Bliss Was It In That Dawn

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Bliss Was It In That Dawn

The People That You Never Get To Love

The People That You Never Get To Love, by Rupert Holmes, sung by Susannah McCorkle (1981), encountered 1984-1986

Buy it here | See it here [1] | Lyrics here | Sheet music here

When I became single again, like many men in my position, after a bit of a delay to mourn and regroup, I started inviting women into my life. I was free to ask, notwithstanding the serious girlfriend off in Nebraska (and then later in Charlottesville), who like me was seeing other people too. Many of my invitations were accepted.

I had some very unoriginal things to prove: that I was attractive, that I had the maturity to deal with simultaneous relationships, that I wasn’t making a mistake with the serious girlfriend. Standard recently-separated stuff.

Not Possible

It would have been nice not to have anything to prove: just to be out to have a good time and smell the roses. Nice, but not possible. I couldn’t magically become someone fifteen years younger and without a history. I had children, I had burned through a marriage, and I was at least thinking about another marriage while still in my prime. I needed to know some things about myself and I needed to know them soon. I didn’t give myself any deadlines, but, objectively, I had to get a move on because there was a decision day somewhere up ahead.

So I asked out a lot of women. I would have liked to have asked them all. Sure, it’s absurd. But I very much wanted to try. Rupert Holmes had the perfect lyric for this thought process in his song The People That You Never Get To Love, which I knew at the time through a lovely cover[2] done by Susannah McCorkle (who reversed the genders – though I reverse them back here):

You’re browsing through a second hand bookstore
And you see her in Non-Fiction V through Y
She looks up from World War II
And then you catch her catching you catching her eye
And you quickly turn away your wishful stare
And take a sudden interest in your shoes
If you only had the courage but you don’t
She turns and leaves and you both lose
And you think about
The people that you never get to love
It’s not as if you even have the chance
So many worth a second life
But rarely do you get a second glance
Until fate cuts in on your dance

 Except I could not leave it up to fate to cut in on my dance. I had to be aggressive, and I was, for a while. I asked out a woman I frequently encountered in the lobby of our apartment house. At the Downtown Racquet Club, I chased down a woman I saw with beautiful pre-Raphaelite red hair, caught up with her at the exit, and asked her out on the spot. I drove home a prep school teacher I met in a bar. I fell in love with someone’s legs in a Jacuzzi and asked her out. When our office crowd went out drinking, I slipped my arm around a colleague’s waist. They all said yes. And there were others.

Could Have Been A Contender

What happened afterwards varied. Sometimes the attraction dissipated before the evening was out. Sometimes we ended up between the sheets. Sometimes we dated for several months.

Whoever it was, though, it never lasted. Many times they lost interest in me, which I accepted without too much hurt; they were, after all, on their own scavenger hunts of the heart, pursuits I had to respect as much as I respected my own. Just as often, I lost interest.

But there were a couple of them that under slightly different circumstances might have been contenders. As Holmes put it, in the lyric I’ve already quoted: “So many worth a second life.” I am thinking particularly about the woman with the pre-Raphaelite hair, who turned out to be kind and idealistic, one of the nicest people I had ever known. In another life, maybe I would have met her first; we could have built something lasting together. Yet in the life I was actually leading, she could not establish a lasting beachhead in my affections; that shore turned out still to be held by my out-of-town girlfriend.

For me, despite honest experimenting, no one else came close. I have talked about but haven’t described Mary in these pages, and I wouldn’t try. I lack the gift to explain why the chemistry with one person is so much stronger than the chemistry with anyone else. But I can honestly say I was not putting my thumb on the scale when I was going through this process. My mind was truly open. Exciting as my other relationships were, though, they remained diversions for me. (Which was not to say that I was not acutely aware of and sometimes humbled by the value of the gifts I was turning down.)

Cursed Ethics

The worst was the ethical side of it. That had come up with Jo, my therapist, in the first few weeks of my work with her, before I had even positively made up my mind to leave my marriage. She’d asked me what my fantasy of freedom was, and I’d said I wanted to be with a lot of women. My therapist was dismissive. It will never work, she told me. I wish you luck, she said, but the only successful mass-womanizers are either sociopaths or narcissists who can deceive themselves into believing anything about others which suits their self-interest, and you’re neither. My face fell. Shucks? she suggested.

Shucks indeed. I didn’t want to hurt people, but achieving what I did want ran a constant risk of trifling with people’s affections. I tried hard to avoid that, mostly by being honest at all times, but I knew I was not always succeeding.

Even when I was not running the risk of breaking hearts, there was the delicate dance of not explaining to the person I might be spending Friday night with where I might be, say, on Saturday night. It can be implicitly or explicitly acknowledged that one or both are seeing more than one person, but that’s still somewhat theoretical. More concrete are the silences that fall when one is discussing one’s activities or one’s schedule. Love thrives on accountability; playing the field thrives on its opposite.

In That Dawn

At its best, though, and for a little while, the experience was liberating. It was tremendously exciting to be what they now call a player. I remember one moment that crystallized it for me. I was walking out of an apartment house down by Baltimore’s waterfront in a brisk, sunny dawn. I had spent the night with a woman with whom there was mercifully no possibility of deep attachment, a true friend with benefits (a friend to this day, actually, nearly three decades later), and it had been great fun. She had been the third woman I’d spent the night with that week. And as I stood out there in the sunlight, a phrase from Wordsworth came unbidden to my mind: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” Wordsworth, it’s true, was speaking of far more important things than an exciting stretch in one’s love life. But that was the phrase in my head.

I knew this blissful dawn wasn’t going to last, that the sun was going to rise further, leaving me in some kind of workaday world. But at least I’d had that dawn. That was something.

A Telling Postscript

A postscript about the role of that song in my life may demonstrate why my little experiment with casting a wide net for love was likely to succeed only in proving a negative. I had acquired McCorkle’s album, also entitled The People That You Never Get To Love,  probably within a week or two of moving into my bachelor apartment. The song and the whole album had become instant hits with me, and I had wanted to share them with everyone. Towards the end of August that summer, I went back to Michigan for a few days with my parents there, and I played them a tape I’d dubbed of the album. I mentioned that the Holmes song nicely summed up the quest I was on at that point: to find the people that I’d never got to love.

My mother was unimpressed (and I fear unimpressed with McCorkle). Isn’t there anyone more important than the others? she asked. I said there was. She asked for the name, and I mentioned Mary for the first time to her. Good, she said, I’m glad. I don’t think she even really heard that I was looking around, that there was a wider focus just now, and that there was a song here that spoke to it. All she heard or wanted to hear was that there was someone special. And though I would have been happier had she taken in more of what I was saying, I was glad she was glad. So I have to chalk up what can only be called a competing association for this song. Yes, even this one.

But Rupert Holmes and Susannah McCorkle could hear what Mother could or would not. They understood the sadness in the limits life places on our love lives. We can try, for a little while – I did – to break the short tether of human finitude that so restricts our access to romance, but we can never pull hard enough to snap it. We can, at best, meet an infinitesimal fraction of the people with whom we could have mated. Good things may come from crying uncle in this struggle, but let us not disguise the defeat as a victory.

We want everything. And we can’t have everything. Disappointment is guaranteed: a more-than-appropriate reason to sing a melancholy song. Which was something McCorkle knew how to do, superbly.[3]


[1]. This video is the only one I could find, but the recording is not from the 1981 release; instead (notwithstanding that it features the 1981 cover art) it comes from the somewhat differently phrased and differently orchestrated re-recording McCorkle released in 1993, in her album From Bessie to Brazil.

[2]. Holmes’ own version had come out in 1979 in his album Partners in Crime.

[3]. McCorkle was special, by all accounts a brilliant woman, talented with languages, letters, and song. When I heard, sometime after the fact in 2001, that she’d leapt to her death, it took my breath away. I hope (and I have read) that it was psychiatric, not existential, despair that led her to that extremity.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for cover art

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