Remember those back-to-school essays you were assigned, when you had to drone on about how you spent your summer? If you were like me, there wasn’t much to say—went swimming, fended off boredom (and summer boredom was the best kind), and played outside until well after dark, carrying an old peanut butter jar with you for the purpose of catching fireflies.
You probably didn’t know that those essays were diagnostic in nature—an opportunity for your teacher to assess your writing skills. How much had you progressed from the previous level? What did you still need to learn? Had you been to the library at all? (If you were like me, you had.) And maybe it was also an opportunity for your teacher to get to know a little something about your life, although I suppose by the end all the snippets of sleepaway camp and beachgoing and Disneyworld melded together like marshmallows on a stick.
Last fall, I moved back to Long Island after a near-20-year absence of full-time residence. I had written about driving off the Cross Sound Ferry and entering Orient Point, knowing there wouldn’t be a return trip to New England, or North Carolina, or anywhere else. At least not for the purpose of anything other than a visit or vacation. I hated the seeming melodrama of the statement, but I’d felt as if part of my soul had awakened from dormancy. In short, it was good to be home.
But the universe has a sense of humor. Before the year was up, I fell in love with someone who lives in Montana. And he with me. And he loves living in Montana as much as I love living on Long Island.
When we discussed the idea of my spending the majority of the summer in Billings (although we did a shitload of traveling to Seattle, Portland, Mt. Rushmore, Medora, to name a few places—we covered about eight states in four weeks, all of which I’d never previously visited), my sweetheart dubbed it “test-driving the relationship.” He’d spent a week with me in New York late spring. I’d watched him scout the surroundings—the beaches, parks, Sag Harbor, Northport, the LIE, the LIRR, the bagels, the pizza, the prices, the people—with the whispering questions: Can I see myself living here? Can I see myself loving her, day in and day out? Fortunately, the answer to both was Yes. But I owed him—and myself—the same opportunity to answer those questions regarding him and Montana. And we needed more than a week to be together.
Fortunately, my career as a full-time novelist allows me such flexibility. His, too.
Those who know me know I avoid getting on a plane for any reason not Duran Duran related. I mean, I have to really want it. Twenty-seven days apart from my sweetheart following his New York trip, and I was practically ready to fly the damn plane myself.
I arrived in Billings on June 20th, having shipped two cartons of my belongings earlier in the week, and lugging a suitcase, duffel bag, and laptop shoved in my purse. Haggard, but never so happy to see the person at the foot of the stairs in baggage claim, both of us grinning profusely, him waiting to fold me in his arms. Since the moment we left the airport, I’ve been in a perpetual “tennis neck” position, constantly twisting it left and right, taking in the panorama of scenery in Billings and Bozeman and Missoula. The Rimrocks. Sacrifice Cliff. The Crazy Mountains. Ranches full of grazing cows and sagebrush and rolling hills and badlands as far as the eye can see. A horizon set into the distance. They don’t call Montana “Big Sky Country” for nuthin’.
We took road trips and found we travel well together. Ten hours in a car ended with us laughing in that silly-stupid, overtired way rather than biting each other’s heads off. We held hands for much of the drive. We took selfies. Lots and lots of selfies. And I took snapshots from the passenger seat, looking past the windshield pock-marked with splattered bugs, and failing to capture the depth and wonder outside.
But we also lived together. We set into a routine of waking at seven a.m. (in New York I’m lucky to get out of bed at nine—I suppose the time difference works in my favor here). We made breakfast. We divvied up chores. We worked—he at his writing desk in the corner, me behind him at the table where we eat—each toiling over our respective manuscripts and puttering on Facebook (and yes, even though we’re mere feet from each other, we’ve continued our infamous banters on Facebook). We ran errands and planned meals for the week and I cooked and he did the dishes and occasionally we walked into town for an ice cream cone. We watched movies. We even had a lazy Sunday or two. You know, summer boredom.
I met his friends—lots of them—and by the time we parted company, they were my friends, too. I went to the Billings Library and the Western Heritage Center and ate nutella crepes at McCormick’s and a decadent caramel cinnamon roll at Harper and Madison. I saw places that had made cameos in my sweetheart’s novels—the Babcock Theatre, Albertsons supermarket, Grand Avenue—and learned that a traffic jam consisted of five cars queued up waiting for the train to pass.
And huckleberry! Huckleberry milkshakes, huckleberry ice cream, huckleberry chocolate bars, huckleberry dipping sauce, jam, syrup… I’m a woman obsessed.
I'm still here.
As I reflect on my summer vacation, I am making assessments. Because with each passing day, I am not at some sleepaway camp. Rather, I am connecting to a community. I am test-driving more than a relationship; I am test-driving a life. Can I see myself living here? Can I see myself loving him, day in and day out? It was no longer a matter of “seeing”—I was already doing.
Now, the looming question: Will I stay?
Almost every day of the last four months has contained a conversation about where we will live together. We are diagnostic in our approach: What are our family obligations? What are we willing to give up? What are we clinging to? What can we afford? Who needs us most?
In some instances, the variables balance out. In others, they are significantly skewed in one direction or another. I’d spent many years being single because I was content not to make those compromises that one must make when two lives merge. Today my contentment is in the challenge—making the tough decision(s) with him.
And trust me, it is a challenge. I pang for the things that made the previous nine months on Long Island so intrinsically gratifying: my mother and siblings and nieces and nephews. My grandnephew. Sunken Meadow and Sagg Main beaches. Trader Joe’s in Lake Grove and Innersleeve Records in Amagansett and Main Street in Sag Harbor. The bagels and the pizza and drives across the Island in my Volkswagen Beetle. I haven’t re-established community there yet, however. I haven’t found my people, other than my family. It’s the downside of a career that is solitary and isolating in nature.
Part of me misses home while I am in Montana. If I leave Long Island again, will that part of my soul that awakened go back to sleep? I don’t want it to, and am afraid it will.
And yet, I undoubtedly know that home is where my beau and I are together; he knows it as well. Long Island can’t be home without him, and Billings can’t be home without me. Or perhaps some yet unknown destination will be an awakening for the both of us.
With every incoming academic calendar comes a time for planning and preparation. Because of my academic background, fall was always like a new year, fertile with possibilities. A time to assess what’s been taught and needs to be taught. And I was always eager for the new semester. I was eager to teach and eager to learn. I was eager to make things happen.
Summer is almost over. We will spend much of the fall months in our separate states, save for a few events and splitting the holidays. We are dreading the time apart.
We know a decision awaits. But in the meantime, we make the most of these days. Living together. Working. Traveling. Sharing. Merging.
The view is spectacular; the horizon is distant.
I'm an author of commercial women's fiction and a writing instructor. My claim to fame: I can say the alphabet backwards.