Don’t Question the Steps, Just Dance!

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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:

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I know what this is and how it works! 😀

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.

That’s dancing!

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First-Date Friday: Hurricane J*

from-the-calm-to-hurricane-1892Two days before my first-ever online date with Col. Asshole, which was the day before I met J*, my friend died. These stories will always be connected in my mind, because they meet at the intersection of grief and hope where life is lived most richly.

Ana was my neighbor of five years, and she had been critically ill most of that time. She was in her mid-50s, but she seemed much older, having survived kidney failure, the amputation of all her toes, a heart attack, a stroke, multiple falls and broken bones, and a million other trials, including war, loss, perilous border crossings, and endless poverty. Through it all, she was mostly positive and always strong; I called her a “warrior woman.” We had very little in common, as she was born and raised in Central America, very traditional, a woman of no formal education, and had different politics and beliefs. What I loved about her was the way that she loved. Her children made terrible mistakes–teen pregnancy and fatherhood, drug use, catastrophic financial mismanagement, violent criminal activity–that would represent unspeakable, irrevocable failures in my family. And yet she loved them, fiercely and without end, no matter the mistakes they made. I loved living on the periphery of that love, like sitting on the shores of a calm but powerful sea, because every now and then I would catch its breeze. My heart sang when she would refer to me as one of her girls.

Ana died. Three days later, I met J*. And within days of that first meeting, I had come to believe that Ana sent J* to me, that somehow, in a final act of motherly engineering, she summoned a great storm to wash away the loneliness in me that worried her so.

More particularly, I believed that she had J* run over by a truck so that we could meet on Tinder. (Yes, I know how that sounds!)

Ana believed in witchcraft and spells. She didn’t engage in them, mind you, because she was a Christian and they were the Devil’s work. But she had the option, and she definitely believed in them. And when she would squint her black eyes in disgust at something that displeased her, she made you believe in dark power too.

J* believed he was just going for a bike ride while visiting his friend from out of state. He got clipped by a pickup truck pulling a trailer and was sent flying, resulting in serious bruising and abrasions that prevented his departure from the area. This happened about 1,000 yards from my house. The accident occurred before Ana’s death, true, but in my grief at her passing and amidst the great surge of hope I felt when I met him, it seemed like she must have had a hand in it.

What do you do when you’re bored and laid up after getting run over? You see who’s on Tinder. He found me! He was funny, he asked the right questions (“What are you reading?”), and his photos suggested an average-looking man who might actually be handsome if he’d been photographed at better angles. (Turns out, I was right, so don’t give up on someone just because their profile pictures suck!) Most importantly, he was recovering from his accident right nearby. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, and we decided to meet for coffee an hour hence, because he was leaving for home (some 270 miles away) the next day. Both of us engaged in the mad scramble to appear effortlessly presentable on short notice. I texted something like, “Why don’t we cut each other some slack.” He wrote back, “Deal.”

We met at my regular coffee shop. I got there first, unsure of who I was looking for. I was doctoring my coffee when I heard a man cheerfully call my name. I looked up and saw him standing about 10 feet away, backlit–no shit, it’s so corny, but it’s true–by light streaming in through the windows behind him. He was literally tall, dark, and handsome, with broad shoulders, sunglasses perched rakishly atop his soft, dark curls, and he had black eyes the likes of which I had only seen once before. He was wearing khaki pants and a light blue polo shirt. He was smiling.

We sat outside and talked. We didn’t have much time, because he had to fetch a friend at the airport, and it passed so quickly. It’s hard to isolate what I learned that day, because over the next year I came to be–in his words–the person who knew him best. And he came to be one of perhaps two or three people who know me at all.

Over the next year–and I mean, exactly 365 days–J* blew in and disrupted everything, in full awareness of his destructive power. He was the one who coined the term “Hurricane J*,” not me, and he did so long before we ever met. As our together-story unfolded, I imagined myself as the rock, the immoveable mass around which the storm could rage without effect. But at other times, I was clearly the poorly situated trailer park, shredded to bits by the wind and carried away by the surge. I still don’t really understand what happened, much like those sad people standing in the rubble of their homes the day after a Category 5, who grasp for metaphors to explain the incomprehensible. I don’t know what it was, I just know that–for me, anyway–it was big.

But that day, that first calm day, he was just a kind, sweet, curious man who liked listening to me tell stories. We had coffee, he departed to pick up his friend, then we met up again to take my dog for a walk. We strolled back and forth along the path, we stood in the cold waters of a creek while my pup splashed in the dappled shallows, and we lingered at our cars until long after dark. I learned that he was a former infantryman/medic turned trauma nurse–a potent mix of tough and tender that made me tingly in my bathing-suit area. He also dispensed with some pretty unsavory details: a divorce, a vasectomy (actually, a plus!), a complicated family history, and a history of emotional volatility. He disclosed the divorce last, as though that particular detail would be the most troubling to a prospective partner. In fact, the worst was a story he shared before that, about how he used to beat his ex-wife’s dogs for imagined infractions as a way of releasing his pent-up frustration. I suggested that, on future first dates, he lead with the divorce and close with the dog beating, because it really doesn’t get any worse than that.

But all of that was in the past. He was more than four years sober, and he had made a new life for himself in recovery–a life of gratitude, service, and honesty. It was such a compelling narrative; I was hooked.

This is First-Date Friday, so what happened next, and after that, and next again is a story for another day. What I will say is, Hurricane J* challenged me as no other man or relationship ever has. I grew more, I loved more, I hurt more, I loved some more again.

“What is it about him?” several friends demanded to know, their frustration and concern palpable in the query.

“He is a beautiful disaster,” I told told them. “And I just can’t look away.”

As strong as my feelings were, and as much as J* affected me, I often wondered during that year whether I had any effect on him at all.

A hurricane is mindless destruction, there is no explanation or meaning in its actions, and–unlike a tornado–it provides just enough ebb and flow to wreak havoc in your life for months: the ominous warnings in the weeks ahead, wind and waves that build over days, intermittent downpours as the eye spins slowly overhead, a devastating storm surge that carries everything away, then weeks without power or succor in the aftermath. It is no accident that J* used this term to describe himself, but it was more indictment than badge of honor. “Hurricane” was the ultimate term of self-loathing, because the storm doesn’t care about the people it affects, and it never ends so much as it just moves on, without apology and without ever looking back.

365 days after that first date, J* and I had a falling out so degrading that I’m not sure it’s a story I can ever fully tell. It wasn’t even the breakup–that was months in the rearview. It was worse, a revelation that threatened to undermine once and for all the fragile faith I placed in him. And still, I hung in there, because he was the storm, but I was the rock.

One day, in the wake of that final tempest, we were chatting happily about nothing important, and the conversation came around to the first time we met.

“I bet you don’t remember what I was wearing,” I said.

“Your little jeans skirt and a green t-shirt,” he answered correctly, without a moment’s hesitation. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw you.”

I was stunned. A hurricane would never say that! Those were the words of someone who allowed himself to be affected by me, if only a little; of someone who cared for me, even if it was just once upon a time.

I don’t know if J* was the hurricane or just a man I met on Tinder who maybe saved my life. (Time will tell.) I don’t know if Ana sent him, though I love to imagine that she did, because it suggests a comforting order to the universe. There was definitely a storm. And somewhere in the storm, there definitely was love.