Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 4.5]

I spent an inordinate amount of time my last fall semester researching graduate programs, taking long, meandering walks on campus listening to Dark Side of the Moon and Revolver on my headphones, and contemplating what I really wanted to do. I had such a deep yearning to be close to the animals I’d been dreaming about for a decade, but Dad also encouraged the graduate school option, saying being a professor would have to be the best job in the world; I’d get paid to learn and be surrounded by so many other brilliant thinkers.

I was at a loss.

Then, in a flash of insight, I thought maybe I could find a way to marry my desire to work with marine animals and go to graduate school. What I found was an animal cognition program at a university outside the states that studied dolphin intelligence. Maybe that was the perfect compromise. My mentor advised me to contact graduate students already in the program to find out more. I emailed a few of them, but only one female student responded. She said it would be easier to speak over the phone, so one night I called.

She began with a question, “How long do you want to be a graduate student?”

“I suppose about four years is what I’ve heard it takes.”

“Well, I’ve been here six years, which isn’t a lot compared to most of the other grad students in the program. And I’m not even close to being finished.”

She went on to explain that the school had permission to conduct research on only a very small number of dolphins, so you had to get in line behind the other grad students for time and access to them. Not only was research so slow-going that most graduate students ran out of funding before they finished, the same handful of dolphins were used in all the experiments, so you could never really be sure your variables were the cause of the behavior you recorded. The dolphins were tainted subjects in that regard, which tremendously complicated the scientific method and the conclusions you could draw.

She also went on to say that a lot of the graduate students had “issues” with one of the professors in the program, who was “difficult.” And she ended with a lengthy story about how all their research was halted once for a year because an animal rights organization had broken into the research facility one night, captured the dolphins, and released them into the ocean so they could “be free.” She said she’d be surprised if there even was still a program in five years.

With the wind knocked out of my sail, I suddenly had a deep need to be around someone comforting. Before I knew it, I’d dialed Trey’s number. It had been a few months since he’d called and I’d been okay with that. But suddenly, I missed him like crazy. As soon as he answered, I apologized for bothering him.

He said, “No, no. I’ve been thinking about you a LOT lately.”

After two hours, we were pretty caught up. He was taking web design classes at the community college and was working as a waiter at Ruby Tuesday, trying to save money so he could move out of his parent’s house. He seemed more mature, and hearing his voice soothed me a lot. Our phone calls became frequent again and soon he was flying out to stay with me for a week.

One night, sitting on a patch of grass in a lighted part of the campus arboretum, Trey looked at me with tears in his eyes and, with great conviction, gave me the most riveting speech I could have imagined about what I meant to him, what kind of life he wanted to have with me, and how he couldn’t live without me. I was surprised by the intensity of emotions I felt swelling for him again. The old friction and tension created by our existential angst a few years ago was absent. We clung to each other. It felt so good to be close to someone again. I realized I did still love him and, more importantly, I still believed in his exceptional worth. So, I recommitted to the relationship in a serious way.


Months before graduation, I began applying to every park or zoo that trained marine mammals. By graduation, I had not heard back from any of them, so I moved back into my parents’ house and resumed waitressing. After a month at home, I was getting very discouraged, so when Trey brought up the possibility of me moving to Philadelphia, I decided it was the best option I had. If this decision sounds like a train wreck waiting to happen, that’s because it was. It went something like this: Mid-way into the summer, Trey (1) flew to my house, (2) helped me load my belongings into a U-Haul, (3) drove me to my new apartment in Philly, (4) and helped me get a job at his Ruby Tuesday. One morning, two weeks after the move, I heard a knock at the door. No sooner had I opened it than a very tall woman with brown eyes and dark, curly hair asked, “Do you have any idea who the hell I am?”

I could only shake my head, which was racing a mile a minute. She then said, “I’m Trey’s girlfriend, Kim. Now, who the fuck are you?” My heart sank to my feet; Kim was Trey’s long-time crush. As soon as I muttered “Michelle,” Kim put her face in her hands. Five seconds later, she looked at me with a little less hate and asked if she could come in.

We sat most of the morning sharing stories of the Trey we each knew—it turned out there were more than one. I knew mine, but I was pretty surprised to learn about hers. My Trey told me he had cleared his debt. Kim knew for a fact he was in deeper than ever. My Trey was taking classes at the community college. Kim said he was only “pretending” to do that for his parents’ sake, when he was really hanging out in the library with her or with friends. She had been dating Trey for about eighteen months. They’d reconnected the summer after he’d come home from dropping out. He had taken her virginity a few months later, and she thought they were exclusive and committed for the long haul. He had told her she was “the one.” She’d spent the holidays and summers with his friends and family.

The more I listened to Kim talk about Trey, the faster my initial anger faded. If I was completely honest with myself, what she was describing was exactly how I’d feel if Ryan had decided to reinsert himself into my life. Worse, objectively speaking, Kim seemed like a perfect match for him. They were both Catholic to the core. She was close to all his friends (the ones I found pretty obnoxious) and to his family, who had never really welcomed me with open arms. I got the genuine impression that everyone loved her and had been rooting for them to end up together all along. Kim wanted to get married and settle in Philly near family and friends, something I knew Trey also wanted to do, but which had always made me cringe a little. She wanted several kids, while I could never see myself having even one. Both of them liked to drink and party in large social settings and attend sporting events, which weren’t really my cup of tea. I thought about how I had to drag Trey kicking and screaming to a Pink Floyd concert and how exasperated I was with him the whole time because he’d hated it. I’d tried hard to overlook many every-day differences like that, but I knew they probably mattered more than I wanted to admit.

Kim hadn’t suspected there were any issues in their relationship, although, come to think of it, he’d started acting strange and distancing from her a bit around three months ago. That was around the time, he and I had reconnected. During the week he visited me, she thought he was with his grandparents in Florida. Then, only two weeks before he flew to help me move, he had tried to end it with her. This came out of the blue for Kim; she didn’t understand it and so hadn’t really accepted it. He avoided her calls and, finally, she couldn’t stand it any longer. She went to confront him after work and that’s when she saw him get into my car in the Ruby Tuesday parking lot. She followed me to his house, where I dropped him off. Then she followed me back to my apartment. And now, the next morning, here she was.

Trey was working that evening and Kim and I decided we should wait for him outside his parents’ house so we could confront him when he came home from work. When he arrived, Trey got out of his car, saw us both sitting on his front porch, shook his head to be sure he wasn’t seeing double, and froze. Just froze. Kim screamed obscenities and punched him in the arm several times. She demanded an explanation. She screamed for him to open his “fat, lying mouth”. Trey didn’t utter a word. I’m not sure he was even listening. Eventually, she looked at me and said, “You know what? He’s so fucked up. You can have him!” And she got in her car and drove away.

I hadn’t said a word yet. My mind had been working overtime all day trying to piece the puzzle together, replaying the past three months, every word Trey had uttered, every expression, every intimate moment. How could I not have known he was lying about so many things, hiding so many things, faking so many things? I was deeply confused about how a person could do all those discrepant things to a person who had cared for him so deeply. And how could I not have sensed something so major was off? I wasn’t sure my predominant emotion was anger. No, it was fear mixed with fascination. Also, I knew Kim was right. Something about Trey was very fucked up indeed.

I tried to speak gently to Trey. I asked him if he could tell me what happened. What was real and what was a lie? How did he really feel? What did he really want? He kept staring at a spot in the concrete. When he finally did start explaining, I realized that I couldn’t be sure one word he was saying was even the truth. I wondered, when he was spinning his lies, if he was even aware it wasn’t the truth.

Nonetheless, here’s the gist of what he said, “I know you won’t believe a word I say, but I didn’t mean to hurt you. I really do love you and wanted to end things with Kim sooner. It was hard for me to do and I waited too long.”

So it appeared that when he and I started back up again, things took on a life of their own, and he got in over his head. He found himself in a position to hurt at least one of us, something he couldn’t bring himself to do. So he delayed taking action. I wanted to know if he still loved her, and he said he did. That hurt, of course, but I was feeling something else. I was also worried—for his sake—that he might have ruined his chance with her.

I can only explain it like this: Trey once told me that if he had to choose one person to live on a desert island with for the rest of his life, it would be me. Whereas, I could quite possibly live on a desert island, isolated from most people (as long as I could read, listen to music, and have a cat)…Trey didn’t want to live on a desert island; he was part of a greater network and so was his identity. He needed his history and his “peeps.” They were necessary for his survival. I suddenly felt like a force tearing him apart. I was devastated and hurt to think I would never be enough, but I couldn’t see a way to easily, or successfully, fit into his life—at least not in a way that would ultimately make either of us happy.

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