There’s a side story in the Story of Lost Boy the deep sea diver and Wendy Darling, the Alison of this blog. At first glance, it might seem to anyone reading these next lines (including Lost Boy) that it is an unrelated side story, one that belongs to the side–way, way to the side–but actually, it is related to love and fear and what we do on the windy roads of both. And this side story taught me where I was coming from and where I would like to be in a relationship. Side stories often do that. So here it is, the side story, a side story that is kind of painful to tell, because it is a bit of confusion and sadness and yes, fear, before things fell into place for me and Lost Boy. I guess you could say this is a side story about choosing to be mistreated in order to realize you want to be prized and loved.
Once upon a time, when my home in Baton Rouge was falling apart in very controlled ways, I went dancing thirty miles west. I danced with a man with one gray eye and one brown eye at Whiskey River, a rickety dancehall that sways and creaks on stilts over the Atchafalaya, somewhere between Baton Rouge and Lafayette. On Sundays you can watch people pull up after church on their boats, eat barbecue and chug High Lifes. You can stand in front of an industrial-sized fan to cool off in between the sweaty zydeco numbers that hem and haw your bones into a happy whipped frenzy. If you’re an outsider like me, you can count on at least two or three men to show you some steps and ask you to practice on the dance floor. I danced with this man, a guitarist I’ll call Stormy, a few times. You can be a good dance partner with someone with whom you have nothing in common, and with whom you ordinarily would avoid speaking. I know this and it’s one reason I love dancing.
On this Sunday last spring, when afternoon sighed into evening at Whiskey River, I was with my friend Cali Girl and her friend from her hometown in Santa Maria, California. She had wanted to show her childhood friend the happiest things about southern Louisiana that she could think of, and zydeco dancing was at the top of the list. Both of them have sunny smiles and lights twinkling behind their eyes. They always look for the lighthearted edge in every situation. I remember a very familiar feeling when I was around this man and not dancing. It’s the feeling you get when you can tell someone is very angry and hurt about something that happened long ago, but they’ve buried it deep inside so that it overtakes everything, including the way they joke, or smile, or laugh–things that shouldn’t have a tinge of sadness or anger. It animates a lot of their insistence that other people pay for this hurt. Stormy leaned against the exterior of the dancehall with us as dusk settled and he slouched, looking into the distance and the bugs lazing about in over the water while Cali Girl and I discussed what we’d do for dinner, and sulked when he invited himself, and we told him that we’d prefer to dine on our own, just us girls. I remember thinking that this was the most contrast I had felt between who someone was on the dance floor, and who they were off the dance floor. He asked to join us for dinner, and asked a few more times when we said we just wanted to be on our own, but he asked in that way a man does who is used to using sadness and insistence instead of wooing and flattery. I hadn’t seen him but once, and around July, he came through Denver and got in touch with me.
We drank beers and ate pizza in an upscale Denver neighborhood that I had never been in before. I missed Louisiana, and I missed the way he helped me feel that easy way of talking and slowness. Did I enjoy being around him? Well. Let’s put it this way: I enjoyed the attention. And Stormy had a way of making me feel like he needed all the friends he could get, and that his new age way of exploring self growth and healing from past hurts was smart and thoughtful and deep. No, I didn’t have fun, but there was certainly a lot to think about with Stormy around. He seemed to want to bring someone along on the journey he was taking to figure out how to feel better, and how to let go of sadness he felt. Heavy stuff for pizza and beer. Usually, in making conversation, I’d tell him some story from my day, and he’d inevitably return with
“And now what does that say about you? What do you need to improve on in yourself after telling that story?”
Honestly, it was like talking to some sort of punitive riddler. In fact, that’s his new nickname: the Punitive Riddler. And the embarrassing part, dear reader, is that I continued to be friends with this person for a few weeks after it became clear that he enjoyed making people –me–feel bad. This is a sick side story, and one I am embarrassed to say is mine. Did it take a brush with emotional abuse to realize how I felt about Lost Boy? No. I knew how I felt about Lost Boy from the very first moment I heard his voice. I was scared I would never meet Lost Boy, and stupidly thought I’d have to negotiate with Punitive Riddlers in the meantime (oh yes–there are many Punitive Riddlers.) The thing is, I turned him into a Punitive Riddler by putting up with it. Get it? Just like I’ve turned other lovers into Punitive Riddlers. By staying when I should go.
I missed Louisiana, I was terrified I’d never meet Lost Boy, and I let my friendship with the Punitive Riddler go on a week longer than it should have because I fell into a self-abuse hole. I am sure there are Punitive Riddlestresses out there to fall in love with Punitive Riddlers. I just had to realize my blind spots that I can be lured into conversations about self growth and high-sounding new age enlightenment abstract ideas (usually you can spot it when you hear more than two of these characteristic phrases close together, such as ‘what does that say about you?’ and ‘that’s my journey’ and ‘I am grateful for this challenge’ and ‘I acknowledge you’ and ‘Listen to your body. What does it say?’ and ‘You have brought a lot to the table here’ and ‘I will not engage in that script with you’).
I thought of Lost Boy, and how far away he was, and how I might never get to meet him, and a sensation like a warm, wet dishrag knotted and burrowed in my insides.
Dear Reader, Punitive Riddler is not the antagonist in this story. The antagonist is me almost not thinking I was worth of a greater love story.
I had gotten used to telling Lost Boy everything. So much so that I had become dependent on our exchanges about the experiences that had shaped us, good and bad, and how in every exchange we helped each other sort out the difference between our past experiences and the the people we were because of what those experiences had taught us. How could I tell him I was engaging in self abuse and putting obstacles in my path to meeting him, to “manning up” so to speak? So often we are tempted to see ourselves through the filter of our mistakes or the accomplishments that have absolved us. And with Lost Boy, they were all one and the same–and less important than who I was and who he was. I guess you could say that I felt seen, if that’s even possible. Which made it all that scarier, whether we met or not.
I emailed Lost Boy that I was going to see where this thing with this man went, when basically I had gone on one date. Cali Girl told me it was the right thing to do in my ongoing attempt to build integrity. All I know is, I sobbed the entire time I typed. This awkward jump to confess was what finally helped me see that I was very much in love with Lost Boy, and that regardless of how ill-advised and well-meaning sharing that information was, my feelings were finally clear to me in a way I couldn’t ignore. I had fallen in love with my friend and confidante, and yes, it all happened online–well, except for how it started, which was falling onto that ladder he built with his voice over the phone.
Lost Boy thanked me for my honesty, and I did not hear from him for what felt like a very long time. In the meantime the interaction between me and the guy with the mismatched eyes was clearly one night of drinking and nostalgia for Louisiana. None of my initial intuition had been wrong about him; it was only the second guessing that confused me. Where with Lost Boy we delved into our fears and weaknesses in order to heal each other, conversations with this man consisting of him questioning and probing in order to show me how I fell short, though he used language of new age spirituality and almost a Buddhist detachment. This was a powerful reminder of how I used to approach love–historically I have sought out situations in which I press myself against some measuring stick, because deep down I didn’t want to see myself as enough.
I still did not hear from him. My trip to New Orleans approached. I pursued a few job openings in New Orleans. Then I bought fancy black shoes, in the hopes that some of my job applications would come through and give me even more of a reason to be in Louisiana without Lost Boy.
Lost Boy was still on a job in the Bahamas. I emailed him about the mismatched eye dude, told him we were just friends. I arrived in New Orleans, and didn’t hear from Lost Boy. Days passed in New Orleans, seeing old friends, seeing my mom, who was looking for a place; she had decided to spend the start of her retirement in the Crescent City. And the first interview didn’t go so well. It was for a middle school teaching position at one of the city’s high achieving charter schools. My sample lesson was lackluster even after two days of preparation, and the conversation afterward with the principal and the vice principal made it clear that I didn’t have it in me to be teacher again, not the teacher that was required in that school.
“You’re certainly the most knowledgeable person in the building about literature,” said the principal. “But you might be the weakest teacher for a charter middle school. Will you assimilate into our rigid social norms? Will you pay just as much attention to tucked-in shirts as you do children’s descriptive language in their creative writing prompts?”
The answer was no, but I said yes.
I’m a damn good teacher. But I’m not the teacher they’re looking for. In a charter school culture that is pressed to prioritize order and teaching to the test (a.k.a. state standards interpreted by Common Core and team teachers) I am not their candidate. I’ve heard since that challenging teachers after their demonstration lesson is a test of the teacher candidate’s confidence, or according to some, self esteem. I’ve heard it’s a hazing method, and it’s ultimately a ritual that prompts a desire within many candidates to belong to the group that is hazing them. Unfortunately this does not prompt productivity in me, nor does it prompt a desire to join.
I finished the interview by repeating why I was the best choice for the position, for what are we trained to do but to sell ourselves in these situations, and I left the school, threw the expensive chart-sized adhesive poster paper I had used in the backseat of the car, and decided that teaching secondary school in that proscribed format was something I could do when I was 26, (and I did it well) but no longer something I could do well at 36. However ill-matched our work cultures are, that’s not the point. The point is that I realized I am no longer this kind of teacher. And that I am a teacher. It’s funny how a negative job interview for a teaching job can help you realize you are, indeed, a damn fine teacher.
I emailed Lost Boy about the interview. I didn’t hear back. I saw a picture of him on Facebook, sprawled out and asleep across the lap of one of his fellow divers on the plane ride back to the states.
When he did email me, he talked about Pittsburgh and working out, and why I should one day visit Graceland (I was interviewing at a museum in New Orleans that included a historical restoration of a domestic residence, much like Graceland.) My mother picked me up to go out to dinner and sighed with relief. “I’m glad he emailed you,” she said, both of us knowing who he was, and both of us knowing that receiving an email from Lost Boy meant I’d be a pleasant dinner companion.
We started talking again, never mentioning my gaffe when I told him I was going to date someone else. I could feel us slowly sharing again, tentatively, as if the atmosphere in our emails tiptoed around the bruise of my virtual non-betrayal.
By August, I had won a job interview to a big university’s marketing team in West Virginia, thanks to my performance in a rushed phone interview with them in New Orleans. Specifically, in front of a bar on Frenchman Street. I thought surely if it was an hour or two south of his hometown of PIttsburgh, he could figure out a way to meet me. He wanted to, he said he did, and I believed him.
But his job in Norfolk, Virginia was extended, so he missed out on a trip to Morgantown, a ride on the Personal Rapid Transit system, the university’s state of the art electric public transportation system built by Boeing in the 1970’s. He missed the quirky coffeeshop where I walked a mile in the sun wearing a black blazer, after four hours of four separate interviews, each ranging from uncomfortable to downright grilling
“Why should we hire someone who hasn’t worked in an office setting in over a decade?”
None of these job interviews–countless applications and near-misses, near-wins, do I regret or resent. They are building the path toward where I need to be, and as it turned out, Lost Boy was a huge part of where I need to be.