“I want to do fun things with him,” one twenty-something woman said to another as I sat behind them in the neighborhood cafe, eavesdropping. “I want to have fun together.”
Her friend leaned over the stack of nursing books between them to ask, “Where is he today?”
“Don’t worry, it’ll be different when you’re married – then you’ll be really together.” She gave her friend a half-hug, but the about-to-be-married-to-a-kayaker woman shook her head.
“I hope so. He used to take me rafting. We used to go on long walks near the river.”
I wanted to interject, to tell her how I’d been seduced by that dangerous thinking. Five years ago I met an extreme kayaker who chased the seasons instead of a salary. Skinny-dipping and swapping life stories under the full moon, life seemed perfect as weeks passed on the river and in his arms. Smitten by his quiet confidence, I ditched my own plans and followed him to Southern Appalachia to see if the life I’d dreamed of living near the river was actually possible.
I invented a story, extrapolating our future life together based on that magical month. I imagined us traveling to South America together, him to instruct kayaking, while I’d work on my boof and hone my writing, inspired by the adventures we’d no doubt have. I dreamt of the sweet cabin in the mountains that we’d return to and decorate with art we purchased during our travels. He’d loop me into his adventurous lifestyle and expand my horizons.
The woman confided to her friend how worried she was about her fiancé’s job prospects, how she couldn’t afford to support him and put herself through nursing school, and how she wanted to stop mothering him and instead have fun with him. But I didn’t say anything that afternoon in the cafe, figuring if she was anything like me, someone else’s words wouldn’t make a difference.
I had this thing about kayakers. Kayakers tend to be passionate, intense, and exciting and when they’re around, their personalities can be intoxicating. I saw myself in that worried nursing student – like me, she was a responsible professional and prioritizing the “right” things over the fun thing. And I worried for her, that in marrying a kayaker she might make the same mistakes I had made, that she would hope and wish for the attention of a man, waiting for him to take her to do the things she wanted instead of doing them herself, to expect that her partner would somehow turn her into the person she wanted to become instead of doing the work herself.
I thought back to a friend who attempted to intervene on my kayaker obsession. During a heart-to-heart after a bottle of wine she stared me in the eye and said, “You don’t need to date a Class V paddler. You’re already Class V.”
I disagreed, I didn’t paddle Class V. Or if I did, it was an easy Class V rapid that another paddler coached me down. No, I wasn’t a Class V boater nor did I have the guts or determination to become one.
I spent over a year yoking my aspirations to the path of that extreme kayaker. The more I expected of him, the more he retreated to the river. When he finally left, it sunk in that dating a kayaker and being a kayaker was not the same thing.
Somewhere along the way I forgot me. I love to travel. I love to run and practice yoga. I love paddling too, big splashy waves, without a lot of consequences. I love to hole up in cafes and write. I love pedicures and sharing deep conversations over bottles of wine. I had this dream of buying a sailboat and island hopping. I started to realize that living in the shadows of the extreme kayaker made me forget about who I wanted to be, about who I already was.
I saw with the clarity that time lends what my friend meant when she said I didn’t need to date a Class V boater. She was trying to tell me that I could live the authentic, righteous life I associated with that label, that I was already a pretty cool person, me, all by myself, without a man at all. Somewhere along the way I’d forgotten that.
I started to inhabit my own passions and dreams until an extraordinary thing happened. I realized I no longer relied on anyone else for my identity. The more I focused on my life and interests, the more I really enjoyed being me. I had become enough, more than enough, fully engaged in my life.
For the first time in a decade, I wasn’t crushing on, dating, or recovering from dating a kayaker. I went paddling after that day in the café and realized how much I still love being on the water. Moving with it and being near it energizes me and I wondered if perhaps I confused my love for rivers with loving kayakers. I thought about the nursing student as I paddled, hoping that she would go out and have fun on her own terms, whether or not her fiancé joined her. I hoped so.
I still believe in the fairy tale, for me and for that nursing student. But I’ve rewritten my version of it so that prince charming doesn’t have to wear a skirt, obsess over kayak porn, or disappear when it rains.