Years ago, a beak-faced ex and I were looking like hares to relocate to the Bay Area, after having spent a tortoise-paced 10 months in Orange County. We were on a secret mission, one even my local parents knew nothing about, and we had approximately 36 hours (sleep included) to find and sign on an apartment. He was eager to find a place (preferably close to a local surfing hole) and sign. I was eager to find the right place and sign.
I took to Craigslist like a moth to meth (or like a moth would to meth, if moths could get their wings on it), making calls, making appointments and keeping tiny notes on less tiny lined paper about what we could see, when we could see it, what the price was, and if the landlord seemed like someone we’d want to do business with. I zeroed in on the neighborhood my ex settled in before, half-sleepy residences on the hill, half zippy bars and shops in the flats. Honestly, I wanted the life I’d dreamed for us before unemployment robbed him of his apartment right along with his self-confidence: my playing sous to his master chef, him sketching on the sun-kissed living room window seat while I typed at desk we’d share, walking to our favorite brunch spot just one-hundred forty seconds away to cover our hangovers in greasy eggs and buttery toast.
The fourth place we looked at was an apartment two buildings up from my ex’s old place. The building was identical to his old place (who knew tract-like housting existed in 1925?), right down to both having wrought-iron marquees slung above their thresholds, each named after giant birds. A pill shaped woman showed us to unit 4 – the exact same unit as his old apartment – and my ex had a cagey look in his eyes as we stepped in. With good reason: the place looked like the evil twin to his original Bay Area home.
Cheap, thin, puce carpet covered the floors instead of shiny hardwood. The glass panes of the kitchen door had been sealed over with sloppily painted wood. The kitchen itself looked like a toddler had been the artistic director of where appliances should go, and no one had questioned his authority (the fridge only opened all the way if you opened a cabinet, first). My ex stepped out before even getting to the bedroom, though I ventured on, aghast at crummy (and crumby – no idea how that was possible) blinds, a seedy shower instead of a historic clawfoot tub, and what would politely would be called “mood lighting” which would be code for “never cleaned light fixtures caked in grime.”
I am so sorry, I said to him as we got back in his pick up truck. I stared at the bicycle sticker he had on the rear window as I continued. I had no idea.
His thin lips curled inward like folding origami to a grimace and he looked down at his lap.
Alicia, he said. I don’t want the life I had here before. That was a life before you, before us. I want something different. Something new. Something ours.
I hadn’t wanted to move to southern California. He hadn’t wanted to leave. The compromises we’d make for one another was one of the ways to ensure there was an “us” in the middle of individual wants. Against anything I’d imagined for myself, we signed on an expensive loft we could barely afford downtown, in the absolute middle of everything: Riots for Oscar Grant, shrieking drunk men and women, wheezing public transit. 800 square feet, 18 foot ceilings, modern and concrete. We built a stage, did live figure-drawing events, held parties that always managed to go slightly wild.
I loved every minute of it. And it made me realize I often didn’t know what I would love until I did.
I mention all this because it reminds me of dating. I think when we’re trying to get over someone, (or even when we’re over them), it’s easy to wind up hoping to find who we had before. Maybe if their name rhymes, their features are as sharp, they also work with their hands, they live in the same zip code, or also love to surf, we think, I‘ll be able to re-create the life I wanted to have before. And because of that desire, it’s easy to wind up realizing you’re with well, maybe not an evil twin, but a knock off: one who would have been fine on their own, had you not been all too ready to compare them. But you were, so you’re mostly just frustrated they aren’t who you wanted them to be. The same features don’t equal the same sorts of kisses, and the same hobbies don’t equal the same level of familiarity. The same name doesn’t cross-stitch you together.