Derailed: A Reflection on Dating, Dogs, and Family

            I put the car in park after pulling into Kevin’s driveway. Tonight was supposed to have been a return to the drunken glory of the summer before last, the months following his divorce. But it was a cold and rainy night in October, and none of the three bars we’d checked out looked at all promising. I’d warned him this might be the case, but he was determined to get out and make something happen. For close to a year now, he’d been dating Susan, and for all that time he’d been repeating his litany of reasons for not wanting to be in a serious relationship with her, or with anyone else. Then came an invitation for him to have dinner with her parents. He made it clear how little the idea appealed to him. So she decided they shouldn’t see each other anymore. He casually agreed. Over the past week, however, I’ve seen and heard enough to know that neither of them is finding it as easy to walk away as they’re both trying to make out. They’re playing the old game of breakup chicken—testing to see who can withstand the self-imposed misery the longest. Hence his determination to get out to the bars for a night of unencumbered fun, and hence his disappointment now.

            Since his divorce two years ago, Kevin has taken to fervidly disparaging the married life. You can’t be yourself in a marriage, he insists. The way he sees it, all the men in his life are being stymied and suffocated, just like he had been for those eleven years with his wife—and they don’t even realize it, just as he didn’t. The willing confinement and constant stifling inevitably narrow a man’s perspective to the most miniscule of apertures. Your whole life becomes effortful, forced. You have no energy and no time for pursuing your old passions. Women’s nature and desires are too bizarre, too overbearing, too irrational to be compatible with men’s nature and desires. Once we give in and settle down, once we compromise and allow ourselves to be trapped, we begin a slow but inexorable process of forfeiting everything that makes us viable individuals, everything that makes life worth living, everything that makes us men. As we sit side-by-side listening to rain beat half-heartedly against the windshield, he repeats these sentiments once again, interspersing them amid complaints about the unreasonableness of Susan’s request for him to meet the parents she’s given so little indication of even liking herself. I know what he’s doing because I’ve done it myself once or twice. He’s reciting his motivations for keeping to a course that’s getting increasingly difficult to keep to.

Kevin had decided to divorce his wife a year and a half ago, after they both met up with me and an old friend in Nevada. While we were all there together, we did the standard Vegas thing for one night, but most of the trip was devoted to visiting national parks: Zion, Red Rock, Valley of Fire. The whole trip, he would later tell me, his wife was irritable, tetchy, impossible to please. He felt the full force of a familiar realization as he’d never felt it before: he would be enjoying the trip much more if his wife hadn’t accompanied him.

And so it was with the rest of his life. Kelly, the friend I was traveling with, is a lot like me in that she’s an uncompromising free spirit—though she’s more the free spirit and I’m probably the more uncompromising. In the two of us, Kevin began seeing a model for what life could be like. Kelly and I have both had our share of heartbreak, but now that we’re free of those old entanglements there seems to be nothing holding us back. It must look as though we’re both far better off. To Kevin, it must also look as though we’re both far better off than all those married men he sees withering away under the yoke of uxoriousness.

            In their basics, the stories about Kelly and me are true enough. Back when I was living with Erica, the ex I believed I would marry and grow old with, I really couldn’t be myself. I really did feel like I had to compromise some of the best parts of who I am for her sake. The breakup wrecked me. Now I’m far better off. I get the sense from Kelly that her story is similar. Her boyfriend was disdainful of her time-wasting creative endeavors. He was intolerant of anything that wasn’t practical. He belittled her for being too sentimental, too uninterested in making money for the sake of making money, too dependent on him in the selfsame way he loved her to be. Her final leave-taking was more recent than mine, but it seems she’s on her way to bouncing back with a vengeance, just like I eventually did. Neither Kelly nor I, however, took up proselytizing for the unmarried, uncommitted, unmonogamous lifestyle—at least not consistently. Though at times we both despair, I don’t think either of us has completely given up on the idea of finding a more compatible partner. But in the meantime we both do a pretty good job of enjoying the shit out of our single lives.

            As I sit listening to Kevin’s list of reasons for staying unattached, I find myself settling on a decision, prompted by reasons that are mysterious to me. Maybe, when it comes down to it, I just need to talk to my friend, and whatever point I work back around to will be mostly serendipitous. Or maybe I feel responsible for conspiring in the creation of an image of my life that, while not exactly false, is certainly incomplete. I have, after all, shared with him many of the juicy details of my active and quite polygamous sex life. I have also structured all the stories I’ve told him about my struggles with my ex to make them sound like some heroic journey from domestic oppression to intellectual, spiritual, and libidinous liberation. Again, the stories are all true enough. But I tell them in the manner I do for my own ends, for my own psychological benefit, and now I’m worried he may be applying the lessons in a way that’s far less beneficial to him than they have been to me.

            Anyway, for whatever reason, I start talking. I start telling another story.

            “When I was in Boston a few weeks ago, the conference I was attending was just bizarre. For the past three years, I’ve been doing this thing for my company called inbound marketing. I know what it is. I know how to do it. Hell, I may even be pretty good at it. But I realized when I was there with all these thousands of other inbound marketers that they all take it far more seriously than I do. For me, this shit is just something I do. It’s my job. But for them it’s who they are. They identify with it. So I felt like an anthropologist studying this weird cult. Which would have been fine, except, you know, fifteen years after graduating, I still identify more as an anthropologist than as a damn inbound marketer—something I do every day, something I actually make a decent living doing. I identify as a writer more than anything else, though, so I guess it works out well enough.

            “Anyway, so I’m feeling completely out of place—and wondering how all these people could be so taken in by all the crap we’re hearing—and I go out in front of the building to have lunch. While I’m sitting there, facing the front of the building, I see this woman with these really great legs—just stupid hot. I was working out how to talk to her, even though I didn’t have a lot to work with, and it wasn’t like it could’ve gone anywhere because I was sharing a hotel room with one of my coworkers. But, you know, you’re in Boston—when are you going to have this opportunity again? Instead, what ended up happening was that I casually butted into a conversation two women sitting beside me were having. And I talked to them about marketing for nonprofits for the rest of the lunch hour. One of them, Lindsay, I ended up hanging out with for the rest of the trip. So it was cool, you know. I made a connection.

            “But when I got back to Fort Wayne, I felt really out of sorts. It was actually pretty bad, and it lasted for about two weeks. My whole life seemed completely fucking arbitrary, you know. I kept thinking, well, I was in Boston a week and I made this connection. I could almost as easily have connected with the chick with the nice legs I’d seen. It was a cool experience, the kind you hope you have when you go on a trip like that. But I didn’t really feel it. I’d talked to her, hung out with her—maybe if we’d had a place to ourselves we would’ve hooked up. She’s awesome. She owns her own design company in Austin, Texas. She was talking about doing business deals with chauvinist dudes in Colombia. I mean, we don’t meet women like that here. But still—no feeling. It was just a bunch of stuff that happened. It was just like the whole inbound marketing thing. I do it. But it’s not who I am. It’s just a surface behavior, an act. I go through the motions. Then I’m back in Fort Wayne and I realize—that’s how I feel about my whole life lately. That’s how I feel about all the women I’ve been hanging out with. You know, I care about them. I’m not trying to hurt anyone. I just don’t feel it. And I’ve been telling myself, that’s exactly what you want, right? Now, I’m not sure.

            “So for like two weeks I’m home and I’m feeling—just hollowed out. Empty. Every day is just going through the motions. Then last weekend I drive over to my dad’s house in Clarksville for his birthday. Saturday night, I get there late, and I stay up drinking with my dad, my brother, and my sister-in-law Amy. But right away Sunday morning my niece Josalyn wakes me up and tells me how mad she is that I took so long getting there the night before that she’d already been in bed, and now she wants to go looking for my stepmom’s goat Triscuit in the woods behind the house. When the family’s all together, I usually end up being in charge of Josalyn a lot because to her I’m kind of a novelty, and she just sort of seeks me out. So we’re walking around in the woods and looking for this damn goat in the junkyard behind the property, and it wasn’t right away—but at some point I notice that for the first time since Boston I’m starting to feel normal again. Because when you’re with a little kid you don’t have that feeling that whatever you’re doing, it’s just you that it matters to, and it’s just you it has any meaning for. For one thing, you have to watch her to make sure she doesn’t get hurt or anything. Beyond that, though, you have this sense that everything you say has more of an impact on her. She’s really listening and taking it in. She’s not just nodding along and going about doing her normal thing the same as before.

            “After the junkyard, Josalyn decides she wants to go back to the trench we climbed down the last time we were back in the woods. It’s this ravine covered in loose shale that slopes down from a big pond to a bunch of old farm land. It’s actually pretty sketchy at a lot of points because it gets steep, and the rocks you’re stepping on can slip out from under your feet. But we go down a ways and come back up. When we run into my brother and my nephew Ellis back at the top, Josalyn starts telling them how awesome it is. Of course now Ellis wants to go. My brother says it’s alright if I take him, and Amy is kind of hovering around too, keeping an eye on everyone. Still, I’m not completely sure taking Ellis down there is a great idea. I slip and stumble on those rocks enough myself. And Ellis is like five.

            “I try to explain to him how dangerous it is, and how you have to test each rock to see if it’s going to hold you. But he keeps walking with us right up to the trench. When we get there, I’m expecting him to realize how scary it is and decide not to go. But he climbs right down with us. Right away, my stepmom Jan’s dog decides to start circling us. I think he’s a pit bull-Border collie mix, and he’s rambunctious as hell. Maybe a year ago when we were all at my dad’s house, I’d seen him plow into Josalyn a bunch of times. So now I’m thinking it’s only a matter of time before he runs up and knocks Ellis down, making him tumble all the way down to bottom of the damn trench. Ellis keeps on going, though. And the whole time he keeps talking—it was actually really funny. He’s like, ‘This is so dangerous. This is just crazy. These rocks are not even safe to step on. We should not be doing this.’ I keep asking if he wants to stop and go back, though, and he just keeps climbing down and talking about how crazy it is the whole time.

            “I stayed really close to him the whole way down. At the bottom, though, he and Josalyn turned around and started heading back up by themselves. I figured going up was a little easier, so I let them both get a ways ahead of me. As I’m going up myself, though, I keep thinking whenever I get to a sketchier part of the climb that I need to run up and make sure Ellis makes it alright. The first time this happens, I look up and I see Booth, that damn dog, running up right behind Ellis. At first, I freaked out a little, thinking I’m about to watch the dog knock the poor kid down. But Booth just kind of stops behind Ellis and slowly picks his way up the trench behind him. I’m thinking that’s good—if Ellis slips or stumbles, he’ll land on the dog and it’ll break his fall. So I keep climbing up along the trench a ways back from the kids. Eventually, I get to another sketchy part. So I get ready to run and catch up with the kids—and there’s the damn dog again, right behind Ellis, with his nose right in his butt. I go through the same thought process as before. You know, the dog’s going to knock the kid down, he’s going to get hurt, and then my brother’s going to kill me. I watch for a while, though, and it looks like the dog’s behaving fine. But then I get to a third rough stretch in the climb, I look up, and there’s Booth again with his nose right in Ellis’s butt.

           “This time it finally dawns on me—the dog is fucking herding Ellis along the hardest parts of the path. And he must know exactly what he’s doing. It’s the Border collie in him. Later, I told Amy about it, and she said they’d been playing a game the day before where Booth followed right behind Ellis—with his nose in his butt just like I saw—while Ellis walked around in circles in the front yard. So when it dawns on me that the dog is being really fucking smart and that he’s actually protecting Ellis, I just stop in my tracks, and it hits me like a truck. I don’t know why. I’m just suddenly overcome with emotion—ha ha, and you know how awful that feels. It was like I got the wind knocked out of me. My insides all clenched up and I could barely breathe. I start climbing again, to sort of walk it off, you know. But now all I can think about is this day I spent with Erica like five years ago.

            “It was during the summer, about a year after we broke up and I moved out of the house on Lambert Lane. At that point, I wasn’t really hanging out with her that much anymore, but we saw each other once in a while. This was the first time I’d seen her after her hysterectomy, and she was still a little wobbly on her feet, and she was moving around really slow. She’d told me about how after the surgery she’d actually passed out while she was standing in the bathroom at her foster family’s house in West Lafayette and woken up on the floor. It was this fucked up situation, you know, because I felt like I should have been there and it broke my heart to hear about it. But then I was still pretty pissed at her, so whatever. Anyway, we’re hanging out that afternoon, and she says she has to stop at the bank.

            “When we get there, we both go in the door and walk up to the counter. The teller is this older woman, and as Erica is telling her what she needs she looks back and forth between Erica and me a couple of times and gets this weird look on her face. Then she kind of half smiles and says to Erica, ‘You’ve got yourself a nice bodyguard there.’ Erica says something about how I’m easy to look at so she doesn’t mind having me around, or something like that. But I’m standing there trying to figure out what the hell the teller is even talking about. What I realize is that, without even thinking about it, every time Erica and I move I’m keeping her in my peripheral view, and I’m staying within arm’s reach of her. Because I’m afraid she might get dizzy and fall again—and I’m making sure if she does I can catch her. What the teller noticed was that I was watching Erica out of the corner of my eye even as we stood there at the counter.

            “For all of about ten seconds, I’m standing there completely shocked at how automatically I fell into that position alongside her. But then I thought, you know, are you really surprised? Because the truth is, I would derail a fucking train if I had to for this girl—no hesitation, no questions asked. And if I couldn’t do it, I’d still find a way somehow. Just moving her off the tracks wouldn’t be good enough because that fucking train needs to know it doesn’t come at her like that—not this girl. This one’s with me. You don’t fuck around.

“Have you ever had that feeling? So I’m standing there in this shitty bank, and I’m thinking, there’s all this feeling, all this energy, all this passion. And it’s all a complete fucking waste because whatever the two of us had, it was already so thoroughly ruined by then. She didn’t trust me anymore because she was sure I cheated on her—though if she had any sense she would’ve known she never had to worry about that with me. And I sure as fuck didn’t trust her anymore because she’d turned on me so many times I’d starting suspecting that she was always just looking for another excuse to turn on me again. So what do you do with all that energy and feeling and passion? It’s utterly useless. Actually, it’s much worse than useless.

            “You don’t just recover from that in a couple of months, or even a couple of years. That kind of thing fucks you up for a while. After that, I kept kind of plodding ahead, doing my own things, trying not to think about it too much. I actually made the conscious decision to spread myself thin in relationships from then on, to keep things caj—I just didn’t believe I’d be able to pull it off as well as I did. But I had been on and off with Erica for like seven years. And here’s the thing—you were with Emma for about eleven years. And I know getting divorced felt like this glorious, triumphant liberation, like you were finally free to be yourself again after all those years, but so much of what you expect from people, what you expect from women, comes from what happened between you two. It sucked. It was like a prolonged type of mild torture. I know.

            “But I’ve been free, completely free to do pretty much whatever the fuck I want for the past five years now. I’m not going to lie—it’s been fucking great. Every time I’m with a woman who doesn’t have all the stupid hang-ups Erica did, all I can do is smile and think how lucky I am not to have to deal with that bullshit for the rest of my life. Every time I spend the whole day reading, or hours and hours writing, or get off work and decide to go running in the woods for like two hours, or every time I go out drinking with you or Fred till three in morning, even to this day I smile and think how awesome it is that I don’t have to check in with anyone, or deal with anyone hovering and waiting, or deal with anyone being suspicious or pissed off for no damn reason.

“Every once in a while, though, I feel like I felt when I first got back from Boston. You know, like nothing I do fucking matters. That makes it really hard to get into whatever book I’m reading. That makes it hard to get off the couch and go running. The reason any of that gets done is that I’ve made it such an ingrained habit. I just do it, unthinking, unfeeling. And writing—I could quit my job and write full-time and ultimately whatever I come up with isn’t going to mean much to anyone but me. The fiction books that have had the most impact in the last thirty years are fucking Harry Potter. I’m never going to write anything like that. I’m never going to write anything that changes the world like Origin of Species. Mostly, I’m fine with that. I write because I enjoy it. But knowing that its significance is so limited like that makes me question how much meaning I can get from it. Can I derive all the happiness and fulfillment I need in my life from writing the stories and book reviews I post on my damn blog?

“The reality is that without you and Kelly and my brothers and Amber and Fred, without all the people I’m closest to, you know, I could spend every waking hour doing the stuff that means the most to me personally, but it wouldn’t mean a damn thing. I’d probably fucking kill myself. Ha ha, and most of you guys don’t even read most of the stuff I write, or get pissed off because you think it’s about you. The reason that I’m actually happy to go to work most days isn’t that I give two fucks about inbound marketing; it’s that I love all the people I work with. Going to work is like going to hang out and work on projects with all these cool, really smart and creative people I call friends. Even the women I date—I don’t feel the way about them I felt about Erica, but the reason I enjoy spending time with them so much is that I’m friends with them all.”

Kevin has sat listening silently to my story up till now. I’ve been talking for a long time, not knowing how he’ll respond. As I take a breath before starting again, he stops me saying, “But that’s the way I think it should be. I mean, you have your friends and your family and your work. You don’t have to rely on any one person so damn much. You don’t have to live with her and tie so much of your day-to-day existence to her. I mean, you know what it’s like living with someone. That balance of doing what you want and still having people in your life—it’s not possible if you get too close with any one woman.”

“Honestly, I’ve been doing my best to make it work. But I’m not sure the type of meaning I’m talking about can come from a bunch of casual relationships. Four or five casual arrangements don’t add up to one profound connection. Doing it that way is fun as hell, don’t get me wrong. But after a while it starts to feel shallow. You start to feel empty. Any one of the women I’m dating now could decide she wants something more serious with some other guy. That wouldn’t bother me. I’d be like, ‘Cool, I hope it works out for you. It was fun hanging out.’ But the fact that I can walk away like that shows how little meaning it ultimately has. And when shit really starts going wrong—and you know it will sooner or later—when my dad dies, or my brothers get sick, or I get hurt, who knows? When shit like that happens, it’s not really fair to ask anyone you’re in a casual relationship with to be there for you. And even if they are, what are they going to do? Show up and hang out like they usually do? And if they do more than that, if they really are there for you, then aren’t they making that relationship more meaningful in the process?”

“Ugh, it’s not like that though,” Kevin says. “You’re painting this picture of being down and having some chick supporting you, but what would really happen is that she’d be there making it fucking worse. She’d be making the whole thing out to be your fault, criticizing you. Or she’d be remembering every last little thing she does for you so she can remind you of it later. I know, I know. Sometimes people are just nice to each other. But the longer you’re with someone the more resentment builds up. And it happens so gradually that you wake up one day and realize you’re basically stuck with someone who doesn’t even like you, who’s annoyed by everything you say and do—and you feel the same way, but she’s sucked out your will to live so much you don’t even have the energy to get away.”

“That’s the risk you take. You and I both got pretty much wrecked. And I don’t even want to say it’s because either of them is a terrible person. But they were terrible to us. That’s just the thing, though. You form these bonds because when it comes down to it they’re what makes or breaks your life. Every time you get close to someone you run the risk of it being the wrong person. All you can do is be careful not to spend too much time with someone who isn’t right for you. I knew from early on that Erica was going to cause me a bunch of problems. I should have stayed away, but we worked together, a bunch of crazy shit was going on in my life, and she kept coming after me. If I saw the same warning signs today, I wouldn’t go anywhere near her. And you know exactly what it was about Emma that made it not work. You know what the problem was—hell, you just described it. Aside from all the daily compromises of any relationship, there were some pretty huge fucking deal-breakers, right? Now think about Susan. Do you have any of those same problems with her?”

“Not even close. She comes with her own set of problems. It’s true though that they’re nowhere near as bad.”

“I think it’s got to be this process of making sure the person you’re getting close to is cool with who you are and accepting of how you need to spend your time. We’re both pretty introverted, so we need a lot of time to ourselves to do our own projects. We need to find women who are the same way, so when we go off on our own they’re ready to go off on their own too. We need to find women who aren’t fucktard feminists, who don’t feel like they have to get all weird about sex, and who like to fuck all the time, but who aren’t uneducated idiots. I’m starting to realize they’re out there. What happened was that we both got in really deep with women that we were just fundamentally incompatible with. And it fucked up our lives for a while. I don’t think that’s inevitable for every relationship though. I fucking hope it’s not.”

“Seriously, though, do you really think there’s someone who’d be compatible with you out there, someone you’re likely to meet?”

“They don’t have to be perfectly compatible. But, sure, yeah, there are so many people out there, someone has to be as introverted and laid back as us. You can look at the statistics on what makes people happiest. You can look at all the people who are most successful. And the trend is that most of them are married.”

“No, I mean you personally. Knowing yourself as well as you do, do you think there’s someone who’d be cool with you going off on your own as much as you like to? Someone who’d be cool with your views and opinions and wouldn’t get pissed off all the time, or take what you say personally and get hurt feelings? Just someone who’d be cool with you even after you’d spent tons of time together.”

“You make me sound like Rustin Cohle on True Detective,” I say before pausing to think. I feel like I should say yes and explain why I’m optimistic. But I don’t want to be anything less than perfectly honest. So after thinking about his question for a minute, I answer, “Judging from the women I actually know now, I have to say the chances are pretty slim. And if I never find anyone like that, I figure I can still find a way to be happy, to live with the feelings of emptiness and pointlessness that come up once in a while. I’ll just have to hope to hell you and all the other people I’m close to are still around. Still, I have to say, as shitty as the chances are, I’m feeling like I can’t help keeping an eye out, like I’m open to it in a way I haven’t been for the past five years.”

Driving home after the conversation, I wonder what Kevin might have taken away from it, if anything. It’s impossible to tell. Then, despite myself, I start thinking about my ex, about what it would be like if we’d had a little girl like my niece Josalyn. After the family had spent most of the morning in the woods behind my dad’s house last weekend, everyone packed up for the drive back to Fort Wayne. Before leaving town, though, we stopped at a fall festival hosted by an old dairy farm. Jos came and sat next to me in the back of a trailer hooked up for a hayride that took us along winding forested trails decorated for Halloween. When the guys in ape masks and other costumes started jumping out from behind the trees to scare us, she curled up in the corner of the trailer, under my arm, complaining about how they’d tried to “take my head off.” I smile at the memory. Don’t worry Jos. They won’t harm a hair on your head. They wouldn’t fucking dare.