I was putzing around on Facebook the other day and discovered that my old running buddy, Bob, got engaged last month. And I will not lie, I was totally crestfallen. On my Feelings Meter (where one end is labeled with glittery gold lettering, “Happy for Bob! Yay!” and the other with, “Crazy Jealous Like a Pathetic Stereotypical Chick Lit Cat Lady”), the indicator is decidedly right of center, and fluttering wildly.
Engagement is a sensitive topic in our household. See, I don’t give a rat’s ass about tradition and I don’t really care for the whole formal proposal with three months salary riding on my ring finger bit. We’ve made the decision to get married. We’ve even marked the five year calendar with when we’re going to start adding kids to this whole chaotic mess. We have a joint savings account. In short, we make every decision together. But this one? This one, because tradition says so, is entirely up to him. And he couldn’t be in any less of a hurry to make it.
And it stings. Mightily.
I hear his reasons for waiting – he doesn’t like where he is financially at all and his Man Pride won’t let him bend that knee until he feels better about it. He wants to pay cash for the ring. And while I hear his reasons – and understand them in their universality slightly better after talking to my similarly-minded brother (there is, apparently, a very insightful Little House on the Prairie episode in which Almanzo temporarily cancels his engagement to Laura over money issues) – they do nothing to quiet the discontent I feel over the matter. I’m broke and in debt, too. But what’s that to do with love? I don’t need to be provided for – I’ve been doing a damn good job of that all by myself.
When we initially talked about moving in together, I said I’d like to be engaged first. Not as a rule, but as a preference. He had other ideas. Namely, that he thought we’d live together for six months or so and then get engaged. That didn’t seem unreasonable to me at all. So now here it is, one year later, and I’m keeping house and making dinners and picking up step-dog poop and folding laundry and helping with homework – playing the housewife without the title. I do all of these things gladly, but the lack of forward motion in our relationship makes me feel like a bunch of old ladies are sitting around somewhere tsk-ing about how he’s gettin’ the milk for free. He’s not moving forward because he has very little incentive to.
Except, you know, for being in love and excited about our future and wanting to.
The part of me that doesn’t fully understand Man Pride has been unable to help feeling that if he were as excited about us as he used to be, money wouldn’t matter. I don’t want a diamond ring. I don’t. Period. Because that’s not where our priorities should be right now, or really any time within the next five years. He’s in school. We’re in debt. But what I want is for our plans to be official and public. And, yes, I suppose I do care that we look legitimate to the rest of the world. He doesn’t, but I do. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I do.
Also – and I’m fully aware of how selfish this sounds – I’d like a little something for me. Something to be excited about. Our lives right now revolve, with minor interruptions, around dog excrement and school work. Investing in my beloved’s future is an investment in our future and so I’m happy to revisit fractions, edit English compositions and research Mt. Rushmore, but some days it feels like, in playing the supporting role, I have very little to look forward to for myself.
He loves me. Unquestionably. I know how much I matter to him. We’re happy together. And in my brain, I know that’s more important – that’s most important. But there’s another part – the heart part of me – that doesn’t know anything except that there used to be something so exquisitely special in feeling like we were terribly in love and couldn’t wait to spend forever together. And the more he hesitates, the less special I feel.
Like I said, it stings. Mightily.
In the last year, much of his beard has lost its color and become shock white against his pale skin. His face is broader, cheeks hang flattened and deeply creased. His hands shake noticeably – a fact he seems to try to showcase, rather than conceal. I watch as he plays it up and then scans the table for a reaction.
I look quickly back at my own plate. I do not want to play this game. With this man I hardly recognize.
When he accuses his children of selling him out – amid rants about the government, his ex wife and the gun he keeps beneath his pillow – he grows stranger and stranger. From his mouth pours paranoia and self-pity and from his eyes, nothing. At times, the color grays out of them, leaving them pale and cloudy, like those of newborns and the dying.
I sit, pressing the tips of my fingernails into the flesh of my palm, trying not to feel the sickness that is ripping through my gut. Who are you… I think, searching for the familiar. And where did my father go?
Had we never met, I wouldn’t have found him alarming. Only unbalanced and odd, a statistic of an earlier war. But now he’s frightening and foreign.
One moment, he is calm and sentimental and the next, irrational and angry. His children – who were a sentence before, his heartbeat – are now cruel traitors in a plot to undermine and hurt him. I do not know whether to be furious or distraught. I do not make up my mind. Instead, I hiccup for the next several hours, my body unable to suppress the upset.
A year has made him a stranger. There are very few remnants of the man I knew in this man with the wiry mane and distant stare. In this profound absence, I feel as though there’s been a death. With so much loss to contend with, each new encounter becomes a small funeral. I find myself wearing sackcloth and ashes, and my emotions so close to the surface I’m sweating grief. And lacking a corpse, I’m forced instead to bury my expectations and my need for the way things were.
The wind was in my favor last night. Walking up Second Avenue, the breeze caught my skirt just enough to produce the Donna Reid effect – a perfect halo of pale pink cotton and silk as my heels clicked uptown toward home.
Girl, I think as I consider maybe doing a pirouette under the street light.
At dinner, though, it was different. The gazpacho was served and as I slid my spoon in backwards to take a bite, a pair of eyes lit up across the table.
“You just… did you see how she eats her soup?” Chris turned to Mike. He was beaming at me, one hand to his chest, almost in reverence. And I knew, right then, that was how he thinks Julie Andrews eats her soup. “It’s just so… refined!”
Woman, I think as I consider maybe sending my mother a thank-you for years of etiquette dinners.
When a friend asked me the other day whether I was a girl or a woman, I questioned first his reason for asking and second, my reason for answering, both. Some days, to be honest, I just don’t know.
When I’m at work, I’d tell you woman, for sure. There’s no room for girl at that conference room table on Monday mornings. Likewise, when I’m paying bills, I am woman.
I am girl when it’s late, and I am lonely and the only person I want to talk to is my mother and the only place I want to be is home, even though neither exists the way I remember them anymore. And I am girl when I smile and say nothing even though my brain is screaming. I am girl about texture and color and touch.
I am woman about how I budget, who I love and what I decide to keep. I am woman when I ask hard questions and refuse to accept easy answers.
Girl when I cry. Woman when I kiss. Both when I laugh.
It’s one of the more difficult things about growing up – fitting into one or the other, and I actually get nervous about one day defining myself completely as woman. Will there be no more pirouettes and pink? More responsibility and resolution?
I don’t know. For right now though, I’m wont to think that both is a good fit, and that maybe, just maybe there was something insightful about that Britney Spears song.
I kid about the song. Mostly.
We lounge around the living room on the hand-me-down white leather couches, the five of us in various states of vegetation and the newest PS2 game blaring on the TV. The lights are off. My back is to the arched entrance of the front hall where I sit cross-legged in the center of the long sofa watching Billy kill gang members.
“Use the firebombs,” Jonathan tells him. “They’re better in a crowd.”
The doorbell rings and index fingers fly to noses. Cece’s fingers are busy moving through a copy of Maxim, and for the second time tonight, she’s lost a game of One-Two-Three Not It. Annoyed, she flips us off, takes the pile of bills from the coffee table and comes back a minute or two later with our food.
“I hope I tipped him.” Cece is a little stoned.
“Thanks, Cheech.” Bryan tugs playfully at one of his girlfriend’s long blond curls, and swats her on the butt as she bends over the coffee table for her calzone. She’s wearing a thin white tank top and I can see every bone in her back. She’s too thin.
“Bry! Stop!” She says something about her fat ass and we all get quiet. Jonathan rolls his eyes and whispers something about hoping that calzone tastes as good coming up as it does going down. Billy doesn’t even look away from the 52-inch screen.
Bryan simply belches in response.
“Lacked bass,” I say. “I give it a six.”
“Tell us a story, Wendy Lady,” Bryan says.
It’s late now, and we’ve gone back into the ‘chill out room’ to lounge some more and get high in the blue glow of the saltwater tank. The pipe is passed my way and I wave it off. I’ve lost interest in pot. I’m the youngest one in the house; everyone else will be turning thirty within the year. But being the sober one makes me something of a mother hen. Or to Bryan, a Wendy for these lost boys.
I tell them about almost being arrested in Spain. No one believes I’ve ever done anything remotely subversive and they’re intrigued. When I get to the part about the public nudity, Jonathan announces that he is going to bed. He gets to the door and looks my way.
I nod, and climb out of my warm spot on the sofa, but Billy protests. The story has just gotten good! Jonathan has now become The Big Ruiner. The nickname will stick.
“Which season?” Jonathan asks, sliding a wife beater over his head as he shuffles through CDs. He can’t fall asleep if it’s too quiet, a habit I’ll be left with for some time after we stop seeing each other.
I step over piles of laundry and crawl into his bed. As I pull my long dark hair into a ponytail, I notice several blonde strands on the navy pillowcase. I say nothing. The most very lost of the Lost Boys. Not classy enough to be Peter Pan, though. The others feel sorry for me, I know, and wonder why I put up with it. But it’s like Bryan said, I’ll leave when I’ve had enough. Even Wendy finally abandoned Neverland when she got tired of the games.
Vivaldi fills the corners of the dark bedroom. Jonathan slips his hand around my stomach and crooks his leg over my hip. He breathes into my hair.
It’s January. I’ll be gone by mid-February.
He’ll force my hand with the strawberry blonde we meet in New Hampshire on Valentine’s Day, never bothering to lie about it. Then I’ll leave, resenting growing up less, because Neverland is a place that requires a certain amount of naivete to sustain its charm.
And it will be a very long time before I’m able to play make-believe again.
There are some moments that might seem as though they never happened in the first place. A minute, an hour, a day – a span of time – where you wish you could have stepped out of yourself to view it from the outset. It was just that beautiful.
If you pay close enough attention, sometimes you actually realize, just know, in the middle of one of those beautiful moments that you’re part of a solitary occurrence, mitigated by time, place and coincidence. By fate. A first breath, a first kiss, a first time you realize the world actually can be beautiful and perfect, if only for that one moment. And you also know it’s not going to happen just that way ever again.
So your heart takes a snapshot, if you pause to let it. And then you will always remember exactly the way the sunlight fell, or a specific shade of blue, or the hum of the refrigerator or the smell of clean cotton. Or the details of someone else’s skin.
The picture, the details are yours to keep, for when you’re immersed in darkness and blues are blacks, and the refrigerator drives you crazy with its constant buzzing, and it seems you’ve lost your sense of smell. And you miss the details of someone else’s skin.
What is most intriguing about these snapshots is how easily they can provide a measure of comfort as well as one of regret – of lost opportunities, broken connections and irretrievable time.
Years ago, I witnessed the birth of my sister and my heart froze the moment she inhaled her first breath and exhaled her first cry. But it could not freeze time altogether. She’s now in college. And years later, I unexpectedly fell in love and recognized it the very moment that I inhaled a single kiss and exhaled a sigh – one that was somehow left with my heart attached to it. And I remember stopping to take a picture, knowing all too well that it was not to happen exactly that way ever again. It was overwhelming and tender and mournful.
If I had to explain, even to myself, how I felt at those moments, it could take a thousand words (as is the going exchange rate between such commodities), or it could take very few. A name. A date. A song. The color azure. The word inevitable.
Life may not be replete with the moments that pause your soul, the vivid memories of which cause your heart beat differently, or make it hard to swallow. And all the better. Much of the beauty of those moments lies in their rarity – in the awe of being in the right place, at the right time, a partaker in coincidence. And in finding a reason to believe in fate.