When I was 23, I was early for everything. I had just graduated college and gotten my first full-time job, and I was accustomed to obsessive clock-watching, terrified of arriving late and making a bad impression. I always left the house well before I needed to and stressed if I got caught in what the rural Midwest considers traffic.
I showed up early to my first date with Caleb, standing outside the Old Capitol Brew Works, an Iowa City hipster bar that’s closed now. I had sent him a message on OKCupid, charmed at the pun in his screen name. We messaged back and forth a few times, and I was surprised when he agreed to meet me for a drink. He’d asked me practically nothing about myself.
Caleb was late. Though I stressed about my own potential tardiness, I accepted his without judgment. He ambled up the sidewalk, guiding his bicycle at his hip. I looked down at my phone and pretended to be immersed. It was a flip phone with no internet, but it was better than looking expectant.
When he got close enough, I raised my eyes and smiled. “Hey, how are you?”
“Good,” he replied, wheezing slightly. I pretended my exquisite beauty had taken his breath away, not that he'd just biked across town. Sweat stains bloomed in his pastel pink button-up shirt, but he still looked good. He was only a couple years younger than me, but his round face, milky skin, and elfish features made him look like a teenager. I felt just a little gross.
I followed Caleb to the patio behind the bar where a garden wall draped with holiday lights enclosed the area. It all felt very romantic, and I wondered if he'd chosen to take me outside because of that.
“I like to sit outside when it's nice weather,” Caleb explained.
We sat and talked. Or rather, Caleb talked and I listened. The thing about Caleb was that he was the exact opposite of me, which made him cool. We exchanged a list of our interests. Him: traveling, wordly cuisine, trespassing and exploring condemned buildings. Me: reading, Taco Bell, not breaking the law. I struggled to spin my hobbies into anything that sounded interesting enough to impress him.
I considered that Caleb could be a Manic Pixie Dream Boy. Film critic Nathan Rabin has since written that he regrets inventing the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl because it has been taken so far out of context. Instead of being read as a critique on female characters designed to save the white male protagonist from ennui, himself, or the inevitability of death, the MPDG had been treated as a genuine archetype. Because it's an inherently sexist construction, and because he was not a character but a real person, Caleb couldn't actually be a Manic Pixie Dream Boy. But nothing is more real than the movies, and in the narrative of my life, I hoped he would be a catalyst. Looking at myself from the outside, I was not adventurous, not interesting, not worth the time. Caleb gave me the opportunity to change myself into someone I imagined would be more appealing.
Which is why, when he asked if I wanted to come back to his place and hang out, I agreed. He either accepted me and my boring, cautious tendencies, or he wanted to sleep with me. I was good with either.
I followed him on his bike to his house. He'd never learned to drive, because he “just didn't feel like it.” When I was a teenager, my grandmother lost most of her eyesight and her ability to drive. I had no choice but to get my drivers license and take care of my own transportation.
At Caleb's rundown house, tucked into a grove of straggly trees alongside the railroad tracks, beer bottles glittered on the uneven yard. I parked my car in the crooked drive as Caleb leaped off his bike and tossed it aside, dark hair gleaming with sweat.
He didn't approach my car or wait for me to get out, just ran up the porch steps and into the house. The screen door clapped behind him. I walked toward the house, looking up at the white paint flaking off in huge chunks. Cracks splitting many of the windows were held together by yellowed masking tape. A waterlogged loveseat sagged on the porch.
Caleb came from a middle-class family. That he had chosen this poverty was stupidly alluring to me. It was a life that my family, who had lost our house and much of our savings, had actively striven to avoid. I had double-majored in college, hoping to land a practical and decent paying full-time job. Caleb had attended the University of Iowa as a philosophy major, but had quit after a couple semesters, insisting that the structure stifled him. He's like Kerouac, I thought, refusing to be tied down to bourgeois values. This was before I read “On the Road,” before I found out Kerouac's legend was more interesting than his work.
Caleb threw the door open and told me to make myself at home, gesturing to the living room with a sweeping motion. Huge brown splotches stained the sofa, so I stood, clutching my purse to my stomach. I was acutely aware and ashamed of the domesticity of my purse, with its cough drops, tampons, bits of Kleenex.
He grabbed a couple bottles of Redd's and nodded to the staircase. “Let's go sit on the roof.” His shoes thumped hollowly on the wooden steps.
“Sounds good,” I replied. It didn't sound good at all.
He led me into a bedroom that was vacant except for a few paperbacks flung across the dusty floor.
“One of our roommates moved out,” he explained.
I pointed to one of the yellowed books. Its spine was broken, its pages fanned out. “He didn't want to take ‘Valley of the Dolls’ with him?”
Caleb didn't laugh, and I felt stupid. He unlatched a window and opened it. The wood shrieked.
He put his foot through the window and told me, “Come on.”
I calculated the likelihood of falling off the roof and dying, becoming paralyzed, or at least breaking my limbs. I imagined myself as Humpty Dumpty shattering into a zillion pieces upon impact. My family would sweep my remains into a dustpan. My obituary would be vague, because my loved ones would be ashamed I'd fallen off a roof trying to impress a boy who wasn't even nice to me.
Although every cell inside my body was pleading to stay on solid ground, I followed Caleb onto the lowest part of the roof, the flat outcrop that jutted over the porch.
“Want to head up there?” he asked. He pointed to a part of the roof that was higher up.
“I think I'm good here for now.”
“I go up there all the time.”
"Sorry,” I answered. And I was sorry. I was sorry that my boundaries were putting a stop to his fun.
He shrugged, visibly exasperated, and sat down on the roof. He played some music from his phone, tinny and muffled.
“This is my friend's band.”
"Oh, cool. I like it,” I lied.
The evening descended over us, crisp and cool. After a while, he asked if he could kiss me, and I said yes. It was soft and nice, only partly ruined by my focus on not tumbling off the roof.
Caleb rolled his own cigarettes and listened to Joy Division. He lived with an age-ambiguous slacker named Coyote, and decorated his bedroom with memorabilia stolen from the Hancher Auditorium after the 2008 floods. Rebelling against good sense made Caleb cool, although there was just as much safety in his lifestyle as there was in mine. We both obeyed our own respective life scripts, and while I wanted to pull away from mine, Caleb was fully enmeshed in the comfort of having his identity formed by the world he built around himself.
I visited Caleb every weekend, and soon we were sleeping together. His skin was smooth and hairless, and it was like making love to a slightly more responsive sea cucumber. Mostly, our intimacy was awkward and hushed, our faces and bodies hazy in the dim orange light of his bedroom. He kept his eyes closed instead of looking at me, but I was content just to be kissed and touched by anybody.
One night, while making out on his bed, he asked, “Would you want to go to the cemetery and have sex?”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“Because it's fun. I've done it before, right underneath the Black Angel.” The Black Angel statue in Oakland Cemetery is supposedly cursed. Not only was Caleb's proposition illegal, but it seemed especially reckless to tempt the wrath of the supernatural.
“I'd rather not get arrested.” Or cursed.
He frowned and rolled away from me. “You're not very adventurous.”
My face burned. There was a fundamental difference between us, where he would do things just to do things, to say he did them. He took risks with no reward, only consequence. What was the difference between being adventurous and being immature?
“I guess not.”
His comment got to me, though. I'd been a fearful child who grew into a clinically anxious adult who overthought everything so much it made me sick. I was terrified of doing the wrong thing, so I actively avoided social engagements, travel, asking for a well-deserved promotion at work.
So when Caleb invited me to a house party at a stranger's house, I agreed. I wondered if he considered me his girlfriend. It was a question that felt rude to ask, and by bringing it up, I could cause the tenuous dynamic between us to crumble.
As always, I got to Iowa City too early and had nothing to do but drive around and wait for Caleb to get off work. I passed a nail salon with a neon sign in the window that blinked cheerfully, “Walk-Ins Welcome.”
A chronic nail-biter and pragmatist, I'd never gotten a manicure. To spend the money felt overly self-indulgent, and something as inconsequential as making small talk with the nail technician was daunting. I rarely even painted my own nails, unable to commit to a shade I wouldn't hate the next day. On a whim, I pulled into the parking lot and walked in.
I selected French tips, which the nail technician painstakingly glued on and then filed down until they were all even. My hands ached by the end.
When I met Caleb at his place, I held up my hands and waggled my fingers. “What do you think?”
He half glanced at my nails, looking up briefly from his task of cramming alcohol and mixers into his backpack.
At the party, I stood outside the house in a group of Caleb's friends, clumsily clutching a Sprite bottle that was half vodka in my new claws. Caleb didn't introduce me. Manners were not part of his freewheeling lifestyle. In the basement, we danced with each other in front of the pounding stereo. Or rather we danced next to each other, Caleb avoiding eye contact. My hands dangled heavy at my sides, the blood pulsing uncomfortably through my fingers.
When the cops arrived in response to a noise complaint, I feigned disappointment but was pleased I could now say I'd been to a house party so wild it'd been shut down by the cops, a very white and privileged brag.
We picked up our bottles and tucked them against our chests like we were carrying children to bed. Out on the sidewalk, Caleb stopped and asked me to unzip the bag on his back and place the liquor back inside.
I reached up with hands as heavy and clumsy as hocks of ham. My fingers thudded, swollen, and I struggled to grip the zipper without crying in pain.
“I can't,” I said. “My nails.” I held my hands out in front of me like Nosferatu.
He sighed and took off the backpack, unzipping it himself. “Why did you get those dumb things?”
“I just wanted to see what it'd be like.” The explanation felt childish and dumb, and I was embarrassed that something as simple as a manicure felt like taking a risk. Adventurousness was determined not be me, it seemed, but by the men who wanted me to be adventurous.
After the party, I stopped seeing Caleb as much. The last night I visited him, I sat on the bed and told him I wouldn't be coming over to see him anymore, because I liked him more than he liked me, and the casual sex wasn't good enough to keep me coming back.
“It makes me sad that you say that.” He sat cross-legged on the floor in front of a low table, rolling cigarettes that he tucked into a silver case.
“You don't want to date me, so I don't know what you want me to say.”
“You live at home,” he replied. “I can't date someone who lives with their parents. It's childish.”
I was so angry I gathered up my purse and jacket and left.
There was no epiphany after our breakup. If this had been a movie and I was the male protagonist and he the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, I would have developed a sudden sense of clarity about my identity and direction in life after leaving him for the last time. But I continued to date crappy guys, though they were each crappy in different ways. I had been taught it was the most I should hope for. “It's hard to find a good man,” my grandma had cautioned me over and over, but “good” according to her meant not physically abusive, financially self-sufficient, relatively sober — a low bar to clear. My eventual transformation into someone who doesn’t date jerks came gradually and unremarkably, from better education, from getting older and more impatient with being treated with casual disrespect. There was no special male catalyst to credit in retrospect.
A month ago, I closed my laptop, walked out of my home office into the living room, and announced “done,” to my boyfriend Jake. I had completed my last application to MFA programs for the admissions cycle.
“That's great!” Jake said, getting up off the futon to hug me. When he pulled back, his expression knotted with concern. “What's wrong?”
“Oh, just nervous,” I replied. I leaned in for another hug so I could bury my face in his shoulder and hide my apprehension. It was a discussion we'd had multiple times: I’d bring up the worst-case scenarios and Jake would patiently talk me down from worrying about them. What if I got rejected from every program I'd applied to? What if, like last time I submitted applications, I was admitted to a program but didn't receive funding? Equally daunting was the scenario in which I did get into a program and would have to leave my lukewarm yet well-paying job and move somewhere completely unfamiliar, where I had no family or friends.
“Hey, it'll be OK.” Jake stroked my hair and pulled back so he could kiss me twice, once on the cheek and once on the mouth. “Whatever happens, we'll figure it out. But if going back to school is really what you want to do, you should try. If it doesn't happen this time, you'll try something else.” Jake was the first man I'd dated who accepted the things that frightened me and encouraged me to surmount them in whatever way I felt was best, even if it sometimes meant failing. My ambition and value was self-determined, not contingent upon some image he tried to impose upon me.
Like my taste in men, my understanding of adventurousness has shifted with time and experience. To be adventurous doesn't mean being reckless for the sake of recklessness, nor does it mean doing things without fear; instead, it means taking risks that might not pan out and persevering even when I'm afraid. I still don't climb on roofs or fuck people in graveyards, but writing about myself and allowing that writing to be judged feels riskier. It also carries greater rewards. I’ll never get a French tip manicure again, but I have proven to myself that I can confront the parts of life that make me nervous. I can dive headfirst into the world, and even if I fall, I know I won’t shatter.