I still repeat it to myself several times a day: I'm going to marry Ted. Ted is my boyfriend (neither of us like the word fiance) and we're going to get married next June, in a wine country garden, with our closest friends and families all around us, getting sauced and cheering us on. Being engaged is cool; our happiness is borderline surreal. We get loads of good will and champagne. Our parents are relieved, and our bank accounts are still separate so my shopping habit will remain unexamined for another seven months. Being engaged also means we get to fantasize about a future together without employing that annoying hypothetical, if, as in: "If we were married . . . ; If we ever had kids together . . . ; If, say, we were planning to have sex only with each other for the rest of our lives . . . "
Sex with the same man for the rest of my life ? it's still a somewhat fantastical concept, like heaven or transubstantiation. For a confluence of reasons, I've chosen not to embrace religion, but yessir, I'm letting Marriage into my life. Opening myself up to nother person so completely, without pretense and without reservation, has got me contemplating the Big Picture in a way that three years of yoga, for all it's mind-and-body-bending, has not. I like that. But I don't think I have much choice in the matter. To get married today, in an age of sinister-sounding statistics about infidelity and divorce, especially when one's own track record is less than stellar requires an uncommon ability to trust not only one's partner, but one's self. Myself.
Trust is a big issue for me. Not because mine has been terribly abused (to my knowledge), but because I have abused the trust of others. I've cheated and hardly noticed who I was cheating on. I've cheated and hated myself for it. I've cheated and pretended I was justified in doing so. I've never cheated for the thrill of it, however. Sure, it was thrilling at times, but the elation of falling for whomever I was falling for would always be shadowed by the tattered loyalty I still had for my official boyfriend. But what good is a conscience ignored? Mine was insistent, the guilt eventually manifesting itself physically, until my body would twitch and ache with distraction and guilt and I'd attempt to right my actions. Or sometimes they would right themselves before I got the chance.
I stumbled melodramatically through several young relationships like this: the self-absorbed antihero of my own inner novel. I meant well but sometimes forgot how to do well, so committed was I to the pursuit of true love. I was that sort of cheater. Not the kind they used to write pulp novels about the kind of hapless wretch driven by her dark, unquenchable desires. That was not me, exactly, although I can see why the classic, gumshoe-loving nymphomaniac has starred in so many fantasies. Rather, I was yearning towards my vision of the perfect relationship, which would have to include mindblowing sex, of course. My youthful infidelities quickly multiplied until I was not quite so youthful anymore, a serial monogamist (or, rather, quasi-monogamist) in the making. Of course, I didn't think of myself as such at the time. I didn't really think much at all. I'd never kissed a boy before I kissed the one I ended up with for two-and-a-half years of my teenaged life. He was the kind of boy lots of girls dreamed about being with: outgoing, popular, athletic, charming. When we started dating I thought he might be the one I'd been dreaming about, too. I was starved for romance and willing to give it a shot, anyway. Before I knew it I was in love with the guy. He dumped me three months before he went to college because he wanted to "spend time hanging with the guys." I didn't take it well, I wanted him more than ever. We got back together, and it was as if the crumbling earth had solidified under my feet. I felt confident for the first time since I'd become a young woman, and my confidence propelled itself forward like a bowling ball released from my fingertips. It rolled steadily towards a new boy, a surfer who wrote my name in graffiti under all the bridges in town. Actually, it was his ex-girlfriend, Jen's name, that he'd adapted on my behalf. I didn't think much of him after I found that out, but I went off to college and continued to date him, in that half-hearted long-distanced way, until I met Ben, whose searching lips were so much sweeter than the surfer's pushy tongue.
It seems so harmless a - teenaged girl being indecisive - and it was. We were all too young to be settled in multi-year relationships, anyway. But serial monogamy, at least as I define it, is more nefarious than it sounds; it's a nice term for people who practice the "till someone better comes along" method of relationships. It's not something I strove for, or even admitted to practicing, until I pretty much had it out of my system. Now that I know I have found the person I was looking for all this time, I have the privilege of hindsight. I can see that my actions were selfish - sometimes brutally so - but I can live with my history because I know that the relationships I eventually leapt from as if from sinking ships were certain doom for me. My problem was I always waited until the last minute to jump, and I always had to pull someone along with me.
Perhaps it's worse that I wasn't pursuing strangers in dark alleys or nightclub restrooms, that my brief affairs usually began as friendships and were entered into with much deliberation. The affairs themselves were usually short, turning into legitimate relationships as soon as they'd instilled me with enough will, and courage, to leave the boyfriend that I'd discovered, somewhere along the way, to be Mr. Wrong. The only relationship that never got past being a secret was - big shocker here - the most intense of all. My senior year in college I had a literature class with a guy I'd been noticing around campus. He wasn't just cute or handsome, he was beautiful, and I'd long since sworn off beautiful men. But I was feeling increasingly stifled in my relationship with the guy I'd been living with, on and off, since sophomore year. He was my ideal partner in crime; we'd trudged across Europe with our backpacks and driven through the deserts of the United States in the middle of summer, stopping to eat mushrooms under the red rocks of Utah. We loved the same music and obsessively took pictures of the same landscapes with our secondhand Nikons. I could have spent every waking minute with him. I just wished he was a girl, in love with someone else. I found myself wishing we were both in love with someone else, and I willed myself straight into the arms of the beautiful biker in lit class.
In the biker I got my karmic payback. He was everything I deserved to fall in love with: untrustworthy, emotionally unavailable, manipulative, jealous, irresistible and, as it turned out, married. It was during those months of two a.m. parking lot trysts, teary walks in the redwoods between classes, whispered phone calls and stolen weekends in San Francisco that I began to seriously doubt my potential to be honest with anyone. I looked at my parents and the amazing life they had forged together, at my sister and her humble yet unwavering religious faith, and I wondered what had gone wrong with me. I wondered if I would ever be able to trust myself with the heart of a man I truly, deeply loved, and who loved me unselfishly.
Some soul searching years later, here I am, on the brink of a new life, purging my past in a series of anecdotes that will most likely send eyebrows arching and heads shaking. But this is not a nave attempt to right my wrongs through confessing them. I don't think I'm going to get off that easily. This is, I think, the necessary prelude to a love story I'm not yet ready to write, but want to write someday about Ted and me, and how we invented a life together. It will be about the amazing trust he has placed in me, for all my flaws, and I in him. Perhaps it would have been better if I'd written my prelude and put in a drawer instead of publishing it, but I guess I'm too optimistic for that. I believe in the institution of marriage. I think it's one of the most courageous and hopeful constructs we humans have ever come up with. Perhaps hubristically, I like to think that someone out there who doesn't trust herself, or himself, might read this and entertain the fantastic notion that somewhere, perhaps many relationships into the future, a person exists who will turn monogamy (without the serial) into a prospect much more exhilarating and resiliently satisfying than a first kiss could ever be.