At the tender age of 23, I stumbled into a relationship with a 33-year-old woman. We met in a bar and started hanging out together.
She smoked a lot of pot. A lot. She owned collection of Turkish pipes purchased on a trip to Turkey. They were painted pretty colors. That’s about all I recall about them.
In those days, I smoked pot with my friends on occasion. Nothing major. Just a parking lot high now and then before heading into one party or another. But this gal knew how to SMOKE. It was a learning experience, to say the least.
But that was only when I wasn’t running my brains out. 80-100 mile weeks. I weighed all of 140 lbs. Competed almost every other weekend. I was skinny even for a skinny guy. But I could run.
My 33-year-old girlfriend only took an amused interest in my running. One day she sat in the bleachers while a friend and I did quarter mile intervals at the high school track. She sat there the entire workout, just watching us. When it was through, she commented, “Your legs are almost in perfect sync together. It’s like you’re the same person.”
To some degree, that was true of that friend and I. He was with me the night I met my 33-year-old girlfriend. Later he’d hook up with her roommate. We all did things together that summer. Parties. Concerts. Dinners out.
And smoked some pot. The two of them got the two of us so high one late summer afternoon that those two young men could not even walk back to the house from the restaurant where we’d all had dinner together. We had to sit down and let the pot wear off some. “I can’t walk,” I laughed. I can see why the Beatles recorded Tomorrow Never Knows.
But listen to the colour of your dreams
It is not leaving, it is not leaving
So play the game “Existence” to the end
Of the beginning, of the beginning
A few nights later we were all out to dinner and when it was time to leave, we headed out the door toward the car. Only my friend saw a gal friend from high school and stopped to talk with her. And talk. The three of us, my girlfriend, her roommate and I sat in the car waiting. Then one of them said, “This is so rude. Let’s leave him here.”
I was aghast for a moment. “No!” I insisted. “He’s just like that. He’ll be right out.”
The two of them stared at me. Then her roommate shifted the gears of her classic BMW car and started to pull away. At that moment he walked out the door. I begged them to turn around. They gave him the silent treatment. He did not know why at first. But then he apologized. Lesson learned by a young man.
That moment led to a lecture from the both of them about respecting women. We were 23 years old, they told us. We didn’t yet know how to treat a women.
Few men in their early 20s really do know how to treat the women in their lives. It is a rare and precious jewel of a man that has been raised right by his momma. Who seamlessly knows how to be a good companion to a woman.
As for my 33-year old girlfriend, she had some more teaching to do. One night I showed up for a date dressed in brown corduroys and a cowboy-style shirt that I’d just proudly purchased at some 80s jeans store. “You think I’m going out with you in that?” she asked. “Go home and put on some real clothes.”
Then she explained. “We need to take you to Marshall’s and get you some nice khakis,” she explained. “And some grown-up shirts.”
Understand that this was a woman who, despite (or because) of her love for pot, really had life figured out. She made about $90K working six months of the year doing rehab in apartments and condos in Chicago. The year I met her, she took off on a trip out west in a green VW bus that she owned. She drove around the back roads of the Great Plains and lit up into the mountains. Just cause she could.
She’d call now and then from some phone roadside booth. These weren’t the sappy sort of phone calls to which I’d grown accustomed with my previous girlfriend, with whom I’d fallen in love in college and wound up living in different towns.
Perhaps I might have married that girl if I’d not been 21 years old at the time. That was far too young to marry anyone, a lady friend from work once told me. So we parted ways. That girl married another man months after our relationship ended. They had four daughters, one of whom turned out to be best friends with my own goddaughter at a language camp in Minnesota. Life is strange sometimes.
That woman from college did teach me what good shoes were about. “A man needs to know what good shoes look like,” she’d told me. “Women notice a man’s shoes.” That’s advice I’ve never forgotten.
Yet let’s recall that the style in the 1980s was to throw on running shoes with jeans. That look never, ever really worked. Especially with stinky, broken-down running shoes that were veterans of so many miles. But we did it. Because we didn’t know any better. And wondered why women at bars were not interested in us. Perhaps it was the beat up running shoes. Or something more.
I don’t think I ever did go to Marshall’s with my 33-year-0ld girlfriend and get those khakis. That happened later in life. At the end of that summer together, the relationship began to unravel and that fall I met the woman that I would someday marry. Four years later of course. When I was grown and ready.
Perhaps it is significant there are no photographs of my 33-year-old girlfriend and I together. We weren’t that kind of couple. Not a stop and shoot a photo kind of pair. She never even saw me run a road race. Just that one training session with my friend.
Instead, she saw me objectively. So it felt a bit like there was two of me. Her young boyfriend, and me the runner. Which was I?
Perhaps, thanks to her deep interest in restoring classic furniture, she understood that young men like me actually need to be stripped of our cheesy varnish and refurbished, with painstaking care, into respectable men who know how to treat a woman, make love with giving focus, and encounter the world with self-awareness, not cowboy shirts and corduroys.
There was that one day in a 7-Eleven. We were picking out Cokes and something to eat when I absentmindedly spun around and struck her in the breast with my elbow. “Did you try that?” she whispered with a flash in her eyes. I apologized.
“No, I liked it,” she said.
After my older girlfriend and I parted ways, I met a girl who was statuesque, blonde and 18 years old. We danced and went to concerts but that was about it. Out of respect for her youth, I did not think it my place to take it any further. We had fun together, that was it. I behaved, in other words, like an honorable man.
My fiance is fond of saying, now and then, “We all have a past.” I love when she says that. The point is simple: We exist together in the present, but there’s no point in pretending that we arrived at this point in time without the experiences each of us has had separately. We were both married before. Our circumstances are different, but that’s the point. We’re now converging in the love we share.
Significantly, we run and ride and swim together too. This past Sunday morning I ran seven miles of her 10-miler with her. For long periods we said little but focused on the prescribed pace while the geese honked at us from the misty river. Our strides nearly match because her inseam is essentially the same as mine. I glance at her strong legs now and then while we’re running or cycling. I’m attracted to her in ways that I don’t even try to analyze. The day she showed up for our ride together in those little black cycling shorts I almost flipped.
Her influence is what got me back into doing triathlons. I’d tried in 2003 to move into the sport before tearing my ACL playing soccer. That put those plans on hold. Then 2005 brought my late wife’s cancer diagnosis. That led to eight years of chemotherapy and the devastating recurrences that came along the way. I took up cycling in 2007 and some of those long rides were important (yet difficult) therapy for the stress of trying to make get through life and make a living while taking care of her, sometimes full time. It was all a long journey through The Right Kind of Pride.
When it was done, I was determined to heal and look to the future. I figured the future was coming whether I was ready or not. So go out there and meet the world head-on. That comes from being an endurance athlete. Every new day is a challenge to be met. It’s in my nature.
I met Sue through FitnessSingles.com in 2013. We’ve dated nearly four years now. We got engaged last April, and are getting married May 6. Through this time together, both of us have been processing our recent past and working closely together on what it means to build a new life. It’s not always easy. We have families to meld, and some of that integration seemed pressured to our children when we made decisions about engagements, houses and moving. But it is working out. Day by day.
It’s her mind that draws me closer by the day. It’s rare that we aren’t discussing some issue of life. We share our hopes for our children and when necessary, concerns about issues like the life of our cats. We almost lost one this past week to a urinary infection. It cost a lot to save that little kitty’s life.
It’s all a swirling mix of events great and small. Sometimes it’s a hairball of financial commitments and other sticky problems that need to be coughed or cleaned up before moving on.
Yet there are so many wonderful moments. When she’s blow-drying her hair in her morning bathrobe, I’ll inch past her and reach down to grab her cute calves sticking out the bottom of her robe. It’s these small gestures sometimes that make up a relationship. You can see it in people who love each other, and you can often see when it’s not there as well. Some men never grow up, it seems. But those who do, often do so in the company of great women. Sometimes it lasts. Sometimes it doesn’t. We all have a past.
That statement holds a pragmatism that amounts to a healthy dose of positivity. As in, “You can’t change the past, but you can make the best of it.”
In that light, we should all cherish the best of what we learned from past relationships. Both the good and the difficult relationships in life teach us something. Like anyone, I’ve made mistakes in how I treated people in relationships. I still sometimes do. In that regard, I do think about what that 33-year-old girlfriend once said about making up for messups. “If you make a mistake, it’s how you recover that matters,” she said. Good advice in business, relationships and life.
And quite sage advice for a young man of 23. Putting mistakes in the past can sometimes happen right there in the present.
We just saw the movie La La Land. Without spoiling a moment of that experience for you, I can say that it beautifully celebrates the joys and challenges of relationships. But I will say that in such circumstances, the present feels like the past is happening at the same time. Go see it. You’ll see what I mean.