In my early 20’s, I lived on a diet of candy, cheetos and the occasional 1AM bacon-wrapped hotdog, but always fit into my jeans. I could work my two jobs, change shirts and head out to catch last call. I could sleep erratically for days and days without losing brain function. When I did sleep, I could sleep anywhere (couch, floor, pile of laundry). There was a great density of random, bizarre experiences.
Sometimes I look back with envy at the life I lead back then, but I never miss the person I was.
I feel like I’m part of a last generation. We grew into cell phones and social media, but we didn’t grow up with them. Our first computers didn’t even have a mouse, let alone an internet connection. Being a small town teenager before the internet made it effectively impossible to understand the size of the world — the variety of people, jobs and lifestyles, the type and amount of choices you could one day make. My parents made a point of traveling with me and my brother, so I’d seen some very big cities, but there was a kind of otherness to anything outside of my hometown that made elsewhere feel surreal and out of reach.
The future wasn’t something I thought about, because I couldn’t conceive of any pieces for that puzzle. I didn’t want to replicate the examples of adulthood I saw around me, but I didn’t know what else there was. When I left for college, it felt like I was walking into a grey mist.
I traveled with a club from my high school to UCLA, because after the campus tour, we got to go to Medieval Times and I wanted to wield a turkey leg. At the top of Bruin Walk, I looked down at my Airwalks on the red brick and I was filled with an unfamiliar feeling: I wanted to be there. I felt good in that spot. When I looked around at the students and the trees, the classic architecture and the green spaces, I felt hopeful. A kid with no concept of what the future could be, got her first glimpse at what it might hold.
After working so hard to get myself to UCLA, I wish I would have taken better advantage of my time there, but that’s a sentiment born of perspective. Learning to live on the scale of a major city took as much careful study as any of my classes. Especially because I was naive, quiet, shy, full of self-doubt and plagued by seasons of self-loathing. I mainlined Simpsons episodes in a neighboring dorm room, so I could catch up on a decade of cultural references I’d managed to miss. I watched everyone moving effortlessly through their lives and lamented how others could have selves and personalities so fully formed, while everything I did was wrong.
And everywhere I went, there was the specter of my parents’ disapproval. They loved the idea of me going to UCLA, studying English and joining a sorority. Ultimately, I did two of the three. My mom took me on a special shopping trip to buy expensive outfits for rush week. She called old family friends to get reference letters for me at the “better houses.” My mom and I had been fighting a lot the last years of high school, but those drag outs were nothing compared to how we yelled and cried when I dropped out of rush.
Marching from sorority house to sorority house, making conversation over lemon water and plastering a smile on my face during all the dance numbers choreographed to I’m Walking on Sunshine overwhelmed me. I felt so out of place, I would look for the closest hiding place as soon as we broke for lunch. I practically ran back to the dorm at the end of the rush day. After a few days like that, I couldn’t force myself to go back and I told my mom I was done. She did everything she could think of to get me to change my mind (including offering to buy me a TV for my dorm room), but I wouldn’t. I had a choice to make and I moved toward the decision that felt right for me, tortured by the knowledge that it meant disappointing my parents.
There was a lot of that over the next decade. Therapists call it “individuation” — when a child breaks the symbiotic ties with parents in the interest of becoming their own person. Each broken tie caused me and my parents physical pain. I constantly felt like my only option was to fail them or fail myself, so I did a bit of both and was never more than a few steps from depression.
Days after moving to UCLA, I met a guy who was different from anyone I’d ever known. He was half Lebanese and half Jewish. He was a socialist. He was a cinephile. He made me mixed tapes of the bands that are still my favorites. He was funny and had crazy hair. At the beginning of my junior year, we started spending a lot of time together, just the two of us. I’d moved into an apartment near campus and he lived just down the street. So he would stay over until 2 or 3AM and then head back to his place and I’d get a few hours sleep before class.
One early morning, we said good bye and I closed the door and then a moment later he knocked softly. I opened the door and he kissed me. He was wearing an ugly paisley thrift store shirt, all gross browns and greens. I remember the feel of that polyester on my skin. I recognized the moment for what it was: a mix of romantic gestures straight out of a brat pack movie. I thought it was what I wanted and I tried to fall into it, but I couldn’t. I was watching it all from a distance, making note of the boxes it checked, and wishing I was feeling more, thinking less.
That night was the start of a five and a half year relationship that was fun and work in nearly equal measure over the years, before ultimately losing the balance. We got along really well. We had adventures and we helped each other. We had misunderstandings that I blamed myself for. We were the solid couple in our group of friends and by the time we broke up, I don’t think I had any close friends who had met me before I was “us.”
Around year two: I would find myself considering the question “is this it?”. As time went on, it got harder not to wonder at an answer. Is this it? Is this what love is? Is this all love is?
Around year three: people started asking if we were going to get married and we gave many answers, but never “yes.” Marriage was an artificial construct. A dying institution. Sexist. Irrelevant to our modern lives in contemporary America. Not until gay people could. Maybe someday. No. Just no, thanks.
Around year four: the future of us would flash before my eyes and it played out like a television commercial for cleaning products. I would give a good-natured roll of my eyes to some idiotic thing he was doing. All would be ruined and forgiven in the same instant that I was cleaning it up.
Around year five: “Escape. Escape,” I started thinking. But I didn’t know how, or even from what exactly I wanted to escape.
Finally we came up with an ill-conceived plan that ended up saving me by putting a lit match to my old life. The match was polyamory and we lit it together. What happened next is “Part Two.”