My date was right. The view from his rooftop really was spectacular.
Shortly after midnight, I stood on the fourth floor of a beach house under construction. I'd agreed to join a young guy in his early twenties who I'd recently met online. I was five years older than he was, on the downhill slope towards thirty, and reaching a point where I was too old to be out on a week night. This didn't stop my curiosity, though. Like most writers, I love a good opportunity for a story so I'd navigated a windy mountain highway in the dark, with the hopes that the view would be as good as he said it would.
When I arrived, we pushed back the sliding door to the panoramic patio. To get to the lounge chairs, we'd cautiously edged our way across exposed beams. I tucked a chilled bottle of champagne behind me for balance and a plush blanket under my other arm. He carried the glasses, which glistened under our only source of light — the full moon. Across the twinkling horizon of the Monterey Bay, fishing boats beamed lanterns into the waters below to bring up their nightly catches.
I was no stranger to chasing shiny objects. I met this guy on a dating app, but date wasn't the right word for this encounter. Our relationship was casual, a label-free exchange with no implied future past tomorrow. In his career, he was young, working up the ranks of a fine dining restaurant. He was one of many chefs I've dated, as I'm drawn to the psychology of men in professional kitchen life.
My own employment was less impressive. I lacked a direct career path forward. Over the last eighteen months, I'd directed my energy into recovering from a serious mental illness. I'd pausing my college education in the progress. Often, my bills were past due. Getting shifts with my delivery job was tricky in a flooded market of app-friendly users. I wanted to live among the skyline, but the reality was that I was rooted to the concrete below.
Under the stars that night, we were playing house and pretending to be people we were not. The property echoed empty during the week, while his father (the owner) worked a grueling sixty-hour Silicon Valley schedule. Knowing the entry code, this guy let me in to a place I otherwise had no access to. I felt guilty being there without his father knowing, an overnight tourist to a lifestyle of luxury where I didn't belong.
Despite growing up with opportunities, high-end real estate was out of my territory. My parents opted for the view out of college classrooms rather than the one from our couch. Our own furnishings were simple growing up. Choosing travel and education over material things, our home didn't reflect my parents' tastes in value. My brother and I grew up surrounded by their well-loved sofas from graduate school, and paintings from family members' studio experiments. Our windows opened to my mother's vegetable garden and our toys cast across the yard. I didn't set foot onto a mansion property until my seventeenth birthday, when a guy I'd been flirting with invited me to swim in his parents' pool.
After I changed into my suit in the guest house bathroom, we followed a well-landscaped path behind the main property. Built into the mountain was an infinity pool that dropped off at the edge of a cliff. From the heated water, we looked out over the Bay Bridge, twinkling twenty miles away. Everything felt removed, as if I were an observer, not a participant. At this point, my childhood home was up for sale, as my parents negotiated their divorce. It was a relief to dip my toes into someone else's reality for a while. Looking at the light reflecting on the water, on a hill so far above my home town that I couldn't see clear streetlights, my options still felt limitless.
At seventeen, it was easier to maintain illusions about my future. By high school, several warning signs were on the horizon. I'd been admitted to an adolescent hospital for an eating disorder and depression issues, but doctors had yet to identify the problem: a debilitating psychiatric illness. My behavior was dysfunctional, but my parents provided an umbrella of security. I could still entertain fantasies about what I wanted by my thirties: becoming a writer, a photographer, a chef, someone's wife, a full-time mom.
Now, at twenty-six, I experience fragments of the life I imagined. When I look around my dad's spare bedroom each morning, I see the belongings that support my talents. I see the Canon 5D I bought with babysitting money, which I use to help local restaurants shoot their marking materials. On the iPad I earned from a cooking contest, I collect recipes from metropolitan restaurants, which I later cook alone. My life is lonely, my limits finite. I didn't measure up to my infinity pool dreams. I lack a salary, I live with my parents, and my job is always short on hours. I'm frightened. I feel the weight of my own glass ceiling, my silent, ever-present psychiatric illness.
By the time this chef-in-training shows me his roof, beautiful views no longer take my breath away. They're still stunning, but I know they're a facade. When I wake up in this stranger's home, looking through clear living room panels at the joggers passing by, I know I couldn't provide this for myself. I'll wash down coffee from the Keurig, bracing myself for a drive home that could only rival the crash after a high. While I left one extreme, I rejoined another. My night might have been spent on a property owned by the 1%, but I live among the rest of the ninety-nine.
So why bother spending my time in the guest rooms of strangers? It's not the first time I explored a pretty place while letting another person explore my body. I tolerate the delusion of friends-with-benefits, knowing a cold, hard truth: I'm not sure the architecture of my life supports other people. I'm painfully stuck on the ground floor. Recently, it didn't stop me from trying to prove otherwise. In the past six months, through OkCupid (after a few profile modifications), I had two brief, consecutive relationships with attractive, intelligent men.
For a few weeks each, I dwelled in the cozy illusion of early relationship bliss. In love, I found a different kind of luxury. Our dates were effortless and glossy, even cinematic. There were nights I spent cooking in a commercial kitchen after hours, camping under starlight on coastal bluffs, and refurnishing a bedroom at IKEA. Unlike my friends-with-benefits arrangements, the glamour in these two relationships was honest, an outwards reflection of the chemistry I felt for each man. But, these individuals were adults, each over the threshold of thirty, looking for wives, not projects. For reasons obvious, there were qualities I lacked.
My experiences with men are like the views from the glass-walled houses I traded my body for: I saw what I wanted, but could never reach beyond an invisible barrier. Whether that divide was my mental health, my income, or other factors, it didn't matter. I grew tired of being along for the scenery. Gradually, I stopped answering incoming messages on my dating profile. Right now, my OkCupid is for display only, a lingering example of another loss due to my mental health. I enjoy browsing through potential matches, but the people I see are just as much a fantasy as my previous post-code envy.
There is someone I see casually right now, but the view from his room opens to a parking space. I'm perfectly clear on where we stand. Each time I visit, I ask about his recent dating encounters, keeping my expectations level with reality. Last week, I sat on his bed, picking at the frays on the patchwork quilt given to him by his ex-girlfriend. Each square doesn't quite match, selected from the scraps on her sewing room floor. Somehow, by balancing mismatched color and pattern, she's created a comforting blanket that's otherwise endearing. This is how I hope I will fall in love someday.
Someone will see my collection of otherwise scattered qualities and weave them into a coherent whole. Someone will be willing to forgive the ugly patterns. Until then, I'm happy to sleep alone, at least, most of the time.