Free Association: A Love Story (Or, How I Learned to Accept a Myth)
An essay published by the Good Men Project. Read the full story here or click below.
He spots her while backing from his parking space, rushing to catch up with a day he should’ve already started.
She is smiling, waving. Does he know her? Impossible. He would remember a face like that. Her ponytail swings with each step. She is suffused with a confidence that can be construed as warmth.
He waves and continues to back away.
—Wait, she says. Hold on.
He cannot imagine what she wants. His grip on the day’s responsibilities begins to loosen.
There are women out there—women like the one pictured here—who inspire. The Greeks called them muses, and in two thousand years a more thorough word has yet to be created. For muse is also a verb—to wonder, to marvel, to become absorbed in deep, inconclusive thought. And it is this ardent abstraction that drives a man to be more.
She is close now, not as young as he first suspected, but still her skin seems smooth as enamel, as smooth as the bangle on her wrist. Her blouse is thin as gift paper.
His day—the meeting at noon, the calls and e-mails that require responses—will be abandoned if she says the word.
—Coffee, she says.
—Your coffee. It’s on the roof.
—Oh, he says, sheepish, blindly reaching above himself, grasping. I wanted to get your attention.
Again, she smiles. Nourishing is the only word for its effect.
—My attention, she says. Leave a bottle of wine up there next time.
He is unsure what comes next. He remains suspended in indecision as she ebbs to where she was headed.
—Where are you from? he asks.
—Maine, she says, but continues walking.
At once, he imagines Maine—this vague knuckle of a state—as a trove of women just like her. Thoughts drift to moving there as soon as possible.
You see, once aroused, the male mind—rational, linear, uncouth in its calculations—seeks solace in an explanation. Wanting to understand is the first form of intimacy, and so he finds something on which to fixate. Yes, it could be the breasts. Or the delicate geometry of collar bone and shoulder. The lanky line of her thigh. The casual tousle of her tresses.
But often none of that is enough. There’s the need to go further. He sees something in her conspirator’s smile or in how fast she develops a rapport. He senses the enthusiasm that gusted in her twenties but which over time she has learned to ration.
Yes, from the tasting menu of her youth, she has made discoveries, gained an awareness of herself. He is sure of it. She possesses an unknown power. She can cast off the anxieties and agendas of life at large, and, in so doing, allow him to forget his heap of daily burdens.
Now it is too late. She stands beside her car, selecting the key. She must be thirty, thirty-five, but from the strong sweep of her spine, the discipline of her shoulders, he can tell she studied ballet as a child. He watches in his mirror until it becomes unbearable.
The lust is enough to suffocate on, but it’s also tempered and tamed by a more general fondness. The feeling is tender, akin to nostalgia because it is composed of the same sense of longing. The way some gaze upon a home and imagine a life inside it, so he imagines becoming the man worthy of her.
In this way, she stirs his urge to be virtuous. And never is a man more helpless than when his thoughts turn to virtue as a way to win a woman.
Because, in truth, one never earns anything. Rather it is given in a manner as fickle as fate itself. She simply chooses to smile upon some and never even acknowledge others. It is always her decision, and it is maddening for a man to confront his complete lack of control in the matter. His mind reels for a method to circumvent these limits, and the idea of a new life unfurls before him—retiring early, absconding to some tropical and unfamiliar place. He returns to these thoughts again and again. While walking the dog. In those hazy moments when the mind eddies before releasing into sleep.
He is stopped at a light, turning the moment over, polishing the recollection. He wishes he’d shaved, that he’d been more prepared. He is sure he will see her again. The alternative is unthinkable. He resolves to start jogging again. The car behind him honks. The light is green.
Make no mistake: These reveries are fantasy in its highest form. He first falls in love with an idea, a myth constructed during narcotic bouts of free association. And to that myth, an uncritical devotion is born. But were he to learn the person, she would prove nothing like what he dreamt. She exists in specifics, not hopeful notions. No better or worse. But real. Real in ways he chose never to think about. The hair he imagined smelling of vanilla will ultimately clog his sink.
It is four months later. He has lost ten pounds, sold his business. In the backseat of his car rests a sixty-dollar bottle of wine—been there for weeks—for when she sees her again. He will reach back and then place it on the hood and wait. Wait for as long as it takes. Until she notices. He has already thought it dozens of times.
No, a woman can never be a man’s salvation. But her myth, the dream of her, can be the force that drives him to save himself.