Mr. X is laying on my couch snoring light snuffly sounds. His head is flopped back and his lap holds a red bowl with straggling crumbs of Chex Mix. His left knee, in nylon Denver Bronco lounge pants, is touching my right thigh, the soft and worn nubby tie-dye fabric of my pants faded thin.
This moment is so utterly normal that it terrifies me.
Mr. X is no new presence in my life. But for the year we’ve known each other, this marks the first time we’ve ever spent, well, time together. I offered him coffee with milk not knowing he took it black. I washed grapes to snack on not knowing he avoided them. I could tell you how quickly he responds to jokes with a smart quip. But when I slathered a sandwich with mayo and handed it off on a paper plate he paused, laughing quietly from his eyes, and admitted he hated the stuff. Mr. X could tell you my emotional triggers, the qualities I look for in a man, could advise me out of a paper bag with the patience of a Jedi… but he watched entranced as I talked in stupid voices to my dog.
I had eagerly anticipated our weekend together. My friend, lover, and the text behind many of the *beeps* emanating from my cell phone. 72 hours. 72 hours to laugh, to talk, to touch and feel our way through the weekend… 72 hours for me to be totally, utterly, out of my element as I wrestled with the presence of another human body in my living space.
Here’s the thing. I’m great at being alone. Whether a skill I was born with or simply acquired through years of practice, I excel at being solitary. My life is full of a loving, supportive cast of characters but, for all intents and purposes, I’m a bit of a lone wolf. Sure, I date. And yes, I’ve had serious relationships. But rarely do they spill over the constraints of planned or activity-specific time. I’ve never lived with a partner or cohabited space. So the idea of another human being breaking through the invisible force field surrounding my personal space is terrifying.
Mr. X arrives in the morning and I spend the ride home from the airport nervously chatting as he sits in my passenger seat. At my apartment, I wheel his rolling suitcase into my bedroom and drape his Pea coat over the arm of my couch, and while I’m fidgeting, he places his hands on my waist and leans in.
“You nervous?” he asks in the deep voice I’ve grown accustomed to on the other end of the phone. I nod and then we’re kissing, which feels comfortable and familiar and an action with a purpose I can wrap my head around. This I understand. This I know. This has boundaries and rules and neat lines to color inside. A start, a middle and an end…
For some people, the Dance of Coupledom seems to come naturally. They glide seamlessly from relationship to relationship. They know how to split closets, Pas de Deux around the bathroom sink in the morning without crashing heads, share the remote control, and consider someone else before making a move. Not me.It’s been years since someone else occupied my space for more than a few hours at a time. Eons, it seems. In my mid-thirties now, I’ve perfected my own patterns and I like them. I like the minimalist order of my living room and systematized chaos of my closets. I once counted the nights I’ve spent seemingly free and, I’m loath to admit, it added up into the thousands.
I’ve often contemplated if I am even a person made for coupledom? Could I weather the daily banalities of life with another person? The dishes in the sink, the out-of-toilet-paper bathroom or the lack-of-talking-nights spent in peaceful harmony with one another?
I once dated a man who, between kids and practices and work and obligations, had only slivers of time to allot to his personal life. “If you’re looking for a guy to sit on the couch and watch American Idol with you,” he said staunchly, “that’s not me.” Which worked fine for me. I worked hard, liked my free time and didn’t require someone else’s presence to make me content.
Frankly, I never thought a traditional type of relationship would work for me. I never balked at the idea of dating someone who traveled for a living, or split their time with parental duties. I’ve been in love with men who lived from suitcases and workaholics who fell into bed after midnight. Friends would call me “fiercely independent” but I didn’t see my needs as being that unusual. After all, who wouldn’t want to have their own bathroom for all their own stuff to be placed as they best saw fit? Who doesn’t relish autonomy and the prize of solitary time? I looked at friends who lived with their partners and I sometimes wondered how they did it.
I am an ace at Chunks of time. Long Chunks, short Chunks, afternoon or evening Chunks. Even a one-night Chunk of time is something I can wrap my head around. I know how to appear charming and busy, domestic yet self-reliant. I can play the right musical playlist (that I’ve carefully crafted in advance to evoke the proper tone and mood), light the right candle and find a lounge outfit that convincingly conveys “what, this old thing?” in an authentic, I-just-threw-this-on kind of way. I can offer you a sparkling water or snack. I can make slow-cooked scrambled eggs, assure my dirty laundry is never visible and my bathroom sink is free of toothpaste globs. I can do all of that… for a Chunk of time. After that? Life gets messy. Playlists run out, dogs need to be walked, and pajama pants and messy buns make an appearance. The Cute Bra gets traded for The Every Day Bra. A dish gets left in the sink. I worry I run out of stories. I sit on the couch in such a manner that my chins are highlighted and the bulge in my midsection is unhidden by pillows, where before I would have perched in a gravity-defying and architectural pose of a Greco-Roman statue.
I can craft the mood and, for a set amount of time, fool you into thinking I’m engaging, charming and one hell of a catch… But out of the safe quarters of pre-determined sections of time, what do I lean on?While Mr. X is napping, there’s a knock at my door.
My landlady has popped by, as she often does in Mr. Roper-esque fashion, to pick up a set of cookie sheets I’ve borrowed. I tell her I have company, and she notices my silver ballet flats, which are lined up neatly next to Mr. X’s large sneakers.
“Aww look,” she coos, “boy shoes, girl shoes…”
And this hits me like a brick wall.
The simple appearance of shoes, in perfect symmetry next to each other. His shoes, my shoes. My shoes… next to the shoes of another.
I’ve never seen them that way before. It looks foreign and funny but, at the same time, totally normal…
In a snap of a moment’s time, my center shifts. Why not my shoes?
The silver ballet flats are girly and look slight compared to his big, rubbery sneakers. I like the stark difference between the two. As if our shoes existed to compliment the other’s; to force them into position and role in the natural order of life. The idea that one pair could belong to another. Make a home next to each other. It’s so simple. So clear. So foreign to me, yet so achingly peaceful.
I am frightened of this crack in my wall. It’s small but decisive. A little truth bomb that planted itself in my soul. Where I never, ever before felt like I craved that sense of normalcy, now I want it. It feels odd, like putting a pair of shoes on the wrong feet and walking around. But I want to keep walking. I want to walk until the shoes mold to my feet and my strides are even. I want my Girl Shoes lined up to Boy Shoes. I want… Well, I just want.
And then just like that, I dissolve…
“How about One-Eyed-Jacks?” Mr. X offers the next morning, standing in my kitchen with an open fridge door. I’m hungry and nod, not recalling a time when a guy made me breakfast, but relishing the presence of someone else in my kitchen. I point him towards spatulas, navigate him to the butter and then sit at the counter as he flips and scoops and piles a plate with toasted bread filled with gooey egg-centers.
Last night, I sat there braless (which might have worked at 23 but now, well, maybe not so much) and my hair smooshed on the top of my head with a bobby pin. Mr. X and I were seven episodes into an Archer-binge on Netflix and in between laughter we took turns nodding off to sleep, having exhausted all our Catching Up Chatter. With my head on his chest, I eschewed arching my back in favor of a leg-drape that was considerably less attractive but far more comfortable. This was life, unscripted, in its rawest form for me, with no play list or gimmick or Chunk of Time to direct me. There was nothing but us filling the space.I immediately realized that every recent relationship I’ve had has been built around blocks. Set blocks of Sarah. Mix and match components. Like a Barbie Doll: Malibu Barbie; Career Barbie; Vet Tech Barbie complete with plastic pet and accompanying stethoscope. There’s Sweet Sarah. Spunky Sarah. Answering-The-Door-in-a-Cute-Outfit-and-Catching-You-Off-Guard Sarah, complete with fresh pot of coffee and waterproof mascara that never smudges.
Lying there on that couch felt strange and unfamiliar, yet I went along for the ride because there really was nothing else to do. And while part of me was fighting it, the other part was all too happy to comply. As if I’ve tapped into some deeper, more rudimentary and base instinct of femininity that I’d somehow been denying was a Primary Need all along? The need to share, to touch, to breathe, to simply EXIST in the presence of another.
After our initial encounter, desperate and charged and ignited by months of verbal sparring, life-sharing, prolonged lingual foreplay, all we did was sleep.
That’s it. We slept on the couch while he gently snored, waking every few minutes to check the remote or the time. There was no engaging conversation or canned recitation of reliable jokes.
And, when it seemed late enough, I nudged him gently and, in my softest voice, I prodded,“Hey, let’s go to bed, c’mon.” In bed I made a brief, yet comfortable, home in the hollow crook of his arm until he revealed that he can only fall asleep on his side… So I kissed his shoulder and he turned over and moments later was snoring again. Our feet, diagonally angled towards each other, touched under the covers.
Mr. X could be anyone. That Guy I met on OK Cupid, or This Man who a friend set me up with, or the Right Swipe from Tinder. And while I have some degree of love for Mr. X (though it’s more like an “intense sense of recognition within another person you care about” sort of love than it is an “I can’t live without you” or theall-consuming IN LOVE that people talk about in rom-com movies,) it’s not Mr. X himself that has caused this shift in me, but rather the simplicity of his presence… Because I’ve realized now, that in its own form and its own design, having a relationship where someone is around for the small moments of banal dialogue is now something I crave.We’re standing on the patio. Mr. X is smoking a cigarette and carefully flicking ashes into a blue plastic cup filled with water. It’s chilly. I’m wearing torn jeans and worn-in moccasins. We talk about his family. He tells me about his mom and dad and some random story of some random moment growing up. I laugh to myself as we peel back the layers of our shiny veneered surfaces to reveal our substructures. The foundational concrete building blocks that sit under the ground. Void of pretty paints or fancy finishes, but solid and supportive.
When I drive Mr. X back to the airport a day later, I wrap my arms around him at the Departure curb. I cling a bit tighter than I probably should, and hope he doesn’t notice. I remind myself it’s not him that I’m clinging to. I get back into my car quickly to avoid lingering longer than the prescribed level of emotion our relationship allows for. It’s not him I’m anxious to let go of, but the presence of him. The flutter of little chin hairs from his electric razor sprinkling in the bathroom sink. The scent of cologne mixed with deodorant. The big, dark sneakers pushed against the wall parallel to my shoes. These are the things I wish for…
I arrive back to my empty apartment, my dog laps excitedly at my feet, and I place my bag down on the counter, surveying the scene. A damp towel hangs over the bathroom door. My television is twisted towards the sofa for Optimum Football Viewing. There are little marks of his presence everywhere, and yet the more potent remains are far from tangible because they are inside me.
Later that night I attempt One-Eyed-Jacks for dinner but drop the first egg on the floor. I move too fast, trying to recreate the feeling I felt when watching a man so simply prepare my my meal. The orb slips from my fingers and erupts in a yellowy-splat. I push the dog away as I drop to my knees to clean it up, sighing big, audible puffs of air. The toasted bread doesn’t taste as good. I mean, it’s delicious and all, but it just not the same as I eat them alone. I wonder when the next time I’ll have a man in my kitchen will be, and just when the vulnerable starts to creep in, I brush it back and focus on the dishes instead.
I realize that I’m ready for more. “More” is imperfect. It’s mundane and unscripted. But as I think of the soft swish swish of Mr. X’s nylon pants walking down my hallway, it also seems peacefully and totally connected.
And as I ready for bed, peeling off layers of clothing folding and storing them away, I slip off my shoes and line them up, neat but unaccompanied. I stare at them sitting in perfect symmetry with themselves. They are alone for now…. But hopefully, not for long. Soon, they’ll be Boy Shoes and Girl Shoes again. Probably with someone else, someone new. But the next time, I’ll be ready for them.