The Right Stuff
In 2005 I was fifty-four years old, living in Charlestown, a waterfront neighborhood in Boston; worked in Marblehead twelve miles north of the city at my store; and was re-evaluating my life. By then I had three failed attempts at romance.
By the time I divorced Len in 2002 we’d been married thirty-two years. The silver lining of this relationship gave me my three wonderful children and two gorgeous grandchildren; taught me how to be self- reliant; take care of my finances; and educate myself through travel and meeting unique and interesting people. I also loved Len deeply but learned that loving someone cannot heal their wounds no matter how much you try.
The silver lining with Eric and his wife was that I found out that I was strong, resilient and at peace with my sexuality. Somehow this messy, tangled and unseemly situation brought me sexual confidence and
a comfortableness with myself that I had never experienced before. I no longer felt powerless or unattractive like I did when I was married to Len. I walked away from this situation feeling empowered and free from much of my old self-limiting thinking.
The relationship with David helped me to re-member who I was before being married and becoming a mother. His love for me brought me joy and healed wounds that my marriage to Len had exploited. David helped me remember what kindness and love felt like. It wasn’t meant for us to hold on to it, but to experience it like a perfect summer’s day, nourishing us, and then fading away like a dream.
Each relationship brought me closer to being fully realized. Each relationship brought me closer to becoming a woman who could love and be loved without fear, insecurity or shame. I was grateful for all the lessons. I felt like I was living the Jim Morrison song "Break On Through (to the Other Side).” I had found my natural self and I was proud and comfortable with it.
I continued to date online for a while, but it wasn’t as exciting anymore. It became tedious. I decided that my next step should be to go to a reliable dating service that screened applicants, charged a fee, but would perhaps find more serious candidates for me to date.
I contacted the office of a dating service called The Right One. I heard their commercials for years on my favorite radio station. I didn’t do a background check on them. It never crossed my mind that they might not be legitimate.
I should have known that they were idiots after filling out a huge questionnaire, having a picture taken of myself, and then the interviewer saying to me, “Because of your weight, we are going to have a hard time placing you.” Sure, I was not thin. I was 190 pounds. Some men loved this about me and some men didn’t, but that was no reason to say that I would be hard to match with someone because I wasn’t thin enough. How insulting, small minded and unprofessional of them!
The comment offended me, but I also realized, in retrospect, it was just a ploy to protect themselves, to use as an excuse for not having any viable prospects for me down the road! I should have walked out of the office and thrown the paper work in the woman’s face, but I felt determined to find my partner no matter what and let that motivation blind me.
The way it worked was, after you filled out the detailed questions, you would then receive an introduction letter in the mail with the person’s name and phone number they matched you with. It seemed a very civilized and safe way to first make contact with someone. I also thought people going to the expense and trouble of a dating service would be more serious and perhaps less crazy.
They introduced me to a guy named, Giovanni. We spoke on the phone several times after we got our introduction letters. He sounded like a guy from Revere, or the Bronx, take your pick. I tried not to judge him by his accent or his name. I gave him the benefit of the doubt because the dating service sent him.
We decided to meet in the North End of Boston at a pizza place on Hanover Street. I lived in Charlestown at the time. The North End, which is Boston’s Little Italy, was within easy walking distance. We met in August of 2005, on a Saturday afternoon.
Giovanni said he would be wearing a black shirt with a dragon embroidered on it. Ok, I thought, not my style, but I’ll keep an open mind. I met him on the corner of Hanover and Parmenter Street. Sure enough, he looked like an Italian hit man. His shirt was black silk with an enormous red dragon embroidered up the side and unbuttoned half way down the front. He wore three gold chains, a gold bracelet, pinky ring and had a nose that looked like it had been broken numerous times. My first instinct was to run away as fast as I could, but again my “Catholic girl” who didn’t like to appear rude took over. I really disliked myself for still being such a wuss. Oh well.
We went inside the pizza place. I got a coke and he got a meatball sub. He sat across from me and I watched him eat, dripping sauce down his chin and onto his fingers, licking it off. Geez, he reminded me of Tony Soprano stuffing himself like a pig eating Carmela’s homemade Italian sausages in their kitchen after a “job.” I kept egging him on for his real story, probably out of boredom, sick curiosity and trying to figure out how the dating service thought this would be a good match for me!
Giovanni bragged that he was the cousin of a famous “wise guy” who owned a popular restaurant on Parmenter Street. He said he wanted to follow in the family business but up until that point the “family” wasn’t letting him in. He said he took acting lessons and hoped to improve himself. Sure he was.
Valuing my life, I told him I had to leave for an appointment. I quickly exited the pizza place, turning frequently to be sure he didn’t follow me. I decided to duck into a restaurant with booths in the back, where I could have a good look at people walking by outside in the front.
I drank a Limoncello to settle my nerves, then ordered dinner to waste a lot of time. I wanted to make sure he couldn’t tail me home. What the hell kind of dating agency was this??
I called the service up the next day and complained that they set me up with a dangerous, lunatic of a guy. They tried to deny it, telling me I was over reacting. Eventually the service apologized once I spoke to the manager, but I never got another dating recommendation from them. I reported them to the attorney general’s office for scamming me. I sent in some paper work to the office, but they said they had a huge backlog of cases and I would have to wait. I realized the dating service covered themselves by writing on my application that I was heavy and therefore harder to match up! A few years later I saw on the local news that this company was being charged with fraud. I never knew if the charges stuck but at least they were being widely reported as disreputable.
I tried a subscription on EHarmony.Com. Their process was long and tedious. It seemed like a dating service for people who were afraid to meet other people. You had to go through hundreds of questions about hypothetical situations and based on your answers were matched up with someone who then questioned you more. It could take weeks to go through the back and forth of it, only to end up failing to meet someone’s criteria. I had no patience for it. It seemed very convoluted.
I went back to Craig’s List. At least I felt the men were honest and up front with what they wanted. Whenever I wrote an ad I got 40 responses or more. Out of that forty only two or three sound like good candidates. I had a theory that once in a while a good guy would actually be out there on Craig’s List because it was a logical first step for dating after a big break up for some men.
I met a Hispanic guy, Roberto, on Craig’s List. He was appointed to Governor Mitt Romney’s newly formed minority counsel. I’m not sure what Roberto’s job was, other than working for the state. I did go to a ceremony at the State House with Romney inducting Roberto and others to this new board. It was an impressive event held in the rotunda.
Roberto was an ex-green beret. He was way too controlling, and always trying to impress me. We didn’t see eye to eye on politics or the military. He tried hard to get me to like him, but he wasn’t the one.
There was Edward the commercial photographer. He took portfolio pictures of my interior design work at my condo. He was very talented, but totally self- absorbed. He turned out to be more of an occasional friend than anything else.
By 2006 even my determination was waning. I had kissed way too many frogs. My store manager, Laura, helped me write one last ad for Craig’s List. We wrote “I am bored as hell and I am not going to take it anymore!” ̶̶ a take off from the movie Network. I then listed my favorite restaurants, movies, books and authors. I mentioned the poet Mark Strand, who I met and worked with at BreadLoaf in the 80’s, as one of my favorite writers.
I got another 45 replies to that ad. Again, I narrowed it down to three possible men to meet. This was hard work and I felt defeated by the process, which had now been going on for years. I wasn’t too optimistic about finding someone anymore, and frankly, I had my fill of being playful and experimental. I just wanted a good man to settle down with. I was determined to find honest, authentic love, someone I could share my life with. A tall order, but I was still determined to find it.
I chose the three best responses to my Craig’s List ad and wrote to each one. They all answered and told me a little about themselves. The first two guys were the usual players. We bantered with each other, made sexual innuendos and talked about meeting. There was nothing very special there.
The third guy I wrote answered my email with a serious and mature tone. He didn’t go in for sexual bantering. He talked about the movie Network and that he liked it a lot. He told me about being a film student in college and that he was a former student of Mark Strand, who I mentioned as one of my favorite poets.
He seemed interesting but perhaps too serious. The sexual bantering was my way of finding out what a potential boyfriend thought about sex. Did they like it? Were they open and relaxed about it? I wanted the whole enchilada, a kind, loving, respectful man who made me laugh in bed and out, someone who had my back and was proud of me, someone fearless, fun and thoughtful.
My Side of the Story–John Swan
By March of 2006 I was in the middle of a painful divorce, living in a dumpy apartment with a drunkard as my roommate. I didn’t know how things could get much worse, but of course, they could, and did, for at least a little while longer.
I hunkered down though one of the coldest, stormiest springs on record. When the weather started to break and warm up, I got the courage to tell my roommate he had to leave.
That meant I now needed to find a new one, and I wasn’t functioning all that great back then.
It took a while, but one evening I sat down and turned on the computer, opening Craig’s List to check out roommates. I scrolled the listings with a cursory look for a few minutes, then my mind just crashed—sorry, no more disk space left, it said.
I stared out the bedroom window into the darkness for a long time. I don’t know how long, but as I sat in front of that window, a timelessness began to empty everything around me. And I realized I needed to finally let go of the whole illusion of my life in order to survive. It felt terrifying, yet also liberating at the same time.
Then I did something I’d never done before, and it changed my life. In a fit of fancy I opened the personal listings to distract myself, and surprisingly, the listings opened at the end, not the beginning as they usually do.That’s strange, I thought, as I scanned up a few postings with my editor’s eyes, looking for the unknown, hidden in the words that raced through my mind at light-speed.
Then boom! I thought saw something and slammed on the breaks, and scrolled back down, until the name of my favorite poet and former teacher, Mark Strand, appeared out of the chaos.
The posting took the theme of the movie Network, beginning with, “I’m bored as hell and won’t take it anymore.” Dale had included Mark, also one of her former teachers, in a list of favorite writers.
I read it over and over. Each time it ended with the same option to reply. After awhile I just sat back, lost in the screen. At the time I never realized I was approaching one of the most important crossroads of my life.
But I did know a window in the darkness had suddenly, and mysteriously opened. One that could close any minute.
I shut my eyes and focused on my breath. Soon a familiar presence seemed to hover behind me. I lost my mom many years before, but I’ve never really felt very separated. Now, in my moment of decision, she comforted me again.
I read the posting one more time, and then reached out to the keyboard with one finger…and the rest, as they say, is history.
John Swan and I had been exchanging emails for a while. His serious nature made me not too interested in him at first, but I almost never said no to any man who asked to meet me and seemed sincere. My policy was to give everyone a chance, except if they seemed crazy.
Before we met, I checked John out online. He and his soon to be ex-wife had started the Jamaica Plain Gazette in the late 80’s and grew it into a multi- neighborhood newspaper covering JP, Mission Hill Roslindale and Hyde Park, each with their own edition.
John was a reporter and the paper’s primary photojournalist.
John had also written freelance articles for the Boston Globe, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Kansas City Star and Cleveland Plain Dealer. He impressed me as a good listener, a humble guy who down played his achievements. He was intelligent, creative and a very kind person. As a writer and photographer he was an artist and I loved that about him. We decided to meet after a few weeks of emails and phone calls.
John asked if we could meet in Jamaica Plain. I had only been in Boston a year and never heard of Jamaica Plain. It was nowhere near Charlestown, where I lived. It seemed like the other side of the universe to me! I looked it up on MapQuest and charted my route to deal with the big dig traffic ordeal and rerouting issues. I got a little lost but finally found the bar. I felt nervous going in cold to meet John. Every first date was the same, I had to summon up the courage to do it. My stomach was full of butterflies. I parked my car on the street and walked up to what looked like a run down dive bar. I was used to more refined places when I went out on dates. Dive bars were not even in my vocabulary.
When I got to the side door entrance, the only way to come in, a very thin, grey-haired guy in jeans and a yellow shirt with navy stripes was waiting for me. He had a silver chain around his neck tucked inside his shirt. I noticed right off the bat that he didn’t meet one of my criteria. He was much thinner than me! Most women want a guy who is taller and heavier than them. I felt self conscious of my weight. It had been an issue all my life, being too heavy.
When I was ten my mother put me on diets. She had me drink Metrecal, a weight loss drink, or eat a diet candy called Ayds. She and my father believed you could never be too rich or too thin and obsessively criticized me. Since my mom didn’t make the family dinner except on Sunday afternoon or Friday fish fries, we kids had to fend for ourselves. She would put steaks in the freezer, Swanson TV dinners, or Banquet roast beef for us to make on our own. One time she saw me preparing a steak. She was horrified at the size of it, but she had bought it! When I put it on a dinner plate she wanted me to see how huge it looked, so she moved the steak to a salad plate and said, “See Dale Ann, you are eating way too much. You have to eat less and lose weight”. Actually, I was an average size then, not fat, but I wasn’t skinny like my mom and sister. Weight became a touchy subject for me and when I met John it just magnified it. As long as I dated someone heavier than me, I felt okay. Being with a guy I out weighed by a lot challenged my self-image.
John seemed nervous, but acted like a gentleman and had already gotten a table for us. He had a long narrow, sad face, but when I got him to smile, he looked very handsome and full of light.
We sat in a booth and talked for a few hours. I really liked how he looked me straight in the eye when we talked. He held my gaze, relaxed and interested in me. This rarely happened with other men. He talked a lot about his awful marriage. He clearly was still dealing with the worst of the sudden and painful separation. He paid for my dinner, which shocked me because I knew he had major financial concerns. When he gave the waitress an extra tip, I thought, what a good guy, generous and compassionate.
He walked me to my car and we hugged goodnight. Hmmm. I thought, no kiss good-bye. Maybe John was shy or not interested in me.
That night, around 3am, the usual witching hour when I woke up with anxiety, wondering if I paid my bills, if my money was invested safely or if I locked the doors and windows, I instead felt a feeling of calm and peace. The last time I felt that good was when all my kids where home safe and sound and asleep for the night. The calm I felt with John was starting to sneak into my psyche.
We spoke a few more times on the phone. He went over and over his woes with his soon to be ex-wife, his work problems and feelings of total humiliating failure. I understood his pain. I wasn’t afraid of it, but it was getting redundant. I still dated a few other men off and on but decided to invite John over for dinner one Saturday night after a rather tortuous phone conversation we had that morning where he bared his problems again. I said “John, you’ve got to get this out of your system. Come over tonight for dinner, talk it out once and for all, then be done with it.”
John would be on my turf now. My condo in Charlestown was my calling card for my interior design business: posh, contemporary and artistic. When most people saw it, their jaws dropped open. It looked over the top with white sofas, lime rugs, Venetian mirrors, large paintings, dark green khaki walls and a massive curved wall hand painted in an abstract ribbon design. The ceilings were fifteen feet tall. It was a loft style space and very dramatic. I often sold my personal furniture to clients and things always kept changing but had to be perfectly displayed.
John, who lived closed to the bone most of his life, told me during our first date, that he and his wife lived simply and even used a cardboard box as a table for their TV. John walked into my space and didn’t look impressed, he didn’t ooh and aah, he didn’t act out of place. What a relief. I took his lack of reaction to mean he felt comfortable in his own skin no matter where he was.
I made dinner and John brought the music. He introduced me to Eva Cassidy and her amazing voice on CD’s. We drank wine, talked for hours and John cleaned up the kitchen.
Then he said “The cook always gets a foot rub, want one?”
Wow, “Yes please!” I said. John, who was also a licensed muscular therapist, knew his way around feet! He took off my socks and with the help of some lavender massage cream I donated to the cause, gave me the best foot massage I ever had. It lasted for almost an hour. I became so relaxed I fell asleep. When John left he hugged me good night. I really liked John, but was still concerned that he had not tried to kiss me yet. Did he only want to be friends?
The following weekend we decided to go kayaking in Marblehead Harbor. I got to see just how thin John was. He had on shorts and his legs were like toothpicks and pale as eggshells. The stress of his impending divorce had taken away his ability to eat and he looked wafer thin.
It was August and hot. John came in a leather jacket over his t-shirt and shorts to kayak in. That’s kind of weird, I thought. He said it was because he had a bad back and didn’t want to get a chill. Seeing him kayak in a leather jacket was another strike against him, poor guy. He just didn’t look nautical enough for me!
When we got back to land and dragged the kayaks to their resting place, we ran into a friend of mine who insisted on making us lunch. I just wanted to end the date. It wasn’t just John’s leather jacket choice, but he was sullen, still brooding about his life and I felt I had gone as far as I could with him.
We ate lunch on my friend’s deck near the water and all John did was smoke a cigarette, peck at his food and not speak. I couldn’t get him to laugh or lighten up. It was embarrassing. I am done trying, I thought. We drove back to Charlestown and I quickly said good-bye to him and shut the door. I was really pissed that he still wallowed in his pain. I was pissed because I really liked him even if he weighed 140 pounds soaking wet!
I shooed John away quickly when we got back to Charlestown. Once he left, the first thing I did was call up Edward to see if he wanted to hang out. I was looking for a diversion to get my mind off of John and the frustration I felt that afternoon.
Edward and I had a nice time talking, making out and having dinner all the while John was calling me on my cell phone trying to reach me. I flippantly refused to answer his calls until I got home around 9 pm. He said that he had mistakenly left his cell phone in my car and asked if he could come over and get it. I was testy with him but said, “Sure come over and get it.” I met him at the door, gave him his phone and thought, nice knowing you John!
I went about my business the next week totally demoralized that another one had bit the dust. If John couldn’t stop being so sad, depressed and complaining about his life, he really wasn’t ready for a relationship.
John surprised me a few days later when he called me and apologized for being so quiet at lunch at my friend’s house, and for badgering me about getting his phone. Then he asked me to go out on another date, to give him another chance. Hmmm I thought, was I being courted or chased? It felt good. No one had done that before with me. I was always too impatient to let things unfold. John was teaching me something I needed to learn. I appreciated his forthrightness and honesty. “Sure” I said, “I’ll go out again.”
John took me to a very romantic restaurant at the Royal Sonesta Hotel. We ate outdoors on the patio just steps away from the Charles River. It was a beautiful end of summer evening and the city lights across the river in Boston looked like shimmering jewels. This was the kind of romantic evening I loved.
We had a nice time talking and John did not complain, seem gloomy or depressed. He got up to use the restroom and when he got back to the table, he had a small bottle of pale blue looking liquid in his hand. He sat down, took a swig of the stuff, and then tried to discreetly spit it into an empty glass! I guessed it was mouthwash.
What the heck, I thought and said, “John, what are you doing???” I started to laugh as John looked at me like he had been caught doing something really stupid, which he had. It turned out he was so nervous trying to be a good date that he forgot decorum for a second, and did something really weird. Ok, now I had seen it all.
After dinner we went for a walk on the Esplanade, which is the footpath that runs along the Charles River on the Cambridge side. I was now at my wits end with John. I really enjoyed his company when he wasn’t licking his wounds. He seemed to be pursuing me now but he still had not tried to kiss me.
As we walked down the path, holding hands, enjoying the river at night and the occasional boat that glided by with little glimmering lights, I said “John, are you going to kiss me or what, because if you aren’t into sex this isn’t going to work!” Not very slick on my part but it was clear neither of us were slick that night.
John stopped walking, put his arms around me and nervously kissed me. His kiss tasted like a hint of pond water! When I told John about this recently he said, “What do you expect from a Swan?” Very funny. I wasn’t sure at the time if I liked the taste or not, but there was something fresh and compelling about it. When we got into the car to leave, John romantically pulled me towards him, looked me in the eyes, brushed my hair to the side and kissed me again. This time there was no fear, just sweetness. I was hooked.
In some small ways, John was my Eliza Doolittle. I found I had to coax him out of his shell, to get him to laugh, enjoy life and to free himself from all the betrayal and humiliation he had gone through. He lost his confidence from staying too long in a relationship that did not support him. I understood that pain. It happened to me and to many of my friends. It didn’t bother me that he was recovering from a bad marriage as long as he did his best to face it and move on.
By late September in 2006, John and I became very close. It had only been about eight weeks since we met but being with John felt calming, peaceful and natural to me. We laughed at the same silly jokes, talked about politics with the same views, discussed art, movies and old relationships that either embarrassed us or broke our hearts.
We were still just dating, but I thought it would be fun to go away together for a long weekend. My friend Crandall Toothaker invited me to use his rambling house in Freeport Maine, on the water. When we arrived, the first thing John and I did was notice the calm and quiet of the land and the water. All we could hear was the singular cawing of a crow chasing a hawk in the distance and the gentle rhythmic lapping of the water on the shore.
Before we even unpacked our bags from the car, I walked down the very long gangplank to the dock that jutted out onto the bay and sat at the end of it. It was a beautiful, clear September day. The sky painted a flawless blue, the air pinched with the scent of balsam as the warm sun beat down on us. The silence hung like in an empty church.
I heard John’s footsteps behind me walking down the gangplank onto the dock. I lay down on my back and stretched out like a seal to be as close to the water as possible, warming my backside on the sun heated wood planks.
John sat beside me on the chaise lounge and just looked out at the painter’s view of sky, glistening water, floating islands and the occasional heron, eagle or osprey flying by. The view took our breaths away. John reached down for my hand and the instant we touched, a monarch butterfly flew over us, then another and another.
I sat up and looked at John, then we both saw butterfly after butterfly cruise by like a brigade of miniature hand-painted paper airplanes gliding along. It turned out that we were sitting in the middle of the monarch migration that happens every September in Maine as thousands of beauties wing their way south to Mexico for the winter.
I squeezed John’s hand and he squeezed mine back. We just smiled at each other knowingly. Neither of us wanted to say a word to break the magic of the migration.
It was my first experience with someone where words didn’t need to be spoken because we knew in our hearts what we both were thinking.
At that moment I fell in love with John. I had always wanted to share such a profound moment with another person, a mutual and spontaneous moment of the solemn beauty and majesty of nature. It was the most intimate experience I had ever felt. We both knew what was happening without a word being said. It felt like the universe had conspired to bring us to this moment.
From then on John and I quietly, but surely threaded our lives together. Our mutual love of nature, family, friends, community, books, travel, art, history and openhearted desire for true intimacy is the framework of our relationship. We can speak to each other about anything and share every experience we ever had with no shame, blame or judgment.
With John by my side I became a better person. He taught me about things that had slipped by my radar, like living with a commitment to social justice, understanding the ravages of poverty, political injustices and what living in a community means. He taught me patience and how to be more present in nature, the way his Native American granddaddy taught him.
One crisp evening in Deer Isle Maine, John and I were star gazing outside on a deck looking up into a vast, layered, night sky so clear and dark you could see millions of stars shimmering white, red, and orange above us. It felt as if the sky could swallow us up whole. I sat in front of John on a chaise lounge and leaned back into his arms looking upward. John whispered to me “look at the sky like a bowl that we were falling into.” He was holding on to me and I swear it was like falling upward into the sky with only his arms around me giving me balance. It was disorienting and magical. We now shared everything with each other and never once doubted that trust.
I always joke that John and I found each other on Craig’s List. It seems like such a ridiculous and unlikely place to meet the most important person of your life. This time I think God was on our side, connecting us to each other once we found the courage and heart to let go of old wounds and love again. Crandall was right, the more frogs you kissed the closer you get to the prince!
Neither one of us is perfect, but we are perfectly committed to a relationship that brings us joy, and radiates outward to everyone else around us.
We got engaged on December 25th, 2008 at John’s sister’s house in Maryland. John surprised me and asked me to marry him in front of his entire family. I felt like a seventeen year old all over again, giddy, excited and full of love for the man I had been dreaming about coming into my life for years.
We were married June 21, 2009 in a small ceremony at the UU Church just two blocks from our home. We had twenty-five friends and family attend. During the service John surprised me when he read a letter of congratulations from an old friend and teacher of ours, former U.S. Poet Laureate, Mark Strand. John had written Mark earlier, explaining how his name made John stop and read my personal ad, and that without him, we might have never met.
We had our reception at a neighborhood restaurant that we all walked to in the rain. Right before dessert, our friend David, a professional clown, surprised us by juggling fire outside on the street corner in front of the restaurant window as a gift to us!
We went to Old Quebec City for our honeymoon and enjoyed a roof top suite, Cirque du Soleil performances on the street and perfect croissants at breakfast.
The gifts John told me he could give me when we got married were his name, his community of Jamaica Plain, his friends and the local beauty of the Jamaica Pond and parks near by. Since Swans mate for life and live on water we have landed exactly where we should be.