It's Not Easy Being Green

My habit of recycling boyfriends and converting lovers into pals was ultimately unsustainable

(Getty Images)

I recycle trash and old boyfriends, though some might argue they are one and the same.

This behavior started fairly young. With two brothers and a neighborhood filled with boys, I easily made them my friends. To paraphrase Carly Simon, I climbed with the boys in the trees. On the baseball field, tennis court and in every tomboy way I could, I competed. This had a consequence I couldn't foresee: an inability to distinguish real love from platonic love.

In my first unsuccessful attempt to transform amity into passion, I married Chuck, a friend. In college, we spent days pondering the poetry of John Donne, munching on pizza and heartburn cheesesteak sandwiches (only edible in your 20s) and conversing into the night. We'd double-date and share our concerns and disappointments. Dating each other never occurred to us (or at least to me) opposites that we were: Chuck was analytical and always on time. I was creative and perpetually late. I craved the freedom to explore the world. He was content to go fishing. Tragically, as a preteen, he witnessed both parents die of illness a year apart. My childhood featured fun and supportive parents. Having no reason to rebel but eager to be independent, I assumed the only acceptable way to graduate from child to adult was marriage. Living together might disappoint my parents. Rationalizing our platonic relationship and feeling sad for Chuck, I married him after college. We'll balance each other out! I thought, dismissing our differences.

But a college friendship is not the basis for a life together. After seven years, we parted ways. I roamed singles events with a girlfriend. A single mom of a 2-year-old, I realized most guys did not want to take on the responsibility of a child. Still, I enjoyed male companionship for its friendship value. If a relationship didn't work out, I'd often convert the lover to a pal.

By contrast, my girlfriend suspended any contact once a romance fizzled. "How," she would ask, "could you be friends after you dated him?"

Were my conversion efforts useless without the promise of permanence? I believed then I could reinvent a failed relationship and create something different and possibly more valuable. And that kernel of maybe: Staying close to a former lover might reset the loving bond.

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Meanwhile, I accepted numerous blind dates including one fix-up, courtesy of my then boss.

What was he thinking? I wondered as I gazed at the good-looking but mostly bald man. Bald? And old?

But it was only lunch and soon I didn't notice his shiny pate. Younger and more active than appearance suggested, he overwhelmed me and we became inseparable. He introduced me to jazz. We frequented art galleries, gambled in Atlantic City. We competed at chess, Scrabble, tennis and racquetball, and sailed through one stormy night at sea on the Chesapeake Bay. As I watched him climb the mast and corral the wind-whipped sails, my heart did as many leaps as the sails. But most importantly, he connected with my son. Soon, I was in love with a passion I had missed in my marriage.

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Yet, he never said, "I love you." I convinced myself it was obvious through his affection and attention. So, six months into our relationship, I handed him a funny card of the cartoon character Cathy declaring her love. I know, I know; I shouldn't have said it first, that word: "love." It seemed so innocuous, written as it was in jest through someone else's words (though I may have been unconsciously testing the waters). However, having been scarred by his parents' bad match—something that my love-struck eyes didn't see at the time—he freaked out and broke up with me the next week.

Time and other boyfriends dulled that ache. Years later, we bumped into each other on a train to New York, chatting and flirting nonstop for three hours. Though wary then of relationships leading nowhere, I reluctantly agreed to a dinner date. Unlike found objects, some romances just don't have a second life. After three months I moved on, which felt like progress.

Still, I navigated between friends and lovers, pinning my hopes on a divorced physicist. His 20-year marriage meant he'd do it again, right? Childless, he engaged with my son, imparting wisdom and wonders of engines. He even babysat while I traveled for business. Ever optimistic and wanting another child, I assumed I'd change his mind regarding children.

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"Where are we going with this?" he asked bluntly. "You want kids; I don't."

"How do you feel about friends?" I asked, not wanting to lose this interesting soul in my life—not to mention his willingness to rescue me when my car broke down, to drive across town at night to pick the lock on my door when I lost my keys and to fix whatever needed fixing around my house. Breaking off contact—well, you see my dilemma. Why not enjoy each other's company on occasion, I posited. Maybe he'll come around.

He agreed to a platonic arrangement—except, like the physics of magnetic particles, the closer we got, the less we could prevent our attraction. So much for strict friendship. After a six-month hiatus, we re-engaged, then broke up and became friends. Again. This time I had no illusions of converting it into anything else.

Finding a durable relationship felt like watching plastic biodegrade. Who could wait that long? Where in the world was my sustainable relationship? I was stuck in my own romantic "Groundhog Day" with mistakes shadowing me. Salvaging old material wasn't the answer (though it worked in "When Harry Met Sally"). Rather than reimagining doomed romances, perhaps I needed to reinvent myself, redefine my priorities.

Ultimately, the physics of time reordered my universe. As life progressed, clearly another child wasn't in my future. I also recognized an ache of loneliness that couldn't be filled by yet another friend. Still, I wanted that Hollywood ending. Happy. Ever. After.

Then, one summer day, 18 years after parting, a name floated through my mind, a faint voice like a swift whisper. Hmm, I wonder what he's up to? I dismissed the thought, his name vanishing as quickly as it had appeared.

We had dated for a year. Despite work schedules and my travels, we saw each other frequently. His duty, he said, was transporting me to and from the airport (reason alone to stick with a guy). He enjoyed my then 5-year-old son, but his kid was in college. I still yearned for children, but he finished that phase of his life. We broke up and lost contact. I didn't need another friend.

Three days after his name drifted into my mind, I received The Letter. From him.

He wrote of everyday details. In Paris, he'd seen a book I had written on the city. Perhaps we could catch up. He included his phone number and a P.S.: "If you aren't the person I knew, I'm sorry for bothering you."

I stared at that letter, rereading it for his intentions. I picked up the phone and called him. Having never transformed him into a friend left me open to a deeper, more meaningful relationship. That and the passage of time.

Our easy conversation assured him I was the same person (well almost) and we arranged to meet after my French lesson. Quelle surprise! He was studying French, too. Our romance progressed old style, slowly. Dinners, conversations, tennis, family reintroductions and, ultimately, a benefit I never expected: an adorable grandchild, the daughter I never had. We had a comfortable history. We relived our former days together. We talked, we questioned the timing. Or mostly I did: Why now? Why not then?

Now past child-rearing, our age gap no longer mattered. Still, I treaded lightly, aware of our past and our mutual desire to enjoy our present unencumbered state.

One evening, in cleanup mode after dinner at his house, I asked where I should put our empty wine bottle.

"In the trash."

"You don't recycle?"

"No," he said in a tone that suggested neither remorse nor guilt.

I shrugged nonchalantly, tossed it into his garbage and dropped the subject. Silently, I thought, Why not? Our recycled relationship wasn't ready for such trivial disagreements. It hadn't yet advanced past the can't-keep-my-hands-off-you stage. Not to mention the 30-year-old wine bottles he kept uncorking from his cellar every time he cooked.

A week later, while clearing dishes, I was surprised when he told me to leave the empty bottle on the table. He would haul it out, along with his beer bottles, to his recently acquired recycling bin.

"My neighbors must think I'm an alcoholic now," he joked.

Food may be the way to a man's heart, but he realized recycling was one path to mine, though I wondered what he felt when, a week later, I introduced him to a friend who said, "Kathy has a habit of recycling boyfriends. Which one are you?"

He wasn't offended. Indeed, on the anniversary of his first letter, he sent me another—en français, naturellement (how else does one speak of love?)—on recycled paper, of course.