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Gary North Headshot

The Map

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The short, simple email arrived unexpectedly not long ago, without fanfare or warning, settling low and inconspicuously amid my ever-mounting pile of received electronic missives. It was from a bi-accepting straight ex-lover whom I hadn't heard from in decades. What had prompted her to write was the finding of a map we had apparently utilized to cross the country to our new home.

That map and that journey would prove to be transformative as we set out on our lives together. For one thing we were both rather new at this.

My companion was several years younger than I, but I didn't realize just how much younger because, in part, she seemed so self-assured and mature, whereas I was in my mid-20s and immature (and didn't realize just how much, either). Our approximately two-year relationship was intense, tempestuous, and life-altering (for me), but she rightly ended it for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that although I was well-meaning and sincere, I was also an inept, boorish clod of a lover and also had unintentionally become a jerk. (Amazing how "romance" can affect a person.)

And there was another wrinkle: right from the start, we agreed to have an open relationship. She was, I recall, the first girlfriend I had come out to as both bisexual and actively nonmonogamous -- stridently, insistently so -- and she still accepted me, which, of course, endeared her to me all the more, but she quickly discovered that the reality of my sexual predilections was way too unsettling, regardless of which gender I was with and how open-minded she was. At last I realized I would lose her if I continued to practice my unique form of affirmative action and diversity, so I silently vowed to set aside my long-standing, idealized beliefs and practices -- but it was too late.

After we parted, I tried repeatedly to stay in touch with her, but eventually I accepted that she truly wanted no more contact with me. I let go, emotionally, lost track of her, and moved on.

Then, suddenly, I find this email as I near retirement age.

A sea of mixed emotion crested and crashed upon me: delight, suspicion, joy, curiosity, melancholia, bitterness, wistfulness, amazement, and, finally, delight and wistfulness again... and even a sense of contentment and serenity: we had both survived our mutual young-adult ordeal and, in our own ways, had found fulfillment and happiness. And apparently my bi-ness itself was still not an issue.

But what about that map that had led to this electronic reunion? It had sat, I presume, forgotten and unused for a generation or more, tucked away, I suppose, in a shoebox or classic plastic blue AAA TripTik pouch before recently resurfacing at my ex-companion's home. She had kept it all these years, perhaps unknowingly, squirreled away as it possibly was, or she had purposely held onto it because it was still useful and accurate; after all, the U.S. national highway system's routes haven't changed all that much in the intervening years. It was a utilitarian, functional "device," vital in those pre-GPS days, but now a relic, an artifact, an anachronism.

In retrospect, though, I now see that it was also a map to our anticipated future together.

And I would like to think, wistfully again, that she also kept it because maybe, just maybe, she had a slight sentimental attachment to it, a document from her personal history that she could now pass along to her children, or perhaps (and this is highly unlikely) an emotional tether to me, or at least a memento or souvenir of our time together.

No, I'm guessing that's not it -- unless it's a cautionary one: stick to the map you make for your life's path, don't take too many detours, and don't deviate from your goals.

In any case, the unexpected email has tapped a well of long-forgotten memories and thoughts -- good and bad -- among them what it means to be bi-accepting, bi-understanding, bi-supportive, and bi-affirming. That our relationship disintegrated for reasons other than my sexuality per se is, in a quiet way, positive testimony of the then-young woman's integrity and, yes, love. (She even researched the subject for a college project, as I recall.)

Still flabbergasted, I shot back an excited email with a relatively short chronology of my life post-her, and she did the same a few days later about life post-me. We've traded a few more emails since, but mostly on a more existential matter: memory loss. You see, she mentioned a number of events that I can't recall -- including the fact that we took at least two trips across country, not just the one, and that we must have used that map... or did we? Maybe it was a completely different map that she used when she left without me that last time. Doesn't matter. What matters for me is that the finding of the map prompted her to find me. And it felt nice to be remembered by someone I had once held in high regard.

Then again, why now? My mind raced. Had she truly remembered me? Or had she forgotten I existed and was only now looking me up a lifetime later, thanks to the map, merely to satisfy a casual curiosity about "whatever happened to that bi guy I knew"? Was the outreach a sign of lingering affection, attraction, romance, whim, maybe even forgiveness, or perhaps just suburban boredom? I don't know, haven't asked, probably won't, afraid to find out, afraid to be disappointed -- though I'm betting on the casual curiosity factor more and laying heavy odds against the lingering romantic one.

Regardless, I have never once regretted coming out to her as bi before starting out on our journey together -- in life and on the road. I have never once felt ashamed of being bi, never once not been proud of my capacity to love without regard to gender. But, yes, I am sorry our relationship didn't last (though, truth be told, we were never terribly compatible to begin with), despite her initial acceptance of me. Nonetheless, that acceptance did more for my ego, self-esteem, personal growth, and further personal fortitude than anything else before or since. There are few feelings more transformational and transcendent than when someone to whom you are attracted in turn finds you attractive.

Her third, short, unexpected email arrived recently, thanking me for photos of my grandchildren that I had sent her, and its delivery was poignant for two reasons: it arrived just days before the 23rd anniversary of my late husband's HIV diagnosis, and it ended with the words: "I'm so glad you found happiness."

And that's when it was my turn to think about the map. Was "our" map an allegorical map to happiness after all? To redemption? To forgiveness and understanding of our sexualities and diversity? Was her finding it and then making the effort to find me after all these years somehow cosmic?

The temptation for me, of course, is to draw all sorts of hackneyed literary comparisons between bisexuality -- or sexuality of any sort -- and the folds of the map: how each is multifaceted, how there are many faces, many sides, many points of view. But that would, I think, be taking old analogies much too far.

No, the map is neither allegorical nor cosmic. It's just a map -- with one exception: maps, like lives, unfold.

Roads not taken, routes diverted, landscapes altered, terrains uneven, elevations varied. So noted. Forewarned is forearmed.

Perhaps we really can learn something about our futures -- and our lives past and present -- from a map.