Robin Rinaldi’s crafted, riveting and honest memoir, THE WILD OATS PROJECT: One Woman’s Midlife Quest for Passion at Any Cost, recently released in paperback, follows her self-ascribed, year-long open marriage project she felt compelled to undertake at the apex of midlife. The experience profoundly changed her, as a woman, writer and wife.
In this excerpt, the cracks show in the heart of San Francisco, foreshadowing the future of a marriage on the brink.
For many years I suspected Scott was consciously, or at least semiconsciously, trying to thwart my attempts at intimacy. I was beginning to understand—and it was pitiful to think it had taken me this long that he was simply being himself. He wasn’t a romantic by nature, Eastern spirituality didn’t interest him, and he didn’t spend time contemplating the state of our relationship. He thought in broad terms about the world and his place in it.
He loved nature. What he wanted from me was to go biking and hiking and edit the winemaking book he was writing. I did bike with him, in Philadelphia nearly every weekday morning and in San Francisco on weekends. I hiked maybe once a year, disliking every minute of it. As for his book, a gargantuan resistance I couldn’t explain precluded me from sitting down to edit it.
As the project inserted its inevitable distance between us, the mist of my routine projections parted a little, leaving his actual outline more visible. Weren’t our differences what had attracted us in the first place? Weren’t many successful marriages composed of opposites? I even began to respect him for choosing the vasectomy. Although I remained convinced that parenthood would have been the best way to alchemize our differences into a harmonious whole, in the end it didn’t matter what I believed. He had a right to his body and his fate. As I watched him stand strong in that, despite the terrible uncertainty both the vasectomy and the ensuing project brought, I found a new glint of appreciation for him.
And of course, the project was bringing out sides to Scott that no cajoling ever could—whether due to the influence of his own new lovers or simply due to the fear of losing me, I wasn’t sure. He routinely woke up now in the wee hours and climbed on top of me without a word. Sometimes, in the middle of sex, he took my hand, led me to the kitchen, and hoisted me up on the butcher block, where things got a little more raw, him standing and my legs up around his waist.
If it had taken an open marriage to finally produce some change, then I reasoned that abandoning it too soon would only revert us to the status quo. And in its fifth month, the project had momentum. Lovers, by and large, weren’t just dropping by the wayside after three dates. Instead, the connections we forged fanned out like contrails. Post-Denver and without the alcohol or faraway city to hide in, Paul and I were evolving instead into close friends. Though Jude and I had stopped having sex after the first month, we saw each other every few weeks for hours of food, music, and conversation. After two dates, Andrew found a new girlfriend, though we continued to exchange texts and emails. Alden had returned from Los Angeles warning me that he’d eventually have to call things off, but I looked forward to however much time I had left with him. Considering the friends I continued to meet at OneTaste, there were a lot of new relationships to track. I just kept going with it, borne along, perhaps, by the backwash of freedom I’d denied myself until now. I continued my search for a new apartment.
I came home from work on a Tuesday night to find Scott practicing piano scales on an electronic keyboard I’d given him. “I saw a place on Craigslist that I need to go look at tonight,” I told him. “It’s out in the Sunset, so I might be a while.” What I didn’t tell him was that afterward, I was heading to Jude’s.
Jude lived on the third floor of a stately old Victorian in the Outer Sunset, a foggy residential neighborhood south of Golden Gate Park. At one end of a long hallway stood his bedroom, which we’d used only once over the summer, and at the other end a big parlor held nothing but musical instruments and oversized floor cushions scattered over a gigantic Oriental rug. Jude and I mostly hung out in the outdated kitchen, where he sat on a flimsy couch playing guitar while I tried to cook a vegan meal with the two cheap pots he owned.
Why, I asked myself more than once, do I leave my insanely busy magazine job after ten straight hours of work and drive to the Outer Sunset to see an astrologer whom I’m not even screwing when I can go home to my clean, beautiful house with my comfortable furniture and handsome husband, who, though he didn’t want a child or tantra instruction, nevertheless quietly adores me and just wants to make wine while I read in the living room? Why can’t I just read in the living room and be happy?
Because. As I threw chopped garlic and soy sausage into the skillet, behind me Jude strummed a song he’d just written. He pulled his salty baritone over quiet chords, the lyrics telling the story of a battle with doubt and darkness. I didn’t care if he was a hippie or if he conducted fire ceremonies. What I cared about was the fact that I could see his beauty. I saw it in his music, in the filmmakers and dancers who comprised his friends, in the money he sent to his mother each month. I also cared about the fact that Jude gave me interaction. He asked me questions and pointed out aspects of my behavior that I was blind to and that my husband never commented on. “You get so pouty when you try to ask for something you need,” Jude once said. Another time: “You could be a little more assertive in bed.” Who was ever going to tell me these things?
I’d experienced the chemical rush of infatuation enough times by then to know its cycle was not entirely personal. It had something to do with humanity. Paul, Jude, Alden, all former strangers, approached and let me touch them. I basked in their proximity, captivated by every detail of their clothing, their tastes, their accents, their habits. Even after the sexual intensity wore off, a sheen remained. Everything bristled with light—the tourists in Union Square, the flowers sitting in buckets outside a shop, the train accelerating into a tunnel after dropping me off in the morning.
“Do you think you’re manic?” Andrea had asked when trying to talk me out of the project. “Maybe you should see your doctor.”
I shot back angrily, “Andrea, you and I both know that I’ve never been manic.”
Now I saw the sense in her question. I could quite possibly be manic, seeking one contact high after another in order to blunt the frustration of a marriage of opposites, the ennui of middle age, the longing of childlessness. Or it could be that my lovers shone a light on a more accurate reality underpinning the mundane one, that falling in love offered glimpses, however brief, into the grandeur at the center of things.
Jude and I sat down to eat, and I pulled my phone from my purse. I texted Scott, I’m going to have dinner out here. I’ll be home by 10. Within seconds he responded: I want a divorce.
I froze. I typed I’m on my way home and threw the phone back in my purse. “I’m really sorry, I have to go,” I told Jude. “Right this second.”
“Seriously?” he said, standing up. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, but I have to go. I’ll explain tomorrow. I’m sorry.”
I got in the car and tried to keep my speed under control.
I’d uttered the word “divorce” two or three times over the years, but had always taken it back within minutes. This was the first time Scott had spoken it. Tiny needles of panic jabbed the undersurface of my skin. I dialed Scott once, twice, three times. No answer. When I got home, his phone sat on the kitchen counter.
He didn’t return that night or the next morning. I lay in bed all night staring into the dark thinking, Okay, here it is, here is the collapse I’ve got coming to me. At seven o’clock I dragged myself into work and dialed his office.
“This is Scott,” he answered.
“Hi,” I said, and started crying.
“Hi,” he said.
“Were you going to come home after work?” was all I could get out.
“Okay. I’ll see you then.”
By lunchtime, lack of sleep overtook me. I went home, dropped my things at the door, and slid onto the bed. Cleo jumped up and settled herself in the crook of my arm and we lay there together, awaiting my fate.
Many years before, when I was thirty-one, Cleo and I had spent an entire summer, from May through August, on the bed in Scott’s house in Sacramento. I’d lie on my back with her on my chest, staring at a stucco swirl in the white ceiling that looked exactly like a broad-shouldered man in a toga. Occasionally I’d turn to look out the screen of the bedroom window, where Scott’s tomatoes bloomed on their vines. Birds chirped all day long in the Chinese elm in the backyard. The white cotton quilt below me, sewn by Scott’s late mother, had a pattern of small blue flowers. Next to me lay Scott’s old soft red kerchief, frayed on the ends and damp with tears.
That summer in Sacramento, I’d get up in the morning, brush my teeth, wash my face, change out of my pajamas into loose shorts and a T-shirt, then climb onto the quilt with the cat and the birds and the man in the toga, motionless. I couldn’t concentrate enough to read a book. I couldn’t bear to turn on the TV and watch simulations of normal people going about their noisy lives. Sometimes, in the afternoon, I’d shuffle to the galley kitchen and attempt to wash dishes, my unmoving stare aimed at the jade leaves in the planter window. But holding myself up vertically made me cry harder. I’d turn the water off, bend over, and sob, snot dripping into the sink, the dish towel hanging from my hand.
I’d been spiraling since a bike accident at age twenty-eight tore up my inner labia, sprawling me onto a vacant bike trail. By the time Scott had run for help, I’d soaked his T-shirt with blood. The gynecologist who patched me up refused to tell me how many stitches it took; he only said it was no worse than if I’d torn having a baby. He assured me I’d be back to normal in a month or two.
I did not get back to normal for four years. Most days my throat was sore. Some days my arms ached too much to brush my hair. Sharp pains shot through my chest and I had to hold on to walls to walk straight. Wavy vertical lines jerked in my vision and my eyes burned. I lost twenty pounds and dreamed repeatedly of thick pus oozing from my body. An occasional pressure around my neck made it feel as if someone were choking me.
I was tested for Lyme Disease, thyroid trouble, multiple sclerosis, leukemia, and a dozen other conditions; I added bodywork, acupuncture, allergy testing, vitamin B12 shots, antidepressants, and Klonopin to my ongoing therapy appointments. One doctor called it depression, though I’d never heard of depression causing such acute symptoms. One told me to stop eating wheat and sugar. One said, “Sometimes people get sick and die without ever finding the cause.” I learned a lot about the varying quality of bedside manner in those four years. I became an expert.
Eventually they settled on chronic fatigue syndrome, which added no information to the mix other than a label and a new list of support groups I could choose to attend. By the time I was thirty-one, three years into the illness, labels had ceased to matter anyway. The physical symptoms turned out to be mere landmarks on a path leading down to a dark, bottomless well.
To attempt an explanation, I wrote Scott a letter, telling how there was a terrible wound in me, something for which there were no words, and how his gentle patience would first assuage it, then open up an even deeper level of it. How I was falling through the layers of a lethal despair, how every day it felt like I would die and then I didn’t. When Scott was little, his parents nicknamed him Sunshine because of his sanguine disposition. I explained how my gratitude for his strength alternated with shame at my own wretchedness. Scott tucked the letter into his top drawer next to his dad’s World War II dog tags. When he got home from his job at the software company at exactly 5:15 each day, he came into the bedroom and lay down facing me.
“Hi, doll,” he said. Sometimes he called me dovebar, or kitty, or noodles. He told me about his day and I told him how I was faring, each word willed out of me through a gauntlet of self-hate.Then he turned onto his back and held me as I cried into his shoulder. This twenty-minute dose of simple contact gave me the strength to get out of bed, heat up some dinner, and maybe watch a movie with him on the couch before returning to the bedroom.
Looking back now, I can honor the mystery of it. I see it as my initial descent into the body, the bike accident a shock that yanked my awareness down below my neck for the first time, into my stomach, legs, arms, and sex. As I swirled in a cauldron of long-repressed feeling, little by little I was forced to confront the present moment head-on. I learned to breathe into pain, exhaustion, vertigo, grief. Three years in, after four full months of lying motionless on Scott’s bed, I hit the nadir. I didn’t have the constitution for suicide, so I decided that if this paralysis continued, I’d give up my dreams of journalism and travel and intimacy and go be a Buddhist nun somewhere.
I stared at the stucco man in the toga hour upon hour, asking where God was, why He hadn’t made an unequivocal appearance since seventh grade. His silence must be due to my lack of sincerity, for however huge my need of God, my fear overtook it—a fear instilled by the Catholics, who’d taught me that coming face to face with Him was a task saints could barely muster without losing their sanity, and that mortals did well to shrink from. In lieu of God’s mercy, I had to lean on my own. In my worst moments I would try to muster just a drop of compassion for what I was going through. A split second of simple kindness in a sea of chaos and resistance and despair.
One August afternoon, I managed to leave Scott’s bed and drag myself to the movies. I watched Patricia Arquette playing a young widowed doctor who fights her way through the jungles of wartime Burma trying to get home. It was a small movie that registered on no one else’s radar, but it contained one crucial scene in which Arquette’s character suddenly decides to stay in the ravaged country to help its refugees, transmuting her grief into something useful. After the matinee, I walked outside to a little boardwalk that fronted the Sacramento River and looked down into its muddy water. As I traced the river upstream toward the bleached-out horizon of my asylum city, a tiny space opened inside me, a pinprick of light and air.
Within a few months I started working part- time again. The year after that I brushed up on some journalism courses so I could finally leave tech writing behind. As I ventured back into the world, I noticed a shift. When I entered Scott’s house, I no longer sensed vague danger. When I walked down the street, the leaves on the trees no longer shimmered with all-permeating sadness. The desperate urge to control my environment loosened its stranglehold. At first I didn’t know what to call this new feeling. It wasn’t exactly happiness and it wasn’t exactly peace, more like a hushed buoyancy, a feeling of space where something had previously been jammed. Eventually I learned its name: safety. Another human being had seen all of me, and he was still there. He was still kind.
The twelve-steppers and therapists and self- help books all said another person couldn’t heal you. You had to do it yourself, or ask God to do it for you. They were wrong. What had healed me, or at least what had provided the foundation of my healing, was Scott’s stoic, gentle love. The same love I struggled against now.
I awoke from a nap with Cleo still snuggled up beside me, the word “divorce” reverberating. I went out and sat at the kitchen table, trying to muster enough courage to look at this possibility squarely, at least for a minute or two. I saw a future composed not of endless affairs and sexual seminars and new friends, but of . . . nothing. A vacuum. Yet putting myself back into the box of our conventional, childless marriage right then felt just as impossible. For years, the safety that I’d found with Scott had been enough. Until it wasn’t.
Scott walked in the door at 4:45, as usual. I braced myself. He came into the kitchen, sat down next to me, and said, “I’m sorry. I was angry. I didn’t mean what I said.”
“It’s okay,” I said, reaching for his hand. Tears of relief blurred my vision. “You don’t have to apologize.”
“I want our marriage back,” he said. “We’ve been at this for almost five months. Haven’t you gotten what you needed?”
I wanted to say yes, I’ve gotten more than I needed. You were bigger than could be expected of any man, and it’s finished now and we’re safe again. I’m the one who’s sorry. I’m sorry I couldn’t just get over the vasectomy and move on, that I couldn’t grow up and honor the commitment I made to you on our wedding day, that I am out on some quasi-adolescent quest for god knows what. You don’t deserve this.
“I need more time,” I said.
He sat thinking. “How much time?”
“It’s almost October. If I started another sublet on October first, we could revisit things at the beginning of the year.”
“The new year isn’t the time to make big decisions, right after the holidays and all that family stuff ,” he said. This was a maxim he oft repeated. “Let’s just say February first.”
“Okay, February first.” Would four more months wash this storm out of my system?
We sat holding hands silently. His hands were on the smallish side for such a tall man. They weren’t soft, though. You could tell by the rough-lined palms that they were used to fixing things.
“I’ll make some dinner,” I said. Cleo jumped languidly from my lap to the floor, and then effortlessly from the floor up to his. She settled in and he stroked her nape.
“Things can’t be all that bad when there’s a cat purring in your lap,” he said. This was another of his favorite sayings.
And it was true. He was right.