I didn’t get close to anyone in graduate school. We were all writers but I felt like the only one who didn’t speak their language.
For half the year, I worked on film sets, often long into the night. I felt present and useful, awake and active on set. Whereas, in school, I felt just the opposite. I was lethargic and a mute. In the spring, I began going to an office. I wrote for a magazine from 9 to 5. The higher-ups called me a free spirit.
Someone who should be away from her desk. I had no idea what they were talking about. I felt anything but free. Away from the office, I felt sad and caged in, directionless and alone. Looking back I wonder if that never really showed. Maybe I seemed relieved, even joyous, to be amongst the magazine staff. I think I needed to be there, to be recognized and contributing and purposeful, more than I was willing to acknowledge, let alone admit.
You see, I’ve always thought I could be someone who didn’t need a team or an office outside of my home, when, in fact, this is exactly what I needed while I was in graduate school.
Anything other than the constant pressure of my thesis. How could I possibly write about myself, about a life that had grown stagnate and uneventful? I had so many things I was ashamed of at that time. The reality is that back then showing up at an office felt like the only thing I had going for myself. And being as depressed as I was, I was desperate for a reason to wake for. I needed that job because it got me out of bed and got me around people.
When my classmates and I spoke about our futures, I spoke about New York City, corporate jobs and tall buildings. They talked about living the hard way, barely paying their rent. They were the free spirits, not me. I spoke about becoming a part of the “real” world as if I needed this to garner any sense of self-worth. Their lifestyle really did make me uncomfortable. I won’t deny this. Maybe that’s why I didn’t spend more time with them. Maybe I was afraid of becoming anything like them, of becoming free and unattached to a comfortable life, to excellence, monetary milestones, and all I already knew.
My boyfriend at the time wanted very much to live out the vision of my classmates. In many ways, he already was. He certainly had taken on the attitude. He didn’t want to belong to anything. He did not want to feel controlled, especially not by work. His dream was to quit his job as a teacher, receive unemployment benefits, and write while living on the bare minimum. A future with him scared me.
And the thing is, I knew my vision for my future scared him, too. Ultimately, it was my lifestyle, my upbringing, that made my boyfriend pull away. Nothing has ever made me so furious. Nothing has ever made me feel so small, so weak and ashamed.
When he first came to visit me in Los Angeles, I don’t think I lived how he had imagined I would. He had found my blog on the Internet, by the way, so it’s easy to understand that he had created a vision of me long before we had even met. I wasn’t an artist in the stereotypical sense. I don’t know how else to put it. I wasn’t a rebel or even very liberal and I think he wanted that. Reading me, he certainly expected this though I’m still not sure why.
On that first visit, I remember his leg bouncing under my kitchen table. I remember him on the verge of heartbreak.
His life in Montreal was not like my life in LA, and I think he panicked when he discovered this was the case.
I think he panicked when he walked into my apartment for the very first time and saw too many things, too many choices. I had no roommates or creaky floors. There was nothing to tiptoe around.
Instead of indulging in this, though, I believe he began to look down on me. I think he began to consider my life easy, to look at me as if I was spoiled and undeserving. He stopped treating me to meals and other little things. It was as if I was suddenly being punished. I don’t know but I felt guilty, like I had wronged him somehow, like there was something about my world that made him feel empty inside. The reality is that after his trip to see me, we should have let each other go.
Though he’s never said it, I believe he tried to the leave the reality of me behind. On that first trip, he actually left me in the middle of the night. He actually bought a ticket and flew away. He didn’t even let me know. Literally, he left me while I was sleeping. We had been dating for about a month at that point, and in Los Angeles he began thinking about all the other men I knew. He panicked that I was cheating on him, that I was over him. It’s wild how our mind works.
I remember him calling me from the landline at his home. He didn’t own a cell phone yet and you could hear it in his voice, that he had literally gotten off his flight and raced to his apartment. He was panicking. What had he done? Why would he leave me? He regretted everything. He told me that he had thought about turning around and flying back to me during his layover in Chicago but then remembered his suitcase. He didn’t want to abandon it at baggage claim, and this is how he decided to continue on his flight home.
He had already fallen in love with me, and he had fallen fast. But what I didn’t realize was that he fell for me under his circumstances.I don’t think I ever forgave him for this, for the choices he made and the way he abandoned me in the middle of the night, how reactive he was over our differences, for the way he couldn’t talk things through. His weakness was unforgettable and yet I managed to date him for three and a half years.
His disappearance is why I was fired from the filmset. When I woke up the day of the shoot and found him missing, I could barely drive. I was sobbing and uncontrollable. I couldn’t breathe. It all just felt abusive, hateful. I had never experienced anything so dramatic with a boyfriend before. The scary thing is that this was a foreshadowing of all that was to come were I to stay with him. Most healthy people would take heed and break ties. Immediately. Not me. Instead, I only became more attached. I felt responsible for the way he began to change toward me, for the way he began to let his dream of us go. This is why that magazine job became so important. It felt like an exit strategy, like an opportunity to rebuild my identity.
There were too many nights where I drove home hysterically crying. I felt something I had never, ever felt before. I felt rage, and my own rage terrified me. Yet in some tormented, pathetic way I got myself completely hooked on his passive aggressiveness, on the judgment he had of my privileged life. Soon enough, my life revolved him and the effort I made to achieve the respect and love he had had for me prior to flying to Los Angeles, prior to stepping into my world, prior to ever witnessing my reality and the abundance inherent to my life.
There was this one guy in graduate school actually, someone who I felt could have been a part of my world. He had clean skin, a respectable degree of naivety, and a nice, strong body. There was just something about him. I felt like he could have gone to my high school and this comforted me during my two years away from home. On Thursday nights, our graduate program had a weekly reading series and afterwards there was always some mixer setup down the hall. The students would bring their IDs and they’d serve beer and table wine and classmates would chat in packs.
I avoided this social function, for the most part. But the one or two times when I didn’t, I’d stand in the corner with that one guy in my program and we’d get to talking. In those moments, I understood the appeal and the importance of attending these Thursday night functions and breeding camaraderie in the midst of an energized room. The two of us would talk about our isolation, our long-distance loves, and also the solitude wrapped up in our one bedroom homes. We found it all challenging. Like I said, I thought we could be from the same world. We didn’t talk about our writing or really even our weekends. We talked about the confusion and pain barely holding us together.
Then one day he did sent me an email about my writing: “I think you are aware of the level of privilege you’ve presented, and I hope you are aware of how that is perceived. That said, you cannot deny it and I don’t think you should at all. There is a comfort in the confidence and the reality of the fact; for my sake as a poor white kid, just don’t let your privilege force onto your writing any sort of blinders. I’ll try to do the same from my socioeconomic rung.” His words still stick with me.
I guess he wouldn’t have been at my high school. I guess, similar to my boyfriend, we came from opposing realities. But I’ve never forgotten that email he sent or the way it made me feel. In midst of such personal devastation, it made me feel hopeful. Seen. And accepted. My classmate had called me out on my lifestyle but he also owned the blinders that might come from his own, too. Perhaps what felt best was that I didn’t feel judged or like I should be ashamed. I didn’t feel like he was even asking me to prove myself.
Sometimes I wonder what life could have felt like those years in Los Angeles if I had dated my classmate instead. Maybe I would have felt like I belonged to something beyond just an office. Maybe I would have found something I could wake for, something that was my own. Maybe I would have been more connected to my heart. I probably would have cried less. I doubt that I would have discovered my own capacity for rage. It’s strange to say I’m thankful for discovering such a brutal and devastating part of myself, though, in a sense I really am. I now know the importance of where we come from, and how it plays a role in my life.
And while it’s difficult to accept or even to write, I admit that my privilege will keep me from being accepted or loved romantically and entirely by certain people. And I admit also that, personally, it’s not in my own best interest to try to change anyone’s mind or convince them to overlook the parts of me that I honor and they’d rather ignore. That’s okay. And while I do believe it’s incredibly important to welcome all types of people into our lives, I also can tell you firsthand that sometimes it’s better to welcome them in as friends without making them fit in as a partner or turning them into your world.