The Importance of Scraggly Edges

I’ve spent the last three days putting down flooring in the big, old house that Nova and I are sharing. I’m installing click-together woven bamboo (with the help of a family member to ensure that I don’t cut any fingers off with the table saw), and it is amazing. I love it. Seriously, I’m thinking of going out and moonlighting as a flooring installer (although I am painfully aware that, as flooring goes, engineered wood installed ‘floating’ — i.e., without glue, nails, or other sticky substances to hold it to the building around it — is probably the easiest and least mess-up-able type you can put down, with the possible exception of carpet). It’s awesome.

There’s just something about setting the wood together, pressing it down, and hearing it click together. The bamboo is engineered with little edges and lips, and when it’s set in the right position, it just ‘clicks’ into a puzzle-like formation. Keep going, and pretty soon (read: like three hours later), it becomes a walkable, completed wooden floor. Sure, it needs a lot of solid whacks with a hammer to make sure the wood is in position, because it’s easy to have pieces just slightly out of alignment and not realize it, but with some physical exertion and concentration, the entire floor comes together. It’s like solving a puzzle, except way more satisfying. Out of the way, tabletop puzzles! I’m building floors now.

One of the most rewarding parts of floor creation is the exactness of the finished project. Once all the wood clicks together, it’s almost impossible to imagine the boards as the puzzle-edged, multi-layered miracles of modern engineering that they seem coming out of the box. The top layer is immaculately smooth except for careful, engineered waves of texture, emulating the flow of real hardwood in woven strands of supposedly super sustainable bamboo (although as with anything labeled ‘sustainable,’ controversies exist). But the sustainability factor isn’t the point. The point is — despite the mottled, weird edges coming out of the box, everything looks perfect once it goes together.

It tickles me, then, given how much I love that click-together perfection, how disturbed I was when my first date, back in college, came together, externally, quite like that click-together bamboo. On the surface, everything was smooth and stereotypically perfect. But under the surface, my emotions felt a bit like the wrangled edges of that engineered bamboo, smashed together against some constricting, uncomfortable pattern and screaming to escape.

My first date came about, almost by accident, in my sophomore year of college. I hadn’t dated during high school — see my earlier post about my attitude toward my middle and high school colleagues — and during most of college, I was far more academically focused than I was romantically inclined. I knew parties, football games, and wild dates were ‘supposed to be’ part of college, but I was also totally uninterested in them. I was more intrigued by my classes than I was by the idea of going on a bender, and I didn’t see why I needed to attend sports games to enjoy college when I had a mild hatred for the five-letter s-word. And dates? Well, I wanted to do those, but they were always somewhere around priority #16. I had club events and school and friends to attend to first.

So when I made the offhand comment to a friend, “And someday, maybe I’ll actually go on a date!”, I was flabbergasted when he responded, “I thought that was what we were doing.”

We’d met in a college club, and despite my shyness and periodic aversion to people, we’d become close friends. We had gotten to the point where we would go on long, long walks talking about anything and everything (and I’m proud to say that, despite the many ups and downs in our friendship, those walks still happen today), and we were on our way back from a local bookstore, which was about a 40-minute walk from campus.

Now, despite my knee-jerk reaction against romantic relationships, I go all in on friendships. I deeply enjoyed this friend (we’ll call him Steve, and he’ll come up a couple of times on the blog…he’s actually one of the key reasons Nova and I met each other, but that’s a story for a different post), and I saw nothing out of place in taking a four-hour walk with him and discussing everything from politics to family to hopes and dreams to misspellings on street signs. Conversation flowed easily, we enjoyed discussing disagreements as much as agreements, and we shared a love of esoteric, geeky references, although his were more computer science−oriented and mine were more anime. To me, that said good friends. To Steve, that said potential romance.

Looking at our conversations through a more romantic lens, I absolutely see how he came up with that. In person and at the time, I was floored.

After some backpedaling and panicked thinking, I did, within the next twenty-four hours, agree to go on a date with Steve. And here’s the thing — it flowed perfectly. And it left me in panicked, terrified tears, not knowing what was wrong.

We went out as a group with the school club we had met during. Then we went for a walk afterward, and I let him hold my hand. (Cue squiggly, frightened, uncomfortable things in my stomach — to borrow a description from Rhys Ford, butterflies with razors for wings.) I followed the script in my head. We wandered back to the dorm; we cuddled for a while, sitting on my bed. (Seriously. His arm was around my shoulders and we talked with my roommate. That was it. And somewhere inside, my guts were saying, no-no-no, weird-weird-weird!) Then I walked him out, and he kissed me goodbye.

I went back inside, sat quietly for a few moments (my roommate had gone out with friends, and she later told me it was to give me some privacy with Steve), called a friend, and started bawling.

On the surface, everything had gone flawlessly. We’d chatted, we’d been comfortable together, we’d shown some mild affection, and we’d ended the evening on a positive note. And by that point, my emotions were telling me, loud and clear, NO. But I hadn’t been listening.

I couldn’t understand what felt wrong. I had followed the script for romance that I had in my head, both as a product of television and books and friends’ stories, and as a result of having written plenty of romantic fanfiction in my day. I knew what romance was supposed to look like, and by all measures, we’d achieved that look with our first date. Sure, it wasn’t a whirlwind romance, but that would have been out of character for me anyway. On a fiction level, we had created an appearance of sweet and sincere romance.

But to my consternation, the appearance of romance hadn’t created the feeling of romance. And I simply could not understand why.

I didn’t realize, despite or perhaps because of my near-constant interaction with fictional romance, that we all have a lot of little jiggly edges underneath. And maybe finding the right person is less about tracking down someone with whom the outer layer looks flawless, and more about listening to the craggy edges and making sure nothing too critical gets uncomfortably compressed or cracked off. After all, we are each beautiful and complex individual boards before we try to come together and be anything in conjunction, and relationships shouldn’t be things we have to force ourselves into with a few solid whacks of a rubber mallet. (Although hitting flooring boards with a mallet to make them align? A wonderful stress reliever, let me just say.)

So the goal has to be finding someone with whom the squiggly edges work well, not the surface paneling. But I think the goal also has to include knowing which of those squiggly edges can be comfortably compressed, and which ones need to be protected at all costs. Figuring out the difference between the “taking risks” edge (which was certainly compressed on that date), the “agency in one’s own actions” edge (which I was ignoring), and even the “attraction” edge (which was screaming out, in its own unique way, that it was not interested at all, at all!), and figuring out which ones of those truly matter. The difficulty there? Just like we can’t necessarily see underneath others’ beautiful paneling, we can’t always see our own scraggly edges, either. Sometimes it takes a long time to feel out the pieces pressing up against our contours of self, and to introspectively construct the reality of who we are and who we want to be. Dates — failed and successful — can be stepping stones on the way to that knowledge, because they force us to think about ourselves in close connection with other people, and to ask ourselves: This person I am when I am with him or her… is that who I truly want to be?

I am grateful to Steve, and to our attempted date, for helping me realize some components of myself that, while I hadn’t yet addressed them in depth, I still wasn’t ready to compromise. It took me a long time, and a great many conversations with Steve himself, as well as Nova and others, after that date to realize that my sexuality was a major component of my emotional response. But that one semi-perfect, semi-disastrous date gave me a pivotal moment from which to work on my own self-definition, as well as the motivation to do something about it. After all. Crying isn’t all that out of the ordinary for me, but sobbing as a result of a seemingly positive, not super eventful first date? That’s a little bizarre. As Nova said, “If you cry after a guy kisses you, that’s a really clear sign that it’s not working.” It wasn’t. And the depth to which “it” wasn’t working was an integral part of my decision to work on figuring out why, even though that figuring-out process took many experiences over a span of almost five years. The work is still ongoing.

So you might say that first date, or more accurately my unexpected emotional response to it, was the impetus for this blog series exploring relationships and sexuality and how those two overlap with the person I want to be. I don’t want to be the person with the shiny, linked up surface connections — and honestly, I never have. I want to be the person with awesome, supportive and inspirational connections for the underlying intricacies. That’s why I form such deep friendships. It’s why I open my house to friends and ask them to move in for indefinite periods of time. It’s why I love people, and why I care.

Perfect click-together surfaces are for engineered bamboo pretending to be hardwood — marvels of technology, cobbled together from quickly-regrowing substances and mass-produced with immaculate identicality. That’s great for floors. But for people?

Give me the whorled gnarls of an old piece of oak any day. Give me the textured reeds of prairie grass. Give me the papery bark of a birch tree, littering the soil around the new sprout of a rose.

Engineered perfection can stay on the floor.

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