Love's Brazen Poll

Oprah Magazine

In middle age, I finally stumbled into love.

I vowed that I would go reluctantly, if at all. Trained as a journalist, I honed my skills in various newsrooms and approached life with a reporter’s audacity. In my early 20s, I began taking an informal census that I came to call “The Marriage Poll.”

As the poll’s lone employee, and an unpaid one at that, I enthusiastically piled up the interviews. My M.O. became the stuff of legend among my friends. After spying a wedding ring in a bar, dinner party, gym, cab stand, concert – few venues were off-limits – I’d switch on the charm, exploit my credentials and commence the probe: “I’ve always had a professional curiosity surrounding the institution of marriage – do you mind if I ask a few questions?”

The refusals were few and far between.  If the Marriage Poll was glib and shameless, it also was rooted in genuine fascination for the subject matter. Although I wrote down nothing, I arranged the information into cerebral categories with the diligence – and emotional detachment – of a deadline writer.

The Marriage Poll’s stats mounted by the dozens, then by the hundreds – even after I abandoned journalism.  As the years rolled on, I could fairly accurately predict the outcome of each inquisition as it was unraveling.

I unapologetically recited the poll’s wildly unofficial findings to anyone who asked, even as I continued to stockpile data. Some 85% of marriages, I estimated, were entered into for all the wrong reasons:  infatuation; lack of alternatives; lack of experience with relationships; family pressure; ambition that failed to rise above a modicum of comfort with a partner; or simply throwing in the towel and settling after a certain age.

Thus, I concluded, were all those unions doomed to some sort of failure, be it divorce or indifference. The 15% that had a chance, I reasoned, still had to navigate a minefield of limitless perils – boredom, weight gain, ungrateful offspring, disease and death.

Marriage was a fool’s bet. And love was its agent provocateur. 

Then I met Sue. She entered my life as she was finalizing her second divorce, a walking, talking testament to the Marriage Poll. Though she had only recently relocated from New York to the Bay Area to start her life anew, Sue was pre-assembled for California; a disseminator of Reiki treatments, she insisted that our ships had crossed in several previous lives – including one ill–fated fling as homosexual lovers sharing a trench in some ancient war. Even as my eyes rolled, I found her mesmerizing.

On paper, we were a train wreck awaiting its cue. Sue is liberal; I’m politically conservative. She has carved her career by advancing the cause of the homeless and disenfranchised; I have spent much of mine writing about football and scarfing press-box hotdogs. She’s an Ivy League graduate with a master’s degree; I partied my way through Southern Illinois. She’s bought and sold two houses; I’m an old hand at scrambling for rent. I have a resume littered with younger women; Sue is a year older than me.

But we clicked. We connected on an intellectual level. Our warped senses of humor jibed. We laughed, loudly and often. We spent hundreds of hours passionately exploring breathtaking hiking trails throughout California and together cherished countless Pacific sunsets from a myriad of postcard vantages. We danced with little regard for rhythm or onlookers. On her birthday, I clandestinely convinced her favorite singer to serenade her in mid-concert. We had a rare physical chemistry. Sue patiently steered me toward a more compassionate view of mankind; I phoned to inject her weighty workdays with levity.  I squandered not a moment casting judgment on her past – nor she on mine. Against all odds, we came to love each other.

Turning a blind eye to the carnage of aborted, immature relationships lining the sordid straits of my bachelorhood, I sailed with Sue into uncharted waters – for me, if not for her. I was faithful. I reveled in her company.

We didn’t quite make it a year. We withdrew from each other, briefly, on a couple of occasions when our vast differences surfaced, but our longing patched the cracks in the façade. So when she bravely informed me that her heart was no longer in the fight – we invoked a “No Bullshit Rule” at the outset – I knew by her tenor that words would not alter her course. Heartbroken, I proffered the ultimate act of a love that I did not know I was capable of cultivating . . . by simply letting her go.

I have expended precious little energy in my life (this one, anyway) courting regret. But if I had it to do over again, I would have been less stoic and more communicative. I would have worked harder to exorcise my petty intolerances – toward drivers that cut me off, clients that didn’t pan out and other everyday nuisances that conspire to steal my bliss – because indulging such fruitless proclivities only serves to undermine any foundation of love. I would have offered more evidence that I was striving to be a better man.

I haven’t espoused the Marriage Poll in a while. Not because I doubt its integrity – the numbers were compiled honestly and prolifically, if not with any method remotely scientific. But I have newfound respect for matrimony’s wily ambassador, love, and the way it swaggers with brazen conviction into a game fraught with loaded dice. If ever it comes my way again, I will be better prepared to meet it on its own terms.