Do you have a song that tears year heart out every time you catch it on the radio?
Mine is “The Lady in Red” by Chris de Burgh.
Her dress wasn’t red; it was purple and black.
Her perfect, flowing blonde hair spilled over her bare shoulders.
She smiled so bright, so wide, and laughed with such deep joy.
Her eyes were the blue of hot summer days.
We only danced the slow dances.
She leaned her head against my chest as she pressed against me; my hands rested gently on her hips.
Que “The Lady in Red.”
I’ve never seen you so lovely as you did tonight.
I’ve never seen you shine so bright.
The night ended with a kiss at the front door of Parents’ 2.0’s stately east Des Moines manor.
It was my first kiss.
She leaned in and put her hand against my cheek.
It was like a gift I never knew I wanted and then immediately wanted more forever.
We were teenagers.
We talked a lot about forever.
I, at least, spoke from ignorance.
She loved me.
I loved her.
But I was a boy pretending to be a man.
There was sadness inside me that was unconfronted and unresolved.
My mother, Mom 1.0, was abusive. She was a prescription drug addict and probably struggled with undiagnosed mental health issues.
She had physical boundary issues. Her words could be so cruel and withering.
The hurt ran deep and hidden.
I thought I was just like any guy.
I would get married, have children, happily ever after.
Just like that.
As if those things were as easy as instant coffee.
None of it turned out to be true.
I broke her heart too many times.
My words were cruel.
I once told her I never loved her.
I thought that was a kindness.
If I never loved her, she wouldn’t hurt when we broke up.
She could hate me. I deserved to be hated.
That’s what I thought at the time anyway.
I couldn’t be the partner she needed or wanted. I knew that.
I was broken and I didn’t know how to fix the problem.
We were so young.
I hadn’t learned the vocabulary to describe my problems, why my body didn’t work the way other men do seemingly so easily in intimate situations.
I couldn’t describe why I feared the love that I so desperately wanted.
She gave me too many chances.
But eventually became clear that she and I would never and up to a “we.”
We were last in contact about 20 years ago, maybe longer.
She’s married now. The guy seems perfect, to be honest.
I talked to him once for a story I wrote. It was just a phoner, but he emanated real warmth.
A few years back, an unpleasant personal event caused me to take a hard look at how I had treated women in my life, from my beloved Mom 2.0 to women I dated.
I didn’t like what I saw.
I wrote apology letters to four women.
I was never an abuser, at least not physically.
But I had been verbally cruel.
Sometimes I didn’t understand that something was over.
Sometimes there was never a something to end.
My biggest problem was I had romantic comedy disease.
I thought some grand gesture at the last minute would make everything work out.
Think John Cusack playing Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” in a final attempt to woo Ione Skye in “Say Anything.”
Life isn’t a movie.
That isn’t how relationships work.
Relationships, the real, lasting ones, are a long series of negotiations and compromises.
It took me years of behavioral therapy to understand that.
Now I’m 46 years old.
My knees are shot.
I feel the weight of loneliness grow with each year.
I am blessed to have some of the best friends and family a man could ask for.
But I don’t think I’ll ever have a romantic partner.
I just never figured it out.
Now I’m old, or at least middle-aged.
I have a better understanding of why I am how I am.
I’ve changed so much since that lovely night when I was just a boy swaying on the dance floor with the most beautiful girl in the world.
This seems like a sad story.
It’s just life.
Sometimes things don’t work out for people.
This is a thing that didn’t work out for me.
People always say never say never.
I prefer to say I recognize my limits.
I know exactly how hard it is to be in a relationship with me.
The person I came closest with most recently said she wanted to be friends.
We never speak.
So it goes.
I stack these paragraphs in advance of Valentine’s Day.
I don’t want to make people sad.
I want you to cherish your partner.
Forget the chocolates or the expensive dinner or jewelry.
Just pause and take time to tell that person how much they mean to you, how deep your connection runs, and wonderful it is that you came together and stayed together.
Then do an old newspaperman a favor:
Play your favorite love song, maybe even “The Lady in Red.”
Hold each other.
And just sway.
Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
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