People who’d known me for many years pulled me aside and said they liked me better, but they attributed my change to Renni. In Christmas cards, people wrote that I was lucky to have her. They liked that I’d settled down, joined them in couples’ domesticity. It was like at a wedding when everyone claps and celebrates two more people easing into the matrimonial box. They encouraged the status quo, the joining in the fabric of society.
I nodded and smiled toothlessly at the sideways compliments. That didn’t mean that I agreed with what they said; it just meant that I didn’t look for an argument, to get into an indignant word fight. Which hill did I choose to die on, right? I was trying to be more mature, to decrease conflict in my life. I agreed that I’d somehow changed, but they implied that before I met Renni, I was douchey, and now I was the fortunate disabled half of our coupleship. Was the story of our romance that I played the slacker role, the reckless guy who wooed and won the gorgeous overachiever, the girl who didn’t get into trouble, the college pentathlete and coach who went on to academic success? I straightened up to win her over, and then everyone liked me better? Renni tamed me? Was I pussy-whipped? Had the critics finally beaten me down into a cold surrender? I at least had to consider my domesticity, what it looked like, because I was too young to sell out. Even though my peak experience had made me a more loving person, I still hadn’t given up my quest to join the ranks of the mad-to-burn.
Those folks connected my behaving more empathetically, more considerately of others, with pairing off with Renni. They thought the two events were correlated—like during baseball season, there were mosquitoes; therefore, baseball caused mosquitoes. Wasn’t that loose thinking? They liked me better attached to Renni. I wasn’t as acceptable by myself? I liked me better, too, but why would they tell me that? Their faces and tone implied that they thought they were complimenting me and teaching me a much-needed life lesson. Do I sound defensive?
But was I really so horribly out of my league? Did I deserve someone less intelligent, attractive, ambitious, or generous? Was this yet another example of the low expectations placed upon me or a comment on my chameleon colors? Was Renni’s judgment of men so poor? Shouldn’t she be insulted, too?
Let’s suppose that Renni recognized a complimentary piece to make a stronger whole. Maybe she was brilliant to have chosen me; she saw beneath the chameleon color to the authentic me. Looking back, I was actually a good thing for her as well, not a restoration project at all. I brought liberal arts to her science, a bit of art to her logic, a bit of mellow to her intensity; so as a couple, we were fairly well rounded. It certainly didn’t feel as if I’d sold out by settling down, as if I’d compromised something of myself. It felt just the opposite, as if I had a strong teammate charging down the track with a huge lead, about to pass me the baton so that I could anchor the relay to a big win. Life became easier with an ambitious partner. I still wanted to make a difference, to shine a light on the absurdities of society and human existence. There was still a piece of me that was rebellious; I was still me, and Renni wasn’t asking me to be anything different.
Don’t get me wrong; I am grateful for Renni. She gets a huge hunk of credit for making me want to be a better man. But what about my peak experience? Was the moment my paradigm shifted the moment my brain made the final neural connection necessary to maturate to match my chronological age of twenty-seven? I literally became mature in that moment. What about losing the dream of elite distance running causing me to let go of the selfishness needed to perform at that level? What about the freedom I enjoyed to be myself after the repression of army life? What about losing my religion, which forced me to investigate other possibilities? I was ready to become more responsible. I didn’t want to be a lowly private any longer; I was ready to be an officer, a leader. I wanted to bring Renni along with me, and being in love with my best friend made it feel like less of a struggle and more of an adventure. So the change in me was multifactorial and not as simple as the idea that a good woman cleaned me up and straightened me out.
So no, I wasn’t pussy-whipped. I just morphed into a new and better color, someone cognitively abler. I became someone emotionally more mature who considered other people’s points of view and cared that they, too, had thoughts and feelings of their own that mattered. I became someone just a bit more authentically me and more loving and accepting of others’ authenticity and foibles. But no, I certainly was not pussy-whipped.