In a dream, my childhood babysitter told me to write about my love life. Sarah Songer was funny and loving; she fed me Fudgesicles, she had the best sticker book, and most importantly she so effortlessly drew the most beautiful people on command. They were perfect, I thought, except that she always drew them with serious faces, when I felt they clearly should be smiling. So I would erase those tiny pursed lips and draw in a smile, sure that I could equally effortlessly make my replacement upturned lips match the quality of her drawing. I could not.
As an adult, infrequently, she comes by my parents’ house and drinks a bottled coke— made with real cane sugar— that my dad keeps stocked in the refrigerator in the garage. Despite my almost being 35, she still comments, almost every time we cross paths, that she’s amazed I have boobs. I now have a partner, a 16 month old daughter, a baby on the way, and I own a home, which is all neither here nor there, not a specifically important list of personal qualifications except to say generally those things happen after boobs and not before. I mean, I got boobs, or some minuscule version of them, over 20 years ago.
I never really understood her commentary until I also had the experience of watching someone, who was emblazoned in my mind's eye as a child, also grow. And then I understood: people are, often, or we believe that they stay, exactly as we first knew them to be. So to her I am a Fudgesicle-loving 6 year old, who's afraid of having to sleep under the dining room table as punishment for misbehaving. It’s so often not the boobs that aren’t growing at all, but our perception.
Sarah arrived in the dream, out of where I don’t know, and when she said “love life,” I dream laughed out loud, not out believing my life to be humorously devoid of love, but because the specific phrase love life resonated so little with my experience, past or present. Love life, to me, elicits some idea of an ongoing quest for partnership that includes actual dating and maybe drinks and definitely flirty floral dresses and ballet flats. I have always been more into tennis shoes.
I never dated really. I was terrible at it. One of us was always too in love from the get go, and it never worked. My actual loves were three. I would count maybe a handful more as significant in my romantic experience, but wouldn't deign to embarrass them or myself by admitting so here.
Diogo was my first real love, my first everything. He came into the restaurant where I worked in Berkeley during college-- a predominantly vegetarian spot with counter service, where I worked my way up to the position of assistant manager, topping out at a luxurious ten dollars an hour plus the pennies of tips college students let clamour into the metal bin sitting afront the register. I always smelled like salad dressing and french fries, and he rarely looked me in the eye.
I thought he was rude, in fact I was sure of it. I remember taking special note of how rude he was, until one day, another regular, who was, unbeknownst to me, his friend and roommate, said, "My roommate speaks really highly of you." I have no idea what I did at that counter that might have made a boy admire me. I learned, later, to my shock, that he just thought I was a babe and he wanted to make out. At 19, I had been kissed, really kissed, only once before-- a single time at camp when I was 17. I was not a babe. I wore vintage cat-eye glasses-- genuine deadstock with my very paltry prescription tailor-made to fit-- and jet black hair, finished by bangs with a deep swoop, both costumes for my discomfort. I was fat, maybe, kind of, and definitely insecure. I could punch in an order on that register without even looking, but surely that was not something to admire.
All it took, though, was those few secondhand words of validation for my opinion of Diogo to shift completely. His shyness was suddenly intriguing, his stoic silence painfully enticing. We flirted across the counter each time he ordered a sesame tofu salad by basically doing nothing other than knowing we liked each other.
One day, somehow, I knew. I knew it was my day. I packed my most beautiful outfit to wear after work-- two layered vintage slips over jeans and covered with a chunky sweater. Tennis shoes. And, indeed, that day, he asked me if I'd like to "talk" after work. My first date, if you will.
After my shift, we sat in the corner of the restaurant. He tipped his chair back the whole time-- an offense, as an obedient private school girl-- I still find unforgivable, but I was so enamored I didn't care. I don't remember much of what we said, except that I discovered he had two dictionaries in that backpack he always wore-- an English one and one with Portuguese translations. He was 21, from Brazil; he spoke English fluently, but, like me, was a writer, and anguished regularly over the most appropriate translations of words, the nuances, the grammar. He was the kind of person who would say "With whom are you going to the party?" because it was grammatically correct, even though, I explained, it just sounded weird.
And that is who he was in a nutshell. Brooding, precise, reflective, curious. There was a meticulousness about his mind and his love that captivated me endlessly. On our first real date, he took me to jazz show at a local music school and bought me an apple juice. He worked, I learned, with children with autism; he played jazz saxophone but listened to hip hop, always on vinyl; he rode a skateboard most places; he wrote incessantly; he paid attention to me with the same carefulness he did words. I loved him.
After one month, I lost my virginity to him. He was clinical about that first time in a way I almost needed. He told me what was happening, who we were. At the end, I looked at him and embarrassingly said, "Does this mean you're my boyfriend?" and he, so gentle with my heart, assured me he had been mine long before.
Maybe a year later, he moved back to Brazil. Before he left, he stuck a typewritten story he had made for me on the refrigerator. At the top, scribbled in his very linear handwriting, a note: "This is on account of my loving you forever..."
We were not not together but we were not together. He was in Brazil. I had only been infrequently outside of California. We wrote disjointed emails and sustained phone calls with poor connection. Though just 15 years ago, the technology was seemingly 600 years old, especially when you were definitely in love with someone who lived on a continent you barely comprehended the existence of; there could never have been enough closeness.
One day, he told me still loved me.
Then, he died.
I almost can't tell that story again right now. Surely it only makes me sad in the way a movie makes someone sad; surely I don't still feel it. But honestly I have no idea what's true in that situation.
The abbreviated version is his roomate, the same roommate who had told me of the high speaking, said I needed to get in touch with his family. It sounded ominous, and I distinctly remember saying to my best friend, as we padded down the Berkeley campus to my apartment on University street, everything would be fine as long as he hadn't died.
A week later, finally, just weeks before finals, before graduation, I found out he had.
He was driving on a windy road. Another car took the turn too wide and crashed into his car head on. The steering wheel crushed his lungs.
I communicated with his dad and his sister for years, maybe, too long, grasping to hold onto pieces of him, asking for stories to breathe newness into the things I knew about him, as if adding moments to my knowledge of him kept him alive that much longer. The thing I think of most often is his dad's story of going to identify the body and how he introduced me to the word suadade.
I drank a lot of alcohol. I cried a lot. I got his words tattooed on my arm. I am not sure it's something I even truly reconciled, but mostly just pushed away.
Some time, maybe a year later, I convinced another boy to love me. Not to lessen the importance of that relationship, but that statement is about the sum total of it. His name was Charlie; he was the inverse of Diogo. He was not brooding or reflective; he was a sweet corn-fed boy from Kansas City, who seemed very happy to smoke pot and watch skate videos for his whole life. There was a levity about it that was relieving to me. We worked at a restaurant in Ghiradelli Square together, and, I think, quite literally, I spent the better part of a year convincing him to love me. If you had asked me why, in the midst of it, and I'd answered honestly, I think I could only say because I had begun.
Eventually he did love me, and then he loved me so much it overwhelmed me. We were together almost three years. He gave me whatever I wanted. He wanted, really, nothing. I was bored and had dreams about marrying him that felt like nightmares. One Christmas he gave me his grandmother's diamond ring. Two weeks later I broke up with him.
That feels like a terrible story. Much less ceremonious and respectful than my love for Diogo, but also, it's the truth. I don't remember much about our days together, our what or our why. We had fun. It was silly. I probably stayed with him a year longer than I wanted to, because I loved his mom so much, but that was that. It was a too-long, light-hearted transition out of recoiling from Diogo's death. It was not meant to last.
Recently, I saw a person who looked and moved and spoke so much like him it was eerie. In a fit of nostalgia, after years and years without contact, I sent Charlie a message to say just that. "No way he was that good-looking," he replied, quickly. I laughed and left it at that. That exchange was our relationship in a nutshell-- sweet and funny and easily left behind.
I don't want to think about the years following.
They are years I'm glad I had, for perspective, but also which I could not possibly be paid enough to repeat. They are years I hope my daughter has the respect to keep to herself should she woefully experience the same. They are years that convinced me I would be alone forever. I would not have a partner. I would not have children. I had resigned to it, not pitifully, but with some determination. I had decided my life might look a lot different than I'd anticipated, but it would be okay.
Then came Nic.
I will maybe mostly skip that story, the beginning I mean. I will skip the romantic part of it-- or the part that, to me, felt like romance, because our stories these days are much different in retrospect, and the romance is not actually my point in this instance. The beginning of the story was made of mutual friends, margaritas, and social media. Nic lived in New York. I lived in San Francisco. Yet somehow, despite the distance and seeming absurdity of it all, maybe a year after the first mention of him, we ended up talking on the phone, regularly.
After several months of regular communication, in which I became fervently sure I loved him, he came to San Francisco to visit. I have written now, too many times, that moments before getting him from the airport, my girlfriend said, as girlfriends do in dramatic moments of anticipation and excitement, "What if you're about to meet the father of your children?" but I will write it again, because, I did, and he is.
He twirled me in the airport, and six months later, I moved to Louisville, not really because he wanted me to, but because I felt like I couldn't not. Three years later, I gave birth to our first daughter, Melby.
I cannot help but wonder if dream Sarah wanted me to write this to clarify, something about what I believe love to be, about us. Nic and I are not married. That's not what's definitive about our relationship, but it is significant. I cared for some time, before and after Melby. I cared, because I was raised in a very traditional household. I cared, because my parents care. I care, because it's a gesture, because taxes, because society, because the word boyfriend sounds juvenile and underplayed, partner, though totally apt, doesn't seem to resonate with people here in Kentucky, and husband is not actually true. I still care, somehow, because it's hard to shake deeply instilled ideas of how things should be done.
But I have never cared out of any sort of belief that Nic is not one hundred percent committed to me. This fact about our relationship is only significant, because I believe it conveys something fundamental about who we are. We are not big into ceremony. We don't give gifts for holidays or birthdays. We don't really go on "dates." We don't have any anniversaries to speak of. There is very little fanfare surrounding love in our relationship. We are, just, in love, whatever that means.
It has evolved so much for me since those first days of translation-filled longing for Diogo. Love life once sounded like those imagined dates in floral dresses, a glass of sangria in hand, knees touching nervously in a bar over a barely touched skillet full of potatoes, and now it looks a lot like being the first one to peel themselves out of bed and gesture to make breakfast. Years ago, I read about our particular union as viewed through the lens of the Chinese zodiac-- combining our specific years and months of birth and our potential compatibility as determined by those elements. I distinctly remember the words, "a lot of togetherness," which basically described a relationship which always took work, which did not necessarily mean something negative, but just exactly that, a relationship that required constant attention.
That prediction turns out to be the truest possible descriptor of us. We work at our relationship, always. We are constantly talking, checking in, reassessing. We apologize, we make amends, we work to accommodate and understand each others' perspectives regularly. No stone is left unturned. If I, in my deep-seated training as a contemporary woman, act out of passive-aggressive frustration, Nic will not relent until I tell him exactly what is bothering me. Often I don't even know. I have pushed so deeply aside all the small annoyances out of some belief that it's better, that I cannot even recognize what is bothering me, until, through so many haphazard accusations and assertions, which I can now quickly recognize as untrue, I arrive at, "You left your suitcase flopped open in the front room, when you clearly know it's important me to keep the house looking nice, especially when it seems like my entire 'job' is baby and house, and that makes me feel disrespected!"
This is, to be honest, the source of my passive-aggressiveness, ninety eight percent of the time, or something quite similar, so I am now able to recognize it much more quickly. But the point is that instead of accepting my nonsense at face value, Nic constantly asks me to be honest and the work in progress is learning how to do that, even for myself, and then, in turn, doing the same for him. The feeling is not nonsense at all, but burying it and acting out something else, other than the truth, is. It is a waste of everyone’s time.
I firmly believe I could have an easier relationship with probably many other people. I also believe being with Nic is fundamentally the most important thing I could do if I ever want to grow as a person, partner, or parent. Not because he knows more than me, but because his fervent insistence upon honesty, transparency, and self-awareness invites me to look at my own bullshit. One hundred percent of the time when I am mad at Nic, it's because he's making me see something I already don't like about myself.
This is not to say he's not often annoying or circuitous himself, but even those things, did they not reveal something within me about my own self, would not be so irksome.
I went to a Kundalini yoga class in Santa Barbara once. Kundalini, for the uninitiated, as one time described by the very teacher of a class I was taking, is "the weird yoga." It's repetitive movements for a truly uncomfortable amount of time and weird sounds and breathing in a way that's supposed to move energy, just generally nothing like the downward dog of Lululemon fame. Many practitioners wear head-coverings and all white. At this specific class, I was already feeling out of place, when in walked a very scruffy white guy in a turban, gauchos, and lots of jewelry. He was chanting loudly and laid down his literal piece of sheepskin as his mat.
His total brazenness and/ or comfort with himself, which it was, it couldn't quite yet tell, made me extremely uncomfortable, and so, of course, he cornered me after class to talk to me. I can't remember why or what he said, but I discovered then that he was actually just comfortable with himself in a way I found unnerving. He made intense, yet somehow totally not inappropriate eye contact with me the entire time he talked, and he introduced himself by some name I cannot recall, but followed it with, "That's my spiritual name." I replied, not trying to be funny, "I'm Beth. That's my birth name."
None of this is important, except that then he said something, again, in what context I'm not sure-- maybe there was none, "There is no other," which was to say, whatever we're battling, wrestling, succumbing to, mourning, chasing, trying to make fall in love with us, is also just us. Every single moment and person and experience in life that elicits something in us, that touches us enough to trigger a spark of emotion, positive or negative, is just something we're working on ourselves.
There is no other.
And I believe that totally, entirely, absolutely to be true. It's not to say other people are not responsible for their actions or that they're entitled to be dicks, but our reaction to it is ours alone. The end.
And somehow Nic is like the khakis-wearing, beer-drinking equivalent of this person-- someone who insists I look at myself and become responsible for my own actions. A mirror. My other, who is no other. And that sounds like pretty much the least romantic thing a person could ever write, but I think for me, it's the ultimate. I feel like I'm in this very miserable, maybe never ending process of reckoning, but I also think if I didn't do it, I maybe still would be that six year old with no boobs afraid of a table. And I just want some fucking boobs. I want to grow up, even though it's hard.
We are expecting another baby in late July. I always wanted another baby, but I'm still scared shitless. And yet I am also, actually, the most totally confident that Nic and I as a team can raise the best possible babies ever, because we work together, and we complement each other's understanding, and, just as a couple, we are always working to grow as parents, and also we are just pretty cool and fun.
And so, I guess, this is love.
It took a tremendous amount of life experience and words on the page to get here. My dream babysitter insisted I sit down and write until I arrived at the realization that the person I have committed to loving, the one with which I started a family, a whole life, the end game to my "love life," is the person, who ultimately insisted I love myself. Not in a trite, Instagram-quote, kind of way. But in a true, coming to terms with exactly who and how and where I am and who and how and where I am capable of becoming/ going and that that simple acknowledgement is unconditional love. And giving that to ourselves is the only possible way we could give anything even resembling real love to someone else.
I tried to write this in my dreams last night, to get it all out. My brain was so busy I couldn't sleep for hours on end-- an infrequent occurrence these days as I drag myself through the always-so-tired stage of pregnancy. I told Nic this morning I was taking a personal day. I don't leave him with Melby often, not because he's not more than capable of and happy to be with her solo, but when he's home from stints of flying, I like to be together as a family. Today, though, I had to leave. I wrote for hours. Then I texted him and said I was coming home even though I wasn't done.
Nah, he said.
Keep it up. Get it done.
A fervent insistence upon honesty, transparency, and self-awareness.
I have never felt more capable of being, of owning and embodying and evolving, every single thing I already am. So often, we change, but our perception doesn’t grow. I am so grateful to have found someone, who insists, for the love of God, for my own sake, that it does. This, this is love. This is the story of my love life.