"Are your parents still together?"
In 2012, it's a routine question, dropped casually as part of getting to know someone. It punctuates that first vulnerable conversation about family, the one that so often marks the beginning of an important friendship or relationship. In New York, it's easy to perceive people as totally independent of and removed from their upbringings, even if Mom and Dad are still footing the bill on that little shoebox of an East Village apartment. Young transplants navigate the streets like we were born there, maneuver the subways and climb our walkups with that brand of steely individualism so crucial to surviving city life (especially for the first few years). And yet intimacy of any kind demands some knowledge of who a person was before she was the cute girl on the A train every morning, or the techno-genius in the room two doors down at NYU. "Are your parents still together?" opens a door into another time, (usually) another neighborhood or city or state, another way of life.
Obviously, for my generation, married parents are no longer the foregone conclusion. But despite growing up with friends who were carted back and forth between Mom's and Dad's, or raised by single parents (or by Grandma, or by an older sibling, or... ), the inquiry still feels radical to me. My own parents just celebrated their 26th wedding anniversary, and have been in love for a total of 30 years. My mother was 18, a freshman in college, when she met my father, then 22, and they embarked on a long-distance love affair. Finally united in the same state four years later, they married. Three kids, seven moves, and several bathroom remodels ("THE GREATEST MARITAL CHALLENGE," according to my mother) later, they're still going strong.
This probably isn't sounding like a crisis yet. That's because it's not. Or it shouldn't be.
I didn't realize how profoundly I'd absorbed my parents' fairytale love story until my first real relationship, which lasted almost three years and only ended when I fell madly in love with someone else. That one lasted another two and a half years. I spent the first five years of my romantic and sexual life being in love -- and not just any old love. Soulmate love. Nicholas Sparks love. Obsessive, sweeping, "no one has ever loved like us" love. For me, the foregone conclusion was the opposite of my peers': I'd find my match early, because my parents had. And we'd ride off into the sunset or, like, hail a cab, and it would be the other parts of my life -- school, career, creative endeavors, friendships -- that would require searching, trial and error, work.
When that second relationship ended, I grieved as though someone close to me had died. It was in stark contrast to my otherwise sunny, buoyant self, and it startled everyone around me, especially my parents. I mourned the loss of my girlfriend, but almost more than that, I mourned the loss of the future I'd imagined with her. I'd gone into the relationship not only with the hope of forever, but with the expectation. I hadn't anticipated transience or change. I felt positively bereft.
Since then, I've functioned like a restless Cinderella, trying on shoe after shoe in an effort to find the one that fits, sometimes jamming my toes in and dealing with the discomfort for a little while, other times flinging them off after an exceedingly short time. What I'm trying to communicate via this mediocre extended metaphor is that I've dated a lot for a 22-year-old -- guys and girls (mostly girls), older and younger, appropriate and sensible (a girl I met through mutual friends) and wildly ill-advised (my roommate). But despite this shift in dating modality -- intense, suffocating, premature monogamy to "Jill of all trades, master of none" -- I've persisted in looking for the same exact thing. I've evolved into someone whose skin crawls at the prospect of a long-term committed relationship, but it's still my most fundamental desire. I'm frustrated by myself when I flake out on someone new and promising, but I also can't relax into a relationship the way I once did. This intense desire to have what my parents have drives me to start things I can't finish, mess with things (read: people) I've clearly messed with enough already, and otherwise search wildly, constantly, for that person-shaped glass slipper. I value my alone time, don't get me wrong -- I can be quite solitary, I write, I recharge. But I am desperate to keep my aloneness an occasional choice rather than a mandate, the exception rather than the rule.
My parents are quick to remind me that their relationship has been far from magical; rather, it's taken a lot of work, a lot of luck, and a lot of privilege. As a society, we don't always acknowledge the immense ways in which various kinds of privilege -- economic, particularly, but also skin, gender identity, sexual orientation, citizenship, etc. -- affect the longevity and sustainability of romantic relationships, but they do. And in all of those arenas, my parents are privileged. Their continued success is a complex equation indeed, with many other factors to thank -- but at its core is fundamental compatibility and love, which is a kind of magic. What are the odds of that? What are the odds in New York City? What are the odds for a queer girl (there are, unfortunately, a lot less of us out there)? What if it doesn't happen?
I recognize that, at 22, open-mindedness is crucial. I'd never tell a friend to stop dating casually just because she ultimately wants to find a "soulmate" -- which, by the way, is a word I hate, but secretly want to believe represents a real phenomenon. I believe, as is advised in almost every graduation speech ever, that as twenty-somethings we have to soak up life, have experiences, expose ourselves to new places and new people; that because, especially as women in the United States, our relationship status no longer dictates where we can go, what we can do, or the opportunities to which we have access, we ought to take full advantage of this; that love doesn't make even sense, neuroscientifically, until our brains are fully developed at the end of our twenties! And yet. And yet. And yet.
How do I reconcile an old-fashioned desire within my otherwise progressive, modern, independent, 2012 self? To what extent can I convince myself to calm down, stop longing, stop talking myself into feeling love because I want to feel it, then being disappointed when it's just an emotional mirage? How can I get myself to stop whining and just appreciate my parents' happy marriage for the miraculous, beautiful blessing that it is, and stop worrying that my own domestic future won't measure up?
This is my quarter-life crisis -- not job worries, lack of direction, or accidental naked pictures on Facebook. The timeless agony and ecstasy of love and its pursuit.
I'm working on it.