When my train broke down in Gurnee, Illinois, Romantic Prospect drove an hour outside of Chicago to claim me. It was our third date.
As the sky blushed pink then navy, I thought back to a former relationship, one I’d maintained for six years. I could count maybe five times during that stretch when my ex volunteered to pick me up anywhere in the city, let alone a far flung suburb known only for its outlet malls. Sure she drove me places. Sometimes when I was sick I’d request a ride to or from work. If it rained, I’d offer to buy her a caramel macchiato in exchange for a lift. Every weekend we’d head to Whole Foods and she only asked for gas money occasionally. But she rarely offered. And often, a ride would be accompanied by a martyred sigh or the phrase “If that’s what you need.”
A friend and I have a long-standing argument about the word “nice.” An overrated term, I’ve told her. “Kind” is more specific, “generous” more explicit, “caring” more descriptive overall. She disagrees. Being nice, she says is the cornerstone of a good relationship. As an attribute, “nice” is more important than “smart.”
When I’ve catalogued the characteristics I looked for in a partner, “nice” hasn’t made the top five.
Those qualities ranked higher than “nice.” Or so I believed.
When my train broke down in Gurnee, the situation pulled up a panic so deep and wild it could only connect to my childhood. Abandoned after school! Stuck at a sleepover! What if my parents never come back? Those were the sort of fears it evoked. I wasn’t stranded; a second train would arrive in several hours. Plus, I have friends who would drive across two states if I asked. Yet somehow no matter how disconsolate I’d felt in that long-term relationship, having no girlfriend to phone shook me. Had I called, of course, my ex would’ve sighed into the phone. “I just sat down to eat,” she would have said, like she had when my mom got sick and I asked her to come to the hospital. Or “can’t I get a second to myself?” Like when I got mugged and I wanted her help searching nearby dumpsters in case the guy with the gun had ditched my leather bag and books.
Humans are superb adapters. Hot weather? We sweat more. Stranded on an island? We find a volleyball to talk to. And in a relationship we compromise. We adjust our expectations. We make do. Especially when a relationship’s certain elements benefit us. Is she kind to animals? Does she make a decent living? Well, so what if she can’t miss a movie’s opening credits without turning sulky? The trick is to consciously determine which traits you can accept as part of the package and which will eventually make you feel like shit.
My ex isn’t a bad person, but as a person, she’s not good for me. Right back at you, she might say. Who I am taxed her in ways I can’t readily conceptualize, left her unwilling to extend herself, or afraid to say no. To her, my lack of car felt burdensome. My request for support in a crisis seemed unmanageable. Or so I now assume.
In a relationship’s sprawling cityscape, such incompatibilities may seem minor, but in the cracks they create, loneliness blooms. And relationship loneliness is single loneliness’ pernicious half-sibling. Manipulative, unexpected, it fast freezes you where you stand. If I feel like this in my cozy relationship, you think, how much worse will I feel with no one to press my spine to at night? And so you stay. And you compromise so hard you forget what you want. Or maybe you never quite knew. Maybe you privileged the wrong attributes and remained ignorant to those you truly required.
After Romantic Prospect volunteered to pick me up in Gurnee, I stood in a field next to a shabby apartment complex and worried I’d fucked everything up. I was selfish to accept a ride rather then wait near the train’s silver body for another to tow us into Chicago. It was too much to ask too early. I was too much. My ex-girlfriend had told me that for years.
As RP pulled up, I hesitated, not sure I recognized a car I’d seen only twice. But when RP came around to the passenger’s side to open my door for me, what I did recognize was something deep and real and resonant. I recognized the importance of the word “nice.”