Life, the Universe, and Everything


Do this, exactly: Wake up on your forty-first birthday in 2014 on Thanksgiving, and finally feel happy, feel ready for what’s next. Realize that although there’s a lot you have in common, break up with a very sweet man who you’ve been seeing for a few months. Hunker down and make some fun art, take some silly pictures, spend Christmas in a snowless Portland winter. Spend time with friends, miss your family who you can’t see very often around the holidays because of your day job.

Have a guy get back in touch with you (after connecting on a dating app the summer before). His name is David, and while he wasn’t available then, when he lived in Chicago, he is now. He remembered you, found you again and is open to trying to make a connection over the long distance that separates the two of you.  He woos you by playing music on his keyboard (he’s a talented composer) and sending you the videos. Through FaceTime dates, you introduce him to Battlestar Galactica, he introduces you to Avatar and Korra. Point the cameras at your faces, get your dinner ready to eat, press play together and watch the episodes simultaneously, 1,400 miles apart. Look over at each other, check each others’ expressions, smile at each other. Invite him to Portland for a long weekend to test out the in-person chemistry.

Next, do this: Have him come out the first week of February, and feel the instant and powerful connection. Show off Portland, your city that you love, go to the places where your home shines. On the way to the waterfalls, quietly ask him if you can take a picture of the two of you. Think to yourself as you look at the picture later, after he goes back to Milwaukee, if nothing else, I’ll have this from this weekend.

Be invited to make a TED-style talk up in Seattle for the JAKE Talks, and write a piece about dating and courtship through the ages. Have it be received well, and mark your first time public speaking. It’s a strange thing, being asked your opinion on dating and romance, when in the past three years you’ve been unhappily single and very unlucky in romance.

The next month you see David in New York: the two of you go out there for several days. He checks out NYU, where he’s applying to grad school. Surprise him with tickets to Sleep No More, see some sights. Get snowbound and have to stay an extra day. You have a lot of friends in that city, so introduce him to some of them, have him introduce you to his.

Meanwhile, back in Portland, film a segment for the local NBC affiliate on romance and dating apps. Have a small, insecure part of you worry that your writing will suffer because you are now happy. Have another part of you not care.

Have a talk with David: you are both falling deeply in love with each other, and so you make sure your future plans are aligned. Decide (to your own surprise) that you are relocatable for him. This is the man you can finally trust, he’s read everything you’ve written, and knows your deep insecurities and anxiety triggers. He knows you’ve been through a long-distance courtship before, he’s sympathetic to your apprehensions about how badly that went. He calms you in a way you didn’t think possible.

Next, be invited to tell the tale of your worst date ever at a small event hosted by cultural trailblazers. It goes well, be pleased with the result. This is apparently what you do when you’re happy: you tell tales of when you were not. You have plenty of these stories.

Have a whirlwind of a couple months traveling to San Francisco, to Seattle, to New York. Then the milestone: fly to Milwaukee to meet David’s family. They’re as warm and friendly as he is, it all feels familiar, your family has roots in Wisconsin. On a subsequent trip of David’s to Portland, Skype your father and introduce him, hear your boyfriend call him “sir” . Experience your heart swelling. Turn and look at his profile looking at your father’s face. Think to yourself finally, finally.

Back in Portland, hear that the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of gay marriage. It’s a strange feeling, having grown up in such a different time and now seeing this. Feel that it’s a turning point in your heart for your feelings with David, and it is for him too: he calls you The One, he tells you you’re perfect. These are things that no one has ever told you in your life, and you think the same about him, tell him as much. Have him hold your hand in public, another lifetime first for you. Make plans to shift your life to New York: get rid of your car, tell your boss that you want to transfer.

David gets into NYU and moves to New York. While packing, he tells you he found the poem you wrote him, is taking it with him. Go there to see him off the plane at LaGuardia, help hoist his massive luggage through the subways and sweaty streets of Bed-Stuy. It’s a beautiful late summer in the city, and you get some good writing out of your happiness. New York is a city you fantasized about living in for while, and the possibility of moving there within the safety of a relationship is ideal. Plan a long overdue trip to see your mom and sister in San Antonio, and a couple days before, get the news that your mom’s been admitted into the hospital. It’s serious enough that she’s unconscious almost the whole time you’re there, but it does both of your hearts good to even be in each others’ space. In the meantime, David confesses to having read your book a second time.

Over Halloween weekend, take another trip to the east coast to be with David, and have it feel like a preview of your life together: no pressure for date nights or sightseeing, just enjoying each others’ company. Have him ask you to groom his back, a surprisingly intimate and erotic ritual. In bed, finally ask him to do that, the thing that you and he have talked about for a while, the thing that you haven’t let anyone do since the ex who sexually assaulted you over 15 years ago. He eagerly does, and you both do, and as you lie next to him afterwards, sated and exhausted, think finally. Finally.

Get the phone call a few days later, hear him cry, say he’s breaking up with you. Ask to see his face, but have him refuse. Just days before, you had permission to ask him anything and get an honest answer, just days before, you had permission to touch him anywhere, to put your mouth in places that made his back arch, and now you don’t have the right to see the face of the person rejecting you. Hear him say he doesn’t love you the same way that you love him, he doesn’t see a future with you. Register, numbly, that not once does he say “I’m sorry” or apologize in any way. Five minutes later and the call is over, five minutes later it officially becomes the shortest relationship of your life.

Be understandably upset.

A week later, wake up alone to a Brooklyn sunrise, having used the ticket that was already bought for the next visit. Realize that you’re not as upset about the loss of love, but much more that it may never have existed for him in the first place. Wonder at the thought that breakups are like the death of someone who simply doesn’t want to be alive around you anymore. Have a gentle epiphany that we remember those we love not in how they say hello, but by the grace with which they say goodbye, and know that this goodbye was graceless, clumsy, cruel. Consider that this will be a pattern that follows him forever, but also know that it’s not your problem anymore. Realize that you still believe in lasting love, despite the world’s seemingly best efforts to convince you otherwise.

A couple of weeks after that, wake up on your forty-second birthday. Feel that you are surfacing. Know suddenly that you are going to miss Portland fiercely, because you are going to move to New York anyway, just not for him anymore, for you. This is urgent. This is imperative. Feel that the city will likely chew you up and spit you back out, and know that at least you will have tried. Speculate that the city will probably be a very lonely place to find love in.

Shower. Make coffee, drink it. Eat breakfast. Pet your cat. Get dressed. Brush your teeth, comb your hair. Pluck out a grey nosehair. Put on your jacket, grab your keys, your pen, your cat, your heart. Open the door. Step into New York. Live.

Finally, finally, live.


If you enjoyed this, here’s a story that takes place in New York. And here is another that does not, about a lovely neighbor of mine. Let’s be horrible people together. (above image by Summer Olsson, hand model: Michael Wheeler)

14 thoughts on “Life, the Universe, and Everything”

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  2. “Have a gentle epiphany that we remember those we love not in how they say hello, but by the grace with which they say goodbye, and know that this goodbye was graceless, clumsy, cruel.” YES.

  3. I feel so bad for your father; he gets introduced to yet another one of his son’s “boyfriends” just to have to hear, once again, how his 42 year old boy can’t keep his shit together like he did during more difficult times. You’re a disgrace.

  4. The worst. Feeling. Probably ever.

    The last morning with my ex, he left and didn’t even say goodbye. Not even to tell me where to leave the keys (it was his house). To be sure, I was pretending to be asleep, but still, I was sleeping right there, on the living room floor. He had to walk right by me to get to the kitchen.

    I fake-slept as he left the house and only when I heard his car leave did I get up and run to the window and watch the taillights disappear around the corner.

    And so after 11 years, that was it.

    It was my last day at work, too. I couldn’t stay in that town, my heart too broken to be anywhere close.

    They had a big party for me at work. Took me to lunch. Gave me lots of silly gifts. The big boss told me I was the only one that ‘looked creative’ (which, what did that even mean?) and he was sorry to see me go.

    I left after the lunch party. No reason to go back.

    I drove off in my ’99 Cadillac which I had bought used as a mid-life crisis joke but now didn’t seem like too much of one. I held it together for a good long while heading up 95. Only when I passed the White Marsh Best Buy did I lose it, and I don’t know why. It’s not like we shopped there a lot other than for Open Box bargains.

    Maybe because White Marsh was like the last of Baltimore before hitting real country. No turning back because there was nothing to turn back to.

    I sobbed. And sobbed. So much I couldn’t even really drive right, kind of half on the road and half on the shoulder. Pretty much like that all the way to the Delaware tolls. I wanted a cop- ANYBODY- to pull me over and say ‘what’s wrong with you?’ so I could tell somebody- ANYBODY- how broken I was. How friggin’ broken. And how do I stop it? WHEN does it stop?

    By the time Philly rolled around I was dry of tears and just exhausted and empty. I made it back home to Jersey and sat in the quiet of the car for the longest time. I slept a little bit. Then I went inside my house, grabbed pillows and blankets and made my nest on the living room floor. And went to sleep.

    Late afternoon the next day, I went to the Ikea in Elizabeth. It was a winter dusk drive, up the turnpike and even though it’s pretty much an industrial wasteland around there, the refinery lights were sparkling and planes to and from Newark were flying overhead and trains were gliding by on the parallel tracks. Ugly. And real. And beautiful. And so at the Ikea I bought a new bed. Took it home and put it all together. And put the sheets, blankets, comforter on it. It was beautiful and perfect.

    Then I grabbed another set of pillows and blankets and headed to the living room floor and made my nest again. I fell asleep to the television and the latest financial reports out of Kuala Lumpur where another day was already well under way.

  5. That really touched my heart and made me teary through a lot of it. You write so profoundly simply with great impact. Love your writing but not the emotional roller-coaster (though sometimes a good cry is good for the soul too – not sure why but it sort of cleanses somehow like rain after a long spell of drought). Thanks for sharing. Holding out for you that NYC becomes a love of your life in producing the love you seek.

  6. Just discovered you on OkCupid and told you that I’m your latest adulating fan. And I am. And after reading this, I feel like I have a friend that shares a very specific aesthetic. Will be reading your book. Portland will mis you, but enjoy New York. Happy birthday, Michael.

  7. Wow, I’m so excited for you! Your next big adventure awaits! I know exactly what that urgent pull feels like to a city -that’s why I moved out to Portland this month! No family, handful of friends, no job yet, but I felt like I NEEDED to be here. Big exciting things and wonderful people who you are going to meet are waiting for you. 😀 Happy Birthday! -J

  8. I love reading your stuff. I always search for it and read it again. Not sure exactly why. It feels good. Like finding that pretty agate on the beach that without thinking you slip into your pocket and take home. So happy to read the last line.

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