This is my first summer in New Orleans in a long time, and the steamy, stereotypical Long Hot Summer references catch in my daydreams without effort, reminding me of love and sensuality and heartbreak.

Last week I referenced the summer of 1967, thinking about the irony of what I thought was a loveless marriage. However, this week, in a Dear-Abby sort of way, I’m thinking of this Summer of Love, the hot summer of 2011, as I watch a couple-friend, separated a year now, still struggling and still confused.

Sir Frank Dicksee, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1902
  • Sir Frank Dicksee, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1902

For months I encouraged her to move on. He humiliated her, implied that she should wait for him through his soul-searching. But I’ve softened on this point over time, watching my girlfriend suffer, watching the pain in her eyes as she tries to follow everyone else’s advice when, obviously, all she wants is to have him back.

He was just a jerk and he screwed up, I told my sister about my friend’s relationship. That’s all there is to it.

“Most men are jerks and screw up,” she replied.

I’ve been there, dropped by my true love, no explanation, no returned phone calls, no letters, just silence for months. It was heartbreak the likes of which I’ve only felt in losing my mother. I didn’t recognize myself anymore, and I moved through life in a fog, through a wild affair with an aging Big Sur hippie, whose California redwood cabin smelled of marijuana and cheerios, and whose life was as far from mine as possible.

I avoided Louisiana and my family, and I gave notice at my job. I wove daisy chains and played guitar with a stranger’s children. I wandered in the Big Sur Wilderness, alone on winding trails through The Lord of the Rings, a bit disappointed each time I found my way back.

I convinced myself completely that he never would return, and yet even today, after fourteen years of marriage, I can’t think back on that year without hunched shoulders and a caved chest, recalling a familiar, regrettable, debilitating ache.

The one time I joined friends for dinner, I sat the eleventh person at the table for twelve, and I ruined the party, a self-absorbed, self-imposed martyr-to-love. On sleepless nights I walked the twenty blocks from my Carmel-by-the-Sea cottage to the beach just to stare at something bigger than my problems. I got a cat.

I believe it’s possible to die or slip into madness from a broken heart. When every day is a struggle, just existing takes effort. The physical body mimics our emotions. We stop caring about work, friends and family, about things that used to mean everything. A sunset or a table-for-two are painful reminders. Well-meaning friends inadvertently twist the knife.

He’s too old for you.

What could you possibly have in common?

He lives in Louisiana; this is your home now.

And my favorite: You’re still young; you’ll find someone else. ….

(Conversely, I recall a conversation with my granny who, after I split with my previous boyfriend, begged me to take him back: “You’re twenty-five!” she cried. “Who’s going to want you now?”)

When my true love returned to me late one summer afternoon, I sought neither an apology nor an explanation. In an instant, I started living again.

Recently at a dinner party I asked for stories from the broken-hearted. To my surprise, only two of us in ten knew the experience first-hand. However, few admitted that they knew true love either.

I was shocked when one friend, married forty years, asked,

“How can my wife and I have a relationship like yours?”

He explained that he felt disconnected from her, without anything in common, without romance, even without friendship.

I thought for a while, knowing the futility of flowers or chocolate from this man (…and maybe they are frivolous, but hey, a little Sucre never hurts). I also debated sharing our problems, bursting his illusion about my marriage, happy but certainly not perfect. I remembered a cousin who said, rather unromantically on the day before her wedding to her now ex-husband,

“I’m realistic, Wendy. Marriage is hard work.”

Finally, I shared a story. Just this morning, I told him, George kissed my elbow as I left the bed. It was nothing, really, but as he rolled over, his breathing heavy in a half-sleep, I felt loved.

My friend thought for a moment and then shook his head.

“I don’t see how kissing her elbow could make a difference. And besides, I could never do that!”

Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)

For a related post see “The Muse” at Musings of an Artist’s Wife