The shiny new 2009 Subraru WRX STI swerved up and around the scenic curves of a quiet forest road on Raccoon Mountain. It’s engine roared with pleasure as its driver shifted and the vehicle shot forward. The carefully tuned AWD suspension hugged every turn regardless of speed, and ensured optimum control.
I tailed it closely in the 2007 Subaru Legacy GT, my hands poised over the paddle shifters. The setting sun was protruding beautifully through the dense leaves, giving a dappled effect over the pavement. I pressed the window button, and felt the cool evening breeze hit my face. Our engines sang in unison as we raced up a hill, doing what they were made to do. We were young and full of life, and far too stubborn to settle for dinner and a movie.
“This is so beautiful,” I said, pressing a button on my headphones.
“Let’s kick it up a notch,” replied a voice over my walkie talkie.
“You wanna race me in the wagon? Hardly seems fair.”
“Not after all the mods I did to it. It’s itching to stretch its legs. Keep your eye on the turbo gauge. Let’s do this.”
We reached our favorite part of the road; for a very short distance two drivers could drive side by side, presumably for tourists to pass the government vehicles which would periodically trim the trees or remove eroded rocks from the road. Tennessee forests don’t like to be docile for long; much like me.
The WRX driver sped up, turning wide to keep me from daring to pass him. He looked back at me in his rearview mirror and grinned. I grinned back, knowing he would not approve of what I was about to do.
Lurching sideways, I turned off onto a gravel road and accelerated hard. Gravel pelted the sides of the car and disappeared in a foggy white cloud behind me.
“You better not ding up the paint job!” the walkie screamed at me.
The Subaru made a noise much like a purring cat. It was so happy to be out of commuter traffic and into the wild. I couldn’t agree more. Through the trees I would occasionally see the WRX nervously trying to keep up speed, but I knew as well as he did that my route was much shorter. He would have to maintain a grueling speed if he was to keep his lead by the time I merged back onto the main road. And even Walter Earle Hooper IV wouldn’t risk that.
With a satisfying “thump”, my Subaru roared out of the forest and back onto pavement. Within seconds I saw him in my rearview mirror and I laughed into my receiver. He knew it was over.
“let’s go home,” he said glumly.
“What?! The race isn’t over yet! Let’s keep going! You can round me off at the next wide section!”
“Nah, come on, let’s get out of here. There’s projects to work on at the house.”
Ugggh. He couldn’t stand the thought of me beating him in his own car, despite the fact he had taught me everything I knew.
In looking at the real estate market, which was completely in the tanks in late 2008, we had plenty to choose from as affluent young buyers. We eventually settled on the Murray Hills neighborhood, which in addition to its excellent price range (due to dozens of foreclosures) was 10 minutes from downtown, Hixson and Hamilton Place; the triumvirate of Chattanooga logistics and commerce. We had researched our options carefully, and settled on a quaint little 2 story 4 bedroom/ 3 bath home that was built in the late 1950’s. It was walking distance from the dam, and some excellent hiking trails. Between my book keeping salary for a doctor’s office and his engineer income, it was easily afforable. His parents had offered to buy it for us as an early engagement gift, but we declined. Or rather, I declined. The thought of getting engaged seemed a bit lofty a commitment. I still lived in an apartment in a beautiful Victorian house in the historic Fort Wood district, and didn’t really want to move, despite morally Victorian roommates. A mortgage was a big enough first step.
The previous owner was taking their time getting the paperwork together in lieu of numerous repairs Walter wanted to be completed before we put pen to paper, but had graciously allowed us to stay at the house in the mean time.
Ours was a relationship of true predictability. I knew in his car cd player he had Coldplay, The Black Keys, Cake, John Mayer, Ben Folds and Better Than Ezra.
On days we didn’t go driving or on a hike after work, I’d be home around 4:30 and he’d usually get in around 5:30 or 6. One of us would throw together some dinner, or go out to one of our favorite restaurants. This was the time of the evening we’d talk to each other. The rest of it, we’d work on our individual projects. I had bought a floor sander and taught myself from YouTube episodes how to strip the old wood floors and refinish them. I was very proud of this. In the large backyard, I had planted a fall garden, which I tended lovingly every morning and evening. Walter wasn’t a fan of getting hounded by mosquitoes, so he mainly benefitted from the fresh salads and steamed vegetables that showed up as a result.
Life was very comfortable and we had a separate kind of togetherness. He didn’t begrudge me my belly dance lessons, and acquiesced when I planned trips to the Bahamas, Chicago or Ocracoke Island. In return, I helped him tinker with his frankenputer (my nickname for one of his many self-sustained reverse engineering projects) as he ran antifreeze through it or changed the transmission fluid on his Subarus.
As time went by, he steadily grew more ill at ease with his life. He became obsessed with the notion, at the ripe old age of 24, that he had already passed his peak and was trapped at TVA. A trip to a destination wedding in Seattle only made it worse: we talked to intelligent and prosperous engineers who were a part of projects they were genuinely excited about. The city itself buzzed with verve and growth. We canoed around the strait, and flew overhead in his family’s little Cessna 172. We went to shops, and posed for pictures and ate the food. Going back to Chattanooga detonated some time bomb in Walter, through which he deemed himself utterly insufficient as a human being. He proceeded to waffle back and forth between just quitting his job, not buying the house and moving to Seattle and hating himself for leaving me while I was still in college, trying to find a way to be excited about his work here and starting side businesses.
Meanwhile I was on an emotional high: relaxed from vacation, hanging out with creative and engaging friends who were very happy with their lives and writing more than ever.
In an affectionate impulse, I bought him a one way ticket to Seattle, to inspire him to see what was waiting for him out there.
“Just show up at so-and-so’s company, remind him you met at the wedding and admire his work, state your credentials and ask for a job!” I said.
His response was abhorrence.
“Are you….breaking up with me?!”
Its been several years now since my longest relationship tailspun into extinction, and I have enough distance now to look back and wonder what my life could have been like if we had gotten married and bought real estate together. I’d likely be a very unhappy and unfulfilled person, much like he was at the time.
I wouldn’t have any financial worries, or any real restrictions on my time. So why did I run?
I was running to stand still.
Our body has a natural fight-or-flight instinct and mine was to run away and pursue my own interests, but instead it felt like stop and go traffic. I’d run and explore my potential, but then having to come to a screeching halt when Walter would complain I was staying out too late, or rubbing elbows with “starving artists who won’t amount to anything.”
In essence, I reached a point where I had a gangrenous limb, but hesitated to cut it off and be free because said limb was my boyfriend and I felt I owed him loyalty. But it occurred to me there was still so much I wanted to do with my life, and all I had on my resume thus far was “good at writing, accounting and being someone’s girlfriend.”
I wanted so much more than that, and since then, I haven’t compromised. I like driving off the pavement and getting my tires a little dirty!