Flashback a few years…
Colleen and I are driving west, enveloped by sprawling cornfields on both sides of this two-lane county road. It’s October 2011. Having just witnessed a buttery sunset melt into perfect rows of tall, Midwestern cornstalks that stretch beyond the horizon, we are now surrounded by twilight, that thin sliver of time between the bustle of the day and the calm of the night. The sky is so clear overhead I could point out various constellations through the sunroof.
With no real destination in mind, my left hand is gripping the steering wheel while my right rests on Colleen’s knee. Our post-sunset world is silent except for the hum of the road and the background radio playing a song by the Black Books, an indie band she used to hang with during her art-school days in Cleveland. Colleen turns up the volume and sings along: “If you’re not sunburned, you’re not having fun.”
Today is the second Tuesday in October; Southwest Ohio’s Indian summer is coming to a close. And even though we’re not sunburned, she and I, we are having fun—golden tan after a summer spent playing outdoors together, running through sprinklers and gamboling amid treelined parks and doing all the cliche things young couples do when they’re falling in love. It feels wonderful to be together, alive together, alive, together.
Dancing like a jellyfish in a summer dress, Colleen is belting out off-key lyrics from the passenger seat. It doesn’t matter that she’s off key, though; her singing seems perfect anyway. I can’t help but look over from the driver’s seat, to steal glances every chance I get, removing my eyes from the road just to take her in.
Colleen is the prettiest girl I’ve ever met. I know that sounds hyperbolic, and you’re probably not going to believe me, but whatever. Whether you believe me or not, it’s simply the truth. She’s beautiful. Big glacial-blue eyes. Crazy, curly, honey-colored hair. Her perfect smell, a sweet mixture of sweat and shampoo. And that…that…that smile. God that smile. I couldn’t describe it without stealing hackneyed lines from Keats’s poems. Hell, even the scar on her chin seems to be in the right place.
When we met earlier this year, I was walking into my thirties, my twenties fading into memories. Not too surprisingly, we came into contact via the Internet, after she sent me a clever and silly tweet about meeting for “decreasingly warm liquids.” Although she is two years younger than I am, Colleen is the one who’s helping me learn what it means to be in love. Of course she’s not perfect, but she’s the closest thing I’ve ever witnessed: honest, vulnerable, openhearted. Around her I want to be a better version of myself, the best version of myself. For the first time in my life I feel uxorious.
“Why haven’t they harvested all this yet?” I ask, sweeping my hand from left to right to indicate a profusion of unreaped crops on the other side of the windshield. The earth around us is swollen with corn, corn in every direction, corn out every window, stalks taller than an NBA power forward in heels. More corn than you can imagine. It’s literally unimaginable.
“Hell if I know,” Colleen says playfully, contorting her face a bit. “Who do I look like, Old McDonald?”
“Oh come on, ain’t you and your people from ’round these parts?” I say. We are near a small farmtown called Greenville, roughly twenty-five miles north of Dayton, about fifteen miles east of the Indiana state line.
“What you mean, you people?”
I can’t help but smile with a face full of mirth, a smile I’d probably make fun of if it wasn’t my own goofy, love-struck grin.
“What the hell is that?!” Colleen shouts from out of nowhere.
“What? Where?” I ask, nearly driving off the road with sudden terror, peering in the wrong direction like an idiot.
“That! What is that?” she nudges me to look northwest. Her face is lit like a child’s. Beyond a lattice of cornstalks, it appears as if the sun is reemerging on the horizon, a huge blood-orange disc aflame and ascending over Darke County. It isn’t until we pull to the side of the road and roll down the windows that we realize it is in fact not the sun but the moon, the brightest moon either of us has ever witnessed. We are stuck in our own stares. A breeze catches the fields beneath the bright moon, making the crops look and sound like ocean waves through our rolled-down windows. Everything feels sort of like a David Lynch film—realistically surreal, pleasantly distended. The stars blur. The locusts’ chirrs echo. Colleen’s wide-eyed laughs hang in the air, suspended in a frozen moment. It all seems too good to be true, a rare perfect moment, an us I never expected, seemingly irreplicable.
Of course the following months will produce countless wonderful moments like this, revealing what it feels like to be truly free, producing the happiest days of my life thus far. And yet somehow I will manage to fuck it up. Three seasons from now, as spring bleeds into summer, as I focus more on blind achievement, as I focus on my new online life and turn a blind eye to the world around me, as I lose my awareness of what’s real, I will complicate a love that was so simple. Eventually, after our relationship’s light has dimmed, Colleen and I will part ways, and I will learn another important life lesson: when you stop paying attention to everything that’s important, when you lose sight of the happiness that’s right in front of your face, when you search for it through supposed accomplishments and accolades and recognition, it’s not appreciably different from searching for happiness through material things. Happiness doesn’t work that way. When the pursuit is ill-conceived, life loses its magic, loses its purpose, and you lose everything that matters. The truth is, you can skip the pursuit of happiness altogether and just be happy.
After my failure, in the wake of the damage done, I will spend months peering into the heartbreak gulf that separates Colleen and me. In time, after much reflection and countless tears, I will be able to look over my shoulder and see where I went wrong.…
Every relationship—friendship, romantic, or otherwise—is a series of gives and takes. Every relationship has an Us Box. For the relationship to work, both people must contribute to—and get something from—that Us Box. If you just give but don’t get, you’ll feel used, exploited, taken advantage of; and if you only take but don’t give, you’re a parasite, a freeloader, a bottom-feeder.
Throughout most of our year together, Colleen and I both contributed significantly to our Us Box. We gave and gave and gave. Consequently, our love multiplied, and we each got out way more than we put in. It was beautiful, by far the best relationship of my life. We each contributed, and we both grew—we grew together. But a year into our love, I began to feel stagnant, as if I was no longer growing, and I wasn’t sure why. So I unintentionally built walls while I attempted to figure out my stagnation.
But in reality, I wasn’t growing as much as I once was because I was no longer contributing as much as I once was. While Colleen continued to give, I gave less and less but still took just as much as I’d been taking, getting without giving. I was selfish and inattentive, not realizing that you can’t grow unless you give.
As I took and took and took, the distance between us widened, and soon enough our Us Box was empty, depleted because I wasn’t contributing—I wasn’t focused on the relationship like I had been during all those magnificent days together, back when everything felt so effortless. Turns out that it takes immense effort to make something feel that effortless.
And so while the last few years have taught me that we are not the sum of our material possessions, I now know the obverse is also true: we are what we focus on.
Unfortunately, by the time I realized this, it was too late. Our strained relationship faltered for months after the fall, vacillating between all the sad and angry emotions of a love song, attempting to find the rhythm we’d lost, only to realize that our syncopated love had fallen out of a step and that neither of us could find the beat again.
I’m reminded of an old Iraqi fable I once read in which a merchant in Baghdad sends his servant to the marketplace for provisions. Soon, the servant comes home white and trembling and tells the merchant that in the marketplace he was jostled by a woman, whom he recognized as Death, and she made a threatening gesture. Borrowing the merchant’s horse, the servant flees at top speed to Samarra, where he believes Death will not find him. The merchant then goes to the marketplace and finds Death and asks why she made the threatening gesture. She replies, “That was not a threatening gesture; it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
Somehow, I let the inverse happen to Colleen and me: I ran toward the place where I thought Happiness was, when Happiness was actually waiting in the place I was running from. I know this now, but only after the fall. Sometimes the best teacher is our most recent failure.
“Lessons from the Fall” is an excerpt from Everything That Remains.