This was not, as you might expect from the quality of the photo, taken with my own camera, so perhaps you won't believe me, but it is in fact true: my boyfriend, Sean, and I are summering in Santa Cruz, CA for the summer, and now I'm the type of bitch who gets to SAY "My boyfriend and I are summering in Santa Cruz for the summer." Long summers off are one of the perks of being an academic, to make up for the ass issue and perpetual funding crises perhaps, and taking those long summers to go live in California is one of the things I've done in order to maintain my relationship with Sean, whose one dream in life is to live near the beach in Santa Cruz while my one dream in life is to remain employed. For those of you outside academia, you understand that you have to go to where the jobs are. For those of you on earth, you know there are no jobs--academic or otherwise--in California.
So before I go on my year-long Junket of Self-Indulgence, I'm starting out here, in the heart of the collapsing American real estate market, where everything is amazing except for the restaurants, and all the surfers are beautiful but really mean. At least they were the last time I went out, which was about a year ago, when I got yelled at so loudly by a guy with mini-dreads I spent the rest of my surf time sulking on my board, peeing vengefully in my wetsuit. (Don't knock it. If you've never peed in a wetsuit in really cold water, you will never understand its particular--if momentary and, yes, totally unhygienic--pleasures.) That was the last time I went surfing. Now I run on the beach. If I want to be emotionally abused for totally gratuitous reasons, I'll just go talk to my department chair, thank you very much.
I'm starting my year in Santa Cruz because this is the place I'm dropping off Sean. If I get the year of my dreams (minus, sadly, one of its major parts, which is having Sean accompany me), then he should have the year of HIS dreams. At least, I had thought this would be his dream. But just before we came out here, Sean thought he would stay in SLC.
"It's too much," he said, miserably. "Too expensive there. Renting a house that will have a yard for my dog is too much on top of the airline tickets and everything else."
We were sitting in his apartment's living room amid piles of my boxes from my upstairs apartment, where my new renter had just taken residence. There were cups and plates and piles of garment bags on every surface, boxes of shoes, three freaked-out dogs circling us like manic fish in the world's most cluttered aquarium.
"It'll be fine!" I said, desperately trying to cheer him up. "You'll fine a place! I'll help pay for your airline tickets! We'll make it work!"
No," Sean said glumly. "It's just all too much."
At this point, I started to panic. We had been having, off and on, the world's worst Discussion About Us since I got this award. What would we do while we were apart? How would we see each other? Sean's sudden decision NOT to move to Santa Cruz seemed like a horrible capitulation to all the many fiscal and emotional difficulties this year has already presented us. But I was desperate to get him to move to Santa Cruz. I felt, and still feel, terribly guilty about the idea of leaving him, the dogs, our life together, for a year. I hate the fact it would put an extra burden on him financially as well, since he'll now be paying for three separate RT air tickets to join me on different legs of the journey. Like most human beings, Sean doesn't have a job that will let him disappear for a year and come back still employed. And unlike cold, heartless, this-is-the-reason-most-people-think-I'd-be-a-bad-mother me, he's not willing to leave his dog with friends (or, in my case, parents) for that long.
It doesn't help that Sean has also developed the very fetching, very heart-rending habit of staring deeply into my eyes and mooing, "I REALLY don't think I can stand to see you go," at certain moments, like when I'm cooking dinner. But beyond these half-joking displays of despair is serious worry. Not so much about the ending of our relationship, since in our Discussion About Us we vehemently agreed that we are NOT doing that, but because we are nervous about the long-term ways in which this kind of separation can worm its way into a relationship's dynamics, unsettling each other's sense of trust, re-awakening past grievances with the arrival of new ones, essentially grinding away at a couple's foundations. I know this can happen because I was married to a man with whom I spent not one, but altogether TWO full years living apart, and it got us into certain habits that I think helped along--but never entirely caused--the death of us.
And it doesn't help that we are both occasionally surprised by acquaintances who think my trip is the announcement of our break up. "So, does this mean Sean is leaving you? So he can finally move to California?" is in fact the first thing an older department colleague asked me, which made me suspect there was a pool going at work to see how long we would stay together. This same colleague, I'd like to add, is the one who likes to trap me by the roast beef table at every department holiday party to ask if I'm planning to have a child, and would it be from adoption or by giving birth now, which is pretty much the last thing I want to think about when I'm near a table full of hot, steaming, bloody meat.
ANYWAY, Sean and I are not breaking up. But over the past months we have begun to ask each other all those throat-constricting questions about What This Year Means For Us, Really, wondering whether it is in fact too easy for me to WANT to leave for a year, whether Sean will use this opportunity to leave me for perpetual surf and ping pong lessons by all the ex-ping pong Olympians who now reside in Northern California (oh, this is such a long story, don't even ask), why DO we live in a duplex, what's WRONG with us that we don't just live together in one house, maybe that DOES send a signal, do I really WANT to hog-tie the delectable Dimitri up in a railway car (picture me, midnight in the kitchen, shouting: "There is no Dimitri!") and why are we both so quick to mention we live a duplex when in fact we try to spend every single waking moment together, and why does Sean KEEP ABANDONING ME AT THAT ROAST BEEF TABLE, etc., etc., etc?
Basically, why are both of us pretending that we are not as committed to each other as we actually are?
(You see? THIS is why you should never apply for an award. That money will just go straight to couple's counseling.)
Such are the things that come up once one person in a couple decides that traveling around the world for a year is a Such. A. Great. Idea. And on top of that are these other, long-simmering, soul-numbing tensions academia itself brings to any relationship: how fair is it for one person to determine where a couple will live--perhaps forever--based on one person's very particular job requirements?
And when this issue comes up, you just need to grab a martini and gird your loins. Because now it is officially time to Whine and Fight.
Sean and I joke that, in coupledom, the person with the most esoteric job description always wins the housing argument, and that's certainly been the case with us. Which was why I felt so keenly the need for Sean to be in Santa Cruz this year, and begged him repeatedly in his overcrowded apartment to reconsider it. You need, I argued, at least to get some shred of the life you really want, since you've already sacrificed year after year for me. At that, Sean grimaced. "In reality," he said, "neither of us is really getting the life we want, since I want you to live in CA with me, and you want me to travel the world with you."
After about a week of this, we came to a conclusion: we are happiest when we are with each other, but our relationship--in its working details--just isn't fair.
Perhaps "fairness" isn't the right word, the right concept, to consider in a relationship. "Fairness" implies score-keeping and chore charts and computerized re-allocation of financial resources. In a country and era in which equal pay is STILL treated as a utopian notion, "fairness" may be the one word designed to hit all our hot buttons. But it is the sad fact that someone will have more job opportunities, someone will have less, someone will make more money, someone will have a better job. A lot of that has been determined in the world outside of our relationship, and certain "facts" have certainly been less determined by gender than by individual skill sets. Still, the aspiration to fairness haunts us, as does the ancient chestnut that "compromise is the key to any good relationship:" an idea which is, though noble, the very thing that's making our situation right now so difficult, because it insists there is a path that is good for BOTH of us, when facts suggest, perhaps even demand, that one person's path is going to have to take precedence for awhile.
"Fairness" may also be the reason we have both fetishized not being married. It implies that we both are SO EQUAL we never have to worry about things like sharing money or living with each other's ugly art collection or hissing at each other over department potlucks in tones that could at all be classified as maritally inclined because we have our own bank accounts and apartments and intensely imagined private lives that we never have to examine. All of which is, as you might have guessed by now, totally untrue.
Basically, unfairness is built into our relationship, and perhaps it is the negotiation of this unfairness--certainly, not its solution--that is the best I can hope for. We aren't going to compromise. I'm going to leave for a year, and Sean will be angry and disappointed by that. I could stay, but I'd resent him, and though this year will be bad for us, it will be worse in the long run if I don't go. Sean, who has by now cleaned up his apartment and calmed down his dog and moved out to California so that he can, like me, live in paradise out of two suitcases and a garbage sack, is delighted to be in Santa Cruz. He can't believe he ever thought he'd stay in SLC while I was gone! He can't believe he'll get a year to do this! He loves it here! It's so sunny! There's so much water! The food is so terrible!
It is of course possible that he won't come back to SLC when I return. Perhaps he will make his own unfair demands on me and ask that I give up my job and move to California. The second option is likely; the first, not so much. Because the one thing we agreed upon after the Whining and Fighting, is that we finally admit we are in fact dating each other. So we did the most reasonable thing two people can do when they realize that they have, for many years now, been living together.
Reader, I married him.