Episodes: All the selves we will not be

I'm 21, just barely, when my father asks me when my girlfriend and I will be getting married.

My grandfather has died. The funeral was a few days before Christmas, and the family soldiered on through the holiday, because it felt better to practice happiness than to realize we weren't.

His death was unexpected. He realized something was wrong in August, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in September, and he was dead in December. Through the whole Christmas celebration, my grandmother, who is sliding into dementia, keeps calling out, "Where's dad? Where's dad?" because the contours of the evening seem like they should include him, but they do not. When we celebrate Christmas a year later, she will no longer be with us either.

It's also 2001, and the country feels like it might be hovering on the brink of its very end. (Indeed, my grandfather's tumor was diagnosed on September 10, which has forever knit my personal tragedy with a much, much larger one in the imagination.) Christmas slides into the rear-view mirror, and we enter a future haunted by wars and rumors of wars.

So it makes sense that my father asks me. It's not unexpected either. My girlfriend and I have been talking about it. Our friends are all getting engaged, at similarly young ages, both because that is what we do in South Dakota and because the times, grim as they are, seem to call for it. People need to keep getting married, keep having babies, keep proving that life climbs uphill, no matter how steep.

And I've inherited a small sum of money from my grandfather's estate. It's not a tremendous amount (though I'd love to have it now), but it will buy an engagement ring, among other things. We pick the ring out. We get engaged. We set a date. We assume we know what contours are coming.

***

In the mustiness of a decommissioned hogshed, my parents have set up a storage shed that is full of my wife and my things, mostly things we received for our wedding but things that never made it to any home we've owned. We just don't have the room.

I am, at 34, still renting an apartment, and no matter how much I try to tell myself that my goals have changed, that I live in a place where renting is the responsible thing to do, this will never stop feeling like a failure until I can somehow afford a house in the Los Angeles real estate market. (The state of our household income is such that home ownership in LA remains forever tantalizingly out of reach, at least until the next market crash.)

The thing is, I don't know if any of us, myself included, expected Los Angeles to be anything more than a brief detour in our lives. Eventually, we would find our way back to the Midwest, probably a city there, but still the Midwest, and we would buy that house and have those kids and build the life we thought we would.

Please understand: I'm not criticizing anyone who does this. I'm saying that for as much as I love my life, I'm still haunted by one I never wanted but thought I should. That shed sits, slowly mouldering, and all of the stuff in it is just going to have to be given away. Even if we get that LA house, through magic or cash windfall, it's never going to hold all of this stuff that we thought seemed like a good idea to put on our wedding gift registry in 2003.

It's 12 years old now, and it's a symbol of two people who had no idea what they were about to do.

***

I can't buy a house, and I can't (as of yet) manage to have a kid. What that leaves, for both of us, is the work, and the work is so, so rewarding. It's what we have because we went to LA, because early 20s us followed a call we had no business following and then hung in there long enough that the city finally said, "Fine. Come in already."

But I think sometimes of how rootless I feel, how I can stand at the edge of the Pacific and feel like I might sweep away inland and find myself waking from a dream, somewhere in Omaha or Minneapolis or Bismarck, glad for a place where the earth doesn't shift beneath your feet.

The house I would have there would be filled with hopefully happy memories, with fading mementos of one of the best days of my life. Maybe if one of my children asked where we got them, I would know enough to remember they were from my wedding, as my mother always did when I would ask her where she got her silverware as a child. (Why I was obsessed with this, I do not know. Kids are dumb and inscrutable, even the ones we once were.)

Or maybe I wouldn't. Maybe it all would have crumbled without California to force us to lean against each other in spite of the city's roar and the Pacific's undertow. Maybe we needed to be shaken to find ourselves, and maybe the best gift we gave each other wasn't a house big enough to hold our things but a story big enough to pull our many fragments together into figures that resemble, a little more every day, the people we were always meant to be.

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Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.