We overshot SXSW by a week, by design. Too busy, we said, too hip. We never wanted to be those millennials, after all. Even if we really were.
While the foot traffic in town felt pretty slow when we got there, the mood and the weather temperate, finding a hotel had been difficult, and all of our Lyft drivers — truly, every single one of them during our four-day trip — managed to mention what a nightmare the last month had been. Funny, I remember thinking. You and me both.
My wife and I had never been to Austin, though the idea’d come up plenty of times in conversation. And boy, could we have a conversation — musing for hours on travel, food or society; family, depression or pop culture; music… so much music. We were mice in an endless maze, often weaving in and out of logic, regularly retracing our steps but trying to come out somewhere new. We’d lived our lives in kind, dizzyingly navigating eight years of friendship, star-crossed dramatics, long-distance courting, my coming out, half a decade of marriage, two cross-country moves and as many major career shifts. We could cover some ground.
Now, all that talk had stalled in some humid, purgatorial muck you couldn’t even call talking. Just planning our trip to the airport that morning had been strained. By the time we checked into our hotel around 3:30, we were so drained, emotionally and physically, that both of us unspokenly crawled under the covers for a nap. It was the first time we’d been on the same page, let alone in the same bed, for weeks.
One night earlier that March, she’d walked into our Hollywood apartment ready to yell, or cry — to whistle what had surely been coming to a boil in her mind for months, or at least her long commute home. Sputtering her words yet oddly succinct, she spit out how she didn’t want the same things anymore, and she wouldn’t be sleeping at home for a while so we could figure it out. Ten minutes later, she left with an indefinite overnight bag that she’d somehow packed during her outburst. I stayed hunched over on the couch, as stiff and silent as she’d found me.
In her wake, I realized the TV was on. You know that feeling when you’ve been binge-watching a show for a day and lost any real sense of time, until you look around and notice how dark the room is? It was a lot like that, like the sun had gone down when I wasn’t paying attention.
Maybe 15 minutes after lying down in the hotel room, I rolled over and realized neither of us had fallen asleep. We made eye contact quickly, opened our mouths to break the silence. The room was nice, we agreed, even romantic. I joked about something dumb; she laughed nervously but in earnest. Maybe this trip wouldn’t be so bad. She put her hand on my hip, to which I brushed the back of my fingers along her arm and took a heavy breath. We’d known how to take care of each other, once. Now, it felt like we both might cry. Instead, we kissed; she took off her shirt; I took off my pants. So fully familiar, and yet ferociously different.
She cried when she came, the two of us facing again. “Why haven’t we ever done it like this before?” she asked me. We had. But I wasn’t strong enough to tell her something she couldn’t hear. Instead, I cried too. We got dressed in silence and walked to dinner, where we ate and joked like old friends, as if nothing had happened. (How far back was unclear.) As soon as we stood up to leave, that humidity kicked back in, and we had to find our way to the hotel again.
Looking back, I can say I’d been losing her slowly for a couple years. Not really from any one catalyst, but by the nature of our personal journeys, her evolving value system and some unaddressed mental health concerns for us both. It’s not her fault that her priorities had changed, even if she didn’t handle that epiphany the way I would have, or would have liked.
In fact, in all the hours I’d spent trying to fight it, to keep us “comfortable” — working toward raises, cooking dinners, pacing her through morning panic attacks, tracking the bills — I’d excused myself from having to be accountable to our intimacy: not even sex, but honest check-ins, really hearing what was going wrong and accepting it, rather than trying to patch things over. I’m an adult child of a drug addict, and acceptance doesn’t come easy. It’s taken over a year for me to even recognize that battle, and that I’d lost myself in it.
Of course these are just some of the reasons people tell you not to get married at 24.
For the rest of the trip, the two of us went through the motions, tolerating each other between brief glimpses at who we once were. As a crutch, we leaned on a color-coded custom Google map of destinations I’d spent weeks building. It’d been my crutch too, during that time, distracting me from the weight on my chest when I probably should have been re-learning to breathe. Somehow, I thought if I could plan a good trip — planning had always been her thing — I could prove something? In hindsight, it’s easier to recognize how futile those gestures are when you’re not meant to be with someone anymore.
There was one heart-to-heart, as we sat knees knocked in the back booth of a quiet dive bar across the interstate. It ended with the “off-limits” conversation, a tortured ritual wherein you act as though you have any say over the next phase of someone’s life. “Don’t fuck him,” she told me of an old friend of ours. A predictable request but as easy a concession. “Okay,” I responded. “You can’t fuck her” — a reference to my work wife, who I strongly suspected had a crush on my wife-wife. The latter laughed at me there in the dark, then sipped her old fashioned. I wouldn’t know until later that I was already too late.
The fall before, for my wife’s birthday, we’d made reservations at a trendy Los Feliz Italian restaurant we both liked (#thosemillennials). We invited my work wife and her husband, with whom we’d become close, to join us. It would amount to a low-key celebration, we figured: our new normal. A quarter before our 8 o’clock reservation, they texted us to say they’d be running a few minutes late; they’d gotten into an argument: their new state of normal. I explained the delay to the hostess, who confirmed the restaurant could hold our seats for 15 minutes.
When they arrived 40 minutes later, our table long forfeited, my wife still hadn’t totally come down from her frustration. She’d been swearing under her breath for a while, but complaining aloud some too, pointing out how disrespectful my friends were and wondering why we’d invited them at all. When we finally got a table, she didn’t engage with me much but flirted with my work wife, which eased both their nerves, I think. Her now ex-husband and I talked about something to distract ourselves. Sometimes I wonder what he’s up to now.
Around 4 p.m. on our second day in Austin, I had my third coffee and a small epiphany: I was ready for another tattoo. Because my wife and I had been talking in characteristic circles for a while about how we should get not matching, but coordinating ink sometime, I hadn’t even considered one on my own, to be honest. But that day, I needed something that would last, and I wanted something for me — a concept I’ve worked really hard to take seriously in my year and a half of being single again.
It took a bit of sketching and Yelping, but two hours later, we were on 6th Street (I know, I know), and an artist from San Diego was expertly tracing my vision, a minimal outline of a woman hunched in the seated position. She’s pensive, and hard to see at first. People ask me about her more than any of my other tattoos, and I love how she can be anything I’m ready for that day. Sometimes she’s the overthinker. Sometimes she’s my divorce story. Sometimes she’s just a woman I wanted on my body. She’s constantly confronting me with my own truth, and I guess that makes her me. She’s perfect that way, and choosing her may be the best decision I ever made.🗺️
Edited by Carmen.