Not long after I met Michael, I was in New York and attended a pair of husband-and-wife performances featuring Anne Carson and her husband who called himself the Randomizer, and Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed. I described to Michael how Anne Carson read poetry while her husband held up pieces of yarn to accentuate her beats, and Laurie and Lou both did their thing. I had known Michael all of a month but it didn’t stop me from blurting out, “That’s what I want from a relationship!”
He laughed. “What? You want to be married to someone with a ludicrous name who is pals with Lou Reed?”
When I met Michael, I had just turned 29 and I was in a place where I no longer believed that love was a value add. I believed that love was a big sacrifice, that it hurt more than it helped, that it was very hard, that the idea of love I used to have had been naïve and cobbled together from listening to too many contrived songs, which, in turn, just repeated things they had heard in other songs. As I stared down my looming 30s, I had figured it out: love was undoubtedly the other opiate of the masses.
My friend Kira wanted to go to a goodbye party at this bar on 16th Street — the kind of D.C. bar where all of the scuzz seems a little too art directed and the best beer is a $10 Stella. It was late February 2009, and Kira was one of the last remaining staff on Obama’s first Presidential Inauguration Committee. She was constantly attending one goodbye party or another as the rest of the staff moved on to jobs in the administration or gleefully fled D.C. Kira promised that we wouldn’t have to stay too long, and I didn’t have anything better to do.
The party wasn’t for Michael, but he was one of those coworkers that still haunted the Inauguration Committee. He was dressed in his black college radio station hoodie with a white paint splotch that looks a little like bird poop. He remembers that he badly needed a haircut. But I remember his smirk as he surveyed the crowd. It was different than the other smirks I’d grown accustomed to in D.C. It seemed more amused than condescending — a rarity in this town. It could have been the smirk of a reformed cynic. It wanted to like things. It seemed like a smirk that I could work with.
I thought I was wearing this smart, thrifted, color-blocked blouse, and for several years, I would look reverently at it in my closet. I was sure I’d always keep it. Last year, Michael told me he’s positive that I was wearing a yellow “cowboy shirt… you know, with snaps.” A shirt that I donated soon after we met because the snaps didn’t quite line up right, and it offered a revealing gap. He has his story, I have mine.
Whether Michael walked over to introduce himself or Kira initiated it, someone said hello, and I like to joke (badly) that a goodbye party for someone I’d never met turned into a hello party. He and I talked while everyone else milled around us like a party montage. Even when he went back to the bar to get another beer, I followed him with my eyes because I couldn’t quite believe I hadn’t invented him. Maybe he would disappear into the crowd like one of the baseball players from Field of Dreams. But he didn’t. We kept talking, and I found out that he was a few years younger than me. Young enough that he didn’t automatically look at a girl’s ring finger when he chatted her up.
I went to the bathroom, and knew that I had let the conversation go too long. I’d let us wade into that too flirty territory without saying something. But it was hard, because talking to him was the most normal thing I had done in a while. That’s when I stopped our conversation to say the worst thing that I’ve ever said to him.
I had been engaged to another man for about six months, though by the time I met Michael, I knew that I was going to leave him. I just didn’t have the energy to imagine the how or the when. The short version: My ex was verbally abusive, not terribly interested in who I actually was, and owed me thousands of dollars. He spent a large chunk of a (rather small) inheritance from my father and racked up a sizeable debt on my credit card to fund a nascent series of webisodes he planned to make with his buddies after work. Called Moped Lords — or maybe it was Mopedlords — it concerned a dystopian future where our core institutions collapsed and rival moped gangs battled for some reason. It was exactly as promising as it sounds. He had also whittled down my self-esteem until I no longer thought I could dress appropriately, had anything interesting to say, or deserved laughter.
I started to think that maybe everyone was that miserable in relationships, maybe I was just being too sensitive. I couldn’t imagine how I would get out of debt on my own, but I couldn’t imagine how I would stop hemorrhaging debt if I didn’t get out of the relationship.
I kept seeing Michael in groups of mutual friends. He says he would make a point at the beginning of the night to try to talk to someone else, but by the end of the night, we would always find each other. We ended up making a series of bets about small things (like if there was a character named Dicky Fox in Jerry Maguire — there is) as a way to test whether or not the other was still interested. The bets got more and more ridiculous, and if the person accepted, it seemed like a green light. We’d have to see each other again to collect the prize — even if the stakes were rewatching Cuba Gooding Jr. yell about showing him money.
Our friendship progressed through coyly composed emails about the things we were reading, whether or not Friday Night Lights was making him cry at work, where my cat was napping that day. We became Facebook friends, then he broke the Gchat barrier and we started chatting all day.
When I was around him, it was like the pull of gravity. We’d start out talking with reasonable personal space, and we’d lean in closer and closer. Sitting together at a show, an old guy passing by said we looked so “toasty.”
While I was slowly trying to dis-engage myself from my fiancé, Michael made no secret that he was interested. I drew a precarious line that he and I couldn’t cross, because I didn’t want to cheat, and if we ever did get together, I didn’t want Michael to think that I would cheat on him. Maybe that line was a fiction I was telling myself, but it was a necessary fiction.
We went on like this for a month, meeting in groups and then isolating ourselves in our flirtation. Michael, still single and willing to push the issue, got another girl’s number in the middle of winning a staring contest with me. Then he was offered a job in Arkansas, working to pass Obamacare, and asked if he should stay. I couldn’t ask him to do that, because I couldn’t fathom how long it would take me to get untangled. I more or less banished him to Arkansas. That ultimatum, he says, is the only bet he can remember losing.
The day Michael arrived in Arkansas, I left my ex-fiancé. Friends came over while my ex was at work, and I loaded up everything I could in their cars. It wasn’t a clean break. There were 2 a.m. phone calls, promises of money, apologies, and threats of revenge porn. But throughout it, Michael supported me by letting me be myself, trusting me, and oozing kindness and dad jokes from the Central Time Zone. That, and he bought me plane tickets.
A month later in Arkansas, after we had a perfect day of back-to-back matinees and ramen, “I love you” came tumbling out of a part of my brain that hadn’t relaxed in a long, long time. I covered my mouth as if I could keep that thought to myself for a little while longer. I figured it was too soon, but he figured it was about time. He has his story, I have mine.
He eventually found a job in D.C., and we moved into the second floor of a row house several blocks north on 16th Street. He started getting biweekly shots so he could be around my cat.
I want to be careful not to imply that my husband rescued me from a toxic relationship, or that it was smart to jump from one serious relationship to the next. But, meeting him shook me into remembering who I was. That made it easy to see that Michael was the kind of partner I wanted — that love was really about being able to see yourself.
We adopted another cat a few months before we got married — an orange tabby with a devil-may-care swagger — and named him Lou Reed. He and Michael are great pals, so you could say I landed pretty close to the mark.