Sunday, October 9, 2016

Make the Choice

I felt a certain level of inevitability as a child. That one day I would go to college. That I would have a job. I would get married and have my own children and my own house. A lot of this sense of the inevitable is rooted in a place of privilege. While I didn’t grow up affluent, I did grow up in a middle-to-upper-middle class household. My parents owned their house and both of them had not only went to college, but met while they were earning their Master's degrees. My father opened a college fund for me before I started elementary school, and filled out the paperwork for me to open a Roth IRA when I got my first job, folding sweaters at a discount clothing store at the mall.

Still, this sense of inevitability wavered. The first cracks--it was around the fourth or fifth grade, at the start of a new school year, and it occurred to me that I might not pass the grade. That there was a lot to learn, a lot of pressure, and how could one successfully pass grade after grade after grade thirteen years running without faltering? While that fear turned out to be unfounded, at the end of my sixth grade year, I asked out a girl for the first time. Not just any girl but the one I’d been crushing on for more or less the entire school year. There was a strange cognitive dissonance to the whole scenario. That the starry-eyed dreamer in me thought that of course we’d end up together. That the budding cynic in me recognized, of course the shy, un-athletic kid whose nose was always running wasn’t going to get one of the prettiest girls in the school to be his girlfriend.

She said no. And while fears of failing a grade dissipated, fears that I would never find a romantic partner took root in my psyche, for despite a series of profound crushes, throughout those middle and high school years, and despite asking these girls to dance or passing along awkward love notes or sending friends to test the waters for me because I was too nervous to talk to these girls (I’m not sure what I thought would happen if one of them did say yes), I never so much as made out with a girl until my freshman year of college.

Besides school and girls, I decided it was my destiny to be a great author, and moreover a great young author. Between the eighth grade and sophomore year of college, I’d drafted five novels. I checked out books from the library about writing query letters to publishers, and began to amass a pile of form rejections in my bedroom.

Like just about any writer who has accomplished anything, I’m proud of those rejections now. Rejections mean you’re trying.

And trying was the corollary to my crumbling sense of inevitability. The realization that I was going to make my own life, and while it was frightening that it wasn’t all going to fall in line with my intentions or my preconceived notions of what a life ought to be, there was also something exciting about that. The prospect that if I kept trying--kept making choices--my life might shift in any number of directions.

Fast forward to my life immediately after college. I was in my first multi-year, live-in relationship. I had a good, stable university job that wasn’t too far from where I’d grown up, so I could still make it home for holidays. I was writing. I had the seeds for some semblance of the life I’d always imagined I might have, and before I knew it, that sense of inevitability had taken hold once again.

The easiest thing to do would have been to have seen that scenario through. To have settled down for a life in Syracuse, New York, to have married this woman, to have kept writing, as time permitted, as an avocation.

Instead, I decided to apply for, and then chose to take a job I’d always aspired to in Baltimore, three hundred miles away. Nine months later, for the first time, I ended a relationship.

I won’t bore you with every personal and professional pursuit that’s passed between then and now. But I will say that I chose to apply for a promotion, and took the job offer when it came. I chose to travel to the west coast for the first time.

I worked with Heather for a summer in California and, at the tail end of that time, had some of the most captivating conversations of my life. When I was passing through her area a couple weeks later, I chose to text to see if she wanted to hang out.

We chose to hang out. Chose to hold hands. Chose to kiss for the first time as the daylight faded, knee-deep in the Pacific Ocean off Black’s Beach in San Diego.

We chose to start a long-distance relationship from three thousand miles apart for our first year together.

I chose to apply to MFA programs. To put my writing first, in earnest, for the first time. And when I was admitted to Oregon State, Heather chose to make the move to Corvallis with me.

I chose to propose. She chose to say yes.

And Heather brought up the point that we should not enter marriage blindly. That we were choosing one another, but it was a choice we’d need to continue to make if we were to stay together across years, across decades, across a lifetime. That people grow apart, or stop growing together. There was something terrifying in acknowledging the truth in what she said. That for the relationship we had built, coming to understand one another’s ambitions and preferences and neuroses, it still might not mean that we'll stay together forever. But there’s something reassuring there, too. To be with a partner who is constantly making a choice to be with me. To know that I am making that choice, too.

Today, we make another choice together. To see through the promise of our proposal, our engagement. To very literally bring our families together to bear witness to ceremonial rights, and to converge on a dance floor.

And for that our first dance as a married couple, Heather and I will dance to this song:

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