Several months ago, a co-worker asked me for the name of my celebrity crush.
“Carrie Brownstein,” I said.
I didn’t really have a celebrity crush, but Carrie’s name jumped out. On “Portlandia,” she was smart, whimsical and tough. I had checked out her memoir from the library the previous week and had just begun reading it.
Halfway through “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl,” Carrie alludes to her sexual fluidity by describing a relationship with bandmate Corin Tucker. I called up a friend and laughed. I was the butt of some cosmic joke: My last two relationships had ended with my girlfriends coming out, and now, even in a hypothetical fantasy, I couldn’t manage to pick a straight woman.
I’m still friends with my exes. It has been difficult to completely disengage our lives. We have similar tastes in books, the same sense of humor. Having my exes redefine their sexuality has also helped us keep in touch: The breakups were less personal because they weren’t just rejecting me but men in general.
Although not as profound as coming out, my relationships with Abby and Susannah framed a change in my own identity. For most of my adult life, I have been a scientist, first a research assistant at the National Institutes of Health and then a graduate student at M.I.T., studying how embryos grow.
I found beauty in molecular biology but struggled with the solitary and monomaniacal lifestyle that research demanded. After completing my Ph.D. last year, I happily left academia to work on a nonprofit’s communication team.
I’m still figuring out why I wanted to be a biologist. It seems to come down to my embrace of practicality and conventional expectations over passion, a pattern that in some ways mirrors my romantic life.
My first serious relationship, with Abby, lasted throughout college. After graduating, she and I moved to Washington D.C. It was my first time living with a woman and I found the domesticity exotic.
In the mornings, we stared at each other while brushing our teeth, scrunching up our faces into caricatures. I watched her use deodorant with an anthropological curiosity. She had a way of applying the stick under her shirt before pulling it out of her sleeve like a magician summoning a rabbit from a hat.
My parents did not approve of our relationship. While transporting my belongings to the apartment, my father had given me some final instructions: “Don’t get Abby pregnant. Take care of your graduate school applications. Try not to get sick.”
Within months, I had become consumed by laboratory work, and Abby, taking late shifts as a barista, often arrived home after I had fallen asleep. In her loneliness, she began reaching out to Sara, a friend from college, and they started a long-distance romance.
I only realized that my relationship with Abby was over when she constructed an Ikea bed in the kitchen next to the refrigerator. Sometimes, after dinner, we would lie side by side on her blanket, but if I went under the sheets, she would protest.
“No, Justin. Justin up, Justin out,” she would joke, as if I were a pet dog who had strayed outside of his boundaries.
We set up rules after our breakup. No more kissing or hugging. The only physical affection she would tolerate was touching her ears. Late at night, when she was almost asleep, I would sit on the edge of her bed and let my fingers wander around the island of her right ear, the soft flesh of the lobe and the wiry rim of cartilage.
I thought about the last time that we had had sex. In the residual tenderness of our collapsing relationship, she had lowered herself onto me gingerly, as if she were sliding into cold water. She placed her hands on my chest and for a few seconds her face was blank. I waited for her to say something like, “I love you.” Instead, she murmured wistfully, “I guess we know each other pretty well, huh?”
The heartache I felt when I left Washington was acute but narrow — I was losing Abby as a romantic partner. In contrast, breaking up with Susannah six years later, just months after deciding to leave academia, felt like parting with a way of life.
She was 30 and I was 29. We had been together four years and, although we never explicitly discussed it, there was an understanding that we would get married and ride the inertia of conventional family life into old age. Now, I felt the trajectory of my life shifting.
A few weeks after Susannah came out, she inspected me before I left for my first day at my new job. In the lab, I had been used to wearing faded shirts from high school and tattered shorts. Standing before our full-length mirror, I was dressed in a stylish (for me) white button-down shirt, gray slacks and an olive-green jacket.
I started to cry silently before sobbing.
“It’s O.K.,” Susannah said, sitting down beside me. “We’ll still hang out at cafés and go grocery shopping together.”
I wasn’t exactly sure why I was crying. In fact, we were both relieved to be free from a dutiful but passionless relationship and the looming pressure of having children — something neither of us wanted. But I had wanted to want those things, and the loss of that phantom desire was disorienting.
Like my relationship with Susannah, I believe that I became a molecular biologist because it seemed safe and stable. Graduating from college, I had wanted to be a writer but doubted my ability and the possibility of steady employment. Instead, encouraged by my parents and professors, I created the narrative of myself as a scientist. And to maintain that identity, I burned out working 80-hour weeks, sacrificed friendships and became unrecognizable to myself.
I did love aspects of biology — how it solidified the abstract mysteries of life into something you could inspect under a microscope. I spent hours each day thinking about the growth of an embryo: how millions of cells, each without consciousness or thought, managed to mold themselves into a complete animal.
But I am happier now, having severed myself (and also been severed from) more mainstream expectations for work and love. Newly single in our early 30s, Susannah and I are each living our own versions of a second adolescence.
In the past year she has marched in a pride parade, driven around the circumference of Iceland and gone on more dates than she had in all the previous years of her life combined. As for me, I’m just now embracing my passions and following them, something most people do when they’re much younger.
Away from the laboratory and single for the first time in several years, I feel in control of my life. I have become the version of myself that I always wanted to be. And yet, in the face of this new freedom, I already miss the stability of the past — the regimen of experiments, mundane descriptions of my day, the weight of someone shifting in her sleep next to me. Convention and routine maintain a powerful pull.
These days, Susannah and I have an altered relationship with time, trying to enjoy the present without thinking too hard about the future, but the two have a way of bleeding into each other.
One of Susannah’s girlfriends, when considering moving out of state, reassured her by saying, “I’m committed to this relationship — for now.”
Later, after they broke up, Susannah announced, “We’re on a one-week permanent break.”
Unlike Susannah, I am an ambivalent dater. While many of my contemporaries are looking to settle down, I long for something carefree. I have found contentment by withdrawing into a leisurely selfishness. In the evenings, I go for runs along the Charles River. On the weekends I lose myself in a novel or have dinner with friends. I’m not sure how long my routine will last, but I’m soothed by this detachment from adulthood.
Part of my reluctance to date is a lingering emotional fatigue. The prospect of spending a few hours with a stranger fills me with apathy. I’m also wary of both my instincts and the guidance of others. When I followed my heart, I fell in love with women who pined for women. When I took the advice of my parents and authority figures, I found myself in a career that made me miserable.
I do miss being in a relationship though. I miss the camaraderie and intimacy, and the ability to communicate with a glance or a touch. At times, even I, an introvert who struggles to socialize, miss dating — the first tentative rush of connection and how, with someone beside you, the world seems fresh and teeming.
Slowly, in my own desultory way, I am still looking. For whom, I am not sure. Perhaps someone thoughtful and irreverent, bold and self-deprecating. Someone tough enough to lead a meandering life and find her own way.
You know, someone like Carrie Brownstein.
Justin Chen lives in Somerville, Mass., and works in nonprofit communications.
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