Chicago Portrait no. 46: We’re Gonna Make It Because They Didn’t

You wrote something called, “If our parents couldn’t make it, how could we?”

Something kind of sad and pretty played, and you danced with the girl who is always my stand-in, when you write these kinds of things. I don’t know why exactly, but I also kind of get it. Of everyone in the company, she is the one that can play me, I guess. She and I are the most closely linked, through writing and shared projects and the hair on our legs and our cute nasal voices. We’re both mousy and cute and would have been described in another decade with words like “spunky” and “plucky”.

But as I watched you put your hands on her shoulder and waist and sway to the music and imagined myself there, dancing on a stage in a black box like we did in 2011 when our relationship was new, I can’t follow or condone your premise at all. You’re worried that because our parents are divorced, with bad blood and alienation and death separating them, that we two must befall a similar fate. That we, too, will come to hate each other and be destroyed by that pain.

But I think you’ve got it all backwards, really. I love you, and I think normally your words cut through the bullshit and to the quick far better than mine do and without any of the preciousness. But this time, I really think the way you’re looking at this is wrong. We do not have to live in our parents’ quivering wakes. We can climb on top of their corpses, and reach the surface of the world.

Compare yourself to your parents, and contrast me with mine, and I think you’ll see immediately how many legs we have up. We are already nearly 30 but we haven’t married anyone hastily or desperately or as a way to win an argument. You and I have suffered lackluster first relationships, and bad, abusive second ones, and still we have not married; instead, we moved on. You and I never settled for the first seemingly loving person to wander into us, or even the second, and probably not even the third. We did not trap ourselves so quickly, like our parents did.

You and I loved ourselves enough to end things when we realized they were toxic. We suffered for too long and it fucked us up, it’s true, but we never let it destroy us or end our creative lives. We ended the relationships. We got away from the bland ones and the lackluster suburban contentment they promised — running north, running west, both heading to Chicago.

We loved ourselves enough, eventually, to not be cheated on or berated. We found the words or the silence that said “no”, and we closed ourselves off from those who purported to love us but did nothing but break us and splinter our wills. We lived alone even when that was menacing. We got depressed, but also found the quiet joy that comes from that kind of freedom. We also learned to form friendships that would sustain us when love was nothing but a drain.

We do not have children, with each other or with anyone else, nor do we feel obligated to. I can tell you how much pregnancy disgusts me and how terrified I am of the havok it would wreak on my body, and you can agree. You can empathize. You never tell me it makes me invalid or cold or inhuman like the other ones did. I will never force you to join me in this endeavor, or see you as immature or incomplete if you don’t want it. We have always used protection and planned and therefore have not saddled each other with tiny copies that will lash us forever together, the way our parents did with us.

We do not hate ourselves the way our parents sometimes did. Look how far society has come since they were young! Look how far we are from the self-defeating, insecure people that the times forced them to be. Look how liberated we are from the caprices of gender and tradition and religion and race, how mutable the social lines our that kept our parents boxed in.

My father hated his nose. He was so certain he was ugly that used to apologize to me for his genetics, for the fact that I’d inherit some sign of them. He was absolutely prostrate in his grief, and could not comprehend that he was in any way attractive or lovable. My mother was quiet, once paralyzingly shy. When she was young, she was self-conscious of her shape, and never knew how pretty she was, and didn’t stand up for herself often. Or so I gather. Now I have her shape and his nose and I know that I am beautiful. Now I have his tone of voice shoved into her face and I know how to speak up for myself, and I know I can be choosy in whom I love.

Your father is a sweet person who seems to have been taken advantage of, who was silenced into never seeing you or loving you until you were grown up. Your mother is a bigot with a sourpuss face and a tendency to flee every city that she suffers in. You are a beautiful blend of their best physical features, and can wield silence as a weapon or a shield, tactically, to keep yourself safe. Your mother’s overly histrionic facial expressions are of use to you when you act; your father’s self-defeating niceness is reserved only for me and a few other people you trust. Their hatred for each other helped you to be selective but adoring in how you use trust. The way they separated and moved far, far from each other taught you how to find the place that would be your true home.

Our parents had so many restrictions placed upon them, though a great number were self-inflicted. They were drawn to each other but could not cleave their relationships in a healthy or loving way. They got in too deep too soon, and got trapped in social strictures that they didn’t want, and which didn’t suit them. They could not communicate. They either fought, or went silent. Their children watched them come undone, crouching behind couches or while pretending to play video games. Our parents could not stop hating themselves, or could not change the singular trajectories of their lives. Eventually they divorced and dated, or remarried, or found some other path, but it took them forty or fifty years and an onslaught of irreparable trauma to do it.

Look at where we are, holding each other atop the desiccated cadavers of their loves. We can see over the surface of the waters that drowned them, and gasp the clean air as we gaze over the undistorted horizon, at the long expanse of the world we’ve inherited. We can make it despite the fact that they didn’t. No, we can make it because we were there when they failed.

Originally published at

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