A Birthday Retrospective, Part Three: Years 21-30

(Writer’s Note: Where I’m at, it’s only about 5 PM on the 12th of March. March 12th is my birthday.) So it’s here. The day. I am 30 now, and I’ll be 30 for another year. But before all that magical growth may begin, I’ve got to look back at the previous ten years. Let’s dig in, shall we?

From the time I was 19 to about the time I was 21, going on 22,  I worked in a store called Journeys Shoes, one link in a big ol’ chain of stores. This Journeys is located in one of Reno’s malls, and it showed me what schlepping really is. I had to test my memory skills as I trudged to the back room and grabbed shoes for people to try out. The corporate overlords really wanted us to upsell, so if I was feeling generous to my shadowy puppeteers, I would try and find other shoes for customers and see if they’d bite.

I hated that. The statistic that tracked how “good” we were at making these types of sales was called “multiples.” On a big white board in our stockroom, our stats were displayed for all our coworkers to see. We had to try and reach 25% multiple sales. That meant that one in every four sales should include several pairs of shoes. Easy if you’re selling to a lot of families who buy shoes at the same time, but difficult when the people who make just as much or even less money than you come in, strapped for cash, trying to find sick shoes on sale. It was a bonkers, bullshit system, but hey, you wanna be in sales, you gotta convince the hungry folks that shoes are more important than food.

We also had to push socks, ’cause, you know, everybody needs a million pairs of socks. Don’t get me wrong, one of the best purchases I’ve made in my “adult” life is my purchase of 12 pairs of warm, black, cotton socks. These 12 pairs will last me for years, if I alternate them in a sensible manner and take care of them. But trying to get regular customers who came in every now and then to buy more socks? Again? It irked all us employees, and it irked some of the customers, too. Comments that went something like “Oh, I bought some of those last time” were frequent and underscored by a hint of exasperation.

I meant to bring up work so I could tie it into my love life, but I should touch on transport first. “Chris, how were you getting to work back then if you didn’t have your driver’s license?” Funny you should ask, and how silly of me not to mention pertinent details! Before I was more or less kicked out of my parents’ house that fateful summer, I finally got my shit together and learned how to drive. I learned in my mom’s big honkin’ suburban, and this may have been my saving grace during the driving test. See, I wasn’t the most aware driver, and I didn’t look over my shoulder like I should have, but man, I was a dexterous little bastard. I fucking nailed the parallel parking portion of the test. In a big-ass suburban. I think that demonstration of my sweet control and spacial awareness got me my license.

So jump forward a little bit, and I have a job. I have a license. All I need is a car. My mom was driving me to and from work for a while, but that song and dance gets old real quick. Since I wasn’t paying rent, and my community college expenses were usually covered by grants, I was able to save up a decent amount of money. Not, like, a shitload, but enough to make my stepsister happy. She was in the army at the time, see, and she was stationed in New Mexico. She owned and drove a 2002 Ford Focus, but she was about to go on tour with the USO. They’d be flying her and the other performers around the world, so she didn’t need the car anymore.

She hashed the details out with my stepdad. The opportunity came on fast, and I didn’t really have a lot of time to think, but I said yes. $2,000 down, then $1,000 paid in installments. I had the money for the down payment, with enough extra to handle some adventuring. ’cause going to New Mexico to pick up a car and drive it back home was a rad opportunity for shenanigans.

I had to have my boys with me on this fateful quest. Brad wasn’t really in the picture too often anymore, but Kevin stuck around. Kevin had worked on cars before, and understood them on a level I didn’t begin to understand. Two dudes on a trip to get a car and drive it from New Mexico to Nevada sounds a little tight, so we asked a mutual friend of ours to come along. Cody, is his name. I bought plane tickets for the fellas, because I didn’t want to screw them over financially if they were doing me a favor. Like I said, I somehow had money to spend. We got the tickets. We packed our bags. We stayed up way too late out of excitement and only slept a few hours before the plane ride. You know, typical pre-trip adrenaline.

On the plane ride, Cody and I laughed really hard at the in-flight reading material. Some of the pamphlets could be altered in ways that spoke to our oddball senses of humor. For some reason, the phrase “The gift that will ever be rifted” has stuck in my brain ever since that trip.

We met my stepsister at the airport. The car that was soon to be mine was our taxi to the military base where she lived. She showed us her living quarters while she got the important documents, and then we were outside again, as I wrote a check for $2,000 dollars and signed it over to her. She signed the title over to me. Our shit was already in the trunk. It was a quick exchange. I had never been too close to my stepsister, and I wasn’t the best with social graces, so we made our goodbyes fast and hit the road.

This is the part that helps me look back and think that buying the plane tickets for those dudes was something I owed them. An exchange for assistance and services rendered, see? They mapped out the routes we’d be taking to get home, and they drove the damn car. They had done road trippy things before. I hadn’t. They had been driving their own cars for years. I hadn’t. So they graciously stepped on the gas, and the brakes, and turned on the turn signals, and the headlights, and handled the music, while I sat in the passenger seat and marveled at the sights outside my car’s window. My car’s window. That beautiful, gently used vehicle was mine, and we were working together to get it to its new home.

That first night, I paid for a motel room and snagged the keys before we hopped to the nearest Pizza Hut for dinner. We ate, and then, we slept. The next day’s journey was the longest leg of the trip, with a drive that would start in the morning and not end until darkness had enveloped the countryside. We made pretty good time, as far as I could tell. That is, until something weird happened outside a town called Needles, California. I can’t even recall exactly what happened, but we had to take the car in for maintenance. The shop was getting ready to close down. We drove up, last minute, and asked for assistance. They politely obliged us. The only problem was the money. I had, like, spending money for the food and gas we’d need to finish the trip. But I wasn’t packing enough funds in my bank account to handle an unforeseen car repair. Some weird calls had to be made.

My stepdad is not nice when it comes to money. Yet as far as I could see, this thing with the car wasn’t our fault. I’d just bought it from my stepsister, who assured me that it was fine. It wasn’t fine. Some thing that she hadn’t fixed fucked us over on the way home. Her dad had convinced me to take this ridiculous trip all of a sudden, and I was starting to see why. I was solving all kinds of problems: my stepsister didn’t want to be responsible for a car she’d never use again, my stepdad was gonna get a new customer out of it (he sells insurance for a living, and naturally, I’d be buying car insurance from him), and, yes, I would get the transport I needed to feel like a full-fledged member of society. So I got something out of all this mess, but I felt that I shouldn’t be responsible for that part of the mess. In those few days, I’m pretty sure we couldn’t have caused the problem that was plaguing the car all of a sudden.

Or maybe I’m too harsh. Maybe driving the car all day, when it was usually only used for short trips, messed something up. Maybe it was our fault. But I still couldn’t afford it, and fortunately, my stepdad paid for those repairs. Grudgingly.

I don’t remember if we ended up staying the night in Needles, or if we high-tailed it to Las Vegas to meet with Cody’s aunt. That was the next stretch of the trip, and I suppose I could look up the time/distance from Needles, California to Las Vegas, Nevada, and determine what we did from there, but I don’t feel like it’s necessary. My memory is a little hazy, but I know that we ended up pulling into Las Vegas around midnight, where we stopped at a Denny’s for food before heading to our sleeping berths. Cody’s aunt let us sleep on the pull-out couch in her living room, and I think Cody took a guest bedroom. The important thing is, we all got our rest. We ate breakfast the next day, and sped away from Las Vegas. The desert roads stretched on toward Reno, and we were going home.

After all that ridiculous shit, I had a car and a thousand-dollar debt to pay. I still had a little bit of spending money, but it wasn’t much. I also had to contend with the new adult joy of monthly car insurance payments. I regret to say that I didn’t really have a debriefing with the boys, to check on them and see if they were okay after all the weirdness. Historically, my emotional intelligence is a little rough.

So yep. A car could get me to and from work, and to any other places I wanted to go. I didn’t do a whole lot, just played video games and read books and went to school. Still, the car afforded me a sense of freedom I hadn’t felt before. If I wanted to do something, to meet up with someone, I could. And that was enough to keep me happy.

In the midst of my time at Journeys Shoes, I met a few women I was interested in. All around the same time. One of my coworkers was a longtime friend of mine, and he’s a musician. He writes and performs his own songs, and it turns out, he had a good number of fans. Many of them would show up in the store, looking to visit him and talk. Sometimes, I had to field questions for him. That’s how I met Ellen.

Ellen is nerdy and pretty. She’s fiercely independent in her thinking, and outspoken about her thoughts. I had a crush on her just about the moment I saw her. Somehow, I ended up buying chicken nuggets and sharing them with her, the first day we met. It was a weird mall/retail-related gesture of kindness. We started texting each other, and they were good times. For about three weeks.

I told myself at some point that I wanted to try playing the field, and that’s what I did. Except, well, I didn’t really leave my house that often, unless I was going to work. My point is, my “field” was limited, because of my refusal to leave my comfort zones. So I met a few women at Journeys, not just Ellen. And, even though I had a crush on each of these women, I decided to just go for one of them. You know, make a choice. Except that choice really upset the other two women. Ellen was not my first choice.

My first choice lasted almost a month.

I was sad when she broke up with me, and then I was sadder because I realized I’d messed up my connections with Ellen and another woman. All summer, I did my daily thing, playing video games and working and hanging out with my group of friends. I figured life would go on, and I’d be okay.

I saw Ellen near the end of summer, at our mutual friend’s birthday party. My crush came back immediately. I tentatively started a conversation with her, and she responded. I hadn’t completely ruined anything. Time does heal wounds, it seemed. A month after we rekindled our crushes on each other, we were dating.

Six-and-a-half years later, I broke up with her.

Ellen and I wove our ways into each other’s lives, deliberately. She invited me to her sister’s house to help her babysit, and I met her sister, brother-in-law, and eventually, her two nephews. I was invited to their big Christmas shindig a few months later. They said things like “Oh, the boys love you,” and “Oh, we really like Chris.” They were being welcoming. They love Ellen, and they wanted her to be happy. Ellen and I fell asleep together in her sister’s guest bedroom, and we talked about the future. She wanted kids, and I wanted kids. She thought marriage sounded like a good idea, and I agreed. I’d always been looking for someone who wanted to stick around, and Ellen wanted to stick around.

I should have thought a little bit harder about what I really wanted. Ellen and I were together for six-and-a-half years, but we never lived together. We both lived in our parents’ houses, and we would make time to see each other. Usually, that meant that Ellen would come over and hang out with me and my family, and sometimes my friends. It was a strangely lopsided relationship, with Ellen putting in most of the effort and me reaping the benefits. Her brother-in-law had money. Like, “I can buy a new house and deck it out the way we want to” sort of money. I ate so much of their food and drank so much of their coffee. They always welcomed me into their places. Ellen’s nephews loved me. I had, from many perspectives, a pretty good thing going.

A few years into the relationship, and I was bored. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was stuck in the middle of a routine that was allowing me to stagnate. This wasn’t anyone’s fault but my own, and I took the relationship as a given. A constant. Something that just was, and I didn’t have to do anything to infuse it with life. That may be part of the reason I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t trying, not anymore, and something about the ease with which Ellen and her family accepted me was weirdly deflating.

I didn’t think I had to try. I muddled through life and everything worked out in strange ways. I graduated community college, and when I got dangerously close to running out of money, I got a new job. Journeys had been over for a few years at that point. The new job only lasted 11 months, so I used my saved-up fundage to start my university career. I took out loans to pay for that, because I didn’t want to work. And despite Ellen sometimes saying “Maybe you should get a job,” I never did. Not while I was with her, not again.

The years passed by in a mostly predictable fashion, holidays spent mostly with Ellen’s family and she and I grudgingly putting up with my awkward family situation. I didn’t eat with my family anymore. I shut myself in my room and played a ton of video games. I read a ton of books. Not living with Ellen gave me a weird insight into what I like to do with myself: introspective, lonesome activities that let me get in my head. Eventually, though, the real world called out to me.

I was in a required English class at the University of Nevada, Reno, and my professor must have liked my style, because she was encouraging and supportive. The next semester, even though I wasn’t in any of her classes, she suggested that I attend a meeting of students and high-ranking university officials to talk about the future direction of the English department. I don’t think I made very good suggestions, but I was there, and so was one of my future good friends.

The truth is, I was developing a crush on this woman. And I was still with Ellen. I just didn’t think that was possible. My idealistic, romantic brain got all tripped up on the idea that, like, love is reserved for one person.

A sadly narrow-minded notion, but it’s one that got me all confused. I developed feelings, fast, for this other woman. I had been growing tired of my relationship, and I finally decided that enough was enough. I ended things with Ellen, after she put up with six-and-a-half years of my shit. She deserves better, and I hope she’s found someone who’s not lost in a maze of stagnating self-pity. So I jumped from Ellen, right into a doomed crush.

The woman I was into was into women. Like, just women. I realized it too late. My feelings had already flared up. So I spent a good few months pining away, hoping against hope that something would happen between us.

Nothing did, thankfully, and we’re great friends now. Yet I must admit, the only reason I was able to pull myself out of that romantic obsession is because I started another one. One of the women in a class I took reached out and asked if I’d like to get coffee. Yes, I’d like, I said. We met at the cafe by campus. We clicked pretty fast. I ended up driving her to her place one night, and she asked if I’d like to come inside. Yes, I’d like, I said. We talked for hours, like, until 2 AM for hours, and then I went home. I could tell she wanted me to make a move, but I’m terrible at these sorts of things. The next night, we hung out until 3 AM, and she made the move that I couldn’t.

We started sleeping together regularly. She told me, after the first night, that she was only looking for a casual thing. I had never done a casual thing. I thought I could handle it.

Nah. My feelings developed something fierce, and fast. Lucky for me, hers did too. A month into our “casual” thing, and we were professing our love for one another in a San Francisco hotel bed while our friends and acquaintances tried to fall asleep around us. It was some kind of magic. It was something I’d never done before.

Except it was everything I’d done before. Feelings developing too fast, committing to things too fast, getting obsessed … I’d done it, and it hadn’t worked out. What made me think it would work out this time? I must say, I was pretty naive. And I was getting older by then. I was 27, going on 28. The good thing about this whole mess of a relationship? It pushed me to finally move out of my parents’ house. Near the end of this thing, which lasted about a year and a half, I even had a steady job. It turns out that having to pay rent and buy food for oneself will push a person to do the things they should have done years ago.

Still, as all things must, the relationship ended. I was obsessive, possessive, and clingy. I forgot what space was. I didn’t even know how to appreciate my own space. All that stuff I did back when I was with Ellen, but I had time to myself? The reading, the video games, the fucking around on YouTube? I stopped it. I just wanted to be with this woman, and I forgot how to enjoy myself.

So the past year or so has been a damn good one, from the growth perspective. I’ve remembered what I like to do by myself, and how to have a good time with me. I’ve been cultivating friendships, and resuscitating ones that had been looking a little blue there. I have a lot more bills to pay, and not nearly as many dollars as I would like. But I’m working on that. I play board games every week, and I try to get a tabletop session in at least bimonthly. I jumped back into video games, and am now the proud owner of a PS4, a Wii U, a 3DS, and, finally, a Nintendo Switch. If you’ve read any of my older blogs, you may recall that I sold almost everything a few years ago. I’ve been steadily building my gaming capabilities back up. Because I love video games. I love getting lost in worlds that aren’t my own, and exploring the shit out of them, and sharing this love with my fellow gamers.

I’m 30 now, and that’s pretty rad. I think I’m handling my responsibilities the best way that I can. I’m enjoying myself when the responsibilities don’t demand my attention. And hey, shouldn’t enjoyment be the responsibility of every person?

Let’s keep on aging gracefully, folks.


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