Paul and I were driving south down California’s glorious coast in our rented yellow Camaro. We were on our way back to Redondo Beach from a night camping in Big Sur. I was exhausted. The night had been freezing, with a hazy mist that I hadn’t expected in sunny California. We didn’t bring an inflatable mattress and our cold, clammy sleeping bags left much to be desired. I hadn’t slept a wink all night.
“Hey! Look at that sign!” Paul pointed at the green highway sign with his chin.
“Summerland!” I read excitedly before belting out the lyrics to one of my favourite songs, “just the name on the map sounds like heaven to me!”
“Do you want to go check out the beach?” Paul asked, letting me think it was my idea. I nodded, enthused. We found parking quickly and grabbed the beach stuff we permanently carried in the car as we drove around California. We set ourselves up on the sand and almost instantly I fell asleep. The sand was much more comfortable than the floor in Big Sur.
When I opened my eyes, I caught a glimpse of a gorgeous rich couple. They were dressed in beige linens and wearing dark sunglasses and wide brimmed hats. They rode their white horses across the shoreline for a while, before galloping directly into the crystal blue waters. It was like a dream.
“Hey Paul, do you see this?” I called over my shoulder, not sure if Paul was awake yet. “I didn’t even know horses could go into the water!”
When Paul didn’t answer, I spun around to face him, and there he was. On his knees on our new beach towel, holding out a little black box. The ring inside glistened in the sunlight, flashing into my eyes so bright, I squinted. Tears followed.
“Alexis, will you marry me?” It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.
“Yes! Yes, of course I’ll marry you!” I exclaimed without giving it a second thought. I’d kind of expected this to happen. I had just finished reading a novel in which the protagonist had been proposed to after a hike in Big Sur. When Paul had suggested taking a hike that morning, I’d declined. I’d had such a bad night, I just didn’t feel like hiking.
Paul removed the ring from the box. The centre diamond was square with a halo on a delicate gold band lined with smaller diamonds. It was absolutely beautiful. Not to my taste, but a beautiful ring none the less. Anyway, how could Paul have known my ring preferences. We’d never even talked about marriage before. But we were already living together. What difference would it make?
He slipped the ring on me, where it got stuck abruptly on the joint of my finger. My cheeks flushed. Paul shrugged, “that’s okay, the guy said he could resize it.”
If you followed my instagram feed, you never would have guessed the ring hadn’t fit. We managed to pull off such an elegant photo shoot of the ring on its own. The ring in the sand, the ring in the box with the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop, by the champagne we ordered at the fancy restaurant we went to that evening to celebrate. Those pictures became my most liked.
A few weeks after our engagement, I had a really unsettling dream about a former friend, Seth Grady. We’d been involved two summers before and friends for years before that, but we’d had kind of a rocky fallout. In my dream we were reconciling. It felt so real. It stirred up so many lingering feelings, that I decided that I would wish him a happy birthday in December.
But December proved to be much more complicated than I expected it to be. I totaled my car in a terrifying, snowy car accident just days before Grady’s birthday. I was really shaken up. When I searched for Grady’s name to send him my well-wishes, I imagined I’d tell him about the accident. We’d been in a similar near-accident together years ago. I searched my Instagram followers twice, but he wasn’t there anymore. He wasn’t listed as a Facebook friend either. He’d removed me across social media platforms. Message received. He didn’t want to talk to me. He must have deleted me after the engagement, because I’d definitely snuck a peek at his profile a few days before our trip to California. I never did get to talk to him again.
In January, I sunk into a really bad slump. It was one of the snowiest winters in years, and I was just so sick of commuting from suburban Tolbon into the city. I was scared of driving. I was over it. It was Paul who suggested I stop teaching. He reasoned, “just take the winter off. It’ll give us more time to plan the wedding.”
The wedding. I hadn’t given it much thought since California. Being engaged was fun, but I hadn’t thought much further past that. Paul was right. My nearly part-time ESL teaching job was costing us more in gas and car maintenance than I was actually making. The prospect of not having to go seemed kind of like a relief. So that winter, I traded my lesson plans for wedding plans, and poured my heart into the most perfect wedding.
I was the first of my close friends to get married. We spared no expense. I used up all my savings to put on this lavish affair. If I had been a contestant on Four Weddings, my wedding wouldn’t have won, because it was so amazing that the other contestants would have down-voted it on purpose.
We got married at a country club near our house in their second largest salon. We had a piano bar theme and brought in a real piano man who took song requests from the lyric books we had printed for every guest. Requests were written on paper napkins slipped into the jar on his piano. The piano man would announce the number of the song he would be performing, and everyone was invited to sing along. It was all modeled after an English-style pub we’d visited in Colorado a few years back. Everyone had an absolute blast.
But after the excitement of the wedding wore off, I began to feel empty again. There were no ESL jobs in Tolbon because everyone spoke English in our small town. And I just couldn’t bear going back to teaching downtown. It was too far. I was too old, I didn’t have it in me to start from the bottom again. I was never really that good at teaching anyway. Instead, I took a part-time job tutoring primary school children at an after-school program at the community center in Tolbon, making half of what my ESL gig had paid. I didn’t even like kids. In the city, I’d been teaching adults. This was just a way to get out of the house.
Sometimes after work, I’d pull into the driveway after tutoring and just burst into tears. I felt like an old expired house wife at 26. 26 going on 66. I felt like there were so many things I’d missed out on. There was so much I still wanted to do. So many experiences I never got to have. I wanted to develop my teaching skills. Try teaching different levels, different topics. I wanted to live in a chic little loft in the middle of the city and walk to work. Live on the subway line. I wanted to go to bars at night. Flirt with strangers. I wanted to meet new people. Make new friends. I wanted to rediscover old people. Find out what went wrong. But I was married. I was somebody’s wife. Somebody who had no interest in any of the above.
I tried writing, but I just didn’t have it in me. I thought about starting a blog, but I had nothing to write about. I couldn’t seem to put sentences together. I couldn’t imagine scenarios in my head. I had nothing I wanted to say. No stories I had to desperately retell. I couldn’t read either. None of the books at the bookstore seemed to resonate with me anymore.
For my 27th birthday, my husband and I adopted a puppy. She was a rescue pup named Mosca. I’d hoped Mosca would help fill some of those voids that felt so much like they were swallowing me whole sometimes. I trained her nearly all by myself while Paul was at work during the day. We developed a daily jogging routine. I got into the best shape of my life. But that still wasn’t enough.
The following year, Paul came home with a big announcement. He’d found a new house.
“A house downtown?!” I asked. Years ago, we used to go see open houses in the city. For a split second, I thought maybe Paul had finally found one we could afford.
“No! A better house,” his eyes were alight with excitement. “The house of our dreams! It’s on an acre of land, and it’s only 20 minutes north of here!”
“20 minutes north of here,” I repeated. My dreams vanished. How could we move 20 minutes north of the middle of nowhere?
“You’ll love it,” he assured me, “we can get another dog, we can even get chickens!”
“We’re not getting fucking chickens,” I snapped, the closest we’d ever come to a fight. Paul looked shocked, but he didn’t push it. He threw up his hands in surrender immediately and continued to gush about this house.
We moved in the next winter. I have to admit, the house was absolutely beautiful. For about a year, we had renovations and furniture shopping and painting to keep me occupied. By the time we were done the house was perfect. Like a doll house. But I hated it all the same. I hated that it put me one step further from my own dream life. I hated that I couldn’t just love it. To me, this gorgeous house just felt like a prison.
Then in March 2020, it literally became a prison. I was locked down away from all my friends in family in this nightmare of a life I’d allowed to be created for me. The tutoring centre shut down. I couldn’t see my friends. Suddenly, the world falling apart around me was too much to balance with my own self falling apart simultaneously. I couldn’t watch the news. This wasn’t the world I wanted to live in. This wasn’t the life I wanted to lead.
“I’m moving home,” I informed Paul bluntly one evening when he came home from work.
He was shocked. Bewildered. I was his wife. We had the perfect life. Try as I could, I couldn’t really give a reason. I couldn’t explain how I walked around feeling like a shadow of a real person. Like a secondary character in a TV show with no plot development of my own. None of my own experiences, none of my own memories. Like the series about my own life had been cancelled due to low ratings. I so desperately needed a revival. My husband and my dog and my house just didn’t define me. There was no me left.
That’s how I ended up leaving my husband in the middle of a pandemic and moving back in with my parents at 30 years old. I had no career, no relationship, no assets, but at least I finally had me again. For the first time in years, I had goals and dreams and aspirations again.
Except, of course, that none of that actually happened. Because when I woke up all those years ago, on that beach in Summerland and watched that couple ride their stunning stallions into the sea, Paul was still fast asleep. He didn’t propose on that trip. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.