The sun descended on the land behind the trees, transforming them from a barricade of green to a silhouette that reflected black in the small lake that had been rented on our behalf. Once I saw the fishing boat out in the lilypads, I ran down to the tiny L-shaped dock on the edge of our Wisconsin oasis while shouting, “I AM HERE TO RUIN YOUR TRANQUILITY!”
Graceful entrances have always been my forté.
I kicked off my shoes and pushed the paddleboard into the shallow end. The competing winds had disappeared, leaving behind a placid surface and acute silence. All I could hear was the sound of my paddle dipping into the water–three strokes on the left; three on the right.
As I balanced myself on the board and pushed myself out to the deep, one of the boys in the fishing boat said to me, “Watching you do that is nerve wracking.”
“I mean, I don’t want to get too cocky and jinx myself, but I feel like I’ll be okay.”
Even as I said it, the muscles in my calves twitched, my balance faltering slightly. It was my second time out on the water without a bathing suit or a backup plan; I came to the center of the lake, shifting my weight with each push of the paddle.
I looked up to see the crescent moon peeking above the glorious oranges of the sky and the dark wall of trees. This week of grown up summer camp, filled with s’mores and beer and hilarious company, would be ending soon. This time last year, I was finally letting what had long been unraveling completely undo itself–including myself.
In one year’s time, I managed to get everything I had said I wanted for years (or at least, I was on the pathway toward it), as well as just what I needed–unexpectedly, remarkably, often painfully. I didn’t know at the time that it would require reducing my life to a smoldering crater to get there.
“Are you kidding? Are you fucking serious right now?”
Anger permeated my harsh whisper as I leaned toward him, whiskey fresh on his breath. He’d brought home a woman he was sleeping with; the sex wasn’t the indiscretion, as we hadn’t been monogamous for some time, but in the midst of our breakup, we’d agreed we shouldn’t bring someone into the fray of our mutual extrication. He knew I was still home, and this was a final, pleasant middle finger to me–the cherry to top off a sundae of barely passive/completely aggressive happenings in the slow disintegration of our relationship.
Like any breakup, we were damaging each other long before it came to the end, even though both of us would never have admitted it at the time. Two hardcore escapists found one another entangled in the kind of traditional dynamic we had both always wanted to avoid. We were unwilling or unable to admit that we had chosen poorly when we chose each other. As he silently imploded, eroding whatever was left of us with a carelessness bordering on cruelty, my insistence that everything was cool and that we never really fell in love anyway continued to get louder. It was a consistent and hilarious denial on my part, driven by an unfair desire to be proven wrong.
“Yeah,” he replied. He looked me in the eye as he said it. He was like a toddler petulantly challenging his mother to enforce the rules he’d broken; even as he spoke, something in him wavered. Maybe it was just his shadow cast over me, mimicking the swaying of his alcohol soaked frame.
All I’d learned from our relationship so far was that I knew nothing at all–that any wisdom I thought I had gleaned from love (or its doppelgänger) was an absolute farce. Who was this person I had said I wanted to marry anyway? With both of us at our absolute worst, I have no doubt that he thought the same thing about me.
“You said you didn’t want this to be contentious,” I spat at him. “Well, this is officially fucking contentious.”
He followed me down to the lobby of the building, spawning the biggest argument we had ever had. My grip on my heinous temper came loose. One scathing insult after another, a collection of my worst fears delivered as an offense, began dissolving the facade we’d been maintaining.
It would be another six months before we stopped pretending to be friends.
“Wow. You look…bad.”
My grandmother had insisted I drive from LA to San Clemente to see her; she had heard about my fiance and I breaking up. The stress of the previous month left me barely eating or sleeping, and it was starting to show. For her to be so frank was an anomaly; typically feedback on such things would be couched in euphemistic niceties about what is flattering and something vague about this great skincare regimen she read about.
“You need to be on Team Elizabeth for awhile,” she told me. “I know how hard it can be, but you need to sleep, and you need to eat. You need to take care of you.”
After tucking my hair behind my ears, I slipped my fingers under the outside of my thighs and tried to stop the jittering in my knees. No crying allowed.
She sent me home with a large bag filled with food after making me promise to cater to the meatsack that always seems so insignificant–inconvenient, even–in the wake of loss.
I went to meet up with Alex, an acquaintance turned collaborator (and later, friend). If it hadn’t been for my ex (and my ex’s ex), I would have never met this person who has since become one of the pillars in my heart’s home. Isn’t it strange–the way people we meet get woven into our lives, and how it all starts with something so small?
We met at a bar near my house, and he proposed a freelance gig for me while I updated him on my latest woes. My attempt to start fresh and move into a new apartment in Koreatown had gone bust: six days into moving in I discovered a bed bug infestation that left me with hundreds of bites and a hole in the chunk of money I had reserved for getting out of dodge.
I was sleeping on my ex’s sister’s couch, a temporary solution that was over-complicating an already tense set of circumstances, and had decided that my aspirations to return to community college and do the academic thing were fucked and futile. It was time to stop freelancing and working (very) odd jobs. It didn’t matter what it was, but I needed the real thing. Something consistent.
I asked Alex to send me any leads he possibly could. He delivered a slew of bad jokes and terrible dating stories to cheer me up, as per usual, and insisted I forward him my resume.
A week later, I received a text.
Alex: What would your ideal work situation be?
Me: A job that pays me? What are you asking?
Alex: No, I mean what do you want to do?
Me: Ideally? Anything involving writing/editing. I’ll take anything involving marketing too. Honestly, I’ll take anything. Did you have something in mind?
Alex: Ok. Pretend this conversation didn’t happen.
Alex: Don’t get your hopes up.
Me: Oh my god. You are killing me. Asshole.
Another few days passed, and he texted me a link.
Alex: Apply. There is no one who would be a better fit for this.
One month later, I started at my current job.
I cried every day of the week after moving into my Sacramento apartment. My single-minded goal for six months had been to find a place to land that I could call my own; I hadn’t thought beyond that step. Once that had been achieved, my tunnel vision widened with a swiftness that knocked me on my ass.
After a few months of establishing normalcy (and one particularly absurdist evening of coping: dressing up as a modern Madame Arcati, smoking a fuckton of weed, and shelving my typically skeptical self to perform a tarot reading), I was faced with the best kind of dilemma: more interpersonal and physical autonomy coupled with more economic freedom than I have ever known. What does one even do when they can do anything?
Like many in the wake of a toxic relationship, the last year has been spent rediscovering aspects of myself that had long been pushed aside in favor of…well, I’m not sure what now. Another person? Achieving some sort of status that validated my existence in the world through pursuing a conventional framework that I never even really wanted?
When first faced with the idea that I can do almost anything I want, I kept marveling at the fact that I had nothing to guide me. No relationship, no kids, no pets. My family, both chosen and blood, is scattered across the world, and I have no desire to go back to where I’ve gone. My lanes have always had bumpers, and somebody (me, turns out) went and removed that shit.
What does one even do when they can do anything?
Amongst the many small victories this year has afforded me, this one was major:
I put together my first chapbook and submitted it to an independent publisher. While I’ve always written and previously had small (terrible) pieces published elsewhere, this was the first time I put together something of my own with the sole goal of getting it published. It will likely be rejected, as most things of this nature are, but doing so was a massive personal accomplishment that required a level of focus and dedication that a prior version of myself had been too scattered (and too scared) to attempt.
Taking on this endeavor only verified what I had long avoided admitting, largely because something about it makes me hate myself: I want to fucking write.
I once had a friend from Vermont that told me he knew San Francisco was home the minute he stepped off the airplane. As I’ve bopped around California for living and traveled around as I could manage, I’ve always longed to have that moment–the moment where it was clear to me that I had found a home just by arriving.
Perhaps it’s from moving so much as a child, but long ago I developed a comfort with chaos and a resilience, if not a preference, for emotional transience. There are a lot of places I like, and I can entertain myself and find the good in nearly everywhere I’ve gone. The only places I genuinely cannot stand are ones where horrible things have happened; after dealing with the aftermath of my father’s death, I still cannot go to Ventura without feeling sick to my stomach.
My beautiful friend Yitz and I are often living developmentally parallel lives; although we come from different places, our takeaways are so often parallel that it is downright eerie. I recently told her that I’ve turned over the idea of the Big Home so many times only to come to the conclusion that perhaps it’s not a thing that really exists for me. My Big Home lives within.
We keep reminding each other that these transitions we are in–the release of the responsibility of emotional caretaker, the driving desire to chase what we want, approaching the brink of new endeavors that we have always been working toward, even if we weren’t aware of it–these are our liberation.
In the next few months, I’m giving up the stable life I’d worked so hard to secure to travel, write, meet folks, and of course, continue to work at my amazing job. Even with two feet firmly planted in the foundation of myself, facing down the “digital nomad” (ugh, this terminology) life I’m plotting out for the next who even knows how long and the creative endeavors associated is nerve-wracking.
But like I said to the boys in the fishing boat: I don’t want to get too cocky and jinx myself, but I feel like I’ll be okay.
So, what does one do when they can do anything?
Here’s what this one does: She leaves.