Gills-and-Fins had an interesting setup: he had maxed out his credit cards to build a house on his parents’ land. So he could skip the building permits and other bureaucratic nonsense, as he did not deal well with bureaucracy, he attached the house to his parents’ house with a deck that ran all the way around both structures. So, he didn’t technically live with his parents, but in effect, he lived with his parents. I got along with both of his parents very well—which was good, considering his mom visited us frequently to read my aura, intuit my past lives, hypnotize me, and practice other various paranormal arts.
I spent every other weekend with Gills-and-Fins. He lived out in the woods, so it was sort of a sanctuary. But his house was also far away from my friends and the places I was used to, and I began to resent having to pack up my crap and make the hour drive. After a few months, we talked about moving in together, but since he wasn’t budging from the house he’d built, I’d have to be the one to move, and I didn’t see myself living there. I didn’t seem to fit into the life he’d made for himself. For one thing, I wanted kids, and I couldn’t imagine myself eight months pregnant and trying to scale the ladder get to the bathtub in the loft. About kids, Gills-and-Fins said he “could be happy either way.” This seemed to me an inappropriately noncommittal attitude toward something as life-changing as raising children.
Once again, I had committed to the success of a relationship before I even knew if I wanted to be in it. Things that once would have seemed ridiculous suddenly seemed totally acceptable. It was like I’d drunk some kind of creepy relationship Kool-Aid, and now I thought that it was a great idea to collect used cooking oil from the parking lots of Chinese restaurants and funnel it into a huge vat in the garage to make biodiesel. That it was no problem to live next door to my boyfriend’s parents. That it was no big deal not to have a high school diploma. Not that there was anything inherently wrong with any of these choices; they just weren’t choices I would have made. If I moved in with G-and-F and married him, I’d be implicitly making his choices, by association. The camper he owned with his brother would become partially my financial responsibility, and I’d have to pretend that it was a great investment instead of an ugly, swirling vortex of shit that was going to bankrupt us.
Why didn’t I speak up? Because Gills-and-Fins was a good person, and his offenses largely unobjectionable. My husband once described his relationship with his ex-wife as “like wearing an itchy sweater.” My relationship with Gills-and-Fins was like wearing a mostly comfortable sweater with a slightly scratchy tag: It was almost right. It was at least better than my relationship with Joe, which had been like wearing a sweater made of 100% wool and fire ants and small pieces of glass.
The summer I was with Gills-and-Fins, I got a job teaching English to Korean immigrants, and I had great aspirations—of learning the language, of engaging in thoughtful political discussions, of sampling real Korean fare. In reality, I learned absolutely no Korean, and my cross-cultural adventures were limited to discussing with second-graders how awesome Hello Kitty is and figuring out that kimchi smells like rancid foot sweat.
I did, however, taste a mystical cereal called Jolly Pong, and the promise of finding it drew me out to the nearest Asian market. Jolly Pong comes in a bag and includes a little piece of cardboard that one can fold up into a tiny spoon—or more accurately, a tiny shovel—with which to scoop the cereal into one’s mouth. Jenny Kim had given me a sample, and even though these slightly sweet, crunchy delights are almost exactly like Honey Smacks, I found the foreignness of them beguiling. Jolly Pong even has an amazing website with a pulsating, exploding bag of Jolly Pong superimposed upon a rainbow-colored city full of cute little creatures that have very large eyes and don’t appear to be animals of any recognizable sort. And the catchy theme song—“Jolly Jolly Jolly Pong! Jolly Jolly Jolly Pong!” Ray couldn’t stop singing it for three weeks.
At the Asian market, I easily found the Jolly Pong. The bag’s message was charming: Popping natural grains with low calorie, no chemical adds, it read. Paper spoon and special package for stock are include. Only fun is what you can have from it. I put two bags of Jolly Pong in my cart and snagged a hexagonal box of fudge-filled koalas playing musical instruments. Then I saw the disturbingly-titled snack “Cream Collon.”
The box indicated that the product was Combo-like in appearance but sweet in taste, with a creamy center that undoubtedly contained neither cream nor any product from the cream family. I started to giggle at the name, and I thought of my ex, the one with whom I’d bought my old house. He’d always had a fondness for all things Asian, but that wasn’t why I thought of him. I thought of him because I imagined my bringing the Cream Collon over to our old place and surprising him with it. I imagined the way he’d burst into laughter when he saw the box, and the way we’d try the cream colon together, at exactly the same time, with due ceremony, probably while giggling.
I missed him so much right then. And I felt terrible about it. Why was my ex the first person I thought to share my cream colon with? Why didn’t I think of Gills-and-Fins? Sure, he had a good sense of humor, but I had to admit that I didn’t really know what he would do when I showed him the cream colon, whereas with my ex, I definitely knew. Maybe when Gills-and-Fins and I would have the same kind of connection when we’d been together that long, too. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel a connection, but it definitely wasn’t the same connection I’d felt with my ex, who’d been my best friend. I was completely comfortable around him. I never lost sight of who I was. Life was an adventure—and always, always fun.
That summer, I went with Gills-and-Fins to the British Virgin Islands. He chartered a sailboat, which he sailed himself. One of his dreams was to take a year off from real life and sail around the world. I wondered if I could be his partner through something like that. I could write anywhere, right? And if the year-long voyage were anything like our vacation, I could spend my free time lying in the sun, eating Pringles and drinking the signature Caribbean cocktail known aptly as the “painkiller.” No problem. Bring on the rum and pineapple juice! I got this! Only fun is what you can have from it! I wasn’t thinking of the obvious fact that I would be STUCK ON A BOAT FOR 365 DAYS.
Perhaps some part of me knew the seafaring life wasn’t for me. It wasn’t just that I threw up whenever I forgot to take Dramamine. It was that I fundamentally did not like boats. I tried to care whenever G-and-F explained the finer points of the art of sailing, but I didn’t. Maybe this is what my body was trying to tell me when I suddenly panicked and collapsed in tears in the ship’s tiny bathroom (inexplicably called a “head”). Whatever it was, something was shaking me through to the core.
I felt the way I remembered feeling toward the end of my relationship with Joe—that fragility, that dread. I felt it when I was with G-and-F but not saying anything, and sometimes immediately when I woke up in the morning. Did I somehow have an uncanny clarity then, or was I worrying unnecessarily? Were we going to be happy? And if I figured out that we wouldn’t be, what would I do? I knew I’d survive, physically. But I didn’t know if my spirit could take another ending.
Photo credits: learntarot.com, amazon.com