In the throes of an autumn hurricane, rain falling in thick flannel sheets, woody branches flexing, snapping, barreling to the ground, I holed up in a 10’ x 12’ dorm room, disturbed only by an occasional flicker of the lights, the abrasive *ting* of rain drops, like small stones pelting against our window. I say our, neither “my” nor “his,” because, by that time in November, he and I had been playing house for two months, sharing four dresser drawers, three varieties of tea, two coffee mugs, and one twin-sized bed. Our days began at 7:45 am, when our alarms simultaneously chimed and our eyes met with the same sentiment: five more minutes. We had fallen into the pattern of a working couple ten years our senior, apart from nine to five, dinner and “How was your day?” at six, bedtime no later than twelve-thirty and, for the first time in my dating life, I felt “on the same page” with my partner.
In childhood and adolescence, I had learned to anticipate abandonment, as friends, family, and lovers carved out places in my heart only to relinquish them once I developed an attachment. Lacking a consistent and emotionally available caregiver disabled me from building the trust needed to sustain healthy relationships in adulthood. I craved the stability of long-term commitment, but required regular affirmation of my partners’ affections to a degree that could not be sustained. After a handful of botched romances, happy cohabitation seemed a distant fantasy, an unrealistic expectation for someone just entering her twenties, but, then, it happened.
I couldn’t find the words to express how grateful I was to have his unconditional love; boys are, after all, notoriously opposed to commitment and, as mothers always advise, when you meet one of those rare exceptions, you had better hold onto him. The overuse and commodification of I love you, a sentiment emblazoned across the chests of teddy bears, printed on chalky heart-shaped candies, left me wanting for a medium of expression that wouldn’t marginalize the sincerity of my affections. Under the premise that actions speak louder than words, I integrated daily gestures of kindness into my routine, making treats for us to indulge in during study breaks, cleaning our room while he was away for the weekend, brewing him cups of tea when he had a sore throat. I lived for the praise these acts garnered me, extra hugs and kisses, the “Mmm” as he tasted my chai-spiced apple sauce, invitations to come home and meet his parents. Over time, though, the appreciation dwindled, and I started fishing for compliments, soliloquizing on how I planned to make butternut squash soup for dinner, but he wouldn’t bite.
With two Women’s Studies courses on my schedule, I had become increasingly alert to gender inequalities, and developed a heightened awareness of my own gender strategy. From an outside perspective, I was sure we resembled the prototypical heterosexual couple, despotic male/servile female, and that terrified me. Cooking had been a love of my life before I met this man, this “love of my life,” but with a frying pan in one hand, and The Second Shift in the other, I must have looked like the model of hypocrisy; there I was, condemning the gender division of labor, while trying to win my boyfriend’s heart through his stomach. I wanted to run out of the [metaphorical] kitchen faster than I could untie my apron strings, lest I be eternally damned to the domestic sphere.
At the time, I hadn’t yet decided the role I wanted feminism to play in my life and, in terms of feminist identity development, my feet were planted firmly in Stage III, embeddedness-emanation. My resentment and anger towards a world which allows daily injustices to transpire against women was still fresh, exacerbating my trust issues with men, and leading me to overidentify men’s intent to oppress. I was not in the mindset to take responsibility for my role in creating this dynamic, instead I shifted the whole of the burden to my partner: if anything sexist is going on, it must be his fault. After all, I was a feminist goddamnit, and I would never choose to be some 1960s sitcom housewife like Samantha Stephens or June Cleaver, I wanted to be Mary Tyler Moore! But playing the blame game was (1) not ending my compulsion to reward him with cookies and clean laundry and (2) alienating me from a potential ally.
For our relationship to become truly egalitarian, I needed to change the way I approached gender issues, no longer as exclusively women’s issues. Throughout our childhood and adolescent years, he and I were both spoon-fed the dominant/submissive paradigm, and both internalized our traditional role in the heterosexual relationship as the “natural” way of relating to the opposite sex. Gender had been both of our destinies. I was in denial of my conformity, he was oblivious to his, and neither of us questioned the distribution of power in our relationship before I developed an interest in Women’s Studies. Unfortunately, that phenomenon did not go unnoticed, and my “unwarranted” attacks led him to construct a stereotypical portrait of feminism as a man-hating and antagonistic movement. When I was pressed to defend the greatest education I have ever received, it brought me face to face with the extent of my self-submission, and allowed me to verbally negotiate the root of our problem. Ironically, the day we became allies was the day our tension reached its apex; on a tempestuous Monday in November, cooped up together for far too many hours on end, I nearly called the whole thing off on the grounds of “irreconcilable differences.”
Outside, rain-water seeped into thirsty pavement until it could drink no more, collecting in the depressions of the sidewalk, making puddles like little urban tidal pools. Inside, swaddled in fleece blankets, sheltered by tall, cinderblock walls, I thanked the roof over my head for its protection. I loved the safety of this place, the invincibility it offered; here, I was freed from insecurity, assured a controlled environment: warmly lit, dry, heated to 70-degrees, and equipped with a loving companion to join me in weathering out the storm. The comfort of knowing that he would always be there, perched at his desk, head in hand, every time I looked up from my reading, was enough to keep me from wanting anything more.
I took turns memorizing every curve of his silhouette, the long-lobed ears, broad shoulders, nipped waist, numbing the noise of my internal monologue with little doses of adoration. And then it hit me, like a bus, or a wave, or a sack of potatoes; it was flushed cheeks, sweaty palms, knot in stomach, but not in that star-crossed lovers across the ballroom kind of way. What if one day he isn’t in that chair, five feet from me, but five hundred miles away making someone else’s dreams come true? What if one day, just like that, he turns to me and says, “I’m sorry, but I can’t give you what you need, not anymore.” I heard him speak those words unsaid again and again in my head, until I couldn’t differentiate my hallucinations from his actions.
When the swells of anxiety abated, at first, I felt dizzy, and then, compelled to my feet; a fly drawn to the warm glow of his desk lamp, I moved toward him and collapsed into an embrace. My arms hung like limp noodles on his shoulders, sentiments gushing out of me like vomit: “iloveyouknowiloveyouright!?” After silently studying for the past two hours, my spur-of-the-moment declaration struck him as out of context, and he shrugged my words off as if they were nothing: “I know, sweetie, I’m working okay …” His dismissal meant the final nail in the coffin to me, an indication of indifference, a red flag hoisted above our heads printed with “change of heart.” Why did I let myself get close to someone, again? Love can be too thick to reciprocate, hadn’t I learned that by now? Suddenly, our home started to look a lot more like his room, and I didn’t feel safe anymore. I could feel the temperature rising to 75, 80, 85, the window sill flooding with wayward drops that spilled through a hole in the screen. I returned to the bed, and flipped back to my page, but the words may as well have been written in invisible ink, because I was wearing my doubts and insecurities like blinders. Just pay attention to me, I thought. One look from those glassy brown eyes would have been enough, one look to deny my fear of his impending distance.
I needed a distraction, something … systematic, a task, with clearly defined steps, to structure my thoughts around. After a quick survey of my surroundings, I set my sights on a lone sweet potato, lolling in the fruit bowl, forgotten just like me. A few cups of dry black beans, packed tightly into a transparent snack bag, competed for my notice. The perfect pairing. A romance meant for summer picnics, like the sweet potato and black bean enchiladas my housemates so ravenously gobbled down, that he had never tasted. Minutes later, with the short blade of a paring knife, I peeled long curls of skin away from orange flesh. For a moment, the spell of his laptop screen was broken, and he regained consciousness just long enough to investigate what I, conspicuously seated on the floor with a potato, was doing.
“I didn’t know we were cooking tonight,” he stated as a question. We.
“Oh, I just thought the potato should get used up.”
“Oh …well, since it’s been a busy day, I didn’t want to go through the ordeal of cooking and cleaning up, you know?”
“You don’t have to do anything, I’ve wanted to make this for awhile; I need a break from working anyway.”
“Alright, but I’d be just as happy going to the dining hall if you change your mind.”
An hour or so later, as I spooned the orange-black filling into two tortillas, he was still transfixed by the glow of his Mac and hadn’t so much as sneezed since our last bit of conversation. When the meal was assembled I took pride in my presentation, like a photo taken straight out of a restaurant menu. He eyed the food with cautiousness before piping up with an infantile “Can I …?”
He was walking on eggshells, approaching a sleeping baby who could be jostled by the slightest scuff of a shoe. If I was supposed to be a time bomb, well, then I’d show him an explosion. I spoke more sharply than I should have:
“Why would you even ask me that? Of course you can have some, I made a plate for you!”
“Well, I don’t know, you’ve been more sensitive lately.” Another red flag.
“Sensitive. You know that sounds straight out of a guidebook for sexist boyfriends, right?”
This time, his response was more indignant than reluctant. “That’s exactly what I mean! I know it’s important to you, but of all the things to get worked up about, in a world of war, poverty, and terminal disease, you chose feminism?”
“And you chose Computer Science…? How noble.” I shoved his textbook off the bed, it hit the floor with a loud “fuck you.” His body tensed.
“You’re right, it’s important to me. But there’s no me in “us,” not anymore. My hobbies, my passions, my likes and dislikes, those don’t matter to you; your life is our life.”
I didn’t have class in ten minutes. I wasn’t rushing to make it to breakfast at 8:00 am sharp. But, I left anyway. With no umbrella to keep me dry, I walked bareheaded into the storm.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something innately masochistic in my desire to shack up with a man, bolt the door, and never come out. And, while I couldn’t deny the wholeness I felt in his arms, I knew that self-actualization was supposed to mean finding fulfillment in oneself, not in another. Nonetheless, I allowed being in love to consume me, logging enough hours working on my relationship to warrant it status as my life’s passion. In reality, achieving the unattainable hadn’t brought the instant happiness I expected it to, and my obsession with maintaining perfection made a far less romantic narrative than true love and sunsets.
In The Second Shift, Arlie Hochschild coins the term “the economy of gratitude,” referring to the gifts given and received between spouses and how those gifts are valued. I indebted myself to him simply for loving me, offered my heart on a silver platter and, of him, asked only one thing: stay. He never asked or expected me to be domestic. It was easier on my conscience to play the victim, to convince myself that he had changed me when, in truth, being in a relationship with any man would have changed me. I needed to be invaluable to him. So, I played the “perfect girlfriend” to a tee, defaulting to the domestic types for character study, because those were the only ones I knew. At every avenue, society said that the “marrying type” baked homemade chocolate chip cookies, shared his interests, laughed at his jokes, and left him alone when he wanted to be. I chose to submit to him, but my “choice” was made in self-defense, as a way of evening the score and, in some backwards way, claiming the “upper hand” in our relationship. If I was perfect, he would never have good reason to abandon me.
Later that day, when I returned home, I admitted my fear. I’m afraid to lose you. But, that’s not what I said, not this time. Instead, “I have lost myself.” When we built an “us” from “he” and “I,” I withheld all the pieces of me. Now, here we were, four walls, a roof over our heads, every brick engraved with his name.