Ready or Not
His sister texted me. “I’m sure you’ve heard about them by now…” the text message preview read, the light from the screen searing into my eyes. It was 4:22am on a December morning in Munich, Germany, where I was spending a weekend away from my new home in Greece. I’d woken up to darkness that wouldn’t end for another three and a half hours outside the narrow room with its twin bed, desk, shelves, and walking space in between only large enough for one. Her brother, my ex-boyfriend of one year and six months, was engaged. Sleep didn’t come for a long time after that.
He and I met when my family moved to town my sophomore year of high school. A year younger than me, he didn’t go to my school, and I rarely heard him speak. But in January of my senior year, I asked him about a mutual friend’s pot habit, he responded, and we didn’t stop our conversation until we broke up three years and five months later.
It was a messy breakup. Messy meaning I did and did not want to end the relationship, messy meaning I spent months afterward sitting on the tan couch, on the white couch, at the table in my parents’ house trying not to think, messy meaning I missed him and wanted to try being friends but found out he was already with someone else two months later, the girl he would be engaged to fifteen months after that.
Victim, replaced, traded in. These are the things I still say sometimes.
And yet. All along, staying felt possible and impossible. The first time I read Tiny Beautiful Things, we were somewhere in the middle of the relationship, I think, and reading “There’s a Bundle on Your Head” made me uncomfortable. Strayed tells the letter writer about the obviousness of her desire to leave: “though that bundle might be impossible for you to see right now, it’s entirely visible to me. You aren’t torn. You’re only just afraid.”
My bundle barely fit into the car when we drove south on a highway to go biking and picnic by a river, winter sun shining through the windshield onto my lap, almost exactly two years before I’d read a message saying he was engaged to someone else, and he said something about the future, hand on my leg as he drove, aviator sunglasses on, and I said, as I always did, that we weren’t ready, and laughing, he said, “I could ask you to marry me when we’re 80 and you’d still say we’re not ready.”
What does it mean to be ready or not ready to marry someone? Ready, prepared, stepping off into emptiness, like leaping into flight confident the parachute will deploy, or the cord will catch, or the mattress is there on the floor. Ready, meaning all the messy aspects of life have been organized enough to fit someone else’s stuff into the closet with them. I envision it more like playing hide and seek as a child: ready or not, here it comes.
Sometimes I was the one hiding, and sometimes I was the one found. I stayed because I loved him, a qualifier I always feel the need to say, and I stayed because it was tidy and easy. The relationship wasn’t easy, not when we were separated by miles and an hour of time difference, but the staying was easy, because the longer I stayed, the more I saw into the future. It wasn’t about my family, not then – that would come after. I wanted to stay because I thought it was what I wanted, even though I knew I wanted other things, too.
But the bundle was still there, strewn around my room, weeks before the breakup as I sat in the hallway of an apartment in the Monti neighborhood of Rome emailing my best friend, telling her I was afraid I was settling but also I loved him, my mother’s words echoing in my head: I don’t think you’ll find anyone better. I believed in those words, but they failed me. Or timing failed me. Or nothing failed me, because there was nothing.
And it was there when I read another of Strayed’s responses in “The Truth That Lives There.” She told the women:
“Go, even though you love him. Go, even though he’s kind and faithful and dear to you. Go, even though he’s your best friend and you’re his. Go, even though you can’t imagine your life without him. … Go, even though you’re afraid of being alone. … Go, even though there is nowhere to go. Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay. Go, because you want to. Because wanting to leave is enough.”
Wanting to leave is enough. But sometimes I didn’t know if I wanted to leave or not.
His presence was a constant, and stability was appealing – something concrete to hold onto. As a writing coach, I’m always telling students that: be less vague, offer the reader something real to grasp in the prose, as though one can reach onto the page and pull him or herself up or down each line like rungs on a ladder – a clock made from a book, a piano, eggs. Back then I forgot that holding onto concrete can weigh you down.
One of my friends, after I told her the news, said, “Jesus fuck. Well in all honesty my first reaction was: holy crap you dodged a bullet.” Others agreed with her, saying I wasn’t failing, that I had an incredible trajectory. And of course I nodded to myself in agreement, told them I hadn’t been ready to settle down.
Walking around Munich later that day I found out, lights glowing and pyramids spinning, I didn’t hear Christmas music. I heart Tift Merritt singing to me. Oh, Icarus / There’s a wing down in each of us / Faster than the speed of sound inside / Everything flies. / A rush of breath, a turn of touch / the arc of loving someone so much / the way your heart will race and rise / a tear hanging in a long, slow dive.
He said he loved me before I said I loved him, one night colder than it should have been, or perhaps I remember it that way because I could feel him trembling as he gripped my coat and almost whispered it. I told him a few months later while sitting in an airport’s international terminal wearing green pants, a blue-and-white-striped three-quarter-length sleeved shirt and Chacos, waiting with my mother and father and middle brother to board a plane to Paris for a trip celebrating my high school graduation. I hid it partly behind the drama of a plane crash, making sure to tell him this “just in case something happened.”
I came back two weeks later and we lay on his parents’ couch, the one in that squeaked when we moved, and I was wearing my bright pink bra with the grey straps, and his hand was on it, and I told him again, and it was mostly unspoken that we would stay together for awhile longer.
Looking back, I forget the beginning and middle of the arc, this part, when I believed in it with all I had. Mary Karr writes in her book The Art of Memoir that “dumb hope is what it hurts most to write, occupying the foolish schemes we pursued for decades, the blind alleys, the cliffs we stepped off. … Ask yourself if you aren’t strapping your current self across the past to hide the real story.”
Placing my current self against the past is saying what the news of his engagement brought to my attention wasn’t that I wanted to be engaged to him or even be engaged, but that I wouldn’t have had the life I do now had I stayed with him, that he’d always been ready to settle down, that I was always ready to leave, even if I wouldn’t admit it to myself.
Back then, I would have said I loved him – I did – and I wanted to stay with him as long as I could – I did. I would have – and did – step off a cliff for a time. The news of his engagement was every goodbye in his driveway or mine, our throats bared to the dark sky dotted with stars, looking, and it was the hours long phone calls while driving, and it was someone telling me before we told each other how we felt and began dating that “he looks at you different,” and it was the mornings I’d come over, him still half-asleep in his double bed in the room with blue walls, and crawl in beside him, staring at him as he said wouldn’t it be great if you were already here to wake up with, if we could do this every morning.
When I was in college, I read a poem by Jack Gilbert called “Failing and Flying.” About Icarus, the poem says, “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew. / It’s the same when love comes to an end, / or the marriage fails and people say / they knew it was a mistake, that everybody / said it would never work. That she was / old enough to know better. But anything / worth doing is worth doing badly.”
“I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, / but just coming to the end of his triumph.”
Icarus did not fail. I did not fail. Right? I don’t think so. And I do. There are times I feel I failed the relationship because in my family, everyone except me has left college knowing whom they’d marry, because the relationship ended, because there was something I could have done or not done, because perhaps I am ashamed at my own crash landing, perhaps as Icarus might have been had he lived to look up into Daedalus’s eyes. There was flight, not too close to the sun, but with the extra weight of the bundle I was carrying.
Ray Bradbury says, “Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.” And then I think perhaps I wasn’t Icarus, but Daedalus, and the Icarus was the relationship, coming to the end of its flying, leaving me in its wake to pick up the pieces and bury them, flying on again, doing this each time I tell the story to someone, and as I stood in the medieval Christkindlmarkt in Munich, clutching my warm mug of glühwein while waiting in line for Flammküchen, smoke wisping out of the wood-fired oven, the lights around me casting a shadow of a man on horseback onto a nearby building, I had to remember: Daedalus made it to freedom.
Molly McConnell works as a writing coach to secondary school and college students in Thessaloniki, Greece. Her unofficial job includes mastering the pronunciation of "cappuccino" in a Greek accent and eating feta cheese. A homebody who loves traveling, more of her work can be found at anotherhelpingblog.com.