When I was married, I thought I had the perfect plan to make the relationship work: if my husband and I both had strong feelings about a topic, we would compromise but, if one person didn’t care and the other had an opinion, then that person would get what they wanted. It wasn’t even clever it was just logical. In theory, it created a nice balance. In practice, it created a stable imbalance– He always knew what he wanted and I never did, so He ended up making just about all of the big decisions in our relationship.
Usually that involved some form of travel. He picked the destination when we studied abroad in Australia. He chose when we went to South Africa. He planned our honeymoon to Switzerland. He made the call when we lived in France and learned French (I preferred Spanish). I kept getting taken to amazing places so I felt that the system must be working, but there were more than a few times when I had the nagging feeling that this Thing that I was obviously supposed to be grateful for just wasn’t all that great. I was living someone else’s dream and, in many ways it was lovely, but that didn’t make it mine.
I was willing to defer on the question of travel but I mustered up an opinion of my own when it came to choosing where to live. He wanted to live in New York. I did not. Since we both had strong feelings, this was the time for compromise. That could have meant moving to Chicago or Philadelphia, but instead it meant trying out New York for a short time. He accepted a summer internship with a law firm and I agreed (of course) under the rationale that I would have veto power to reject living in New York long term if I didn’t like it at the end of the 2-month stay.
The often-repeated story was that I realized how great New York was and fell in line. The side story was that I found out before the summer ended that my decision had been made for me. For one thing, a law student’s first summer job is necessarily his second summer’s job, which is necessarily his career job unless it or he really sucks. For another thing, the economy tanked and moving from seniority to new-guy status was a huge risk. More to the point, He couldn’t even interview for another job during the set interview period because he was studying abroad. The schedule was laid out far in advance and he knew it. But all these are just particulars of circumstance, the truth is, that what He wanted always seemed like the “right answer” and I didn’t have the nerve to say no to it. New York was a done deal because its what he wanted.
Even so, when I agreed to New York, it was to Brooklyn. Brooklyn is manageable, Brooklyn has a soul, Brooklyn is relatable– its buildings and its people are closer to the ground than in the city center. So when we started looking online for apartments, I was completely confused to see that He was scrolling through a totally different section of the map. Manhattan? Midtown? It went against everything we planned. He didn’t bother trying to convince me, he just started looking, knowing the pieces would fall into place.
He wanted to live in Manhattan. I did not. We both had strong feelings. Maybe, I wondered, it was my turn to get my way, or at least time for compromise. But relationships have a certain sort of muscle memory that tends to favor one side. And wasn’t it true that I didn’t have a job in the city yet? And wouldn’t it make sense to be centrally located? And isn’t it wrong to say I don’t want to live someplace I’ve never lived in before, without giving it a chance? And wasn’t it true that I didn’t really have time to look for apartments anyway since I was in the midst of treatment at an eating disorder facility right before we moved? Good point, honey, we’ll do it your way.
I moved to New York one week after he did, newly “sober” from rehab and tender in a new environment. Our apartment was in a gleaming 40 story building literally in the shadow of the Empire State Building. We paid over $3000/month for under 500 square feet. It was beautiful and strange. I was afraid to leave the building Friday through Sunday because of the hoards of tourists that swarmed the area. Bored with my days alone of job-hunting, I asked if I could join Him on his walk to work in the mornings but he said no– that was his time for his daily phone call with his mother.
I remember walking together from the grocery store to our apartment for the first time and complaining about how far we had to carry the food. He wasn’t sympathetic: “I guess I’m just an optimist, I always try to see the positive in things.” Fuck that! I’m the positive one, I’m the one who sees the bright side. Having your cake and eating it too doesn’t make you an optimist– everything looks good when your mouth is full of frosting you asshole!
That’s what I should’ve said but instead I didn’t say another word.
New York is a great place for people with disposable income who know what they want. He was acting on his very clear sense of what he wanted by making a habit of drinking to oblivion and spending a lot of time with a woman who could keep up with the Manhattan lifestyle. I had long since relapsed into bulimia and was satisfying my addiction by losing myself in the food multiple times a day. And that’s how it was.
We were young and attractive and successful and well-traveled and well-liked and “what a view!” We did not fight. We did not express anger. We skipped a whole spectrum of inconvenient emotions. Our lives were dreamlike in the way that dreams lack detail and dimension and can be escaped from when they become intense. It was supposedly wonderful.
New York was just a detour, we both agreed on moving back to Michigan eventually. That was where the agreement ended. I wanted to live in Detroit. He wanted to live in Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor is lovely, I know that because we both lived there for 6 years. Ann Arbor is easy and safe and known and perfectly likable but it wasn’t where I wanted to live. It was the only place He would consider and even then, large parts of the city were off limits to him. I felt a sense of dread every time he pulled up the Zillow page and zoomed into the map until he had sufficiently narrowed down the acceptable parameters of our future life. I do not recall us ever searching in Detroit.
Every year, when our lease expired, I searched for apartments. I wanted a home among the millions of cubicles for rent in that massive city. I knew that I didn’t want the vacant sterility of living in what felt like a hotel room. But I didn’t know where to find it. Every year, the known won out against the unknown. Every year, His certainty won out against my pathetic ache to find that nebulous something else.
In our tiny apartment, we lived lives of compact denial until that strange clear day when he surprised me at work upon returning home from a business trip to Paris. He had flown in hours before but had a layover at his girlfriend’s apartment before He generously visited me. I burst into tears at the sight of Him and, after walking outside, I found the space to tell him I was “having doubts” about our relationship.
At that point, I still didn’t know what I wanted but I did know that I needed some things to change. I shouldn’t have been surprised that it wasn’t going to come from his end– He already had everything he wanted. He wouldn’t go to therapy, He wouldn’t give me time, He refused to even stop seeing his girlfriend! I thought that all I needed was a month to clear my head and then everything would be back to normal so I found a cute sublet in Brooklyn and set off. When I left, He filed for divorce. I, the obliging wife, signed the papers too.
3 years have gone by. As far as I can tell, He is living just about the same life he was grooving on when I left.
For my part, life now is unrecognizable from what it was then. The freedom of this new course can seem overwhelmingly multi-dimensional and I often feel I really don’t know what I want. I still struggle with a lot of the old issues and I have new worries that never used to bother me for– like how will I make enough money to support myself and will I ever have kids and what if I never find someone to be certain about? Even so, each year has been new and exciting and different in ways that exceed the one before it. I’m finally learning what I want so I can build toward it. I don’t always get what I want but at least I know if what I’m getting is what I ordered. My life isn’t a dream anymore, but at least I’m not asleep.