Considered in this essay: "All the Ways We Fool Ourselves," from Waccamaw No. 6, Fall 2010
It’s funny. Re-reading “All the Ways We Fool Ourselves,” an essay about nostalgia, delivers me now to the present. My husband and I are trying to start a family. We’ve always known we would eventually, but having children didn’t become a pressing matter until recently, after I published the small collection of essays I’d been shopping around since graduate school, after we landed in a cool, progressive city with a supportive arts scene, after we trained our dog to pick up her own toys (okay, she doesn’t do that yet, but we’re working on it). We looked around at our lives. We had enough free time to write most days, and cook dinner together, and go out on Friday nights, and nurse hangovers on Saturdays. We knew exactly where to go for the best microbrew, and the best Rueben sandwich, and the best sushi. We liked our friends. We liked our jobs. We liked our downtown apartment. We saw nothing immediately in need of change, and we felt secure that the life we’d built was sustainable indefinitely into the future. And suddenly, that terrified us.
“All the Ways We Fool Ourselves” comes to a similar moment between the narrator and her ex-boyfriend, with whom she has been sleeping every now and again for years. They are two mostly decent people who once had a brief and dramatic relationship as teenagers. They aren’t involved with anyone else now. What they’re doing together isn’t technically hurting anybody, and it feels good, and it keeps them connected both to each other and to the home they once shared in upstate New York. And this is exactly the problem—their pattern shows no sign of breaking except that the narrator, the character of myself, is about to fall in love with someone else, or maybe already has. She can’t quite tell. She has allowed herself to love her ex so long that she has trouble distinguishing what is love and what is familiar. Moreover, she’s afraid to let go of her past with a boy who is no longer a boy, and to let the power and significance of that past diminish.
My writing often returns to the subjects of love and nostalgia. Nearly everything I write seeks to understand another way human beings are capable of loving each other, and much of my writing also examines what it means to either cling to a static love, or to let love evolve. When I broke up with my very first boyfriend in the seventh grade—a sweetheart of a fellow who wore sweatpants and helped me study for math tests—my mother said, “You don’t have to stop caring for him just because you aren’t going out anymore.” I appreciated that she didn’t belittle my feelings for that boy or the end of our relationship. I also appreciated that she didn’t tell me to “let it go,” or “move on,” or any of those clichés about deciding that once something is over between two people it’s best to erase it from the present as completely as possible.
Unlike the narrator, who reenacts her past in “the only place [she’s] successful,” I get to remake my past in the present through writing. But as much as “All the Ways” highlights the ways in which I was complexly attached to Ralph as a representation of the home I’d left, the essay is really about the choice not to stay “frozen like the ice crystals in the air.” The story “end[s] well and still break[s] your heart” because the reader knows this is the last time the narrator will see Ralph, for she has chosen to try to love another man. There is both sadness and hope in her decision. My favorite endings are the ones that contain more than one true thing.
I wrote this essay in the present tense because I like to corner my characters in the act of choosing. “All the Ways” was once part of a series of flash pieces about relationships, and each one lead my characters to a moment of reckoning after which the relationship would never be the same. Nonfiction writers are encouraged to use the past tense because reflection is so important to the genre—critical distance provides the space for analysis and meaning-making, and the past tense explicitly creates that distance. This is why I use prolepsis when I flash forward to what will happen after the sex: “When it’s over, he’ll ask me to stay and sleep. We’ll drift together a while on his stiff twin mattress without pillowcases, and then I’ll gather my clothes and drive home in the slate winter dawn, and the next day, I’ll drive back to Ohio to see about a man whose voice fills my head even as I’m about to sleep with the one I loved last.” I wanted bring the reader to my brink with Ralph—the last meeting between my younger self and former love—and make a direct appeal for empathy for my decision to sleep with him. That appeal (“Maybe you can understand, then, why I let him kiss me and put his tongue at the hollow of my throat.”) can only be successful if the reader understands that this sex is also about becoming and loving someone else.
Because Ralph and I ultimately part kindly, it’s one of the saddest essays I’ve ever written, and also one of the gladdest. But the reckoning is the point: I wanted to place my finger on this moment when I took my life deliberately in a new direction, even as I paid homage to my departing path. I hope to write a similar essay someday. The one about the time my husband (the southern man who hadn’t kissed me yet) and I decided to change the direction of our life together.