An Inconvenient Longing (Part 1)

“Where do you see yourself in five years?” asked my sister from the other side of the black painted table in the dining room nook of her Las Vegas apartment. 
I had recently responded to this question on a scholarship application, so I already had a decent answer in my back pocket–I’d find an entry-level position with a publishing company in the Bay Area and work on developing and marketing myself as a food writer and a journalist, a blogger and a freelancer with a few books on the back burner. I would teach English to refugees, perhaps even develop a course that would help them tell their own stories. I might do some traveling, apply for a Fulbright, see how my experience abroad would help me contribute to the local community.
That’s what I told the scholarship committee, but it’s not what I told my sister.
She would have expected that kind of response from me—the older, more adventurous of two sisters, the middle child who somehow ended up with all of the wanderlust and none of the stability, the one who had lived in three countries and four states in less than five years. She would have expected me to wax poetic about the life of an artist, about my ambitions to publish or my hopes to pursue a PhD.
But being a full-time writer isn’t my deepest longing. Pipe-dream that it is to be published and successful–to make a living doing what you really truly want to spend all of your time doing–where I want to be most in five years’ time is a little less meandering than a haphazard writing career. Summed up not in 250 words, but in two syllables. 
She took a sip of her coffee and shook her head.
“I know,” I said. “I know. And maybe eventually that answer will change, but really, Abbie, I just want to get married and have babies.”
My gaze darted from her ribbed cantaloupe coffee cup to her engagement ring and then to her face. Her bright blue eyes softened from shocked to sympathetic. “I never thought I would hear you say that.”
“I know,” I said again. “I know.”
C.S. Lewis desk in Oxford.
This seemed like a good future.
Six years ago, I was finishing the spring semester of my junior year of college. The previous fall I’d been studying in Oxford, and after four full months of living abroad, everything seemed different—my friends, my classes, my tiny liberal arts college in small town Iowa. I was interning at a church where I’d been volunteering the past three semesters, picking up some extra money and training to be a youth director. I’d been excited about it when I made the commitment over Skype four months earlier, but by the end of the semester, I wasn’t so sure about it.

I pushed open the back door to the West Hall dormitory and climbed the metal-framed stairs to the second floor. It was nine pm on a Friday night—open dorm hours on a gender-divided campus. I walked down the dimly-lit hall to #213, the room of my ex-boyfriend. He was sitting at his computer, shirt off, headphones on, playing World of Warcraft with friends back in Nebraska. He threw on a t-shirt from the pile on the floor, acknowledging my entrance, but returning to his seat. It had been over a year since we’d split up, and though the breakup wasn’t particularly bad, I hadn’t really recovered. I still saw too much of him, still wanted too much of him.

“What’s up?” he asked, not eagerly or angrily, just sort of generically interested.
“Oh, not much,” I said. “I just thought I’d stop by.”

He continued playing his game. I walked up behind him and put my hands on his shoulders. I pressed down my thumbs and began stretching out the muscles, kneading away tension as I’d done so many times before. He had always been a sucker for my massages, even before we started dating. He told me my hands were like magic.
“So, what do you think you’re going to do after we graduate?” I asked.

“I have no idea,” he said. “Maybe grad school. I don’t know.” He said something about going back to Wales, being a student assistant at the University of Bangor.
“What about you? What sort of goals do you have?”
When in doubt, travel.

“Oh, I’m not sure,” I started. “I suppose I’ll work at a church or maybe go back to school and study literature.” I paused, knowing full well that I didn’t have a career plan, that a career had been the last thing on my mind when I chose to major in writing and adolescent studies at a small Christian college. My real expectations for my life had little to do with a five-year plan and something to do with the guy sitting in front of me.
“And you know,” I went on, “I think I’d really like to get married and have a family. I feel like I was made to share my life with someone that way.” It was a bit hard to admit, and to him of all people.

“Really, Amanda?” he retorted. “That’s a goal for you?”
“Well, yeah,” I stammered. “Don’t you want that?”
“Sure,” he said. “I mean, if I meet the right person and we end up getting married or whatever, that would be great, but I wouldn’t consider it a goal, like it’s something I’m out to achieve.”

I had never thought about life on those terms before. Had never considered that I might graduate from college and not have a man to go with me into the future. My plan up to that point was to follow, to accompany, to be a dutiful wife who would develop her work around a husband and a shared life. And, in time, around a family. I didn’t think of marriage as a coincidence, a welcome addition to a life that centered around something else. I never planned to graduate college single. But one year later I did just that. And in the absence of a lover, I chose to pursue an adventure.
So I did actually become a youth director for two years.
In the fall of 2010, I moved to Kansas City (Kansas, not Missouri, though they are essentially one place). One year post-college, I’d spent three months earning TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Certification, four months doing refugee outreach in England, five months living with my parents while working in a bakery and trying to get back overseas, and then three months resigned to a youth internship, doing the church work I’d trained for but didn’t particularly want to be doing. I intended to find my way back to Europe, to spend a year or two teaching English and becoming “cultured” before going back to school. I planned to do this just as soon as I found an opportunity. But for the meantime, I was in Kansas City.
Then I met a man. A good man. A kind and quirky and odd and ambitious man who treated me better than I ever deserved. I wasn’t looking for a relationship when I met him. I’d given up on treating marriage as a goal and put away my teenage dreams of having babies in the suburbs. People were too fickle. I had committed myself to the idea of living in Europe and becoming a writer. 
Nina: My key to getting to France, among many other things.
The Kansas City man must really have loved me. In fact, I’m rather certain he did, for a time. I think I talked him out of having children within the first six months of our relationship, when he was still vulnerable and accommodating and willing to listen as I spewed false facts about what I thought I wanted out of life. I didn’t want children, I said. That ship had sailed along with my dream of marrying the college boyfriend who never did want to rekindle our failed relationship. I had scrapped the whole idea of leading a “traditional” life. Decided I was too strong to subject my dreams to someone else’s desires and decisions.

The Kansas City man and I dated for over two years. I came to really like the guy. Loved him, actually, though it took me months to admit it. But I loved myself and my dream of Europe more. I was convinced that I needed Europe. Needed to do this thing for myself that had superseded my desire to invest my life in anyone else. So, I did. I went to France for three months to write and travel and teach English to a six-year-old girl. I didn’t see it coming, but the man and I broke up not long before I left. And my desires began to change not long after I arrived. That’s when my heart broke. When the light turned on. When all of my desires shifted, giving way to an inconvenient longing.

For Part Two, click here