Tertulia: Obligations


The pendulum swings in extremes before settling slowly.

Where do we draw the line between others and ourselves, between the sometimes-unreasonable demands of the head and the heart during assimilation?

Having recently moved in with my long-time lover, I am unsure where the proper boundaries lie. To be honest, I am not sure what is necessary anymore, or what isn’t, until it manifests in habits that have persisted, unrecognized, during my time alone. Such behavior only becomes evident in the presence of another.

After the abrupt end of a ten-year relationship characterized by too much accommodation on my part, I lived by myself for 17 years. Initially terrifying, the liberation became a revelation of sorts. I enjoyed the freedom living alone granted: the arrangement of furniture, the solitude, the coming and going that punctuated the unexplained structure of my life. I owned my time completely. I checked in with no one. No accommodation was required. It was a bit intoxicating.

I vowed never to concede so much again; I achieved it by avoiding commitment. It was a way of saying, “I’m not that invested so I can’t be hurt.”

“Alone” does not automatically mean “lonely.” Some of us function well in seclusion. But isolation can turn to a permanent condition. It can cripple and strand. A person can become as ice-locked as Shackleton’s stout Endurance, crushed in cold solitude.

We are social animals, of necessity. The crew who survived Shackleton’s failed Antarctic expedition did so because they had fortitude, courage – and each other.

But it doesn’t mean they didn’t rub each other raw during their year on ice.

Now, living with someone for the first time in 17 years, I’ve become acutely aware of my own neurosis. It wasn’t that I wasn’t neurotic before; it’s just that it’s in my face now, daily.

For example: I apparently can’t stand a door left open. I’m not talking about the wasted cold air from the refrigerator; I’m talking about simple cabinet doors. And I’m not talking left open for days, I mean moments. I find myself behind James – who has neurosis but not this particular form – clicking closed with an authoritative snap the cabinet door he left wide open. I don’t slam because I’m not angry. I’m not really even thinking about what I’m doing. I find myself in mid-shut realizing I’m as compelled as any OCD hand-washer. It’s momentarily embarrassing.

But I complete the act: I close that door. And I don’t know why.

I have other issues but I’m aware of them. They are rooted in control but they contain reason – or at the very least aesthetic. Towels should be hung to dry not left in a damp pile on the bed or a chair. I don’t like the sight of clothes dumped on the floor. Messy stains on the counter make me crazy, as does grease spatter neglected on the stove. And I have threatened to buy a shock collar, the kind for dogs that bark all night, and punish James with electricity each time I find a water bottle cap on the floor.

Perhaps surprisingly, I don’t much care about the toilet seat; I leave it down when I’m done so it seems fair that he leaves it up.  But the toilet paper roll, when empty, should be replaced. I keep extra rolls on the toilet lid for that purpose. I suppose one could argue that having emptied the roll there is no immediate need. I would argue there is always simple courtesy. But I shouldn’t take it personally to find that cardboard roll. On the other hand, if something is annoying it is generally better to speak its name sooner than later. Later collects resentment. And resentment always amplifies neurosis.

But it seems that some resentment is inherent to accommodation, whether it constitutes the intrusion on small guilty pleasures like a Walking Dead marathon; or the revelation of limitations, like a redundant dinner repertoire; or the larger issues of money and who is responsible for which household chores.

Accommodation is the foundation of cohabitation. We learn to let things go, or be, or we figure out what cannot be let go of. And we learn to communicate or we go back to living alone.

But some things only become apparent in the presence of someone else doing it differently. So now James and I are mirrors to the worst and best of us. And I roam the kitchen closing doors. I do so without chastisement of James – a door left open isn’t inherently wrong – but I’m not sure what the urge to shut reveals about me.

The lack of a point is irksome. Is it the jumble of pots and pans that bothers me? The plates are stacked, the coffee cups neat, so it isn’t disarray that offends my eyes. Perhaps I shut that door because the task is done. Or the gaping door suggests something unfinished, forgotten. I can’t say precisely what motivates me. I realize that this is a habit formed in solitude, when behavior sometimes go unnoticed and remains unremarkable until it rubs against some other trait outside our control and glares red as a beacon and sounds some dim alarm.

Living alone for 17 years, I kept things closed.  I suspect more than cabinet doors were shuttered. Throughout a romantic involvement that has spanned 12 years, the fact that James and I lived apart remained a way of saying, “I’m not too invested, so I can’t be hurt.”

It was never true. But I can’t console myself with that anymore.


Kellie Salome