part of me hopes that my reason will fail one day, and that I will know love by intuition, and lose the cynicism.

The One Who Got Away

Changing tack from the frequent whinging about my ex, let me tell you a story about the man in my life that I never forgot. It seems like amongst the many men that come calling in a woman’s life there is always one who stands head and shoulders above the rest. It is normally one of those lucky ones that got away, someone who never had the chance to disappoint, break a promise or do any serious damage. That particular person seems to be always there, as an idea, unfairly compared in the mind to a flesh and blood husband, a jilted lover, or the person who caused the most recent heartbreak.

Notwithstanding my current cynical view of love and relationship. I haven’t been immune to the feeling in my younger days. In fact, I would say I was rather susceptible to it. During my years at university I even remember devising ways to meet an unsuspecting (or sometimes very much suspecting) object of my affection accidentally on purpose. I was never very subtle about it, so it is just as well that the young men I tried to snare mostly did not turn up for those badly planned coincidences. In time I would get over those infatuations, lose interest or find someone else to swoon over, and nobody would get seriously hurt in the process. Generally speaking, I am grateful that I never hitched myself to any of the men I once admired. Some have changed into caricatures of their younger selves, but mostly it was I who has changed.

At age 28 I left my birth country, fleeing a broken heart. It was an impossible bond with a man already promised to another. He claimed that his marriage will not change what he felt for me but I did not want to become the other woman in a miserable triangle. I now look back and shake my head at the memory of the heartbroken immature person I was back then. I wonder whatever it was that I loved in a man who lacked true backbone. At the time I found him sensitive and caring, we heard love songs together, and cried over their sad words. To him perhaps I am the one who got away, the one he remembers after all the others sank under the weight of their years, or got lost within the folds of their traditional dress and traditional lives. Perhaps I am the equal partner he wants to be with instead of coming home to his servile and hopelessly dependent wife. To me, however, the sun has revolved over a dozen times around the sun, and I have walked halfway around the world, and the simple fellow who once read poetry to me has remained the same sad spineless figure, he belongs to the past to someone that used to be me.

All the others, including my ex, are a story that has been read and written to the end. They came, they saw, and they might have even conquered for a while, but they all left, on their own or on my bidding. Some hurt me, others got hurt, but eventually they will all fade from memory. Even those who brought smiles or happy times will fade, because memory is only worth as much as the person it keeps alive. Sometimes, I cherish the ancient memory of someone long gone from my life, because that person is still dear to my soul. That memory is treasured like the photo album of a happy childhood, and no matter how rarely it is looked at it always tugs at the heart. Other memories, are discarded, like that fancy dress bought on impulse, and worn only once, that inevitably finds its way to the donation pile, because seeing it in the wardrobe always reminds of a moment of poor taste.

And so it was amongst all the heartbreaks I went through, and all the hearts that I have broken. There is always the one who got away, the one I still remember. He was the boy I loved once when I was a girl. We spent the summer of my 14th year with his family, enjoying sun, sea and sand. He was not handsome in the classical sense, but he got me hooked on the warm depth of his brown eyes. He was not tall, but his enthusiasm for gymnastics gave him an impressive broad-shouldered figure. He was also very nimble and agile on his feet. Many years later I would be reminded of him when I looked into the eyes of an African Kudu, graceful, powerful with unbelievably gentle eyes.

The summer we first connected was our first major holiday back home after two years in Abu Dhabi. Our family holidays were always a noisy affair, we spent them with many relatives’ families in a shared block of flats in a coastal resort. My childhood hero and I became friends that summer, he was 18 then, almost a university student and thus worthy of my early adoration. Later, I ostensibly wrote letters to his sister, and was thrilled beyond measure when he sent the occasional reply on feather-light pink paper. I can still see his beautifully penned sentences, with the letters curling onto each other, and twisting in a symmetrical dance between the lines. Those letters were full of his understated somewhat crude boyish humor. I read them over and over again the winter that followed, hearing his deep chuckle in the words. That year I even tried to imitate his handwriting, ending up with a barely legible version of his elegant one for a while, until sanity prevailed and I returned to writing in my own unspectacular manner.

I think I forgot about him for a couple of years after that, when I went through serial crushes on soccer stars and singers. I was mad on pop music at the time, and there were many pretty boys on the charts then, like there is now.  My Greater Kudu would feature again in my life during my first year at university, when my family returned home for good. We became close again, and this time friendship was destined to grow into something more. It was in fact a breath away from becoming serious, but I just annihilated it with one word. I snubbed the first guy I kissed, who was probably my only true soul-mate on the pretext that he was an atheist.  People who know me today would find this hilarious, because the girl who fancied herself then some sort of a born-again Muslim has turned into an agnostic, highly critical of religion. It is also funny because less than ten years after snubbing a Muslim atheist I ended up marrying a Christian atheist, who only converted to Islam so that we could get married.

It has been almost twenty years since I let that boy get away. After my knee-jerk reaction to his love declaration, I think I secretly pined for him for a while and wished my harsh words away many times. But I met the man who would eventually drive me away from home. While my first love lost would move in ever widening circles around me until another woman would know his true worth and sweep him away to another continent. Around the same time I would be swept away too in an opposite direction.

In some uncanny way though, our lives took parallel courses. His wife had a  previous marriage and children from that marriage, and so had my ex. Some twelve more years down the line we now live in the same city. There, the resemblance ends though, because he is happily married, has two delightful children with a wife who cherishes and appreciates him, more so because of what she suffered at the hands of her first husband. Ironically, her status as a divorcee, with children from her first marriage, set his whole family against the marriage for a long time. Nobody even raised an eyebrow when I was marrying a divorced man, who left two young  children behind – but that is different story, for some other time.