This is the latest in Camille Griep’s Our House. To go to the column page, please click here.
“Find me, save me, give me back my dress.
How dare you write me when you cannot confess”
—Venus Hum “Give Me Back My Dress”
When Venus Hum released “Give Me Back My Dress,” in 2008, it felt like a paean to turning thirty. The thirties are a point in life where big milestones start being checked off: houses, babies, cars, and leaps of faith. For some of us, these touchstones come a little faster, for some a little slower, and for some they mean nothing at all. Society has a lot to say about where we’re at in life, but we’re really our own worst enemy when it comes to defining personal success. Because the end goal is so important, it’s easy to do more developing in the process than we meant to and this change impacts relationships with our families, friends, and lovers.
There are as many reasons for people to split up as there are couples, but it wasn’t until I turned thirty that I started to see the dissolution of relationships become widespread. In our teens and twenties, I expected it — given how much transformation was happening at that time, and yet most of my social circle made it through. But in our next decade, people started looking at life through the lens of “now or never” and relationships that couldn’t support these leaps fell by the wayside. Despite all this forward motion, however, newfound solitude seemed to cause a large portion of my friends to look backwards, if only for a moment.
“Three in the morning means nothing to you.
It’s all the same as two in the afternoon.
I have a question. You have an answer
Always no. Always no, no, no.”
I read somewhere recently that memories are temporary. After awhile, your brain takes a picture of the first memory but stops short of recalling the actual moment — more like a snapshot of a snapshot. Traumatic experiences excepted, it seems to be easier for me to remember sweeping generalities about times and places and experiences. Rarely can I access the emotions attached. This must be the reason why, when things start looking frightening, we go backwards to where things feel familiar, and, falsely, safe.
“Give Me Back My Dress” could really be about a thousand different things, but to me, it’s about relationships — the broken bits of them and how we go back to those crumbs when we’ve got too much on our plates or not enough. This kind of reflection can be healing or annihilating. How do we protect ourselves when we return to the scene of past crimes whenever anything goes wrong?
“If you don’t remember, how can I? Is it a mirage, a bright light?
Pulled from a black hole you hid deep inside. I climbed right in when you said “Hi.”
I seem to remember how is it that you don’t
Did you make it shine and cover it with hope?”
I started most of my relationships believing that they had some relationship to a fairy tale — with the right ingredients, there’d be a happy ever after. I had no idea what real love looked like until I had to work at it. I didn’t understand that love was fluid concept that would need constant tending for the rest of the relationship. It seems to be a closely held secret among adults that no one has it figured out. Every relationship is trial and error and compromise. And, at the risk of sounding like Dear Abby, we aren’t careful enough when we decide to move on.
We’re still stuck believing we deserve the broken.
I wish I could say I only had one or two friends who pull up their little black books for solace instead of getting back into the saddle again. My mom once told me that dating your ex is like eating out of your own garbage can. And I think there’s some truth to it because of that memory thing (serious traumas excepted, of course). I can remember that I had the chicken pox and that I itched, but I can’t go back and experience the burn and the misery anymore. It feels safe to peek back around that corner. He might want you now. Maybe she changed her mind. And it’s possible — sometimes it even works — that the right person was with you at the wrong time. The trouble is when he or she thinks they don’t deserve any better, like that past failure was probably as good as it was going to get.
We accept change in ourselves but not others.
I can’t count the number of relationships (of all kinds) I torpedoed in my 20s because I couldn’t accept the changes in my friends and lovers were going through. I grew up using egocentrism as a survival mechanism, and it was far easier to be unforgiving than understanding. There’s a line we learn about as we mature, I think, between compromise and termination within a relationship. On one end, you can learn and grow together but the other side is necessary when your life has to come to a halt in order to maintain that relationship. A lot of things we agonize over are small — it’s all about perception. I constantly want to go back and apologize and right things — but it’s selfish to think that everything in a room (or a city or a friend or lover’s life) stops because you aren’t there anymore.
We’re busy trying to be what the other person wants.
Many years ago, I got a fortune cookie that said, “You are the center of his universe.” At the time, I thought it was very romantic. Several years and a few relationships later, I think it’s the most narcissistic and delusional fortune I’ve ever received. I grew up around girls who’d been taught to fold themselves into the image they thought other people, particularly men, wanted. Some have never bothered to ask themselves who they’d like to be. And this is a disservice to everyone involved. If a facade becomes uncomfortable, then both sides deal with guilt and recriminations that the other never signed on for.
We don’t know how to look inward without pity.
It was maybe our second or third date (ten years ago) when my partner quipped “The common denominator in your failed relationships is you.” I don’t know the source of the quote, but it’s truth. It’s important to understand how we contributed to every ending in our lives, even if that examination ends painfully for ourselves. For example, a friend of a friend used to have a test. He’d open the locked passenger car door for a girl and if she didn’t reach over and unlock his door, he’d dismiss her out of hand. But these sorts of tests set us up for failure. If we set traps for our partners and friends and they unknowingly fail us, we can be sure of the outcome and dismiss our contribution to the end of that relationship. We can excuse ourselves of responsibility and avoid any possibility of pain.
“I have a lovely, lovely, lovely life.
You ruined a bit, but now that’s all behind.”
I think that being vulnerable — turning to the unknown instead of the known — is an exercise, not an instinct in life or love or any combination of the two. It’s a way to begin with a truly clean slate, fresh air in the wings, blue sky in the lungs, learning to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. When we take back what’s ours — our pasts, our desires, our dresses — we can get on to the business of shoring up our self-respect and loving ourselves and, just maybe, somebody else.
More of Camille Griep’s Our House at Used Furniture.