« Is This Real? »

Jeeze—two more weeks and I'm getting married. This isn't like the last time I was engaged (back in November 1994, for about four days). This one is real. In fact, with the exception of some heat-of-the-moment things that got said and retracted within a few hours or days, I have not flinched at this engagement. But an extra ten years or so will do a few things to make change in one's life. I remember the first time I was engaged was in a time when I literally did not know who I was or what I wanted. That is hardly the time to join in on a relationship. The age of 21 is not a good time for relationships, in my experience and observations. On it's own it is just too turbulent a time. For some, it is a crossroads of school, work, relationships, leaving the family, getting "legal," and starting to get some understanding of the world as more than a bunch of literary abstractions.

I remember being timidly excited about being engaged then, but it was something that had chosen me more than I had chosen it. If it had waited some years maybe I would have played on, but there was one night not but a few days before Thanksgiving when I realized I had no business getting into all this, because I was just at the start of my own journey. Earlier in the day, in an effort to find the "real" work my old man had been badgering me to find, I went to an orientation with the INS. Well, they had a tasty pay and benefits package, but I could in no way see myself doing that. I mean, I may as well have been a ditch digger, or an investment banker. Later on in the evening after going to that orientation, I had a long night of soul searching and a lot of sobbing. It was like putting the cart before the horse. All of a sudden, predicated on the notion of getting married (something I had announced to maybe five people), I would find myself looking in all the wrong places for what would only amount to an income, and not anything that I feel I would have done because I wanted to do it. I mean, I was only 21! All of a sudden that night I felt suffocated, and the next morning, I told her I could not go through with it all. It was only a five day old plan, so not much was invested. Lots was lost, I'm sure, but what is the sense in getting into a relationship when things are so iffy over on my end? I feel that I would have been a pretty incomplete person in a serious relationship had I gone on. And I felt that wouldn't be fair to either of us, especially since all this was a still-optional relationship.

No, she didn't like me for that. I suppose I shattered some dreams, and I wish I hadn't done that, but I was trying to be true to myself. I didn't declare that I wanted out of the entire relationship, only that I couldn't get married. I did have a feeling that I had not lived enough, and I suppose the next nine years or so (before I willingly got engaged) did bear that out. We stayed together a little over two years after the engagment was broken off, but were taken for a wild ride sometimes, due in part to the fact that the early twenties is an age that just is not the time to try to have a relationship, and here we were, spaced by about nine months (she was younger), and going through all these changes. It was the blind leading the deaf. We spent the last eight months of our relationship in a breakup mode when the confusion and distrust and all that stuff was prevalent. It was just a bad time to try to be serious about a relationship. We've since become more objective and friendly toward one another, but since early 1997 when it collapsed for the last time, our contact has been pretty limited but generally more civil. So it can happen that lovers can be friends, but it might take a while. I think it took three years and more before we started on ANY path toward picking up the pieces, and possibly another three before we got to a point where we felt it was safe to move on but stay in touch once in a while, sans excess baggage.

A primary difference between this relationship with Kelli and the one above is that the earlier one had no particular history to draw on, or any support system of friends and family to help us out. And help is something we needed desperately sometimes. We were not ready for that relationship at any time, but certainly at a time when I had no particular relationship with my old man but for being the target of his push to get me to get a job. As for her, she had an iffy relationship with her dad too, and while she could have drawn support from her mom, we just sort of shirked from asking, even when things were over our heads. It was naive to think that we could handle things on our own, but when you are at an age when you have to assert yourselves and get away from the tyrrany of parental guidance and all that heroic stuff, you do misguided things.

But, as for Kelli and I now, we feel a lot better about things and have generally been willing to find some support from friends or help in counseling. We've also known each other for a long time, and we've been generally supportive over the years. Kelli was the one who I talked to when my very first relationship caved in back in 1993. There have been other encounters of that sort where we have slowly built our history. By the time we started our current relationship at the start of 2002, we had a running head start by about eleven or twelve years. We knew a relationship outside of our romance so I think that is a key part of things. It was something I knew was important, especially as the previous relationship showed it would be, by the conspicuous ABSENCE of history between us. And, in the couple of additional "imaginary" relationships concurrent with or between all these "real" relationships, there was a conscious effort to build history so that we'd be on the right track when the time would come to be in a "real" relationship. But it was nonsense. In one instance, I spent twelve years building this history for an imaginary relationship (this is not the twelve years of Kelli) that I would never get to have. And there was a shorter version of that with yet another person; I got out of this imaginary relationship after about one year. The thing was, I wanted and needed history in a relationship, because I know the lack of that perspective was an issue in what might have been my committed relationship, yet I found in these two other relationships that this sort of history could just not be manufactured willfully. But there was Kelli, not a part of the failure of the lack of history, but also not someone with whom I tried to consciously build the history/foundation in order to "start" a "real" relationship.

But nonetheless, twelve years did indeed pass when we laid the groundwork for what would be our marriage plans. It just happened. It wasn't contrived or planned. It just turned out that after a dozen years of talking to each other from time to time, hanging out and shooting pool at a pub, doing a poetry/music CD together, or our earlier association from church (which still is our primary familial relationship), or from talking our way through the murder of a lifelong friend of ours, we just found that we had those common goals and beliefs that we needed to go to another level. I never really thought of Kelli as girlfriend material. I thought we were just too different. She was from a very liberal war and nuke protesting background, well educated at serious schools, loaded with conscience and motivation, all that. I was from a family of Republicans, a slacker and musical hack, I had a casual approach to school, favoring the school of hard knocks for about a decade there. We lived very separate lives which I never thought would turn into this. I mean, no, not until we began this relationship did I think we would play these new roles for each other. But when it did become manifest, I just knew it was right. In fact, this time around, I had to actually STALL myself from asking her to marry me—for TWO years! Such was the feeling that I had happened into the best thing I would get from life, at the time when I felt I could partake of it, cherish it, defend it. In fact, after we started up in early 2002, it took about two weeks or less to decide to return to the church after a full decade off. It was just a few months after 9/11, and a month more after our friend Daniel was killed. We had gotten together to make some sense of all this, and from those encounters, I just decided to get back in with a circle of people whom I trusted. Kelli was among them, and I knew that the time had come to sort of go home to all this that I once knew on a number of levels, but never on the gut level I now felt. For me, getting together with Kelli and returning to church was like returning to family—sort of a cheap version of the prodigal son.

So I don't know how things would have gone all those years back when I was first engaged, but based on the various failures and lessons learned in the years between Ms. W. and Kelli, I would suspect I was better off not dragging anyone else through it all. But then again, maybe having someone there would have changed things in ways that might have spared some of those bumps (or as I was told by the feller whom I wrote about in my earlier essay about the dying days of the single life, "marriage is salve for the soul"). I guess I'll never know. But at this time, all that matters is that I am resolutely determined to do this with the level of conviction I now feel I have—one that comes from inside me, and to be a better husband for Kelli than I was even as a boyfriend. It was a long series of events that led me here, and one I don't think will ever repeat itself, so with as clear a mind as I ever had, I go forth on this adventure.

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