Everyone has a hard time with transitions and, frankly, most of them just plain suck. The past six weeks have been so full of them, though, that my life has felt perpetually up in the air and I’m just now starting to acclimate. It’s come faster than I expected, really. I feel like one of those crazy desert pupfish in the deserts of Arizona who learned to live in tiny puddles, evolving practically overnight.
The first transition was graduation. Of course. Of course graduation was a transition, and I expected it to be. But it was much more difficult than I thought. We had a set of readings before the graduation, and that first night, Friends One and Two and I read. Tradition has it that the MFA candidates introduce each other, and so it was that Friend Two was set to introduce me.
Prior to reading, we were all a bunch of nerves. We each kept looking at our work and--a sign we are truly writers--kept revising it. But then it was Friend Two's turn to introduce me. He walked up to the podium, adjusted the microphone, and began by saying my full name, then launching into the introduction. If I’m honest with myself, that’s the moment that it all became real to me. It was the formality of my full name, coupled with Friend Two saying it at a podium where I was about to read. He went on to talk about my work in terms of theme and content, quoted what professors had said about my writing, and ended by telling the audience how often he had fielded a late night call from me worrying about not being good enough. “Now that you can’t protest,” he said, “I’m going to tell you that you are a rare and extraordinary talent.” His voice quavered a little, and I started to cry. It’s all ending, I thought. Right when I realize that I might actually be good enough.
I read, garnered an applause heavy and long, then proceeded to introduce Friend One. I told stories about her, summed up her work, and ended with a quote from one of Flannery O’Connor’s letters to her close friend, Maryat Lee. Lee had sent O'Connor a photo of herself as a girl, and O'Connor responded in a letter by saying: “I wish I would have known you then. You look so happy. We would have blown things up. I would have found the matches, and let you light the fuse.” It said everything about the relationship Friend One and I have.
None of us made it through the readings or introductions without crying. The three of us realized what we had accomplished that night, and how soon our lives were about to change. The ceremony the following day capped the experience by ritualizing the transition, but the readings were the moment where I felt the impending loss most acutely. And since then, everything has been in flux.
Five days after graduation, the Things were with The Man for a long weekend, and I was having dinner and drinks with all the graduating fiction writers and Professor Rainbolt. The plan was that I was to spend the weekend with The Sweet Boy. I didn’t want to drive the hour to his place, though, after drinking, so he was to pick me up at my house. I got home, post-dinner and drinkage, a little late, so I felt somewhat guilty when I saw The Sweet Boy sitting in his car waiting. As I parked he got out of his car, walked over to me. Something seemed slightly off, but he hugged and kissed me, smiled so sincerely, that I dismissed that moment of worry. We went inside and I was still flush with Mexican food and margaritas, so I talked while I finished packing, letting my voice carry through the empty house. The Sweet Boy followed me as I tucked t-shirts and underwear into my backpack, found a book I wanted to finish. He didn't say much of anything.
In the kitchen, I started pulling down the ingredients for Dominican Chicken and Rice. I had made it for the Sweet Boy’s family once when his younger sister and her husband were visiting from Boston, and his mom wanted me to teach her how to cook the sofrito, simmer the chicken just right. I was excited about this. It meant that she liked me, that I could potentially be part of this family. We were going to cook together Friday night for The Sweet Boy and his Dad. That evening in my house, I found a paper grocery sack and began filling it with guandules verdes and coconut milk and green olives. “So, am I still cooking dinner for your family tomorrow?” I asked, more as punctuation to my packing than a real question.
The Sweet Boy looked pained. “I don’t know,” he said.
I stopped packing, turned to him. He looked sick to his stomach. “You’re breaking up with me, aren’t you?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
Whenever we’ve done this—which has been frequently to some extent—I am almost always the one who has to bring it up. I’m the one who notices something is wrong, and immediately knows what it is. And I’m the one who says it first, who has to ask the question “Are you breaking up with me?” It’s as though he’s always too afraid to do it himself, so he makes me do it.
That is wrong on so many levels.
That night, in my kitchen, the moment after he said yes, I looked at him—really looked at him closely. He was terrified. He was also completely closed off to me.
The Sweet Boy and I talked for two hours and it was eerily like the break up the month before. He held me, kissed me, told me he loved me more than anyone, but that he couldn’t do it anymore. There were all kinds of reasons, but none of them seemed to connect to the others, or to reality. It was that he “couldn’t,” then that he “wouldn’t,” then that he didn’t “want to,” then that he would if it was without any risk. At some point, it became exhausting for both of us. I kept trying to make it all understandable, reduce it to a single failure, something I could point to and say “ah-ha, this is the problem.” And then I could fix it, or at least avoid it in the future. I never found it, partly because I wanted language to work, wanted to flex my linguistic muscles. I wanted to use logic and reason and my acute ability to articulate the abstract and make them work for me, make the fact I was getting my heart broken reasonable. This is one of the few times that language, and my ability with language, has failed me, and it's because I expected too much from it.
In the end, I finally asked “why” for the hundredth time, and he stood up, got a hard look on his face and said, “Because I don’t want you and I don’t want your kids.”
Maybe this is true and maybe it isn’t, but in that moment, he broke whatever we had. He broke everything. He left then, and I stood at the screen door and watched him go. It was late—close to 11—and the street lamp freckled amber through the tree in the front yard, lighting only one side of his face. I thought about the night we first met, how we drove to the beach in his car, talking all the way there and all the way back. As he drove that night, I memorized his profile. "This is how I came to know your face," I said once, when we were driving, months after we first met. There was something familar and heartbreakingly different the night on my porch.
There’s this way that The Sweet Boy must walk down some kinds of stairs, specifically stairs with only one banister, like my front steps. He has to go down backward, slowly, each step even and exactly placed so that he doesn’t fall. After our fight, there wasn't the slam of the door, a quick retreat. Instead, he walked slowly to the edge of the steps, then turned around. I watched him take each step, and he looked at me the entire time, his face purposely emptied. Watching him--that slow, measured, painful step--reminded me of everything about him. The way he has approached life, always backward, carefully edging in, like a child dangling a foot into a deep pool of water. And of the way he was leaving me, was always leaving, had always been leaving, but was still looking back, unable to fully turn away. The Greeks described Life as a man, not walking forward through time, but walking backward, always looking back, obsessed with the past, never having the sight to understand or even see what was ahead.
I still wonder what he saw when he looked backward that night on the porch, through me, through my house where we had nestled on the couch, hung streamers for Thing Three's birthday, washed dishes together in my kitchen. Did he look back and see his girlfriends, miss them through the haze of regret? Did he look back and hear his parents, his sisters tell him over and over all the small memories he had forgotten--the operation on his nose, his sister's allergy to eggs, the plane ride the night of his prom? How almost all of his memories are nothing more than stories told by other people? Did he look back until he reached that night, remembered the second before he hit the guardrail? Did he look back, far back, when his first love laid her innocent head in his lap as he drove them through orange groves? He was just 20 then, a kid, and when he talked about it, it was as though that time had become his own Eden, and that he had somehow earned his fall. He had made a normal life into a paradise that he will never feel worthy of reentering. I don't think he will ever manage to look forward much. I'm not sure it's fair to ask him to.
Since that night, The Sweet Boy and I haven’t seen each other.
A few days later, the Things and I set off to Whidbey Island, where we enjoyed the sea and the sun. I cried, felt angry and hurt. But mostly, I felt adrift. What now, I thought. I could not conceive of a what now. I had put all my eggs into two baskets**—school and The Sweet Boy, and suddenly both of those things were ripped from me. I felt completely untethered.
When we got back from Whidbey Island, I attempted to settle into some kind of routine, but it felt impossible. I applied for a few jobs. I interviewed at, and was rejected by, the Graduate School here for a summer office position. There was nothing to hold on to. I walked around the house during the day, while the kids were at day care, and wondered what the fuck I had done with my life. I had come here, two years previously, with a husband and three small children, and no real belief in myself as a writer or a thinker. And now the casualties of my decisions were everywhere: the remnants of a failed marriage (which would have died anyway, was nearly dead, but graduate school was the euthanasia), an ex-boyfriend who I loved dearly but who still failed me, three children who now missed two men as opposed to just one, a mountain of debt. No job. No prospects. Nothing to hold me anywhere in particular. The feeling made me nauseous. I worried about finding a job, a house, a life.
Friend One called me daily, and we talked about our lives, this feeling of being adrift. Neither of us could write, could even think about writing. We met for breakfast, made our lives manageable over cups of coffee and plates of eggs. But we both felt a gnawing sense of failure in some way. We were done with school. How did we move from here?
Friend Two and I talked as well. At least he was writing, but he also felt untethered. Sometimes he came over, and we sat on my porch, drinking beer and talking in the falling summer light. “You just need one thing right now,” he kept saying. “We all just need the one thing.” He would take a pull from his beer, lean over and rest his elbows on his legs, put his head down. “Hold out a couple more weeks.” When he said it, I knew it was just as much for him as me.
I tried to convince them both that I should go back to The Sweet Boy. “You don’t understand,” I would cry to Friend Two. “I just need something right now.” Friend One and Friend Two were indispensable. They talked me through it. We talked each other through it, that first month after graduating. None of us knew it would be as hard as it was.
Because I felt adrift, and because I needed something that wasn’t The Sweet Boy, I planned, that week, to move to Portland. I would find a job there, uproot the kids (they would be closer to The Man), and settle in. I loved this plan;it was something to cling to. As Friend One says, it’s “the future, always the future," as though looking forward brings some sort of clarity and comfort that looking at can’t.
I knew I needed money, so I found a temporary job through an employment agency—quick cash, I told myself—and started working part-time, four hours a day for a county office. The routine was comforting. I woke up in the mornings and had somewhere to be. I dressed the kids, took them to daycare, and drove to work. And the work itself was relaxing in its dullness. Type minutes, pull reports, answer phones, make labels. I’ll just stay here until I land a job in Portland, I told myself.
Then, things happened. Thing Three got into a pre-school in Portland, and I was thrilled that it was in the area I wanted to live in. It was a good pre-school, too, one of the few I actually liked. I was ecstatic. Ever try to get a kid into pre-school this late in the year in Puddletown? It’s nearly impossible.
And then I calculated the tuition. Initially, I thought the pre-school day was 6 hours, so I’d only have to pay for 3 more hours of before and after care. But since the pre-school day was significantly shorter, total tuition, for one child, was $1100/month. With after school care for Things One and Two included, my childcare costs would be $1400/month. If I had more time, I could have found a good pre-school for much less money for Thing Three, but this late in the year, it was impossible. It was the Outrageous Pre-School or it was nothing.
Then my boss started wondering aloud if I’d be interested in applying for the job once it opened as a full-time, permanent position in the next six weeks. She described the benefits—a pay increase of 40% from what I’m making now, and full benefits for me and the kids at no cost. None. In other words, an excellent job. When she found out I was a single mother, she said “this job offers a lot of time off—sick leave and vacation time all in one bank. It would be great for a single parent.”
A week later (and two days post Dickhead Landlord), a prospective landlord emailed me. I had posted a “housing wanted” ad on a website. I said that I was a single mother with good credit, good rental history, and that I needed a house within a certain price range in a certain area. He emailed me, and I drove by the house. It’s older, but renovated, has a large front porch, three bedrooms and a beautiful fenced yard in a lovely neighborhood of families. It’s perfect for us. I had spent so much energy planning for a life in Portland, planning out of a need to make things stable, that I didn't realize until I saw the house that a life here could be what I really need right now.
As soon as things fell in place, it was though this life had already existed, waiting for me to discover it. Right now I’m working, saving money, starting to pack for the inevitable move. And I’m starting to write again. I have this small little piece of stability to hold on to, and I’m hoping, hoping for a little more.
* “You never talk about me on your blog,” complains Friend Two, frequently and with feeling. “I do so,” I say. “Yeah,” he replies, “but only when I fail the exam.” So, here’s my mea culpa. This title is the title of a short story, part of a larger work that Friend Two is working on. It is also brilliant and heartbreaking. If he lets me, I will post it.
**the kids don’t count as a basket of eggs—they are an absolute; they are always part of the equation.