Maria Finn | Longreads | August 2017 | 18 minutes (4,403 words)
There’s an adage that you should never make major life decisions right after Burning Man. Once back in your “default life,” wait three months before moving in with the man you met atop a giant rubber duck art car, quitting your job in tech to become a trapeze artist, or getting a shark tattoo. This is considered enough time for the exhilaration of spontaneous love, boundless possibilities, and radical self-expression to subside.
I didn’t meet Danny at Burning Man, but I fell in love with him there. We were introduced at a mutual friend’s birthday party the previous spring. My older brother had recently committed suicide, but our friend encouraged me to come and try to take my mind off it. I went, still a stunned, open wound of a person.
I vaguely remembered talking with a nice guy, and when someone went to take a group picture, he flung his arm around my shoulders and for just a moment, I was not adrift in sadness and shock.
Danny had told me that he and a couple of friends were going to Burning Man that year for the first time to celebrate their birthdays. I promised to show them around if I went. I had a ticket, but didn’t know if I could do it.
My older brother, Bill, had lit himself on fire in front of the Veteran’s Hospital where he was being treated for a damaged knee sustained when parachuting in Panama during our “War on Drugs.” He was also being treated for alcoholism, and diagnosed with PTSD. For treatment, the VA mailed him 1,000 pills of Vicodin (actually generic Hydrocodone) each month, whether he finished the previous prescription or not. My brother Steve had called the VA and asked them to stop giving Bill the drugs. Already troubled, Bill crashed. Steve, who had once studied to be an actuary, later noted, “Someone in the military probably ran the numbers and figured out it was cheaper to send the drugs so these guys overdose or kill themselves.”
As a child, Bill had lived in a firestorm of rage. Growing up with him, it seemed as if I always had my arm in front of my face, blocking near-constant incoming blows. Even as an adult, I was a little afraid of him, and my relationship with Bill was mainly through my connection with his wife and children, who I adored. When he immolated himself, I searched for the word that meant, “Shocked to my core, but not entirely surprised.” The thought of watching an effigy of a man burn, of feeling that sort of heat and experiencing his pain, even from a distance, terrified me.
My Aunt Kaye had her own ticket and had been planning on going with me that year. “Maybe it’s too traumatic,” she had told me. “Or maybe it’s exactly what you need.”
I didn’t meet Danny at Burning Man, but I fell in love with him there. My older brother had recently committed suicide, but our friend encouraged me to come and try to take my mind off it.
Back home, I’d forgotten about Danny. My tiny houseboat had been under construction for seven months. Everyone in my community was required to bring our electrical and plumbing up to code. My old home was virtually torn down. The renovation had taken twice as long as I’d been told, and I had to find other places to live in a very expensive area. So I house-sat, lived on unused boats in the nearby harbor, and slept on my dad’s floor on an air mattress. My life was chaos. But I also saw this as a fresh start. I envisioned a new life with this home, and set about to make it a jewel box. I polished oyster shells and made backsplash tiles from them, collected seaweed, and twined it with hemp string for pendant lamps, created a headboard from old fishing nets and Japanese glass balls, and learned how to use a waterjet to cut my railings in a wave pattern. I eventually moved back in my house, and continued to work on it in any spare time, painting, putting up trim, and finding flooring on Craigslist. I didn’t have a single date during this year, and vacillated between convincing myself that when my home was ready, the right man would arrive, and trying to accept that romance, sex, and love might be over for me — but I’d have a beautiful house.
One Sunday morning in June, Danny texted that he was in town for the day from Southern California, and asked if he could come see my houseboat. I had been at the farmer’s market, so I invited him for brunch and he arrived carrying an armload of sunflowers.
“Glad I caught you here, and you aren’t out diving with sharks or gathering seaweed,” he said.
“Sounds like you Googled me,” I answered. “I was just going to do laundry. Glad for the interruption.”
While we ate, he admired my house. “You made this stuff?” he asked.
“Yes, I need to do more nuts and bolts, like hang racks in my closets,” I said. “But I’m researching an installation of oysters on my hull to help clean the bay and . . .”
“You have it good you know,” he said. “Don’t let some guy like me show up with a bunch of kids and mess up your life.”
I looked around my home, and thought to myself that maybe I was ready for that kind of messiness.
Over brunch, we talked about his dad’s death and about our siblings, my troubled older brother, and the distance he had from his.
“You seemed so sad and so beautiful that day I met you,” he said.
He relayed his struggle finding a place to live after his longtime partner and mother of his children asked him to move out. “The East Coast made her miserable,” he said. “So we moved out west. Turned out it was me making her unhappy.”
We agreed that he — that we both — deserved happiness. Then we went in for the kiss.
Cautious about being a rebound, I discussed him later on with girlfriends.
My friend Shannon encouraged me. “Right after my parents divorced,” she said, “my dad married the love of his life — his high school sweetheart.”
A friend who knew Danny well counseled me. “I think his relationship has been over for a long time. There’s a chance you might get your heart broken, but he’s worth the risk.”
Danny himself had described their attempt at marriage counseling. “She listed everything about me that she couldn’t stand. The therapist told us at the end, ‘If what she says is true, there’s no hope for this relationship.’”
“She didn’t mention any of it before this?” I asked.
“No, when she got angry, she’d quit speaking to me,” he answered.
Danny and I and saw each other a few times before Burning Man. Each time was pure romance: sunsets at the beach and strolls holding hands; signs we considered almost divine, like finding an empty package of Sausalito Pepperidge Farm cookies left on a bridge at the Venice Canals in L.A. “It’s a sign,” he said. “I’m meant to live at Pepperidge Farm, Massachusetts.”
I didn’t have a single date during this year, and vacillated between convincing myself that when my home was ready, the right man would arrive, and trying to accept that romance, sex, and love might be over for me.
The sexual attraction between us seemed to draw from something beyond ourselves.
“You’re turning me into a whore-man,” he said as he pulled on his socks one night.
“I believe the term is man-whore,” I answered.
We made plans to meet up halfway, at Big Sur. He canceled. He found out that he had to take care of the kids that weekend.
“I’m just going to have to tell my ex about us,” Danny said. “Or this will happen a lot.”
“Not yet,” I said.
“She won’t care,” he said. “She’s told me tons of times to date someone else.”
“This is bound to trigger something,” I said. “Please, not until after Burning Man.”
He had told me that she wanted to break up, not him; he’d wanted to stay. He acknowledged they were unhappy, but as he had put it, “You suffer for the family unit.”
I had argued, “Who is better off for that?”
Had we not been going to Burning Man that summer, I probably wouldn’t have pursued the relationship, as his life didn’t seem to have room for me. But I had big hopes for Danny and me at Burning Man. We both had heat-seeking hearts. Out on the Playa, exhausted and exhilarated, without the tethers of daily responsibilities, we’d come together as our rawest selves. I had no doubt we would fall in love.
The Playa at night is a hallucination, a dream, an open-ended LED-lit adventure filled with a flame-shooting octopus and neon shark art cars darting by. Danny convinced my Aunt Kaye to dance for possibly the first time in her life, under a huge sculpture of a woman, naked and incredibly sad and powerful under the dark desert sky. Danny and I took ecstasy and couldn’t stop touching, until we finally split from our friends and groped each other in a dark part of the Playa. I joked that I didn’t want to die by getting run over by an art car. “It would be a heroic death,” he insisted.
At the Human Carcass Wash, we stripped naked and washed total strangers with our bare hands. We touched their scars and bruises. “You want your taint washed?” Danny asked a guy. “Then lift up your balls.” I marveled at his wholeheartedness.
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We visited the Temple, a wood structure papered in notes to loved ones, lost pets, family members, and friends who had passed away. There were letters of rage, and symbols of love and pain and regret. Outside was a box for placing forgiveness letters. Danny scribbled a note and tucked it in there.
“I forgave my mother,” he told me.
“What about your ex?” I asked him.
“It’s strange, but I’m not angry at her,” he answered.
He hadn’t seemed heartbroken at all by the breakup — just very inconvenienced. So I believed him.
“Who did you forgive?” he asked.
“My contractor,” I answered.
One morning at a Sweat Your Prayers dance, my brother’s death hit me. A stranger saw me crying and approached me on the dance floor and held me as my tears ran down his bare chest. When he moved on, another man stopped, and I cried and cried in his arms. I rode my bike out to the Temple and wrote a letter to my brother, promising to stay close with his wife and kids. And I wrote one of forgiveness to myself for not being a better sister to him. I didn’t help him; I couldn’t. When we were kids, I tried at times. My parents had married young and had five children in seven years. We all just survived as best we could. I tucked the letters into the Forgiveness Box at the Temple.
That night, we passed the Burning of the Man ceremony while dancing on top of art cars. I knew the man was burning, heard the roar of house music and cheering of the crowd and felt the heat from the flames. On top of the art car, I was tucked between my Aunt Kaye and Danny, and surrounded by friends. I felt only warmth, not pain. At dawn, Danny and I cuddled together on the embers and watched the sunrise over the desert, spraying it blue and gold and pink hues.
The next night at the Temple Burn, Danny and I joined the silent crowd. He grieved his father, and I my brother. The air smelled of dry wood, and as the fire grew, the heat blanketed us all. Danny and I sat holding each other, united with everyone in a gentle, burning grief until the building finally collapsed in a heave.
He relayed his struggle finding a place to live after his longtime partner and mother of his children asked him to move out. He had told me that she wanted to break up, not him; he’d wanted to stay.
Afterwards, I blurted out that he had the best heart of anyone I had ever met.
He looked a little scared. “This got serious, fast,” he said.
I begged him to not break my heart.
“I wouldn’t have gotten involved with someone so soon,” he said. “But I’ve never felt a connection like this. I think you might be my soul mate. Don’t break my heart either.”
Danny and I were leaving in different cars, but planned to meet in a hotel room in Reno to shower and rest before traveling home. But the exit line was four hours and hotels were completely booked. Once on the road, I kept nodding off at the wheel. So, I stopped in a parking lot in Sparks, Nevada, and snoozed in the cab of my truck. Danny met me there. I was dust-coated and my hair was matted, with makeup smeared under my eyes.
“This is the worst you will ever see me,” I told him.
He pulled me into a dusty hug.
After coffee, I kissed his chapped lips and rubbed my face against his scratchy cheek. Then I watched him get into his minivan and drive back to his default world.
We scheduled a camping trip for Big Sur, and it happened to be the weekend of the lunar eclipse. I looked for the perfect camp site — close to the ocean, but also near redwood trees. We planned to visit the hot springs at Esalen, to sit in the tubs under the stars with the Pacific Ocean crashing below. It was almost too much to hope for. That chunk of the California Coast seemed preternatural to me — towering redwood trees and cypress twisted by onshore winds, dramatic slopes of mountains dropping into white-capped waves that licked up into fog cover. I couldn’t imagine having him to myself for four days in this setting.
Then he called and canceled our trip.
In order to get the time off from childcare, Danny told his ex that he was dating me. At first she told him that she couldn’t care less; a day later, she wanted him back. He called to tell me and we talked on the phone for six hours. He didn’t know what to do. He figured the best option would be for them to go to therapy. That way, she’d come around to realizing they weren’t good together.
Had we not been going to Burning Man that summer, I probably wouldn’t have pursued the relationship, as his life didn’t seem to have room for me.
“Big Sur was going to be our Rubicon,” he said. “Like Julius Caesar’s fateful crossing of the river, when he said, ‘The die are cast.’ There would have been no turning back for us.”
“I understand if you aren’t ready for that,” I said.
“I was ready to cross with you,” he answered.
We set a date for him to come to Sausalito.
In the meantime, I was scheduled to give a talk about seafood to a slow food group in Santa Cruz. I left early to go surfing and while on the water, I wondered if I really wanted his messiness in my life. His ex would always have influence, if not control of our lives through the children. Also, his use of the word “soul mate” at Burning Man had terrified me. I had never let someone that close. I had been married and in a long relationship, but never really had both feet in, nor true intimacy. I feared, deep down, if someone met me there, that he would discover something malignant in me. I didn’t know what it was exactly, or how it got there. Perhaps early in my life, I had translated my brother’s violence towards me to mean that at my core lurked something pretty awful. I had worked hard to lose this belief, but “soul mate” shook me, and made realized that deep down, it was still there.
The Monterey Bay was in a frenzy. Anchovies must have been passing by. Whales spouted, dolphins broke the water, pelicans skimmed, terns dove, and sea lions spun all around me.
I had to pull myself together to speak that night about why people should let go of their eating defaults, like farmed salmon and shrimp; I was going to urge them to be closer to nature and enter into the complexity and uncertainty of the ocean. When the anchovies arrive, join the exhilaration of the animals, eat anchovies.
Then I had an epiphany. I, too, had to enter into uncertainty and complexity. I had to go to that place in myself that I feared, and only someone as loving as Danny could do that with me. I wrote Danny and opened myself like I had never done in my life. “I’m in this 100%. I feel like you are a unicorn and those don’t show up often, if ever, in life. I can’t lose you.”
Then next day, he wrote back. “…with this other person we have over many years together built a continent of a shared life that while far from perfect has had its share of wonders including three children who over the last six months I have yearned for…”
He was going back.
I fell so, so hard. I sobbed and cursed him and God. I searched for that word again, the one that meant “shocked to the core but not surprised.” But it still poleaxed me. I went to the place in myself — remembering my husband leaving, my family problems — and I believed I was malignant and unlovable at my core.
There’s an adage that you should never make major life decisions right after Burning Man. Once back in your “default life,” wait three months before moving in with the man you met atop a giant rubber duck art car.
My friends and family gathered around me, and poured love and wine into me. My Aunt Kaye comforted me. “You are loved,” she said. “It’s everywhere around you. Just let it in.”
Shannon invited me and other friends over to her houseboat on the night of the lunar eclipse. She put out a glass decanter of red wine. “I’ve had this bottle saved for a special event,” she said.
It was silky and delicious. More friends came over. We drank, and talked, and sat on the roof and watched the moon turn orange as it got further away, until it shrunk into a distant lit sliver. We drank even more as we discussed Danny and the relationship he went back to, and I somehow decided that calling his mother was the right thing to do.
“Do not call the guy’s mother,” warned my friend Dave.
Dave’s wife, Kristine, disagreed with him. “If he’s going back to an abusive relationship, then calling his mother is the compassionate thing to do.”
“Don’t do it,” Dave said. “He’s not a victim here.”
Dave distracted us with a boat ride on the bay. With the moonlight streaming down on us, I acknowledged that his statement was true. Danny had gotten exactly what he wanted and I had merely been the catalyst for it.
A week later, I finally got to the place where I could talk with him.
“Keep your heart open and other men will see what I did and come flocking,” Danny said. He went on to explain that he couldn’t choose me. We’d never had the mundane together, only magic. We just couldn’t know if this would work.
This pep talk didn’t make me feel better. I had lost. He chose being with a woman who clearly disliked him over being with me. I couldn’t find an upside in that for any of us. His kind words felt vaguely patronizing and extremely naive.
“Isn’t uncertainty better sometimes?” I asked. “We don’t know what this could have been between us. But you have a good idea what you’re going back to.”
“People can change,” he said. “She promised to see a therapist.”
But he was right about some things. I looked around my house. I still hadn’t installed racks in my closet and my clothes were in piles on the floor. The everyday wasn’t my strong suit. But in our short time, he had experienced me broken in almost every possible way, and it hadn’t dissuaded him.
My friend Luke had been through two divorces that involved young children. He was my go-to when trying to understand why Danny would go back. Luke called me up one Friday. “Let’s go for a swim in the bay, and contemplate the ways we’ve disappointed ourselves this week.”
We swam at clubs that sat on a bay at Aquatic Park in San Francisco. Just about every Friday, we strolled into the chilly waters, feeling the slap of choppy waves against our bare thighs, the tugs of tides. Swimming the cold, murky waters was a regular lesson in leaving my comfort zone and moving through the unknown. Grebes dove into the water around me and a seal swam under me, a stealthy black shadow. I swam until my digits were numb, shoulders sore, and soul revived. Afterwards, we sat on the dock and watched the sun set behind the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Am I unlovable?” I asked him.
“Darling, you are totally lovable,” Luke said. “Look, our brains want resolution, and so we try to come up with it. You have to accept there is no real ‘why’ here.”
“Why didn’t he choose me?” I asked.
Luke put his arm around my shoulder. “It’s complicated,” he said. “There’s a lot of stickiness, a lot of addiction that goes on with that kind of history.” Luke paused and then chuckled. “At least you had the presence of mind to not call his mother.”
Evening light washed over the tall ships rocking gently on anchor, flushing the bay with a chalky pastel hue.
“What do you think they’re doing right now? Danny and his partner?” I asked him.
“They’re probably in a field of daffodils,” he said. “They’ve joined hands and are spinning in the setting sun.”
“And after the sun goes down?” I asked him.
He put his arm around my shoulder. “Come on, let me buy you dinner. Trust me — you don’t want any part of what’s going to take place between them.”
I thought about my brother’s death. He hadn’t died right away and was flown to the burn unit in Lubbock. The day after he did it, I called to get an update on him so my sister and I could go talk to my father, who didn’t yet know. The nurse told me that over 90% of his body had third-degree burns, and he had inhaled flames. His mortality expectancy was 200%. She had explained that they were keeping him alive until his wife arrived to say goodbye.
“Do you mind me asking, why?” the nurse asked. “I see a lot of men in here who have done this, and I just can’t understand why.”
I struggled to answer her question, but there was no simple why. And I knew that I’d have to tell his sons, again and again, how lovable they are. When people we love leave us, the “why” always feels deeply personal.
Shannon had fed me through my brother’s death, and as the initial shock of Danny was subsiding, she came by my house to commiserate. Shannon had covered stories about tuna wars in Palau and slaves on Thai fishing boats, and we collaborated on shark finning stories in Costa Rica. But while fearless at that stuff, she struggled through a lot of the same relationship strife that I did. The person she loved couldn’t love her back, and we contemplated ways to cheer ourselves up.
“Want me to help you install your closet?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m using the money I saved for it to get that hammerhead tattoo. Want to get one too?”
Shannon and I had collaborated on a story about shark finning in Costa Rica and we had scuba dived with hammerheads around Cocos Island. I hadn’t had much diving experience before that, and these were very deep dives in waters with swift, strong currents. Sharks sense heartbeats; this is how they know whether to hunt or hide. Hammerheads are so skittish that a scared heartbeat can scare them off. Waiting at a pinnacle 80 feet deep, I calmed my heart down as much as possible. The first one arrived with a thunderbolt scar on her from mating. Small barber fish darted out and nibbled her parasites off. My heart went wild and she left. I didn’t know if my heartbeat had scared her off, or she was leaving anyway.
Looking for the right tattoo artist brings the issue of regret to the surface. As I searched the internet, there were as many ads for “tattoo removal” as there were for “tattoos.” I thought that maybe the painful etching would obliterate the hurt inside me, replace the crash of dopamine, the visceral pain concentrated in my solar plexus. Or conversely, I wondered whether I was trying to fix regret with something I would also regret.
In order to get the time off from childcare, Danny told his ex that he was dating me. At first she told him that she couldn’t care less; a day later, she wanted him back.
I had really wanted to experience Big Sur with Danny. This stretch of churning Pacific Ocean reminded me of God and death, in a sort of lost-in-infinity so-beautiful-it-hurts way. If Danny and I had gone to this abyss of endless possibility, there would have been no turning back. We could have taken that deep, deep dive where we risked real heartbreak.
And that was my lingering regret — not that I fell for a guy who wasn’t fully available, who had so much baggage, who went back to his ex as he’d indicated he wanted to all along. My regret is that at the Temple Burn I told him, “I’m afraid you are going to break my heart.” He responded in kind. So we didn’t go to Big Sur, and my heart was broken all the same. That night at the Temple, I should have said to him, “I am going to trust you,” and meant it. And maybe if he had then trusted me, we could have taken the deep dive together and things would have worked out differently.
At Cocos Island, on my final dive the show started almost immediately. Hammerheads! I then looked up to see a huge school of them, their bodies swaying in the current, layers and layers of them, like an echo through the water. I thought it couldn’t get more amazing, but when I paused about 30 feet from the surface for a safety stop, a shoal of hammerheads appeared below me. My heart pounded. Then I saw their swaying bodies all around me and a few were even above me. I was in the middle of a school of hammerheads. I never worried, not for a second, that they might hurt me. Rather, I was suspended in a state of grace, and my heart almost exploded at the joy.
* * *
Maria Finn is the author of many essays, articles, short stories, and five books, including the memoir, Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home, published by Algonquin books, and optioned for a television series by Fox Studios.
Editor: Sari Botton