I was in a relationship with another person (I call him He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named) when the last few episodes of Friday Night Lights aired. I was gripped by the argument between Coach and Tami while he puttered about, not really understanding what I was so invested in, since he hadn’t watched the show before. If you haven’t seen the show, as the finale drew near, Coach and Tami ended up in a deadlock over their jobs. Coach was offered a big job coaching college football in Florida and turned it down to stay with his team. Texas forever. Tami, on the other hand, is offered a tremendous opportunity to chase her dreams working as the Dean of Admissions at a small liberal arts college in Philly. That’s a pretty big jump–from high school guidance counselor to Dean of Admissions–and a testament to how awesome she was in her interview. Coach won’t even entertain the notion that she’d take the job. The fight, between two characters I loved and whose marriage I admired, had me holding my breath.
I can’t remember exactly what he said, but HWSNBN agreed with Coach. Without knowing the story, without loving the characters, he simply agreed with Coach, who was–by all measures–being an asshole. I was depressed during most of the relationship, so I don’t remember many things from that period, but I remember this moment vividly. I was washing dishes, preparing for a road trip between my apartment and his. I always open my blinds first thing in the morning, but my schedule had been interrupted by a late night with friends the evening before. Light slanted in through the blinds, casting a shadow over the apartment, a mess of half-packed bags and dog toys, and we were behind schedule leaving. We were still love-drunk on the beginning of a relationship. It was, I think, the last time I will ever allow myself to enter that sort of temporary blindness in which desire clouds out all signs that the person you’re with is just wrong for you. I’m not kidding. When Julio and I decided to transition from friends to dating, I put him through an hours-long interrogation. Anyway, in the kitchen, as I splashed about with the dishes and tried to listen to the end of the episode, a doubt punctuated that love-bubble. It was just one of several pin-pricks, some of which I was already ignoring, but this man was using Friday Night Lights as a way to tell me about his career and its incompatibility with my own. He was in the armed services and planned to be for the next twenty years or so. That trajectory would make it hard–improbable, if not impossible–for me to have the tenure-track career I’d been training for. Although he said he liked strong women (what man actually ever comes out and says the opposite?), he was telling me, clearly, that his career would always come before mine.
I ignored it. It was one of many ways I made myself smaller during that time in my life. Now, I’m not saying that the situation would be a problem for all couples, but for me it was definitely a problem. I wasn’t spending what would amount to a decade of my life in higher education just to brush my ambitions aside, however dreamy people said dating a lieutenant-doctor sounded. Regardless of what else happened between us, on a fundamental level, our dreams and values were incompatible. We weren’t going to work. And I ignored it. He showed me who he was and I ignored it. The voice inside told me to end things and I ignored it.
I have watched and rewatched FNL a few times in the three years since that summer morning. Every time Coach and Tami have that fight, I look back and I remember, achingly, how I ignored my better instincts and my needs and how badly I got hurt. I feel some mixture of angry and sad and relieved. And I make a mental note not to ignore myself anymore.
My current partner, Julio, played high school football, so I recommended FNL to him. Not long after we started dating, he devoured the show on Netflix. For six months spanning our transition from friends to us, I would wake up every morning to a lengthy email he had composed during the time difference between bedtime in EST and bedtime in MST. In one of those emails, sent on the kind of dreary November night that gets you thinking about mortality (at least if you’re of our sort of temperament), he explained several components of Friday Night Lights that resonated with him, including why he thought the Taylors’ marriage was a good example. He walked through that conflict, and some of their more minor ones, reflecting on partnership, balance, and why Coach was wrong, but how it wasn’t really about who was right or wrong.
The point is not that he agreed with me. Rather, what I take away from the different experiences I had with two men and the same TV show is that 1) I take stories very seriously and 2) the way we respond to stories can say something about who we are that we might not be able to say otherwise. Obviously, I put a lot of value in narrative. I’m doing a Ph.D. in literature. To a certain degree, the woman I am is built on the belief that it matters a great deal that I love Jane Eyre. I try to teach my students that reading, loving, and interpreting literature is part of being a well-rounded thinker and can help them better understand the world around them and the world within them. I could wax poetic about these things ad nauseam. It matters. It matters.
I grew up in a family in which we talked about stories. My dad and I read books together and went to bad sci-fi movies together. My mom and I watched romantic comedies and TV shows and talked about song lyrics. I think, as an adult, these conversations have created a space for me to talk to people about stories and use them as a springboard for talking about relationships. I think a lot of us do this and it’s worth celebrating. Julio and I discuss Parenthood as a way to figure out how we approach tough life choices. It’s been really useful without being daunting. After a different breakup, one of my roommates had us huddled up on the couch watching the Sex and the City movie because she thought Carrie’s depression and subsequent laughter over Charlotte’s…accident would speak to me where I was. My lit major friends and I do this sort of thing all the time.
I think the harder part is accepting our own stories and learning from them. There’s a part of me that is still mad at myself for making myself small and for ignoring myself. A part of me feels like I’m still making things up to myself and those who love me. As Tami would say, “There’s no weakness in forgiveness.” Owning my story depends on forgiving myself. I put a lot of work into taking control of my story and into surrounding myself with people who made me feel loved and strong and like I didn’t have to shrink-to-fit. I want to read, watch, talk about more stories like that so that I can learn and negotiate this complicated business of loving others and loving myself well.