I would like to tell you that I’ve always known what I was meant to do with my life. I would like to tell you that I was certain my (now ex) husband was The One when I met him. I would like to tell you that I always definitely recognize the path that is meant for me when I see it. But if I told you those things, I’d be lying.
When you know, you just know.
I used to hate when people would say that to me when I wondered how to tackle big decisions. In my life, there have only been three times I was ever absolutely certain, and the man I married was not one of them.
“How do I know which university is the best for me to attend?” I asked. When you know, you’ll just know, they said.
“How will I know what career to pursue?” I questioned. You’ll just know, they said.
“How will I know if he’s the guy for me?” I moaned. When you know, you’ll just know, they assured me.
Most of my major life decisions — from where to move, to who to get serious about dating, to when to take the leap of faith — have been an inner struggle. The paths that were definitely not mine were easy to suss out; It was the roads that could be mine, if only I were brave enough to take a chance that have haunted me.
Immediately after I graduated from college, I went to Europe. I had never been and I wanted to see more of the world before I settled into a job and put down roots somewhere. In the back of my head, I had a feeling that if I could only be daring and adventurous, I might end up getting a job and living abroad for a few years. Before I left for my trip, I painstakingly packed away all my belongings into very well-organized and specifically labeled boxes and unloaded them into my mom’s garage. In the back of my head, I figured this would make it easy for her to ship me what I needed, if I did indeed decide to stay on in Europe and get a job and a flat.
The trip was marvelous and eye-opening. Though I stuck to the western nations, it was fascinating to see how people in other places lived; Instead of the McMansions we see peeking out from behind their wrought iron gates here in the US, whole families shared small two- and three-room farmhouses or urban apartments. People in the places I visited worked to live, instead of living to work as was modeled for me back home. There were hours-long lunches and afternoon nap times, followed by tea time and then late dinners. People didn’t hustle — always in a hurry to get to their next location — but ambled in the direction they needed to go. It felt relaxing and delightfully soothing.
I was charmed in particular by the ski town Chamonix-Mt. Blanc in the French Alps, in part because of the expansive views of mountains and trees and grassy valleys, and in part because there were people from all over the world who congregated there to ski or snowboard in the winter and practice extreme mountain biking, hiking, and trail running during the rest of the year. I made fast friends with a mixed group from England and Australia who all worked in various restaurants in town, and started envisioning my life there as well. One friend, Mike, was the chef at the hostel where I was staying, and he had come from Australia where he’d been working in kitchens since he was 15. By the age of 19, he was winning national medals for his cooking, but at 27, decided he wanted a better quality of life and a place to indulge in his love of extreme sports, so he moved to Chamonix.
One afternoon, I was poking around the refrigerator, looking for the salad dressing I’d bought the day before at the Super U grocery store, and I glanced over to see what Mike was preparing for that evening’s meal. He was deep frying potato quarters that he’d boiled and patted dry for a curried potato salad with galangal, lime, and oil, and the smell was intoxicating. We started chatting about food, and I told him if he ever needed help, I was willing. He glanced sideways at me, pointed with his knife to the cutting board laden with basil, and told me I could cut the basil.
“Do you want me to chiffonade it?” I asked as I tossed out the term I’d read about in Marth Stewart magazine: The method for plucking the leaves off the stem, piling them on top of each other, rolling lengthwise into a cigar shape, and finely slicing the delicate leaves so they don’t bruise and wilt. He turned fully around to scrutinize me for a moment and then nodded.
“You can help me prep dinner around 4pm each day,” he said. To my mind, this was a win-win: I got free cooking lessons from an award-winning chef and earned free dinners each night. I’m not sure what he got, or how much help I really was because it was my first time preparing food on a grander scale, but I loved it.
I stayed in Chamonix for a month and a half. I learned how to beat egg whites until frothy and then brush the whites over freshly-plucked rose petals before rolling them in superfine sugar and leaving them to dry and harder for dessert garnishes. I spatchcocked a chicken (laughing hysterically over the word spatchcock) and roasted it on a sheet pan with fresh lemon juice, champagne vinegar, salt, pepper, and butter for a golden crispy-skinned juicy chicken. I pureed soft, ripe pears with fresh tarragon, a tiny pinch of dijon mustard, salt, white pepper, and oil until it all thickened into a sweet and tangy vinaigrette for salad. I roasted fat slices of red peppers and purple onions in honey and balsamic vinegar until the skin was wrinkled and the veggies were just beginning to blacken at the edges. I made parmesan risotto with fresh thyme, stirring stirring stirring until it came together in a steaming creamy porridge.
And then? When my student visa was about to expire, I faced a choice: Return to the US and my safe life path, or stay on, get a work visa, and keep cooking. I agonized over the decision for weeks, but in the end, I didn’t choose the brave and exciting path. I was absolutely certain that I loved working with food — from perusing cookbooks to shopping to planning meals to executing them — but I didn’t just know that staying was without a doubt the right path for me. So, I came home, got a job that I didn’t necessarily care for, but which could pay the bills, and abandoned my dreams of a food-related career as I settled into being “responsible.”
A handful of years later, when I was dating the man who would become my husband (and then my Wasband), I also didn’t just know. He seemed like a nice guy, he sure put in a lot of effort to woo me in the early days, and my friends liked him, so I kept dating him. When I voiced my concerns to my friend Jenna, she asked me if I had fun when I was with him. Yessss? I replied, hesitantly. She laughed, and then counseled me to keep seeing him as long as I was enjoying the time we spent together. When he proposed after we’d been dating for 5 months, I got swept up in the idea that someone wanted to marry me, and I got excited about planning the huge party. The cake! The menu!
He and I bickered a little about where we wanted to hold the ceremony and receptions — I had grown up first attending and then working at a summer camp and I loved the idea of holding the ceremony among the trees at the river’s edge in a place that was so meaningful to me; His friend circle had all had fancy beautiful weddings (at a winery, renting out a fancy villa, on top of a mountain, or a destination wedding in Maui) and he felt pressure to do something in line with their weddings, but unique and not the same.
The only time I had a calm sense of just knowing is when I saw my wedding dress. This was my second certainty. I knew my husband-to-be hated lace so I discounted the dresses I might otherwise have gravitated to in favor of more simplified and streamlined options. And then, as I was ruling out option after floaty, lacy, strapless option, I saw a Chinese silk off-white tiny strapped v-neck ruche-bodiced dress with an asymmetrical skirt (half mermaid, half A-line) that I loved. It was the first dress I tried on, and though I was reasonably certain it was mine, I tried on five or six more, just to be sure before going back to that first dress. I felt elegant in this dress that was a mix of classically old-Hollywood glam, and modern.
Of course, just about everything that could go wrong with the wedding plans did, and looking back, I wonder now if it was a sign from the Universe for me to run, to not proceed. But I was nearing 30, and he was the best guy I’d ever dated up until that point, and he wanted to be with me and still treated me well at that point, so I ignored the signs, closed my eyes, and whispered to myself, “The dress doesn’t matter. The food doesn’t matter. The DJ doesn’t matter. Those are all perks, but the only thing that matters is that we are married at the end of the day.”
If I hadn’t been steadfast and certain that he was my forever going into the marriage, I also wasn’t absolutely sure that splitting up was the best path. I knew I was miserable, and that I couldn’t sustain how things had been between us, but I was still holding hope to see the man I’d first met all those years ago. I was seduced by nostalgia and who he’d purported to be, and I was still grasping onto a flimsy thread of expectation that he also wanted to be the person I’d originally met and loved. It took us nearly four years from the very first time we truly discussed divorce and which assets would go to who before we finally make it official, but even when the judge signed the decree (and I knew I didn’t want my ex back), I was still filled with regret. I mourned what could have been, what should have been, what I could have done differently, and questioned why he refused to put in an ounce of effort.
It wasn’t until I met my partner that I felt my third certainty. And though he is different from who I thought I’d end up with, life with him feels calm. It feels safe. It just feels right.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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