Growing up without two parents, I never had an immediate example of what a healthy relationship was supposed to look like. As a kid, sometimes my friends would try to get me involved in a game they called “playing house.” My imagination could be pushed to extraordinary lengths in the recreating of a scene from Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson, but playing house was something I just didn’t have the tools for.
In my life, “house” consisted of one woman who made me vegetarian burritos. Even my grandma was twice divorced.
“Now you’re the husband,” my friend would say, handing me a broken Super Soaker.
“And I’m the wife.” She pawed through a giant Tupperware and emerged with several plastic strips of bacon and half of a Velcro-laden hamburger bun. “Now I’ll cook.” She rattled the fake food around on the picnic table.
“Oh, husband, time to have a baby!”
I sat very still. She looked at me expectantly.
“Ok now I’m pregnant!” she said, pushing a Popple into the front of her overalls as I gazed longingly in the direction of my yard.
Going to these two-parented kid’s houses for dinner provided no further clues as to what a relationship actually was. Their dads were shadowy figures who showed up for dinner wearing mesh-backed baseball hats and clutching a can of Milwaukee’s Best. My friend’s mother would hover around her husband’s silent, glowering visage throughout the meal, forgoing her own dinner for the honor of holding a serving spoon, heavy with casserole, above his plate in case he should want seconds.
When this meal was finished, the dad disappeared into the garage to skin a buck and the mom, relived of her duties, retreated to the family room to watch Melrose Place with a box of Snackwell’s. I may not have been able to pick a penis out of a lineup of naked body parts, but I was certain love was made of better stuff than this.
My specific version of love was informed by romantic comedies staring Meg Ryan and later Sandra Bullock. In these movies, (French Kiss was a favorite) the cute leading lady found love while retaining her own quirks and interests. She rarely sacrificed anything. And why should she? She was difficult, true. But her annoying traits, her impossible-to-deal-with behavior -- it should be regarded as sweet and endearing, correct? God, that really was a good time for romantic comedy.
While Meg Ryan and her cute sundresses informed my image of love, my ideas about relationships remained vague. Movies failed to ever show anything past the initial wooing stage. In a relationship, you say “I love you,” hopefully somewhere near the beginning of your story. (Unless you are my last boyfriend who managed nearly two years without uttering the words.)
When they someone says “I love you,” in a movie, you are already fitting your leftover popcorn into your purse and feeling around for your gloves. I love you. The end.
They never show what actually happens when his English accent becomes grating or she starts to obsessively pick at her face while they’re watching television. Movies almost never revealed the inner workings of a relationship. And in this, they have been totally useless to me.
All of these experiences could explain why throughout much of the past decade of my experimentation in monogamy I could be found alternately dry heaving into a towel in the bathroom, sobbing and murmuring the words “I want to go home,” while hugging myself and rocking back and forth.
Which is why it is kind of a shock to me to find somehow, after being with nobody for a while, I am in a relationship that has gone on for well over a year. I am half of a functioning couple. It is like waking up and looking around to discover the ship you’ve been sailing on for most of your life has docked and you are on dry land.
I am not used to being in a stable relationship. I have the love equivalent to sea legs, so used to emotional instability that it has taken me a long time to realize there aren’t any large and looming problems ready to break me down into a hyperventilating mess at any moment.
At least I don’t think there are. I still do not know anyone in a long-term, committed relationship who can tell me what the warning signs are or give me their recipe for a long happy life together. It might not make a difference anyway. Either way I have a closet full of sundresses for the journey.