Monday, February 18, 2008

The Bad Girlfriend

After my parents got divorced, my mother took to delivering sage advice. She'd made mistakes in her life, and she didn't want me to make the same ones. That's why she told me to avoid getting married. Or, if there was no way I could avoid the institution and all its sticky trappings, then I should fend it off for as long as possible. She told me to get out, live my life, be on my own. She told me to keep it that way for a long, long time.

This wasn't exactly what an eighteen year-old girl wanted to hear. My parents' divorce had already completely freaked me out. After all, I knew plenty of girls my age who had parents that were a whole lot worse off than mine. Their parents were crazy or mean or drunk or some combination of all three, but they were still together. There had been no talk of divorce or separation or new apartments or visiting times. I never saw my parents fight. I never even heard them fight. I'd seen tension and a lot of ugly, thick silence the year before they split, but when they broke the news it was still a surprise. A big one. One that made think, Oh, Christ. There's no hope for me now.

If things had seemed mostly okay and still broke apart at the seams, I figured there was no way I was going to be able to make a marriage work. All I knew about relationships was what I'd seen from them. They had been kind, sweet, and hard-working. They'd been good parents. But none of that had been enough. That terrified me, and from that point on I wandered in and out of relationships just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Maybe that's even why there was a short period of time where I felt like it was a good idea--despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary--for me and the Wily Republican to take up with each other. There was never a time in my WR-soaked grad school existence that I believed I could stay married to him for a lifetime. I could work out the fantasy in my head--wedding, house, backyard, and kids--but the fantasy always ended in divorce. I constantly told him and anyone who would listen that I knew it wasn't good and it wasn't going to work, but I still wanted to try--but maybe that was just me taking the easy way out. If I was convinced I was going to end up divorced and sad and alone, he was a one-way ticket to that destiny.

And so that--the fear that I was going to foul up a relationship no matter what, the fear that I was destined for divorce--was one type of baggage I lugged away from my parents' divorce. The other came from my mother. When she told me to be by myself for as long as possible, to be strong and independent and not go off with a boy when I was so, so young, I internalized that. I promised myself I would listen. I wouldn't make the same mistakes my mother made. I would live my life and then go to a boy ready to settle down, ready to put aside my old world, my old habits. My mother meant her advice to be educational and helpful, but I might have taken that education and perverted it a bit. I might have let her words settle in my veins and take up residence there so that with every moment, with every rush of breath and blood, I remember how important it is to be my own person--a strong, independent girl who won't bend and change until she's ready.

I think I've done that over the years. When I was a senior in college and faced with the possibility of graduate school, I didn't let Keith--who was suddenly putting up a new fight to keep me in state, with him--dictate what I did or where I went. I applied to writing programs across the nation, made my decision, had a good cry, and left Buffalo. I lived in Minnesota for three years, got my second degree, and started working on getting a college teaching job. I think I've done exactly what my mother had in mind. After all, here I am, living on my own and doing the best I can.

But in all this time that I've been by myself, I've developed some bad, bad habits. I am big enough to admit it: I am a control freak. I like things done my way--which, yes, I often think is the best way--and I get antsy if they don't get done in that fashion.

This makes me afraid for the Boy From Work. Eventually, I would like to share an apartment with him and his suddenly moppy hockey hair. This is not going to be an easy task, and I already feel like I need to make amends for it. All these years alone will have made me a tough one to live with, I'm sure. I like my kitchen sparkling, my bed always made, and the floor clean. I like order. I like to watch what I want to watch when I want to watch it. I like my music loud. I just haven't had anyone around to tell me that no, I can't have it that way right now.

So I know I will get angry when there are piles of dirty clothes. I know I will get angry when the dishes aren't stacked just-so. I know I will get angry if I hear one more whistle from a sports game being broadcast in the apartment.

I also know this is unreasonable. And unfair. And bad, bad, bad. It's what I'm afraid of most--that I won't be able to change enough or in an appropriate frame of time to make a relationship really work. And there it is again: I'm already waiting for the other shoe to drop.

But maybe because I'm so conscious of it and maybe because I am already predicting what will happen, I will somehow be able to skirt it, fix it, work it until I can manage to be everything I need to be: a good girlfriend, a milder control freak, a writer, a teacher.

This past week with the Boy From Work has made me think about all these things. I won't lie--I had a minor meltdown while he was here. I had worried myself into a state of teary hysteria that made me so embarrassed for myself the next morning. But it also filled me with resolve. Having the BFW here with me was the highlight of my month, and I can't tell you the last time I slept as soundly as I did when he was next to me in bed. All I want is to keep on going with him, and I don't think there are enough words to explain to him how he makes me want to be better, how he makes me want to try to change all my bad habits, all the parts of me that are bad and stubborn and foolish. It will be hard, it will be ugly, but I want to do it for him. And I want to do it without constantly thinking about that other shoe and how close it is to crushing me under its heel.

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