October 07, 2015
A date gone this awry might turn out fine if, for example, we could have gone back to my apartment and slipped off my shiny dress and made love like James Stillman and I used to do in Wisconsin, like Max and I used to do in Kansas, where you get into tried and true positions that take you to brief ecstasy. Then we’d relax, agree that the joke-telling had turned awkward. If the sense of intimacy lasted, in time I’d even be able to tell my date he needed to dry clean his sports coats. But the sex was polite, muted. Because he was polite, muted? Because his feelings were? I’ll never know. He left afterward because he had to teach folklore at a community college fifty miles away in the morning—by which time I was packing up my laundry to take to a laundromat a block away.
I stood outside my door, locking up, and my devout neighbor’s wife came outside. Her husband wasn’t with her. She said, “Do you have a new boyfriend?” I must have looked startled. She said, “Don’t be embarrassed. I saw he picked you up wearing a jacket, and you had on that beautiful dress. Later, I heard voices in your bedroom.” I sometimes heard noise in her bedroom, but I turned up music to drown it out. She said, “God doesn’t want us to go through our lives alone, no matter how hard it is to be with someone.”
A few minutes later, sorting, loading, measuring detergent, setting some washers on hot with full agitation, others on warm with low agitation, I thought how brute needs get mixed up with tradition, so confusing, and I shut the last lid. Then an extreme sports guy—except no one called them that yet, we called them ski bums, these non-Mormon guys who’d moved to Utah for the mountains and snow—asked me for help with his laundry.
I was relieved to be useful in an uncomplicated way. I explained sorting for color, choosing settings, and how to save money on dryers by taking out lighter pieces first. As we waited through wash, rinse, spin, tumble, we noted we were the same age, except I was getting a PhD. “PhD, oh wow,” he said. He was an undergraduate, Philosophy and Environmental Geoscience. The double major had slowed him down, he said, as had his job teaching skiing. With regard to the laundry tutorial, he said, “That was helpful.” He’d been raised in a suburb, in Delaware. I said, “Your mother didn’t teach you before you left home?” He said, “It’s not easy being green.” I thought he meant something about geoscience. He said, “Green as in greenhorn. The lesson will take when the pupil is ready.”
Several months later on a Friday night, the phone rang, a call from a party a few blocks away. The other woman in the PhD program had told the revelers she was sure I owned a blender because I’d gotten conventional wedding gifts whereas she and her new husband had requested a tent and winter sleeping bags, and I heard laughing, shouting. A guy on the phone and asked me to bring over my blender because he was making margaritas.
I should have stayed home and worked on a paper, but I’d been fretting about the folklore boyfriend I’d continued to date. Men and women had paired off since the beginning of time.
Why was it hard now?
I had only an inkling that trouble-with-love wasn’t just my confusion—though it was, in part—but also the era’s, a slow shift in understanding what wooing and mating would be during a large-scale movement of women into new professions, large-scale movement period, mobility, not just upward but away from familiar communities where you date your neighbor’s cousin or someone you met at your sister’s wedding, friends serving as dating letters of reference. No wonder arranged marriages persist, I thought. But every time I wondered if my choices had been affected by factors beyond my control, I resisted. What did I have if not control? Just second-hand furniture, an old car, and a blender.
I put the blender in a huge purse, went to the party and met my second husband.
I didn’t marry him that night, but I drank too much and brought him home.
He was the department head’s wife’s brother’s roommate. The department head had moved to Salt Lake City because of the job, and his wife—like Ruth, whither thou goest—followed. Then her brother followed her. Then her brother’s college roommate followed.
So I woke up with a short guy who suggested we address the emergency of our hangovers by eating breakfast at a diner, where he said how exhausting he found the parties he went to with his roommate and roommate’s sister and brother-in-law, all the people who wanted to tell you what they’d read with a view to pointing out that it was more than you’d read. I countered this by telling him how, in front of classmates, I once said merlott, as opposed to merlot with a silent T, overthinking my pronunciation by first considering that claret, also French but drunk by the English, rhymes with carrot. A pert classmate who dated one of our professors—this wasn’t frowned on yet—had corrected me.
My future husband phoned the next day and the next and next.
The folklore boyfriend stopped by my apartment. I wanted to ask him point-blank if I should pick him or a guy he didn’t know. I said, “I’d like more certainty you have feelings for me.”
Spring sunlight poured through the windows. He had a nice mustache, kind eyes. He needed a slight makeover and a housekeeper. “I’m deeply fond of you,” he said. Then he flexed his hands. “Is there something else I should be saying?” I,” he said, “love.” He paused.
He smiled. I flinched.
We agreed to meet soon to discuss love.
I had a coffee date with my second husband —though he wasn’t my second husband yet, and let’s say his name is Chet—and he objected to the fact that we’d had sex once and not again. My indecision had ripple effects. He’d been dating—casually, he said—his roommate’s sister’s friend, who’d told Chet to choose, and he wouldn’t until I did. I started to panic, not about losing Chet, but about how I must seem to the woman Chet had been dating, who was the department head’s wife’s best friend. I imagined the department head and his wife discussing me at dinner as they passed around meat and potatoes.
I’d just handed out flyers in my Freshman English class about the university’s counseling center. I made an appointment. A counselor, having seen all varieties of moral blind spots, would have insight, I felt. When I got to the counselor’s office—with a big window, the Wasatch Range a jagged cordon across the sky—I saw my counselor was a middle-aged man; I assumed he was Mormon because of his double-knit slacks, the side-part hair. Mormons don’t look alike. But rules about tattoos and beards encourage conformity. I looked for the ridges of his sacred garment through his slacks, check. But I believed in higher education. He had a PhD. He’d be trained to counsel non-Mormons too.
I summarized my situation, my sense that neither of these guys was The One, but I felt pressure because of the department head’s wife’s best friend. I was confused, maybe lonely. Life was coupled-up here, I said, not just Utah with its emphasis on brides and progeny, though it was, but the graduate students moved in and out of each other’s apartments every time school let out between quarters. None of us had spare time to linger over dating—we settled the romance question fast and got back to work. The dating pool for non-Mormons was finite, I added, like a small town high school where people recirculate. The counselor scrawled on a notepad. He said, “I’m referring you to a psychiatrist who specializes in this disorder.” I thought of my wandering grandmother. Was I schizophrenic too? I did have fragmented thinking: half-scholarly, half-lusty. The counselor said, “He counsels sex addicts.” I’d never heard the term. Most people hadn’t yet.
He said, “You’ll undergo a program to get over this impulse to escape ordinary stress through meaningless sexual contact. You might need in-patient treatment.” I rushed out of the building, my mind racing, birds chirping, bees buzzing, trees blooming, branches quivering with pollen, and I bumped into someone and dropped my copy of Middlemarch.
“Hey, I’ve haunted the laundromat. I should have gotten your phone number.” It was the extreme sports guy. He was handsome, I realized, blinking. But I didn’t ski. I said so out loud, apparently. Because he laughed and said, “I’m not looking for that. We could see a movie. When we know each other better, we could take turns cooking each other dinner.” Months earlier I might have given him my phone number. Now I had two boyfriends, and—I looked at my watch—in less than ten minutes I’d be sitting in class with that toupee guy, also a guy I’d kissed just after I’d moved here. Maybe I did handle life’s ordinary stress with meaningless sexual contact. I said, “I’m in a big mess in terms of my schedule.”
The extreme sports guy’s smile faded. “I understand. The PhD, all-consuming.”
Excerpt from My Unsentimental Education by Debra Monroe. Reprinted with permission from The University of Georgia Press.
DEBRA MONROE, the author of six books, is known as “fierce” writer who presents “ever-hopeful lost souls with engaging humor and sympathy” (Kirkus Reviews), for prose that’s “rangy, thoughtful, ambitious, and widely, wildly knowledgeable” (The Washington Post), but also “deliciously wacky” (Publisher’s Weekly), “fine and funky, marbled with warmth and romantic confusion, but not a hint of sentimentality” (The Boston Globe). Her new memoir, My Unsentimental Education, recounts how she moved from one social class to another, with impostor syndrome by day, while at night she kept dating what the book jacket copy politely calls “blue-collar men,” though most were unemployed, small-time drug dealers, or guys in bands. Both the story her steady rise into the professional class and a parallel history of unsuitable exes, this book reminds us how accidental even a good life can be. Phillip Lopate writes: “This picaresque memoir of a woman with brains and desires (not always operating in unison). . .tracks a runaway life with consummate control and aphoristic wit.” Her previous books have won many awards, including the Flannery O’Connor Award. She’s published nonfiction in the New York Times, Salon.com, The American Scholar, Guernica, and her essays have been shortlisted for Best American Essays. She lives in Austin, Texas and teaches at Texas State University.