It’s astounding that we use the word “dating” for that hot, tender, beginning stage of a relationship, that stage when the entire world seems to disappear and everything is about you and the one other person you feel like you’re attached to with an invisible, and tenuous, string. Everything was about Ben and me during those first months: the flowers he brought me, the love notes we sent, the work we did not do, the friends we said we would call and did not, the way our lives at-times gracefully, at-times awkwardly, gradually shifted to make room for each other, until me not being his girlfriend ceased feeling like a possibility at all.
But when I stopped to think about this, I got anxious. Ben was four years younger than me. Only a couple of years out of college, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life. I, on the other hand, had begun to think it was time I found a life partner, if there was one out there for me, so when I fell in love with him I became overly aware that he represented a huge possibility, that the uncharacteristic thunderbolt I’d received on the day we met might have actually portended something: Ben was likely The One, and it terrified me that The One might be only 25 and had many journeys to take before experientially, emotionally, logistically, we would be on the same ground. What if he wasn’t ready to be someone’s one?
More to the point, what if he wasn’t ready to be mine?
That first year together, I was a bit of a mess. Steph and Peter moved across town and I went with them. Not writing gnawed at me. I wanted to be with Ben every minute; every minute we were apart, I worried he would change his mind about me. At the same time, I missed my independence, the straightforward and regimented life I’d cultivated before I met him. And then I herniated a disk in my back playing Frisbee and was laid up, off and on, for six weeks. I couldn’t go hear music or do a big hike. I started to break out in cold sores from the stress of it all, and we couldn’t get the birth control right. Zonked out on painkillers, unkissable, unlovely, I would feel Ben slip into my bed after he’d been out doing something fun and spoon me all night. In the morning, he told me he loved me. Amazing, to think in that state I was loveable.
We moved in together. We found a little apartment on Hawthorne Boulevard, a one-bedroom place with large windows that looked out over a parking lot and a bit of green. We hung a window box on the back porch. We framed family photographs in the bedroom. Our shirts brushed arms in the closet. Our CDs were mixed up on the CD shelf. I even took the duplicates to Goodwill, a gesture I never would have considered with Adam. I think it would have been enough for me to settle in that apartment in Portland forever, or at least, to stay for ages longer than we did, just engaged in the adventure of getting to know each other. I loved almost everything about him, including how he smelled: like warm hair and skin. Our sheets were fragrant with him, with us. I had never felt so moved by another human being.
He loved me too, make no mistake, but I’m not sure he thought of loving me as an adventure. He had other adventures. His arms and knees were papered with road rash from bombing his bike down Burnside Street from the zoo at the top of the hill. He once climbed the dizzyingly high “Made in Oregon” sign. And he knew of a place in Portland’s Old Town where you could jump from one building to the next, four stories up. We went there once, and I took the elevator to the top floor of one building, climbed behind a fence, jumped across a small divide, and climbed onto the roof of the second building. I didn’t much want to go back. It was not an experience I longed to have again.
Ben longed for experiences like those. A couple of times, he went out with friends and didn’t come home until three, four in the morning. They were wandering around the city, or they were partying in a hotel room. They might have been climbing up on the roofs of buildings, drunk; I hoped not.
We went to a party one night. It was nice to go to parties with him. It took me a long time to adjust to the newness of being coupled again, of being public with someone. We were talking with a friend of ours who had been to Asia for three months the previous fall. Ben said to her, “I want to travel around Asia.”
“It was amazing.” She was an athlete with a great body and a great laugh, shiny dark hair—the type of woman who was always up for anything. As the type of woman who was not always up for anything, I felt a little dwarfed in her presence.
“Well, as soon as I pay off my student loans I’m going to travel for a while.”
“Do it,” she said, like some insipid Nike ad, and I went to find the bathroom and sat on the edge of the tub, staring into space. He really meant to go; he worked three different jobs, all with the goal of getting out from under his college loan debt so he could take off and travel. Every time he brought up the idea of it, I played it down. What would I do if he left?
His restlessness was like a train, the way it gained momentum, the way it chugged forward. One day he wanted to leave Portland for a while, and the next, it seemed, he was gone. He sent off the last of his college loan payments and we went out to celebrate. Then he quit his jobs, changed the oil in his 1987 Volvo station wagon, and on a sunny Sunday morning in April drove down to California, where he planned to spend two months living with his dad, traveling around, and thinking. We weren’t breaking up; we were just spending some time apart.
He called one night from San Francisco.
“It’s official,” he said. “I’ve decided. I’m going to travel for a year.”
I remember the horrible sensation that the news I’d hoped would never come had just been dumped, unceremoniously, on my doorstep.
“When will you go?”
“September, I think.”
“Well,” I said. “Great.”
I didn’t answer.
“I love you so much,” he said. “So much.”
When we hung up, I burst into tears.
It was then that I realized I was in love with a man who was truly independent. He was intrinsically American, imbued with that very American sense of possibility and entitlement, that sense that tells us we have the right, if not the duty, to be intrepid, entrepreneurial, and adventuresome. Later, I would realize we both had that sensibility to some degree; it’s what makes Americans so frustrating and so prosperous. It is the best and the worst thing about us. But from the start Ben possessed that ethos much more than I did. He was headstrong, brave, and in some ways nonmalleable, and by that I don’t mean he was incapable of change. But, unlike me, he was resistant to being changed by other people’s desires, by what they thought he should do. So in a very real sense, what I wanted—to linger longer in the beauty and happiness of simply being together, in Portland—did not affect his decision-making at all. He had made up his mind: he was going to travel for a year. There was very little I could do about it.
Except, of course, go with him.