Romance, the Great Illusion

On an idyllic weekend getaway, I learn once again that happiness can’t be planned.

Romance The Great Illusion


photo courtesy of Rob and Julia Campbell

filed under Couples, Fighting, True Stories

All my adult life, I’ve sought what I’d loosely call “romance.” I blame heavy teenage doses of Jack Kerouac and Bruce Springsteen—and of course, hormones—followed by an obsession, in my twenties, with the exploits of Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller. I also blame the full-page ads in women’s fashion magazines, especially those for Prada, Dolce and Gabbana, and other Italian designers, in which young Sophia Loren types romp through European capitals in perfectly cut floral dresses.

As you can tell from these culprits, my definition of romance comprises more than just kisses and smoldering looks between a boy and a girl (or two boys or two girls). It points toward adventure and enchantment. It requires beauty, even if only the rough-edged sort. It happens in cities and in nature, not in the suburbs.

But these essentials form the background. The foreground consists of two people drawn to each other. Springsteen sings, “Baby we were born to run.” Kerouac’s cross-country treks would be rendered less epic without a woman to seduce at the destination—or frankly, if he were less handsome. Those ladies in the Prada ads aren’t all dressed up for church. They’re off to meet someone.

We try to plan and package romance. Valentine’s Day is the harshest example, but it happens on date nights and weekend getaways and in the midst of our own homes as one of us cooks a “romantic” dinner. We light candles and buy flowers.

But like anything worth having, romance isn’t easily pinned down. It can’t be purchased. Though certain props can be obtained and details planned, there’s no guarantee romance will appear, and if it does, there’s even less guarantee both parties will equally experience it at the same time. In particular, the planner who is attempting to generate the feeling might be the least likely to experience it.

This elusive algebra has always frustrated me. My most recent run-in with it involved an overnight on Catalina Island. I love islands, water, boats, and hotels. My boyfriend loves mountains, deserts, backpacks, and tents. Luckily we both love good food and each other’s company. He tries to get us camping once or twice a year, and I try to get us to the ocean.

We boarded the Catalina Express ferry in Long Beach and rode 26 miles out to sea on a sunny Friday afternoon. There were lots of couples and a few groups of girlfriends, young and old, scattered among the ferry’s two large indoor cabins and three outer decks. I scurried from deck to deck seeking signs of distant whales and taking photos of the coastline, while my boyfriend stayed in his seat. Boats make him queasy, though not as queasy as hiking makes me. I got him a beer and asked if he wanted to go inside to sit at the front, where we could look straight ahead. We did, and watched as the long mound of the island slowly grew larger. Small sailboats bobbed in its marina and pastel buildings terraced the hillside of the Mediterranean-like village of Avalon, Catalina’s sole town.

I quickly took to Avalon, evoking as it did the Portofinos and Capris in my mental Instagram feed. As we drove into the hills, the commercial waterfront gave way to tiny houses and ’70s-style condo complexes. We passed a pet cemetery, a grove of oaks keeping watch over homemade crosses and signs. Besides hotel vans like ours, all the other vehicles on the road were golf carts; the number of full-size cars allowed on the island is severely restricted.

At the top of the hill stood Mt. Ada, a grand historic B&B. William Wrigley, of chewing gum and Chicago Cubs fame, built the house in the 1920s for his wife Ada after buying up most of the island in 1919. According to the story, all Ada wanted was a house with green shutters. Her husband commissioned a six-bedroom estate with a library, billiards room, separate servants’ quarters, and wrap-around verandas that command views of Avalon, the Catalina mountains, and the distant mainland all the way east to the snow-capped peak of Mt. Baldy. The green shutters are still intact.

That’s just one of the popular strains of romance—a rich man showering his wife with treasures, remembering her favorite details—that makes it unattainable for most of us. But instead of pondering this practical logic, a thought creeped in almost against my will. It said, “No man is ever going to build you a house.” True enough.

After lunch on Mt. Ada’s picturesque terrace, we took the complimentary golf cart back down the hill to explore the town and found a mini grocery store, several small churches, and a unique gift shop where we browsed for a good half hour. I tried on a few cute, locally made rings, rough-hewn gold bands with pale semi-precious stones going for about $50. With visions of Mt. Ada’s green shutters still flitting in my head, I half-hoped my boyfriend might offer to buy me one, but he was busy in another part of the store. I considered buying one for myself, but realized I didn’t want the actual ring as much as I wanted the gesture.

You’re supposed to tell your partner what you want. He can’t read your mind. I agree with that 95 percent of the time. I also agree it’s my partner’s job to treat me with fairness and respect, but not necessarily to deliver on all my wants and desires, which is the impossible (and narcissistic) stuff of fiction and of youth. I’m responsible for myself. I get it.

Except when the longing is for romance. In those moments, verbalizing the longing negates it—even if my partner delivers.

Exhibit A

Me: Darling, I love this ring, would you buy it for me?

Him: Of course, darling, why not. Hand it over.

Exhibit B

Him: What’s that you’re trying on?

Me: This cool ring. I love the color of the stone.

Him: It’s beautiful. Let me get it for you.

Spontaneous. Happening outside of one’s volition. An unplanned delight, inducing the beneficiary to surrender a little bit.

But if romance by definition happens outside of my volition, then I should probably stop fantasizing about it, let it go and focus on something else. I tried to do just that as we left the store.

We had dinner at Avalon Grille, where the cocktail menu promised several versions of my favorite combination: the chilled brace of liquor softened by a hint of fruit. I ordered a girly martini made of peach vodka, vanilla syrup, and fresh lemon. Dinner was aphrodisiacal—ahi tartare, flash-fried green beans, a roasted half chicken. I’m a lightweight when it comes to alcohol, and halfway into my post-martini glass of Viognier, I was chatty and teasing my boyfriend a little bit.

We’re usually pretty careful with each other. Our relationship began with a burst of passion that made sex amazing and fights traumatic, and we’ve learned over the years to tone down our reactions and measure ours words more than our temperaments and upbringings would otherwise warrant. This works most of the time. But even two drinks loosens both of us into our more native states: a stubborn Italian Taurus (me) and a proud Leo Irishman, both intense and sensitive. The most common setting for romance—a fancy restaurant with delicious food, good wine, and us facing each other devoid of all electronic distractions—can thus devolve into disharmony.

I mentioned how beautiful the view was, and how the beauty of California continually conflicted with how much I missed my family back on the East Coast. In fact, we’d recently started pondering our long-term geographic plans. I saw him tense up ever so slightly, and after a minute or so we segued into a safer discussion of the HBO series Big Little Lies, a kind of Real Housewives of Monterey that wastes the talents of several A-list actresses by having them play rich mothers with nothing better to do than obsess over who gets invited to a 5-year-old’s birthday party.

“Just think,” my boyfriend said, “that’s how Trump voters in the middle of the country must picture all the liberals on the coast.”

“No way,” I countered. “They’re not that stupid. They know we don’t live in billion-dollar beach houses and spend all day doing yoga.”

I don’t call Trump voters stupid when I’m completely sober, at least not out loud. And my boyfriend, who hates groupthink of any kind, had set himself apart from our fellow liberals since the election by often playing devil’s advocate, trying to view the world through others’ eyes and point out how blind “our” side could be to its own failings. I usually admired this about him.

“Why are you always sticking up for the other side?” I asked.

“Why are you trying to fight with me right now?” he said.

“Why do you frame lively discussions as fights?” I responded.

That was that. Romance is a delicate balloon. It takes effort to give it shape, a lucky wind to set it aloft, and only one wrong move to burst it.

We drove our golf cart back up the hill, got in bed, and turned out the lights, chatting about neutral topics. Not to worry, I told myself, in the morning we’d start fresh. But as my boyfriend fell into a deep sleep, a silent, steady flow of tears soaked my pillow. I’d left a too-quiet marriage for passion, and now an overload of passion was serving to keep us too quiet, holding our breaths for fear of igniting an explosion. There was no way to win at love; there weren’t enough years in a lifetime to learn its tricks. No matter which tack I took, I hit a dead end.

I slept fitfully. In the morning, my boyfriend said, “I’m sorry we fought last night.” Fight was an overstatement, but I took his point.

Our relationship has taught me a lot about apologizing and forgiving. Previously, I’d either apologize profusely and co-dependently, or not at all.

“I’m sorry, too,” I said.

After breakfast, we took an open-air Jeep tour up the dirt trails and fire roads of Catalina’s back country, searching out the bald eagles and bison who live there. Ninety percent of Catalina is conserved land, and once you get away from Avalon, you realize just how wild it actually is. We didn’t spot any animals except one graceful doe, but we did ascend to about 1,500 feet, take in panoramic views, and learn how a series of developers bought and sold the island starting in the 19th century until Wrigley purchased it.

Back in town, we walked along the shoreline to Descanso Beach Club for lunch. The outdoor tables facing the surf were crowded with couples drinking Bloody Marys and college-age kids drinking beer. We stuck with Arnold Palmers and a big basket of fries, then spent the remainder of the afternoon at Catalina Island Spa, where I’d booked a couple’s massage (romantic, right?). An impossibly good-looking pair of kids worked us over—a dark-haired lanky man on me and a gorgeous blond woman on my boyfriend—chatting politely as they kneaded the kinks out of our Jeep-jostled muscles and diffused some of the tension from the previous night.

“Let’s get an ice cream cone,” my boyfriend said as we were leaving.

The afternoon light was fading as we headed back toward the ferry terminal, passing bachelorette parties gearing up for Saturday night, kids playing on swings and shooting hoops in Avalon’s new playground, and scores of day-trippers lining up to head home.

Back on the crowded ferry, we took out our half-done Sunday crossword so we could finish it before the new one arrived in the morning. Behind us, whole families jammed into booths with kids, coolers, mylar balloons. A group of six women, apparently fresh from a bridal or baby shower, sat chatting in pastel-colored lace dresses, presents and bouquets splayed on the table between them. A couple slid into the seats next to us. While the wife attempted to make small talk, the husband rested his elbows on the table and lowered his forehead into his hands, remaining still and silent. When he looked up, red-faced, I realized he was perhaps drunk, or hungover, or seasick.

“I’m going outside for a few minutes to see the water,” I said.

The outside decks were empty, since the sun had just set and the wind was up. I zipped my jacket closed, tied a scarf around my neck, and climbed to the top deck. The big boat was churning fast through the darkening water, spitting up foam and loping like a giant horse in the up-and-down motion even the swiftest boat makes on the sea. The lights of Avalon began to recede behind us as the more numerous ones of Long Beach and Los Angeles loomed far ahead. I leaned over the railing, feeling the salty cold whip at my face, gusting life into my lungs. Against the distant northern edge of Catalina’s mountains, the sunset had painted one last long stroke of vibrant pink in the indigo sky. 

“Thank you,” I whispered to whomever or whatever had created all this beauty.

I didn’t know that by the time I got home, I’d suddenly find myself happier than I’d been in months, that I’d sleep nine hours straight for three nights in a row, that my boyfriend and I would decide to start scheduling weekly talks where each person gets to say exactly how they feel for a half hour without any interruption or comment. I didn’t know those talks, so simple in theory since they attempt to solve nothing, would begin to melt some of our favorite defenses layer by layer—slowly, imperfectly, on a schedule I am not privy to. All I knew was that most things never turn out the way I plan them, and that it’s no one’s fault.

I went back downstairs to rejoin my boyfriend and see how his stomach was faring on the boat.

Robin Rinaldi is a longtime journalist, author of The Wild Oats Project, and Together’s managing editor. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

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