What the Hell is This?

What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? — Muriel Rukeyser

Driving with the Brakes On February 28, 2012

So what do you do, when you become more and more convinced over time that the person you’ve been looking for since you were five is the person right in front of you — the married one?

That jolt when you first laid eyes on each other, that instantaneous feeling of recognition, that ease that flows between you as if you’ve known each other since you were five aside…he could easily have turned out to be critical, or unkind, or just boring. He could have had values and dreams utterly incompatible with yours. Or you could have discovered that you were infatuated with his haircut, or his waistline, or any number of other superficial and impermanent details. He could have disrespected you in some way, cut you down or invalidated your experience, the way so many men have. He could have been disappointing the way you’re so used to being disappointed.

There are a million ways to become disenchanted, especially when you’re looking for ways to become disenchanted. Especially when there’s a lot at stake, when the continuation of life in its current, sanctioned, socially respectable form depends upon your ability to be disenchanted. But the biggest thing you can find wrong with him is his sometimes lowbrow humor. That, and the fact that he has no ass. His jokes about the fact that he has no ass are hysterical.


You can hardly believe yourself, when you look at your situation in terms of the cold, hard facts. And almost no one else believes you, either. You have cried wolf so many times, with your foolish obsessions and your self-defeating behaviors, that everyone who knows you well, including you, is tired of seeing you be stupid and blind, of seeing you fail. Your oldest girl friend doesn’t even have to say anything; you can tell by the look on her face that she doesn’t want to talk about it. She knows what a blunderer you are. She’s watched you do this for thirty years. But this time you’ve really taken the cake. You’ve crossed a new line. You’ve hit a new low.

You can see it like a scientist. You can assess facts and probabilities. Nothing about this looks promising. All the data is on the side of the marriage, and you, you arrogant interloper, are barely a factor. Who the hell do you think you are? Your history seems to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you are a know-nothing and a fuckwit when it comes to relationships. In the solitary lab of your nocturnal afterthoughts, you posit theories that discourage action. You formulate rational escapes.


Of course, there’s another big thing you believe you know, but it’s not something you can prove…so why should you trust yourself this time? No one else does, not anymore, not after all your epic fucking up. Well, no one except maybe your best girl friend from college, to whom you’ve told everything. She’s one person who has never stopped trusting your competence to navigate your way through the world. She says, “This time feels different.” Shown his photo online, she exclaims, “Oh, I love him!” (About Sonny she said, “He is certainly a handsome man.”)

What you know is the two of you together. The entire world can scream wrong, wrong, wrong, and only you know that nothing has ever felt quite this right. He doesn’t frighten you. He doesn’t carelessly hurt you. He doesn’t minimize or compete with you. You feel safe with him. You feel seen. You can’t even find the lifelong, gargantuan self-consciousness that has made you bumble like Don Knotts in the presence of most of your acute infatuations. You don’t worry about how you look. You feel as if you could say something completely inane — even fart audibly — and it wouldn’t be the end of the world. You realize, while walking through downtown by his side, that you could walk anywhere in the world with him, through chaotic Moroccan markets or along the Baltic Sea, and it would be all right, because beside him feels like where you belong.

When you see one another, you both light up and smile; it’s spontaneous and irrepressible, and you wonder if your feelings are being broadcast to everyone. Surely your frequent outbursts of boisterous, shared laughter are a dead giveaway. You find yourself, like the woman in Song of Songs, almost wishing he wert as thy brother, so that you could embrace and kiss him and yea, thou shouldst not be despised. He wants what you want out of life, something you knew even before you asked him, but has had to back-burner his dreams — because he has a mortgage, and because he is a man, and men need to make a good living.


Elephant magazine posts a very timely article to Facebook that makes you break down in sobs of incredulous gratitude. It’s one yoga teacher’s autobiographical testimony about mustering the courage to say yes to love, even when your situation seems like a cruel cosmic joke, even when it seems more impossible than any of the other impossible things you’ve attempted.

Shasta Townsend was at a wedding when she met him.

Suddenly there he was. Looking up into the clear blue sky, the sun hit my eyes and then there he was. His face backlit so he actually appeared to be glowing. He was a jolt of electricity. He was a magnetic force. He was a stranger I felt I had known for a long time or in another life. He smiled and said his name.

I can’t remember what happened next. I don’t remember if I stood up from my seat or remained where I was. I don’t remember what I said. I must have introduced myself in return. I looked up and all stopped except for his face. There was a remembrance at the back of my mind of this man and yet we had never met before.

Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it. Shasta immediately shut down, of course. She didn’t want this to be so. She wanted to stay in her comfort zone, and go on with life as she knew it. As she writes,

How many missed chances have we all experienced? How much has humanity suffered because of what appeared to be circumstances that we could not overcome or personal fears that kept us locked in our own prison? How much of our depression, addictions, sorrow and even warring has been created from denying our heart’s deepest longing – be it love, passion, grace, freedom, purpose? How many of us have turned away from the deep well of knowing to return to the surface of suffering because we thought that was expected of us or simply because we didn’t believe we deserved any better?

I felt it in that moment. I saw the possibility of love, truth and desire and then quickly pulled away. We could not be. We would not be. How could we possibly be together? It was a cosmic joke for we were both in other relationships for one thing and secondly, I was not ready to love like this.

I spent years denying my desire and deep connection to this man. We became friends, a sweet torture. He married someone else. I became engaged to another and addicted to sleeping pills, partying and self-loathing.

Her soul-connection man married someone else.

Maybe this man was contentedly committed to a woman he felt lucky to be with — the way your friend is. Maybe Shasta’s girlfriends scolded her, If you love this man, why would you want to destroy his happiness? the way Hugh Laurie memorably scolded Rachel in that episode of Friends. Maybe she realized the deck was stacked against her, which is why she didn’t act, why she instead tried to anesthetize herself, the way you did last fall with alcohol, food, and DVDs, until you got so sick you could barely eat, and certainly couldn’t drink or venture out to a Redbox.

But that isn’t the end of the story. After the point seemed moot, Shasta finally broke her silence.

In a tequila-induced haze I told him how I felt. Not the proudest moment of my life but probably one of the most important. Something within me was ready to be vulnerable even if it was a little too late.

It turns out I was not too late. That man is now my husband and is one of my greatest teachers. Love and marriage is not easy and continues to be a journey ever deeper into vulnerability, trust and transparency but I now know the power of an intimate and loving relationship as a way to experience my own beauty, truth and potential…

Love wants its way with you. Love is the most powerful energy the universe. It is far more powerful than fear, hate or shame. Love took over. It occupied, crucified and then rarefied me. After all the denial it persevered and I finally gave myself to it though it has been and continues to be a journey of allowing, surrendering and opening the flesh deeper.


You write an emotional, private appeal to Shasta via her public page, and hope to God she writes back, because apart from your best girl friend from college, she’s the only one you feel you can talk to completely openly about this. She understands firsthand what you’re going through. She understands the obstacles and taboos and mountains of reasons not to act. She understands the fears: that you will lose your beloved friend, that you will humiliate yourself, that you’re good enough for a fling, but nothing else; or, on the other hand, that your life will radically change forever, that you will be given more than your habitually solitary self can handle, more than even a sweet, lost, drug-addled kid could give you. She understands that unshakable sense of having met the love of your life, even if he didn’t come along neatly and cleanly, the way he was supposed to.


You wake up thinking about your grandmother Ella at the end of her life. In her nursing home, she spent most days drugged up and dreaming. Consciousness must have been as painful as the cancer when she did awaken, realizing that her opportunities for participating in life were over, that she could only look back from a gurney. Incoherently, she urged you over and over again to “close the gate.” She must have been talking about something that happened on the farm, some sin of omission from the distant past that still haunted her.

What will haunt you? you wonder. Life is lived forward, and few of us, if any, are psychic. You couldn’t have known ahead of time that in 2009 you’d be weeping over your childhood buddy, the one who loved you more than any other man ever did, because he was dead at 41 from lymphoma. It’s only 1986, after all, and you have your whole life and the wide world in front of you, and you’ve known Jonathan since the first grade. Why would you want him, when there’s a universe of possibilities out there, over six billion people? There are plenty of fish in the sea.

And you tell yourself this for the next twenty-five years.


You listen repeatedly, morning and night, to a song by Del Amitri* about a man and a woman on a long drive: she’s at the wheel, and not about to turn the car around, even though they’re heading into the middle of nowhere. Their conversation skirts around the elephant in the car, which may or may not be an abortion she’s just had. (A “kid” was involved in “the thing we’ve done.”) But it’s the chorus that provides the goosebumps, a lovely, melancholy arrangement of minor-chord, folk-rock-ballad sound, Springsteen by way of Scotland. The lyrics are simple but powerful, and pierce right through to the heart of your (voiceless) dilemma:

When you’re driving with the brakes on,

When you’re swimming with your boots on,

It’s hard to say you love someone,

And it’s hard to say you don’t.


* a terrific live version is on YouTube here.


23 Responses to “Driving with the Brakes On”

  1. bluemorpho3 Says:

    it’s good that you think you know what I mean…communication, as always, is extremely difficult, especially if I can’t see your face and so on…
    plus I have only a tiny fraction of the required information to say anything useful about Dan, so I will say nothing…just wishing you the best possible experience, again.
    It was interesting to read this post from your depersonalized perspective.

    Before I fall into the trap of giving some kind of advice despite all what I just wrote, maybe it is better if I tell you something about myself…I’m in a relationship, but a “complex” one. It’s a journey into total vulnerability, rest assured. And it’s rewarding, because after experiencing it, you know that you survive it ;-)
    All those fears are in fact non-existing problems. But tell that to the machine that is your mind…
    Did you ever hear of the psychological concept of “collusion” in partnerships? Where in the core of the relationship there’s a great big black hole that both partners agree to not see. Or, only one partner agrees to not see it, which is the perfect recipe to disaster. I experienced it. I didn’t see the black hole, I lived in a funny illusion bubble, and awaking was everything but certainly not pain-free. But rewarding, truth is more rewarding than illusions…
    Well…another truth is we’re all vulnerable, we all need kind person around us…and on and on and on…my time is up, I hope there’s something in my writing that has some meaning for you – and good luck! ;-)

  2. AlienBaby Says:

    Now I’m nervous. I have to worry about a black hole, too? But that would mean Dan and Mai may have a black hole of collusion as well. And Shasta Townsend and her husband. And on and on…the possibilities are endless. If that was meant to plant another seed of doubt, however, you can see I already have quite a garden growing. Aiee!

    I used the second person device as a devious little trick to force the reader into empathy. It’s not happening to me, it’s happening to YOU. Oh noes, what do I do?

    Dan is a kind person. I don’t usually go for kind men. Whatever he might do, I don’t think it would be anything like what I’m used to.

  3. AlienBaby Says:

    No word from Shasta so far…still waiting…I wish she would write back.

    Today a guy teased Dan for saying twice that another guy looked handsome after shaving his scraggly (and unflattering) beard. After a beat, Dan turned around and retorted good-naturedly, “Yeah, I’m gonna leave my wife. Take that leap of faith.” It was so unexpected, and so close to my most secret thoughts, I started sweating profusely.

  4. bluemorpho3 Says:

    oh, wow!
    please don’t be afraid…the fears are non-necessary.
    simple formula: if it feels good – do it.
    you might fervently want to fall into a black hole to be transformed.
    being the “lady-love” (took that from the dictionary) definitely mostly causes problems,
    but that still does not mean that it can’t be an interesting (time warping ;-) experience . I know a woman who was the lady love for a long time and it worked for her. who would have had the right to take that away from her? in her case, finally the lover disappeared and currently she is in a normal relationship and says she never met such a kind man, she enjoys the kindness – but maybe earlier it was simply not appropriate for her…
    if Dan really leaves his wife, it is no longer relevant anyway.
    in any case, let me repeat what you already know:
    follow your heart and remember that yes, you are precious.
    you deserve something good. it’s good to remind oneself again and again of that.
    Enjoy the journey, it’s nice to swim, fellow dolphin – dolphins never drown!

  5. AlienBaby Says:

    Thanks Blue. I sometimes suffer from the illusion that everyone is real but me.

    I don’t want to be the other woman. I just want to be THE woman.

  6. AlienBaby Says:

    I can take or leave the song, but LOVE the video. Especially how uncomfortable she’s making everyone!

    • AlienBaby Says:

      I just watched it again and I love it even more. Yeah, you nailed it, bro.

      • AlienBaby Says:

        As far as the lyrics go, though, I’d like to state for the record that sadness and I have officially broken up, and no man is going to send me running back.

  7. AlienBaby Says:

    Just published an almost-non-anonymous article on exchristian.net that’s generating a lot of positive comments. I’ve been writing like a fiend this past week! Now working on my three-part Matador assignment. AlienBaby is in the zone…

    Send me an email for the link, I’m not going to post it here.

  8. bluemorpho3 Says:

    do you mean me? will do as soon as I find the button…seems to be well hidden, or I’m blind…if you can, please email me instead…

    • AlienBaby Says:

      You, Russ, KL, Mand, Zoe…or anyone who happens to be lurking but never comments. I’ve had double the usual hits this week! I’ll send you the link…

  9. russthelibrarian Says:

    Send me the link to that, I could use something fun right about now.

    Rough week: had to drive Hammerhead to the airport first thing Monday, he’s had a family emergency and had to get out to Wisconsin immediately. Then yesterday I got a call from my mother, who woke up with a terrible headache and dizziness, but insisted that I shouldn’t drive down to see her–just order her some “dizzy pills” from the doctor. She’s doing OK now, it seems to have passed, but…goddamn.

    • AlienBaby Says:

      I’m not sure I’d call it “fun,” it was more like stripping naked in front of a bunch of strangers and pointing out my cellulite and varicose veins, but they all seemed to love my writing.

      I hope Hammer’s family is ok. I hope your mom is too. D. just lost a close family member. Is there something in the air?

  10. russthelibrarian Says:

    Just read your post on that site and all the comments. You are less cellulitc and varicose than you imagine–though I guess that was the point of the article.

    Told you that you were the best unpaid writing on the internet.

    I myself didn’t grow up religious, despite my mother being raised in a Catholic orphanage in South America. She married my father in the Presbyterian church, and never seemed to have a problem with it. Though, as seriously as she took matters of faith (she raised me knowing the *right* way to pray–), many Sundays she would insist that my father take me to church, though she herself was too tired or too busy to go herself.

    My father told me he’d had enough bible study as a kid to last him the rest of his life, so he didn’t force that on me. Stoic as he was (and very–), he was kind of spiritual, but didn’t see the point in all the dogma. So we’d go, sit through the Presbyterian ceremony til the collection plate came around, and he’d throw in a five or so. At that point, he’d tell me (conspiratorially) that we could leave, that we’d done our obligation I suppose. And we’d repair to The Maverick or The Harvester for breakfast. “Just don’t tell your mother,” he warned. And I knew Mom well enough to know exactly what he meant, and I sure as Hell wasn’t going to betray that trust.

    And so looking back all these years, I am forever in my father’s debt, that I had a totally different upbringing than your doctrinaire one, I guess the lesson he taught me was that a greasy diner breakfast was a better way to spend a Sunday morning than some (comparably mentally-artery-clogging) sermon on whatever. If we all went together, we’d have to go through the whole of it, but if it was just me and my father then things would be considerably shorter. IN ALL OF MY CHILDHOOD, I swear, I don’t recall a single sermon that I had to sit through–none of it ever sank in. On the other hand, I can remember what my father ordered at breakfast every time, creature of habit that he was: ham and eggs, over-easy. Toast (white, wheat, whatever–). And coffee. At The Harvester I’d usually order pancakes (with eggs and sausage, or bacon), since at every table they had a caddy of Butterscotch, Blueberry, Strawberry, and Blackberry syrups (maple syrup was brought to your table hot, upon order). Or else I’d just have whatever Dad was having. I never tried sunny-side-up until high school, just to try it (a phase–to this day, I prefer my yolks cooked to a good degree–).
    “Just don’t tell your mother,” he cautioned. Right. Else the whole buffet would close down.
    Now my father is dead and my mother is a Mormon. Guess whom I identify with more closely?

    • AlienBaby Says:

      This confirms what I suspected from all your bachelor cooking posts on FB: food is your religion.

      • russthelibrarian Says:

        Hedonism is my religion, if I have one; food plays into that. And it’s not that greasy diner breakfasts loom so large in my memory, it’s just that that’s one of my stronger associations I have with Sunday mornings growing up, the whole church thing.

        I may not have conveyed what I was getting at, about how my upbringing really shaded my concept of religion and its place in our lives. Let me lay it out in a different way.

        I came to realize, upon reflection, that my idea of religion may largely be modeled on my parents. My mother was (and is) religious; she is also very unsophisticated, her education having gotten not much past the fourth grade, I would estimate–though the orphanage had a school, she was selectively pulled away to do menial work, she says, and couldn’t keep up with her lessons. The nuns didn’t care, it being Colombia in the 30’s, they had literal power of life and death over their charges–troublesome children had a way of simply going away. She escaped Colombia when she was 33, and has never wanted to go back.

        So growing up, my mother couldn’t help me read (even in Spanish, which I resisted anyway), wasn’t good at all with math, and oftentimes didn’t know the English word for something. By contrast, my father was a history major in college (English lit minor), and was very well read. Wordly, too, had done two tours during the Korean War, had a love of Asian cultures, and travelled America extensively in the 50’s, sowing wild oats, in his fashion. He was patient and contemplative, whereas my mother was excitable and prone to verbal and physical outbursts–it went beyond spanking, yes. But compared to what she endured as a child, I had it easy–something that she’d frequently remind me of, usually right after a beating.

        Looking back, I can infer that my concept of religion may have a lot to do with my parents’ temperament: I associate religious thinking with a lack of education and a superstitious nature, whereas informed and philosophical minds usually don’t think in strictly religious terms.

        Going further, it occurs to me just now that the question of happiness and life contentment plays into it as well. Because my mother was (and is) a malcontent, critical of everything and everybody around her (in case you’re wondering where I get it), whereas my father was stoic and dispassionate, more of a yeah-whatever kinda guy. He never got too upset about anything, and though both my parents were models of endurance, my father did it with a certain kind of grace. My mother would compound any bad situation with her own anger. So, apparently, I also picked up the idea that un-religious people are saner.

        This must be quite a contrast to your own upbringing. Just letting you know how an atheist got to be that way.

      • AlienBaby Says:

        Well, I was being flip, of course…the detail with which you go into your various culinary adventures betrays a certain “zeal”…

        My parents were actually not *completely* dissimilar, with my mother being the “emotional” one and my father being the “rational” one. But they both had a graduate-level education, with my mother possessing a Master’s in Christian Education from New York Theological Seminary and my father possessing a Ph.D in Education from Harvard. Neither of them could be called simple-minded. Technically they are both more educated than I am!

        I know a lot of people share your impression of religious people. There’s a lot of reinforcement for that view. Just look at Rick Santorum! Your mother sounds like a lot of fundamentalists. Unlike a lot of people on exchristian, however, I don’t find non-fundamentalists to be necessarily irrational or stupid. One of my best friends is a scholarly, liberal Episcopalian who would probably have a doctorate or two under her belt if she hadn’t been sidelined by illness.

        My parents at least on the surface seem to be shiny happy people with a victorious Christian life and ministry. But fundamentalism, at least, keeps you in check with fear. I wasn’t a depressed kid, despite being shy and sensitive; what first plunged me in the hole was losing that whole framework of meaning, community, and shared purpose I was bred to. It’s terrifying and painful to leave, which is why many people stay. Not to mention the threat of hellfire and damnation, although that’s more abstract.

  11. bluemorpho3 Says:

    got the email, thanks.
    hm, it’s difficult, I tend to think that it’s not all the fault of the imaginary lovers ;-)
    the human psyche is complex, and yes, the thing with the imaginative entities, the magical thinking, is a part of it. but the boundaries between inner and outer world can be blurry. for example placebo pills can work. and if they do, would you call them useless? if the contents of a medication is not what really helps, it’s the ritual. the ritual works if there’s a firm belief. the belief causes effects in reality, the belief is a model in your brain, thus it exists in the form of neuronal structures, it can be a “beautiful painting”.
    Is it possible that, for some of those beautiful paintings, there exists some kind of “deeper reality”, so that in the end, the belief was not really “false” at all? ;-)
    E.g. perhaps what cures your disease is not the homeopathic globule, but it’s the talk with the doctor, the process of buying some pills, of eating some pills, of believing that you will be cured. And really, you are cured. You managed to press a button in your mind.
    – of course it will cause huge problems if your imagined worldview interferes too much with that persistent illusion we call reality. (hm, trying to fix the logic here: reality is fuzzy. but there is some amount of reality we share, laws of physics, cause and effect…)
    the christian hostility towards sex alone is causing more problems like some super-massive black hole.
    in your case, if the imaginations were not the main problem, as I tend to believe, what then is really the main problem? I think it’s simply the treatment that you experienced, and that is of course strongly influenced by the world view of your parents, which may in fact be based heavily on strange kind of illusions, legitimated by the christian belief system (which therefore can be enforced with unlimited cruelty – people can be extremely cruel if they think they are justified, doing something good), like you should ideally marry your first boyfriend and stay together until death, and the quality of your experience is 100% irrelevant.
    such things cause the problem, in my opinion, not the practice of magical thinking itself.
    just look at the many many people who successfully do it – and no, it’s definitely not just people with low intelligence. the nice thing is that you can replace one kind of magical thinking with another type of magical thinking that is intellectually more refined, and then trick yourself into firmly believing that now you are thinking perfectly “rational” ;-)

    • AlienBaby Says:

      I like your perspective, Blue.

      The audience I was writing for on that site is heavily materialistic — not in the consumer sense, of course, but the philosophical one. They’ve been burned badly by their previous beliefs and now trust only the empirical and peer-reviewed. I do agree — and there have even been studies done with athletes and such — that performing an action mentally can have the same effect as doing it outwardly…but my biggest problem (and perhaps I didn’t go into it in enough detail) was getting so wrapped up in my internal scripts I became self-sabotaging in the “real” world where you interact with people.

      I was thinking about this the other day, wondering why I think this situation feels so different, and how I could possibly trust myself now, knowing my tendency to make enchanted mountains out of molehills. There were a very few times I was with Greg Schulz (or some other object of obsession) where I could have simply related to him as a human being in the moment…and who knows what could have happened from there…but I became fearful, disconcerted by the deviation from my internal script and the story I was trying to tell. I was even, dare I say it, a bit disenchanted. And I wanted the enchantment with the fellow more, it seems, than I wanted to connect with who he actually was. I could have put it as “Go away now, so I can think about you some more, and tell my favorite story about us.” Like the girl in The Glass Menagerie, I felt safer and more comfortable in the world of my imagination. Yet another very large part of me was immensely frustrated and yearned to break out, to live out loud.

      I take it as a good sign that the way I feel about D., for better or worse, is “Thank God you’re here, now I can stop getting tangled up in my thoughts.”

  12. AlienBaby Says:

    From Shasta, and blessings upon her for taking the time to answer a stranger in need:

    “Love has a way of taking you places…trust what your deep heart is calling toward. The truth is you can’t not. Have you both expressed how you feel? If so then there is only going forward – together. You have one life so live it the best you can and full of love. I cant tell you what to do but I do know once deep love takes hold miracles can happen if we let them. Sending you lots of love.”

    To everyone who just read my off-site article, I’m sure it’s clear to you why I’d have difficulty “trusting my heart” under such circumstances. Why anyone would, knowing my history. It’s the classic story of the boy who cried wolf. Or more accurately, the girl who cried love.

  13. bluemorpho3 Says:

    had overlooked this comment.
    very nice that Shasta answered.
    I’m wishing you the miracles, I wish everybody the miracles of deep love,
    – I wish you that you are deep in love with the universe itself, and you can breathe calmly, and relax, and feel safe and feel ready to explore…

    • AlienBaby Says:

      Thank you, dear B. I appreciate it greatly.

      For what it’s worth, I’ve been insanely prolific in these last couple of weeks, since Dan’s & my afternoon out. Besides this blog and the essay on exchristian, I completed three different essays geared toward three different travel markets for Matador. I feel ten times more motivated to pursue the life of my dreams with gusto, just thinking that there might even be the possibility of his joining me. That sense of belonging, of rightness, is something I’ve not known before (but something I’ve often tried to force). In that sense I feel like I’m flowing with the current of the universe.

      Of course there’s never any telling, even if you’re willing to take the leap, whether someone is prepared to take it with you. And now he’s been gone, spending time with extended family. My turn to miss him.

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