His nametag reads “Boris” and it cheerfully informs me he’s from Bulgaria. I stare at his nametag as he has his hands in my crotch, fastening me into a harness that I will wear as I attempt to scale the climbing wall at the bow of our Royal Caribbean cruise ship. It’s a little over a 30 foot climb, with colorful pegs to use as hand and foot holds. My former boyfriend Don and I decide to do it after reading the only requirements are “socks and a sense of adventure”.
Boris tells us we’re the only people interested in doing the climb this afternoon as the weather hasn’t been favorable for outdoor fun. Dark and cloudy, with some spitting rain off and on. The masses are inside enjoying another helping at the buffet and settling in for some day drinking at the piano bar. Don and I typically steer clear of crowds, so we are thrilled to have Boris and the climbing wall to ourselves, even in the face of impending stormy weather.
Don scurries up the wall quickly, ringing the bell at the top with a victorious smile. He comes flying down like Peter Pan as Boris lets go of the tether attached to his harness. When it becomes my turn, I’m not worried, really. I'll be strapped in so it’s not like I can plunge off the side of the boat or anything. I’m not afraid of heights or bad weather or Boris’ ability to snap me into some safety gear. What I am afraid of is letting go of Don.
Don and I had recently broken up and I moved almost 500 miles away from the home we shared in Nashville. But I’m delusionally insistent that perhaps we just need “a break”, so I suggest we go on a cruise ship vacation together after I settle into my new Chicago apartment. Our friends are understandably confused. I’m confused, but after living together over 13 years, I have difficulty imagining my life without him.
I begin to climb the wall with relative ease, carefully grabbing the next highest handhold, while finding a new place for each foot in slow but confident succession. Boris yells advice when I’m momentarily stuck, suggesting which peg might be easiest for me to attempt. The winds pick up and the skies darken.
During our stint on the cruise, Don and I have been having a wonderful time, like when we first started dating. We laugh, we watch movies, we sing drunken karaoke with another couple who meet our stringent standards of acceptability: basically they're smart but they don't take themselves too seriously. I’ve convinced myself that Don’s five year tour of duty getting a PhD has taken its toll on his priorities. Now that he’s away from all that and simply spending time with me he might be willing to put some more effort into our relationship, even though he had little to say when I moved out of our house.
I’m about halfway up the wall when I hear a crack of thunder. The sky lights up with a bolt of lightning. I hear Boris yell something about how I can come down now. But I know I’m still in the harness and I’m not going to fall. I’m still determined to ring that bell.
When we both get back to our respective lives after the holiday, I don’t hear much from Don. He’s busy looking for a job, I’m busy discovering Chicago. It’s clear I really should be getting on with the rest of my life. But I’m afraid of what’s in store for me. I never imagined I would be trying to market myself as a 42 year old single lady. I worry that I’m destined to be alone. I fear the window to find someone else is closing. I must not let that happen, but I’m unsure how to put myself out there after having the book of love slammed shut in my face.
Folks who are the marrying kind seem to believe in Corinthians as some sort of operator’s manual on the subject, so I go there for advice. The good book claims that love does not dishonor others, it is not self seeking, it’s not easily angered, and it keeps no records of wrongs. Could this be right? Time to do some fact checking.
The first steps were easy when I loved a man in rural Wisconsin. Or perhaps I simply loved his life as I stood knee deep in an icy creek that flowed beside his tiny A-frame cabin. I ran for miles in every direction, enjoying that I saw more cows than cars. I also appreciated that he was kind and handsome and he baked pies and taught the neighborhood kids how to play the piano. I met up with this Renaissance Man for months until it sunk in that he was 52 and had never married for a reason, that reason being that some people actually enjoy being alone.
I began to lose footing when I loved a banker in Chicago who had no interest in being alone. He was getting a divorce and his life was a mess. I thought there would be rewards for being on the on the clean up committee. I encouraged him to make amends with his son, I helped him move into a new apartment, I told him everything would turn out fine. A year later when things turned the corner for the better in his world, he ended our relationship by stopping all communication with me with no explanation. I never considered the possibility of going “all in” and having the other person walk away from the table.
I’m about ten feet from the top of the climbing wall and the rain is coming down in sheets. I cannot look up to spot the next handhold. The wall is slippery and the wind is messing with my balance. My arms are aching and I take breaks by putting my feet flat against the wall and straightening out my legs, sitting down into the harness. It doesn’t help me get any higher, but I need a moment that I’m not dangling, trying to find the next peg. I glance down to see Boris and Don staring up at me, then I go back to looking straight at the wall and trying to ascend. My left hand struggles to hold on to the next peg as it's soaked and slick. I move my right foot up to the next spot I can find and hoist myself up another notch.
I was barely holding on when I decided to flip the script and sleep around and not give a shit about anybody's feelings but my own. The younger the conquest, the better. I went on a date with a 36 year old son of a wealthy politician. He had recently graduated from film school and had no concerns about not having a job. He pulled out my chair when I sat down, he helped me put on my coat after buying me dinner. We went back to his tastefully decorated apartment to fool around, after a few minutes he put his hands around my neck and began to choke me. It wasn’t completely unexpected, he told me he was into rough stuff. I showed no fear as he told me how easily he could kill me. It didn’t sink in as so much of me felt dead already.
I met a man who was movie star handsome; he turned from charming to misogynist in one date. I waited by the phone for a guy from work who texted me when he was bored, which wasn’t often. I went home with a 23 year old personal trainer who had to sneak me out of the house in the morning as not to alarm his roommates, who I’m pretty sure were his parents. I feared this was my new life; ludicrous encounters that I spun hilarious in the recounts. I wondered what else might be in store for me as the plucky yet pathetic protagonist, a gal always getting soaked in the struggle.
But love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Really, Corinthians? Really?
Some friends from work asked how I was doing and I had to admit, I was pretty burnt out on going it alone. They suggested I move in with them. They are masters in the art of romance, not in the traditional storybook sense, but in the romance of the self. They buy flowers for no reason. They prepare every meal like it’s a special occasion. They light candles on any given Wednesday. After years of eating cereal for dinner, I could not fathom doing those sorts of things just for myself. I was rubbing elbows every day with people who took pleasure in being alone, people who know how to treat themselves well.
Hanging on by the skin of my teeth was my new normal when met a guy who wanted to love me, but didn’t really know how. I tried to teach him but after a while it felt like all hard work and no return. He didn’t know he was cashing checks on an account that was already overdrawn. He’d been by himself so long, I grew tired of constantly trying to drag him out of his own head. Combined with his super sized Greek temper, my patience was stretched to its breaking point. I’d always employed Norwegian sensibilities when it came to interpersonal relations; basically if something bothers you, you say nothing, you just let little bits of passive aggressive steam slip out every other day for the rest of your life.
Our relationship ended in an unprecedented loss of control; all of the thunder I'd been holding in came out in a single stormy boom as I lost my shit on an L train screaming profanities at him.
Sorry, Corinthians. I collected the data and found that love is neither patient nor kind and it most certainly fails on a regular basis.
I am within arm’s reach of the top of the wall. One step to go. I can’t look up for long as the rain hammers away at my face, but I know the bell is right above me. Another rumble of thunder. Just one more step.
I hoist myself up onto the final rung. I pull on the clapper of the bell and swing it back and forth, producing a mighty clang that I’m sure the people inside at the buffet can hear. Boris releases the tether suspending me and I descend in a hurry, repeatedly smashing into the wet wall as I make my way back to the ship's floor.
Boris is all smiles as he hands me a towel. I dry my face as he bids us farewell and tells us to enjoy the rest of our day.
Don tells me, “As soon as the thunder hit, Boris told me you were going to cry and beg him to let you down. I told him not to underestimate you. I told him you’d sooner die up there then come down before you rang that bell.”
Oh Corinthians, how it took years for me to find a place where we could agree. I now see that grace can be found in weakness, in hardship, in persecution, and in difficulty. For when I am weak, I am strong. Strong enough to continue to let people in. Strong enough to learn something from every one of them. Strong enough to walk away from the ones who don't feel right for me, over and over again. Strong enough to leave someone who didn't make me feel loved, even if he believed I could ring a bell. Strong enough to treat myself well, the first step in embracing the joy of being alone.