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Mixed Signals

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  • By Vivian Gornick
  • Issue 14
  • FableFebruary 2016

I once married a man (I’ll call him Daniel) who, during his courtship of me, sent such mixed signals about who and what he was that often, in the years following our divorce, I would wonder who that benighted girl (me) had been who had indulged in such willed blindness, and for so long a time. When we met, Daniel told me three things: one, he had been married and was now divorced; two, his parents were living in Europe; three, he was an ex-alcoholic. Before we even tied the knot I discovered he had been married twice, not once, his parents were living in Kansas City, Missouri, not abroad, and on occasion he’d astonish me by belting down a drink. Also, he often didn’t call or come when he said he would, or he’d arrive two, sometimes three hours late and not account for his whereabouts. For each and every one of these discrepancies, he had an explanation—all adding up to the seductive declaration that as I was such a superior person, he had felt obliged to make himself more suitably respectable than he thought I would otherwise think him. As I was besotted I chose to ignore information that was transparently alarming. But perhaps “chose” is the wrong word.

All relationships begin with an infatuation that is rooted in the erotic or the romantic; either way, the infatuation involves an attachment to the arousal of desire that one feels in the presence of the other. What is truly remarkable is the strength of this attachment; as long as it prevails the infatuation is certain to endure.

For me, shared sensibility is always at the heart of sexual attraction. In this regard, Daniel and I were brilliantly matched. Ours was a communion of mind and spirit that Wordsworth might have admired. The conversation between us was its own work of art. We walked together by the hour, discoursing ardently on life, love, literature, each of us yearning, as in a Russian play, toward the remarkable intensity produced by the words that passed between us. This intensity brought peace, joy, excitement: in bed, on the street, at the breakfast table. It is also true, I must admit, that although our ardor was equally shared, Daniel nonetheless was the lover and I the beloved. It was almost always that I was the luminously regarded personage and he the intelligent, responsive interlocutor. His eyes would often flash with emotion as I spoke. “My dear girl!” he’d then exclaim adoringly. “My beautiful, marvelous girl. You are life itself!” The arrangement made us both happy. At last, I thought, as Keats might have, I have an Ideal Friend.

At the time of our meeting, Daniel was into his sixth year in graduate school—actually his tenth, but who’s counting—and obsessing over final exams. But if all went according to schedule, we daydreamed, he’d have his degree at the end of that academic year—and then we planned to marry and leave the city. I settled down to wait out the year, but even as I did, I remember thinking that his methods of study were dangerously erratic. He was forever saying we couldn’t have dinner on a given night because he had to study, and then he’d show up at my place late in the afternoon, obviously having thrown down the books—and I’d sit there wondering how on earth he could ever pass his exams. He assured me that he had it all under control, and indeed in June he announced that he had graduated. Overjoyed, I looked forward to the ritual celebration, but Daniel flew into a manic mood and insisted on getting married at once and leaving town without attending the graduation ceremony. When I asked to see his diploma, he said it was being sent on. By now, of course, the reader can fill in the blank with no further help from me. In essence, Daniel was something of a sociopath, to whom I nonetheless remained married for four of the most dramatically confusing years of my life.

I’d like to be able to say that with my divorce came wisdom regarding “mixed signals,” and a cemented-in-place resolve to act quickly should they ever again appear. But such was not the case. I fell in love a number of times with men whose sense of self was severely fractured and who, with all the good-will in the world, were bound to drag me into their chaos. Once, in fact, I became passionate about another former drunk who, also early on, started acting strangely. “An alcoholic,” my mother said drily. An ex-alcoholic, I pleaded. “I don’t care what kind of alcoholic,” she responded. This time it didn’t take me four years to walk, but that it took six months is its own testament to the extraordinary power of infatuation.

And by infatuation, I don’t mean simply sexual infatuation. Why do people remain sealed in devotion to a religious or political ideology long after it has proved to have feet of clay? The answer is infatuation with a state of being that is exalting. Under its influence, one feels the power of an aliveness that runs so deep and soars so high it seems to make its own laws: a sure sign that one is in the presence of the authentic. It’s the conviction of authenticity that does us in. Once persuaded of its existence, no amount of evidence to the contrary can pry us loose from its grip: it needs must run its course.