They met through the second law of thermodynamics. Over time, with increasing entropy, eventually they fell in love. The way people meet if they’re really going to fall in love. That’s how it is in a small town.
Joy was at the Merrimaker, a local place, a dive bar so dirty that its profile picture illustrated “American dive bar” on Wikipedia – duct tape holding down the industrial carpeting, whose glue had slowly become undone by too many spilled PBRs and well drinks. She once found the women’s toilet covered in what looked like excrement, a shmear of shit – a stain on everyone’s reputation, and the claim to fame of this little nowhere nothing town on the Central Coast. Like her: vulnerable but stubbornly dug-in, a symbol of perseverance and regret. Showcasing town pride and class warfare. An opportunity and a crisis. She thought it was perfect.
Joy was about ready to head home with an artist or a construction worker or baker in tow, when one of the regulars sought her eyes. She’d met Nate only briefly earlier in the night, on account of a friend of a friend of a friend – the way it is in a small town. He’d laughed at one of her less obvious jokes, and for a second she thought they’d met before.
He said, “That guy? Really??”
It was the kind of thing that only men say, feeling they have a natural right to question women alone in public. She had resolved to view her choices differently, even when questioned by other people. Especially when questioned by other people.
“It’s just to fuck,” she quipped back.
“He got lost on the way back from the bathroom he’s so drunk.”
Nate said later that he wondered why seemingly intelligent women go home with the other guys, the ones that aren’t particularly nice. If he had asked then, she would have said it was because those guys aren’t afraid to ask you to dance, and maybe that’s all she was looking for.
“I’ll throw him in the shower when I get him home.”
She drove home up the coast, the guy who’d asked her to dance slouched in the passenger seat, the coast on the left and the moon in the rearview mirror. Her little house by the creek. Everything right and wrong at the same time.
It was a series of chance encounters that brought Joy and Nate together, although for so long she had indulged the folly of believing in love at first sight. She went on dates with good-looking guys, told them she was looking for a relationship, and then sent the standard text after one too many dates: We just don’t have the kind of connection I’m looking for. She didn’t know exactly what kind of “connection” she was looking for, but she didn’t seem to have anything to lose by being picky in some ways, and not in others.
She changed her Tinder profile to read: Must love books and believe in unconditional love.
Falling in love with someone you don’t want to fall in love with is a terrifying experience. All of your stuff – the stuff you’ve been burying for a lifetime and maybe more – is exposed, almost as if against your will. So many people had seemed “right” but this was like an undertow. Sounds strange when there’s nothing that should be pulling you toward someone: the relationship had no gravity to begin with. It was just matter swirling about. But she couldn’t avoid running into him, having ineluctable exchanges where it began to feel like outside a storm was raging because of the calm that surrounded them when they were together. Not “together,” just making conversation at a bar or a party, without the intention to do so.
Joy saved his number in her phone “Nate Merrimaker,” the way you do when you remember someone by a particular affiliation and possibly nothing else. He saved her number as “Joy Merrimaker.”
Birthday parties. Bar nights. He was always a little off to the side in a plaid shirt and glasses, not being at all who she was looking for, but when they talked, there was that same feeling of being “in it.” Being seen, understood, the feeling of belonging. The feeling that a side of you that you never even knew existed is now exposed. It was irresistible, even in small doses.
“He’s not good enough for you,” a mutual friend counseled. “Don’t waste your time.”
“I don’t like him like that….I’m just curious,” she said, and carried on.
Joy had been going to bars alone her whole life. When she went alone there was always the possibility of talking to someone new, having an adventure where she didn’t know what would happen next. But somehow, this town seemed to be getting smaller. Everyone else was out on a date with someone they’d already slept with and didn’t like very much.
In a booth with Nate’s friends and uncomfortably out of place, although she hadn’t expected to feel that way, it seemed like every guy except Nate wanted Joy’s attention, but she only wanted to talk to him. Daring to talk about dating and love, but not in regard to each other specifically.
When Nate got up from the table to smoke a cigarette outside, one of his friends leaned over to Joy and said, “So are you into him? Nate?”
“I don’t discuss my relationships with anyone but that person,” Joy said, knowing this was only half-true and maybe not even true at all until this moment.
“Well, he clearly feels comfortable around you.”
“Why should I care about making some man comfortable?” Joy shot back, provocative and obtuse, scrunching up her nose like the idea stank as bad as the bar. And not answering the question, even though the obvious answer was “no.”
She wasn’t looking for someone perfect but there were too many uncontrolled variables with another person. After many false starts, life was good and she didn’t want some guy messing it up. They might be a letdown, they might let her down. They might have needs that she didn’t want to meet; she had just started being able to let go of other people’s need for her to be someone to them. Wasn’t falling in love just another version of being someone else’s ideal? Wasn’t it also true that she wanted to fall in love?
He wasn’t so ideal himself. He had everything she didn’t want, she concluded after a careful study of her own mind and history and the facts as she saw them: out of work for some mysterious reason, originally from this small town and not going anywhere soon, friends with the few people she might even call friends, and a few that she had dated. He didn’t seem to have the passion – a joie de vivre – that was essential to her own life and livelihood.
At the same time, wasn’t that the essence of just being? Maybe she was the one still clinging and resisting and wanting things to be other than they were. Superficially committed to the idea of surrendering all desires based on personal preference, but still amping for just a little more “bliss” each day.
She had her own middle-class striver ideas romanticizing the Central Coast working class. She fantasized about him day drinking in a dark bar, not complaining about not having a job. He never answered texts before 11am, presumably sleeping in. She was up at seven and out at the beach for a long walk and set her goals for the day. He seemed to be living the life that she wanted – not wanting for anything and not caring what anyone thought about it, while she remained attached to her resentments.
She admired that he didn’t have a job, although she also knew that it could be her undoing. When she asked about it, why he quit his job, the answer was that it was just the way it was. As if he’d heard her thinking as she wondered what it would be like not to answer to anyone. To make something of herself – truly make herself into someone that faced the fear of not producing or performing. She envied even his ability to act as though that was the whole story, even if in reality he was home alone most days wondering what to do to fill the time, waiting for the weekend just like everyone else.
In one moment, he seemed utterly lost and afraid, and then the light would change, revealing the shadow side, and all his fear and ambivalence would still be there, a monument to being at ease wiht the way things are. She pitied him for not working, or getting up in the morning, or seeming in any way to appreciate all the beauty that surrounded him.
“Are you thinking of getting a job?” Joy asked.
“I don’t want to work right now.”
“I know the feeling,” she said. This wasn’t the first time she’d asked and she could tell he didn’t want to talk about it, but that he wasn’t going to put on a show to impress her either. “You have to work at some point.”
“I saved some money, not a lot, but some. I just worked because I have to. I never thought about what I wanted to do and now I don’t know what to do.” When he said it aloud, it seemed like the most logical thing in the world – to have actually followed one’s heart, no matter the scary places it takes you. Okay with not being okay. And just as trapped as she was in her inability to do the same. He was not somebody who had figured it all out; he was somebody who knew that people can’t.
They texted in between random meetings, strong and then weak, trying without any real effort to make plans – the timing never quite right, the interest fleeting.
She invited him to the movies one Friday night and he agreed, and then it never happened. Three weeks later, she was making dinner, thinking if anyone peaked in on her life, they’d surely judge: a single woman, late thirties, alone; giving up her youth to ambition and education only to be settled among the trees and rocks, grateful for moments away from hard work. Joy knew it was her judging herself; and when she got dinner on the table, she was right where she wanted to be.
She noticed a text from Nate.
I tried to call you. I want to apologize.
She checked her missed calls. For what?
Can you talk?
When the phone lit up, she answered it on speaker, shoveling Mapo tofu and rice into her mouth. There was no decent Chinese food around here, but at least she was becoming a better cook and not just a better drinker.
“What’s up?” she said, hoping it was the bean paste and peppercorns searing her tongue that made her voice sound so strained.
“I wanted to apologize,” he said, hesitating. “For not going to the movies with you.”
“Oh,” she said, dropping her chopsticks. “That was shitty.”
“I had family in town for the holidays, and they really stress me out.”
“I just wish you had called. But it’s not as though it was a date…” she hedged, “so no hard feelings.”
“Can I make it up to you with dinner?”
“I already ate.” Joy placed a wad of sticky rice onto her tongue to tame the burn.
“In the future some time. I can cook.”
“You can cook?”
“I’ll make you dinner. I have a spaghetti squash.”
“I need to think about it,” she said, knowing that he was trying but certain that she was finally through with ambiguity, with excuses and missed connections.
Joy was lost in a sea of first dates and career opportunities; she didn’t want to slow down for some guy who didn’t seem that interested. That’s just how that guy is, she figured, and then noted in her diary: Stay out of your own melodrama, sensing her own residual need to be liked by everyone and ready to be done with that.
She sent him a picture of her cradling an eggplant at the market, with the caption: I have an eggplant, and was pleased when he acknowledged the reference to his earlier dinner invitation with a picture of a squash.
Joy wasn’t prone to Facebook stalking but she noticed that Nate had left town to drive across the country. Another one bites the dust, she thought. Guess he’s really not interested. She pressed the unfriend button decisively, feeling the spring’s late afternoon wind scatter the intense heat of the California sun across her skin.
About a month later, there he was again, at the Merrimaker.
“I thought you left,” she said.
“I noticed you unfriended me,” he said.
“I don’t need more loose ends.”
A friend nudged her from the left, the same that had warned her he wasn’t worth her time. “You know Nate lives with his parents, right?” she whispered.
“I heard you live with your parents,” Joy said, turning back to Nate.
“No, I don’t live with my parents,” he said, ending the line of questioning.
When she turned away to set the record straight on this particular chain of gossip, he moved his beer to the other side of the table where they were gathered in a group.
Later on, when the table cleared and it was just Joy and Nate, she asked about his trip.
“There was nothing here for me,” he explained. “So I took a drive.”
“Did you find what you were looking for?” she asked.
“I want to be happy, and that’s not something you can look for. That’s what I found.” Joy fought back the horror that she might even cry from the familiar, forlorn tone of this truth, ringing like the bell on the buoy in choppy waters.
“I got a flat tire around Oklahoma City and had to stay there for three days. It was cold and flat. I wanted to come home.”
“You didn’t miss anything around here,” Joy said, gesturing around the bar, noisy with amateur karaoke and the chitter of one night stands.
“Yeah, I did,” he said, sipping his beer, avoiding her eyes.
He asked her to meet him at a day drinking excuse for a street festival and she declined. Joy wanted a real date but didn’t want to say so, not even to herself. It had started to feel like a high-stakes situation, one she might not be able to easily back away from and didn’t want to get tangled up in too readily.
They drove up to San Simeon for dinner in his VW Passat, which wasn’t an overly nice car but surprised her with how grown up it was. Passing Harmony Headlands on the left, she looked around the interior and thought to herself how different a ride this was than her usual windblown frenetic speedway music-blasting explosion; it was a familiar drive in a parallel universe of calm.
“How do you open this sunroof,” she asked, gesturing towards the knob that was where the button should be.
“Uh…I don’t know.”
“You’ve never opened the sunroof?”
“Maybe once when I got it about four years ago.”
Joy knew Nate had struggled with depression. She didn’t know if he had told her, or someone else told her, or if it was just obvious. He’d still never told her why he wasn’t working and hadn’t worked in almost a year, despite seeming perfectly employable and not independently wealthy. It was the thing that thus far attracted Joy most to him: this burning curiosity that he might have figured out something that she was only loosely aware even existed, but longed to understand better. Or that maybe he would at least understand why she wanted to know.
“Are you on anti-depressants?” Joy asked carefully, trying to keep her voice even.
“No.” Silence. “Some people said I should take them, but it seemed risky.”
“Yeah, that’s what I was going to tell you.” She tried to push away the immediate thought of sexual side effects that popped into her mind.
They pulled into the parking lot and waited for a table near the window, the sun starting its descent far out over the Pacific. Joy sat down and removed the silk blouse she had on over a strapless top, noticed that he didn’t seem to notice, and ordered a wine margarita even though they had both said that they weren’t going to drink.
Nate was talking about his job after college working in the oil fields as a geologist. It wasn’t surprising that he was a geologist; he was a rock himself, changing only imperceptibly over long stretches of time. In a game of rock-paper-scissors she’d lose, sharp and swift.
Joy ordered a second enchilada and another margarita.
“He wouldn’t have work for us for months, but he wouldn’t lay us off so we could get unemployment, and then would expect us to be on call. I refused to come into work unless he paid me for being on call. He wouldn’t pay, so I sued him.”
“You got a lawyer and took him to court?”
“I represented myself. I read all the statutes about labor law.”
“Did he have a lawyer?”
“He had a lawyer, but I didn’t. But I won.”
“I always wanted to represent myself in court…” she said wistfully, not sure she wanted to say more, suddenly feeling sad this wasn’t a date but also not wanting to want it to be a date. A twinge of regret and dread, and of course, resistance. She looked towards the setting sun and suggested they get the check.
When they got back to her place, Nate walked Joy down the path to her house by the creek. It was dark down there and she turned on the lamps and the porch light.
“I got this fancy journalism degree, and a good job at The Herald, and then my editor left and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it anymore.”
“So you moved here?”
“It’s a good job, I can make something of it.” She felt good just talking about it, but also dubious of the familiar dynamic of a resume as a dating credential. “I second guess myself every day…I’m not even sure I want to be a journalist,” she added, wanting to share in the fantasy of shedding the ethos that we should always be working on ourselves. Done with wanting, achieving, and then having.
After he left, she put on some music, lay on the floor looking up at the skylight, and smoked a joint. She got out her phone and wrote: I like the way we’ve been spending time getting to know each other. Maybe I am skittish about this stuff.
She put the phone away and went to bed. In the morning she saw he’d texted back.
I’ve enjoyed it as well. I can be aloof, not usually to hide though.
This stuff makes me so anxious, she tapped back.
Even the smoothest waters get choppy when confronted with an obstacle…what stuff??
She was getting too close to the truth, in too deep before she realized it’d crept up on her. Maybe she was the one who was difficult to get to know, to pin down.
I don’t want to talk about it.
And they didn’t.
At the weekly gathering for pints and live music after the farmer’s market, they started talking about dating again. Making a move, not making a move. Making a move you won’t regret. Not making a move when you’re not sure if you should.
“On that…I wanted your advice about something, something I didn’t understand, that you said,” Joy started slowly, noticing for the first time that he was taller than her, and that behind his glasses his eyes were Irish blue.
“You want my advice?” Nate asked.
“How do you not make a move?”
He paused and she shrugged, as if to let him off the hook, and then he said, “You just don’t,” and shrugged. Joy felt a wave of longing, and thought Fuck, I really like him. Pushing the thought away, she wondered why it didn’t even occur to her that choosing not to make a move when she wanted to was an option. She’d been having a lot of fun, true, almost too much fun, to the point where not making a move seemed like a pointless preference.
They sat there in silence for a moment until she repeated “I just don’t.”
It reminded her of something that she had read but struggled to understand until this moment: Less and less do you need to force things, until finally you arrive at non-action.
The only time she truly felt sure of her place in the world was through accomplishments. The ownership model of relationships, even outside of work. She wanted not to simply tolerate uncertainty, but to willingly appreciate it. To let it bathe her in peace knowing not everything was in control. She set her sights on objects and then acquired them, and went on suffering from the human condition. She figured that was how it would be with a man as well.
When she got home, Joy drew an arrow in her diary to the quote, and noted: The Tao of Nate.
Falling in love, Joy found she slept less, ate less, smiled more, and was generally kinder and more generous. She threw a dinner party to take a break from cooking-for-one and share in the warmth. Nate planned to come with a friend. They were late.
Sitting around in her living room, chit-chatting about dating as a group of single people will do, a recently divorced friend said, “There’s no one around here you can date seriously.”
“They’ve all got ‘Peter Pan’ syndrome,” another chimed in.
“That’s the Central Coast for you.”
“Don’t you think that’s commodifying people a bit too much?” Joy asked. She didn’t want to let on that she was keeping her eye on the door, impatiently, and for whom. “If you think a person is ornamental…then they’ll look at you that way too.”
Joy trailed off, standing up and then sitting down abruptly, wanting to disclose her crush but knowing it was called a crush for a reason. And anyway, it was impossible to get a good opinion on the matter. Asking for advice – approval, really – had gotten in her way with everything, and if things were going to be different, she had to be different.
Nate came through the door, carrying the bottle of sake she’d asked for, and the glow in the room shifted with the angle of the sun.
Joy greeted him. “You’re wearing a tie.” She thought about the Peter Pan comment. Boys in costume, the ones you can’t count on.
“You said it was a dinner party,” he said. “Most parties around here are potluck and a six pack around a rusty firepit.”
“We were just talking about dating,” she said. “What the point of it is. How you meet someone for real.”
From across the room the divorcee was recounting loudly: “He could only get off with porn playing.”
Joy and Nate looked at each other, and he said in low voice so only she could hear, “I can only get off to the sound of birdsong.” She laughed out loud, pointing to the oversized Birds of North America poster on the wall.
Joy wasn’t really sure if she was into him. It didn’t seem like Nate was sure he was into her either. It was nice to wonder.
He left early and she hoped no one noticed her longing, not saying goodbye as she watched him make his excuses. Wasn’t someone supposed to stay late, wait out the other guests, if they were into you? In slow motion, she noticed that was not what made her anxious—rather it was doing something for the wrong reasons and not feeling fully connected to her intentions. Not the lack of control, but disconnected from the flow. The lack of control was the most appealing part.
She could see him through the windows standing on the path outside, conferring with his buddy. Then he turned around and headed back down the darkening path, and she moved quickly from the windows to the kitchen to start cleaning up. She heard the gravel crunching underneath his feet as he stopped for a moment too long outside the door. Hesitating.
When he finally knocked, she opened the door and stepped out onto the front porch.
“Do you want to go for a walk tomorrow?”
“Like, a date?” she asked.
“Like a date.”
The coast was foggy the next day. They walked from her house through town to the bluffs north of the beach to stand on the edge where a fishing boat had mysteriously crashed into the rocky shore a couple months before. The tide was coming in and the shipwreck was first lifted, then began filling with water, overtaken by the sea.
Joy stood back as Nate snapped a picture with his phone.
“Are they going to pull that boat out?” he asked.
“They can’t figure out who’s responsible. It’s been here long enough that it’s becoming a marine habitat and would be hazardous to remove.”
“I feel like that boat sometimes,” he said.
“I know the feeling.” She realized that feeling – acceptance, belonging, a settled calm – that she had with Nate was what she wanted. She never had it before, but knew it when she saw it. A lot of couples…well, she couldn’t really say why they were together, just that they loved each other. It hadn’t necessarily occurred to her that it was just as simple as that for her as well.
Their relationship was coiling into a spiral, both stretching over a long period and also happening in an instant. The time in length was infinite but the diameter was compact. She had been going along seemingly forever, seeing chances shrink into the distance…and then suddenly there was the center. She wanted the smaller, warmer circles, and for the smallest, warmest circle to be her own heart, and the body that circled around it.
“I’m done being shipwrecked,” he said, pulling himself up to stand taller.
“You know what they say about a rising tide…” she joked, jostling his shoulder with her own, not sure she knew what he meant and wanting to know more.
Laysha Ostrow is a writer and scholar who lives on the Central Coast of California with her husband and chihuahua. She writes about belonging, connection, and dignity as forms of personal resistance against institutional forces. Laysha is the co-founder of the San Luis Obispo Writers’ Room and a member of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. Laysha holds a PhD from Johns Hopkins University and a Master’s degree from Brandeis University, and is pursuing a certificate in writing from University of California, Berkeley. She enjoys small brushes with wildlife, gourmet cooking, and listening to local radio.
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