The trauma was beginning to subside. Two weeks earlier I lived in the middle of 150 acres of mixed hardwoods. But the pursuit of a respectable – or at least remuneratively dependable – job had brought me to the big city and its unrelenting cacophony. Maybe not the most propitious time to start a new romance … or maybe the best.
She was one of five trainers running us new recruits through a bevy of exercises intended to assess our ability to deal with unexpected situations, as well as fit into the company’s culture. Not a magazine beauty, her ecru hair flew every which way as if she’d just come in from a blizzard. But a small tic in the corner of a vibrant smile cast an invisible line that grabbed my eyes, holding my gaze far too long, at least according to business etiquette. A week afterwards, when my suggestion for lunch had, surprisingly, been accepted readily, she admitted her fishing expedition had been intentional.
By the end of that first lunch I was firmly hooked, eager to share not only meals, but after-work drinks and weekend adventures. But she wanted to go slow (as she explained off-handedly over moo shu pork several weeks later) because she had moved across the country just a year ago for love, and was still in this live-in relationship.
Reeling from this atomic aside, I wandered the streets for several hours after she’d returned to the office, before returning to work myself – enough time to conclude that she had been hanging with me because things weren’t going well, and I just need to hang in there until their inevitable split. Just a short week later, my acuity seemed to prove accurate – or so I thought – when she kissed me on the lips – on the lips! – just before boarding the train whisking her home alone for Thanksgiving.
We continued our platonic relationship (no more surprise kisses, though we did regularly brush against each other in that unconsciously familiar way that only budding lovers know) through the year-end holidays. Though New Year’s Eve was a tough night to endure, I managed to get through it by returning to my rural roots for a few days to share stories and beers with old friends. They were all amazed how readily I seem to have adapted to city life. I didn’t tell them why.
January dragged by, even by New England standards, as I anticipated the good news of a bad break-up. Then in early February, upon returning from a Saturday night sojourn with some friends, instead of “good” news she dropped an H-bomb: the lover she came to live with – the one who didn’t seem to care that she’d been spending time with another man – was not a man, but a woman.
To say I instantly plummeted to depths of emotional pain I’d never known existed would be an understatement. But one sleepless night and a somber day later, I knew how to respond – for good or ill.
Monday, over lunch in the company cafeteria, I said softly, but with the incontrovertible conviction of a zealot, these simple words, “I don’t care.”
And I didn’t. I didn’t care that she had moved here to be with another lover. Or if that lover was Robert Redford, or Jane Fonda. Not as long as we could keep doing what we had been doing for the last four months.
It was then I realized that sometimes not caring is the most caring thing to do: not caring that your friend’s political views are overly simplistic, or your wife never puts the scissors back in the odds-and-ends drawer, or your daughter has a smorgasbord of snack food underneath the clothes piled in her closet.
And it doesn’t matter that barely a month later, the anticipated break-up did happen. Or that we shared only a blissful summer together before she realized she was not bi-sexual. Or that I cared too much then to remain friends when she called-off our affair. It doesn’t matter because she’d given me a lesson to carry me through 33 years of marriage: not caring about what is superficial allows what is precious to flourish.