Almost nobody calls July Fourth by its full name: Independence Day. Independence is old news when it comes to the United States — reading about the Revolutionary War (or, as it’s called by people who like their wars polite, the War for Independence) is sort of like reading about the Titanic, only instead of everyone dying when the giant behemoth gets cracked up, a representative democracy sets up shop. Screwing around with England back then was like screwing with … well, us, now. But when I read about Valley Forge in school, I always ended up skimming through the paragraphs, waiting for the French to get off their asses and show up already.
But back then, independence was an insane dream. Unthinkable. Even after they had lost, the British knew how improbable it was: they played “The World’s Turned Upside Down” when Cornwallis surrendered.
How can you fight against the roll of history? How can you overturn the heaviest five words in the English language: “it’s always been this way”?
And independence is more than impossible. It’s selfish. Freedom is what the people in charge give to you; independence is what you’re nasty enough to seize for yourself.
Independence means closing your eyes and shouting loud enough that even people who don’t care about you can hear you scream, “I don’t need any of you!” It’s short-sighted and downright politically incorrect. “I don’t need rain forests. I don’t need old people. I don’t need anybody but me.” It means giving up fresh milk sitting in rows in the supermarket. It means gluing your mailbox shut and placing a land mine beneath the welcome mat in front of your door.
It means punching your parents in the face and running away — not because you hate them, but because you don’t want them to be able to find you anymore.
What’s weird is that despite all this, independence is what so many people want most of all in the world.
It’s what I want, too.
My own story is so much more humble than any other. In the Book of Independence that God keeps next to his Encyclopedia of Infectious Diseases, my story’s all the way in the back, in the section of stuff that the author didn’t really care about but had to include for completeness’ sake.
But maybe all growing-up stories are as awkward and embarrassing as this one. File this story in with the stories I’ve thankfully mostly forgotten about my 14-year-old crushes and maybe it’ll be all right in the end.
I still live with my parents, a year after graduating from college.
(Once, a pretty girl asked me how I could write about my personal life so much. I don’t remember what I told her, but I know I lied. How else can you answer a difficult question from a pretty girl? The real answer is that I mostly write about things that will make me look cool. Remember this every time you read any confessional story.)
I set two rules for myself about moving out after I graduated:
- I would have a full-time job. (Health insurance, health insurance, health insurance.)
- I would have a roommate. (Because after living in a dormitory where finding someone to make fun of and drink beer with is a matter of walking a few feet, wouldn’t it be awfully lonely living by myself?)
Part one took until this past January. I had been working on a contractual basis through the summer (money, but no insurance), and was supposed to hop on as a full-timer in the fall. But things got tangly and tight-belted after September 11, and it took a long time to fill in all the forms and get all the signatures needed to hire a new person.
Part two took me to mid-May. I had a friend who couldn’t make up his mind as to whether he wanted to eke out a life here or run away to Japan for a year. He never really gave me a straight answer for a long time, and I never really pushed him.
Independence is scary. I want it badly but half of me still wonders if I’m up to the task. Not so much the big, meaningful, boring parts of it. Drafting a Constitution for a new country is gravy compared to working out where all the garbage is going to go and who’s going to collect it. I’m not sure how I’m going to cook myself dinner after I come home after a day of work where nothing exactly worked right.
So I didn’t mind waiting around a little. Every once in a while, I’d promise myself in a whispered voice that I’d be out of the house the next month. It’s sort of the same feeling you get from graduating from college — all kinds of great stuff only a little way off. You don’t need to worry about it just yet.
My self-inflicted predictions kept failing, and I’d have the same nightmares I had when I was in elementary school and didn’t fit in at all: of always showing up late to important things, and no matter how hard I tried, never quite fitting back in, of becoming normal. The kids keep marching up and down the silver lines embedded in the school hallway and I can’t keep up … and everyone at work is sitting around a long table and talking but there aren’t any seats for me … and there’s someone on the phone trying to speak to me but I can’t say a word …
One day, my friend announced that he was going to Japan.
By the next week, I had found an apartment.
It was easy.
There’s a fire in independence that burns through you, turning doubt and hesitation and fear of loneliness into diamond-hard determination. It doesn’t leave you any wiser — it just draws you forward faster than you think you can go, like you’re strapped into a seat inside a jet about to take off and you can’t move at all because the force pushing you back and drawing you forward at the same time is just too strong.
It’s intoxicating and dangerous this way. It makes you want to burn your bridges a little too much.
I’m sort of afraid of it now.
The reason why is that there’s a final leg to my journey. In a rental agent’s office, the flurry of check-writing and paper-signing and rapid confused negotiation makes it easy to trade waiting a month for a dishwasher and some more square feet.
From an entirely logical point of view, it made sense. But things here at home have been tense here in the meanwhile.
It’s been sort of like trying to eat dinner in the middle of a space shuttle countdown. You can stuff your ears full of cotton so you don’t hear the announcer’s voice and close your eyes so you don’t see the countdown, but it’s impossible to rid the air of that sense of impendingness. Not even of impending departure — just impending everything.
It grows larger and larger around every strand of spaghetti I eat. It bubbles up each time I open my mouth. And when it touches my tongue, I always say the wrong thing.
My parents are the ones who will deserve a medal when this whole thing is over. At first, I resented it when they asked me almost every night about my plans, because I thought they didn’t think I could take care of things myself.
But after all the arguments we’ve repeated so many times we could recite them like a demented retarded catechism, I know they ask because they’re as worried as I am. At least I have the luxury of actually doing something about it; they just have to sit there until the French show up.
I do think they know the ending to this story. They’ve lived through five thousand independences bigger than this one I’m feebling toward. It just remains to be seen how it’ll all work out. How I’m going to make sure the trash gets taken out and keep myself from contracting scurvy.
I don’t know how I will, yet. The only way to know is to try, fail, and try again.
July 15 is my Independence Day.