Pay Attention to How People React to Joy
Joe and I met when I was thirty-seven and I was consumed with panic that I was never going to get married or have kids. (Spoiler alert: I never got married or had kids). It didn’t help that Joe was gorgeous, half Armenian, half Irish with dark hair, beautiful skin, a deep voice, nice chest, and an incredible jaw line. We both loved hiking and being outside. We both loved to cook, and the sex was hot. (Or so I thought, until I started reading his emails, a story for another day).
He was it. I had him, so I didn’t need to chase, but I started doing other crazy chase-like things like planning our wedding without telling him. I didn’t actually call any venues or spend any money, but I did have a folder on my desktop with cool places to get married in Michigan, where he grew up and talked about constantly.
I fantasized while stopped at red lights about succulent centerpieces, wondering if I would regret not having standard roses. To be fair, he did the same thing. When I was about to buy a new mattress, he told me to wait. “We’ll be living together soon.” And with this one sentence, I was pushed over the edge into delusion.
Because I lost my mind in the pursuit of marrying Joe, I ignored important things. Early on Joe told me he used to smoke a lot of pot. “Everyone did!” I said throwing my leg over him. “No,” he said staring at the ceiling “a lot.”
I soon saw what he meant. A few months into our relationship he started smoking again, and it turned out that “a lot” meant smoking before work, smoking when he got home from work, smoking while driving from San Francisco while I was in the car, paralyzed with fear that we were going to get pulled over and arrested.
He became irritable and withdrawn. But I ignored this because he was going to be my husband and I was going to shock everyone with succulent centerpieces at our wedding.
One day we took a day trip to Santa Cruz island, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of California, with the idea that we would hike around and stare at tide pools. I packed gourmet sandwiches, excited to impress Joe that I could take care of him in this way. We saw so many thousands of dolphins on the ride over that Joe had to pull me back into the boat after I almost fell overboard trying to get close to one of them, laughing at my deadly obsession with animals.
When the island came into view, I froze. It looked exactly like the cover of my favorite childhood book, The Island of the Blue Dolphins. “So weird,” I started chattering. “It looks just like the cover of this book that I loved as a kid. I don’t get it. It’s exactly the same as the cover.”
A nature guide in dark green shirt stretched over huge pecs overheard me and turned to me smiling, clearly relishing this moment. “Yeah, this is the island that Scott O’Dell based the book on. You’re on the island of the blue dolphins.” He couldn’t stop grinning — this obviously wasn’t the first time he had broken this news to former shy girls who kept this book next to their bed growing up.
“Joe!” I screamed, now jumping up and down “THIS IS THE ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS!” I skipped (yes, skipped) over to a campsite with my arms straight in the air pre-cartwheel and started listing my demands. “We have to go camping here. I’ll bring watercolors. Ask your friends Mindy and her husband what’s-his-name. There are no fires allowed so I’ll make that cold pasta salad you love. . .” Joe interrupted me, arms folded. “You’ll never be able to handle camping here.”
Joe just didn’t know me well enough yet, I thought. He didn’t realize I had grown up camping on the California coast, that I secretly hate showering, that I love sleeping outside. I chalked this up to his not knowing how cool his new girlfriend actually was. “No, I’m totally down, I love stuff like this, ask my Dad…”
He interrupted me again. “Well, I won’t be able to handle camping here with you,” he said looking down. The nature guide was still hanging around watching me explode with joy. He too looked down at his feet and quietly said, “Dude. No.”
I’m writing this ten years later and I still remember the feeling between the space of jumping and twirling with joy that I was on the island and Joe saying he didn’t want to camp with me. The disbelief that I was actually in my favorite childhood book made everything golden, even on an overcast morning, but my boyfriend telling me he couldn’t bear to spend a night camping with me immediately darkened everything. I was stuck between golden light and a creeping fear that I was standing next to someone who hated me.
I was a lonely kid and reading Island of the Blue Dolphins had saved me. (Just like reading about Laura Ingalls Wilder had saved me, or reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn had saved me). Wondering what it was like to be alone on this very island saved me. I considered the main character’s survival choices and I wondered where I would sleep, how I would eat, whether I would also become friends with wolves. I would come home from birthday parties where I hadn’t said a word, climb into bed and start this book again, until the spine broke and the pages started fall out.
I stopped jumping up and down. The nature guide looked at his feet. That Joe didn’t want to camp with me was clearly a bad sign. A little, ancient voice in the back of my head also told me that his decision to break this news to me at the exact moment I was in the throes of pure childlike joy was a different, more sinister animal all together.
We broke up a year later. Joe wanted to, I didn’t. He didn’t have the guts to actually break up with me, so instead he just kept saying that we had a litany of problems, which included that I was always cold and he was always hot, and that when he asked what I wanted for dinner I always said a grilled cheese sandwich. “But I love your grilled cheese sandwiches,” trying to hide the what-the-fuck in my voice. “But I can cook other stuff,” Joe muttered. (He really couldn’t: This is a man who made pork chops with cream of mushroom soup and jalapeños).
So I let him off the hook and broke up with him, but the truth is he wanted out and I really didn’t. I had a flashback to our day on the island. I remembered the golden light, the feeling of tears in the back of my throat, the look on the nature guide’s face. But it wasn’t until more than a decade later, that I realized that day had given me all the information I needed about how Joe felt about me, and more importantly what I should do.
Pay close attention to how people treat you when you’re experiencing experiencing real, authentic joy. Not false joy that comes from things like losing weight or getting a promotion, but otherworldly joy that comes from a dog leaping into your arms, or a butterfly landing on your head. It will tell you everything you need to know.