Southbound

It was Elvis’s birthday by the time I got to Nashville. This was Tennessee, and they were playing all his songs on the radio. I drove the steep grades to Chattanooga in the inky darkness. They played Love Me Tender. Atlanta after Chattanooga, and Elvis was singing Suspicious Minds. Valdosta, Georgia by early morning. Return to Sender.

I started from West Lafayette, Indiana the evening before. I rented a car because I knew my fifteen-year-old Mercury wouldn’t make it. I had four days off work, no classes, and almost no money.

I’d met him a few weeks before in a campus bar. He sat in the back of the bar with his chair tilted back a little against the wall. He was wearing a flannel-lined denim jacket, hiking boots and a bandanna around his head that held back locks of straight brown hair that wanted to flop over into his eyes. There was a fading bruise on his lip, and I’d learn later that he’d been in a bar fight the week before. He was slightly drunk, but very funny. His fiancee, apparently reasoning that life was too short for the constraints of monogamy, had recently started seeing someone else. I had just ended my first real long-term relationship only a few weeks before. It was Tuesday night. He would go through commencement on Saturday, and leave for graduate school in Florida on Sunday.

We were both fresh out of a painful breakup. He had a healthy buzz on and three days left in town. I had another semester of college left. What could possibly go wrong? So we spent every minute in each other’s company till Friday night, and then parted. It didn’t think it was a big deal — I had another date that night anyway and a different one for the next night. Still, in a campus restaurant at midnight one of those nights, he asked me earnestly to please give him a chance. But he was leaving.

I said maybe. When I got home after my date on Saturday, there was an envelope stuck in my door. He’d stopped by one more time, leaving a letter.

I wished I hadn’t gone on my date.

He called from his parent’s house as soon as he arrived. I called him back, oddly mystified that our three-night stand seemed to be continuing across the miles. We kept talking all the way through Christmas, on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Sometime during that week he moved into his apartment in Florida, ready to start graduate school.

I said nothing to my parents before I drove to Florida, of course. I was an adult, and they really didn’t need (or probably want) to know that I was driving across the country to continue a fling I’d begun in a bar two weeks earlier.  I drove through Valdosta and into a wall of exhaustion. I stopped for coffee. It didn’t help. They played Heartbreak HotelOhhh, I thought longingly, a hotel.

I kept going. By the time I reached the Florida line, the sun had risen. I hadn’t seen it for six weeks at home, and it occurred to me that I could open the window. My mind had been fixed to the assumptions of an Indiana January until the warm air hit my face. I woke up. There was only about an hour left to go. I made it. He was in class, but he left his door unlocked, as discussed. I crumpled onto his bed, and his Golden Retriever puppy stumbled over me several times, then stood there with his tongue lolling out of his mouth, mere inches from my eyelids. I squinted up at him. I didn’t know yet, but he would become more my dog than E.J.’s.  At length, he curled up next to me and we both fell asleep. His owner found us there when he returned.

Two weeks later, he and the dog reversed the trip over a four-day weekend in which we spent only about thirty-six hours in each other’s company. I made one more trip the other way before we realized a long-distance relationship was untenable. We did the math at a restaurant in Gainesville in front of a huge saltwater aquarium. I would graduate in August. I had no plans, but was vaguely interested in law school, and he had almost two years left in graduate school. It would be more than three years before we could even live in the same state.

We had to end the long-distance relationship. So we did.  That August after my graduation, he and I packed a U-Haul trailer with my stuff, attached it to a friend’s Jeep Cherokee, and drove south, sleeping at rest areas on the way.  I couldn’t quite believe I was doing this, but moving for a solid relationship seemed like an acceptable reason for leaving my hometown. Unlike mine, his parents seemed never to have a word to say in judgment of any of his choices, and if they did, it was so mild as to be imperceptible. He mostly assumed that he would do what he wished to do, and that would be okay with everyone. We were polar opposites in that regard – he asserted his own life boldly, and assumed he would navigate the aftermath. I had almost no skill at acting on my own behalf. So I filtered my need for freedom through E.J. like a kind of emotional money laundering. Where there was a gap between the things in life I was drawn to and what I thought were my family’s expectations for me, E.J. was a permission slip through that gap.

In the next year I would scuba dive off the coast of Florida, rock climb in the North Carolina mountains, travel to Puerto Rico, get married, travel to the Bahamas and the Pacific Northwest, and do my first float trip in alligator habitat. All of these things were more me than I ever expected them to be. When something adventurous was on the menu, I would simply point to my husband and shrug, as if I had nothing to do with this outrageous mode of living; I was just indulging the minor quirks of the man I loved.

I was consciously aware of none of this, and so I was also unaware of the fact that E.J. wasn’t really interested in indulging my free-spiritedness. To be sure, I was attracted to him because he knew how to live his own life overtly and boldly, and I didn’t. But in the unconscious dance of attraction, he was at once drawn to and annoyed by the parts of me that my childhood had molded, that I was trying to leave behind – the need for safety, the fear, the restraint. Those were the things that balanced him out. And so a tension blossomed, between the things he consciously wanted from me and the things he unconsciously wanted from me, which were often quite different. And I had my own contradictory needs to reconcile.  The only thing I could see was my own faults, my own inability to pursue my own prerogatives. I could see none of the structures between us that reinforced it.  And so began the Lost Decade.