Monday, December 12, 2016

Being Okay: A Personal History

Reflections on the complexities of comfortable relationships and on becoming an adult with someone, then without someone.

Being Okay Illustration
Collage by Holly Hilgenberg.

Angela sent me a Tom Waits record. That was the first time I thought I might give in and agree to move to Minneapolis from the wastelands of suburban Pennsylvania. It was the summer of 2005—the last time I still had a designated bedroom in my parents’ house. I had just graduated from college, it was hot, and I did not have a desk. I set my laptop, which was my default stereo, on a wooden TV tray that I took from the den. The speakers fit, but just barely. I would crouch over the entire setup, which was pushed up against a bookshelf, as I sat in a rolling office chair that was probably advertised as “the perfect addition to your workstation!” My arrangement was definitely not a workstation. It was a laptop on a tiny, wobbly table. My favorite song on that Tom Waits album was the one about pirates, and I listened to it a lot, thinking about my prospects with Angela. Everybody has moments when they realize how loved they are, but as I listened to Waits growl and bark I marveled at the brute fact of this gift Angela had sent me, apropos of nothing: an album that she would never really like but knew I would love.

We had been dating since our freshman year at a teeny-tiny liberal arts college outside Philadelphia. Angela came from a rural part of Maine, which, when I first met her, still seemed like a place occupied by landscape photographers. I had visited the state on a tour of Northeast colleges during my senior year of high school, but only remembered the coast—as if the entire region were just a postcard. Angela was a little bit of a tomboy and liked to say that her friends had always been boys. Not that she was some sort of cursing, hard-drinking, tobacco-chewing hayseed. She was, on the contrary, one of the first people I ever met who had intelligent, sincere opinions about union organization and popular education. She spoke Spanish. She had lived and worked on an organic farm, before that kind of thing was trendy. I spoke a bit of German, could read Latin, was the son of a philosophy professor, and had opinions about things like how “Moby-Dick” was a pretty neat book.

There was an ease about her, too. I think it was confidence, but she was also warm and one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. Long, curly dark hair, petite: she was also, I feared, too attractive to agree that going on a date with me was a socially acceptable choice. Men are always saying things like that about women, so, yes, I admit it. I am a man, and I am always saying things like that. We ended up having spaghetti at some pseudo-Olive Garden place, which I’m willing to bet was hideous and not very tasty. I think I was in love with her practically from the moment she agreed to go to dinner, but you’re not supposed to admit things like that.

College was hard. The stress of the work and the difficulty of social interaction irked me. I was gregarious and needed to work hard, but Angela became that person I didn’t feel I was performing for. What made our relationship lasting and stable for me was something that doesn’t seem particularly stable on its own—I was always spilling my guts for her, always letting her now how anxious I was when I couldn’t really express it to anyone else. Since I hadn’t invented my own way of dealing with the world yet, Angela became that spur to rational perspective. Also, we were similarly inclined to keep our relationship private. She didn’t like public displays of affection any more than I did. It felt like we had our own little world going on next to the one with parties and classes and other people. This all sounds exaggerated, and it probably is. A person is not a crutch, but in some basic way, the people you’re closest to are the ones who are most “useful,” who reflexively talk to you on such an intimate level that you never feel like you’re asking for help, even when you are. That’s the whole point of a relationship, anyway: the safety of vulnerability. Certain people are able to make you feel that they can take you on, carry you when you need it. The Beatles have a song about it, and that means it’s real.

But we mostly had a lot of fun. My roommates and I used to do extraordinarily stupid things, like turn our shared living room space into a human hamster cage, strewing unfolded newspapers all over the floor and writing messages in permanent marker on the walls. Frankly, hamsters are smarter than we were because rodents don’t ever get themselves into a situation where they have to pay to have a living room repainted. It’s really expensive, and your parents are not happy about it. I can’t say that Angela thought stunts like this were always hilarious—she was one of the people who pointed out that the apartment would begin to smell like an actual animal cage, which it did—but she was always around, game for another joke.

Once I woke up next to her, maybe when we were sophomores, and complained about some paper I had to write, or some shift at the campus library I had to work.

“You know what this is?” she asked, rubbing her thumb and index finger together.

I didn’t.

“The world’s smallest violin,” she said and laughed. College feels like it was a lot of conversations like that, the two of us, in a room with no one else, which is basically what a good relationship is.

When we graduated, we didn’t want to break up, so we began a protracted negotiation about where we might settle together. Angela had two close friends who had moved to Minneapolis from Maine and Iowa, where they had been in school. And after a couple bad job interviews on the East Coast, Angela thought Minnesota was the kind of adventure that might also be a genuine opportunity. I didn’t know these friends all that well, though, and Minneapolis was 1,119 miles away, according to Google Maps. I had no idea what English majors were supposed to do after college. Did they all just die off, making room for the more productive members of society? I tried half-heartedly to apply for a job at a local newspaper—hardly a youthful enterprise in the sad, post-industrial part of Pennsylvania where I grew up. But inertia compelled me to tell Angela no. I didn’t want to start over from scratch in the Midwest.

Instead of in the newsroom, I worked at Pizza Hut. I would report to work at six or seven in the morning, trying the whole time not to imagine what it would be like to get my fingers caught in the metal rollers that violently smushed the lumps of sticky dough into pizza-shape. When I was feeling particularly upset with my situation, I would pretend I had to go to the bathroom and then stand there in front of the mirror. Not for a long time, like in a movie. Just a few seconds longer than necessary. I really hated the way I looked in my uniform. It stank of flour, too. I hadn’t really known that flour had a smell. One of my coworkers, a high school student who seemed to think it was cool and yet pathetic that I was a college graduate, once tried to tell me a couple of very anti-Semitic jokes. He did this after it somehow came up that my girlfriend, Angela, was Jewish. My rationale for staying in Pennsylvania was pretty weak.

She sent me the Tom Waits album after we had spent a weekend together in Boston, the halfway point between our parents’ houses. Being in Boston felt a lot more like a real life than the slow-motion depression of Pennsylvania. Shuttling back and forth between home and Pizza Hut was the opposite of what I expected of myself, yet I had just let it happen. Minneapolis, slowly but surely, became the open possibility of getting up to speed, making a decision I could actually be happy with. So, in October, Angela came and stayed at my parents’ house for a week, while I selected what shit I was dragging along with me. Then we loaded our cars and made a four-day trip to the North Star State.

We arrived in Minneapolis two days before Halloween, found an apartment by the next week, had jobs in three weeks, and then started toiling away in that everyday cycle of groceries, furniture-buying, apartment-decorating, and paycheck-cashing. An old man overheard us in a secondhand furniture store discussing a battered bookshelf we thought was priced a little high. He butted into our conversation and offered us some old bookshelf that he had in his garage, way cheap, so we followed him to his house, loaded it into his van, and I still own it today. For a long time afterward Angela would come across “Bookshelf Hugh” in her phone. We would forget for a second who that was.

When I saw Angela recently—for probably the fourth time in the three years since we broke up—she told me a really dumb story I had forgotten. We were discussing the class I am currently teaching, and I was probably talking about feeling awkward as the center of attention in a classroom. She reminded me about how one time in college I farted really loudly in German class. A classmate started laughing and pointing at me, and my professor, unable or unwilling to pretend I wasn’t mortified, decided the hell with it and proceeded to tell a long story about teaching his first class and grotesquely sneezing into his own hand as he was lecturing. Maybe this is why I feel uncomfortable as the focal point of a class’s attention? Anyway, this story was the benign and neutral stuff that existed between me and Angela now. Our relationship was always predicated on a basic capacity to talk to each other, without running out of conversational momentum and energy.

Our breakup was sad yet quiet, a mutual decision. The growing apart is as certain and subtle as the growing together. I could never explain it. I remember trying to, sitting in my car outside our apartment, talking on the phone to a friend back home. It was foggy. I had called him out of sheer desperation, not knowing where advice was supposed to come from anymore.

My father once told me he thought that Angela would accidentally get pregnant, and then she and I would get married, which is a lot like saying, Son, I think you are going to make a huge mistake and then live with it for the rest of your life. But Angela and I had lived together for years, making it work. That’s what we were happy choosing. Seeing her again made me realize a profound okay-ness. Not triumphant, not nostalgic, and not even “just” okay. It was simply that we had, in breaking up, made the right choice.

After I moved out of the apartment we shared, I lived for a little while in the spare bedroom of a friend. She and her boyfriend left me alone while I muddled my way through the end of my first semester of graduate school, did freelance editorial work for a magazine, and began an obsessive tear of watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I took an incomplete in one of my seminars and found a new place to live, with two Craigslist roommates.

At the end of a five-plus-year relationship, it came as a surprise to me that I was still a real person, living in a real place—and with actual responsibilities. I had always thought that you were an adult when you had abandoned the proper amount of stuff: cities, apartments, jobs, schools, and, most painfully and inevitably, people. I didn’t reckon how normal and unexceptional it would be to get over the weirdly alienated feeling of a relationship’s end. Some people have college relationships that fall apart before graduation. Others seem to find lasting attachments after college. For those who move between the undergrad microcosm and the real world with a committed partner, there is a unique continuity break. You are accustomed to having a long, even, continuous personal history. Then, all of a sudden, you just have a past. It may be silly stories or just random details, but it’s how you became okay with everything.