I realize that eight years ago, I said no because there were too many more yeses.
For the first time since age 22 I am beach bound, cruising along the flat expanse of Route 50 and catching teases of salt in the air. I last drove this far east to discuss Stephen King with a boy I liked over greasy subs and cheap beer. He lived in a summer beach house with worn white siding and split the rent with 10 other boys working odd jobs, sharing a sunroom that housed a singular computer and accompanying roll of toilet paper.
A lot has changed since then. I check into a hotel along the Chesapeake with fluffy towels and fresh sheets, and stuff a small backpack with provisionals for the Cross Island Trail. Quite literally, I’ve taken a page from Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild and decided to hike through woods and over estuaries until I reach the marina. After the 10-mile journey, I reward myself with white sangria, shrimp and grits, and a cream soup with hunks of crab that fill my entire mouth. The moon slices into the lapping bay waters like the curved blade of a sickle. Today has come to an end: the day the man who once offered me a ring has married someone else.
I don’t love this man anymore. I haven’t for many years, though I still think about him on occasion. He was my first real “adult” relationship, which felt particularly grown-up given that I was an 18-year-old community college student and he was 27. For two years we shared our passions for teaching and performing music, took day trips to Gettysburg and Cunningham Falls, spent rainy afternoons watching movies in a tangle on the couch. When I transferred to a residential college, he even whisked me away to a hotel to celebrate our anniversary.
But during those two years, our interests and aspirations diverged dramatically. I threw myself into orchestra and college radio while he fought every campus activity tooth and nail. He wanted me home every weekend, because even though he had never gone to college and mine was the furthest thing from a party school, he claimed to know “what kinds of things go on.” He accused me of desiring virtually every friend of the opposite sex, gay or straight, and finally declared on a trip to the falls that he no longer wanted to hear about my friendships or schooling “because that doesn’t have anything to do with us.” As my life opportunities expanded, his folded into complacency.
In a last-ditch effort to salvage our relationship, he bought a foreclosed house and asked me to move in. I stared up at the asbestos-lined ceiling, thought about all the times his parents had clamored for grandchildren, and wondered if this was what my life would be.
“I bought a ring,” he said.
“At Christmas. I still have it. I’ve been holding onto it.”
“What are you asking?”
Today he has married another woman, and I wish him all the best. That’s not why I’m hiking this trail. I’m hiking this trail to reconcile that the life I almost had now belongs to someone else. Einmal ist keinmal, or once is never goes the German proverb. If we have only one life to live, Tomas declares in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, we might as well not have lived at all.
Sometimes, I wonder if I have anything to show for turning down that proposal. Nothing I’ve tried since has worked out, at least not yet. Some obstacles were beyond my control: the isolation of grief, the immediacy of online dating, the reemergence of exes. Unfortunate distance. Unfortunate timing. And some roadblocks were admittedly self-imposed: trying to fix “challenging” narcissists, returning to toxic relationships during a lost period in my life simply because they were familiar, sacrificing potential futures with incredible people because I hadn’t known what I needed until it was too late.
As I push along past the tree trunks with ridges deep as honeycombs, I pause at one fallen victim to a storm. Slanted almost horizontal, it rests on the branches of a dozen other trees, reminding me of a trust exercise. Just like Cheryl Strayed on her Pacific coast journey, I confront all the choices resulting from that larger choice. I realize that even though the past is alive here, the trail only moves forward—forward to the marina, forward to a hotel shower and a nice dinner. I realize that eight years ago, I said no because there were too many more yeses.
Maybe instead of Einmal ist keinmal, Cheryl had the right idea:
What if I forgave myself? What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?
I write this piece on a windy afternoon at the beach, watching the graceful arcs of the windsurfers. If I could hike back to that version of myself teetering on the edge of 21, I would be tempted to slap her in the face for all the fantastically awful decisions she is about to make, for the carelessness that will hurt herself and others. But she’s young and stubborn and will screw up anyway, so I’ll tell her not to be too hard on herself because the world only moves in one direction.
I will ask if she remembers the classmate who saw her brushing away break-up tears just before her journalism final and comforted her. In the years to follow, he will become the best friend imaginable. I will tell her that when she feels dragged through every exhausting detail of her parents’ impending divorce, writing her first novel in the coffee shop across town will save her. I will tell her that nearly a decade after a good friend turns into a first love, she will clasp him in her arms again and they will say everything they couldn’t say at 18, because sometimes life is all about growth and timing.
But above all I would congratulate her for not settling. Because in three years she’ll earn her master’s and figure out exactly what she wants to be When She Grows Up, and in another three, she’ll move to the nation’s capital for opportunities she had only dreamed of. And I would tell her that when it feels right—and she’ll have to learn enough of what feels wrong—then settling will be just fine.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.