Thursday, January 6, 2011
We were piled into a booth at our favorite hipster-dive in Philly. The guy across from me was sneering music snobitude about a band I’d just admitted to liking. I could have ignored it. I could have smiled and nodded, pretending to be illuminated. Instead, I cut this guy I’d just met down to size. That’s how I rolled back then. Don’t even remember what I said, but I do remember how incredibly satisfying it felt to let that weasely hipper-than-thou smart-ass have it. Then I excused myself to the ladies room line.
What’s wrong with her? How damaged must she be to just attack like that, he wanted to know. Asked everyone at the table. Nothing wrong with her, one friend replied. You’re just bitter that you lost the argument. Of course, he wouldn’t accept that. Ever.
Maybe if I’d had time to go back to the table and make nice, things would have been different. But while I was waiting in that ladies room line, some of our friends got into a territory dispute over our booth. It came to blows and the whole lot of us got kicked out of the bar.
We went our separate ways after that. Didn’t see the guy much, but I’d hear about him from mutual friends. He was still stewing over it. Still trying to make sense of it, trying to ferret out whatever secret vulnerability he believed his music-snobbery had unleashed.
I was hugely embarrassed, of course. The truth is, there was some vulnerability there, but it was nowhere near as intriguing as he’d imagined. It was simply that I’d spent the last few years being madly in love with someone who was madly unattainable. These were the last days of our sad, staggering little un-relationship, and I was in no mood for anyone else’s bullshit. Especially not this guy’s.
We started to cross paths more often. I didn’t like the guy, but I didn’t see much point in committing to that position. We had enough mutual friends that I figured it would be better to just get along. So I’d try to act well-adjusted and breezy. He could say some unbelievably lecherous and insulting things, but I’d suppress every eye roll and try to find a friendlier path to conversation. He was still trying to Figure Me Out, but I may not have been aware of that at the time. Something slightly more pleasant than tolerance was blooming between us.
One night he and my friend Clyde came up to my apartment after a night out. Clyde was teasing me, trying to take my pillow. Next thing you know, the two of them were fighting over the pillow, spilling cranberry juice all over my futon in the process. This is just sad, I thought, flashing back to my school bus days. But the junior high absurdity had only just begun.
“He likes you,” Clyde insisted later over the phone. “That’s why he was trying to get the pillow back from me in the first place – because it was your pillow and he was fighting for you!” And then he teasingly burst into a rousing chorus of Chicago’s “Glory of Love.”
“I AM A MAN!
WHO WILL FIGHT!
FOR YOUR HONOR!”
I was mortified. Mor.ti.fied. And…okay. Maybe just the littlest bit intrigued.
The guy was in a My Bloody Valentine-ish band, and one winter night a bunch of us went to see them play. They were good. Really. He played a baby-blue guitar with his back to the audience, which totally charmed me at the time. Later I found out the guitar wasn’t even his; he didn’t even like the baby blue. But that night after the show, we went to a diner and did some smiling across the table. There was some silliness. Some flirtation.
I wasn’t attracted to him in the least. There was something decidedly reptilian about the guy, plus that lecherousness was never far beneath the surface. But there were glimmers and shades of potentially appealing qualities here and there. Plus, I’d just seen Sense and Sensibility and had this notion that what we were doing was somehow Jane Austen romantic. You know. Detesting each other with a spark.
Mostly, though, there was this horrified rush of being attracted to someone that…well…I wasn’t the least bit attracted to. Didn’t even like him very much. But the wrongness of it made it intriguing. Confusion sparks with loneliness, and the next thing you know there’s a little rush of excitement for the guy. Ill-gotten, misguided excitement, but excitement nonetheless. In other words, it felt good just to be feeling something.
The balloon man came along shortly after that, followed by a brief flurry of suitors that spring. But by summertime the guy and I were casually orbiting each other again. There was a comfort to it, undermined by a nagging sense of This Is Wrong. Did we really like each other, or were we just the nerdiest two friends in the bunch, stuck with each other?
And he was still, still stuck on that argument we’d had about music and what it All Meant. He was still reading between my lines for some haunted, damaged woman to rescue. I was getting a stronger, darker sense that this Save The Crazy Bitch thing was a big part of his attraction to me in the first place. And I didn’t like it one bit.
We were waiting at the bar for Clyde to show up one summer night. The guy was sad and world weary, just coming back from a particularly awful experience at his social services job. Our conversation took a dangerous turn past the superficial.
You know that feeling where you know you’re lost, you know you should pull over and ask for directions, but you just keep following the road out of morbid curiosity or stubborn determination that everything’s going to work out? That’s what this conversation was like. By the time Clyde showed up, I was like Clark Griswold in that conversation. The guy was saying things like “I’m attracted to your mind.” He was doing that “Let’s get married if we’re both still single at 40” thing. I was alarmed. But I kept on going. (“When they close a road they put up big signs. Like this one.”)
Next thing I knew, we were leaning in for a kiss. An instantly-regrettable, dry reptilian-lipped kiss. Panic! What was I doing? Still lip-locked, I started nudging Clyde on the bar stool next to me, hoping he’d intervene somehow. But Clyde was chatting up the guy next to him and figured I didn’t need rescuing anyhow. Humiliated, I wrangled myself free from the kiss.
I don’t remember him minding my resistance very much. Maybe he was just as horrified as I was. Or, more likely, the kiss was just part of his patronizing, unfounded “research” into my psyche. Who can say. But there was no mention of it from then on. By the end of the summer, I was dating someone else. Meanwhile, the guy went out and bought himself a Delorean (you know, like the car in Back to the Future). Apparently that car was getting him all kinds of laid.
And that was pretty much that. We’d cross paths occasionally while I was still in Philly, and he’d be up to his old tricks – trying to root out some underlying sadness in me, trying to plant seeds of doubt about whoever I was dating at the time. At least there were no more kisses.
He’s so vain, he probably thinks this post is about him. The truth is, I’m not sure why I remember this whole story and suddenly felt compelled to write about it after all these years. But really, it’s not about him. The man himself was never that important to me. Barely knew the guy, really.
It’s more about that old looming emptiness, and what you’re at risk of filling it with if you don’t watch your step. Love is a lot less wild and elusive than it used to be. It holds us up with a simple, no-nonsense grip, but it no longer holds a dreamy promise. It simply is. Our adventures are past, and the struggles that remain are of a more serious nature. Sometimes it’s not easy to settle into that. Some days I think I can hear my midlife crisis pulling into the driveway.
So I remind myself what it was really like, what my options really were. Because even in those days of hilarious singlehood misadventures, there was emptiness swirling around the edges and in the background; a kind of desperation that threatened to sweep us up with a single bad choice at any weak moment. Part of the thrill in those days was simply dodging it.
Those were the days. But these are the days, too.