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Wednesday 26 October 2016

Confessions of a reluctant bohemian

Published 03/10/2016 | 02:30

Brendan O’Connor
Brendan O’Connor

My father has a saying on his wedding anniversary, as the many years he has been married to one woman accumulate: "What's the alternative?"

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We laugh at it but there is a deeper point in there, isn't there? What's the alternative? If you don't want a long-term partnership to feel like a prison, you have to feel like it's a choice. And if it is a choice you make, then you probably have to ask yourself now and then what the alternative is.

I had an unexpected 'what's the alternative' moment recently when I was walking to work. I accidentally shared eye contact and then a smile with a woman. She looked, I thought, like a bohemian. She looked a bit epic. Tough, beautiful, strong, wilful, free-spirited, possibly contrary and difficult. She looked like a fantasy from a Woody Allen movie. And for a second, I thought to myself that that was the kind of girl I used to go for. And I wondered for a second if I would have a more exciting life if I had ended up with one of those girls. Maybe I would be travelling the world, living on a beach. Maybe I would be some form of artist or creative person.

And in another split second I remembered that I liked those kind of girls but it didn't always go smoothly. Like many of us in our college years, I dipped my toes in the shallows of the bohemian life. Leonard Cohen in bedsits, Sartre, free-thinking, casual carry-on, mild dabbling. But I remembered, too, that ultimately, I would always retire to the comfort of suburbia, to the straight life. I was always a bourgeois boy deep down. I kicked against it now and then with my bohemian flirtations, but my heart was ultimately square.

I remembered very quickly, too, that as much as I was attracted to these difficult women who seemed free to me, I was more difficult than them. I drove them nuts more than they drove me nuts. And it never lasted very long. And the highs were giddy but the lows were bleak. Maybe I had a touch of a bohemian nature, but my suburban nurture would always trump it. Boringly, the manifestation of the chaos of bohemia that usually got to me was the untidiness of the bohemian environment.

In general, I was Brad Pitt in these situations. Brad put up with life with a free-spirited bohemian for longer than most would have, but the corn-fed boy from the Midwest won out eventually. Brad, on some level, believes in discipline over chaos. Maybe Brad even believes that there is a greater freedom in a life that has a certain discipline. I know I do. Not only kids, but adults, respond well to routine. And routine makes it all the more fun to break out now and then.

And then I remembered that I did end up marrying a free-spirited, at times difficult, not quite bohemian but definitely contrarian woman. And I realised that if I walked past her in the street and caught her eye I would probably see that steely glint, the strength, the wilfulness, and perhaps I would wonder how my life would turn out if I ended up with her.

She tells me we have now been together for 20 years. Like Bertie in the cupboard, I find myself thinking, 'I never thought I'd end up here'. When you're young you tend to go through a series of infatuations, which have a limited lifespan before they peter out. And then at some stage you make the choice to go beyond that, into a different phase. There have been many phases in the last 20 years and there have been many points where we have had to choose to stay together, from engagement to marriage, to kids, to all sorts of other things that life throws at you. But we seem to have chosen to stay here so far.

Not that we have to. Certainly kids makes the idea of splitting up a more drastic proposition. But still, I would like to think that we don't feel trapped, that we make a choice to stay every so often. I'd like to think, too, we haven't lost the charge, of two wilful people, two difficult people. We fight, we are stubborn at times, we drive each other crazy. But mostly we get on well and she's cool, and somewhere fundamentally, I think we share a certain set of values, some of them bourgeois, some of them a bit more bohemian. And somewhere deep down I think we both ask every now and then, 'what's the alternative?' And we choose the status quo, and a clean, tidy house. For now. But you always have choice in this world, and that's the important bit to remember so that life does not become a trap.

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