When I was 22, in the careless days of my mostly drunken youth, I was coming out of relationship with someone, who for a variety of reasons, wasn’t terribly cool about my class background. Which had grown to be pretty standard operating procedure; I had grown to expect my best-case scenario to not be treated like nuclear waste. The words “damaged goods” had been used more than onceThings had gotten so bad that I was mostly just grateful when they managed to make it through a half an hour without saying anything terribly offensive. And if they laughed? I was so starved for the way love is expressed through laugher that I fell in love with just about anyone who laughed before they expressed horror. This experience and four years of frustrating battles with my peers and staff at Stanford had turned me into a cynical, angry, radical pain in the ass. After ending a relationship with one of the most stereotypical privileged white male social justice dudes (hereafter known as PWD) you’ve ever met, after having him spit venom at my sister and refuse to come with me to funerals when I needed him, and of him crying about how hard his life was, while I was just trying to keep my students and myself alive, I said something stupid which now has come back to get its karmic retribution. I said I wasn’t going to date privileged men anymore. At first I was joking, then I started saying it out of spite so that I could horrify my female peers, then I became deadly serious. Those of you who have followed my blog the last several years will remember this as the relationship I had to flee from last year.
There were a lot of reasons why PWD didn’t work out when I was younger, and one of them was that our class backgrounds were so vastly different and he was deeply disturbed by mine. This is probably normal; hanging out with me is like having to deal with cognitive dissonance whiplash all day. I’m sure it was stressful and frustrating and because this person lacked empathy and context and I recognize that it was trying. I also recognize after almost two years of a relationship that made me hate myself that my banning of his “kind” was probably justified as a reaction to the fact that actually he had been incredibly causal and self-righteous about being emotionally abusive. The problem with that reaction is that it lumped a whole group of men together, that shouldn’t have been lumped together and that I, of all people, should have known better.
The relationship I fled from, didn’t work for a variety of reasons. We have very different approaches and attitudes towards life. It turns out that I reserve my kindness and patience for my students and seem to have a much harder time accepting and making excuses for dudes when they don’t perform like me. He didn’t want the kind of intellectual life I wanted and admittedly, it probably is pretty draining to hang out with me ALL DAY and listen to the insane variety of thoughts and reading I do and have to try to keep me intellectually entertained, especially because in my case, boredom leads to depression. Which is to say, that part of the reason our relationship didn’t work was the also the difference in our class backgrounds. We had grown up in the same neighborhood, but I was too far into being a Stanford alum for us to work. There was no way to go back once I left and I never fully belonged in the first place.
So I left that and I moved down to LA. I started hanging out with Ross, as friends for a long time. We had a lot conversations about what words meant because it turned out that words meant different things to us because our backgrounds were so different. But the point was that he had the conversation. We also had conversations about what words meant because we both have the intellectual habit of needing to pick apart words. My past isn’t exactly easy for me to hide (I may be white but no one believes my ass didn’t grow up poor, even when I’m trying to pass it takes the average rich person about 5 minutes to figure out I am not one of them, less if they are exceptionally smart or wise or if I’m not trying really hard to code switch) and Ross had read a lot of my writing for a long time. He read my memoir in its initial draft and I kept sort of expecting him to have the kind of breakdown guys used to have. I mean, I’m used to making dudes cry because of my childhood. So used to it in fact that I stopped talking about it, not because its triggering or unpleasant for me but mostly because it is unpleasant for everyone else. The breakdown I was expecting him to have never occurred, and I could tell you its partially because he’s technically a deviant among the rich and has always hung out with working class people or because he’s an incredibly imaginative writer but both of those don’t get at the root of it, which is that he’s just incredibly empathetic and sees people as people. And if I were still the same 22 year old shithead I once was, I probably would have seen none of it.
Since I had only strayed far from my own class background and only seriously once when I was much younger and no one believed there was any danger of me settling down with anyone, I sort of didn’t expect any backlash from my friends about this. I mean, for inter-racial stuff, sure. I expected that. We don’t talk about these cross-class relationships often, sometimes we talk about mixed-race relationships but given that Ross is Jewish and I’m mostly just trailor trash with some native thrown in and therefore incredibly pale, we didn’t really have the cross-race issues. Although Ross was raised Jewish and I was raised by “recovering Catholics” our actual religious and political views are very neatly aligned. Although we still have conversations about culture and I will never understand the way Ross experiences the world as a Jewish person, this rarely poses much conflict for us. But the class difference is vast, tangible and present. So when my friends started expressing their concerns about his background, they didn’t really have a choice but to frame it in terms of class.
Some of my friends thought Ross was doing the intellectual equivalent of “slumming it”, meaning that while he found me fascinating in an exotic way he’d eventually wisen up and end up with his own “kind” because of my inherent inferiority in his mind. In other words, they assumed that he is so classist that despite my two degrees from Stanford, he would always look upon me as inferior to the girls who were raised rich. Besides being super personally offensive to Ross, this argument, understandable though it was, eventually came to really hurt me. Because it denied the half of myself that actually shares the fact that Ross and I are both also elite graduates from the same institution. My community never lets me forget that I’m not all the way from the hood anymore. But it also hurt, because even supposing that Ross should see my class background as inferior it meant that my friends saw few redeeming qualities that another sane and not blind human being should see. Like I dunno, the fact that I’m a good cook and I give massages. Or that I’m incredibly compassionate. Or that I’m entertaining and funny. You know, the other traits that define me besides my pain and struggle. The things that have allowed me to thrive despite struggle, all those cool, wonderful things that my community claims to see are in fact visible to other people who are not from my class background.
Some of my male friends from working class backgrounds had more specific concerns related to a lifetime of having to compete with men like Ross. Some of them sort of viewed him as your stereotypical villain from the movies. This happened for good reasons; I have countless well educated working class male friends that have actually had girls break up with them because they had less money. This struggle is very real and I have very much fed into the perception that owed it to the community to stay away from privileged dudes. I had become a symbol in their minds, and because I had been so loudly against marrying people for money (I am still am because its immoral and a shitty way to treat people), they kind of assumed that I’d be one of the “good girls” and stay within my community. It took nearly four weeks before I realized how much I believed in my responsibility to the community and to the men I grew up with but it couldn’t change the basic fact that I fell in love. I struggled with my guilt for months, worried most of all about what message it would send to my male friends. For his part, Ross felt he couldn’t really challenge this, he said he understood how they felt because he’d feel that way too. But at the end of the day, my affection and loyalty to Ross won out. He had to fight hard for that, because for me the fact that he came from money was more of a barrier than an enticement and because I didn’t trust him. To avoid making this thing too long I’ll skip the listing of hoops he had to jump through, but suffice it to say he jumped through them, probably getting a few burns in the process because he saw enough in me to overlook how difficult this was going to be. And just so we are clear, both Ross and I understand and understood these concerns. Ross anticipated them far better than I did and sometimes had to explain them to me. These concerns are borne out of oppression and anger and a lifetime of bad experiences. They were concerns that not long ago, I too would have held. However, none of this makes it any less stupid.
The reason I call it stupid is because it reduces two very complex people down to a single identifying marker. It makes us our demographics and ignores the fact that although the both of us are probably compatible with literally no other person on the planet, we somehow work well for each other. We like to refer to this a “complementarily cray.” It isn’t enough that our intellects are well matched, I have lots of very smart friends, it is also that through some weird magic we happen to have very similar ways of looking at things while simultaneously making each other better people. I can feel the physical difference of his pressance, I am in less pain now than I have ever been in my life. He manages to keep my anxiety in check. We finish sentences and somehow really like living with each other when we’d be terrible roommates to anyone else (as always, a continuous apology to anyone who has ever had to live with me). And we’ve both been on the planet long enough to know how rare that is, how hard it is to find fellow mutants whose mutations happen to work in complementary and not destructive ways.
I can’t tell you how many times in the last year someone close to me told me that if I held a high intellect as one of the central standards in my dating life that I would die alone forever or that it was going to be really hard to find someone who would tolerate my intelligence because apparently really smart women are lepers. But again, this was understandable. This was not untrue. It was just shitty on an individual level. It had been suggested that I make more of an effort to appear stupid to attract men or that I let go of my long standing Bonnie and Clyde fantasy in the name of stability. This idea has been with me for as long as I can remember, which is to say that for as long as I have been old enough to date I have had the perception of myself as somehow untouchable because of my brain. So when an actual genius tells you that he loves that you are smarter than him and that he tells his friends you are smarter than him and demonstrates that he really means it by the respect he gives your intellect, you certainly aren’t going to just take that lightly. But I was not prepared for that actually happening in real life so sometimes I settled and sometimes I settled on being alone. I’ve been lucky because my parents have a really good marriage going back almost a decade and a half under absolutely insane conditions. The lesson I learned from my parents is that marriage is only worth it if you find someone as compatible with you as my parents are with each other. So this was a precondition for me and because everyone kept telling me this was impossible, I started making lots of jokes about ending up alone with cats. Then this dude had to come along and ruin all my fantasies about solitude.
The funny thing about this is that our even matched intelligence meant even matched neurosis. You know all those annoying traits I had when I was younger? The detachment? The commitment-phobia? The intentional attempts to push everyone away from me before they can hurt me? Yeah. I was SUPER FUN to date. Suddenly gives you a new perspective on it when you have to watch your own behavior reflected in someone you really love. Might mellow you out. Might make you less of a hypocrite. Might also make you more understanding and compassionate. It might also make both of you a giant pain in the others’ ass for several months. But what it’ll definitely do is grow your ass the fuck up.
So I’m typing this from Los Angeles because we both did some growing as people in directions that were not part of either of our plans. I’ve learned that Maya Angelou was right, love costs all that you are and ever will be and yet it is only love which will set you free.