The prison of soulmates

Saturday was September 11th. Early in the day I saw a comment from one of my facebook friends that made me realize that I really had no interest in actually hearing any news coverage about the day. Fortunately, since my plan for the day already involved spending a large portion of it at a barbecue, instituting a media blackout for myself was fairly easy. However, in the early afternoon I turned on NPR in the kitchen while cooking. While this didn’t expose me to any of the hatred and ignorance around the 9/11 anniversary that I feared, it did expose me to a tidbit on Off-Ramp that annoyed me enough to actually turn off the radio and finish my food prep in silence.

The segment asked people whether they believe in soul-mates. Now I realize that this perhaps make me hopelessly unromantic, but the idea of soul-mates depresses me. I live in a metropolitan area with over 14 million people. Let’s assume for a moment that your soul-mate always magically resides in the same county as you do. My chances of meeting him or her would still be less than nine million to one. Obviously even if you cut that in half to take into account people’s gender preferences and then reduce it again to limit it to a reasonable age band (I’m just going to assume that by this point in my life my soul-mate* is at least a legal adult) there’s still an overwhelmingly small chance of meeting your one true love. And keep in mind, I’m assuming for this exercise that my soul-mate lives in Los Angeles County. Remove that assumption and the math becomes even more far-fetched.

*before anyone asks: no, I don’t consider Brad my soul-mate but that’s just because I don’t believe in soul-mates.

So they ask a number of people about whether they think there’s one person out there for everyone. The interviewer ends up talking to a nineteen year old girl whose love is in prison for three more years. And this is the part where I start to squirm. I’m mostly content to let people believe in fairy tales, even if they are mathematically impractical, but if we’re going to bolster some people’s fairy tales it feels only fair to me to apply the same rules to everyone else. The interviewer met this young woman’s description of who she considered her soul-mate with “you’re serious,” in a tone of voice that belied both disbelief and horror. Then the interviewer asked the next woman she talked to about whether the guy in prison was the nineteen year old’s soul-mate and the woman said no and another cute guy would come along who wasn’t a felon. Because of course soul-mates are always perfect, right?

Let me be clear here, I don’t think a nineteen year old in love with a man who still has three years left in prison is in a good situation. And since I don’t believe in soul-mates obviously I can easily dismiss him as not her soul-mate. But if you believe in soul-mates then you have to acknowledge that perhaps, just maybe, he is her one true love, criminal record and all. And I think the tendency to laugh off these sorts of complicated situations with “another cute boy will come along” is something that pushes women in non-ideal situations to stay in them, to try to prove the doubters wrong.

But that wasn’t what made me turn off the radio. What made me turn off the radio was that dismissive tone of voice. That sound of horror and disbelief. I’ve heard that tone. Indeed, if you knew me when I was nineteen there’s actually a chance that I heard that tone of voice from you. Because when I was nineteen envelopes stamped “this letter sent from the Wisconsin Prison System” regularly landed in my mailbox. It was a different situation, in that what I felt for the man on the other end of those envelopes was not romantic love. And I wasn’t waiting for him to get out of prison so we could be together. But still I cared for him deeply (and still do, I might add) and I used the word love to describe that caring. Any time I told the story, ultimately there would come a point where whoever I was talking to would get this strange look in their eye and ask “how did you come to know this guy again?” I’d sigh and say “he was my next door neighbor” and I’d try to explain that just because he’d made some really dumb decisions that lead him to be where he was, it didn’t mean he was, at the core, a bad person. It was a hard sell, though.

In the end I maintain that I was right and my doubters were wrong. He is, after all, one of the only people from my childhood besides family that I keep any regular contact with. But it is also the case that, generally speaking, I don’t tell the story anymore. I don’t talk much anymore about how we came to know each other, about those five years of letters, of what he meant to me then, of the five years we were out of touch after his release and how bad I felt about allowing that to happen. Perhaps that is because I don’t need to tell the story in the same way I did then. I think, though, part of it is that I don’t like to give people the opportunity to respond to a part of my life that was incredibly important to me with “really? You’re serious?” in that grating tone. And Saturday I resented that little piece of radio that seemed to me to be trying to invoke that exact tone of response from its audience.

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