For a long time, my best friends were dead people. Mysterious and intangible dead people. And while I am unsure of the exact origin, I suspect that my fascination began around the age of four with trips to the local cemetery where my grandmother and I would eat peanut butter sandwiches among the secluded tombs, a world away from the noise and pestilence of the surrounding neighborhood.
Sitting quietly among the deceased in that garden of afterlife delights, I was seduced every bit as much by the lushness of its hidden landscape as I was by the secrets it enshrouded. In one recollection, vines — twisting and weaving their bark-covered web over a large stone sarcophagus like a spider wrapping its prey — also entangled me as I rested atop the monument’s cold limestone surface with my legs dangling off its side, surrounded by a forest of names from long ago. Death giving way to life. Reality giving way to romance. Me giving way to my imagination. That was the first love affair.
A decade later, upon developing into a reclusive and somewhat melodramatic teenager, my love interests became more explicit. Tucked into my bed late at night, reading, I developed a particular fondness for Mr. Poe and his poetry. Although no stranger to me at that point, having been in earlier years enthralled by the 1960 thematic telling of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” my sweet Edgar began to speak in an entirely new voice. And he spoke it (seemingly) to me, alone.
But it was more than his voice that drew my dreamy adolescent heart to him, for his dark hair and the distinguishing depth of his gaze (pictured in each and every perfect portrait of the prized poet) haunted me, as well. Yes, you heard correctly. That funny looking man with the large forehead and droopy right brow were something of which my own dreams were made. Definitively.
Yet, there came a day when I obsessed over Poe nevermore, as he wasn’t the only dead writer I was to love. No — in true poet form, my eyes would wander between several deceased wordsmiths throughout my teen years. Among them, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who (to this day) insists on following me everywhere despite the increasing number of disagreements we have over such dull topics as whether a woman is capable of friendship with a man and whether a free-spirited woman is likely to follow anyone at all. In absence of any other explanation, I can only assume that Friedrich continues to stalk me for the very simple reason that he just can’t handle me telling him that he is wrong. But he is and that wonderfully intense gaze will get him nowhere.
In my thirties, I would return once again to the graveyard landscape when I accepted a job at a large historic cemetery in north St. Louis. Designed during the rural cemetery movement of the mid-1800s, Bellefontaine Cemetery was (and still is) an inspiration among burial sites. The final resting place of explorer William Clark, Adolphus Busch of Anheuser-Busch fame, beat poet William Burroughs, and numerous other noteworthy personas, I felt immediately at home among the cemetery’s 86,000 residents. And, of course, I fell in love there…..at least a couple of times.
The first was with a little known daguerreotypist named Thomas Easterly. Born in 1809, the old-time photographer was unique in that he didn’t concentrate his efforts on mere portraits. No, he photographed landscapes, streetscapes, and even a “bona-fide” streak of lightning. In short, he was both a photo-journalist and fine art photographer before there even were such things…and I was a modern-day fan. In fact, I was so taken with Mr. Easterly, his life, and work, that I made an effort to get a burial marker for his unmarked grave in a mostly overlooked section of the cemetery grounds. Contacting, first, the author of a book about Easterly and his work and, second, a daguerreian society in New York, a marker of acceptable size was eventually made possible with funds donated by a group of modern day daguerreian artists (proceeds from the sale of their works.) If that wasn’t love, I don’t know what is. And thankfully, Thomas had many lovers.
My second affair of note during the Bellefontaine days was with an architect who died at the young age of 37. Louis Spiering, one of the architects for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, was both attractive and never married during his short life. Since I was just 32 when I started working at the cemetery, I had about five years to crush on his ghost. But since he already had a burial marker, there wasn’t much I could do to show him I cared other than visit his grave every so often just to say hello and let him know that I was there…..which I did. I wonder if he misses me. Sorry Louis, time doesn’t stand still for the living.
Truth be told, my past love affairs weren’t restricted to dates with the dead and I have had a few relationships with the living that are also worth a mention. Although the living offer a very real physical presence in this world, they don’t necessarily offer a real presence in one’s personal life. In fact, I’ve found far too often that breathing people with beating hearts and a warm touch can bring with them their own brand of unattainability in the form of unrequited love, insecure attachment styles, and fear of commitment. I potentially learned this rather unfortunate truth while just a sophomore in high school, although I didn’t recognize it as the precursor to almost all of my relationships until much later.
Chris, a science fiction reading lad who once rode his bike to the local mall to meet me at a bookstore, became a likely friend and my primary crush at the fair and innocent age of 15. We may have met a year earlier, in actuality, but our lengthy night-time phone conversations about books and music didn’t begin immediately. And when they did, so did my private mental love affair. Nevertheless, Chris (not his real name) had his own crushes and they weren’t me. I was a mere friend and much like Mary Stuart Masterson in “Some Kind of Wonderful,” I waited and hoped for the better part of two years that Chris would come to his senses and realize he wanted me and not my cousin or any number of other female friends. It never happened.
My next relationship of note ultimately resulted in marriage, but not without much effort in winning over the person of my affection. And although my late husband also happens to be a larger subject within the context of my writings, I do find it pertinent to share a bit about our relationship pre-marriage.
For most of the two years that Rob and I dated, he didn’t refer to me as his girlfriend and he didn’t want me to spend any time with his family. He also broke up with me on a few occasions just so he could date someone else, with whom it never worked out. And, he even got engaged to a Japanese woman during his six -month stay in Japan after asking me to wait for him…..which I did, wait….writing letters consistently and faithfully and even turning down something with my own crush who left a rose and note of affection on my car. Yes, my late husband was the longest running relationship I’ve had to date with an emotionally unavailable man who never quite reciprocated the love and devotion I showed him…at least in my mind.
I wish I could say that my preoccupation with the unattainable ended after my husband passed away in 2010, but it didn’t. The first person I would date after he died fell into the same category. Although he didn’t treat me terribly, it seemed he barely wanted to date me at all. Overall unsure during our very short time together, there was nothing to actually indicate that we were even together aside from me spending a ton of money on a trip to Ireland and a handful of uncomfortable night-time stays at his house.
After we broke up, my personal situation even worsened for a time. Against my better judgment, I dated a friend who had just broken up with his girlfriend. It lasted a whole two weeks before he got back together with her, but how could I blame him? And upon moving to Colorado in 2011, there was an endless string of unavailable people like him. But I was only just beginning to see the bigger issue and the pattern.
So yes, setting boundaries and practicing self-respect, topics covered in a myriad of self-help books for decades, were almost absent in my life for awhile. I would have denied the charge back then and I’ll even deny it now, but my choice of love interests speaks for itself. I did have one four-year relationship that was a little bit different….that was almost normal. I spent holidays with his friends, family and there was no doubt we were together. But there were issues even in that with moving beyond the status quo. He wanted to marry me, even, at one point. But, I don’t think he knew how to actually be together as a team, cohabitate, or any of the things marriage would entail and I eventually let him go. As for the relationship that would follow, well let’s just say that I was back to my old ways again. Torture was a tale to which I was fatally drawn, it seemed. Nietzsche would laugh, I’m certain. Mr. Poe would be so proud.