On letting go of the promises of later (sweater dresses included) and embracing the joy of now.
I remember being in the third or fourth grade and thinking that being an eighth grader would be about the best thing ever. One prize eighth grade promised was a seat in the back of the school bus, in the immediate proximity of some key personnel. For me, at that point, key personnel was someone I’ll call Matt Dillon, not because he actually was Matt Dillon, but because, to me, he might as well have been.
I had a huge crush on Matt Dillon. He was in eighth grade, and he was beautiful, dreamy, and didn’t say much—I imagine because he had to focus so diligently on maintaining his dreamy hunkiness.
Once, on the bus, I got brave enough to ask Matt Dillon to sign my autograph book (is that what those are called? Do kids still use these?), and he dreamily agreed. In it, he wrote something I thought was brilliant, passionate, rife with layers of meaning and romantic nuance, something that was basically: “Nice riding the bus with you. Later, Matt Dillon.”
I must have read that message a billion times, imagining him saying “Later” to me in his Matt Dillon voice, gritty like gravel and scratchy like facial hair stubble, and thinking that was the coolest, sexiest word I could ever hear: Later.
It was a word with so much promise. Later, you too will ride in the back of the bus with the eighth graders. Later, you will be grown up and sophisticated, an eighth grade movie star just like me. Later, I will be in love with you. Later, we will get married and have babies. Later, all your dreams will come true. Later.
I believed in Later for a long time, even though it kept getting to be that the Later I was looking towards and the things I thought would happen kept not happening or happening in ways entirely different from what I expected.
Once I reached the actual eighth grade, I think I did get to ride in the eighth grade part of the bus, but that was about it. Matt Dillon was long gone, and I was far from grown up and sophisticated. Rather, I was outfitted with braces and glasses, uncomfortable and awkward in my own body, and facing the impending loss of my father that year to lupus and bone cancer. Later had not turned out to be so amazing.
But, like a fish hooked by something shiny, I still clung to the lure of Later. And I was willing to overlook the fact that Later hadn’t panned out for age thirteen, because surely sixteen would be the ultimate Later. Then my life would take off. I would have shampoo commercial hair, I would be having adventures like those twins from Sweet Valley High, and surely, most certainly, I would have a perfect boyfriend. And all would be well.
But guess what? That didn’t so much happen either. I did have all kinds of successes in things like Forensics (public speaking, not science) and other extra-curriculars, in academics, in taking on leadership roles, and in making myself generally scholarship eligible. But I also had a perm that no one wanted to use for any advertising. And any promise of the sixteen year-old version of Matt Dillon coming in and saying he just had to be with me was completely and utterly unfulfilled.
Which leads me to what I now see as the crucial element of my Later—epic, cinematic romance with a Matt Dillon. I imagine Laters are specialized for each of us, like Sarte’s version of Hell, playing to particular weaknesses and yearnings—Money Laters or Career Laters or Body Image Laters. For me though, no matter how much other success or joy I found, I was always disappointed when it came to romantic expectations and thus roped back in by Later’s assurance that next time, Mr. Dillon would surely be present and accounted for.
I had a Later for being eighteen, a Later for being twenty-three and out of college, a Later for turning thirty. And then, the year I was thirty-two, after a few particularly lackluster versions of Matt Dillon, I had an epiphany and told Later to get lost. I decided I would be happy with myself, whether Matt Dillon showed up or not. I stopped letting myself be seduced by Later. Which catapulted me right into the Now. And being in the Now, as I think it often goes, led me to meeting a real live man, to falling in actual love, and to deciding to spend the rest of our lives together.
And I think somewhere in the “rest of our lives” concept, Later found a little crack in the drywall and scuttled back into my life. Later, when we’re actually able to relax together again. Later, when we’re not fighting so much. Later, when we’ve worked through all of our differences and reached that perfect compromised and blissful state. Later, when we’re old together and more in love than ever.
Two years into our relationship, I had forgotten my epiphany. Later started to be my sustenance, and I discovered again—the hard way—that Later, rather than delivering romance, is much more likely to demolish it when it’s right there in front of you. That Later is actually more like a tapeworm than a good meal. You feel full all right, but it’s with a parasite eating up anything that actually makes its way in to nourish you. And in that way, Later can get you very sick and landed in the emergency room.
And some sickness did find me two years after that, this past July, when my partner decided he didn’t want to be married anymore, and in more ways than one, said a big “Later” to me. He even offered me Later as some kind of consolation, as in, I can’t be with you now, but if we split up now, maybe Later. This time, Later was a decidedly not-sexy thing to hear, although definitely gritty and allowing me to realize that I could actually get cut and bloodied on the gravel. Like I did in the third grade, I have certainly replayed the words multiple times in my head, but this time as a way of dredging up the pain, a way of bringing the poison to the surface and clearing it again and again from my system.
This Later held no promise or joy or excitement for me, even and especially the maybe we can be together Later part. For a long time in my life, that kind of thing kept me going; I was even grateful for it. But now I see it for what it is. “Maybe we could be together Later” is just a glitter-glue coated version of “I don’t want to be with you now.”
And frankly, I don’t have the time or desire to wait for a tenuous and unreliable Later. I know laters are part of life’s cycle, and trust me, I still have hope and imagination. I can still enjoy working toward laters, like writing to the end of a book or reading to the end of a story or cooking to the end of a dinner. But I don’t count on Later; I don’t depend on it in the same way.
What I can depend upon is now, this moment I’m living. What I can do for myself is not to be so worried about what’s Later that I miss the gifts in the present. The sound of the wind rustling tree branches and playing haphazard melodies on my neighbor’s windchimes. The fact that I’m currently living my professional dream—writing and teaching and ritualizing life and sharing love. The dark roast coffee I am sipping. The sugary piece of funfetti cake I’m having for lunch, leftover from a gathering of an amazing group of women. My fingers slightly cold and typing, the sun pulsing through gray clouds outside my window. The warming smell of the nutty vanilla candle my mom got me for Christmas. In this moment. Now.
What I’ve also learned is that Later will creep up again, and that I am wise to stay vigilantly self-aware to notice it coming and promptly give it walking papers. And in my currently self-aware state, I can confidently say that for all I care, Later can go sit by itself on a school bus and dream about slow dancing in the perfect sweater dress to Air Supply. Without me. Later can have all of the autograph books it wants and get paper cuts filling them with empty promises that I will not read. Later makes me feel empty and sad and not enough, and I don’t wish that for myself.
But now? Now takes me by the hand and looks me in the eyes and says, I don’t want to be anywhere else, and I think you look hot in your bathrobe. Now lifts me up and puts me on its shoulders, handing me a twisty ice cream cone and saying, get up there and enjoy the view. Now curls up next to me and whispers into my ear, we can do whatever we want, and you can trust me and believe in me because I’m right here. And this, this I can live with.