By Barbara Lewis
New love is a form of madness. MRIs have proven that the brains of new lovers light up in the exact same area as those of people suffering from obsessive compulsive disorders. I read this in a weekly news magazine a few years ago, put out just in time for Valentine’s Day. Finally they’d proven what we’d known all along: new love makes you crazy. Old love, on the other hand, lights up an entirely different section of gray matter.
If new love is like a fire-y bonfire, old love is like a lot of little campfires spread out in dark gray woods. But if these campfires aren’t tended properly they can go out. That’s the time a prudent spouse might say, “Honey, it’s getting a little dark in here. Let’s go get some kindling.”
On our thirtieth anniversary, my husband and I bought a house on an island, north of Seattle. Empty nesters, we moved more than halfway across the country from Chicago to be closer to our children and start a new unscripted chapter in our lives. Moving to this island was definitely some sort of madness.
But we were smitten. I was the first to fall. During a brief visit to Orcas with a friend, I fell in love with the place and brought my husband, Brian, back for a two-month stay, hoping he might catch whatever madness I had caught. It wasn’t long before we were both love-sick, lost to the land, the sky, the water hugging the hilly coast. And somehow this new love lent a kindling spark to certain other little campfires.
At our new house, we can open the double doors leading to the deck and a breeze blows into the room, cool and slightly moist. On a clear day we can see the Olympic Mountains from our deck. The road in front of the house runs along the beach, perfect for short jaunts. When the tide is out and the rocky beach exposed, seagulls sound their plaintive cries as they hang above the water. Brian loves the Blue Herons that stand one-legged in the shallow tide, tipping their heads sideways, eyeing the shadows in the water. Brian’s never been much of a birder. I’m not sure he could tell a seagull from an eagle before we moved here. Now he stares at the ocean, baseball cap tight over his thick shock of white hair, and looks out to sea. “I like those big birds,” he says.
The quiet of the island has been good for him. One night while we were sitting in the living room listening to music, he put down his book and stared at the flames through the open door of the woodstove.
“What is it?” I asked him. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s odd,” he told me, as if he were just realizing something. “I feel like I’ve been struggling my whole life, but I’m not struggling here.”
Brian has to go off-island to travel every few weeks for work. The first time he left, I drove him to catch the red-eye, which is what the locals call the early morning ferry. After pulling his suitcase over the connecting bridge through the drizzling mist in the dark, Brian stood on the upper deck of the ferry, the lights on the overhang twinkling as he turned to watch me on the shore. The ferry workers loaded four lines of cars and two huge, lumbering trucks, all the vehicles disappearing into the mouth of the boat as if swallowed by a friendly sea creature, and still Brian kept watching me. I waited by the car, my wet parka pulled tight over my head, wishing I had thought to bring a cup of coffee, and worrying that I was going to run out of gas on the way home. But I knew I couldn’t leave him. Brian was having one of those moments when he was really seeing me, seeing us here in this place together—our new life beginning. Even from that distance, I knew the look on his face, the way he was pressing his lips together with his eyes slightly moist.
Sea gulls lifted, drifting over the boat and crying out. I could smell the rich smoke of a wood fire. The ferry workers drew up the narrow bridge and the boat began pulling away. Brian raised his hand to give me a thumbs-up, and I thought how old love could be stirred by new love; new fires in one part of the brain could rekindle old flames. And if we’re lucky, and feed the fires right, we could enjoy a long, slow blaze.