The following is my piece from What Was I Thinking?: 58 Bad Boyfriend Stories on St. Martin’s Press.
I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’m pretty sure the man I think was the love of my life probably wasn’t.
See, he loved me and I loved him, but I think the Me he loved wasn’t really me, and the him I loved was a Him I’d made up in my head a long time ago, and then dressed him up in it like a Love of My Life suit.
The Me he loved was a person I’m sure no one else in my life would recognize. I was like a gratitude machine, always trying to make up for his being such a generous humanitarian, what with the whole “loving me” thing and all.
Every day, I’d be glad to add something of his to my to-do list. “Honey? Is there anything you need? Pick up your dry cleaning? Clean out your garage? A lifetime supply of earth-shattering blow jobs? Because, seriously, I don’t have anything else to do right now.” Who wouldn’t fall in love with that person? I was like Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.” Except he wasn’t paying me. And I wasn’t in thigh-high patent leather boots. Well, at least not all the time.
The Him that I loved—well, the real…let’s just call him Judgy McSex-a-lot—was chock full of contradictions. He was a runner, but he smoked. He was supportive, but judgmental. He seemed emotionally distant most of the time, but at other times, his sweetness would put me into a blissful sugar coma.
I awoke one morning to find him watching me sleep. He smiled and just said one word: “Pretty.” How does a person not get sucked in by that?
In possibly the only instance in my life in which I might have been deemed a Pollyanna, I chose to concentrate on only the good things. So what if he smokes, he’s great in the sack! So what if he’s quiet, he’s so smart! So what if he’s probably an alcoholic but always gives me shit about not being able to fix my relationship with food. He’s got good hair!
I wouldn’t say that I was looking at him through rose-colored glasses – in fact, it was just the opposite. I chose to take my glasses off to look at him. That way the looming clouds of our uncomfortable dinner conversations, his utter lack of a sense of humor and narcissism just looked like pretty fuzzy marshmallows, floating happily above our heads. It may have been the one time I was finally able to put my astigmatism to good use.
I was still squinting happily through our days together when he dumped me after a year. It was an ugly break-up that left me emotionally hobbled for upwards of another year.
Immediately after the break-up, I got re-acquainted with all my old friends. Mrs. Fields was as much of a hoot as she’d ever been. The Entenmanns were still the most charming couple to have over for breakfast, or lunch, or any one of the three dinners a person might have in one night. And Oscar and, really, the entire Meyer family, were nothing if not staunchly supportive.
I started gaining weight, and fast. And as soon as I could see it on me, I knew I could never see Judgy again. Not that I wanted to – after the dumping, I avoided seeing him like the plague. Well, not like the plague, because I don’t do a lot to avoid the plague these days. I avoided seeing him like the AIDS. I steered clear of his neighborhood, all of our shared friends and anything having to do with his business, environmental geology. This was the hardest part, it turns out, because you can’t swing a dead piece of tofu in Portland, Oregon without whacking an environmental geologist in his holier-than-thou head.
But thankfully, we never crossed paths those first few months, since the last thing I wanted was for him to see me. Six months post-breakup, I’d gained 15 pounds. Glasses still off, I continued, inexplicably, to be devastated by the loss of him. Right around then, the radio show I work on started getting some attention from the press. A local magazine decided to run a feature article on us. I was mortified. I told my therapist, and she was perplexed by my strange reaction to this great news.
“We’ve been in the paper before,” I told her, “And I felt the same way. I just keep picturing the same scenario. He’s at work, reading the paper with his co-workers at lunch. They come upon the story and the picture of me and he says, ‘Wow. Look how fat she got. I guess I dodged a bullet there, huh?’ And then, in my head, he laughs in this cruel, frat-boy way. Even though he was never in a frat.”
There were lots of times I could see my therapist editing herself; sitting in her warmly appointed office surrounded by colors and fabrics designed to make me feel comforted and accepted, and trying everything in her power not to fly out of her comfy leather chair and throttle me until I returned from my year-long vacation in Crazytown. (Which by the way, is only a quick train ride away from Funkytown, which I’ve heard is much more festive.) She managed to hold herself back, but I could see her frustration as she rubbed her forehead.
“How often do you imagine this scenario?,” she asked.
“Every time my picture’s in the paper. Or on our website. And he always says the same thing: I dodged a bullet, there, huh?”
“Did you ever hear him use that phrase in real life?” she asked.
“Never,” I replied.
“So what does that tell you about the likelihood of that scenario happening?”
“Um. It makes it less likely?”
I didn’t buy it. She told me to offset that image with one that most non-crazy people have when something swell like getting good press happens to them – one of smiling, supportive strangers and friends reading it and being happy for me. What a crock of shit. No one smiles while they read the paper.
Six months later, I was better. 15 more pounds heavier, but better. I could see him a bit more clearly, but his foibles were still fuzzy. Looking back on our relationship, it was as if I had mental TiVo, watching the good parts over and over again while fast-forwarding through the bad. I wondered if I’d ever get over him and so did every person in my life. They’d gotten over him immediately…what the hell was wrong with me?
That spring I took a weekend trip to New Mexico for a film festival with a group of friends I’d worked on a short film with. We were all set to go to one of the illuminating seminars when someone mentioned margaritas. It doesn’t take long to weigh the respective merits of those two words against one another. Seminar. Margarita. You try it and see where you net out. I’ll wait.
We drove around the outskirts of Albuquerque until we found the perfect hole-in-the-wall spot to drown our boredom. As we walked to the restaurant, we noticed that there was a psychic across the street. After a few margaritas, getting a psychic reading was deemed a necessity and not getting a reading was, apparently, “for pussies.” So I knocked on her door.
I walked into an environment not unlike my therapist’s. A thirty-something woman with much better hair than me sat at a rustic wood table surrounded by tasteful southwestern art. Dressed in a khaki skirt and a sweater set straight out of J.Crew, she looked surprisingly not nuts.
I sat down and she asked me what I wanted to know. I desperately wanted to ask her the standard, “When will I find love again?” question, but I didn’t want to seem…y’know. Desperate. “Whatever you want to tell me,” I replied. She whipped out the tarot cards and smiled.
“Well, let’s just see what happens.”
She laid out the cards, periodically making “hmph” noises. When she was finished, she looked concerned.
“Wow,” she said. “I see a very charismatic man here who’s really informing your life.”
I couldn’t think of who she meant.
“He’s charming, but he’s got a lot of rules.”
Hmm…nope. No one comes to mind.
“It looks like you got involved with him thinking that it would be good for your self-esteem, but now you just feel small.”
That’s…okay, that’s weird, but that describes about half the relationships I know.
“He tried to make you think you had a problem, that you were a mess…but it looks like he was the one with the disease.”
She took one last look at the cards and then really looked at me – made sure she had my full attention.
“You know you dodged a bullet with that one, right? You would’ve lost yourself completely.”
My breath caught in my throat, and suddenly I was totally sober. At the same second, I was slapped with two harsh realities: one, she was absolutely right and I’d wasted almost two years mourning a relationship that never really existed, and two, psychics were totally real.
I walked out of her storefront realizing that this stranger had just said the exact same thing that every person in my life had been telling me all along. It’s just that she spoke my language.
And so it was there, standing in the hot New Mexico sun, dazed from shots of tequila and truth, that I put my glasses back on. And in the smallest possible way, things started coming back into focus.