Today I'm picking back up with the fifth post in a long-running series about wanting men/not needing them.
Over the years I've never quite been able to resolve for myself the "you should't need a man" comments that come my way. Of course I don't, I think! I never I said I did. There's a quote out there that's something along the lines of: don't wait for a man to bring you flowers, go out and tend to your own garden. And I get it. And I like to think that since graduating college I've done a hell of a lot of tending to my metaphorical peonies and dandelions and cherry tomatoes. But the whole man bringing you flowers thing? Well, it isn't really about the flowers. It's about the person on the other end of that bouquet.
The feminist in me bristles as the double standard of women-don't-need-a-man-but-poor-Jen-Anison-that-she's-never-found-one.
And because I know some pretty spectacular women, I asked them to weigh in on the subject.
Laura and I met through this strange and lucky world of the internet. Over the years I've met a good handful of people this way. But very, very few like Laura. She is remarkable. She is infuriating in that she's one of those rare people who is actually smart and funny and hard-working and lovely. She is all the things you want to be. But gracious and kind and empathetic as she is, you can't hate her for it. You can only thank your lucky stars that she has chosen you as a friend. And revel in the hours you log on the phone, situated as you are on opposite coasts, figuring out the big life questions.
Here is her response:
In the middle of my eighth-grade diary, there are two illustrations glued to opposite pages: a football drawn by my then-boyfriend and forever-best-friend, plus a pair of theater masks, blue and green, that I drew myself. We'd been asked to sketch out our dreams for the future, and before they made their way into my messy composition notebook, our pictures were strung along a display outside the classroom. On a Friday afternoon, I grabbed both mine and his in a moment of puppy love, and I remember walking home from school together, red leaves beneath our feet, as I told him who I wanted to be someday.
Turns out, "who I wanted to be" was more of a list than a picture. A long list. I wanted to be on Broadway or on Saturday Night Live, or maybe act and write. I wanted to be a children's book illustrator, a playwright, a novelist. I wanted to be the sort of person who penned essays for magazines in my spare time, which felt like a very rom-com thing to do.
It was cold and crisp in our small Chicago suburb, the two of us walking home, as we always did, with our giant pack of lifelong friends. He told he wanted to do something with sports, and I told him I wanted to do something with art, just one thing clear to me in all those hopeful, dramatic teenage ramblings: Someday, I'd move to New York.
Thirteen years later, now 27, I'm not on Broadway, and I'm not on Saturday Night Live, the closest I came to either of those dreams being high-school theater and a job promoting Broadway plays. (Although, to be fair, I'm an editor at PopSugar — which does feel like a very rom-com sort of job, if ever there was one.)
Thirteen years later, I write this not from New York, but from California, at a desk in a home I bought with my husband — the one I married two years ago, the one I met in college before we moved in together at 22. In our very first conversation together, we spoke at a bar on the beach in San Diego. We were 20, both of us blushing as we made small talk about our majors (Communications, the same) and our minors (English, the same) and our families (six kids, five kids — him the oldest, me the youngest.) The bar was dark, the music too loud, both of us half- screaming as we sat on a bench between our mutual friends, leaning in to hear each other speak.
He told me he wanted to do something with sports, and I told him I wanted to do something with art.
I said that someday, I'd move to New York.
What I didn't tell my first boyfriend and what I didn't tell my last — at least not then, anyway — is that I also wanted to be a wife. I wanted to find a love like the one I saw between my parents: a simple sort of happiness, a thoughtful familiarity. I didn't say it because that hope felt sacred — the wish for someone else. At fourteen and at twenty, and at every age before and in between, love was the biggest dream of all. Of course it was. Of course.
Nowhere is that more clear than in my diaries. (Please, please don't let anyone ever read my diaries.)
I've kept a journal since first grade. Which means, you know, close to twenty journals or so. In the younger years I wrote a lot about school and friends, what we did and where we went. In third grade, I wrote about the time we went on a super-secret "spy mission" to save the trees that were marked with X's in the park. I wrote about learning to ride a bike, learning to drive a car, and later, learning to cure a hangover. Throughout elementary school and middle school and high school and college, there were entries about test grades and best friends and my brothers and sisters. But mostly, it's just one long, epic narrative about Who Liked Who on any given day and at any given moment, with a very heavy, occasionally hilarious emphasis on who I liked — or, sometimes, loved.
And so when Meg asked me to write about the notion of wanting (and not needing) a man, this is what I kept turning back to: Entries about the men I'd once wanted, and the man who made that want feel an awful lot like a need.
I had a raw, freshly broken heart when I met Radley. In my experience, the days and weeks and months after a breakup bring some of your darkest days, and also some of your best. The day we met was one of the latter, and not only because his smirk made my breath catch in my throat.
At the time my hair was blonde, too blonde, thanks to some post- heartbreak highlights that seemed like a good idea at the time. (What is it about breakups and hair changes?) It was my best friend's birthday, a Friday, and I felt like I had nothing to lose.
And then, of course, I found Radley, and suddenly I had everything to lose.
At 20, he wore a lot of Bob Marley t-shirts and flip flops, and his face was clean-shaven, his cheeks always slightly sunburnt. Most of those t-shirts are tucked away now, traded for plaid button-downs and soft flannel shirts I steal on weekends. There's a sprinkling of gray hairs at his temples, a short five-o'-clock-shadow of a beard, and a charming confidence that edged its way in slowly, gradually nudging out the insecurities of his early 20s. He's (very) tall with dark wavy hair and a half-smile that fills you up. On weekends, he does crosswords, and in the summertime, he likes to sip beers and play cards. His eyes are green- brown-gold, and when he's sitting in the sun, they look like the smooth Tiger's Eye gemstones I used to collect as a kid.
We fell for each other quickly, easily, unexpectedly, but I hadn't yet learned how to let go, allowing months to pass before I could finally face, and embrace, the easy joy I'd discovered with Radley. The fun beginnings of our relationship folded into the bittersweet endings of our senior year, and by the time graduation rolled around, we realized we had a decision to make. He's from San Francisco, and I'm from Chicago, and at 22, after a year or so together, there was goodbye, or there was going for it — really, all-in going for it. I'm not one for forced goodbyes, and neither is he, so in the end, it wasn't much of a decision at all. We wanted to know, and we wanted to know for sure. And so three months later, jobless, that born-and-raised California boy drove a U-Haul across the country to move to the Midwest. I'd gotten into grad school and started a full-time job; things were in motion. He showed up in my parents' driveway on a Sunday, stepping out of the truck in a faded t-shirt and flip flops, a pair of Ray-Bans pushed into his hair, a hopeful, tired, terrified grin on his face.
That's how I've come to remember those early months together, those early years — Radley and me on a scale, hope and fear at either end, the balance shifting back and forth between the two as we grew up together, alongside each other. We bought couches and kitchenware and all the late-night pizzas that mark some of the best nights of your twenties. We framed pictures, shared chores, compromised on what made the cut for our DVR. I remember living room picnics before furniture arrived, boxes of Chinese food scattered across a Blackhawks blanket, and I remember writing in my diary that it felt like having a sleepover with your best friend every single day.
In that bright, brick apartment on a busy, oftentimes snowy Chicago street, Radley and I checked off first after first, and on the 3rd of July — a big deal in Chicago, my favorite day of the year — he asked me to marry him. We were 24, in love, and as sure as you can ever be, which actually isn't so sure at all. In that way, the only way, we were sure.
Like anything else, marrying young shapes you. It doesn't define you, but it certainly shapes you. For me, those post-college years marked the first time that my friends and I merged on to different roads moving in different directions, and it felt both surreal and wildly inevitable to be sitting beside Radley during that time. We learned how to live with and around and beside each other. We learned the odd little dance of creating a life with another person: when to bend, when to stand tall, how to lean.
(The how and the when and the why of leaning is most important, I think.)
Radley and I, both of us, we were living a life we hadn't planned. And two springs into our shared, special, unexpected life, and six months before he proposed, I brought him to New York. New York.
With only a few months of my graduate writing program still lying ahead of me, I knew I was on the brink — on the cusp of whatever was to come. Our plan, from the start, had been simple: Two years in Chicago, two years in San Francisco. Our two cities, two years each, and then, who knows? That was the plan. That was our plan. And yet.
It was March, the slushy aftermath of Chicago's "snowpocalypse" still blanketing the city when my mother and I flew to New York for a week- long vacation. We were shameless, starry-eyed, Broadway-and-red-bus loving tourists, and it was during this weighty week — one I knew would be important even as I lived it — that I met Meg. (A connection I've always loved.) In any case, toward the end of our girls' getaway, Radley met me there for his first trip to New York City.
Giddy and anxious, I'd planned each day of our stay down to the last pizza slice. When I love something, or someone, or someplace, I want to share it, and there was just one clear impulse driving me that week: I wanted Radley to love New York. I wanted him to love it as much as I did. Or, at the very least, to not hate it.
He didn't hate it. And he didn't love it, either. He liked the buzz and the food and the beers at McSorley's, but as we sat in a small, cozy pizza parlor on that last night, a tiny red candle between us, I understood what he didn't say: It wasn't the place for him.
What he said instead: That he could see how much I loved New York, and he could feel the pull of that lifelong dream. That if I wanted to, I could live there. That he'd meet me there soon, or maybe right away. That he wanted me to have a life that I loved, and that if it meant a couple years on the opposite coast from where we'd met, he'd be willing to try. He'd come to Chicago, after all, and what was the difference, just a few states further, anyway?
There it was, the life I'd drawn for myself, hanging in the air between us. I felt a buzz that had nothing to do with the beers we were drinking, and a heaviness in my chest where I'd thought I'd feel light. He'd said all the right things, and meant them. And yet.
I was a wreck. I questioned everything. I wrote list after list, made call after call, exhausted every idea and option. There wasn't an angle I didn't consider, not a route I didn't debate. He became more and more excited about a possible East coast adventure. I became more and more sure that I wouldn't live in New York, and that maybe I wasn't ever supposed to.
That spring felt impossibly warm. After a winter for the (literal) record books, Chicago seemed to open up like one of those pop-up children's books — all color and light and surprises. My runs got longer, my mind a bit clearer as I came to understand what I'd never, ever seen coming: A love so big, and a man so mine, that the shape of my dreams had shifted. Not entirely, of course, but just so. Just enough.
That May, this is what I wrote in my diary: I'm full of more love than I ever expected to be, and I'm more sure of Radley than I've ever felt about anything.
Radley proposed that July, and nine weeks later, we boarded a one-way flight to San Francisco. There were new jobs, new (and old) friends, and more Chinese-food picnics on our living room floor before all the furniture arrived. We traded Lake Shore Drive runs for jogs to the Golden Gate Bridge, and after some true trial and error, I finally learned how to properly layer clothes.
It felt as if my life had click-click-clicked into place, and returning to California seemed to lite me up somehow. I felt light, buoyed by the rightness of where I stood, and who I stood beside. That following summer, we were married beneath the arch of two oak trees, his green- brown-gold eyes glowing in the sunlight that slipped through the trees.
This is what I told him.
My best friend,
My brightest light,
My husband from this day forward:
You are the greatest, most magnificent man I've ever known.
You've taught me peace and charity, strength and integrity, the beautiful bliss of life's most simple joys.
You've shown me what it means to be good and true,
what it's like to wake up each day with faith and hope and a fearless, grateful spirit.
I love you for so many reasons, but I love you most for your heart — Your true and kind and open, compassionate heart.
Our love has always felt both incredible and inevitable — a miracle that's meant to be —
And my most cherished blessing is to know that I'm yours.
Today, surrounded by the ones we love,
I vow to honor, inspire, and respect you for the rest of our days.
I'm yours, Radley, forever and always: All that I am now and all that I'll ever be.
In his vows, Radley said, "Since the day we met, I knew I'd be up here next to you. I've never wanted to fight for something more in my entire life." He called me his best friend, his soulmate, and at one point, he said, "I promise to always find time for our love."
Someone told me a few weeks after our wedding that it must feel odd, at twenty-five, to already be half of a whole. I didn't feel that way, though. We weren't one, we were two; I was whole, and so was he. That's what it means, I think, to find love. Real, in-your-bones love.
The thing is, I never expected to meet someone so young; I never expected him. But what a lovely surprise he was, Radley — the man who fell into that space between wanting and needing, the one that blurs the lines between the two.
See, I still don't think I need him — not in a literal sense, anyway — but hell if it doesn't feel like it most days. Real, in-your-bones love.
My husband isn't quite my "other half," and that's not a phrase I relate to. Over the years, and within more than a few diary entries, I've tried to capture what, exactly, he is to me. The words finally came to me one sunny Sunday morning while we were drinking coffee on our deck, the California sun hotter than it should be on a January day.
Radley — he's my New York.