You can't negotiate the perfect relationship.
I still remember your smile, that toothy grin with just a little curl to your lip. The way that you would smirk knowingly that we were sharing a secret judgment about those people. You know, basically all of the other idiots in the world who didn’t appreciate our brilliance and certainly didn’t deserve to join our party. Our party of two, in the year of 1992.
What were the chances we’d meet in corporate America? Me - a smarty-pants artist melting the crayons and smearing the photos in the name of “edgy art direction” for a computer magazine. You - an unrepentant riot grrl poet who copyedited software reviews and wrote snarky notes in the margins. Both of us too angry with the world by half, but still raised well enough to fake it for a decent salary.
Remember when we unexpectedly crossed paths at that club in SOMA? Where the guys from Survival Research Laboratories were blowing shit up in the name of “Machine Performance” or something like that? You were there with someone else, and so was I. But we forgot our designated dates and ended the night laughing and talking until they came looking for a ride home. What were the chances that we’d bumped into each other in so unlikely a venue? Apparently, it was only unlikely to us.
Then we declared open season on flirting, lingering over a pile of copyedits, shooting glances across the staff meetings, inviting each other to “get out of the office” for lunch. By the time I’d mustered the courage to actually ask you out on a proper date, everyone else was wondering what had taken so long.
We agreed to meet at Adobe Books in the Mission. You wanted to pick up a literary ‘zine. I got there first, squatting at the back of the store, scanning the underground comics. The summer sun was blinding, reflecting off the windows across the street, when I saw a familiar silhouette. I stood up slowly, like a dramatic camera shot in a movie, my eyes adjusting to the light. Then that smile of yours curled around. What could I do but throw my arms around your waist and give you a slow, deep, Hollywood kiss? I’d never tried that angle before. Happily, you were ready for your closeup.
Nothing about the date was easy or predictable. We miscalculated the distance from the bookstore to the Castro Theater, and arrived huffing and puffing as the lights went down. Even though it was opening weekend, there were plenty of seats—the movie wasn’t exactly date-bait, an Australian opus about a tragic car crash leading to brain damage and duplicity. If we weren’t already a little dazed from the rush of our emotions, you could have carried us out on a stretcher.
But the night ended well. Setting the stage for the years that followed, we decompressed with a negotiation. What we wanted, what we didn’t. Who would break the news at work and how. I was ready to get out of my lousy little studio but the lease wasn’t up. One thing at a time.
Our relationship took off from there, constantly pushing the boundaries, asking tough questions, and taking no prisoners. Declaring our outsider status to no one in particular. Shacking up in your Berkeley co-housing unit, huddling for warmth in that uninsulated side porch they called a “bedroom.” Marking the occasion with matched piercings that we got in SF—our scars to love.
I was 35, you were 26, and we met in the middle. You were wise beyond your years, but needed a nurturing partner. I’d missed my twenties, and was desperate to sow some oats. You schooled me in feminist literature and modern aerial dance. I taught you the joy of cooking and decoded Calvin and Hobbes. It was a new adventure for us both. We weren’t gonna get mad, we were gonna get even.
We surely weren’t gonna be “normal.” We weren’t going to do it like everyone else. Throw out the TV, who needs it? Let’s buzz our noggins (you went halfway, I went all in.) Whip up dinners of pumpkin ale and cauliflower curry from the Cabbagetown Cookbook. Retreat to separate bedrooms to write our Yes/No/Maybes. Reconnect on the big purple sofa to compare notes (oh, baby!)
Three months on that porch until we landed in Oakland for good. First, nine months on Ronada, then a year on Monte Cresta, before ending up on Rio Vista. Making a home with Tony and Kaesta (our cats). The negotiations continued, and by this time, they were part of the air we breathed. How to split expenses? (Receipts in the cookie jar.) Whose room do we sleep in? (Let’s take turns.) I’ll cook, you’ll do the dishes. We worked it all out.
Including parental responsibilities. As a couple, we didn’t want kids. That was fine with me, I’d already been there, done that. Two litters, three kids. Of course, that would be the sticking point. Michael, James and Jessica were still very much in my life. Not so much, since I had gotten the short end of the custody stick. For awhile, that seemed to work in our favor. Funny thing was, the less I saw those kids, the more they needed me. And slowly, I came to understand, the more I needed them.
Two weekends a month, we retreated to our separate bedrooms, and separate lives. We thought we could make this work. But there was a Father in the room that no one wanted to talk about. And my fatherhood could not be denied. I would have liked to have had you more involved in my kid’s lives. I loved your perspective on the world. You would have been a hell of a role model. But that wasn’t the deal, so you said hi to the kids on Fridays and returned to say bye when the weekend was over.
Somewhere along the line, we didn’t feel so secure, so stable. I suggested that we tie the knot, and you agreed. My first time was anything but intentional. My second would be different. Again with the discussions, the negotiations to make sure that our union would not be like every other. It wasn’t a commitment so much as A Statement. A Marriage Manifesto. We expended a lot of energy anticipating the future, and paid scant attention to the here and now.
When the day came, we roared in up Route One with a few select friends and family in the car and PJ Harvey on the accelerator. Pledging our lives on the cliffs of Mendocino, reading passages from Rilke, trembling together in the coolth of the wind. Looking into each other’s eyes, deeply, madly, darkly—until we blinked.
All that planning, all that prep, and yet… nothing changed. We weren’t closer. We had negotiated a new legal status, but our hearts were fixed.
Six months after we said “I do,” I turned to you in the middle of that long, sleepless night and said “I can’t.” And you said “I know.” You were just waiting for me to face facts.
Like everything else, the divorce was unconventional. Quick, easy, un-argumentative, relatively painless. We lived together in those separate bedrooms, passing like amiable neighbors, until I got a place of my own. We stayed in touch, checking in to make sure we’d landed on our feet. You met your next boyfriend at my improv class. I got some work from your new boss. We still made each other laugh.
That’s where the sadness lies. I always liked you a lot, and I think it was reciprocal. Unfortunately, we couldn’t be married to each other, and when we found the right spouses, we couldn’t really stay friends, either. The more we settled down, the less we had in common. Our new lives couldn’t sustain our history. It’s been years since we’ve spoken.
I wish I’d told you then how grateful I am for all we did together. We grew up together. I learned how to be a better partner, a better father, a better man. You opened your heart to me and I filled it with everything I had. Maybe it was too much. But you gave as good as you got, until we had to give it up.
I still see your head of half-shaved, blonde curls, tousled by the wind, backlit in a chilly Pacific sunset. And that toothy grin, curling in a knowing smile. You helped make my future possible. Even if—sadly—we can’t share it.
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These memoirs are the product of my continuing work with writer, actor and director Suze Allen. If you're interested in telling your own stories, I recommend you check out her website ManuscriptMentor.com