I haven’t posted in over a week, in part because I have been SUPER busy, with work, more work, and school, including two Anatomy & Physiology exams (lecture and a lab practicum) in the same week. It turns out, one cannot master the entire muscular system in a single study session that begins at 4:30 AM. I still don’t know my extensor hallucis brevis from a hole in the leg*, but I knew enough to eke out a B on the test. I am proud of that.
I am also proud to have been featured as an editor’s pick on WordPress Discover, which indeed resulted in many new readers discovering this blog. Your visits have been duly noted, your follows are most welcome, and your feedback has been truly humbling. Thank you for joining me here. 🙂
As a college professor in the humanities, my job requires constant creative output, yet at the same time scholars maintain an icy nonchalance about their work. It is considered gauche to crave public attention, and we are not supposed to need positive feedback (let alone compensation) for most of what we produce. Indeed, I have published an entire book, into which I poured my heart and soul, and it generated less attention in several years than this blog has gotten in a single week. (Unfortunately, I can’t tell you about my book, because I have to write this blog anonymously, lest I incur the enmity of my peers. Academia is a little like a cult and a lot like a gang. If I get jumped out, I want it to be my choice!) According to the culture of academia, I should be nonplussed by your interest in my writing. But I’m not! I appreciate and value your visits to this space and the time you have taken to read my words. And the kind words you have written about me, my family’s situation, and my writing have lifted my spirits like a warm spring day. I am grateful.
On the other hand, positive feedback is a little scary, especially in this format. My new audience of readers is free to come and go at will, unfettered by the hassle of climbing over other people to make their escape from the theater. There is no post-purchase regret to guilt you into reading through to the end, nor is there a teacher demanding a cogent analysis of the contents. If I don’t entertain you, you’ll drop me like a dull elective class. And I will watch the bar graphs that track my views diminish like a glass being drained from the bottom. Hence, the other reason I haven’t written recently: I don’t want to disappoint my new readers.
I’ve thought it over, though, and I’ve decided, “Screw that.” The project of the blog remains: This is a space for me to figure stuff out. Hard stuff, like:
If I do flee from academia, like a rebel pilot fleeing the exploding Death Star, where do I land? What do I do for a living? How do I finally get a dishwasher for my kitchen?
If I stay in academia, how do I make teaching and research meaningful again?
In my personal life, how do I nurture my family through my parents’ final years?
How do I meet a nice man who wants to have adult wrestling time in addition to, not instead of, taking me to dinner?
If my life stories are so interesting to other people, why am I so bored?
And, most urgently, what will make me happy?
If I wrote this blog like I’ve lived much of my life, I would remain paralyzed by indecision over what would irritate a bunch of strangers least. Or, as I put it in a plaintive Facebook post during a low ebblast year, ” ‘I don’t want to let you down’ has been the operating principle of my life, but I’ve never actually said it to myself.”
I am going to keep writing. And I am going to keep writing for me, because that’s all I know how to do. I can promise honesty. I can promise stories. They won’t always be interesting, but they will be interesting often enough. That’s just how life is.
Though, my mother used to say that my life is like “The Perils of Pauline”–a cliffhanger at every turn. My dad used to say I was a shit magnet. In fact, he said it again last night.Sigh.
As I look back on the last 30 or so years, I do seem to have had a lot of drama.
That’s ok! I don’t mind being compared to Pauline. Whether you’re talking about the original 1914 silent serials, the 1933 serial remakes, or the 1947 film that charmed my mother as a little girl, Pauline is always a plucky, adventurous single woman whose dire straits are the natural consequence of trying to lead an interesting life. She survives dangling from a hot air balloon, being tied up in a burning house, being tied to railroad tracks, and hanging from a cliff–always just long enough for her beau to rescue her.
I can relate, except for that last part. I am usually the one who gets me into trouble, but I am always the one who gets me out. This blog, like the undergraduate courses I’ve been taking, is the present manifestation of that process: a bobby pin to pick the lock, if you will, or a shard of glass to cut the rope. That buzzsaw has gotten awfully close, and it may yet cause me a few split ends, but I am getting out of this sawmill one way or another!
Because I don’t want to let me down.
* Speaking of a hole in the leg, remind me to tell you about my one-legged criminal boyfriend sometime. He was (and looked) so much older than me that he pretended to have lost his leg in Vietnam! In fact, his best friend shot him on a drunken hunting trip. It strained their relationship, sure, but they were good by the time I met them. In fact, my boyfriend was impersonating the best friend–something about arrest warrants–when we met. The one-legged criminal was the first of two men I have dated who claimed to be someone else. Like I said, stories…
We were just two friends having a friendly drink at the bar. At the time, I did not understand what was happening: I was with a man looking to cheat on his wife.
We met at a conference a few weeks prior. I was in my third year on the tenure track and still in that hopeful, terrified stage of a young academic’s career. A dear colleague of mine was very ill. He was a mentor, a kind and encouraging dad-like presence at my job, who also happened to be nationally known in our profession. We knew he was in the hospital, and we were on tenterhooks awaiting word. His prognosis was not good, and yet we were hopeful. No matter how cynical, how cerebral we are, hope stirs us. But often we only realize its supreme presence in our lives when it is finally gone.
I was in the airport waiting to board a flight to a conference when I got the email. My colleague was dead. I was sick at heart and considered hopping in a cab and going home. But then I thought about what he would want for me, about how much he believed in me, and how foolish he would regard any maudlin displays of grief. I got on the plane.
This was one of those conferences that’s by invitation only, there were fancy people there, and it was all paid for–a real boon to the CV for a junior scholar trying to make her name. When my flight landed, there was a guy with a sign with my name on it waiting for me, just like in the movies. We were ferried around like that for a couple of days, staying in a nice hotel, then being driven to various sites for tours and talks and dinners. It was, professionally speaking, a Big Deal.
Unfortunately, I was not in quite the right frame of mind to capitalize on the opportunity, which began with cocktails and dinner in an upscale steakhouse, the kind whose bar is filled with leather chairs with brass studs and oil paintings of cowboys. I am shy and introverted by nature, so a party at which I don’t know anyone is challenging. Make it a party that’s 90 percent men, most of whom are middle-aged or older, in a professional context, and you’ve created my nightmare scenario. Normally I handle such situations by clinging to a wall, carefully observing, and spending lots of time in the ladies’ room. It gets you nothing, but it costs nothing too. In this case, though, I was still in shock over the death of my friend, so I tried a different coping strategy: booze.
I am a lightweight, and it only takes two drinks on an empty stomach to get me drunk. By dinner, I was pretty toasted. I barely spoke to my table mates and focused instead on the many challenges of not looking drunk. I struggled to stab those pesky cherry tomatoes, chasing them across my salad plate with my fork as the guest speaker droned on. The little tabs of butter in foil wrappers likewise befuddled me. It’s a wonder I didn’t require stitches from trying to cut my steak.
Eventually they herded us back onto the shuttle bus for the return to the hotel. I was so eager to leave, and so disinterested in talking to anyone, that I was first to board. I took the front row, the one with an expansive view of the road, and rested my head against the window as the other conference goers filed past the empty seat beside me. Despite myriad alternatives for seating, a man sat down next to me. I stirred from my reverie to acknowledge him.
I don’t recall if there was an opening line, but I do recall a moment where I felt like I was standing at the edge of a canyon and thinking, “What the fuck do I care? I’m gonna see if I can make it across.”
He was an officer in the Air Force, about 50 but fit as hell, handsome, and clean cut, like he had been poured into a mold labeled “ideal white masculinity circa 1960.” He was wearing a natty suit and projecting just the slightest air of nonchalance. I could smell it.
“I’m not really into this conference,” I said. “I feel like I am somewhere else.”
It was an enormously risky thing for me to say, because no one was wearing name tags. I did not know who was who at the conference, meaning I had no awareness of who could help–or jettison–my career. Showing human frailty in that situation was an invitation to judgment, not just of me as an individual but of all women in my field, who labor against the usual offensive stereotype that emotions cloud our reason. And it was personally risky, to display that kind of vulnerability. Rejection, even from a total stranger, only serves to deepen the well of loneliness we are drowning in.
On the other hand, I am also aware that when you are brave enough to reach out, fate often provides a person willing to reach back. I learned that lesson in the most powerful way years before, when I was in graduate school. I was going through a horrific breakup that taxed my ability just to breathe, let alone keep my teaching job. One day I taught my class, returned to my department for office hours, and found my recent ex–the one I had been living with after four years together–and his new girlfriend–the one he had cheated on me with–flirting loudly in another office two doors down. I shut my door so I would not have to hear their voices and promptly dissolved into sobs. Just then, in the midst of a silent hyperventilation, there was a knock at the door. Delusional in thinking that my ex had come to comfort me, I opened it with a rush. Instead, it was one of my undergraduates. He looked shocked to see the person he regarded as his “professor” standing there with hands full of Kleenex and a face wet with tears, smudged mascara, and snot. I was horrified. I tried to compose myself and do the right, professional thing.
“Um, I was just… Come in!” I opened the door wider and stepped aside so he could enter, but he didn’t move. “Please,” I coaxed. “Come in.”
“No,” he said. “It’s…ok.”
There was an awkward pause while he stared at me and I stared at a spot on the wall somewhere behind him. Mortified and beyond recovery, tears continued to pool in my eyes and trickle down my cheeks. I don’t remember much about this kid, other than that he was Joe Average Undergrad, a white, middle class boy of privilege who, from my vantage point at the podium, was no different than the rest of his peers–that is, totally preoccupied with binge-drinking and shirtless volleyball. (This sounds a little like I went to grad school at Top Gun University. I assure you, it was just a regular university.) But then he said something that made me think, “My god, out of all the kids that could have been standing there when I opened this door on my actual, crumbling, embarrassingly broken state of mind, it can NOT be an accident that it was him.”
“No, really, it’s ok,” he explained. “My sister died last year. She had cancer. And it was really hard. Sometimes I would just fall apart…” His voice trailed off. I don’t remember all of what he said, but I know he said, “So I understand,” even though he never asked why I was crying. After what he had been through, he was wise enough to know that it didn’t matter. Before he left, he also said, “Don’t worry, I won’t say anything about this to the other students.” Which was exactly the fear that shook me when I opened the door and saw him standing there–that I would return to a classroom full of sniggers and undermining comments. Such is the workplace dynamic of the young female instructor when students equate authority with age and masculinity. Instead, his words freed me to focus on caring for myself, and they showed me that there are decent people in this world, at precisely the moment when I was losing faith.
Now, a few years later, grieving the death of my colleague and feeling overwhelmed by my precarious professional situation, I was sitting on a bus revealing my vulnerabilities to a total stranger.
“A friend, a colleague of mine, he died today. I found out right before I got on the plane,” I explained. “So I’m not really feeling present at this thing.” I gave a halfhearted wave at all the suited people nattering enthusiastically behind us.
“I understand where you’re coming from,” he said. “My daughter died last year. I know that feeling, of not really being where you are.”
I offered my condolences and asked what happened. His daughter was in her early twenties when she was killed. She was embarking on a career in the Air Force, following in her father’s footsteps, and learning to fly. There was a training accident, a crash. She survived, but with horrible burns. She spent several months in a burn unit at a VA hospital, disfigured and in agony, alternating between hope for recovery and for relief from the pain of this world. During that time, her dad–this gentle gentleman sitting next to me–took leave from his duties to tend to her. He told me about how close they got, and how it changed him. He was politically and socially conservative, with a strong religious upbringing that he had conferred on his children. His daughter was a good girl, he told me, but she was also an empowered young woman who had boyfriends and adventures that were supposed to be just part of the catalog of experimentation we all acquire before we settle into ourselves. Instead, they were all the life she had to reflect on at the end, and so she shared it with her dad–all of it. He said it was uncomfortable at times, that dads don’t want to know all the risks and sadnesses and illicit triumphs their daughters experience, but that he felt privileged to learn about her true life and to be there with her at its end. She died while he was holding her hand.
He conveyed all of this to me, and I listed intently, over the course of a thirty minute ride back to the hotel. His grief was towering, and mine so small in comparison, just like the kid outside my office back in graduate school. But, just like that kid, he never made me feel diminished, which is the mark of a kind and knowing person. Instead, he made me feel understood. And I think he liked being around me, because I reminded him not so much of his daughter–she was about a decade younger than me when she died–but of the freshness young women exude, like a warm breeze scented with flowers and watermelon. Young women are unaware of it, of course, because they are usually conditioned to criticize and hate themselves. But men–especially older men, especially men with daughters, especially older men with daughters they will never see again–are absolutely intoxicated by it.
The mood lightened as we debarked from the bus back at the hotel, and we settled into a pattern of wry banter that carried us through the rest of the conference. He asked me to join him for a nightcap at the hotel bar, but I demurred. The next morning, he was waiting for me at the door of the bus as we boarded yet again. This time, he was in his Air Force uniform, a blue suit with lots of embellishments that made him look like a 1950s bus driver. I made a joke to that effect, totally unaware that this is a common dig made so frequently at Air Force officers’ expense that it is effectively a cliché. But come on–they really do dress like bus drivers from the 1950s! It wasn’t until later, when we received the program and everyone at the conference was seated in front of their fancy place cards, that I realized he was a general in the United States Air Force, and a multi-star general at that. Looking back, my youth, my vulnerability, and my lack of deference to his rank were probably an alluring combination. (I also had a bangin’ body back then.) But at the time, I was totally oblivious.
The conference finished with little of note, but the general and I did exchange phone numbers to keep in touch. Work periodically brought him to my city, and he said he would give me a call the next time he was in town.
He did, a few weeks later, and we met–just two friends having a friendly drink at a friendly bar. At the time, I did not realize that he wanted to sleep with me, and perhaps neither did he. It was all very chaste. There were some hints in his compliments to me, of course, but most of the evidence lies in the negative space of what didn’t happen after. He never called again.
We met, I thought as friends, and I reiterated that on the date. Over a drink, just one, we chatted about how “totally normal it is,” to have friends of the opposite gender, with a big age difference, who live in different cities and meet quietly from time to time. Totally normal. I was wary enough to ask pointedly about his wife, and he told me a little about her. They sounded like a great couple, I said, and it would be nice to meet her next time.
Had I flirted, had I been silent about his family life, had I put words to the unspoken chemistry between us, I think it might have gone differently. But in terms of what did happen, there was really, truly, nothing untoward. We stood together at the precipice of an affair, and then we went our separate ways.
I suspect he didn’t really know why he was there either, though the crisis within his family had clearly led him to me. I suspect he realized, when he saw me for that second and final time, that we would never quite be able to recapture the simple elegance of our original connection–two strangers sitting quiet and still, alone but together with their grief, while the world spins on and on around them. I suspect he realized, as we talked, that the fresh breezes that waft from young women are best appreciated at a distance.
You know the old saw: sometimes you get the elevator, sometimes you get Shaft.
Shaft seemed great on Tinder–funny, smart, attractive in an accessible way. He played guitar in a band, he liked my sassy mouth, and he owned his baldness in his profile pictures. All in all, I was psyched to meet him… not so much because he was relationship material (which I would not recognize if it bit me on the leg), but because I figured he would be fun. New people, new adventures, a reason to put on big-girl clothes and leave the house. I count those as successful relationships too!
We made a plan to meet for dinner in his neighborhood a few days hence. I had bronchitis, though, and was feeling pretty bad as I was getting ready for the date. Just taking a shower had exhausted me. How was I ever going to get myself together, drive to the train, ride the train, walk to the restaurant, be all sparkly for dinner, and then make the long trek home? As I was drip-drying on the toilet trying to muster the strength to straighten my hair (that ship has now sailed), he texted.
“I’m not feeling well,” he wrote. “Can we reschedule?”
Periodically I would cough so hard I would pee myself, which really puts a crimp in your date-night underwear options. I realized that rescheduling was probably best for me too. Plus, I thought he meant it.
I’ve mentioned that I’m pretty dumb about dating. In fact, I’m pretty dumb about people in general, because my cabbage-headed, Midwestern sincerity means that I take it for granted that people are telling me the truth. Turns out, people lie all the time! Despite my hard-nosed cynicism in other areas, this still catches me by surprise.
I took Shaft at his word that he was sick, because, Hey! I was sick. It happens. If he didn’t want to meet me, he would just find a nice way to say that, right?
With that sad set of assumptions in mind, I reached out a week later and suggested we try again. I was going to be in the city near his work getting my ‘do done. Maybe we could meet for lunch? He wrote back enthusiastically that he was game for meeting me. I took that to mean, “I would like to meet you.” I left the house correct: ass jeans, no food stains on my sweater, full yet light makeup, and shitty hair–because soon it was going to be Salon Hair. It was on.
While I was sitting in my stylist’s chair, less than an hour from date-time, Shaft texted to tell me that he had to cancel…
Because he had dropped his wallet down an elevator shaft.
“Gee, that sucks,” I thought, as I texted him with sincere concern.
“God this woman is dumb,” he thought, as he deflected me once again.
He said he didn’t have any means of paying for lunch.
I said it didn’t matter, I’d be happy to spot him.
He said he didn’t want to be “vexed” (full disclosure: I still like that he used that word!) and ruin our date. So he just cancelled it forever instead.
Part of me knew he didn’t want to meet me. But the hopeful part of me would not be silenced. For all the sturm und drang surrounding my fraught relationships, my low self-esteem, and my professional dissatisfaction, I am at times a ridiculously optimistic person. Hope rises in me like a buoy, ever springing back to the surface no matter how hard life tries to push it down. And when my dark humors seek to drown it–you will look foolish, you will be hurt, just let it go–I settle the debate with this:
I have to do me.
And doing me means erring on the side of other people’s sincerity and decency. Someday this annoying tendency is going to pay off.
Someday! But not that particular day.
I wrote Shaft a day or two later, asking whether the wallet ever turned up. I have a hard time crawling into the mind of person who can’t muster a simple sentence like, “You seem like a lovely woman, but I’m not interested in meeting you after all” to extricate himself from an unwanted engagement. What was he thinking when I wrote to him yet again? If I were such a person, someone incapable of being forthright, whose default mode is to dissemble, and who lacks the moral courage to be unliked–even by someone he never planned to see again–I might think that this lady asking about my lost wallet was trolling me.
She wasn’t. Part of me really thought, “Maybe it turned up, and we can go out now.”
Today was insular yet interesting, a lovely mix of reaching out, reaching up, and hunkering down.
I took my first biology exam today, and it had me very, very nervous. The amount of material was overwhelming! We had to know the basics of anatomical directions; the regions, cavities, and systems of the body; the organization of living things and the requirements for life; basic chemistry (atoms, ions, chemical bonds, solution chemistry, etc.); and the anatomy of a human cell, including the name of every protein, carbohydrate, lipid, nucleotide, and organelle therein, as well as their composition and function. WTF!
And when did human cells become so complicated?! From what I recall of biology in middle school–the last time I took it!–a cell looked like a cracked egg and consisted of a membrane, a nucleus, and some cytoplasm.
What, then, is this monstrosity:
It appears that scientists have discovered a whole bunch of extra crap in there, and I am expected to know what it is and what it does at the molecular level. Thankfully, I actually like sorting my proteasomes from my lyosomes, and I can now label and (sort of) understand everything on this diagram.
I also love how dirty some of it sounds:
“Can I use my secretory vesicle to transverse your phospholipid bilayer?” she asked thirstily.
I did my level best on the midterm, depleting what I thought would be three exams’ worth of index cards in a marathon flashcard session. And it was ok: I missed one out of forty questions. Had the exam not been open-note, I would have missed perhaps five or six, which is still respectable. I am pleased and hopeful, even though I have no idea where this is headed.
While I was getting ready for the exam, I texted about my nerves with a few friends, and they wrote back with all the affirmations and assurances I needed to hear. I am so grateful for their support.
Interestingly enough, one of those friends was J*. After my exam, we talked for the first time in five months, and it was wonderful.
Most of my closest friends will shake their heads ominously and ask, “Why would you muddy the waters with that piece of dirt?” And I can’t blame them, because they love me, and they worry for me, and they remember the disappointment and heartache I experienced with him as it was unfolding. Plus they never met him, so they regard him more as abstraction and distraction than as an actual human man that they might like.
The reality, though, is that J* is one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and I have missed having him in my life. And when we talked today, he said he missed talking to me too. That lifted my spirits immeasurably, not because of some fragile hope that the path he is on will one day lead back to me. Truth be told, my heart does go there sometimes late at night, when I can’t sleep and need a story to put my mind at rest. But that’s not why I loved talking to him today. It’s because I loved hearing his story and learning that he’s ok. Better than ok, actually–he’s excited for a new job, a new living situation, and a fresh start in a new town. I am happy for him. Talking to him also made me happy because the one thing I can’t abide is his indifference. Though I know to my core that no time is ever wasted (a sincere thank you to the poet Richard Brautigan for that wisdom), it would pain me to know that my time meant nothing to him.
And yet, even if that did happen, I would remain hopeful and still. Relationships ebb and flow, people come and go. I know this. Some of my closest friends right now–I didn’t talk to them for years, once upon a time, and now we walk together . People tend to find their way back to love, all kinds of love, if you don’t place barriers in their path. So you never know how someone might filter in and out of your life, because it’s not an orderly process like, say, protein carrier-assisted passive diffusion across a phospholipid bilayer. It’s more like osmosis: water flowing back and forth, in and out, filtering through aquaporin channels or caressing the gently undulating tails of the phospholipids themselves, until it finds its equilibrium. (I never realized the beauty of plasma membrane transport until just now!)
I don’t know the right metaphor, and maybe biology isn’t even the right science. It might be astronomy, with friends traversing hidden corners of the universe, then reappearing suddenly as a bright light streaking across the sky. But no, comets are predictable. People are not, though they can shine just as brilliantly.
Maybe we’ll just leave this one to the humanities and the Analects of Confucius: “To have an old friend come from far away–isn’t it a joy!”
I almost titled this post, “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back,” because I am exploring a way out of an unsatisfying career by returning to the soothing embrace of school. And, ok, talking to J* long-distance again does feel very 2014. But I stopped myself from using that title, because the saying implies linear directionality–you’re headed towards something, but you’re having trouble getting there. Instead, I don’t know which way I’m headed, nor towards what, and I have no idea who, if anyone, will be with me when I get there. Even if I do take two steps forward for every step back, the steps do not go in the same direction. And sometimes the steps back aren’t so much a retreat as a return, to a warm and comforting place I need to experience from time to time.
“Two steps forward, one step back. Repeat!” We’re all doing this, all the time, crossing paths with one another in the process. That’s not walking a line.
I met Tom Tiny Horse on Tinder around the time J* moved to town. Tom was funny, and we had great chemistry in texts, so I felt bad when I disappeared on him. When my relationship with J* intensified, it seemed appropriate to delete Tinder altogether, but I wrote to Tom before I did so. It was one of those, “I really like you, but I met someone else, bad timing, etc. etc.” messages. I can’t recall if I ever deleted Tinder or not, but not long after I gave Tom the heave-ho, the universe delivered a lesson in karma. J* dumped me like a hot sack of shit, and suddenly I was single again.
I got back in touch with Tom, who was genuinely kind when I explained what had happened. He asked me if I would like to meet, and we continued to discuss and joke and plan over email. It gave me hope in some very dark moments. Unfortunately, those hopes were dashed when we actually met, demonstrating yet again that online chemistry is not just elusive but illusory.
The first-date plan was for Tom to take public transportation to my side of town, where we would meet for dinner. He did a little research and suggested a kabob restaurant based on positive online reviews. I had eaten there and knew them to serve delicious food, but I also knew it was not First-Date Friendly: it’s a fluorescently lit carryout favored by cab drivers that serves no alcohol.
I gently offered these details to Tom, but he was undeterred. He must have had something else in mind, because when we finally met, and he realized how unromantic and unforgiving the experience was going to be, he apologized profusely as we fetched our silverware and napkins from the bins on the counter.
Like my previous date with Nose Hair, this date involved a bait-and-switch, but with a twist. From his photos and online profile, I understood Tom Tiny Horse to be tall, athletic, and about my age. In fact, he was of average height for a man (meaning, my height or shorter if I’m in heels, which I was); he was out-of-shape with a belly, sunken chest, and stringy arms; and he looked many years older than I was expecting–more gray hair, less hair overall, and a tired, defeated mien. Tom was ever so slightly more self-aware than Nose Hair, however, because he tried to get out in front of the situation. About an hour before the date started–too late for me to gracefully back out–he texted me a selfie unbidden. He sent it under the guise of providing me with information about what he was wearing. But implicitly, he was also confessing, “This is what I actually look like.”
Later, I did some online sleuthing that enabled me to date the photos he had posted in his profile. They were all 5-8 years old. I was able to narrow it down so specifically because the largest cache of information about him was the publicly available Flickr stream for his wedding.
Yes, through the miracle of the Interwebs, I got to see about fifty photos from my date’s betrothal to some other lady. He was divorced, and he disclosed that. But still–I think, if you’re going to go online looking for a new partner, perhaps you should Google yourself first to ensure that the first thing your date learns about you is not what kind of flowers your wife carried down the aisle.
Tom’s appearance wasn’t the only problem. As it turns out, our online chemistry did not translate into real life. The conversation was pleasant but not engaging. I felt no attraction. I wanted to go home.
Instead, I drove him to the train station so that he would not have to walk. When we parted, he pecked me lightly on the lips, kind of how you would kiss your sister if you were from one of those families that does that. I let him, because it seemed easier than resisting. But I knew I would never see him again.
All in all, it was a sad night. It was only about a week after J* dumped me, and we had our first “conversation,” via text, on the afternoon of the date. It did not go well. J* misconstrued everything I wrote, then he announced he had to “cut ties” with me altogether. It took me a long time to do my makeup for the date because I couldn’t stop crying.
Tom Tiny Horse had traveled to Iceland with his young daughter, where they visited a farm with miniature horses. On his Tinder profile, there was a photograph, from several years prior, of the two of them petting those horses in a stable. It was an adorable picture of an adorable girl, an adorable, tiny horse, and a strong, handsome man joyfully together in a beautiful place. Until I met Tom, I could see myself in that picture, in that life, which gave me hope at a time when I couldn’t imagine being happy again. Tom probably looked nostalgically at that picture too, for the intervening years had not been kind to him. I realized in retrospect that his wife must have taken it.
If you’re following along regularly, you no doubt think I should rename this blog, “Everything Is Terrible, Including Puppies, Christmas, and the Amish, All the Time, Everywhere.” Actually, when it comes to domestic abuse and animal rights, the Amish are kind of terrible, but I digress. My point is, for me, things are looking up!
Today I registered for my spring class: Introduction to Human Anatomy & Physiology. It took a little doing, because I had to visit an academic advisor in person to get them to waive the prerequisite, English Composition. I brought my transcripts for both of my degrees, but not the transcripts from the other two schools I attended part-time before settling in at my undergraduate alma mater. “Surely a bachelor’s and doctorate are enough,” I reasoned.
The advisor scanned the transcripts quickly and casually, as though he was looking for something specific. I sensed there was a problem.
“Is there a particular class you’re looking for?” I asked sweetly.
“Yes. Something like English composition.” He continued to flip through the pages, scanning, flipping, scanning, with greater urgency as he failed to see what he was looking for.
“It’s been a long time since I went to college, and I don’t really remember how I satisfied that requirement,” I explained. “It might have been AP, or maybe a placement test. I went to two other schools…”
“Do you have those transcripts?” he asked curtly. “Maybe on your phone?”
I found this suggestion wildly hilarious, since course registration wasn’t even digitized when I started college! We would queue up in an endless line at the Registrar, our hands full of paper catalogs and registration forms in triplicate. We didn’t have phones, so we read newspapers or talked to each other. When you finally got to the front of the line, a weary clerk would take your requests, and your alternate requests, and do their best for you. Today, that part felt comfortingly familiar.
“No,” I said softly, realizing that he had lost the forest for the trees. “But… you realize what that is, right?” He was holding my doctoral transcript, which showed a near flawless academic record. “I have a PhD.”
His eyes drifted up to the top of the first page, then he flipped to the end, where the tiny letters affirmed my greatest achievement: a doctorate in the humanities from a research-one university. Surely that would be enough to get me into an entry-level Biology class at a community college?
Just in case, I had my second greatest achievement, my book, in my laptop bag. Plan C was pulling up my faculty bio on my phone. Thankfully, I didn’t need to go that far. The advisor started tapping at the computer, and the prerequisite disappeared.
I always tell my graduate students, “Your degree is the one thing no one can ever take away from you. Your home, your spouse, even your kids–those can be taken away from you. But your doctorate, and the accomplishment it represents, will always be yours.”
If I do this thing–this brave, terrible, crazy thing–of abandoning my scholarly career in order to become a nurse, I will need to start telling myself that too. Because, despite all the frustrations of academia, I am truly proud of what I have accomplished. It is an amazing thing, to have that degree, even if it only gets me out of English comp on this new path that I am following. And no one can ever take that away from me.
I didn’t even know I had New Year’s Eve plans until a few hours before midnight. J* texted me while I was at the gym to see if I wanted to spend the evening with him, and I rationalized, “Hey, better late than never.” We agreed that he would pick me up at 7 to drive an hour to visit friends of his in a far suburb. That gave me a leisurely two-and-half hours to finish my run, stop off at the store, and slap on the pretty stick. About 30 minutes later, he texted again, wanting to know if I could be ready to leave at 6, just an hour hence.
I was still on the treadmill.
With a mighty effort, I managed to get home, stop sweating, and be ready when he arrived to pick me up. We were trying to be there in time for something called “an Irish toast,” though neither of us understood what that meant. Because I thought we were going to his English friend’s home, I imagined a custom of some import, a break in the evening’s festivities at which our absence would be noted. J* drove with urgency and then like a madman. At one point, lost in conversation, he missed our exit, trapping us on an airport service road. He got angry. Then, when we missed the last bailout, he got angry some more.
I had witnessed one of his outbursts on the phone, but never in person. Now, I was trapped in the passenger seat of a car that felt like it was going way too fast, driven by a grown man having a tantrum. He muttered and yelled, addressing himself in the second person. He slammed his fists on the steering wheel. He shifted the manual transmission in waves of anger. When he slowed in the airport parking lot to ask for directions to the exit, I looked at the glittering terminal in the distance and wondered if I should make a run for it. I froze.
I dated a violent man once, so in those seconds of uncertainty, I reverted to what I knew: be quiet, stay still, act small. Even so, when J* challenged me to confront him, I foolishly took the bait.
“Go ahead, say whatever you’re going to say,” he demanded.
“I’m not going to say anything,” I fumed, “because I don’t want to get punched in the fucking face.”
In the twisted logic of our relationship, my words became the most grievous transgression of the night, a presumed accusation–that J* was an abuser–we never quite got past. I offered context that he declined to consider and apologies that neither of us quite believed. He offered very little, pushing back hard that my words exceeded his actions in their terribleness. In retrospect, that argument exposed the power deferential of our relationship: his ambivalence towards me could put me on my heels even if he was in the wrong. In the end, having resolved nothing, we just moved on.
We arrived at our destination–not an English home, but rather an Irish bar–about ten minutes to seven. J* bolted from the car without a second’s pause, leaving me trotting after him in heels across the icy parking lot. We exchanged no words to bridge the angry divide between us. Moments later, I was meeting his friends for the first time, smiling a plastic smile that I hoped would hide my deep discomfort.
As it turns out, an Irish toast is simply an acknowledgement that it is midnight in Ireland. The bar distributed little flights of Guinness, a canned version of Auld Lang Syne blared from the PA system, and then it was done. A piece of actual toast would have been more satisfying.
It was 7:01 PM, and the five hours to midnight spread before us like a cold and lonely road. I drank a lot, I ate too much, and I spent a lot of time in the ladies’ room. As the hours passed, J* and I found our way back to each other. He held my hand, he touched me lightly under the table, he checked to see if I needed anything. At midnight, he smiled broadly as he took my face in his hands and rendered that sweet but fateful kiss.
I was wary but hopeful as our lips met. Lost in softness and warmth, we failed to notice the poison seeping like a fog. Within hours, I was toxic. Within the month, I was adrift.
We went to J*’s friends’ house, where we watched them drink themselves into oblivion. Then we drove back to my house, where J* dropped me off as unceremoniously as a taxi service–no hug, no kiss, no promise to see me again.
Days later, my body started to go haywire–my first bout with the fun! fun! fun! of serious hormonal imbalance.
Two weeks after that, J* broke up with me in a brief text message.
Three weeks after that, a trusted neighbor assaulted me in my living room, violently groping me and attempting to tear off my clothes. I fought him off but did not call the police, because he was leaving the country the next day, and I wanted to put as much distance between us as possible. Even now, he lurks at the edge of my dreams. And when he returned to his house, just 16 feet away from mine, last spring, I found myself feeling panic every time I had to walk the dog.
Spring semester, I endured a two-month bout of bronchitis and a crushing to-do list: teach three classes, give four presentations at three conferences, attend a hundred meetings, grade a thousand typed pages (that is sadly not an exaggeration), write a million emails. All of it felt like work. By fall, I felt broken.
My relationship with my sister deteriorated. In January, she unfriended me on Facebook for a slew of infractions she declined to mention until I noticed I could no longer tag her in family photos. She made it nearly impossible for me to see her children, who used to be the lights of my life. Where we once had monthly excursions, I took them out just twice all year. My parents remained neutral or erred, understandably, on the side of seeing their grandchildren. Throughout the year, my family gathered frequently without me, having decided preemptively that I was too busy to join them. My mother started to forget me.
My friend was sick. He got sicker. In May, he died. My friends, also his friends, lost their friend. My friend, his widow, lost her husband. My loss was so small compared to hers, but still–the losses associated with this one man piled up atop one another, so that everywhere I turned I saw someone I cared about struggling to breathe through their grief.
Days after my friend died, I reached for J* and he reached back. After months of silence, we struck up an amazing, awkward, amazing friendship. It was an invitation to healing but also more pain. In August, I fell into a hole so deep I could barely see the sky. J* pulled me out. Then he left the country without saying goodbye.
The remainder of 2015 was defined by depression, loneliness, workplace misery, family problems, health problems, and another painful breakup. I could not make anything turn out right, as though the poison coursing through me wilted everything I touched. In that powerless state, I felt adrift.
The year began with a crazy night and a fateful kiss, but, like all measurements of time, midnight on New Year’s Eve is an arbitrary beginning for a period of decline that probably started years before. In some corners of this story, I can say comfortably that someone else was the agent of my misfortune. But in others, it was fate or chance or no one, and in still others, it was me. I made choices too. I opened a door, or closed one. I said things I shouldn’t have said and failed in a hundred different ways. J* kissed me, and I kissed him right back, even though I knew I shouldn’t. Other people–who knows, maybe even 2015 or the Universe itself–might have shoved me out to sea, but I’m the one who untied the raft from its moorings.
Now I write this blog, as if from the safety of that raft. Life often seems like a forbidding sea, and only the moon and stars at night help differentiate sky from the dark water all around me. The writing helps.
I tell my story, I vent the poison.
I plan a new future, I chart a course to safety.
I don’t know what 2016 has in store for me. But just in case, I am staying in this New Year’s Eve.