Ten years ago:

I may not know a lot about myself now, but there were many more things that I did not know about myself then. I try to make incremental progress on this, becoming more self aware with each passing year. There is no gauge to measure such things, so I end up hoping that my good intentions lead to progress. Sometimes when the situation is awkward or unfamiliar I find myself reaching down within myself to cope, and the things that I come back with are surprising.

The bar was not one that I would consider natural for me. During the years that I had been clandestinely going to bars, I had developed a dive aesthetic bias. I preferred the kind of bar where one would not feel bad accidentally adding to the accumulated sticky film on the floor. I want to know the bartender is a grizzled veteran of the booze wars, or at least a college student making a living by slinging bottles for tips. I want to know the regulars, or at least feel like I understand them on an existential level. The bar that Isis took me to was not one of these well worn places. It was instead the kind of drinking establishment that I would have looked down upon had I not been taken there by someone else. It was relatively newish in construction, and attracted the young white collar kids that managed the young blue collar kids. Folks were dressed up for a night out, and I was immediately aware that I was not in the same state. But this was, as far as I knew, the only bar in the city that wasn't part of a restaurant or a hotel.

I was there with Isis, and her friend whom I had not met before. I do not remember her name, but only that Isis referred to her as "The Cougar". Back at this time, that nickname didn't carry the same connotations as it does now, and she was much to young then to carry that nickname for that reason. The Cougar and Isis went to high school together, I think, and were drinking buddies. They set each other into a mood that I didn't quite understand at first, but instead slowly washed over me over the course of the evening: they were there to make sure that the other was having fun. This involved a lot of random silliness that I was not prepared for but was entertaining nonetheless. For example: within minutes of getting a table and our first round of drinks, Isis and The Cougar were demonstrating faces that they use to non-verbally communicate with each other. Instead of actually telling me what they meant, they instead merely told me what they were doing, and invited me to figure out what the hell was going on. I was unprepared for mind reading tricks just then, and played this game poorly.

We did the kind of talking that people do over drinks at a bar, especially when one party is truly trying to get a feel for the other side. There were a lot of questions asked back and forth, and a lot of laughing and drinking. In small groups, I think this is one of the situations in life where I am the most comfortable. I think the booze helps me where I would otherwise be anxious, or at least makes the mistakes that I usually think I make fade into the background somewhere. Either way, being out in a situation like this was very nice.

I slowly realized over the first hour that Isis and I were doing this flirty little dance in the conversation, and we were largely leaving her friend on the side of things. I am usually oblivious to this kind of interaction when I am in the moment, so the sudden realization was interesting. Even though I was still in the conversation, I spent a lot of time in my head trying to figure out what all of this might mean. I felt a sudden lack of intel on this situation, and wondered if I should have checked with Allie before I agreed to going out.

So when Isis casually mentioned her boyfriend, it almost went right past me.

I asked her about him, and got a thirty second snapshot of their relationship: he's in Grand Rapids, they see each other when they can, things are good. And with that, I felt like the pressure of the evening was off. No longer did I need to watch what I was saying or try to read minds, or do any of the defensive things that I tend to do when there is a chance for something. But soon enough we were back to that level of interaction, it started to leave some questions: Maybe this was the dynamic we were going to have? Why am I concerned about it?

We closed the bar that night, and Isis gave me a ride back to the apartment. She said that we need to hang out more often, and I should try to make it over to the house some time when she was actually awake. When I got upstairs I sat on the couch for about half an hour, and wondered what all of that static in my head meant. It was only at this point that I realized that I was kind of interested in her. I decided that I would need to confront that feeling and be okay with things if I was going to hang out with her.

 


 

Allie drove me home from work the next day, and we made what was slowly becoming our weekly stop at the grocery store. I peeled around like a mad idiot while she calmly went around getting things. I wanted to talk the previous night over with her, but I wasn't entirely sure it was appropriate. I didn't want to make things weird between us, or between her and her sister.

But this feeling buzzed around in my head for the first part of that week, and I found myself fighting it off. I thought about calling over and seeing what was going on, but I didn't want to seem like I was interested or anything. I instead plotted out how I should hang out over at the house again, without making things too obvious. Of course, all of this plotting only served to allow myself to live in a world of disingenuous feelings, which created a convenient excuse to dwell on things further.

I look back on this now and wonder what kind of pathetic moron I actually was. One night out with a person, and all of a sudden I am letting these emotions wash over me. Maybe as a fourteen year old this could be an understandable state of affairs. But as a supposed adult, well into living an independent life, it was silly. It pointed toward an emotional immaturity that was the cause of a lot of similar pains in my life: my previous relationship that I was somehow unwilling to let go of, my perceptions of myself and what it meant to be me, the way that I interacted with strangers and with family members. I won't say that I'm suddenly more emotionally stable all of these years later, but at least I am able to perceive when I'm losing control of things some of the time. I only wish that I had been able to do the same kind of assessment as I was laying in bed a decade ago, watching clouds go by and wondering how things should actually be.

Of course all of this was pointless, because she called me the following Thursday asking if I wanted to go dancing with her in Grand Rapids on Saturday. I knew that it might make things worse in my head. I knew that my horrific dancing would make me severely self-conscious. I knew that things were going to be a little bit weird between us until I nailed things down in my head.

Of course I said yes.

 

Notes on a life in exile: A retrospective
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