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June 19, 2012
 

The Odds of Marriage: Trials & Lots of Errors

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Written by: Kelly Virella

My then boyfriend Michael and I, after one month of dating. May 2006. Skates on the Bay, Berkeley, California.

T

he Saturday night that I met my husband almost didn’t happen.

We each lived in Oakland, California at the time. But that day, April 15, 2006, I was supposed to be in Los Angeles, visiting a friend from Miami who was vacationing there.

God only knows why she didn’t fly directly to Oakland, but if I wanted to see her, I would need to travel the 375 miles to get there. I didn’t have the money to fly, so the day before I was due to leave, I sucked it up and decided to make the 6-hour drive. Lucky for me, when I awoke that Saturday morning, I began to dread the trip.

The drive from the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles is one of the most gorgeous things you can experience — whether you do it along the rocky cliffs of the Pacific coast or through the golden hills of the Central Valley. But the idea of making a 6-hour drive after a grueling week of teaching and writing overwhelmed me. I put on a pot of water for tea and started procrastinating, moving from room to room in my downtown Oakland apartment, cleaning up and organizing things. Reluctantly, after an hour or two of this, I called my friend to tell her I couldn’t make it. Relieved of that obligation, I turned my thoughts to other ways to spend my Saturday.

As much as I loved Oakland, my choices were limited. On Saturdays, I usually walked the 20 minutes to the Farmer’s Market at Lake Merritt, got breakfast from the vegan soul food stand, chatted with friends, then walked back downtown for my Congolese dance class. Sometimes I might go for a hike or a bike ride in the East Bay hills. In the evening, I might have a date, kick it with a friend in my apartment building, or hang out with one of the many friends I had accumulated while living in the Bay Area for 11 years.

In a way, this slow pace of life — spent outdoors, at farmer’s markets and in intimate conversations with close friends — suited me. At 31, I saw myself aging out of San Francisco’s nightlife and wanting to stay home more, enjoying hobbies like cooking and reading. But something was also missing for me.

A year earlier, I had finally accomplished my goal of earning enough money to live alone in an expensive city like Oakland. But living alone was also pretty lonely. Three-thousand miles away from my family in Georgia, I often dreamed that I’d misunderstood the geography of the U.S. and that on the other side of California, was Alabama. I had come to California to attend Stanford and was lucky enough to be following my dreams of being a writer. But career wasn’t everything to me. I wanted some domestic companionship from a person who was deeply connected to me, like a husband or an offspring.

Not a problem I could solve in one day, I thought. My best bet for being social that Saturday was to go to a birthday party with a friend. I didn’t know whose birthday it was, but I trusted the friend who invited me. As long as I didn’t need to get dressed up for the club where it would be held, I was down.

The Western Way

In cultures that don’t practice arranged marriages, we prize the freedom to choose our own mates. We can’t fathom being introduced to our spouses by our parents and getting married to them a few months later, or having our parents scour the want ads for the one. As Indian and Pakistani friends enter arranged marriages, I watch them carefully after they return from their weddings, looking for insight into their experience, for signs that reveal what it’s like to wed a near stranger. But what we don’t consider while we’re marveling at arranged marriage is that our freedom to choose our partners imposes the daunting responsibility of searching. In America we call that search dating and for most of the time that I did it, I thought it sucked.

Part of the reason I struggled with it was that it coincided, for me, with another common phenomenon of young adult life – the move from the small town to the big city. In search of work in Silicon Valley, or an education at Stanford or Berkeley, in search of the remnants of Oakland’s black power movement, in search of New Age religion in Marin County, or hanging out with hippies in the Haight, people come to the San Francisco Bay Area in droves. The un-rooted transplant life is so pervasive that it’s shocking to meet people who were born and raised there. The camaraderie that exists between transplants and the communities we formed was beautiful. The Bay Area is the land of the community dinner – where 30 to 40 mostly single and childless people squeeze into a friend’s apartment for a potluck, of if you’re lucky, a catered meal. But like many cities, it’s also the land of the Cuddle PartyTM, where perfect strangers, hungry for touch, let go of their inhibitions and cuddle. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does point to the lack of fulfillment so many of us experienced in intimate relationships. Far away from a hug from mom or a pat on the back from dad, we searched for intimacy wherever we could find it.

For many black transplants, the search was even more daunting. Not only were we separated from our support networks, we were grappling with the profound social dislocation of being black professionals.  We were often the only black person in our offices and, as we expanded our social networks with new white

 
 


About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.



 
 

 
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