I've met someone. It happened, the way it always seems to, when I was looking the other way. Innocently minding my own business, getting ready (or so I thought), to summit the highest mountain outside of Asia. I was planning to start dating again when I returned, to maybe try some dating websites, a prospect that I find only slightly more thrilling than getting my teeth cleaned by a dental hygienist hopped on speed and mescal. But this man, who I met briefly a few years ago - I'm not sure we were even properly introduced - and know from Facebook, where we've followed each other's doings since that time, started messaging me a week or two before I left for Argentina.
Maybe he's just what I need, when I need it, this feral man I'm about to take off across the South with, just the two of us and his guitar in a throwback maroon van, shiny with chrome, smelling of me - patchouli and lemongrass - and him - clean sweat and sweet weed - and the musky, satisfied scent our bodies create together. It wasn't supposed to be this way. I didn't expect to see him after Nashville and that weekend I can't quite remember that left me with a broken foot and a lost voice and shining eyes and a pretty-near healed heart.
But CC called me after I got home and I answered and he hasn't stopped calling and I haven't stopped answering. I texted him a few weeks after Nashville late one night, wrote him that I was thinking of how we had lain naked and smooth together under that white, soft sheet. We should hook up, he replied. New Year's. We met in the middle, exactly halfway between us, in Charleston, West Virginia, and he wasn't irritated I was hours late. I could hear his guitar as I walked down the motel hallway and when I opened the door he smiled.
We spent most of those three days in bed. He's as hungry as I am. We've been tormenting each other for a week now, as we get closer to our next tryst. Whispering what we want in late night phone calls, swearing that we aren't touching our own bodies, that we're saving it all, every bit of longing and need, for each other. We laugh, saying those desk clerks better give us a room on a deserted floor. He was going to head down to Florida, to warm weather and beaches, though he prefers the mountains to the sea, like me. I wasn't going to get involved again, at all, for a long, long time.
CC fascinates me the way broken-not-bent people do. I recognize myself in him, I think. He inspires my bones. He sings to my wild. In the hours we spent in the cool, grey light of our motel room he shared such intimate pieces of himself. He was open, unguarded in a way T had never quite been, not in the five years of our relationship. CC told me he was nearly illiterate when he went to prison. He taught himself how to read with Lee Iacocca's autobiography, the only book he had, pouring over it again and again. When he got out a couple years later he bought shelffulls of books, whole rooms full. He said he shipped them all home to his mother for safekeeping when he left LA for Hawaii, but he doesn't know what happened to them.
He told me spent years in Hollywood, trying to be an actor. It surprised me a bit at first but now I can see it. There's a certain vanity to CC, and a charisma, too. He takes care of himself - drinking wheat grass juice. working his body out hard - the way people who know they're beautiful do. He told me he's half-Cherokee and half-Polish. He has the high cheekbones and bold brow of a Native American. The strong nose, too, and I can see an echo of his heritage in the shape of his eyes, though they are a muted green rather than brown.
He told me when he was about five or six his father took him and his three brothers to K-Mart, where he set them loose, instructing them to go play. Instead, CC quietly followed him, watching from a hidden spot as his dad picked up a set of golf clubs and tried to return them for cash. When the cashier refused, he walked out of the store with them. CC says his dad was a con man.
He told me about the women he's loved and the trouble he's made, about his brothers and his mom and how alcoholism runs rampant through his family, like it does in mine. The more CC talked, the more I liked him. He's like a great literary character, I kept thinking, he really is Dean Moriarty in On the Road. I want to write his story - or perhaps I want him to help write mine.
I set off in hours for two weeks travels with him, from Nashville to Memphis to Clarksdale, Mississippi, to New Orleans, to Florence, Alabama and back up to Nashville. I've packed more lingerie than I knew I had and stuffed beside the corsets and nighties are fleece jackets and hiking boots, because we like to get outside almost as much as we like to stay in bed. Almost. Along the way we'll be hitting up juke joints and dive bars, blues clubs and honky tonks, as I ferret out the songs of the south for a magazine assignment.
I don't know what to expect. I don't know how it will all go down. Maybe we'll end up in Honduras. Maybe he'll teach me the guitar. Maybe we'll part ways and never speak again but always smile when we think of each other.
Oh, I love that. I'm so grateful life has the ability to surprise me yet.
His name was Craig, though he told me I could call him CC. I met him in a honky tonk - Robert's Western World I think - in Nashville, the same city where I met T almost six years ago. I was with a couple of friends and I went to the bar to get a refill. I was drinking Red Bull and vodka, an insane beverage that if you're not careful can make you blackout drunk while you're still, more or less, walking and talking. I drink them when I'm exhausted but refuse to concede defeat. Or I did - before that night it had been years since I'd had one. I wasn't precisely intoxicated, but I was on my way. I was having fun. The joint was crowded, the band was good and I wasn't thinking about T. I wasn't sad, or fearful, or feeling guilty about something I couldn't quite name. I was feeling like the woman I once was - carefree, bold, even joyous - before pain came into my life and pulled up a chair, deciding to stay for a spell.
And then, drink in hand, I turned to head back to my table and there was CC. We looked at each other. And there was never any doubt what was going to happen. Because in that moment, quicksilver fast and white hot, like a lightning strike on a deserted beach, we recognized each other. It wasn't that we'd ever met before. I think that CC and I simply saw the same wild in each other that dwells within ourselves. That's the only way I can explain it. It's happened before to me, most recently in Ireland, the night I met Thomas. It's an attraction that goes beyond appearance, and maybe even chemistry. I think it's really more of an unconscious acknowledgement that you've just met one of your tribe.
CC was beautiful, though. I can't say that didn't matter. Only about my height, but packed with sinewy muscle that spoke less of time in the gym than long days of physical labor and intense dedication to play in the sun and fresh air. He had wispy silver hair, big fierce green eyes, a huge smile that revealed a mouthful of straight, white teeth and a laidback, laconic speaking style. He looked and sounded like the surfer he soon told me was. He'd lived in Hawaii, he said, for seven years, and skiied most of the big mountains in Colorado. I don't know if even five minutes passed before he kissed me.
When we returned to the table we found my friends gone. That was okay. CC and I spent the rest of the night making our way between honky tonks. I know Tooties was a stop, and maybe Legends, where my life had changed when T pulled me to my feet for a dance. T, who had broken my heart badly enough I feared it might never be made intact again. T, who I didn't stop to ponder once that whole long, sweet evening. Instead, CC and I kissed and laughed, buying each other drinks and telling tales about our lives. At 51 he was just a bit older than me - and he had my energy, too, like most of the rebels and madmen who have shared my bed over the years.
I took CC home with me that night, as I knew I would, and the next night, too. He was a skilled lover, ardent. We used our fingers and mouths to pleasure each other. His hands were roughened from carpentry and contracting work. His tongue, hot and seeking. It had been so long - going on four years - since I'd been with anyone but T. I was tense, a little shy, at least at first. But running my hands over CC's strong chest, pinning my mouth, tender from his kisses, to his hard abdomen, I felt something unmooring inside me. Perhaps it was the woman I once was, before T. She wasn't gone, I was discovering. She just been tucked up inside me, hidden away from criticism. From judgment. And now she was coming free.
When we'd finished, CC curled himself to me like we were two cats in a patch of sunlight. We slept like that, easefully.
We spent much of our second night talking. CC was a loner, living in a van he drove around the country anywhere he chose. A brawler, he had practiced Buddhism for years as a way to control his temper and still meditated every day. He smoked weed but seldom drank, was estranged from his family and had been in prison in his youth for dealing coke. He'd never married and was largely self-educated in the service of "freeing his mind." I was the first woman he'd been with in more than a year. He was kind to me, sharing himself freely, without hesitation. He told me of his youth growing up poor in Ohio with an alcoholic father. I told him my brother died of a heroin overdose.
Somewhere along the way, in between bouts of lovemaking, perhaps while we were talking, or maybe even sleeping, it came to me that I was more relaxed with this near-stranger than I think I ever truly felt with the man who I believed was the love of my life. With CC I could be utterly, completely myself.
When morning came, I suggested he pick up a copy of "On the Road." "You remind me of Dean Moriarty," I told him. Then, with a lingering kiss, he was out the door. He texted me later, asking again the name of the book I wanted him to read, but I haven't heard from him since. Maybe I'll call him on Christmas, maybe not. It's possible our paths may cross again, the way those of inveterate wanderers often do. Either way, he's nicked out a little space for himself in my heart. Not only for his fearless individualism and lively mind but for the part he played in healing me.
Because that's what happened in Nashville. I feel as if I've shed a cloak of iron. So free I might as well be floating. For the first time in months, maybe even years, I feel happy. I know the afterglow will dim, but I'm hoping it remains just bright enough to show me the way forward.
I'm grateful for my mom and dad. They're old and difficult and broken in a way that can't ever heal by my brother's death. We fight. I'm not nearly as patient as I should be with them. I want to do better, but I haven't. And it kills me to see their health degrade, to see them sick and in pain. But they love me unquestionably in their imperfect way, the way I love them unquestionably in my imperfect way. We do the best we can, the three of us. And for that I'm grateful.
I'm grateful for my brother. I'm grateful that he lived, if I regret every day the way he died. I still sense him here, can nearly hear his great, booming voice and feel the way he he would wrap me in a hug, putting his whole big body and sprawling soul into it. Every once in while I still miss him so much it doubles me over. But how very, very lucky I am that I was Gunnar Shroyer's sister. I'm so grateful for that.
I'm grateful for my friends. The ones who've come into my life after the end of my relationship with T, the ones I'd lost touch with have who re-entered it since and the ones who have been here forever, it seems, helping me navigate the crests and troughs of healing. This is one of the most difficult stretches of my life and it's because of you that I'm making it through. I hope you know how much I love you. For each of you I'm so very grateful.
I'm grateful for the wild. For the mountains and forests and streams. For the paths that cross them, where I've felt a peace I've found nowhere else. Those three days last month I spent hiking the Appalachian Trail were some of the best of my life. How is possible that at 50 I've discovered this lust for the wild, this strong, steady need to wander it, to explore it, to pull it close it around me, like a lover or a gown of silk? I think this love, like all great loves, will take me somewhere I couldn't imagine when I first started to fall.
I'm grateful for writing. It's hard. It hurts. But every once in a while, when I know that I've written something of beauty that might make someone feel not quite as alone as they did before they read it, I think there's a chance my life might just have meaning.
I'm grateful for every single fucked up man I ever lowered myself to let inside my heart and head, because you've shown me what I don't want ever again. I'm grateful to every single man I've hurt, because you deserved better, and you've shown me who I don't want to be. I'm grateful for the sound of a train coming slow on the tracks, for good vodka and fast cars with stick shifts, for the candles I've lit in the cathedrals around the world for my brother, for hot sunshine and cool sheets, for the scents of lemongrass and lavender, and patchouli, too.
I'm grateful for high heels, even though I shouldn't be, and great jazz, for the taste of dark chocolate speckled with sea salt, and the feel of champagne tickling my tongue. I'm grateful for sex, hot and fast or long and slow, and how my appreciation and need for it has only deepened with age. I'm grateful for the pleasure I'm discovering in working my body, in feeling it sweat and stretch, and that it's still healthy enough to do everything I ask of it.
I'm grateful that I'm starting to believe I've still got a little bit of shine left in me.
I'm grateful that I'm starting to believe I still got a great love ahead of me.
I'm grateful that I'm starting to believe life still holds the magic of sweet surprise.
My therapist is insisting that I stay, in a word - a big scary word that I never, ever thought I'd use with regard to myself - celibate. According to her, I have too much to do. Too much else to focus on, what with training to climb mountains and traveling thither and yonder and writing articles and ripping myself open and revealing all the broken bits inside on this blog. Moonlighting at Penn State, too. And trying to take care of my parents, which I haven't done the best, bang-up job of lately. It is a lot.
She wants me to stay away from not only carnal knowledge but also casual dating and, from the sound of it, any unchaperoned visits with anyone between roughly the ages of 16 and 104. She says that if I want a different life, I need to do things differently. Which would be not jumping into bed, a relationship or anything in between with anyone. For I don't know how long.
It's already been too long. The last time I made love was early June. I refuse to look up the exact date because if I do I'll start thinking of that last time and it will begin anew, the sorrow and regret, the guilt and pain. And I'm just starting to be able to take a deep breath without feeling as though my chest is lined with shattered concrete. But, it was Paris. Paris was the last time. It's like a song, isn't it? A scene from a film, or a book. It was damp and chill and dim in our tiny garret, with it's view of Montmatre and, when the fog finally cleared on our last day, the Eiffel Tower. The bed was cold. I don't think we warmed it much. Perhaps I suspected what was coming. Perhaps T knew. Did he know it was our last time? How did he bear it?
I can't write about us right now, not like that. We were extraordinary. All my fire, all his cool. It was the first time I'd ever been entirely monogamous with anyone. It was the first time I wanted to be. I've had so many lovers. I've lost track, lost count, forgotten along the way their names and faces. In the first couple years before T and I committed wholly to each other they were everywhere, such exquisite men. Perfect distractions. Because even though I fought it like hell, all I really wanted was him. And he could never admit all he really wanted was me. Not until I was lost to him, swallowed by Ireland. In the grasp of another lover, a brawling, Black Irish madman who rescued orphaned kittens and old men who had fallen into rivers.
Before then, back when T and I were trying so hard to believe we didn't want to be together, there were the others. The cowboy in Wyoming, 6.5" and massively built, who guided me on horseback through the foothills of the Tetons, pulling me off the animal when the rain came hard and fast, tucking us beneath the branches of an evergreen. He took me across swollen rivers, asking me not to tell anyone - it was dangerous, he said, fording these waters, but he could see by the way my eyes shone even in the grey light that I wanted it. Later, as we lay in bed, the valley spread out below my cabin window, the mountains rising eternal beyond, he showed me scars from his years in rodeo, told me stories about sleeping in the outback, where he was awoken once by the sound of a grizzly snuffling though his camp. I felt tiny under him, enveloped.
There was the half-Sicilian high-fashion photographer in Milano, gorgeous, sleepy-eyed Fabrizio. I met him in a tiny club in the Navigli, saw his eyes follow me as I danced and drank, moist with sweat in the steamy Italian night. We went back to my hotel, playing songs for each other on my laptop - Jeff Buckley, I remember. Hallelujah. He was enormous. That night, fueled by champagne we pulled out of the minibar and coke we bought on the street, seemed endless. I was to attend a matinee at Teatro alla Scala that day. I never made it to the opera, instead laying spent in creased sheets half the day.
And the 19-year-old Swedish-Croatian boy I met in a village I can no longer recall the name of along the Adriatic Sea. There was a carnival that night, a live band playing American rock-n-roll songs in the square. We danced, drunk and giddy and kissing in an open-air club, and I took off my shoes as we walked back to my hotel. We fucked on the lobby bathroom's marble floor, cool against my sun-reddened back. He was sweet. Adorable. He wore braces. We're still friends on Facebook, though I stopped trading messages with him when I moved in with T.
I loved them all, these men, in my fashion. Freely, for a few nights, or a few hours, unbound from worries of past, future or anything at all but desire. I sampled them like the cuisine of the exotic lands through which I rambled. eyes closed in satisfaction, lips wet and gleaming. But in those first months that I lived with T I found myself mourning that we hadn't met earlier in life. Sooner, so we could have more time together. I would have traded them all, all my other lovers for T. And now he's gone. He's branded my heart, seared it black, and left me alone.
And what do I do now? How does a once-wild heart, cruelly tamed and tossed aside, continue on?
Have some advice for me? I'd very much love to hear it. Feel free to comment below or use the email icon above.
Jill Gleeson is a journalist based in the hills of western Pennsylvania. She is a current contributor to The Pioneer Woman, Country Living, Group Travel Leader, Select Traveler, Going on Faith, Wander With Wonder, Enchanted Living and State College Magazine, where her column, Rebooted, is featured monthly. Other clients have included