This is part two of a four-part series. For part one, click here.
One fact is that it’s normal to fall in love. Look at history, tally the liaisons among people who are gone, and see that this is true. What is unusual is for a person to fall in love outside of the script with which she is most at ease socially, the one that tells her where she fits, which relationships she can establish, what is “normal” for her to hope for. And to do this at 70, an age when most people have embraced their ruts and routines as sites of secure footing, is more unusual still.
“I was pretty conventional,” Jan said, recalling herself at 30. “I wanted to get married and have a baby.”
She did get married. With her first husband, Jan had a son. They divorced, and seven years later Jan connected with husband #2. While living with her second husband, Jan underwent treatments for cancer.
“For years I was on a hormone-blocking medication that killed my libido,” Jan said, “so I was not as interested in sex, which was a huge problem in my relationship, we really had to work at making it interesting.”
At a couple of points in our conversation, Jan described feeling pressure in her relationships with men to be pleasing, to try to satisfy them, sexually and generally. The cancer treatments and their effects on her body added to this pressure—since her body didn’t naturally want sex anymore, she had to try harder than ever.
“I thought I would probably not ever have sex again,” Jan said of the time after she and her second husband separated.
Yet the first time she and Kerry were together sexually, which was their last night in Mexico, “it was like, electric,” Jan says. “There were feelings I hadn’t had for a very long time. It was shocking to me that it was so powerful. It still is. It’s like there’s another part of me that woke up.”
Sex with a woman, she said, was no longer a matter of trying to find desire that has been subdued by hormone-blocking medication or a lack of interest. And, Jan told us, it isn’t just the same act with a different player—it is a different act altogether.
“I feel like in relationships with men I was more focused on trying to please them,” Jan said. “It’s almost like they’re a foreign substance, and I don’t totally understand how to please them. I feel like I can be much more authentic in my relationship with Kerry than I could with either of my husbands.”
Another fact is that Jan’s son is my boyfriend. I tell you this so you can have in your mind an image of the invisible tensions that may have been tracing our arrangement as we talked in our living room. I am not telling you this because the situation felt to me awkward, untenable or unnavigable, but because I think it may be a matter of interest that sitting in the living room were one man and three women, two of whom were at times expressing their disinterest in relationships with men, and one of whom, who was writing an article about the other two women, was involved in a relationship with the man, who was the son of one of the women being written about.
(I’m also telling you this because facts like this one, which is extraneous to what I was doing—interviewing my boyfriend’s mother about the unusual trajectory of her love life—interest me at least as much as, and possibly more than, facts that more clearly establishing the arc of what is being reported as the main story. I like it when facts, not being asked to do any work, are permitted to stand, starkly and immutably true.)
Here, the main story has to do with an affair that began when two women who were friends—they went to the same church, where they had met—attended a retreat together in Mexico, sharing a hotel room to save money.
The retreat was organized by Healing Journeys, the non-profit Jan started in 1994 following her cancer diagnosis. The company organizes conferences and retreats for cancer patients, survivors, and their families.
Jan and Kerry had known each other for about five years through church. Kerry also volunteered for Healing Journeys—Kerry’s partner at the time had breast cancer. They were all friends, just friends.
“And then Healing Journeys sponsored a retreat in Mexico,” Jan said, “and it was a five day retreat. Kerry was going but her wife wasn’t, and Kerry asked if she could be my roommate because it would save money.”
One of Kerry’s motivations for attending the retreat was to take some time out to think about her relationship—her marriage was in trouble, and Kerry hoped that the trip would renew her energy to repair it.
“When we got to the room [in Mexico],” Kerry said, “it was supposed to be two beds, and we saw a king-sized bed there, and Jan’s like, ‘There’s a king-sized bed.’ So I got on the phone. I was like, we need a different room. ‘No, you’ve been upgraded to a nice suite,’ they said.”
“We had a really nice suite,” Jan said. “And that kind of suite, with a private Jacuzzi in the moonlight and the jungle, we could not have that if we had two double beds.”
“So we had to ask each other, ‘Are you attracted to me?’ ‘No, are you attracted to me?’ ‘No.’ ‘Would [Kerry’s wife] be ok with this?’ ‘Heck yeah.’”
“So we decided it was perfectly safe,” Jan said, “and we drew an imaginary line down the middle of the king-sized bed and said that’s your side, this is my side, and we’ll be fine.”
“First night,” Kerry recalled, “no problems, second night, no problems, third night, I think it started happening…”
“It really turned on one day, Halloween day, October 31st,” said Jan.
As Jan and Kerry described their arrival in Mexico, I started to understand something about this story, which you have probably started to understand, too: their story isn’t substantially different from the plot of a conventional romance paperback. Acquaintances, one comfortably single, one tenuously married, travel to a lush, foreign country and arrive at their hotel to find the arrangements changed, “upgraded,” so that now instead of two beds there is one bed, plus a Jacuzzi in a tropical garden. Of course, the full moon is out every night, because it’s almost Halloween, and the veil between worlds is thin …
Except, and I kept reminding myself of this as we talked, there are incongruities in this story that set it apart from the conventional narratives—so far apart, actually, that we can see how the main thing it has in common with those narratives, love, gives not one fig for convention.
Look for part three of “Love’s New Story” on Thursday.