There is a map of Colorado hanging from the slanted ceiling of his room. It sits right across from his bed, so that when we lay on our backs, we are looking right at it. Right at the big blue word “Colorado,” at the mountainous West side, the plains of the East. At all the roads leading into and out of the state.
It feels like a cruel joke sometimes, like Colorado is this thing literally and figuratively hanging over us, this thing we can’t avoid looking at. He put it up there without intending it to be symbolic, as just a relic of where he’d been, as something to fill blank space on a white wall. But to me, it is this constant reminder that no matter how tightly we entwine our bodies as we sleep, no matter how hard we grin at each other with our faces close in the morning, I am going to Colorado soon and he is not. It continues to stare us in the face even when we close our eyes.
Back in the time of our grandmothers, and even our mothers, it was commonplace for people to get into serious relationships their early 20s — to start dating in college and continue lives together right afterward. It was normal, accepted — even expected, especially for women. Now it seems that the pendulum has swung so far the other way that making decisions based on your partner at this point in life is practically an affront to being an independent and self-actualized person. If a young person moves to a new place or gets a job to follow their significant other, people shake their heads and whisper and secretly or not-so-secretly think it’s a mistake. Even the words people use, “follow,” is a pejorative way of describing the entire situation. Can’t you move to a new city to be with your partner, not to follow them? Is there something so wrong with that?
Now that people are pushing off serious relationships till their late 20s or 30s, the 20s are expected to be this decade of self-discovery, of a time for exercised selfishness. This is the time when we’re supposed to travel, when we’re supposed to make decisions based on jobs or other opportunities, when we’re supposed to not be tied down, when we’re supposed to pursue what we want to pursue and go where we want to go. Anything else is squandering this decade, is old-fashioned and embarrassing — is something we will regret. Moving to a new place to pursue a personal dream or goal or opportunity is accepted and celebrated as brave and ambitious and awesome. Doing anything because of love is pathetic and very likely regrettable.
We think that there will be time for all that later, that this is the time to think about ourselves, to get ahead in our careers or to experience new things or see the world. That later, we will settle down. Later we will compromise and make decisions based on other people. Maybe that’s true. Maybe it is time for exploration and adventure and being a little selfish — but does that need to be to the exclusion of relationships? Should we have to feel badly about wanting to be near the person we love?
He and I have put off deciding what we are going to do when I leave because it feels easier that way, to leave it to some future versions of ourselves who will certainly know how to deal with this far better than we do. We put it off because we can pretend that it isn’t happening, we can pretend that we have infinite time living a few minutes away from each other. We lie on our stomachs and face away from the map on the wall.
The reason I’m leaving is an easy conversation to have with everyone who asks — I’m moving to a new city to pursue a degree in something I care about. It’s the right answer. It’s what a driven, independent, 21st century woman is supposed to do. Everyone is supportive, everyone is congratulatory. Every time they comment on how excited I must be, and every time I have to lie.
More than ever, our 20s are a time when we are supposed to be trying things, figuring out what we want to do, and how we’re going to get there. Everyone is scattered, everyone is going in a million directions. Everyone has a Master’s degree they want to earn or a job they want to get. Everyone has a trip they want to take or an adventure they want to have. How can we do all of those things and possibly factor in someone else? Are we forced to give up one or the other, to stay in one place so we can go to bed next to the person we love every night, or to follow our dreams alone?
It comes back to this constant fear that we are making the wrong choice, that we are wasting the precious youth we have by doing something we regret later. Which will be worse? To look back and wish we had put ourselves first, that we had pursued our own goals, or to look back and wish we hadn’t taken for granted that there would always be time for love later? Why does it so often feel like it has to be either or? Something has to be the deciding factor, something has to take precedence.
Maybe you get lucky and find yourself with someone whose dreams align perfectly with yours, or maybe you decide to try to make it work long distance as you individually pursue what you want, but no matter what, being with another person will always require some level of flexibility. You either decide to compromise what you want to take the other person into account, or you don’t and accept the fact that this may mean losing them.
One morning we woke up and during the middle of the night, the bottom two tacks on the map had come loose, and the paper had fluttered forward, so it hung perpendicular to the ground, no longer flush with the slanted wall. Colorado now hung closer, looming before us in case we had forgotten, in case we had tried to ignore its imminent approach. In case we had tried to pretend to ourselves that we could have it both ways, that we could be free to do whatever and go wherever we wanted and be in love at the same time — that somewhere, we wouldn’t have to give up something.