My first serious relationship was forged, not in lust or booze, like most of my college friends, but in furniture and household goods. “Martin” and I moved in together at the end of our Freshman year, built a checking account on the flimsy foundation of financial aid checks and subsisted on Bisquick pancake batter and big dreams.
For the first five months of living together we slept in a pile of sheets and blankets on the floor lusting after bedroom sets we couldn’t afford and dish settings to match.
“There’s no way I’m taking help from your parents,” he insisted. Having not yet met his family or laid eyes on his childhood home, I didn’t understand his stonewalling. But I was not too proud to take help on the sly, my parents peeling off cash like dealers, to buy a few necessities and blend them in slowly so he wouldn’t notice. There was a grimy romance to our deprivation. My attitude was partly from having grown up in Marin County, California, where, no matter that one of my parents’ income was Welfare provided and the other from illicit sales, my grandparents still had to bail us out. I wouldn’t fully appreciate Martin’s origins for many months to come.
Meanwhile, Martin got a job on campus cleaning dorms that first summer and came home with abandoned items while the supervisor looked the other way. We gained an electric can opener, a good cutting knife and eventually our first bed, a rickety, bent-spring mattress set, stained and smelling faintly of ammonia.
While these were hardly luxury items, they were the glue we needed to paste together the edges of our flimsy union.
Martin dressed like a J.Crew model, in tightly-fitting, sleek fabrics, groomed himself impeccably, and kept his clothing and possessions in tightly controlled order that corralled my naturally slovenly tendencies into cinched up squares. I imagined that his childhood home reflected this image. “I think you’ll be surprised by my house,” he said as we eventually made the four hour drive up to misty redwood country. I prepared myself for grandeur that would put to shame all the apartments and tiny two-bedroom houses I grew up in: a sprawling ranch-style home with Spanish tile and big bay windows, an acre of land flanked by the area’s famous ancient trees.
When he pulled into a weedy, pot-hole strewn patch of dirt where three cars, badly rusted and ravaged for parts, and a tiny, listing shack of a house sat like some apocalyptic roadhouse, I wondered if we were stopping for directions.
His father was a diabetic emphysemic who still smoked several packs a day as though in defiance of death; his mother’s lips crimped in around words she bit back as her three other beefy sons cracked “fag” jokes at Martin for his trim, clean presentation, and gripped the flesh on my arm proclaiming, “Try not to crush her when you crawl on top of her.” After a weekend in the house I had to hang my clothes on the apartment porch for a day before I could even wash the tobacco stench out of them.
Martin was odd man out, ashamed of his roots, and it made me want even more to give him the material façade he so desperately craved.
By Sophomore year, we both took jobs that paid more than minimum wage, a whopping $6/hr, and moved into a “cush” apartment—that is to say, a two-bedroom with a roommate, where we were no longer privy to our neighbors’ explosive toilet habits. For a brief time the new place itself was material enough to keep us happy.
When things got rocky near the end of our first year because my “take it all to therapy” desire to process feelings clashed with his “button up your shame” stoicism, he surprised me with a turquoise blue Mustang; she looked good, but her alternator went out on long-distance journeys. In it we traveled (and broke down) to places Martin’s neglected inner child needed to go: Disneyland (blew a tire), Universal Studios (dead battery) and the Drive-Through Tree in Humboldt—which we could not drive through because it was closed.
When our roommate moved out six months later, the empty space unbalanced us. As a temporary fix we bought plastic bathroom sets printed with sea shells; a comforter—which sadly provided little comfort; and pre-fab paintings of the sun and moon—which we’d already stopped being for each other—to hang over the new stereo system.
To fix the disparities between us, after new outfits and sets of dishes and cookware did not turn us into The Beav’s parents, Martin upped the ante: a trip to Italy.
Martin became unusually affectionate as the trip neared, returning home after special forays to the mall for trip-related “surprises”—mainly new travel-friendly clothing for himself and tchotchkes like leather luggage tags and a money purse that screamed “I am a tourist, steal this” to me.
Two days before we left, though I found it quite by accident, I discovered the travel pouch contained more than traveler’s cheques and passports; a bulky box-shaped something holding what girls are taught to sell their souls for.
Holy fuck, I thought.
I spent our first week in Rome watching him gauge the quality of light and the photo-worthiness of his profile against the Coliseum versus the Pantheon. I was sure it would take place at the leaning tower of Pisa, or outside that powerful symbol of God-sanctified unions—the Vatican. Or maybe at one of the sweet street-side cafes where he glowered over clenched jaw when the waiters flirted with me.
By the time we reached Venice, halfway into our trip, I had the urge to drag the box out of his pouch at night, slip the ring on and simply flash my hand at him in the morning.
I also thought of losing him in a crowd of tourists and hitchhiking around Europe for some summer fun of a variety that did not make me feel like I was already married.
Yet I let myself be led onto that gondola, wrinkling my nose against the putrid smell of those otherwise lovely canals (a detail not featured on any travel literature). I watched him survey the scenery, imagining his thoughts—Near Casanova’s home? Nah too obvious.
As we neared the final stretch of the ride, I felt him fumble in his pouch at my side while I pretended not to notice. He turned to me with the smile of a man who has just bought a wide-screen TV.
He flipped open the box. I know he said the words but they are lost in the white noise of my shock. I gasped.
A fucking diamond?
I had told him in no uncertain terms that I didn’t like diamonds, even less the solitaire—that universal symbol of possession. I liked pinkish tourmalines and muddy agates, jewels that still resembled the earth they came from.
Yet, with two weeks remaining on the trip, I slid on his ring like a yoke, faking a smile while daydreaming about going home with the gondolier.
The next morning I woke with a weight around my finger that gradually looped around my entire body until I was dragging cement feet through Venetian streets.
Noticing my sagging demeanor, Martin went on a purchasing frenzy, picking up iconic trinkets we could barely carry—a glass knockoff of the Rodin sculpture The Lovers; a Venetian urn and a Murano glass necklace. These were props to convince at least one of us that in setting the stage with all the right items, we could pretend that our love had a life-time guarantee like the leather couch and the display case that housed tiny precious things our hearts couldn’t hold.
For eight months after he proposed, the ring snagged on clothes and scratched red lines into our flesh in bed at night. Rather than a diamond, I wore a dangerous claw that tore at the seams of our life.
When we’d been engaged nearly a year, my high school girlfriend, Rain, came to visit me while Martin was off playing indoor soccer.
“So are you excited?” she asked, holding my finger up to the light as if to assess some odd fungus I had acquired.
I prepared to speak the words in my head, the practiced ones that I said to everyone who asked, “Of course. Marriage will be great!”
What I actually said was, “I don’t think I’m ready to get married.”
Rain scanned my material paradise and then focused her wide blue eyes on me. “Hmmm,” she said.
“What do you mean, hmmm?”
“Oh nothing,” she said, stroking her own long fingers as if to point out how unencumbered they were. “I’m just glad I asked. It sounds like you have some thinking to do.”
Those two sentences bulldozed the paper set of my relationship. Twenty years old was too young to cinch myself to a man who would go silent on me for three days at a time if I pissed him off or questioned his judgment. A man whose ex-girlfriends from high school had a funny way of turning up in person and on the phone just to “see how you’re doing.” A man who felt threatened by my writing in my journals—my most sacred personal act. I feared that I would become just another fixture in our home, a polished, perfect wife unit who completed the bedroom set or the new kitchen.
Still, Martin and I didn’t break up instantaneously; after all, it takes more than a day to demolish a house. I slowly moved the things that were unequivocally mine to a new apartment, saying I needed a little last-chance independence. We dated once a week under the pretense that nothing had really changed, the way we had built our prop life in the first place. Yet each time I stopped by for a “date” there’d be a new pile of our carefully curated stuff, like surgically-removed organs, waiting for me on the table.
“You don’t want those?” I’d ask, lifting kitchen towels and matching Tupperware.
He’d shrug. “I thought you did.” Suddenly it was no longer clear what belonged to whom, or why it had ever mattered.
The set of our romance grew bare, but we hung in there.
Until I tried to give back the ring.
“Don’t fucking insult me!” His strong jaw was rigid with rage.
I might as well have said ‘Your money’s no good here anymore.’
“But we’re not getting married and you spent money on it.” I felt it was a fair gesture.
He glared at me. “Nothing was ever good enough for you.”
For me? For me? I never wanted all this fucking stuff, I thought but didn’t say. I was merely the prop girl, trucking in goods, ticking off items on a list to make him happy. Only I hadn’t realized it until then.
It was clear that more than just the engagement was over. Still, I was stuck with the piece of jewelry that barely measured an ounce yet weighed me down like a mattress. I could feel it deep inside my jewelry box like the Princess and the pea, hear a metallic pinging in my inner ear whenever we were in the same room.
I could think of only one solution. I went to the grounds of the University at the edge of the duck pond where he’d once seduced me with a necklace and murmurings of how different I was from other girls. Though I hadn’t ever liked it I felt sorry for the ring, for how it had failed to keep Martin and me together. How it had never had a chance to sit on a married girl’s finger and never would. I threw it into the pond and imagined its slow descent to the mucky bottom. It wasn’t a gracious end, but at the time I was thinking like a serial killer: if neither of us could keep it, then no one should have it.
With only a hiccup’s panic after it arced through the air, relief hit me like a cold sweat as it slipped into the dark water. Only the ring had disappeared; I was still here.
Jordan Rosenfeld is the author of the novel Forged in Grace, and the writing guides Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time, and Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life (with Rebecca Lawton). Jordan’s essays and articles have appeared in numerous magazines, and she teaches via online writing courses and webinars. She has two writing craft books soon to be released with Writer’s Digest Books: A Writer’s Guide to Persistence: A Toolkit to Build & Bolster a Lasting Writing Practice (Spring: 2015), and, with Martha Alderson, “The Plot Whisperer,” Deep Scenes: Plot Your Story Scene-by-Scene through Action, Emotion & Theme (Fall, 2015), the material of which will be taught at their first annual WriterPath.com Retreat. Her first romantic suspense novel (pen name J. P. Rose) Night Oracles, releases Spring, 2014. www.jordanrosenfeld.net.
Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer based in Los Angeles. She is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Jen will be leading a Retreat in Costa Rica at the end of March and her annual retreat to Tuscany is in July 2014. All retreats are a combo of yoga/writing and for ALL levels. Read this post to understand what a Manifestation retreat is. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Jen and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. A lot. Next up is a workshop in London, England on Feb 15th. Book here.