The Longest Relationship of My 20s

Woman sitting on windowsill using laptop
Woman sitting on windowsill using laptop

If someone were to write the story of the summer I met Christopher, I would dismiss it as cliché. As under-funded graduate students, we had both taken temporary jobs at a summer school in Rhode Island. Our makeshift office was set up in a dormitory perched on the shore of Mount Hope Bay. The sun shone, the sea gleamed, the peony blossoms were the size of melons. Even Christopher's pick-up line was something out of a sitcom: "You're Laura, right?" he asked me as we walked to lunch on our first day. "Lindsay," I replied. He grinned. He would eventually confess that he had known perfectly well what my name was; this was simply a trick to get me talking.

In the dining hall, he set his tray across from mine. Two days later he invited me out for an evening stroll along the beach where he kept me laughing with stories of his extended Lebanese family. He didn't try to kiss me, and I didn't mind. I wasn't looking for love.

At a summer camp, however, time takes on a life of its own, and relationships bloom and fade like daylilies. At the end of the week he took me out for drinks on the wharf, a first date that felt more like the fifth or sixth because we were so at ease with each other. And yet when he asked me out again, I hesitated. The truth was that I couldn't commit to Christopher because I was already committed -- to a whole town full of people.

That relationship had begun when I was writing the first draft of my first novel three years earlier. I lived in a small apartment in a 100-year-old house in South Bend, Indiana, with pastel walls and hardwood floors and an eccentric landlady just across the street. Living alone was never lonely; my characters walked with me, sat next to me, went out with me. They also adopted my companions' tones and tics. I would sit down to write in the morning and find one of them repeating a remark I vaguely remembered hearing from a friend the night before.

They were especially affected by my ever-changing love life. An unfaithful college sweetheart bequeathed unto my fictional town matriarch a string of cheating husbands and her fierce insistence on loyalty; a karaoke-singing scholar provided the model for my main character's dark beard and the famous smile that could transform a room. And when one of my gruffer characters revealed an unexpectedly artistic side, I could only assume that he picked it up from the new tenant downstairs: a man who played opera music so loudly that I could feel the vibration of the notes through my living room floor and who sometimes scoured his books for poetry I might love, transcribing the lines in his careful hand. At night I slid into bed with the novel glowing on my laptop screen, the words inflected with a new strength and rhythm, shaped by the poems he had slipped beneath my door.

Even its core concept -- my protagonists' struggle with thorny issues of faith and doubt -- grew in part out of my fascination with a boy in my classes who took off after graduation, leaving me a mixtape with a mournful Tom Waits song that I listened to for weeks. The next few years were marked by a series of romantic beginnings and endings. This is why, from its very inception -- as one of my characters remarks -- the novel has always been a story of departures: who was leaving whom, and who was being left.

I had trouble, in those days, holding onto people. My mind was crowded with invented conversations, with imaginary relationships, and I did not -- for the life of me -- possess the energy or the willpower to make room for anyone else. As soon as I sensed that a partner was demanding more of me than I could give, I retreated, returning home to the imaginary world that I was building, word by careful word. The characters who peopled it had demands enough of their own.

I headed south after completing a first draft of the book, chugging through the Blue Ridge Mountains in my beloved, battered Ford Escort, my characters piled up in printed pages on the seat beside me. In Chapel Hill, they continued to find their voices -- so much so that, to my surprise and delight, they began to speak to others. A literary agent agreed to adopt the lot of us, and a few months later she found us a publishing house.

The success of the novel, unfortunately, was not reflected in my love life. I celebrated these literary victories with friends, many of whom were busy planning their weddings. At their receptions they sometimes introduced me to potential matches, but my heart belonged so wholly to my work that I didn't feel as though I had anything left to offer.

And then I met Christopher. Thoughtful and patient to his core, he did not ask more of me than I could give. I did not need to make room for him, because somehow he had always already been there. He drove me to the local coffeehouse and left me there to write the whole day in peace, perhaps stopping by in the afternoon to give me a kiss or a lily. When the official contract for the book finally arrived in the summer school office, he came to find me where I was out jogging along the sea. He handed me the envelope and, having guessed its contents, a tiny bottle of champagne. I thanked him for celebrating with me, and he said: "We'll celebrate with a bigger bottle when the first box of your books arrives."

At the end of the summer, I flew back to North Carolina with a new draft tucked under the seat in front of me. Christopher remained in Rhode Island, having assured me that a year or two of long-distance was nothing to worry about. I returned home, however, with even stronger characters than those I had left with. They crowded into my apartment, filled my dreams and my conversations. The effort of corralling them was exhausting, and I often took out my vexation on Christopher.

I wore him down. At the end of our first year, I had finally drained him of patience -- he, who had once seemed to possess an inexhaustible supply. We fought over the phone, hung up on each other, went days without speaking. When we spoke again, he accused me of acting selfishly. My priorities lay elsewhere, he said: with people who didn't exist.

He was right. And until I had met him, that fact hadn't bothered me. This time, however, my characters failed to keep me company. I had worked hard to make them independent of me, and by now they had plenty of trials and tribulations of their own. So I turned away from my computer and took up a permanent residence beside my phone. There I waited -- as everyone does, in every romance -- for it to ring.

Over the course of the next two years, I struggled to find ways to balance my imaginary companions with my living, breathing ones. I strove to be present. I stopped asking all my friends and loved ones what they thought about my characters, and I started listening to their stories instead. When I was having a bad writing day, I tried to leave my frustration at my desk rather than allowing it to bleed into my every thought and word and interaction. In the end, real life prevailed -- just as it should. These days my characters usually keep to their pages. And it's a good thing they do, since a novel (as my mother astutely observed on the eve of my engagement) cannot keep a person warm at night.

The novel will forever remain the longest relationship of my 20s. That manuscript accompanied me from one place to another as I apartment-hopped across the country; it was my seatmate on airplanes, my companion in coffee shops, my friend and therapist and confidant. We grew together. But unlike me, its growing days are over. When I started it, I was writing about a marriage in the abstract. I finished it a month after returning from my honeymoon.

I used to believe that to write well, I needed to hold real life at bay -- but life crept in all the same. I blamed the novel for pushing people away, but when I read it now I wonder if perhaps the opposite might be true: if instead, the novel opened up to embrace everyone who ever moved me, who had a hand in shaping me.

My marriage is still fresh: a few months ago Christopher carefully unwrapped and defrosted the top of our wedding cake to celebrate our first anniversary. He and I will continue to shape each other, to grow together -- is that not, as my characters so often muse aloud, "what marriage means"? -- but the novel will remain exactly as it is: a kind of monument of that decade, a tribute to all of those relationships, an homage to what was and a prayer for what will be.

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The author's novel, Noah's Wife, will be published in January.

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