Trying to seem as nonchalant and low-maintenance as possible, I remember declining his offer to use the single pair of rubber dishwashing gloves that hung beside the open-air sink. It was evening, and mid-winter; yet the Baja sunset glowed warm as we took our first stab at partnership over after-dinner cleanup duty.
In a manner I imagined both ironic and cute, I reversed the offer.
“I’m good, thanks…why, did you want to wear them?”
He neither hesitated nor seemed to detect my arch tone.
“Of course I’ll take them, if you’re sure,” he said. “I like to keep my hands soft.”
Still gazing down at the mountain of soiled plates and tumblers piled precariously before me, I laughed at his little joke before looking up. What I found was a young, recently separated Air Force captain in flip flops and gym shorts, matter-of-factly scrubbing away, bright pink rubber-clad fingers illuminated against his deeply tanned and (I suddenly noticed) visibly smooth skin. There was something so sweetly incongruous about his appearance at that moment – meticulous hands at work under a high-and-tight service haircut just beginning to grow free, his swarthy dark beard making such earnest domesticity all the more unexpected – that I couldn’t help but smile. All my thoughts of a snappy retort vanished. He hadn’t been joking; and I, almost exclusively accustomed to smart-ass one-liners and layers of innuendo when it came to conversations with men my age, was instantly disarmed.
Over the course of the next three weeks, I would come to learn that the Air Force captain-turned-yogi hated washing dishes. He infinitely preferred ironing or vacuuming, any of the tidier and more meditative chores (while I had always loved to get my hands dirty). I would discover that he did indeed strive to keep his hands and feet and face soft and healthy, though he’d only admit it to other men if he was asked; and that despite a history of wretched communication skills and gang violence, video games and ministerial aspirations, military service and a mess of perspectives with which I would never have imagined myself able to reconcile, he and I could connect in the deepest and most honest way. We could create the kind of exploded, innovative, vulnerable and yet resilient relationship that I never thought possible until I broke from the pressure-laden bounds of a heavily constructed social grid.
Looking back – shit, even as it was happening – I knew that my experience was atypical. That sun-drenched yoga camp created an extreme version of the broader cultural moment, an unforeseeable crash course in the obliteration of social norms. Neither love nor revolution nor the imminent recession could have been further from my mind when I quit my office job and took off for Mexico, but the fact that they found me there, beyond the scope of traditional social patterns, might give us a model for millennial-style romance. Something more flexible (if you’ll pardon the pun) than the old standards we all know by heart.
That said, living with unstructured love isn’t easy. Abandoning the relationship roadmap handed down from our parents’ generation may sound liberating, but it comes with a host of uncertainties, a bunch of nagging questions about money and autonomy, biology and gender roles, expectations and stability and longevity and ego-displacement that are more than enough to drive even the happiest couple all kinds of crazy. But hidden within that crazy is a ripe opportunity to make something new. And thanks to rampant unemployment, requisite shared housing, and other necessities of our recession-flavored existence, falling back on old norms is no longer an option. In short? Most of us have no choice but to innovate.
Actually, I take that back. We have two choices: innovation or stagnation.
Fast-forward a year or so from the moment my now-boyfriend first donned those pink dish gloves and flipped my world so wonderfully sideways, and you’ll find us leaning precipitously toward the latter. A post-yoga camp interlude of nomadic wandering and seasonal work experiments soon played itself out, and we found ourselves reduced to an increasingly common living situation. That’s right — I, along with my expensive liberal arts degree, distressingly patchy resume, once high-powered boyfriend and our $10 couch, moved back in with my parents.
There was one scenario particular to those homebound days that I especially came to loathe. Whenever my mother’s friends or our neighbors popped up at my side in the grocery store (always as I was sifting through produce, hair unkempt, in sweatpants on a Tuesday afternoon) I’d groan inwardly and get ready for the barrage.
“What are you doing these days?” they’d always ask, all smiles, expecting to be impressed.
Did they not notice the sweatpants? The glasses? The grocery shopping in our wee tiny town on a weekday? All signs pointed to unemployment.
“Oh, I’m staying with my family right now,” I’d say calmly, feigning confidence and an implied visit rather than permanent residence. “I’m in-between things and taking a break to help mom out around the house.”
“In between what kind of things?” my interlocutor would inevitably press me, hungry for gossipy details.
“Well, I’m sort of writing…” I'd say, trailing off. “Actually, my boyfriend and I are looking at maybe teaching English overseas.” A vague truth surfaces, providing distraction, giving me something to say, no matter how irrelevant, that might satisfy.
“How exciting! And are you two planning on getting married?”
“No no, not yet,” I’d say, forcing a smile while suppressing exaggerated eye-rolls and a variety of panicked expletives.
“So you’re just…living at your parents’ house? Together? And not really doing much of anything?”
Most folks were too polite to draw this conclusion out loud; but I always heard it anyway, their judgment ringing clear over supermarket jingles and wailing, unruly children as if pronounced through a bullhorn. Because this exchange, no matter how well-meaning or innocently intentioned, was a booby trap, a socio-cultural snare the likes of which entangle any of us who fail to conform to the supposed status quo. It’s nonsense – and yet a notion so deeply ingrained as to confuse even the most sure-footed twenty-something seeking an authentic way in the world.
(image via wikimedia)
Pinned on the edge of a produce bin, under pressure to say something acceptable, I always found it difficult to tell the straight truth: that we were not aimless degenerates, only stuck in an extended state of flux. We knew, after countless hours of raw and honest conversation, that we needed time to figure out the most sustainable way in which to nurture our relationship and respective goals while still making enough cash to fly the coop. We weren’t alone in this dilemma, and yet somehow it always sounded strange when I said it out loud.
Perhaps this is because, as times have changed, so too has youthful non-conformity. Not everyone feels the need to disappoint their parents on purpose; and some of us, grateful for the comfort they’ve provided, still hope to impress. Yet the very notion of success today is under construction. So many of us have observed the grown-ups, detected their patterns, and watched them fail. If our lives don’t fit their mold anymore, we’ve got to break it; but how do we tell them that? And how the hell are we to start?
For us, the answer came crashing down in the form of my parent’s divorce. What began as a string of sitcom-worthy inconveniences, (like our top-secret sex-life and my mother’s skeptical analysis of days spent “on the Google”) soon became a perilous onslaught. We found ourselves in the crosshairs of a dissolving marriage, and took shelter from the emotional shrapnel by vowing never to repeat their mistakes. It was a silver lining of the strangest variety; and yet without that unforeseen return to the parental nest, we might never have realized how necessary it was to do something different, something more fluid and malleable to suit hearts fated for change.
By this stage in your life, someone – your mother, father or high-school counselor — has undoubtedly urged you to put your career at the forefront, to never let a sweetheart tie you down. But what if today’s economy, job market and social culture have mutated and conspired to change all that, to encourage us to put partnership first? With cash growing scarce and jobs even scarcer, human connection is the biggest asset we have. Knocked swiftly off the adult hierarchy, we suddenly have the chance to find inspiration in the most unexpected people, places and ideas.
This is probably for the best. Because frankly, the old maps just don’t work anymore when it comes to charting a twentysomething’s way in the world. This doesn’t mean plenty of us won’t at some point find steady work, get married, have kids, or purchase the greenwashed version of a mini-van, but it does mean that most of us will do it in our own way, maybe skipping some steps or performing them in an unorthodox fashion. These behaviors are sure to dismay sweet old aunties and grannies who want only to find us the ephemerally-defined “good husbands,” “great jobs” and “perfect weddings” of days gone by.
Take me, for instance. Now, at 26, after three years of pitifully part-time or completely unpaid employment, I’ve finally landed a “real” job writing copy for a social media marketing company. Ironic, right? That my first adult paycheck is completely dependent on a purely millennial innovation many grown-ups are still tacitly afraid of? I don’t think it’s a coincidence. On the contrary, I consider it sharpest evidence of our altered world — one in which now more than ever communication is key. My boyfriend and I are still learning how to navigate this world, living as free of old constructs as possible, and sometimes finding it utterly strange. I’m reminded of this every day as I get up, get dressed, brush my hair like a real grown-up and go to work while my boyfriend sits, reads, contemplates and otherwise absorbs the universe as he searches for his niche in our new life. (I should note that he also does the laundry and vacuuming, which is delightful, while I pull my weight on weekends, wash the dishes and wear pink gloves now, every time.)
Maybe we’ll get married one day; maybe we won’t. Great things may lie ahead for us – and then again, perhaps we’ll opt for scraping by and simple pleasures, a life with lots of time for cheap wine and sandy feet and purring cats. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know where we’re headed; that unemployment put our relationship to the test more than once and made us grow up faster than we may have liked. But with communication on our side, somehow, everything seems possible. And the wider net we cast, the more friends and couples we find to connect and share ideas with over box wine on our $10 couch, the stronger our optimism grows. I like to think of us as floating rather than climbing, hands clasped and stretching outward to receive the future as it comes.
This essay appear in Shareable's paperback Share or Die published by New Society, available from Amazon. Share or Die is also available for Kindle, iPad, and other e-readers. For the next piece in Share or Die, Jenna Brager's "Who Needs An Ivory Tower?" click here.