The late Liz Taylor — may she rest in peace — has been called a “compulsive bride,” and it seems she was nearly as famous for her many marriages (8) as for her many movies. I admit that, as a much younger man, I was inclined to judge her harshly — she and others who had married so many times but never seemed to learn from their mistakes. I never imagined that one day I myself would have two ruined marriages behind me. Life will play tricks on you like that, which is why, thanks to humbling from hard experience, oldsters are usually much more expansive, and much more forgiving, than youngsters.

In answer to the critics of her life style, Liz said, “I marry the men I love.” That’s what we should celebrate now that she has died: this woman believed that love could last. And so, when she fell in love (and for her, it was always a fall), she did what most of us have been taught to do: she married.

Not long after I embarked upon my second marriage, I was standing at a urinal in a department store bathroom, where I saw these words scrawled on the tiled wall: “I love you, Mary Lou.” It surprised me, this simple, penciled declaration, so different from the usual men’s room offerings. More surprising still was a second statement, printed in another hand (blue ink), directly below the first: “Then marry her, you fool.” Yes, I thought, marry her. And automatically I heard a childhood ditty singing through my head, “First comes love, then comes marriage….” That the bathroom wall advisor would call his advisee a fool suggested that this was a chance not to be missed, that indeed it might be the chance of a lifetime because love — true love — is a rare thing. No doubt most of us believe that romantic love is true enough if it leads to marriage. But what do we believe if that marriage leads to divorce? Do we assume that our love, as hot as it may have burned, was ultimately false?

I asked myself these questions when I embarked upon my third marriage seven years ago. A two-time loser, I was terrified of failing again. Whenever I told people that I had been married and divorced twice, I’d see surprise in their faces, then dismay, and then suspicion. One sociologist puts it this way: “We have here an analogy with recidivism in criminal behavior — the notion that certain individuals for whatever reason are ‘prone’ to divorce, and that any divorce statistics will be inflated by such ‘multiple offenders’….” In other words, like Liz, I was a high-risk partner and not to be trusted.

This wasn’t by choice, mind you. With my first wife, I had tried ten hard years before giving up. During my ill-advised and very short second attempt, my then-wife gave up almost before we’d gotten started. What made these failures all the more painful was that my parents believed in one marriage for life and so did I. But the marriages of my parents’ generation, as far as I could tell, left a lot to be desired. Gender roles were very restrictive and too often it seemed that couples put staying together above everything else — a situation that created a lot of unhappy families. Liz rejected these restrictions and, for that, she was ridiculed and lampooned. But, really, who had it right?

My generation vowed to be better at marriage than our parents had (oh, presumptuous youth!). We’d have more equality, more understanding, more good sex. But divorce statistics suggest that our search for the perfect marriage may be too Quixotic. We may be asking too much of an old institution that, originally, had nothing to do with love — marriage was all about protecting property and furthering tribal harmony and, until recently (start with Jane Austen), couples didn’t question it. Our efforts to build something new from something so very old may be like trying to make a jetliner out of a bi-plane.

Still, it’s not like we have anything better to secure our romantic attachments. We want those attachments to last. Which is why some of us won’t give up. Liz was one of those. We call them “hopeless romantics,” though a more accurate term would be “hopeful romantics.” I am most happily married now (going on 8 years) and consider myself lucky. I don’t mean the kind of dumb luck that comes of winning a jackpot from a slot machine. I mean lucky insofar as I’ve persevered, sustained my hope, and, at last, found great reward in romance. Elizabeth Taylor, bless her, was striving for the same happiness. That she never found it but never gave up says almost everything we need to know about love and marriage.

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I’ve been looking for Jonathan for 15 years. The last I heard, he’d run off to China to find the woman he thought was the love of his life — an American doing research there. His then-estranged wife wrote me that Jonathan was bipolar and had long been troubled. He and I met in college as aspiring writers and shared similar losses: his mother, and then my father, died while we were students. Apparently, there was a lot I didn’t know about Jonathan. Years later, I was sending him holiday cards every year and his wife was answering them in his absence. He had dropped out of sight five years previous. “I thought you knew,” she wrote. I was so freaked out by this revelation that I didn’t write her back. My second marriage was crumbling at the time.

Jonathan had been the star of our undergraduate creative writing program at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill)l. He was the youngest writer ever to win the Stegner writing Fellowship to Stanford – right out of the undergrad chute. He was just 21 when I waved him and his girlfriend off in his packed-to-the-ceiling Toyota that summer after our graduation. A brilliant writer, he seemed destined for greatness. I, on the other hand, was as aimless as dandelion down.

That’s why, six months later, I was in California too. And a few months after that, I was sharing a house with Jonathan and his girlfriend while I looked for work in San Francisco. I don’t know that I followed Jonathan exactly (my grandmother lived in California), but his proximity anchored me in some ways. Patiently, he read my stories that first year and tried to help me improve. But he himself abandoned writing fiction after his two years at Stanford. It seemed the big fellowship had burned him out — maybe too much was expected of him. He ended up writing copy for a left-wing media company, where soon he became their Creative Director.

After he and his girlfriend split up, he shared an apartment with me in San Francisco. By the time we were thirty, he was married, had a house, a dog, and two kids, and we saw each other infrequently. I was married too but much less settled and much less mature. He, for instance, was seeing a psychiatrist weekly to deal with the early loss of his mother, which was bundled with other problems. I wasn’t dealing with anything, including my already ill-fated marriage to a woman who expressed disbelief when I told her I wanted to be a writer. I was a professional musician by that time, playing the clubs six nights a week like a factory job.

After I quit music and went off to grad school, Jonathan remained important to me because he marked my passage in ways that were hard to articulate. It occurs to me now that some friends are like constellations in the sky – we don’t just get used to their presence, we need their presence to make the sky seem complete and make us feel fully here.

Every so often I’ll make a web-wide search for those lost beacons in my life, Jonathan foremost among them. A couple years ago I discovered one of Jonathan’s sons on Facebook. I tried to friend the kid but he didn’t respond, even though I had explained the connection. I can hardly blame him. Then, just this week, after doing another of my internet searches — just out of curiosity — I found Jonathan himself. He has returned to California and started a business. And he looks good, much better than I imagined he would. By my reckoning, he’s been “freelancing” for 15 years – which means that he has probably been on a longer, harder journey than to China and back.

I remind myself that we must be careful with friends we have found after a long absence. Reunions can be demeaning if all we’re left with is a tally sheet of a comparison/contrast, of wins and losses. It’s not always easy to convey to a long-gone friend what he or she meant or how he still fits into our night sky. The sum of our pasts has to amount to more than nostalgia. So, I have little reason to write Jonathan now, but I’m certain that I will write to him eventually, if for no other reason than to say, “Welcome back.”

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