There is no “the one.” There’s only the one that’s perfect for you in the moment. Some people you choose again and again. Some you choose once and never again.
Carl and I, we chose each other. We kept choosing each other. I knew there was a limit. I knew the kids thing would eventually come up. We kept pushing that discussion back. But we also were both getting older, and nearing the relationship point of “do we make this official & permanent or quit while we’re ahead.” We loved each other, we really did, and it would have been a cute little marriage, but I couldn’t ask for a sacrifice like that.
There were no hard feelings. I surgically extracted myself from his life, picking up all the bits I’d scattered over five years in his house, and he helped me. He drove me home, and we stopped by our favorite diner for coffee and onion rings. He helped me carry in the two boxes of postcards and photographs and books and sweaters and extra toothbrushes I kept in his bathroom. Then he waved and drove off, and just like that, it was over.
For a second, I thought I made a horrible mistake. I was alone. Just me and my dust bunnies in the house.
But I never regret my choices. He wanted kids and I didn’t. Had we stayed together, he would grow to resent me. And I would resent him if I caved and started a family.
I was a romantic. I thought I’d grow out of it. I never did. I wanted the sunsets and the intertwined pinky fingers and daisies absentmindedly tucked behind ears. That was my oxygen. And I believed that a romantic would never make for a good mother. Kids are messy and loud -- they don’t understand the butterfly-wing-delicacy, the unspoken flutterings, the prolonged yearning I survived off of.
My mother had been a romantic, that was how I knew. She always seemed uncomfortable to be left alone with just me. What do you say to a three-year old when your head is full of poems and music? When my father came home, she was relieved. When he left, she watched out the window, her gaze still lingering long after he drove off. It took her a few minutes, and then she would sigh and do the dishes, yellow rubber gloves to her elbows, bubbles rising out of the sink, her arms jerking back again and again, her face so sad, like this wasn’t how she imagined life would be.
I learned a lot from watching my parents. They had a good marriage, they really did. Romantics seldom end up with another romantic, usually someone quiet and soft and responsible, a rock against which their emotional waves beat down again and again. It’s a good balance. My mother did small things, put her hand on his when he drove, put a blanket over the both of them as they watched a movie. Her hands were awkward, too light or too hard, when rubbing my back but wonderfully skilled in scratching his.
I repeated her same maneuvers with Carl, with everyone. I surprised myself, how natural it was, like a song picked up without ever paying much attention to the lyrics. It was all seldom reciprocated. That worried me. I didn’t want to be too much. But I couldn’t help myself. It was something that burbled away constantly in the cauldron of my stomach. I thought I’d blow up if I didn’t let the steam hiss out of me and find someone to romance.
I didn’t want to unpack my box of stuff yet. I wasn’t ready to settle back into my own life. So I sat by the window and watched snow flurries come down like fat white moths, swirling in the wind. I’d moved to Michigan only a few years ago, and still felt giddy little-kid excitement when the first snow came. In Georgia, we got snow once a year if we were lucky. But we went all out, snowmen and snowplows and hot chocolate. Winter was a one-day holiday with its own traditions.
I knew there was no hot chocolate in the house, but I still went to look. I wasn’t the kind of person who kept nice things for future enjoyment. Actually, there was no food in the house. I wasn’t the kind of person who managed to grocery shop before food ran out either. I don’t know how other people did. Where were these things learned? When were they learned?
I needed something to do. The break-up and the new snow was too dramatic combined. My brain would start spewing rosy nonsense. It was getting late, but the grocery stores would still be open. I decided to get two weeks’ worth of food, ahead of time.
As I drove, there was no one on the road. The snow picked up, the sky darkened, the lights in every home glowed yellow. Was there a storm coming in? Did everyone know something but me? Snowflakes smacked hard against my windshield, like driving into a swarm.
Christmas would be coming soon. Who would I buy gifts for? Who would I spend it with? Would I tack on to one of my friends’ families like a lonely holiday leech? They all had kids now. It started out slow, just one or two old high school buddies making Facebook baby announcements. Suddenly everyone was pregnant. It was a mad rush. Was there some deadline approaching? A tsunami creeping in the distance everyone ran from as I continued lounging and sipping my cocktail?
There were hardly any cars in the grocery store’s parking lot. It was too late for normal people to go shopping. I felt out of tune, out of time. The cycles, the normal rhythms of life were always beyond me. I was always a pace behind. When did they all manage to sync up and why couldn’t I do it?
The wind bit into my face, a storm for sure. When the weather got this bad, Carl didn’t let me leave the house. If I absolutely had to leave, he would wrap a scarf around my face and tuck the ends in so gently. I loved that.
As I crossed the parking lot, I realized I wasn’t all that heartbroken. Carl wasn’t the one. He had been for some time, but no that was no longer the case. The lovely thing about romance, it can envelop anyone and anything in its thick pink haze. The thing admired itself doesn’t matter. It’s the eyes that are doing the admiring.
Walked into the store and only one checkout lane was open. A sad-eyed man was working, a bit unshaven, his employee smock moodily crumpled around the armpits. He seemed exactly the sort of person I’d have my eye on. Breaking up with Carl meant I could now indulge those little fantasies. The thought made me horribly excited.
There really was no one shopping but me. I maneuvered my cart, zig-zagging down each aisle, taking my time reading each box and label, and I didn’t run into anyone. It was just the refrigerators humming, the fluorescent panels buzzing above, the dim sugary jingle whispering out of old speakers. The bread aisle looked in short supply, as it would be in Georgia after an inch of snow caused everyone to panic-buy.
I was getting nervous. The store seemed an oasis in an apocalypse, as if my life would change forever the second I stepped outside. And there was no one back home to convince me otherwise. I kept thinking about the handsome cashier. I ought to say something gentle and mysterious before I sped away into the night and the snow.
I neared the last aisle, where they kept the juices. There was a bundle on the floor, perhaps a box carelessly knocked over or something fallen from another customer’s cart. It made a noise as I got closer, mewling like a kitten. It wriggled. It was a baby wrapped in thick cloth.
I looked around. Perhaps there was another shopper in here after all. Maybe they needed the bathroom or customer assistance. But why would they leave their baby on the floor?
I picked him up. I forgot how heavy babies are, warm and always moist, like a dense bread fresh from the oven. He started crying. I bounced up and down, trying to soothe him like I’ve seen people do on TV.
It had to be an accident. I decided to take him to the cashier, let him make an announcement on the speakers -- Baby found in aisle 12. If you have lost your baby, please come to the front. I abandoned my cart, both arms now wrapped around the child. The cashier had left his post. There was no one in any of the checkout lines. The glare from the store’s inside made it hard to see outside, the window reflecting myself and the aisles behind me. But the snow certainly was getting even worse.
It was bizarre how natural I looked with this baby in my arms. I didn’t want to think about that yet.
I zigzagged back up and down the aisles. I yelled, hello? hello? No one answered me back. No sight of the cashier either.
I worried about the storm. If I didn’t leave soon, I might not have been able to get home. Why couldn’t I grocery shop on time like a normal person?
But this baby, I couldn’t leave him here, not if the store was truly abandoned. He’d stopped crying. His little face nestled into my shoulder, his tiny breath soft and hot.
The choice before me, it wasn’t like the choices I had before. There was no rescinding this one. Once I became The One, I was The One forever.
He felt so animal, so real, so alive in my arms. I liked it, I really did. I decided, if I did have to make that choice, if the child really had been abandoned in a grocery store before a blizzard, I would be The One. I chose him, and I suppose I would have no choice but to keep choosing him.