“Wanted: Eighteen, Vulnerable and Sensitive”
We had traveled just nineteen miles west—my childhood was left behind. Gone were the backyard Wiffle ball games with my brothers that had defined my summer afternoons, as was the small maple tree in the front yard that I nearly succeeded in chopping down with a rubber ax when I was eight; over were the nights lying in bed talking to my older brother Peter across the room in the dark before sleep came. We had lived atop a small hill, safely in the center of a suburban block, in a three-bedroom colonial with green shutters; now we would live in a long and low house in a swale on a large corner lot a half hour and a world away.
“It looks like a motel,” I said when I first saw our new home. Unwittingly, I had spoken to the temporary quality that our lives were about to take on. My eldest brother had just gone off to college, ending the daily battles with my father—no longer would my dad chase Stephen out the window and across the yard in a rage. Peter’s star, which had burned so bright, grew suddenly and temporarily tarnished—driving and girlfriends usurped the passion for sports that had occupied his early years, yet he continued to look after me with a fierce protectiveness. My younger brother, Justin, eight years my junior, was slotted into a new school and tumbled in the wake left by the rest of us.
Instead of feeling more confident after our move into the larger home, my parents grew tense. More and more often, when the phone rang, I could hear my father’s voice echoing from somewhere in the cavernous house, “I’m not here! I’m not here!” Whoever was looking for him, he did not want to be found. At the same time, my mother grew more remote due to an illness that we children knew of only vaguely—it was never discussed with us. In all this space, my family seemed to be coming apart. I was fourteen.
A quiet child, I’d had a rotation of friends and a cycle of movement in my old neighborhood, the loss of which left me untethered. There were woods across the road from our new home and I began to spend more and more time, alone, picking through the trees and building dams in the stream. Always in the shadow of my brother Peter’s athletic ability, my passion for sports waned. I was never a diligent student, and as the work piled up, my interest faded. Noticing my rudderless unease, my mother suggested I try out for the school musical, Oliver. Reluctantly, I went along. When it came to the final audition for the role of the Artful Dodger, I surprised myself with how much I wanted the part. Pitted against another student who, it was made very clear, had a better singing voice and was more desired for the production, I threw myself into my performance in a way that left them no option but to reward me with the role.
In describing first love, the playwright Tennessee Williams once wrote, “It was like you suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been in half shadow.” I experienced a similarly wondrous sense of discovery with that first role. I felt the power and belonging I had been searching for, without knowing that I had been searching at all. I knew my experience onstage was a profound one because I told no one of its effect on me.
A few years later, when the time came to apply to college, with few options because of my poor grades, I quietly took the train to Hoboken, then the PATH under the Hudson River, and went to a building off Washington Square in Greenwich Village. On the second floor of a windowless room I spoke a few paragraphs of a play I had read only a portion of, in front of a petite man with an effete manner who wore a bow tie and a waxed mustache.
“Sit down,” he said when I was finished. He wanted to know why my grades were so bad and why I wanted to come to acting school. He asked if I had another monologue I could perform for him. I could do some of the lines from the Artful Dodger, I said. When I was finished he looked at me for a long while. “Okay,” he said at last, “here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to get you into this school, if I can. I’m sure they’ll place you on academic probation to start. You’re going to get good grades and be grateful to me for the rest of your life.”
“Sounds good,” I said, slipping on an attitude of casual indifference to mask the thrill I felt.
“No son of mine is going to be a fucking thespian,” my father snapped when he learned of the audition—but when no other college accepted me, he had no choice.
This was the same man who then drove me into the city and knocked on door after door until we found an apartment for me to live in just off Washington Square Park when the university refused me housing. And it was during the buoyant ride back to New Jersey that we played “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” on his John Denver tape, over and over again. I bowed the air fiddle and he lowered the windows and the wind ripped through the car as we sang at the top of our lungs with our hearts wide open to each other.
As I packed my bags to leave home, my mother offered me a painting that I had always admired—a large canvas with the profile of a hawk, its golden eye staring boldly out at the viewer. When my father saw it leaning against the wall by the door, instead of on the living room wall, he grew enraged.
“That painting is not leaving this house,” he barked. “That is my favorite piece of art.”
My mother, who rarely engaged with my father when he lost his temper, pushed back. “I’m giving it to him,” she declared. “He is leaving for school and I want him to have it.”
A vicious fight ensued. I knew, even in the midst of the shouting, that this had nothing to do with a painting and everything to do with a mother losing her son in whom she had been overinvested, and a father who had resented their closeness.
A few months after I had settled in my apartment, my father made one of his many unscheduled visits, carrying the painting. He presented it as if it were a new idea to offer it to me. I tried to refuse but it was no use. When he left, I put the painting in the back of a closet, and when I moved from that apartment, I gave it away.
The man who had gone out on a limb and gotten me into NYU was Fred Gorlick. He rarely acknowledged me when I saw him at school, and he left shortly after I arrived. I never saw him again. I have been grateful to him for my entire life, but I could only keep half my word. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to attend my nonacting classes, and after two years, the powers that be at school asked me to leave.
A few months later another transient angel swept across my path.
“Wanted: Eighteen, vulnerable and sensitive” read the ad in the newspaper. I hadn’t seen it, but a friend called and told me about the audition. I got on the number 1 train and went to the Upper West Side. I sat on the floor of a hallway in the Ansonia Hotel on Seventy-third Street and waited for three hours with several hundred other eighteen-year-old, vulnerable and sensitive hopefuls. I had never been to an “open call” before; I had never been to a movie audition.
When I was finally called into the room, I handed my headshot to a man with soft features who immediately flipped it over to look at my résumé. I had acted in exactly one professional play, for one weekend. The play was listed there, alone on the white page.
“You spelled the author’s name wrong,” the man with the soft features said.
“Oh,” I responded meekly, “sorry.”
Then he looked over his shoulder to a woman with a head full of untamed blond hair, who was busy with work of her own. She looked up, glanced at me briefly, and nodded. The man with the soft features turned back and said, “Come to our office tomorrow.” He wrote the address and time on a piece of paper.
I went to the office the next day and was handed a scene from what I assumed was a movie script. I read it with the same man, whose name I learned was David, and went away. The following week I was summoned to meet the director of the film, Lewis Carlino, in his suite at a midtown hotel. He was a gentle, soft-spoken man with a trim gray beard. We chatted for a while, and then I left. As I waited by the elevator, David came out and asked me back to the office again the following day. We read the same scene I had before. This time, Lewis was also present and they were recording me on videotape. I was nervous and knew I was performing poorly, unable to follow the director’s suggestions. Worse, my eyes unwittingly opened wide, apparently giving me a look of frozen terror.
“Just relax your eyes,” Lewis said kindly.
I didn’t know what he was talking about.
I left, disheartened, knowing that I had lost any chance for the part.
Six weeks later I pushed the button on my roommate’s new answering machine on the floor just inside his bedroom. And there was David’s voice, asking if I could come in to the office yet again.
Marty Ransohoff, the film’s producer, had seen the tape and saw something he liked. “He looks crazy, like Tony Perkins in Psycho,” Marty had said.
I was brought to Chicago to meet and screen-test with other actors, and finally I was flown out to Los Angeles to meet with Jacqueline Bisset—the role I was to play was that of her young lover and she needed to approve the choice.
At the Château Marmont hotel, beside the room where John Belushi had recently overdosed, I waited for the call. Marty picked me up in his Jaguar. He was an outsized man in every way, and as we drove up Benedict Canyon, he told me, “Just be yourself, kid.”
A tall blond Adonis answered the door. He spoke with a thick Russian accent. “It is a pleasure to meet you,” he said, and extended his well-tanned hand. It was Jacqueline Bisset’s lover, the recently defected Russian ballet star Alexander Godunov.
I entered the Spanish-style bungalow and slouched on the couch in the sunken living room. Marty parked himself in a plush chair nearby. We sat in silence. He never took his eyes off me.
“Just relax, kid,” Marty said after a while.
Then I heard a distant toilet flush, and I started to laugh. Jackie entered the room and sat on the ottoman across from me. She was gracious, interested, and extremely beautiful. I don’t remember anything I said, but after a few minutes she turned to Marty and said, “He’s cheeky,” in her lush English accent. “I like him.”
We were done—Marty drove me back down the hill and dropped me at a taxi stand to get a cab back to my hotel.
The film, called Class, was shot in Chicago. I lived in a hotel off Michigan Avenue for the duration of the shoot. I was nineteen. The acting work was the realization of my youthful dreams, but it was in that room, a yellow-walled junior suite with a king-size bed and a partial view of the lake, that I felt at home in a way that I hadn’t before. Alone, far from everyone I knew, with work to do, I felt insulated and safe.
When the film ended, I returned to New York. I found no work for another year, except playing the role of Pepsi Boy in a Burger King commercial—it didn’t matter. My life finally had direction, and I followed it unequivocally.
At twenty-one I landed a part in a movie called Catholic Boys (someone later changed it to Heaven Help Us), and the success that happened next happened fast. That I was unprepared, or ill-equipped, to best capitalize on my good fortune is something best decided in hindsight. My life was rushing forward; I was not interested in stopping it. Nor would I have been interested in anyone’s advice on how I might do things differently, had anyone offered any. I was comfortable in my own company and convinced I knew my own mind.
Work led to more work and more travel. To Los Angeles, of course, and to Philadelphia and Kentucky, Kansas and Canada. I traveled to Paris and then London, to Italy and Brazil. Because of my natural inclination toward solitude I drifted away from the others after the workday ended and wandered the cities alone. I began to find comfort in the transience and invisibility of being a stranger in a strange place. Unnoticed and anonymous, I was relieved and excited as I discovered a world very different from the suburban New Jersey neighborhood of my childhood.
Success was something I craved—and yet it intimidated me. These mixed feelings were not new; ambivalence had already begun to assert itself in my life and had become hugely important in the most successful role of my early film work. I was an unlikely choice for the lead male role in Pretty in Pink—a now-iconic coming-of-age love story. At the time of filming, it seemed to me like a silly movie about a girl wanting to go to a dance. I was an oversensitive youth cast as a “hunk,” a twenty-two-year-old, middle-class kid playing a seventeen-year-old boy of privilege. What gave my portrayal impact and contributed to the movie’s popularity at the time, and its enduring relevance, was the ambivalence I brought to the role: the character’s uncertainty regarding his place in the world echoed my own and spoke to a generation of young women and men.
In St. Elmo’s Fire, that same ambivalence was amplified to an even greater degree and became the defining characteristic of a role that fit me better than any other. In that instance, because I was so actively living out my personal vacillations on-screen, I felt free—for the only time in my young life—to move fully toward a success I had decided I wanted. Only when the outlet of acting in that role was finished did my doubts and reservations return—and by then success was on its way.
Those films carried such weight with their intended audience because they gave credence to and took seriously the struggles of being young. Struggles I too was wrestling with at the time, and that I chose to ease through drinking. What began as a curiosity became a companion, then an emboldening habit, and finally an invisible albatross. Had I been interested in camaraderie, or allowing anyone to come close to me, someone might have pointed out that my drinking was in danger of derailing my plans—but it’s doubtful I would have listened. Alcohol became my master with impunity.
While still in my mid-twenties, I wrapped up work on a film in Berlin and returned to my hotel room alone with a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey. I toasted myself in the mirror for a job well done and then awoke in a different room. I had no recollection of changing rooms. Confused and still groggy, I rolled over in bed and called the front desk. A man answered the phone in a language that wasn’t German.
“Good morning,” I croaked.
“Good afternoon,” the accented voice corrected me.
“Oh, is it that late?” I asked, putting as much innocence into my voice as I could. “I must have overslept. What time is it?”
“It’s half past four, sir.”
“Oh, great,” I said, hoping to make this appear in accordance with my plans. Sounding as reasonable as I could, I continued. “What day of the week is it? I’ve forgotten.”
“Friday, sir,” the voice on the phone said.
“Of course.” I hadn’t misplaced an entire day. But I still didn’t know where I was. “Um, I’m just writing a postcard,” I lied. “Could you remind me again of the name of the hotel?”
“Hotel L’Europe, sir,” the voice on the phone said without hesitation.
This didn’t help to determine my location either. “Yes,” I said. “I didn’t know if you used ‘The’ in the title or ‘L.’ Thanks.”
“My pleasure, sir,” the very reasonable man assured me.
“Is there anything else, sir?”
“What city are we in?” I blurted out.
After only the slightest hesitation, the ever-friendly voice answered back cheerfully, “Amsterdam, of course, sir.”
I hung up. “Fantastic,” I thought. I had always wanted to visit Amsterdam. That I never paused to consider how I had traveled from Berlin to Amsterdam without recollection goes a long way to explaining the depth of the grip alcohol had on me at the time. I showered and ran off to the red-light district to look at the prostitutes in the windows. I met a man in the shadows who offered me cocaine. When I gave him fifty Dutch guilders for two small bags, he handed me only one and ran off. I chased after him, over canal bridges and down dark lanes, shouting. Eventually he stopped and turned and threw the second bag at me.
“You’re fucking crazy,” he yelled as the bag landed at my feet.
In a dark corner, I sniffed the powder, which burned my nose and did nothing to alter my mood, and then found a bar filled with dripping candles stuffed into wine bottles, where I settled in for the night.
I came home boasting of the benefits of “blackout travel.” A few years later, I was not so cavalier, and the consequences of my drinking were not so easy to shrug off. At twenty-nine, I was played out. I traveled to Minnesota to get much-needed help with a drinking problem that had grown out of control.
A few years, and a lifetime, later, I was in a bookstore, gazing at a girl across the display table. She had sandy hair pulled back in a loose ponytail and wore a tight blue-and-white striped shirt—the kind the girls wore in French New Wave films. She had my full attention.
Eventually feeling eyes upon her, the young woman looked up and caught me staring. I panicked and grabbed the first book on the table in front of me.
“Here it is!” I shouted, and ran for the checkout counter like an idiot. Still flustered, I bought the book without thinking. Once out on the street, I recovered enough to take a look and see what I had just purchased. Off the Road, the title said. And then below it, A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain. Nothing could have interested me less. I took the book home, put it on a shelf, and forgot about it.
A few months later I was taking a trip to Los Angeles, and halfway out the door, I grabbed the book for something to read on the plane. It was about a man who had decided to walk the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. He walked from the south of France, over the Pyrenees, for five hundred miles to Santiago de Compostela, where, according to Catholic lore, the bones of Saint James had been discovered. In the eighth century, when this was news, thousands flocked across Spain to receive a plenary indulgence and get half their time in purgatory knocked off. The trail had fallen out of fashion in the last half dozen centuries, yet something about the author’s tale of his modern-day pilgrimage spoke to me. Once again I was looking for something, I just didn’t know what it was.
Two weeks later, on a bright and hot early summer morning, armed with a backpack and new hiking boots, I was crossing the border from France into Spain, high in the Pyrenees. By midafternoon I arrived, starving, with a blister forming on my right heel, at the monastery of Roncesvalles. Others who were walking the trail were already there, and we lodged together in a dormitory. Tentative allegiances were made and the next morning informal walking groups formed. I ended up with a Spaniard who was dressed in the costume of a pilgrim from centuries ago. He wore a draped brown robe and carried a long staff with a gourd affixed to the top. He looked like a seasoned Halloween trick-or-treater who knew where he was going and I followed close on his heels. He spoke no English and my schoolboy Spanish was hamstrung by self-consciousness. After three days of silent walking, my blisters became so bad that I had to stop in Pamplona for a week of rest, and my costumed guide left me behind without a word of good-bye.
I was miserable, lonely, and anxious. My long-established habit of solitude had left me completely isolated and without the resources to reach out. My worst fears about myself—among them that I just wasn’t man enough to handle this—were proving to be true. I had come to Spain, I now saw, to determine whether I could take care of myself. As I sat in the Café Iruña on the Plaza del Castillo, the answer that was coming back to me was not good. I sipped coffee where Hemingway had sat and decided I would go home, my inadequacies of character and strength laid bare. Then the longer I sat, looking out on the plane trees that lined the square, the more I came to see how failure in this endeavor would later come to haunt me. This was a turning point and I knew it.
When my blisters stopped bleeding, I bought a pair of red Nike walking shoes, left my boots beside the sleeping figure of a homeless man who lived in an alcove of the ancient wall that still surrounded parts of the city, and walked on, alone. At night I often shunned the refuges where the other walkers gathered, choosing instead small inns or hotels where I could be by myself. When I did stay in the pilgrim hostels, I felt a great distance between myself and the others, as if a giant and opaque wall had been erected with me on one side and the rest of the world faintly visible but untouchable on the other. It was just such a barrier that I had once dissolved through drinking, but now, having been away from alcohol for a few years, my natural tendency toward isolation had me in its grip and I was trapped inside myself. I trudged on, hating every step.
A few weeks later, I was in the high plains of north central Spain, outside of the charmless village of Hornillos del Camino. The July heat had taken hold. The sun bore down as I marched mile after mile through low and sickly fields of wheat. The earth was parched and cracked. Sweat poured from my face and down my back under my heavy pack. A black raven circled overhead and then flew over the rise; I cursed the ease with which he covered a distance it would take me a day to accomplish. And then I was on my knees, weeping, sobbing, and then screaming—at God. I literally shook my fists at the heavens and demanded that this suffering stop. I insisted that someone come and pick me up, get me out of this—why couldn’t it just be okay, like it seemed to be for all the other walkers? I cursed my isolation. Why did I feel this burden of separation? I sobbed some more; snot ran down my sweaty face.
I sank back onto my heels. My walking stick was twenty feet away, hurled aside during my tantrum. My pack had been likewise jettisoned. I picked at the hard-caked ground, embarrassed in front of no one but myself; looked up into the cloudless sky; and saw the raven had returned. He circled high above me twice and flew back over the horizon. I rose to my feet, retrieved my pack and stick, and shuffled after him.
In the sad-sack village of Castrojeriz I found a room and fell into twelve hours of dreamless sleep. When I awoke, I ate with appetite and set out again. The withering wheat I had marched through for days was behind me, and signs of life were beginning to return to the camino. After an hour I stopped, without reason, by the side of a barn and sat on an elevated plank. It was too early for my midmorning break, and yet I sat. Since breakfast I had had the feeling that I was forgetting something, that my pack felt lighter. I looked off toward the horizon, the distant spire of a church indicating the next village was nowhere in sight. I swilled some water and then began to feel a tingling between my shoulder blades. And suddenly I was smiling. It was the first time I remembered smiling since I left New York. And then I knew what was missing, what I hadn’t carried with me that morning. Fear. The fear that had calcified between my shoulders was suddenly not there—fear that had been my center of gravity, fear that had been so ever present in my life that I was unaware of its existence until that moment of its first absence.
The tingling between my shoulders continued and grew. Soon my entire body felt as if it were vibrating. I felt physically larger, as if I had grown—or was growing. I breathed deep and spread my arms. I tilted my head back and began to sing. The Who’s song “Getting in Tune” spilled from my lips. I had no recollection of ever singing it before and yet I knew all the words and sang without restraint.
Beside a barn in the middle of Spain, I had the same elation of being at home in myself as I had with the Artful Dodger and in that hotel room in Chicago, only this time I needed no work to hide behind. I was in my own skin and on my own terms.
The next two weeks went by in a blaze. Every step took me deeper into the landscape of my own being. I was in sync with the universe. I arrived at my chosen destination just before a downpour. I slept in and missed the pack of wild dogs that terrorized the early walkers. I met people I found fascinating. Where had they been hiding? I grew physically stronger each day, and by the time I strode into Santiago in late July I felt the way I always wanted to feel yet somehow never quite did. I needed no validation, no outside approval—I was myself, fully alive and satisfied in simply being.
I returned home changed by my experience. The acute euphoria of my trip faded, but my sense of self lingered and went deep. And so I began to travel, not for work, but for travel’s sake. I returned to Europe, to the cities I had been to before, rewriting my drunken travel history and giving myself clear-eyed recollections. I began to take longer trips, to Southeast Asia and then Africa. Always alone. Often I arrived with no plan, no place to stay, knowing no one. I wanted to see how I would manage, if I could take care of myself, and inevitably found myself walking through fear and coming home the better for it. Success in acting had given me a persona and a shell of confidence; my travels helped me find myself beneath that persona and fill out that shell with belief. Through travel, I began to grow up.
Whenever I would tell people that I was going off on some trip or another, I was met with remarks like, “Oh, tough life,” or, “That’s rough.” Even good friends reacted with outright hostile envy—“Must be nice,” they often said. I used to try to explain and justify my travels. It was pointless.
Travel—especially by people who rarely do it—is often dismissed as a luxury and an indulgence, not a practical or useful way to spend one’s time. People complain, “I wish I could afford to go away.” Even when I did the math and showed that I often spent less money while on the road than staying home, they looked at me with skepticism. Reasons for not traveling are as varied and complex as the justification for any behavior.
Perhaps people feel this way about travel because of how it’s so often perceived and presented. They anticipate and expect escape, from jobs and worries, from routines and families, but mostly, I think, from themselves—the sunny beach with life’s burdens left behind.
For me, travel has rarely been about escape; it’s often not even about a particular destination. The motivation is to go—to meet life, and myself, head-on along the road. There’s something in the act of setting out that renews me, that fills me with a feeling of possibility. On the road, I’m forced to rely on instinct and intuition, on the kindness of strangers, in ways that illuminate who I am, ways that shed light on my motivations, my fears. Because I spend so much time alone when I travel, those fears, my first companions in life, are confronted, resulting in a liberation that I’m convinced never would have happened had I not ventured out. Often, the farther afield I go, the more at home I feel. That’s not because the avenues of Harare are more familiar to me than the streets of New York, but because my internal wiring relaxes and finds an ease of rhythm that it rarely does when at home.
At some point in my travels I began to jot down notes. I had tried to keep a journal, but I found my reminiscences indulgent and silly. I found no joy in writing them and was embarrassed rereading them.
One day I wrote a scene of an encounter that I had with a young man who offered me a ride on his moped in Saigon. The scene captured the essence of my trip. Then a woman I saw behaving rudely in Laos shed light on my experience of that silent city. On New Year’s Day in Malawi, the image of a small girl carrying a large umbrella in the sun stayed with me. I wrote it all down.
When I came home I put my notepads in the back of a drawer and didn’t look at them. But the idea grew.
I knew someone who knew someone, and I met a man named Keith Bellows, the editor of National Geographic Traveler magazine. Keith is a barrel-chested lion of a man with a mane of silver hair—exactly the kind of man who had intimidated me in my youth. He agreed to meet me over drinks in an East Village bar, where I told him of my desire to write about travel for his magazine.
He looked at me funny. “You’re an actor.”
“I know that,” I said. “I also know how to travel, and I know what it’s done for me.” I was forthright in a way that I never had been able to be when talking about my acting.
“Can you write?” He still wasn’t giving the conversation much weight; he was looking at a young woman down the bar.
“I can tell a story.” This got his attention. “That’s what I’ve been doing for twenty years as an actor.” I shrugged.
It took another year of cajoling, via e-mail, on the phone, and over dinners, during which we became friends. Finally, after a meal at a restaurant in SoHo, Keith looked at me and said, “I still don’t understand why you would want to do this. You’re not going to make any money. There’s no glamour.”
I shrugged and offered up a vague, “It’ll be fun.” As with my first acting role in high school, something was calling me, and I kept that knowledge to myself. I had no way of knowing where it might lead; all I knew was that it made sense to me.
“Where do you know well? What place speaks to you?”
“Ireland,” I said quickly. “The west. There’s a place in County Clare—”
“Then that’s where I’m sending you.”
And so a second career began, traveling and writing about those travels.
It was on that trip to Ireland, for my first writing assignment, that I met D for only the second time, and we decided to spend our life together.
The first time I saw D, she was in the lobby of the Great Southern Hotel in Galway, in the west of Ireland. Tall and striking, with a confident stride, she approached me as I waited for a taxi to take me to the airport.
“I really liked your film yesterday,” she said, and stuck out her hand. (I had written and directed a short film adaptation of a Frank O’Connor story that was playing in a local festival.) I was acutely aware of her fingers wrapping around my own—the strength and presence of her grip galvanized my energy. I felt as if I’d been met—with her handshake, D reached in and pulled me from my isolation.
She too had shown a film at the festival—I hadn’t seen it.
“Your taxi is here, sir,” the doorman said.
I turned back to D, we exchanged first names, and I left.
She was beautiful and had a clear, direct manner that got my attention, but she wasn’t the kind of woman I had ever dated. Yet her handshake stayed with me.
A few weeks later, I e-mailed the festival director and mentioned my meeting with a “fellow filmmaker.” I’d lost her e-mail address, I lied. Would she be able to pass it on? Even in the moment, I was aware how out of character this was for me.
E-mail obtained, I wrote out a tentative query of reconnection while sitting in the business center in a hotel basement in Barcelona, Spain, where I was acting in a film. I remember clearly leaning back in the chair and saying aloud to the empty room, “What are you doing?”
And then I clicked “send.”
Several weeks passed, and then a reply came. Yes, D remembered and had enjoyed our brief meeting as well. She hoped I had a nice time in Ireland and at the festival. Her e-mail matched my tone of cordial formality. She signed her name at the bottom.
Then I scrolled farther down. After a large space, she had typed a simple question in an otherwise impersonal response—“Who are you?”
I e-mailed back, saying I would be in the west of Ireland in a month’s time to do a travel story; perhaps we could meet for a coffee.
“I live in Paris,” was the cryptic reply.
“Excuse me,” I responded, hoping playful sarcasm reached through e-mail.
She e-mailed back. “I’ll actually be only a few miles away from where you’re doing your story on that weekend, at a family reunion. Coffee would be fine.”
The plan was to meet for an hour at the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis when my friend Seve would be joining me. Yet four platonic and charged days later—with my friend acting as an unintended chaperone—we were still together. I finally put her on the train east and I walked a foggy and windswept beach at Lahinch and knew that my life was about to get complicated.
I was still married to my first wife. But we were drifting. I knew she was frustrated. I felt like I had to leave 20 percent of myself outside just to walk in the door of our marriage. We had met in college, a youthful love, and had been together, on and off, for years. Twenty years after we met, we married. It seemed that instead of our marriage being the beginning of our life together, it had been the culmination. The subsequent birth of our son was its finest moment. We loved each other, but together, we were under a rock.
My meeting D had stirred a feeling that sent my wife and me into therapy, but the marriage was over. She wisely took some time to find a relationship that suited her adult self better than I did, while I rushed headlong into a relationship with D.
That was seven years ago.
We came to the decision to finally get married without drama. It was soon after we had returned from Vienna, a family trip with D’s parents. She was sitting at the dining table, drinking tea. I was across the room at the desk, going through e-mail. The kids had just gone to bed.
“So should we get married?” she asked, without warning.
I stopped typing and turned toward her. She was smiling—the smile where her lips don’t part and her head tilts a bit to the right. The smile she gives when she is playful and confident.
We hadn’t broached the topic much in the last few years. I had proposed on a moonlit beach in the Caribbean four years earlier—six months after the birth of our daughter—after which we began to make plans that went nowhere. Date conflicts, location issues, family members’ attendance—all masked an unpreparedness that we had been unable to address. The plans floundered, then so did our relationship. It took time to acknowledge how off course we were, then time to let it heal, and then here we were again.
This time, when she spoke, I looked at her face for a while. It was a moment we hadn’t had before. I knew my response would lead us in one direction or the other.
“Yeah,” I said, “we should.”
That night I awoke at four A.M. I couldn’t breathe. I got out of bed and opened the window and lay back down. It was pointless—I was done sleeping. I got up and brushed my teeth, then looked in on my sleeping children—perfect, both of them, the way children are as they sleep. I went to the kitchen and made a cup of tea. I splashed cold water on my face in the sink.
I wanted all this, I had fought to get it. I had lost a lot along the way and gained even more. I was where I felt like I should be, but something was wrong. Why was I still filled with so much doubt? Was all my resistance really just a typical male fear of intimacy? Maybe the idea of who I was, who I wanted to be, simply didn’t match up with the person I had become. Was this just a midlife crisis, was I simply a walking cliché?
But this questioning and these feelings of doubt weren’t new. They had been shadowing me my whole life. I simply couldn’t outrun them anymore. I was tired of all the ambivalence, tired of being a slave to it.
Yet, staring out the window waiting for the dawn, I found myself reaching for my computer. I began going through story ideas, some new ones, others I had long wanted to do, places I yearned to experience and write about. Quickly, I reached out to editors, and within the space of a few short days I had assembled a string of assignments, in some of the most exotic places in the world. When I laid out the half dozen and more stories I planned to write in the time leading up to the wedding, D simply looked at me.
“Well,” she said with a shrug, “I guess I’ll see you at the altar.”
What was it in my nature that pulled me in opposing directions with seesaw regularity, sometimes simultaneously? How many things had I walked away from in my life because I hadn’t been able to commit? A teacher once implored me to jump: “You’re wading in the water and it will drown you. Dive into the deep end.” She was speaking of my acting, but what she said could have applied to my entire life.
I was a parent, I was in a committed relationship—I was engaged, for God’s sake—but I was still fighting it, still keeping myself separate. In the middle of a family, somehow I was still going it alone. And my signature ambivalence created unease, not just in myself, but in those around me, in those I loved. It had to change. I went to cancel my writing assignments—but D stopped me.
“No,” she said. “Go.” As usual, she was one step ahead of me.
I went through my first marriage withholding myself—without even understanding that that was the issue—and it had doomed us. But I have two children whom I want to see grow. I am engaged to a woman I love—with whom I want to share my life. I have to move beyond this habitual position of singularity—but I’ve followed my own rules for so long I don’t even know if any other way is possible for me. And yet I need to try to give those I love my complete self, without ambivalence, fear, and doubt.
Emotion has been the tangible currency of my life. I have made a living—both in acting and in writing—exploring my feelings, at times dredging them up, bringing them to the surface. Faced now with a decision that will deeply alter the lives of both myself and those closest to me, I can’t afford to back away from the challenge of uncovering what it is that keeps me from getting where I need to go.
I stand on the precipice of the rest of my life. My constant vacillation has kept me dancing along that edge—I need to step back and stake turf, for D, for my kids, for myself. And so I’m going on these journeys, not to escape the commitment I recently made—but quite the opposite, I’m going to use them the way I have always used travel: to find answers. I’m setting out in order to gain the insight necessary to bring me home.
One Man's Quest for the Courage to Settle Down
The Longest Way Home
One Man's Quest for the Courage to Settle Down
Take the Longest Way Home with Andrew McCarthy
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