At a party the other night a friend asked me what happened to my cat, who became my brother’s cat. An overweight black and white mostly-Persian named Harley, this cat wins friends and influences people with his fur-sprouting white paws and calm green eyes. Meanwhile I’m hosting a lunatic named Baby Kitty who looks like some sort of Siberian forest creature only photographed by white man three times, once, on a daring 1923 adventure that inspired the epic fantasy Lost Horizon. No one likes Baby Kitty except those of us who raised her and understand that, while her claws have caused permanent surface damage, her love is strong and true. “Where is Harley?” friends asked, nervous that Baby was squinting menacingly at them from the back of the couch.
“My brother sent him back to Portland in my dad’s moving van,” I reminded them. “He’s too fat to fit under a seat on an airplane, so…”
“So you put him on the wagon train west?”
“Your family’s like something out of the Oregon Trail.”
“Hell yeah,” I say.
“Ian knows how to drive a wagon?”
We are a family who moves. We do not accept distance, foreign climes, strange customs, logistical difficulties, or limited budgets as reasons not to experience a new place. My mom always fantasized about Anchorage; now she knows what that’s like. My dad managed the entire country of Canada from his desk in Salem, Oregon, before just moving to Toronto. I wanted to live on the East Coast as a teenager, now I do. It took some adjustment on my mom’s part to realize that her gypsy philosophy had affected her children beyond her expectations. When New York had driven me insane for several months and I was fantasizing about moving back to Seattle, my mom sounded uncharacteristically like the people who used to drive her nuts, asking, “How will you move your belongings back West?”
As if that had anything to do with anything.
“Go on and do it,” my brother whispered. “I’ve got your back.” And he did, taking my dishware and furniture to build his home in Buffalo, while I landed at my cousin’s house with two suitcases and a rabbit.
Moving so often has given me serious commitment issues and an ignorance of how to spring clean (we just move when the dust bunnies get too big). But it’s also made me the person I am. I see life from many points of view, literally, and do not need possessions to feel at home. I’m not saying reaching this state has been easy or that it hasn’t come with an entirely different set of personal and emotional issues, but it’s still something I’m proud of.
And it affects my perception of relationship and romance as well. My lasting relationships are strong enough to maintain a common language despite distance and passing time. It could not be enough to simply enjoy a laugh together over a beer, or to commit to someone based on proximity, convenience or mild affection. I have maintained written friendships for more than five years at a stretch, shared laughter and sincerity with people living oceans away, made love via webcam (yes, exactly like a porn star). I’m lucky enough that my relationships with my family and a handful of friends are that strong. We pick up where we left off.
Watching that happen with my cousin Lucy, as one example, has been a small miracle. She and I spent most summers playing Barbies in her front yard, but grew into extremely different adults. She raises a child in a town north of Seattle, holding tight to her husband’s hand while they navigate layoffs, career changes, and the early years of marriage. I look after other people’s kids in other countries when I’m not breaking up with people. The differences between us are glorious and what is more glorious is knowing I can get a margarita with her and still know exactly what she’s talking about.
This history makes me forget that time and distance matter in a relationship. Some would call my love affair with an Englishman, while unemployed in Buffalo, unrealistic. I call it love. And even though Mr. Hotness and I are better off apart, I’m still the same person who told him I loved him in England, flew home, and spent the next several months urging him to follow through on his offer to move here. I probably always be that person. Because I forget that reality is very hard for some people to surmount.
When my dad moved to Toronto last year, he did so to accept a job my mom had urged him to pursue. Yet by the time he was actually offered the position, she had visited Toronto often enough that she knew she hated the city. She asked him to walk away, he refused, and finally, she followed him. My dad generously gave our family everything we wanted financially and came home from every trip to us, and I respect that commitment, as well as his ambition. But still, where he went, my mom had to follow.
As an adult, I vacillate between my mom’s role as cheerleader and my dad’s as quarterback. I have assumed subconsciously for most of my life that I would be willing to do what my mom did, after all, moving is nothing to me! But anyone examining my history would point out that I show no willingness to move so much as across town for a lover. I would prefer to have my mom’s flexibility and selflessness, but like so many other aspects of my personality, am much more my father when it comes to relationships. I want it to be in my bus, for my show, with my map. Longing for the unavailable guy isn’t just about perpetuating a low self-image, it’s about demanding that someone do for me what my mom did for my dad for thirty years. It’s reverse roleplaying. I’ll carry the sword, and you be the princess. I’ve just never been willing to express that to myself, much less a partner.
And in the past, my wagon was always strictly a one-seater. But who knows, maybe on the next wagon train West, I’ll have enough salted meat and bullets for two.