An essay I began back when I was unemployed.
My mother is worried.
“If you find a job,” she says, “Then you can get engaged soon after.”
“Yes. But,” I say, “I want to work for a while before that happens.”
“Oh but if you marry you don’t want to wait too long to have kids.”
“I don’t but,” I am unsure what to say next, “I also don’t know when I want kids. Probably not so soon after I get married.”
“It’s dangerous to have kids too late,” my mother says, “You don’t want to wait too long.”
“I know, but,” I say, and then I tell her the truth, “I honestly can’t think about any of that right now. I need to find a job.”
In Thailand, Tom and I talked about timelines, and not for the first time.
“I told you, I don’t do ultimatums,” he said.
“Yes but I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to talk about a general time frame in which we could get engaged. That’s what smart – couples do.”
I almost say “smart women,” but stop myself. After all, it is a joint decision.
We were in our air conditioned bungalow in Sukhothai, avoiding the hottest time of day before heading back out to bike through the ruins.
“I’m not saying, ‘Oh you had better propose by X time,’ because I know we’re on the same page as in, we want to get married, but I just want to know-” I made a circle motion with my hands “-around when you were thinking.”
Tom was silent.
“Also,” I sighed, “I’d like to manage my parents’ expectations.”
“I don’t want to get engaged just because your parents think it’s time.”
“I don’t either, but dude, I’d like to have a clue. It’s a two person decision. I’m not some idiot who sits around wondering, ‘Oh gee, I wonder if he’ll propose this year.’ And if he doesn’t, ‘Well, shoot sucks for me. I guess I’ll just twiddle my thumbs and wait some more.'”
“No, I know,” Tom said. After a minute he turned to me, “Well, when were you thinking?”
I told him.
“Well, I was thinking the same thing.”
We continued on our merry vacation.
My mother knows two such women. I know them too. Sweet, responsible girls with whom I attended Chinese school. Both Chinese, and like me, both dated white guys.
Tom would roll his eyes because it’s not a white guy thing. It’s not even a guy thing, but it definitely seems – at least to me – more of a guy thing. But we see what we see, and this is what my mother saw: one day these young women, her former students, were in seemingly healthy, long term relationships and the next, they were single. Dumped. Depressed and gaunt.
They had each been with their exes for nearly six years.
“Six years!” my mother exclaims, “Can you imagine!”
It’s 2PM and I am on the phone with her, walking around the apartment in my pajamas, taking a break from job-hunting. I wonder if I should shower before Tom gets home from work. I consider this often before Tom comes home and sometimes, in the name of Romance, I shower.
“Yeah but Mom, were they surprised?”
“Of course they were surprised! Who isn’t surprised if after six years the guy doesn’t want to get married?”
I shake my head, open the freezer and take out ice cream. In the name of Romance, I put it back. Some vital information is missing.
“How do you date someone for six years and not know if it’s heading towards marriage? They should have known by the end of year one.”
“Well of course they wanted to get married, but they didn’t know that their boyfriends did not.”
I don’t buy it. I sense the math of “Maybe Marriage,” or “At This Point, Why Not Marriage” – the anxious calculations of sunk costs. Some girls are better at it than others – mainly the ones that grab their shit and get the hell out if any iteration of the phrase “sunk costs” in reference to their relationship, ever enters their mind.
“They never talked about it with their boyfriends?”
“I don’t know if they did,” my mother says, “All I know is they are very, very sad. I’m sad for them, and their parents are very worried about their health. Their mental health too.”
“Yeah,” I’d say, “I’d be pretty messed up too.”
My mother sighs, “I just don’t want the same thing to happen to you.”
“Mom,” I say, “Tom and I have talked about it. All of it. A lot. We want the same thing.”
“Yes, but,” my mother says, “People change their minds.”
When Tom and I first started dating, my parents were all about our taking things slow. My father, when I told him over the phone that we’d become “official,” showed more emotion than I expected from him in regards to these matters. Mostly he was incredulous.
“What!” he shouted, “It’s only been two months! It’s much too early to go steady! Too early!”
At the time I laughed. He had spoken in Chinese until he said “go steady,” and I wondered how he would react if I tried to explain all the other vaguer phrases we young people prefer today. But now that phrase seems to be the most fitting – better than “exclusive” or “official” or “together.” Now to “go steady” is the long term goal. Which is not to say steadiness equals marriage. It does not. But it is to say I realize that steadiness comes and goes.
Before it was the rockiness of a new relationship: of long distance, of meeting new friends and families. Of adjusting expectations to reality. Then it was the stresses of moving in together, of job hunting, thesis cobbling and of “graduation” (I didn’t walk). More recently, it’s been getting fired and unemployment and finding a new job. All those choppy waters made choppier by long, bleary-eyed talks and raised voices and short silences. But like the calm that precedes and follows a storm, steadiness is always there. A capital letter. A period.
It doesn’t always, but steadiness should imply that a storm or storms have passed, regardless of whether another is on its way. It should mean that the couple has argued, discussed, debated and reached a compromise about certain matters regarding certain times.
It doesn’t always, but steadiness should say something about the couple’s understanding of each other. If understanding isn’t yet reached – and sometimes it never is – steadiness should show effort.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we’re different. Maybe right now my heart is steady and thus my hand. But that’s fine; the steadiness comes and goes.
For now when my parents and others ask, I tell them. We’re steady, he and I.