I spent the weekend in New Jersey. If you’d asked me a month ago what I thought about a jaunt to the Garden State, I would have shrugged and recited one of the many canned jokes I’ve heard about New Jersey that make fun of the way it smells, the shore, and the fact that you can’t pump your own gas. Being from the Midwest, especially with ties to Detroit, those jokes are never representative of the place or the people themselves, so I decided to go.
Lola and I returned from a weekend of Princeton exploration, counting the cars of on the New Jersey Turnpike as Paul Simon once did. Heading south, returning to DC felt more like a punishment than homecoming. For miles I alternated between a thoughtless gaze out of the window and watching the odometer waiting for something momentous to happen, as Lola pacified herself by chewing on the slobber-matter fuzzy beak of her stuffed duck. She’d wag her tail when I reached down to stroke her side, but she looked so satisfied I didn’t dare disturb that.
Sometimes, people and animals, they just need to be left alone.
I got the MINI Cooper after much deliberation about finances. The decision to purchase a new car proved that everything could be turned into an argument where we were concerned. It was easy for him to say he believed that I should just save my money and drive the Volkswagen until the wheels fell off, considering he had just purchased a new BMW for himself that I was never allowed to drive. Besides, he’d say, if we were going to spend money on a new car, it’d have to be a family car, which was his demented way of saying me loved me and hoped I’d stay forever.
The family car was the next step in the Guide To Suburban Bliss, a handbook that some are armed with instinctively. We had been on the path to suburban utopia for three years and were 2.5 children away from living the dream in our generic suburban home in an even more generic development. All of the streets were named after animals, a diversionary tactic to create a neighborhood out of bland houses with even blander people living in them.
The talk of buying sensible cars always came back to the long-term plan, which for him meant marriage, pregnancy, home-cooked dinners, and a spiceless life of banal suburban existence. I was a sensible family car away from creating Facebook statuses of ultrasound pictures, whether I liked it or not.
We had a white fence installed and as I sat on the back porch watching the laborers digging deeper into the earth for stability, I felt like I was suffocating. Though the finished fence was just several feet high, the house suddenly felt like Alcatraz…few would even try to escape. Those that did? They rarely survived.
And in an act of defiance, possibly my first where this relationship was concerned, I went to Cincinnati and purchased the car that I wanted: Silver with black trim MINI Cooper with sport seats, and dual sunroofs. I was already envisioning how a Red Sox sticker would look on the back window and I pulled away from the dealership in the biggest purchase of my adult life, a hatchback with an oversized speedometer: a car that was not suitable for a family, because I did not want that.
There was silence when I returned home. The car became a symbol of everything he hated about me—a list which greatly outweighed the things he loved. Some were simple: he hated when I would lose the cap to the toothpaste. Some were complex: he didn’t like my freedom or my defiance. He resented the hatchback for not having room for a car seat, and he resented me for not seeing a future with him. And two months later, MINI and me left for good.
I never felt angry. In fact, I still don’t. Disappointed that the relationship I worked hard to fix for four years had ended, and frustrated that I spent years catering to the needs of someone who never once valued the things that made me unique. My value was assessed in a battery of tests, of hoop-jumping, to prove that I loved him and my existence became an obstacle course of jumping higher, running faster, and walking a tightrope with a tank of man-eating sharks below.
Instead of leaving town immediately, I spent one more night in Louisville. I checked into the hotel where we’d spent many evenings drinking Bulleit old fashioneds in a bar that F. Scott Fitzgerald used to frequent. It’s one of the last great hotels where the detailed luxuries of the lobby bleed over into the rooms as well with rich mahogany baseboards you would never see at a Holiday Inn.
Once settled, I collected my emotions which had been strewn about for weeks, and continued my mission to say goodbye to my favorite part of Louisville: Slugger Field, where the Bats play.
My love of baseball was renewed through this rocky relationship, mostly because he did not like baseball. On days when I needed to escape, I could watch a game on television alone in the den or I could go to the ballpark. I knew he wouldn’t want to be there, he was content to stay at home playing computer games or a variety of sci-fi movies that I lump into one category, though he always corrected me because they weren’t always Star Wars. In our four years I got him to the ballpark exactly once, and I had to lie about the origin of the tickets to do so.
I walked east, snuggled in an oversized sweatshirt that was his, the sun setting on my back. The field is nestled on the banks of the Ohio River, with Louisville’s petite yet pristine skyline as it’s’ backdrop. Across the river there’s an old fish restaurant that looks like a boat that always seemed to be a place where tourists would go for pina coladas and food poisioning, though locals seemed enthusiastic about their offerings. The jingle from their commercials played in my head as the sun setting created magnificent shadows on the ballpark’s parking lot and ticket windows, making the stout skyscrapers appear like the Goliath buildings of a bigger city.
It wasn’t time for baseball yet. The gates would remain locked for a few more weeks, as minor leaguers still fought for roster spots at camp. I would be leaving the next day to figure out life on my own, missing the day in which patrons would be ushered into the stadium’s concourse that had been fashioned from an old train station. But in a city filled with memories from my relationship, from college, from even better friendships, the only place I wanted to be was inside of this stadium where I had spent countless evenings escaping from everything—schoolwork, real work, and a relationship that spent years on life support.
As the shadows darkened and the moon rose, I peeked through the windows of the once train station. There was the souvenir shop, the vending area with their locked metal doors, and with each passing glance I said goodbye. Goodbye to Josh Hamilton and Joey Votto, goodbye to section 102. Goodbye to Louisville and goodbye to him. Realizing I was alone, both in life and in the 400 block of Main Street, I sat down on the Pee Wee Reese statue, cuddled into the S shape metal support of his left leg, embracing my last evening in a city that I would no longer call home.
The months that followed were full of tears and sometimes regret. The questioning of whether I’d made the right decision crescendoed into moments where the only solution I felt was to run back to Louisville for comfort. But in time, I was relieved to never spend another day under someone’s microscope and in turn found what it meant to be resolute, autonomous, and confident.
Four years later, my car hit 50,000 miles on the New Jersey Turnpike. Still embracing the freedom of self-possession, still making decisions that are completely my own. There’s no greater freedom than realizing life is limitless when removed from the judgment and restrictions of others.
And in four years, I have changed everything. I finished graduate school, and the MINI and I have driven to countless baseball games, including two 22-hour road-trips to spring training. The hatchback that cemented the relationships’ demise has seen me on two moves across the country.
It’s been nearly 1500 days since I’ve seen his face, laughed at his jokes, or cried from a misunderstanding. Driving through the evening, returning to the life I’ve built for myself, I felt satisfied with the distance those miles and years have created. Not just because of the relationship I once had, but because a weaker and insecure version of myself got dropped off somewhere along the trip: and I finally feel the freedom and strength that didn’t exist before, and another 50,000 miles will make that even stronger.