Four years ago, I embarked on a relationship with a man twenty years my senior, whose Florida home, a few streets over from my condo, boasted wall-to-wall carpeting with a space-galaxy motif, a vintage circus-sideshow banner in the master bedroom, and a six-foot-tall statue of a gecko dressed as a jester, which overlooked the backyard. My family was reluctantly supportive, in that “you’re our daughter and we love you, even if your choices worry us” manner. I had survived, just barely, one brutal heartbreak after another in my midtwenties. It was refreshing to find someone who embraced the eclectic, rallied friends to swing by for dinner, and appeared with surprise snacks when I was scribbling fiction poolside. But mostly, I felt relieved at finding someone who was nice, a champion of my own long-stifled quirkiness.
He had spent eighteen months in federal prison twenty years before, on a fraud felony. Ah, but wasn’t the past just the past? It wasn’t fair to hold a human being to a mistake made so long ago. Didn’t I have my own shameful moments, perhaps not felonies or arrests, but black marks when I had been less than my best self? Don’t we all?
In the spirit of loving kindness, as I watched my fiction burst to life under my new love’s backyard Buddhist prayer flags, I dismissed any signs of cautionary red. A mentor of mine calls fiction writers “literary cannibals.” I was having fun, and my writing responded to the offbeat environment of vinyl Jesus figurines embedded with Magic 8 Balls, wind chimes, and the Grateful Dead. Halfway through a grueling semester in a low-residency M.F.A., I had been questioning my ability to master fiction. Now my adviser proclaimed I had achieved a breakthrough—“a talent for inventing loopy comic situations.”
Things only seemed to get better. My man and I came up with affectionate names for each other—I was Babette and he was Babu. Real monikers fallen away, the relationship carved its own offbeat identity.