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Why Not Take All of Me? by Burt Kempner

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  • I know of an undercover narcotics detective who tells himself every time he’s in a dangerous situation: “I am already dead.” He never fails to move calmly and efficiently afterward.

    I wish I’d had his cool resolve when I played at the perilous game of love. Unlike our detective, I often tripped over my own feet (usually with my own tongue). I plunged heedlessly into the fire, then cried when I got burnt. I confused brooding with nobility. A drug dealer would have made me in a moment; mature women certainly did.

    I first truly gave my heart to someone when I was a sophomore in college. She was a year younger. I had had girlfriends before that, and when the relationships invariably broke up I went into mourning for two or three days, secure in the knowledge that I’d been holding something back, that when I finally did give all of myself, there was no way I would be refused. My first love accepted the gift of the unadulterated me and returned it after a few months, considerably the worse for wear. It wasn’t her fault. She had always told me the truth about still being in love with her previous boyfriend. I just didn’t want to hear it. We got back together numerous times over the next few years. By the time of our final breakup it no longer hurt because there was so little of me left.

    Over the next eight years I lost myself in drink and dissipation. People will tell you they drink to forget, but, among other things, alcohol is an excellent preservative. I went out with scores women, but seldom the same one twice. On the morning of my 30th birthday, I awoke suddenly and propped myself up on my elbows. I was dying and I knew it, if not physically then certainly emotionally and spiritually. My breathing was ragged. Things had to change, I had to change. The tears I had banished so many years before returned unbidden and refused to stop. Portrait of the freshly-minted 30-something birthday boy bawling on his sleeper sofa: not a pretty sight. I recalled the famous words of Marshal Foch on the Eve of the Second Battle of the Marne: “My center is giving way, my right is pushed back, situation excellent, I am attacking.” I told myself that the day had come to give all of myself again, this time to life.

    When I met my wife, eight days later, I was already living.
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