1. Years before you plan to marry, fly with your family from Florida to Kansas. Fly for a funeral, some great aunt once very special to your mom, or not special to anyone. Fly because you have to. Stand with the rest of your family in spring-cool Kansas air. Keep your head down, hands in your pockets. After all is said and done, journey with your mom and dad and little sister, journey with your aunts and uncles and cousins to the Country Kitchen Buffet where squat midwesterners circle steam tables and heap plates with fried catfish, chicken, Salisbury steak. When seated, wait for your grandmother to screech, “Well you ain’t ever going to marry. You just won’t. You’re not the marrying type. You won’t never get married.” Translate family code: she thinks you’re gay. She’s not the first, won’t be the last. Stare into your potatoes and burn.
2. Scrabble your way into college. Cycle into depression long and deep enough to send your girlfriend of five years to the other side of the country. Stumble through your final semesters, graduate somewhere in your class’ lowest third. Linger in your comfortable town. Apply to graduate schools. Get accepted by one. Completely fuck up your financial aid application and defer a semester. Get embarassingly drunk at a party thrown by a friend’s friend. Sit on a fake-leather couch and talk to a girl about art. Ignore the dwindling crowd. When your host finally announces he’s going to bed, allow the girl to talk you into going elsewhere: the park, the playground, the prairie. Stand in the cold night and wrap her in your jacket. Feel her warmth in your chest, against your thighs. Say yes to a home-cooked breakfast.
3. Leave town for the one graduate program that would have you. Crush madly on girls in a seedy downtown bar within walking distance from your shitty apartment. North Carolina Historical Society plaque on the front porch: First Recorded Case of Yellow Fever in Wilmington. Send frantic, pornographic emails to the girl you left behind. Learn she will finish up her degree early. Learn she will join you. Feel less lonely in a long, cold North Carolina January.
4. Live together. First in the absolute shithole you rented when you first got into town, then in a beautiful old apartment with wood floors, floor-to-ceiling windows and old-time radiators. Think you’re headed for something grand. Stand in your seventh-floor living room and look out across the quaint downtown: the shingled roofs, the brick walls. Breathe deep your coming future. For Christmas, buy her a crappy ring. Save it for last. Say, “I think we should get married,” and smile a bitter smile. Your grandmother’s been dead for years.
5. Get married. Your best man calls in sick. Your new wife drinks too much and throws up twice on your wedding night. The honeymoon suite has a huge old tub retrofitted with whilpool jets. Drink iced red wine and sit in bubbly water.
6. Move to a town you hate. Drive too far to work. Resent doing everything together. Grow distant. Spend hours browsing the newish Internet in the second upstairs bedroom. Claim you’re writing. Claim you’re working on a big, big project. Sit stupified in the home-office chair and stare at the blank, off-white wall, the sound in your head like static or bees. Stop having sex.
7. See a counselor, way too late. Watch your wife move out to live with a friend, unable to stand the silence. The counselor says she wants to see you separately. When she asks why you aren’t over at the wife’s friend’s house banging down the door, tell her truthfully: you don’t care anymore. Meet your wife for dinner and make a list of who you’ll have to tell. It’s over.
8. Split your belongings. She’ll take the downstairs couch, bookcase, papazan chair. You keep the bed and desk. Divide the books. Assume debt to keep the computer, tv and Playstation. Realize all your friends were really hers.
9. Get laid off. Watch the company you’ve lived at for fourteen hours every day slowly implode. Bookcases and office chairs and computers disappear so they can make payroll. Wonder what to do with your new free time. Pile pillows against the wall and play Twisted Metal II for hours. Eat Fritos off your belly, watch your T-shirts turn translucent with the corn chip grease.
10. Panic. Date someone. Date anyone to stave the fear you’ll die alone. Have mad, rompus sex. Collect girlfriends like new shirts. Ask a waitress out. Date a stripper. Go on mad benders and wake on your living room floor, your cheek imprinted with carpet. Spend time throwing up in the downstairs half-bath. Pay your rent late. Tell your landlord it’s a little rough this time of year. Wonder if he can smell bourbon on your breath this early in the afternoon.
11. Finally move from the tainted townhouse, middle of the night. Leave the washer and dryer. Leave everything and start anew.
12. Find a nice girl on the Internet. Drive far in the night to meet her, a three-year-old daughter hiding behind her swirling skirts. Lean way, way down and shake the daughter’s tiny hand. “How do you do?” whispered on a warm spring night. Make some hard decisions quick. Decide this time to do it right. Propose in bed on a bright October morning, sunlight and low ceilings in the cheap rental home.