Ten years ago:
One night I get an email from my boss at the store. I haven't seen him in a few days, as we worked opposite shifts so we could mutually get some days off in a row. He said that he had big news to tell me, and that he would tell all during our next concurrent shift. I knew he was sending this email to revel in the psychological shakeup it would cause, but I broke out the anxious feelings anyway. I was not much in the mood for secrets at the time, let alone big important ones involving my job. By the time I finally ran into him again, I was angry at him for putting me through all that.
He told me he had talked with the manager of the store in Grand Rapids, and was pretty convinced the manager spot there was going to be open in a few weeks. He said he was absolutely interested in moving to that store if the opportunity presented itself, as it was a more prestigious position. Our store was old, and our mall was in the last stages of its lifespan. Were he to move, he was reasonably sure that the district manager would likely move me into the managers spot, regardless of his previous statements.
I wanted to believe these words. I certainly believed that he would move to the other store if he could. If I was in his position, it would be exactly the right move. But the part about taking over this store seemed a little fanciful. I told him as much, and he said that I should at least be prepared for the possibility. The raise I had just been given was a sign that perhaps this was a direction things were moving toward.
As if on cue, my landlord stopped by the apartment that evening. As I was writing him the rent check, he told me that he was had put the building on the market a few days ago, and there would be a real estate agent bringing people through that coming weekend to take a look at the place. He had casually mentioned that he might be doing this, so it wasn't that much of a surprise. He then told me that he would really prefer to keep me as a tenant, and offered to help me move to another one of his buildings on the north side. His other building was within walking distance of the mall. I would have to sign an eighteen month lease on the new place, but the rent would be a little bit less for a larger place, and he would pay for movers if I took him up on the deal.
I convinced myself that all of this was happening because I had been thinking about going back to New York. My circumstances were taunting me with possibilities as long as I committed to a path that kept me tied to western Michigan until the end of 2001. I was unsure that I could bring myself to make such a commitment based on promises. But I had been listening for some kind of sign, and it was there hitting me in the face at every turn.
I had begun chatting with a girl who wrote an online journal for the same site I wrote for. I had been aware of her for some time, but never interacted with her in any meaningful way. I don't remember what sparked the first conversation between us; something one of us had written no doubt. She was in her first year of college in the city, and speaking of home made me feel comfortable with her.
I didn't really think anything of our conversations at first, but when she said she would be home soon and would like to come visit, I started going back over words that were said. Did these conversations contain a context I had not been paying attention to previously? It seemed like simple friendly conversation to me, but I couldn't convince myself completely. I told her that I'd be happy to have her come up and visit for a weekend when she came back home.
Since some of our conversations were playing out across public websites, the girls in Syracuse get wind of it pretty quickly. Amy seemed hurt by this girl's intention to come and visit me, and made it known on no uncertain terms. This led to a new round of fighting between us, with me taking up a defensive position of "I don't have any intentions with this girl and why the fuck does it matter anyway", and her being hurt by the betrayal of other people in my life. I became very angry at her seeming insistence that I maintain some kind of monastic existence, pining for her alone in my apartment. This was the first trip through this loop with her, and I was very upset. I didn't see where I had necessarily done anything wrong.
But she saw me withdrawing, and saw the connections being applied elsewhere. It was a threat, and it seems so simple to see this now. In the midst of it, I couldn't put all of the pieces together. Instead, I shook my head and hung up the phone, lost in the confusion. This girl would be in my apartment in a week, and then I would be able to tell Amy that nothing happened. That would surely demonstrate my point.
My brother and his wife were in the beginning stages of house hunting, and I went around with them when I had the time off of work. The places that they were looking at weren't necessarily the places where I would have been happy living, but living vicariously through them in the process was very appealing.
I felt a little weird being there with them while they contemplated a large life decision, like it was so intimate and I was somehow stepping in where I didn't belong. They would run around and look at floor joists or eaves, and I would wander around outside smoking cigarettes and feeling like a pain in the ass. I tried to imagine myself being in the same situation, my wife and I looking intently at some point of construction on a house we were contemplating owning. I couldn't put those thoughts together in my head for very long without spitting them back out for the absurdity of it all. I was convinced I was never going to be in a position to make such a move, and entertaining the idea was more than my brain was willing to accept.
I thought that these were goals that couldn't exist for me. Given the last few months, I thought that there was no way I could hold a relationship together long enough to get married and embark on life goals. It involved the knowledge of some skill that I didn't possess. It involved the desire to have some babies and settle in, which wasn't appealing to me. I was an alien looking at these things.
Sometimes I still have these feelings today, despite the fact that my wife and I have been working on life goals for several years now. I managed to put myself on this path without running into the obstacles. I wonder what the difference is between that guy smoking cigarettes in a driveway of some house, and the one that is putting his wife through graduate school. I want to put my finger on that moment.
I was in the back of the store reorganizing some shelving unit when one of the part-time kids came back and told me I had someone there to see me. The kids knew Allie and my brother, and I honestly couldn't think of anyone else who could possibly stop by out of the blue.
I opened the door out front, and found Isis standing there in a dark green formal gown. She was on her way to the prom with some eighteen year old kid stuffed into a tuxedo. He was a friend of the family or something that I can't remember, because I was so surprised to see her that I wasn't really sure how to commit things to memory anymore. She said something about needing to get together soon, in that way that makes it plain this was a weird kind of nicety rather than an actual offer. After three somewhat awkward minutes, she gave me a hug and ran back off into whatever magical land she had disappeared into. I stood in the middle of my store, flummoxed and dismantled.
I told the kids to mind the store for a second, and slinked out to the loading dock for a nerve-settling cigarette. I wanted to yell and scream to get out whatever the fuck bad bullshit was racing around in my brain, but instead stood there in a stupor that rivaled only the stupor I had found myself in only a few minutes before. I hated the way that she could just dart into my store and fuck me up. I didn't understand how these emotions just floated right to the surface. It reminded me of the loose grip that I actually had on my own emotions.
Eventually I mustered myself enough to get back inside. The kids looked at me, unsure of if or what to say to me. I wordlessly went back to those shelves, where at least I could see and understand the things I had to reorganize.
Notes on a life in exile: A retrospective
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