Because I’ve been in a relationship for over ten years, people often ask me for dating advice. This is dumb, in my opinion. Listen to it when I say it like this: In the past ten years, I’ve only been in one relationship. Would you ask a guy who’s jumped out of a plane one time in the past ten years for skydiving advice? Or would you ask a guy who has jumped out of a plane many, many times in the past ten years for skydiving advice? Think about your options here, people.
I have no idea how or why Sean and I have been dating as long as we have. Every day I wake up and look at his unconscious face illuminated by the clear morning light and wonder: How the fuck is this guy still my boyfriend? Not in the “enough already!” sense. More like in the “wow, nice, we’re still going” sense. I feel like for the past ten-plus years I’ve been walking around with a very fragile dried flower in my pocket, and sometimes I just can’t believe I haven’t crushed it to dust yet.
People often suggest that the reason we’re still together is that we’re soulmates, and all I can do is smile and nod. I don’t believe that we are soulmates. I don’t believe that any two people are soulmates. As if there is one person for every person on earth, and I just so happened to go to high school with mine. What are the odds of that? One in seven billion? I’d have a better chance of buying a winning lotto ticket, getting attacked by a shark on my walk home, and then arriving at the hospital to find out that Kim Kardashian is my doctor. And then we start talking and she’s like, “Wait, I think your aunt is my accountant.”
If soulmates are real, I think they’re not found, as our culture suggests, but made. There’s not one person for everyone; there’s a ton of people for everyone, and you pick the one you like the best (or the one who lives the closest to your childhood home, like I did — it makes deciding where to spend Christmas way easier). Then you work at being with each other over many years, and eventually, your selves become tangled together. I once saw a picture on the Internet of two carrots that grew twisted around each other, like an orange-y double helix. If I had peeled apart those carrots and showed someone just one, that person would instantly know that the carrot was one of a pair, that it had spent a lot of time hanging out with another carrot, that it was a more interesting carrot because of it. That’s what soulmates are: carrots that spent too much time with each other.
Sean and I are good at dating each other. We’ve worked to become good at it. We are particularly good at communication, which is something I imagine couples therapists stress is important. (I don’t know for sure, I’ve never been to couples therapy. But sometimes I wish I could go just to hear a therapist say, “What are you two doing here? You’re great at this!” I am, after all, a millennial, and I thrive on constant validation.) Our favorite activity is getting into a car, driving for hours, talking about our feelings, and helping the other person talk about theirs more effectively. For example, I used to think that the best way to express my anger was by being defensive and saying the most hurtful thing to the other person. I assumed that fights were won by the person who could be the meanest (aka me). Sean has informed me that this is not actually true and that the way to resolve an argument isn’t by delivering devastating burns — it’s by making sure both people feel heard. It scares me to think how long it would have taken me to figure that out if we weren’t together. But dating someone allows you to practice being a better person. It’s like juggling or surfing or any other pastime — after doing it for ten years, you start to get the hang of it.
As Sean and I’ve grown up together, we’ve dated different versions of each other. At one point in high school, I dated Sean the Disillusionist. This was when he decided fashion was a social construct and wore only white T-shirts, blue jeans, and black sneakers for four straight months. It was like going out with a character from Hey Arnold! I loved it. I found his rejection of labels in a school overrun with Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts to be thoughtful and vaguely James Dean.
One winter in college I dated Sean the Dart Player. After flipping past an obscure ESPN channel and catching a darts tournament one evening, he decided, hey, maybe I’m also really good at darts. He bought his own set from a store in town (yes, we’re from a town with an entire store dedicated to darts), joined a team, and competed in some truly forgettable Jersey bars. I cared for this less: Practicing for tournaments meant throwing darts with him in his freezing garage for hours, and I have little tolerance for holding metal objects in subzero temperatures.
After college I dated Sean the World’s Most Casual Pothead. This lasted for two months, tops. And to this day we argue about the amount of commitment he had to this persona. I remember him lighting up a joint four, maaaybe five times and doing activities like: reorganizing his book shelf, cleaning the space under his bed, sitting on the roof outside his bedroom window and gazing up at the New York City light pollution we call a night sky. He insists he was high for an entire summer. Don’t do drugs, kids. They really impair your ability to remember that you weren’t high for an entire summer.
I imagine when people date for a month or two, they remember their exes by these temporary identities. “Remember that guy I dated? Sean? The dart player?” When you date someone for as long as I’ve dated Sean, you see their entire evolution, and you know the darts thing was just one bright thread in the tapestry that makes them who they are. If there’s one thing Sean and I’ve done well, it’s allowing each other the space to pick whatever color thread appeals to us at that point in time, even if we’re silently thinking, Ugh, CHARTREUSE?
Starting a job at BuzzFeed was a pretty bright thread for me. Suddenly I had found my identity as a writer and had all these built-in friendships since BuzzFeed employs a lot of cool and interesting people in my exact age group. Sean gave me space to make these connections, and, during my first year at BuzzFeed, I canceled countless dates to go to more brunches and karaoke nights than I care to remember. I know now I hate brunch and karaoke — getting drunk at one p.m. and eating fifteen-dollar eggs is a waste of a Saturday, and karaoke only exists so that people who can sing can rake in compliments — but I am fond of that time period and the fact that my brunch partners went on to become editors-in-chief, writers for late-night shows, and literal People’s Choice Award winners.
But there was this Friday, about a year ago, when BuzzFeed hosted a whiskey tasting in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. Most Friday nights I’d stay in the city for a beer or two after work and then make my way home to Queens to grab dinner with Sean. I told him before leaving for work that day not to expect me; the tasting would surely eat up my evening.
My coworkers and I tasted a lot of whiskey, and when the event was over, a couple of us tasted even more from the cups that had been filled but not claimed by anyone. It was one of those magical nights where everything clicked: the right mix of people, the right amount of alcohol, the right Friday vibes. At one point my coworker Matt was telling a story and my other coworker Isaac interrupted him mid-sentence.
“Dude, you’ve got an eyelash,” he said, pointing at his own cheek for reference.
Matt brushed at his cheek, but the stray eyelash stayed put.
“Let me get it,” Isaac said. He leaned across the table, reached over, and ever so gingerly pinched the eyelash between his thumb and pointer. “Make a wish.”
Matt closed his eyes and blew the eyelash off Isaac’s thumb. We all watched it float through the air in dizzying spirals until it slipped beneath the table and out of our lives forever.
A moment passed, and no one dared to move. Finally, my coworker Sarah whispered, “That was so beautiful,” sending everyone into a fit of laughter and reaching for another drink.
We ended up staying at work well after the six o’clock quitting bell. Each hour that passed another coworker got up, cited plans they regretted making, and left, until finally, around nine or ten, I found myself alone in the empty office.
It’s weird to be at work when no one else is. All the areas of buzzing activity — the canteen, the bathrooms — are dark and quiet but familiar, like a toy that’s been switched off. I took a minute to take it in, the absence of everything. Then I pulled on my coat and walked toward the exit.
Out of habit, I took the stairs. Once I pushed the door to the stairwell open, I felt a cool wind coming from above. I glanced up and noticed that the people on the floor above ours, the top floor, had left the door propped open. I knew from the incessant hammering and drilling we had been hearing all day long that the top floor was under construction, and I thought, Maybe I’ll just take a quick look and see how it’s going.
I had only intended to peek in through the open door, but I found myself passing the threshold to get a good look at the place. It was an exact replica of our office but completely blank, like someone had Ctrl + A, Deleted the desks, chairs, and cardboard cutout of Ryan Gosling. I quickly figured out the source of the cold wind: a window had been left open, and the brisk March air was pouring in. When I went to close it, I saw that, unlike the windows on our floor, this one had a roof right outside like a terrace. I thought, Well, I’m already up here. I opened the window wider, lay on my belly, and shimmied through.
It’s a rare thing, being alone on a rooftop in Manhattan at night. The muffled sounds of the city radiated up from below, swirling in with the wind. I could see the Flatiron Building sitting just up the street, Freedom Tower gleaming in the distance, and — oh my god — the Empire State Building just ten blocks away, dominating the sky to the north.
I walked to the ledge and felt my eyes well up — a combination of the whiskey, the cold wind, and the embarrassing rush of emotion I feel whenever my life resembles a scene from a movie. I peeked down at the street below and watched the late-night commuters shuffle down Twenty--Third Street in messy lines like picnic ants. I imagined hands clutching collars to throats and jammed in pockets, and the people they belonged to having no idea they were extras on my movie set.
But mostly I just stared at the Empire State Building, a structure I grew up trying to glimpse from high points in my suburban hometown. Usually I could only see the red tip of her spire: tiny and slight and invisible to the untrained eye, I quickly learned from trying to point it out to visitors. Tonight, though, she was tall enough to scrape the moon and close enough that her brilliant white lights glinted off the zipper of my coat.
Of course, I took about a million selfies.
I didn’t want to leave, but I knew I’d already pushed my luck by going onto the roof in the first place. So after doing a 360-degree spin to take it all in and snapping another few pics to remember the night by, I left. I lowered the window to the height I’d found it at, slipped through the propped-open door, and took the stairs down to the lobby. On my way out I wished a bored security guard a pleasant evening and got on the N train back to Queens.
I woke up Saturday with a very big headache. I groaned, and Sean rolled over.
“Good morning,” he said, groggy and half-asleep.
“Is it good?” I said, trying to massage away a sharp pain above my right eye.
“Where were you last night?” he asked.
“I drank an irresponsible amount of whiskey and snuck onto the roof of my office building,” I said.
Sean picked his head up from the pillow and studied me with his one open eye. “I know one of those things is true.”
I grabbed my phone off the nightstand and showed him the pictures. Even with sober eyes they looked amazing. The Empire State Building, glowing and massive, filled up the entire screen.
“Whoa, take me?”
“No way,” I said, shoving my head under a pillow.
Sean lifted the pillow at the corner. “Why not?”
“Because it’s probably illegal!” I said. “Breaking and entering or trespassing or being sneaky at your job.”
“It’s only illegal if you get caught,” Sean countered.
“It was a mistake,” I said, pulling the pillow back down. “And I’m never making it again.”
As the hangover waned, a delayed paranoia took over. I had assumed that I had gotten away with my rooftop escapade when I said goodnight to the security guard and he didn’t immediately ask if I was the person he’d just seen sneak into a private construction site on the security camera monitors. But then I started wondering if it was common practice to review all the weekend security footage on Monday morning. Sean assured me that was crazy. No one had the time or the bandwidth to review sixty hours of security footage just for good measure.
“But what if there was an incident? And something went missing? Then they’d review the tapes. And I’d be the only one up there,” I said, taking a sip out of Sean’s coffee mug like I did every morning.
“Okay, fine, in the unlikely event the top floor of your building was the target of a heist over the weekend, you might have a problem,” Sean said, taking his steaming mug back from me.
I knew I was probably overreacting, but to be fair, my suspicions weren’t completely unfounded. The first week we moved into the building, there had been a murder-suicide in the Home Depot on the first floor. Nearly a year after we moved out of the building, the Chelsea Bombings happened only one block to the west. And just a few days earlier I’d had forty dollars and a souvenir Brazilian real stolen out of my wallet by a stranger who found it flopped open in the lobby. This was New York! Bad things happened all the time.
My regret about the late-night roof romp swelled as Monday drew closer. Sunday night I tossed and turned, wondering if I should delete the photos — the evidence — off my phone. I didn’t, acknowledging the fact that if you do epic shit and you don’t have the selfies to prove it, it basically didn’t even happen. The next morning, I walked down Twenty--Third Street glancing ahead to see if there was a police barricade outside my building. There wasn’t, but I did mistake a halal food cart for a news van and almost swallowed my gum. When I got to my building, I tapped my ID at the security booth in the lobby and half-expected the guard to leap over the counter and apprehend me. He didn’t even look up from his phone. I took the elevators up to the office and slunk to my desk. I avoided eye contact with coworkers, awash with the feeling that I’d done something weird in our shared home.
I spent the day flipping between writing a post and compulsively checking my email every four minutes. I was jumpy and on edge, and every bolded new message in my inbox made the breath catch in my throat. Would they just write “You’re fired” in the subject line, or would they ease into it with something like “Roof?????”? I figured if I was going to get in trouble, it would come from my editor-in-chief, Ben. I was twenty-five years old and I still thought of my boss as an elementary school principal whose only job was to keep order in the newsroom and tell us we’re doing a great job. But eventually six o’clock rolled around and my inbox never received an email from Ben, or the police, or the United States secretary of defense.
Back at home, I told Sean about my stressful day over dinner, which we ate sitting cross-legged around the coffee table in the living room. We had been fortunate enough to find an apartment with a real, live dining room — an entire room for dining! Before signing our lease, we assumed dining rooms were a New York City myth, like mole people or the subway timetable. We had been blessed with incredible fortune — and yet we still chose to eat every meal sitting like kindergarteners at circle time. As I talked, I flapped my knees up and down like a nervous butterfly.
“I think I’m in the clear,” I told Sean. “Like, if nothing happened today, I think I’m good to go.”
“Erin, you were never not in the clear. You are freaking out.”
“I mean, I know that now. But I couldn’t assume that until I officially made it to the clear, you know?”
“Sure,” said Sean. “Whatever calms you down.”
A few days went by, and I stopped thinking about the illegal roof jaunt entirely. Sean was right. I had been freaking out. What did I think they were going to do, arrest me? It’s not like there were signs. I didn’t jump over barriers that read: “Keep out or go to lady prison and ruin your entire future!” I walked through an open door. And then I shimmied like a snake through a slightly smaller but technically still open window. If they didn’t want me to go out there, why had they basically put out welcome mats for me?
I shook my head and went back to writing a post about the weirdest objects people had stuck up their own butts. It was Wednesday, which meant free lunch at BuzzFeed. And it was the first, which meant free cupcakes in honor of every-one born that month. Plenty of stuff to look forward to.
At 11:32 I received an email from my manager, Tanner.
Subject: Do you have a minute?
Body: I’m in Harry Potter.
I emailed him back immediately: “Sure!!!!! Be there in a sec.”
I figured Tanner wanted to meet with me about performance reviews, a protocol I’d managed to mess up every year that I’d worked at the company. Tanner was my manager (or my Tanager, as I liked to call him), but we were close, and sometimes these “meetings” were an excuse to hang out and chat for a quick five minutes.
I half-ran half-walked to the break-out room we called Harry Potter and shut the door behind me. Tanner stood with his back to the door, looking out the window.
“What’s up?” I asked, taking a seat at the round table in the middle of the room.
Tanner turned around. “What’d you do Friday night?”
I felt my butt clench so tightly it could have cracked a walnut.
“I — why?” I asked.
“Security is investigating footage of someone going up on the roof, and they think it’s you,” Tanner said.
I stared at him.
“I saw the tapes,” he said. “You can try denying it, but it would be easier for you to just comply with security.”
Once, when I was thirteen years old, I was playing in a softball tournament with my club team and got behind in the count after watching a perfect pitch tear right through the strike zone. I said the word “fuck” to myself, and the umpire tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Young lady, if you say that word again I will throw you out of this game.” The rush of shame and embarrassment was so intense that I literally felt hot and, for a second, thought I had peed my pants right there at home plate. That was the last time I felt that, the so-embarrassed-I’m-hot-and-maybe-peeing sensation, until this moment, twelve years later, sitting in a room called Harry Potter in front of a coworker who once respected me.
“I’m sorry,” I said, because it was the only thing to say.
“Listen, we don’t care. You’re not in trouble with BuzzFeed. But security needs you to sign something admitting it was you, and they’ll tell you what the next steps are.”
“OK,” I said, standing up, wobbly-legged and suddenly shivering. I’d never been in trouble as an adult. I’d never even gotten a speeding ticket. The GIF of SpongeBob whimpering and cry-yelling, “But I’m a good noodle!” played over and over in my head as I made my way to the door.
Tanner cleared his throat. “Just go to the front desk in the lobby. They’ll tell you what you need to do.”
I nodded without turning around, took a deep breath, and left.
I walked to the elevator with my eyes glued to the floor, too scared that I might make eye contact with a coworker and they would instantly know upon meeting my glance that I was a dirty criminal. I imagined they’d splash their hot coffee in my face and hiss a weird insult like, “Why don’t you go live on the roof, roof girl?”
I had made it all the way to the elevator without having to interact with anyone, but as the doors closed my coworker Lauren slipped in beside me. I stopped pressing the wall directly next to the door open button and managed a small hello.
“Hey!” she said. “Whoa, are you OK?”
“Yep! Fine!” I forced a smile so hard my teeth ached.
“Oh . . . OK. It’s just, you look kind of . . . weird and pale,” she said.
“Well, I might be going to jail right now,” I said, still smiling.
“What the f—”
The elevator doors opened. I stepped out first. And there, in the lobby, was Sean.
“What are you DOING HERE?” I yelled, running over to him. “I’m in so much trouble. They found out about the roof. I’m so glad you’re here. Wait, why are you here?”
“April Fools,” he said.
I paused. Showing up at my job in the middle of the day unannounced had to be the worst prank in the history of tomfoolery, but I had no time to make fun of him for it.
“Great prank, Sean! But I can’t talk right now because I have to go to jail for sneaking onto the roof,” I said, pushing past him to get to the front desk.
Sean grabbed my arm. “No, Erin,” he said. “April Fools.”
And suddenly, it clicked. I wasn’t in trouble. They didn’t know about the roof. All of this was a prank. I looked at Sean and felt a relief so sweet I almost had to sit right down on the ground. Instead I shoved him backward until he tripped over and fell onto a couch.
“Are you mad?” he said, giggling.
“No, I’m SO RELIEVED,” I said, diving on the couch next to him to catch my breath.
Sean reached into his backpack and pulled out a box of cupcakes. “OK, well, I bought you these in case you were mad. But since you’re not, I guess I’ll just keep them?”
“I’m mad, I’m so mad!” I yelled, grabbing the box from him. “How did you? When did you? So Tanner—?”
“Was in on it,” Sean said.
“What the hell? Damn, you think you know someone. DAMN, he should really consider becoming an actor—”
Suddenly a security guard materialized in front of us. “Would you two please keep it down? This is a place of business.”
I hid behind Sean’s shoulder, still terrified I might still somehow end up in jail.
“Sorry,” I heard him say. “We’ll stop.”
So that’s my only dating advice. Find a carrot who understands your anxieties well enough to execute a prank so perfect you almost soil yourself in front of a coworker. Bonus points if he brings you cupcakes after. ●
To learn more about Erin's essay collection This Is Really Happening, click here.