We’d been dating a year and a half when my college boyfriend decided he couldn’t stand another harsh Midwestern winter and absconded to his home state of Washington. For me, being just twenty-one and in love for the first time, following him wasn’t a question, but a given. Having yet to graduate myself, it was a good six months before I could join him. Six months of separation anxiety. Six months that left me restless and uncomfortable no matter where I was. I zoned out in classes, with friends, while studying, preoccupied with what my boyfriend might be doing at that moment, whether or not he’d texted me.
When I finally burst through the door of our new shared apartment in the suburbs of Seattle, I felt relief. I hugged him, expecting to feel an elation that matched my own. But he was different.
He didn’t joke or kiss me or confide in me or wax poetic about the nature of the universe. Our once sacred movie nights morphed into a substitute for meaningful connection. I was no longer transfixed by the films we once bonded over but preoccupied with why it was suddenly so difficult to reach for his hand. Like we were two magnets with the same charge repelling each other.
Where once we spent hours talking about poetry and our favorite books, he now shut himself up in our walk-in coat closet with his typewriter. I sat on our used futon, the cushion too thin to prevent the metal bars from boring into my thighs, trying but failing to write anything coherent as the apartment reverberated with the clack clack clacking coming from the closet.
Sometimes he left for hours. Sometimes he left for days. He’d spend nights in Seattle with his older brother, getting too drunk to drive or, in one instance, trying and calling me at 3:30 a.m. as I was walking to my opening shift at Starbucks to say he’d been arrested. Later, when I got home, ready to comfort him, I found him on the bed, passed out with his shoes still on.
This wasn’t the boyfriend I remembered. The boyfriend who used to forgo bars to stay home with me when I wasn’t yet old enough to go out. The boyfriend who drove me six hours to Minneapolis one weekend to see Modest Mouse, Cincinnati another to see Andrew Bird. The boyfriend who loved to stay up late with me, jumping down rabbit holes of esoteric musings so ephemeral I can no longer remember what we said, only that I was buoyed by what felt like our collective genius. When we met, I was convinced Kurt Vonnegut portended our relationship when he wrote of Cat’s Cradle’s duprass—a cosmically linked duo that can’t be invaded by anything or anyone. But now, all he wanted was to be a universe of one, not two. It was as though my boyfriend had been replaced by a facsimile who resented my presence, and I had no idea why.
My parents wanted me to come home to the suburbs of Chicago. On some level, I also knew the relationship needed to end, but being so young, I had this peculiar conviction that because I loved him, I couldn’t end it. It was his responsibility. So I did the only thing I felt I could. I cajoled him.
“Do you not like me anymore?”
I remember big heavy sighs like this was all so much more complicated than I could possibly understand.
“That’s not the problem,” he told me.
What the problem was, he wouldn’t say, and that was the real problem.
But I stayed, spending my days largely alone, trying to convince myself this was a temporary blight on our relationship. We worked opposite hours—me the opening shift at Starbucks, him the closing shift at HalfPrice Books, neither of us yet knowing how to turn our creative writing degrees into a living. By the time I got home, my boyfriend was darting out the door. I was too sleep-deprived and demoralized to figure out how to fill the next nine or ten hours, too anxious and restless to be content with any option I could imagine. I settled for meandering walks around the dull suburban Kirkland, taking comfort in polite nods from the older couples and dog walkers I passed.
Once, I ended up at a park with a big circular rock labyrinth meticulously arranged on the ground. A signpost urged me to walk barefoot along the path, claiming the rocks would massage my pressure points and improve my mental health. I took off my shoes and stepped slowly onto the bumpy terrain, hoping the shocks to my fallen arches were healing my emptiness. I returned to those rocks again and again, willing them to work.
The highlight of my week became the indoor soccer games my boyfriend played with his older brother every Monday night. He let me tag along because I had nothing better to do. Because I was desperate to be with him. Because, after his DUI, I had to drive him.
I often sat alone in the small balcony-level bleachers, everyone on the field looking so small and far away. Most of the guys on his team couldn’t kick a ball properly, jabbing it with the tips of their toes, passing to the wrong team, misfiring their shots at the wall instead of the goal. I longed to run onto the field and show them how it was done. Like my boyfriend, I’d played in high school and knew I could best most of those guys. Together, he and I could give it a fighting shot. But it was an all-male league, so I resigned myself to the sidelines, watching my boyfriend live his life, my own reduced to a spectator sport.
When our year-lease ended, he said he wanted to stay together but not live together.
“I do love you,” he insisted. “I just think we need space. Then things will be better.”
Never mind I couldn’t afford to live alone on my meager barista wages. We barely saw each other as it was. If we lived apart, I didn’t know if I’d see him at all. It felt like a huge step backwards in a relationship that was already struggling to survive. This, apparently, was my breaking point.
“I can’t do that,” I told him, heartbroken but relieved to finally have an excuse to leave.
My return to the suburbs of Chicago was something of a culture shock. Suddenly, I had my parents, siblings, old high school friends—all of them willing and happy to spend time with me. I’d forgotten what it was like to have plans, things to look forward to, people I could count on. I’d forgotten what it was like to be wanted. To be unlonely.
It was a little over a year later that I met someone new. Mutual friends introduced us at a dive bar. Like my ex and I, we quickly bonded over a shared love of writing, books, movies, music. The first time he kissed me, I felt a visceral connection. It was like a scene straight out of a romcom—we stood outside his car at midnight, the stars shining brightly overhead, and I suddenly understand the phrase “weak in the knees.” We frequented bars and bookstores and theaters, walked the shores of Lake Michigan, speculated on the meaning behind David Lynch’s mystifying films.
Ironically, this boy also had plans to flee the Midwest. Soon, he would be leaving for an MFA program in Boulder, Colorado. We’d only been dating six months, but I wasn’t ready to give up.
When I told my mom I was, once again, moving across the country to follow a boy, she was mad at me for my seeming inability to learn from the past.
“I just don’t understand,” she said. “Why would you do that again?”
I’d asked myself the same question. Moving to Colorado scared me—the possibility that I’d once again find a facsimile in place of my boyfriend. But I was more afraid of not giving this new relationship a chance. I decided I would give it my best shot, and if my new boyfriend became distant and uncommunicative, I wouldn’t wait around for him to either change or break up with me. I would leave. Because what my mother didn’t realize was that I had learned something since my return from Washington—that loving someone isn’t a good enough reason to be with them. That no matter how great your relationship with someone might have been, it doesn’t mean you should desperately cling to it if it turns sour. That you can’t spend your days walking aimlessly around your neighborhood, waiting for someone to come home and give your day purpose. You have to take control of your own happiness.
When I arrived in Boulder, I knocked timidly on a door I didn’t yet feel was mine. When my new boyfriend opened it, he had a great big smile on his face. He pulled me inside and kissed me.
Unlike my ex, my moving for him didn’t seem to be a crushing burden, but an affirmation of my commitment. He invited me to poetry readings, happy hours, parties with his new classmates, hikes through Boulder’s mountain trails. He spent evenings home with me cooking, cuddling, talking late into the night. His willingness to freely give love and affection made me feel more secure than I’d ever felt, which made me as clear headed, confident, and driven as I’ve ever been. Of course, we had our own problems, but when we did, we communicated and worked through them.
My mother probably wishes she could erase the pain I experienced in Washington, the crippling isolation and endless stretch of meaningless days. Sometimes I wish I could too. But without it, I wonder if I would have cultivated the resilience and self-reliance that was necessary not only to make that move to Colorado and my next relationship successful, but to become an emotionally stable human being. I found my first real grown-up job in marketing, where I also made friends I could confide in. I went to yoga classes and joined a soccer team of my own. I finally wrote complete stories and even got a few of them published. And my new boyfriend was right there alongside me, encouraging, supportive, attentive.
Three years later, I moved across the country again. This time to pursue something I’d fantasized about since undergrad—an MFA in Writing. This time I moved to San Francisco, and this time, the boy followed me.