Just me and F, cruising down the highway. Car full of music, snacks, and overnight bags; my socked feet rest on the dashboard.
I’m spying on the families in neighboring cars, making fun of them all.
Identical families in identical vehicles running off to identical rental properties to have identical vacations. Dads with polo shirts and reflective sunglasses driving the family vehicle, while Mom rides shotgun, staring hypnotically ahead at the infinite road stripes. Uninterested kids melting from boredom in the backseat. An occasional disgruntled mother-in-law is sandwiched between her mouthbreathing grandkids in the backseat, boring a hole into the back of her disappointment of a son-in-law’s skull with her iron gaze. A family’s worth of bicycles jimmy-rigged to the back of the vehicle, impeding their rear view.
Cutting off drivers on the highway to hurry to some banal destination, just to eat overpriced rubbery seafood and subpar waffles, and sit on a lackluster beach while your kids lament about missing their carbon-copy friends. Take a few washed-out, blurry photos that end up sitting in a shoebox to collect dust until after the funeral.
In other words, livin’ the middle class dream.
“Are we gonna be like that someday?”
His right hand moves from the wheel to my knee and tenderly squeezes, eyes straight ahead. “Maybe.” Suddenly, a clueless errant driver weaves into our lane. F’s face hardens as he grips the wheel and hits the brakes to avoid them, all while muttering uncouth things in French. (Roughly translated, it’d be something like: “These unfortunate gentlemen are ill-informed about the art of driving; ’tis an act better left to those more capable of doing it.”)
I make a silly face at the driver as we pass them by, and I burst into laughter at their confused expression.
No, we’ll never be like them…
We arrive at Scampi, our friends’ home near the beach. When we pull up to the house, we’re greeted by Mama and Papa, holding bright-eyed Baby 3. Babies 1 and 2 run outside to greet us, in a dust storm of blonde hair, blue eyes, joyous shrieks, and general excitement at receiving visitors. Papa is happy to see F, to increase the testosterone-to-estrogen ratio in the house, and Mama is happy to chitchat with me in English. Fresh beverages fizz and glasses clink to herald our arrival. We catch up with our friends while Baby 3 coos and giggles, and Babies 1 and 2 twitter about in a show-and-tell flurry of sparkly princess stickers and bold finger paintings.
Dinnertime approaches, and our tummies growl. The men stride into the backyard to start the fire for our barbecue.
I hold a hand to my empty stomach and look out at F.
Someday, we know there’ll be something more in here.
F is in perfect repose next to me. Dawn’s blue light slips in from between the shades and brightens the hills and valleys of his face. I gently clasp his careworn hand, and he softly squeezes back.
He sits at his desk, engrossed. He has the same discerning look as his baby photo that sits just behind. That look, it sparks my core sense of loving urgency. I walk over, fold him in my arms, and inhale his scent. I whisper my words of love into his skin, radiant with his smell. This is home. His hand raises to meet mine, and they embrace.
He’s here. We love. Right now.
It’s said by people wiser than me,
That you are to declare
No less often than always
Before you can’t anymore.
April 2012, Seoul.
I’m sitting across F at a barbecue joint. Sitting on long wooden benches, spicy marinated chicken grilling over a nest of coals on the table between us. We’re getting to know each other, but there are no first-date jitters. We’re chatting and shooting the shit. Normal human stuff.
The meat starts smoking, and I quickly grab the tongs to flip the meat. It’s burnt. I sheepishly smile at F and apologize. An exasperated server appears from nowhere and pulls the long silver ventilation tube closer to our “extra-crispy” chicken. The smoke whooshes away into the tube. We eat around the charred bits of meat, and chat on. Normally, I’d be embarrassed at this, the cardinal sin of Korean barbecue: Thou shalt never burneth thy meat. Curiously, though, in the face of this potentially date-ruining moment, I’ve never felt more at ease.
April 2017, France.
4 a.m. I’ve just woken up from an awful nightmare, and I’m in tears. Half-asleep, F slings his arm around me, and gently places a hand on my stomach. His touch brings me back to this reality: I’m snuggled up, cozy in bed, and safe. Shhh, there’s no reason to freak out.
In a single loving gesture, he puts me at ease.
This time, every time.
Summer, circa 2014.
F strums his guitar and I sing along. We giggle when he hits a false note and when my voice cracks. My feet are bare and we sit facing the window that opens to the garden. It’s sunny and we have nowhere to go, nothing else we’re supposed to be doing, no other responsibilities except to each other.
Later on, I’m in my favorite napping spot. Laying on the couch, sun filtering in through the blinds, I’m dozing. Just around the corner, F has taken up his guitar again. I suppose he’s determined to get that chord just right, every time. And he starts to sing: his voice is gentle, not much more than a whisper.
Now that she’s back in the atmosphere
With drops of Jupiter in her hair, yeah…
She acts like summer and walks like rain
Reminds me that there’s time to change, yeah…
I bury my face into my pillow and let out a tear. I can’t help it; he opens my heart and pours love in.
F and I sit down for his birthday meal. For apéritif, we enjoy marinated anchovy fillets, and mussels with peppers. Relaxed, we chit-chat and ignore the clock. We pass from starters to the main meal, which I happily finish preparing. In the kitchen, I feel like an alchemist: I place seasoned steaks onto a hot cast-iron grill pan, searing them to medium-rare. I put aside those perfect steaks and make the sauce: deglaze with red wine and cognac, add the veal stock, swirl in the cream. The bubbles grow thicker as the sauce becomes more unctuous. To finish, stir through a pat of butter and a sprinkle of pepper. I spoon some creamy garlic mashed potatoes onto the plate next to a green salad, lay the beef upon the potatoes, and finish with the sauce. I bring my two picture-perfect plates to the living room, and we ogle how delicious they look before we clink glasses and tuck in. This moment is delicious, and there’s nowhere else we need to be, except present with each other.
The story begins on the main boulevard of Angers. I’m walking to the train station after a long day of work, and a couple of salty-looking French men are walking my way. They stop, they ooh and ahh, and deliver some uncouth pickup lines. Standard catcalling fare, the kind that women are very familiar with.
T’es bonne! (You’re sexy!)
Oh, là là là, salut ma chérie! (Hey, sweetheart!)
C’est quoi tes origines, là? (Where’re you from?)
Their use of tu is what struck me. In French, the informal tu and the polite vous are clear ways to express distance or familiarity to the person with whom you speak.
I understand; scratching your nuts and grunting at a woman isn’t exactly the time for politeness. But the way these men referred to me as tu indicates a familiarity with which I didn’t ask for, and certainly didn’t need or deserve. Women know this feeling all too well. The way men like this invite themselves into your space, then feel you owe them something while they’re there… How egregious!
Of course, not responding to these terribly suave pickup lines can then invite an alternate ending: some men just have to have the last word, and my ears sting as they throw me one last insult to injury, for the road: Bitch. Conne. Salope.
Now, imagine the presumptuousness of someone stomping onto your front porch and demanding a cup of tea, then insulting you when you don’t comply. The trouble is, we never know if that guy will slither away and retreat, or if he’ll try to break the door down to get some tea. The majority fall into the first category; the rare times you meet someone from the second are those that burn into your memory.
This kind of discussion often comes back to female culpability. The question isn’t “What the fuck is wrong with that creepy guy?” No, the question is “What were you wearing?” In other words, what did you do to invite this onto yourself?
It brings me back to being in middle and high school, right back to those good ol’ days where my bullies understood my silence as tacit consent. Interfering in my space was considered a right, and I had no say about it.
At home, the response I got was “Well, don’t let them do it!” But as a girl, I didn’t understand how not to let them do it; it felt like I was doing something wrong, that maybe it was my fault. I allowed it to happen, so therefore I was the guilty party. The bullying later evolved into sexual harassment, and I learned that my words were ineffective. Others had words that could hurt, but mine were worthless.
I learned that boys were bad. That male attention could hurt. That, given the chance, they’d stomp into your house, drag mud all over the carpet, then blame you for leaving the front door unlocked.
As women, we learn from these lessons and start locking the door. For me, I tried locking the door, barricading it, and pretending to be invisible behind. I couldn’t answer the door to anyone, and I eyed the potential burglar with the same suspicion as the puppy salesman.
With this charming backstory in my pocket, I grew into a woman and started getting the standard societal messages: male attention is GOOD! Male attention is affirmation of your worth as a woman! I was supposed to yearn for male approval while inwardly understanding that they are cunning and untrustworthy. We’re screwed with them or without them when we view things like this in black-and-white.
Fortunately, life brings about the good to balance the bad, and by fostering relationships with the good guys, things become less black-and-white. It’s here in France where I have more hetero male friends than I’d ever had before. It’s through these respectful, trusting friendships that I learned it wasn’t always necessary to blockade the door.
So when some jerkoff on the street invites himself into my space, the 30-year-old Me is simultaneously insulted and annoyed, but also feels a twinge of sadness for those 12, 14, 16, 19, 22, 24, 25-year-old Mes who were silent.
The difference is, I’ve got words now.
Many of the most important relationships in my life are long-distance. I’m temporarily situated in my hometown, near my parents and extended family in Connecticut. My brother lives in Chicago, my sister is at a college 5 hours away. My American best friends live in Boston and New York. My boyfriend is in France. My other international friends are scattered around Asia, in Seoul, Germany, and the Caribbean to name a few. I don’t have the time, nor the funds, to see people for weeks, months, even years at a time.
My path and the paths of important people lead in different directions. So it’s presented me with the (sometimes-daunting) task of maintaining the majority of my meaningful relationships from afar. I’m not claiming to be an expert on the art of maintaining relationships. In fact, I suspect the unfortunate truth is that you learn what to do (and what not to do) by messing things up and losing a few friends.
Combined with my introverted nature (I just can’t be around people all the time!), the time difference, and the hectic nature of lives and schedules and jobs, maintaining long-distance relationships can be overwhelming. Between my jobs, I only have so many hours to talk, to message on Facebook, to e-mail, to Skype. I can’t be just a quick call or text-message away from ALL my people. And so with some friends, I go weeks or even months without having a good, meaty conversation. For some people, that just isn’t good enough.
I can’t say I blame these people, because having a strong bond is absolutely related to the quality and frequency of the interaction you have together. It’s related to how well you can count on that person when you need them. And while I do my best, I admit it’s just not possible for me to be there for all my friends at their most dire moments. And for that, I feel very guilty sometimes. I sometimes fear that my important relationships will disintegrate because I can’t give enough.
I’ve found that my best relationships (friendships, that is) are ones where we can pick up where we left off last time, call out of the blue and receive a warm response, fill each other in on the highlights of the last few weeks, without feeling slighted or hurt at the lack of consistency in communication. I’m not sure if this is the best or healthiest way to approach friendships, but this system is what works for me. It’s difficult to strike a balance with some people, and I’m sure I’ve hurt a few people with this system. For me, it’s like a juggling act with 20 props–every so often, I fail and drop one. No offense intended whatsoever, but even so, the ball’s been dropped.
The art of maintaining human relationships is complicated.