As red and pink hearts, boxes of candy and Valentine's Day specials abound in stores, it is hard to ignore the incessant messages of this "Hallmark holiday." But I'm always open to a story of new love, especially when it involves a woman in mid-life who didn't see it coming. Author Ona Gritz is a smart, unassuming working mother with a disability who finds not just one man to love, but two.
Have you ever been in a serious relationship with more than two men at once? I would love to hear your story. - Molly Rosen
Sometime during the angst-ridden year I was fourteen, or maybe it was the angst-ridden year I was fifteen, my mother told me she didn't have any confidence in herself until she turned forty.
The statement was interesting enough to pull me out of my self-absorption for a moment.
"What happened when you were forty?"
But as usual, she was elusive. She shrugged, saying, "Nothing. I just saw things differently," and went off to start dinner. I sat on the sticky vinyl couch, the pages of my unfinished homework spread out on a small metal folding table in front of me, wondering.
My mother died six months before my fortieth birthday, so she didn’t get to see that it happened to me too, this unexpected late blossoming and new self-assurance. Nor would she know of the resulting craziness I found myself in during my forty-second year, caught in a tangle of lovers I only dreamt about in my twenties.
To be fair, things had begun to improve when, a few years earlier, my handsome, overbearing husband decided to leave me. For him it was a whim, a decision made during finals week in graduate school on a caffeine drenched all-nighter. He never intended to be held to it.
But within weeks of his departure, I realized I felt light, unburdened. Our son, Ethan, was three at the time, and irrationally in love with me. We became groupies on the children’s music circuit that summer, eating our dinners on our laps while Tom Chapin or Raffi serenaded us with songs the two of us had come to know by heart.
I didn't think about dating that first year, but when spring rolled around a second time with its elongated days and irrepressible birdsong, I suddenly felt a need that not even the most rocking rendition of Skip to My Lou could fill.
I was thirty-eight, flushed, I think now, with the first hints of that confident glow that would mark my forties. At an art opening held, oddly enough, in a small women’s clothing store, I met a guy.
Paul wasn’t nearly as cute as my ex, but he had a kind face and was warm and funny. And, as I found out the very next night, he was hotter in bed at fifty than my ex had been at twenty-one. We started sleeping together a couple of nights a week, Paul lightly ringing my buzzer after Ethan was certain to be deeply asleep. By then, what little confidence I’d had had been rubbed away by a husband who rarely looked at me, and even more rarely touched me. But now Paul, a figure painter who spent many of his working hours with gorgeous nude and scantily clad models, ran his discerning fingers over my body and told me I was beautiful. Slowly, tentatively, I started to believe him.
Paul and I also went out on dates. They were the kind of dates I rarely had in my twenties when, like most of my girlfriends, I had guy friends I either slept with or didn’t. My ex-husband was different from the others in that he called me his girlfriend; but our actual dates dwindled down to pizza and videos at home within two months of our knowing each other.
I suppose, by comparison, Paul was old-fashioned. He loved to get dressed up and go out to nice restaurants. He held my hand in movie theaters. I imagine he’d have opened car doors for me too, had I thought to wait.
I felt coddled and adored. And when, a year into our courtship, my parents took ill and died within months of each other, I clung to him.
He moved in with us. Paul didn't want to take on a step-parenting role with Ethan, but he was kind to him and good at taking care of me. He enjoyed fixing things around the house. He did all the driving and many of the domestic errands. In those ways, he was much like my father. In fact, I’d given him my father’s leather jacket which still bore a lingering scent of Old Spice. Sometimes, I’d bury my nose in his shoulder to recall the feeling of being someone’s daughter again.
Paul continued to tell me I was beautiful and, for the first time in my life, I walked around as a beautiful woman does: back straight and head up high, glinting eyes and a slightly knowing smile. Men frequently smiled back. I imagined telling my mother that I too learned to love myself in my forties.
I felt happy, though slightly restless. Another characteristic Paul shared with my father was a complete lack of interest in books. I’m an author and a librarian. On quiet evenings at home, my favorite companion is a well-written novel. Paul flipped through art magazines. He kept a book on wine tasting in the bathroom. But just as my father had, every evening when he was ready to relax, Paul turned on the television.
No matter. I had women friends who shared my taste in fiction, loved to talk about what they were reading, and made wonderful recommendations. And while I felt there was a large part of me that Paul would never understand, I took comfort in the words of a favorite poet, Stephen Dunn, who wrote of relationships: "it's doubtful she will be enough for you/or you for her. You must have friends/of both sexes. When you get together/ you must feel everyone has brought/his fierce privacy with him/and is ready to share it…"
Paul was good at sharing his private self with me. He also gave me a safe place in which to share my own. But when the part I wanted to share had to do with my intellectual life, Paul, more often than not, literally fell asleep.
On my forty-first birthday I had what I thought of not as a midlife crisis, but rather, a midlife epiphany. My mother had died at eighty-two, and it struck me that, for all I knew, I might be at the exact midpoint of my own life. Was I doing all that I could to lead the fullest life possible? What, if anything, was lacking? The answer I came to was that I wasn’t writing enough. It was my truest passion, yet I squeezed it in instead of making it a real priority.
I went back to writing poetry, my first love, when I realized that one of the reasons I didn’t write regularly was that I was waiting for uninterrupted chunks of time in which to work on large projects. Poetry would be a better fit during my parenting years. I formed a critique circle with two women poets who also accompanied me to occasional readings. Yet as I began to write more seriously, I found myself craving professional feedback and a larger literary community. When I discovered that Stephen Dunn was teaching a weekend workshop nearby, I quickly signed up.
I found Stephen to be an inspiring and supportive teacher. He praised my poems in a way other students said was rare for him. I came away feeling encouraged about my work and charged by the richness of a weekend spent with other writers. But that’s not the whole story. I also came away with a crush on one of the other students.
Dan was a good poet with a sweet, attentive disposition. We sat next to each other in Stephen’s workshop, and I loved the gentle but precise suggestions he gave to our classmates. Though we didn’t talk much during that busy weekend, I could tell he was drawn to me. When he asked for my email address on the last day, I thought of the line in Stephen’s poem that implied that having friends of both sexes was good for a relationship.
"Take my phone number too," I said.
The night that Dan called, Paul had fallen asleep, as he often did, in front of the television. Dan and I talked for four hours. It was a remarkable conversation that flowed from writing to relationships to childhood memories and back again with an ease that was new to both of us. By the time we hung up, I had the sinking feeling that my relationship with Paul was in serious trouble. At the same time, I felt elated.
Dan and I tried to keep our relationship platonic for awhile, but our attraction to each other was hard to ignore. We continued to have long, late night conversations, during which we often read to each other – usually poems, sometimes rather steamy poems, though we pretended to have picked them solely for their literary merit. We also signed up for a workshop with the poet Molly Peacock that met on four consecutive Sundays. I feigned surprise at the coincidence that we both wanted to take her class.
On the fourth Sunday of Molly’s workshop, we found ourselves making out like teenagers in a café. After a few guilt-ridden days, I confessed to Paul. I wasn’t entirely surprised when he suggested we try an open relationship. After all, monogamy was something I had prized and to which he had more or less relented.
"Have whatever physical relationship you want," he told me. "Just don’t give him your heart."
The comment frightened me, in part because I was looking for him to set a boundary I wasn’t able to set for myself, but mostly because it told me how little Paul understood me. Did he really think my body would be tempted elsewhere if my heart hadn’t already led the way?
And so, at the age of forty-two, I became a woman with two lovers. Had you told me this would have happened twenty years prior, I'd have been astonished. Yet I imagine I would have been cheering my older self on. But then, at twenty-two, I didn’t have a household to consider breaking up, or a child whose feelings were a deep concern. Nor did I have a set of values already in place that I thought of as unshakeable. It would have been the perfect time to have two sweet, caring men in love with me. But, alas, like my mother, I was a late bloomer. And while I might have been ecstatic to find myself in this position back then, I now found it excruciating.
My experiment with polygamy only lasted a few months. While neither of my lovers pressured me, I knew for myself that I had to make a decision.
In the end, I left Paul. In a number of ways, it was the harder choice. We had a loving relationship. Ethan was comfortable with our shared domestic life. I felt emotionally safe and cared for in our home. Also, there were things about Dan I couldn't yet know. With him, I'd really be starting at the beginning.
In truth, the two men have a number of qualities in common. They're both gentle, affectionate, and openly emotional. Dan's intellectual curiosity and love of literature certainly swayed me. Our lovemaking also proved to be a deeper, more connected experience. But if I had to boil it down, I'd say it was conversation that ultimately won me over.
Back when Paul first told me to have whatever physical relationship I wanted with Dan, he also said, "Just don't tell me anything." So instead I talked to Dan as I struggled with this unexpected balancing act. He let me cry and name my fears. Together, we imagined different scenarios, until I figured out what I most wanted in a partner, which, in the end, proved to be someone I could show myself to completely. A lover and a confidante in the same person – something I didn’t know was possible until, in mid-life, I realized I was lucky enough to have found it.
Ona Gritz (45) is a writer, librarian and single mother. She performs this juggling act in Hoboken, NJ, birthplace of baseball and Frank Sinatra, and home to a stellar view of the Manhattan skyline. Ona is a great shower singer and a terrible guitarist. She does a mean Roger Daltrey imitation on the rare occasions her son woos her into playing Rock Band. Ona writes a monthly column for the online journal, Literary Mama. She is also a prize-winning poet and the author of two children’s books. Her essays have been published in numerous journals and anthologies. In 2007, she received two Pushcart nominations.