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I. “Everything looks perfect from far away.”
– “Such Great Heights” by the Postal Service
Becca tells me it has a name, and it’s the seven-year itch. Then a grouse flies up from the dirt road, startled by the pickup truck’s bouncing headlights. We both cringe, but I avoid hitting the flurry of feathers just in time.
Though we just met a couple hours ago on the Saturday evening plane from Denver, Colorado to Billings, Montana, the insular bubble created by the truck’s cabin and the awesome stillness of driving across a star-sheltered grassland state in the middle of the night facilitates an intimate conversation. Becca’s a ranch manager from a different state, while I’ve never roped a steer calf, so we shift gears from professional topics to more personal ones.
I hadn’t been planning to come on this trip, flying directly from Maine where I just spent a week camping with my boyfriend, and Becca wasn’t planning to miss her flight the day before, but here we are, and suddenly we find ourselves mutually admitting something we don’t want to tell even our closest friends. We are each in nearly seven-year-long relationships (she, married, I, on the brink of engagement), but something feels not quite right. Not wrong either, but definitely not right.
I start by recounting the conversation I had with my boyfriend Kris exactly two weeks earlier.
“I don’t want you moving in with me,” I said over the phone the same day I had my ear cartilage re-pierced, calling him from my apartment in Manhattan. Though Kris lives just a few blocks away, he was taking flying lessons that week in Michigan. I normally try to avoid intense conversations before flights, picturing fiery plane wrecks resulting from the distraction of a girlfriend of seven years who couldn’t get her emotions to sit still long enough to identify them.
When I asked him not to move in, I was sending another message: do not propose. I had already been fitted for a ring, and we had our first real vacation in nearly a year coming up, a week camping in coastal Maine. Lighthouses and diamonds sparkled in my future.
But there was a growing sensation that something was not quite right, not wrong either, but definitely not right, and a weekend away with some flirtatious friends had convinced me to stop things in their tracks.
“It’s the seven-year itch,” Becca repeats, a phrase she recently learned from her mother when she lamented the strain that a two-year-old toddler and a husband starting his own restaurant had recently placed on her marriage. Her mother explained seven years is a known time when happiness declines in a long-term relationship, sometimes giving rise to an inclination to be unfaithful as part of the rising cycle of dissatisfaction. Tensions surface and individuals either adapt or leave.
We feel relief creep into the truck cabin, from realizing that there’s a name for the strange discontent that has surfaced in our respective relationships, intertwined with an assumed stability. It’s not just me, we are both thinking, who is crazy and ungrateful enough to question something that is supposed to be the perfect cornerstone of our lives.
How did I get here?
This question continually arises as part of my investment job overseeing various forms of wealth, including wild west ranches, that takes me to these sometimes bizarre, remote corners of the country and keeps me on the road and meeting people who have never set foot in my equally bizarre home, New York City.
How did I get here?
For the first time in nearly seven years, I risk letting this question poke at the carefully crafted image of my long-term relationship, as I encounter a graceless faltering that has not been covered in fairytale literature.
“How did I get here?” originally had a safe, fairytale answer, back when Kris and I dated for nine months senior year of college before embarking on four years of dating long-distance.
We had met standing in line in the library, wandered through an art museum on a first date while trading stories of studying abroad in Paris, and waltzed through a blizzard to the tune of the Sleeping Beauty Overture on our way to a campus hockey game. We grew into a relationship fueled by enchanted, endless stretches of lazy afternoons and nightly parties lasting long past midnight.
Then Kris went off to law school in Michigan and I headed to Wall Street, each of us following our own proud ambitions and dreams, the pots of gold after our Ivy League undergraduate education, while pledging to stay together, forever.
And we did, we have stayed together, a fact that we have both been proud of. I felt smug every time another law school breakup was announced, or as other undergraduate romances imploded and each went their separate ways. I was convinced we were better than that.
We had our story, our sure-thing status as an enduring relationship reinforced by admiring and approving friends, relatives and peers. Contrarian voices inside were drowned out by the voices outside telling us we were the perfect couple, a bright spot in this troubled world.
I subconsciously repeated a lulling refrain: everything is fine. Everything is grand. He’s great; I’m great; therefore, we must be great together. This narrative spiralled on despite us living five hundred miles away and being drawn, day by day, into our separate worlds.
When Becca and I arrive at the ranch, I unzip the outer pocket of my checked bag to make sure everything is still there. Swiss Army knives, jars of Maine blueberry jam, and a broken arrow tumble out. This is my life on the road.
II. “Over heartache and rage / Come set us free”
– “Man on Fire” by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
On Wednesday, I walk into Cin City Piercing and Tattoo Parlor back in Billings, not for a new self-mutilation but to seek treatment of an existing one.
Sharp flashes of pain shoot through my upper left ear from a gold, pirate-like ring piercing, the one I had done the day I called off our moving-in. Two days earlier, I had sweated clean through my own skin at a Northern Cheyenne sweat lodge ceremony, and the toxic spirits leaving my body must have clogged the still-open wound, leaving my ear bright red and pulsing with its own heartbeat.
It’s not infected, just irritated, I learn. Antiseptic spray and I’m back on my way, headed to the airport to fly from Montana to Minnesota for a relay race across the state.
All the “M” states are piling up in my life. Just before Kris and I went to Maine, he had his first solo flight across the state of Michigan. We are, individually, explorers, adventurers in our own separate corners of the country, miles away from our origin story in Ithaca.
I don’t stay in one place for long. I have Manhattan as a home base, but the thrum of the open road and a deep commitment to rural, remote places quickly rips up the thin roots I put down between trips. A restlessness that keeps me running, for weekday commuter trains and weekend wooded trails, also keeps me constantly and comfortably adrift. I haven’t felt really settled since college, immediately after which I moved to New York City, the global epicentre of restless people.
The first time Kris visited me post-graduation, I clung to him, sobbing, for an hour in my apartment, in the common space that was both kitchen and living room. Before he left, I grasped his shoulder with an intensity meant to mold his body into a more vivid, tangible memory. At that first parting, I couldn’t imagine being apart again, though our separation was about to repeat itself at six to eight-week intervals, for four years.
During that period, I grew further into a marathon running habit, a filler for the handful of hours I wasn’t in the office. Kris picked up flying his final year at law school, finding escape from reading legal briefs in wide-open sky spaces.
After graduation, he followed me to New York City to spend his hours in a corporate law firm just as I switched jobs, remaining in New York but leaving traditional Wall Street for a tumbleweed operation of agriculture investing. These past two years invited in a different breed of the ugly beast called distance, characterized more by an emotional separation than a geographical one. My work schedule is erratic and, while fulfilling, demands a lot of heart space, and Kris is billing record-breaking hours at the firm.
Everything is fine. Everything is grand. We are both pursuing our dreams, and we are finally together. But something is not quite right.
A week before the let’s-get-engaged Maine trip, and two days before my let’s-not phone call, Kris left early to revisit flight school in Michigan. Before he even departed, something was missing, like a heartbeat gone quiet. The thought of him leaving brought me no pain.
And lately, I realized, when I leave for Montana work trips, we mutually shrug at my departure, no longer counting the days and the hours until we are reunited, no suppressed tears at separation.
Like an overused band-aid, we lost our stickiness, habituated to a cadence of peel-off-and-go that assumes professional mobility will always transcend togetherness. We became inured to the patchiness of each other’s physical and emotional presence, as the splotches of time we could spend together spilt sporadically across the calendar without much thought or care.
When I look across the table at Kris over bowls of clam chowder, during our first vacation in almost nine months, I feel that chasm created by all kinds of distance and our very separate lives. For the first time, I also recognize sharp flashes of anger. The hurt from being separated has festered and turned into a rage that hasn’t been named until now.
“What happened to us?” I feel like sobbing into my soup. “Where did you go? A sweet college boy with big brown eyes promised me forever then disappeared.”
I see the same eyes, but I don’t know the person behind them like I used to. I don’t feel the same closeness or the same attachment. We are different people than we were in college, laden by demanding careers, seismic family shifts and a growing sleep deficit. Now we show up as formerly passionate student lovers shrouded in heavy layers of adult clothing.
I am angry, at Kris, at me, at us, because it was a choice. Repeatedly, for seven years, we each chose our individual goals and dreams over compromises and pathways that would have let us grow into ourselves together.
I am also angry at the world because if we had made those relationship-first compromises instead, chances are we would have ended up not much better off, deferred dreams curdling into a sour resentment. Instead, some self-preservation instinct cauterized that open wound between us, and the feelings, good and bad, left along with the pain of separation.
All this anger makes me feel like I have cycled backwards to a phase of teenage-like angst, a sensation further fueled by the throbbing, rebellious piercing in my left ear. But at least I am starting to understand why I’ve felt incapable of dancing the final stage of the relationship hokey-pokey, putting my whole self in and committing to cohabiting or to an engagement.
Instead, it is about time, I think, to wake up and name these things openly, even if that leads to breaking up.
As I board the plane from Billings to Minneapolis, I notice my freckled arms are covered with the beginnings of a poison ivy rash. More red, pulsing patches of skin for me to disinfect and heal.
III. “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.”
– Ursula K. Le Guin
“At least you two aren’t constantly at each other’s throats,” Alex says while pushing couscous across a pan with a wooden spoon, speculating on an imagined benefit of being distant.
I am standing in his kitchen, chopping dried apricots with my back to him at the stove.
Alex and I have been friends for nearly ten years, having met in the early days of undergraduate life. Despite a Valentine’s Day card freshman year asking me on a date that I rejected, we have remained platonic friends for nearly a decade. Neither of us have ever mentioned his ill-fated proposal.
Now he is engaged to a Minnesota woman named Effie with glasses and long, brown hair who shares his literary leanings and a comforting nerdiness. She seems hearth-oriented, grounded and utterly devoted to their dog, who currently has a broken toe and a bright pink cast.
I am staying at their home in a suburb of Minneapolis before Alex and I head off in a van to run a 200-mile relay race with Effie’s friends. On one of the many bookshelves lining their cosy den sits a worn copy of Ulysses, and I wonder if Alex can tell me if (and how) the hero made it back to Ithaca.
Effie is out walking the hobbling dog, so Alex breaks stable fiancé character for a moment to answer my question about the challenges of being in a relationship past the time of sparkles. I’m searching for someone who can tell me it’s still electric, that the other person ignites something eternal and thrilling with just a glance across the room.
But from what I can tell, here too, errands pile up–the dog, the grocery list, the mysterious hole in the wooden kitchen floorboards–and fog the sun.
The next day, I call my mother, accidentally from a graveyard in a Minneapolis suburb. I have wandered into this dead-gated community while trying to find a nearby rose garden, and I can’t find my way out. I give up and lean against a tree with an amphitheatre of gravestones fanned out in front of me, all-caps names carved boldly in lonely slabs of speckled grey marble.
“Will you be mad at me if I break up with Kris?” I ask, fighting back tears. I need to know. I think what I’m really asking is will I be mad at myself? Will I regret it? Will I feel guilty for discarding the means to a dream I think my mother wants for me, that I think I want for myself, of settling down with a nice man with a kind smile? Am I allowed to consider that this might not be the right path after all?
Her voice, as always, is kind and gentle, and encourages me to think about what I want and what will make me happy: a long-term, committed relationship, or more of a self-reliant, individualist path?
Oh, if I could drink of that mysterious elixir, happiness, without having to figure out what it is, and its price tag. Such a slippery thing, guessing where it will come from this afternoon and making strange predictions about where it will be hiding in ten, twenty, fifty years.
Kris and I had assumed the good times would come when we were reunited in New York after he graduated law school, that happiness would automatically find us when we finally found our way back to one another. But the relationship-building, the baking, did not recommence. I was recovering from a job that had wrung me out for every last hour it could collect, and Kris was just about to enter one.
We ended up together while still staying apart, a humbling thought to have while lost in a graveyard.
By the time I board the flight home from Minnesota, physical pain has become a familiar friend. In addition to my recovering ear and poison ivy leper arms, both my big toenails are pulsing too, a good-bye drumbeat to the nerves and tissues that once attached them to my sub-toenail skin. After running a total of thirty-six punishing miles during the relay race, a combination of friction, pressure and repeated impact convinced my toenails that they are better off dead than along for the ride. It’s not the first time I’ve lost a toenail. But it is the first time I’ve lost two simultaneously.
The humming plane engine is a backdrop to my ongoing relationship reflections. I take stock of what I’ve learned during this segment of travels.
“How did we get here?” I think I understand better. “Where do we go next?” is the question that instinctively follows, answered by scenes ending in wedding bells or a mountain made of crumpled breakup tissues. Then it dawns on me that it is not time for that question.
When I enter my apartment, Kris is already there, surrounded by grocery bags full of ingredients for making eggplant parmesan. A surprise homemade dinner, something I haven’t seen in years. I am grateful but cautious. One night’s grand gesture is still a small stepping-stone in the span of distance created by seven years.
He turns on the oven and starts baking individual slices of eggplant, raising the temperature of my tiny apartment. I curl up in my hammock, a vestige from a time when I couldn’t even commit to buying a mattress, and breathe. I lay on my right side to avoid brushing against my still-recovering, itchy piercing. My heart rate slows.
A lesson I learned in the Northern Cheyenne sweat lodge: it is not about reaching the moment when the flap lifts and the cool breeze rushes in. Sweat lodge participants are advised to stay present in trembling, overheated bodies, and not suspend life while waiting for the air to clear.
The confusion and discomfort are teachers, sure to visit again. I realize it is time to stay home and get to know them better, living through the questions and maybe rediscovering pain before choosing the next path.
Everything is not fine. I am still angry. But I say these things out loud for the first time in seven years.
And over baked eggplant parmesan, together we accept things as they are.