It’s two weeks after E. and I start dating, and I am at Folklife, watching a 60-something-year-old drum majorette twirl her baton, hilariously, while sitting down. He is a few rows behind her, the only trumpet player under 60. It’s a good gag: the Ballard Sedentary Sousa Marching Band.
I go to all their shows.
I also go to many of the shows of E.’s other band, the one we call his “Bro Band” because it is full of guys he would never hang out with—nice enough, but married and living in suburbs so far away that it takes one of them an hour to get to practice. They play covers of radio hits we don’t listen to. The summer I am in England, co-leading a study abroad trip, they tease him about possibly having killed me. “Oh, Bryn’s ‘still in Europe’? Yeah, right, E.—it’s always the quiet ones.” He likes it when they tease him—it makes him feel like he belongs.
E. often doesn’t—in either band. He comes home from Bro Band one night, humiliated that he tried to make a joke about something and failed. He wouldn’t tell me what. He hates that they are learning a Maroon Five song. He gets tired of playing Sousa at the Leif Erikson Hall or the Ballard Locks, and complains about losing Saturdays to their gigs. “Why do you stay in?” I ask, as we walk to the car with his trumpet, waving goodbye to those who notice we’re leaving. “Oh, it’s kind of nice to keep my chops up. It can be fun.” He IS adorable in the old-school band uniform they give him to wear. He stays in the Bro Band because the lead singer is a friend of a friend.
I don’t mind being a band girlfriend, though I am considered the performer of the couple. I like watching him enjoy himself, know how much he loves playing trumpet, no matter his lukewarm commitment to either band.
But E. thinks I mind. He thinks I mind it when he leaves to go practice. Here’s the thing: that’s not what I mind. I mind that we have been together three and a half years, and he still sees his apartment, where he never sleeps, which seems to have become a very expensive underpants storage unit, as the place where he gets to do the things he likes. I mind that when I ask him why he doesn’t feel comfortable talking about getting married or moving in together, he can’t come up with an answer. I mind that when I ask him why he stays with me, then, that being in love and having fun don’t seem like good answers to him because he still feels like he’s losing himself, that I am the star, and he struggles to be heard.
But most of all, I mind that I see myself becoming part of his pattern: as our couples therapist will say near the end, “E. doesn’t say ‘no,’ but he relies on you hearing ‘maybe.'” He stays with his high school girlfriend (“we were just friends at first”) until late in college, when he begins what will be an eleven-year relationship with another woman (another friendship that become more). He stays and stays; even when he’s stopped being in love, he stays for two more years. And now there’s me. But I thought I was different because he had fallen in love with me from the start. I was thinking, I realize, like the star: never surprised by the groupies at the door, never considering that they might not ever feel like your equal, even if they got to know you.
When I hand him the paper bag with the remaining items left at my house (a hand-blender, a shirt, a small fox I’d given him, some sheet music), I ask him why he doesn’t want our life, one more time, again. “I always felt there was a tension,” he says, averting his eyes. I hear: “I never felt like I belonged.”
He has his Saturdays back now, and the late nights to work on editing photos—another activity he felt I kept him from. It was a habit he’d developed when he wasn’t in love anymore with the long-term girlfriend—working late into the night on projects, instead of lying in bed with her. He works and works, late into the night and never leaves the bedroom. His trumpet case sits on the floor with the music he needs to learn but doesn’t really like. He knows he will practice it, though. You have to know your part if you want to belong.