I do not own a car; I don’t have health insurance, a pantsuit, or a career that necessitates any of the above.
I sling drinks and wait tables in my hometown; stuck in the middle of the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, it’s a glut of history, period architecture, and WASP wealth. The demographic skews older but has yet to retire from the rigorous pastime of knowing everyone’s business. A heavy percentage of the populace has police scanners so they don’t miss any of the action and can report back to their cohorts over $16 dollar benedicts. My family boasts two stints in rehab, an anarchist patriarch, and a few echoes on the police scanner ourselves, so you can imagine the stories they tell about us.
As a teenager I couldn’t wait for the excuse to leave, the formula being: If you were smart you fled; if you could hack it you stayed away. And if you never left, well, at least you didn’t know what you were missing. Sadly, my trajectory has turned out to be more boomerang than rocket.
My current occupation provides me the cringing displeasure of hearing how well my peers are doing via their proud drunk parents. Rachel1, the mouth-breathing science enthusiast who, when my best friend in high school broke out in brilliant plate-sized hives during third period, narced her out for taking niacin to pass a drug test, is engaged and graduating from med school in the spring. Alexander, the middle son of an Aryan aristocracy that has made its fortune from natural gas and its reputation on humiliating the help, is working for a tech startup in LA; he has a darling Peruvian girlfriend who makes jewelry I could never afford from scrap metal and dried seeds. Lucius, the closeted valedictorian of my graduating class and a brilliant and flagrant narcissist (I cannot think of him without picturing the scene from American Psycho where Christian Bale masturbates to his own reflection in the mirror), is getting his masters in Minimalist Architecture at George Mason University.
And here I am, the one holding the dirty dishes and hearing the secondhand tales of gleaming accomplishment. I kept the blood oath and from the looks of my Facebook albums, like “Kenya Dig It” and “Wigs + Strippers,” I am living a version of the dream, but there’s an alternative reality that pays for it and it’s soul crushing. You can get me another glass of Pinot Grigio and a fresh fork for my salad.
Most of my friends are married, pregnant, or trying to get pregnant, not necessarily in that order. The most expensive thing I own is a pair of boots. The envy they may have felt toward me in our early 20s while I was skinny dipping in Mykonos and they were scraping by in Minneapolis as piss-on advertising interns has now turned to rightful concern. You can’t put fire dancing, curry making, or elephant riding on a resume. Will I ever hold down a normal job, buy a house, accomplish anything of note? They have apartments, dinner parties, and stability. I have an attic, some half-empty Tiger Balm, and a large collection of woven scarves.
In trying to stitch together the threadbare pieces of my last relationship, my inability to be happy in one place for very long being the prosecution’s defense, we decided to try couples counseling. Our therapist, who looks a hell of a lot like Kris Kristofferson, figured the root of this restlessness is my father. A brief history of my old man, who looks and behaves like the unholy offspring of Chevy Chase and the Dos Equis guy: He almost died rafting the Biobio River, has accidentally smuggled Colombian emeralds, intentionally killed a wild boar with his bare hands, and survived a subdural botfly infestation. And that’s just in the past few years.
However, in exchange for all of his well-earned bad-assery, he wasn’t around much when I was small and I quickly understood that it was a lot better to be the one leaving than the one left. You don’t get that kind of material being a housewife. I always expected that along the road I would meet a character from an Allman Brothers song, some kind of Mississippi long hair or bastard son of an unknown British basket weaver that would have a penchant for the third world, distressed motorcycle boots, and hand-rolled cigarettes. Trouble is he never showed up, and I halfway decided if I wasn’t going to be with someone like that I’d become someone like that. Some passport stamps and no direction later, you could reasonably call me the motherfucking breeze Mr. Ronnie Van Zant. Like my storied father with his slide film, Indiana Jones fedora, and canvas bags, I wanted to be missed.
I don’t know how to stay put and still feel like myself. I can’t make myself want the things you’re supposed to want by 28. I can’t imagine ever owning or wanting to own a home. Maybe a turquoise Airstream or a pack-and-play yurt covered in reindeer hides and sea glass, but certainly nothing that can’t roll or collapse if the feeling strikes. The same attitude extends to working in the service industry. I don’t love hearing pretentious blowhards quaff wine and debate the merits of hummus. I do it because I’m terrified of having anything I can’t leave behind.
And so it goes, after a few weeks of monotonous glass pouring — the disapproval of friends and strangers and even the low-hum wrangling of the niece and nephew I love — I start to feel the long slow pull to leave.
1 Not their real names.