Tuesday, August 30, 2016

since feeling is first

There’s a scene in this year’s season of terrible trash reality show The Bachelorette where the emotionally stunted JoJo Fletcher cuts ties with the aptly named singer-songwriter James Taylor. The persona James crafted onscreen is one of a kind, loving, decent man -- the simple, marrying type. You are the total package. You'll make some girl very happy someday, JoJo tells him in too many words, her eyes wet with fake Visine tears. You're just not what I'm looking for.

You expect the cameras to cut there, or for James to maintain his dignity, maybe get angry. He looks at JoJo instead, in all his sad-sack deflation, and softly says, “The sad truth is, I hear that a lot. And I’m like.. when? When am I finally going to find her?”

This is typical reality TV fare, a standard romantic trope realized in messy, public fashion. Just because someone checks all the boxes doesn’t mean they fit into the complicated chasm of your life. But the vulnerability is legitimate. There is no faking a wound that deep -- it's as though JoJo stabbed James with a freshly sharpened machete, plunged it deep inside his chest cavity and pulled out the fleshy innards. It is too much to watch, their final embrace. It's true that The Bachelorette offers an unrealistic fairytale to both its participants and its viewership, but James Taylor's loss still stings.

A few weeks ago, I met a guy so far removed from my typical tragic type that I couldn’t remember why I’d swiped right on him in the first place. Tall, good-looking, kind, funny, smart, insightful, Australian. These are all adequate descriptors, and they are applicable to the side of him I came to know over the course of our seven-week whatever-it-was. But those adjectives fail to offer the total spectrum of what he became to me, in all his specific nuances and quirks, and they don't make a convincing case for the sorrow I've been steeped in since losing him. I am doing his character a lazy disservice.

I didn’t feel fireworks upon our initial encounter. There was no lightbulb moment, no explosive realization of compatibility, of Forever. There was, instead, total ease, comfort, warmth. Talking to him was like an overdue exhalation, like a soft hum. I felt no need to affect a more impressive version of myself that first night or the rest that followed, because -- at long last -- I was enough.

On our second date he walked me home from Manhattan, across the Williamsburg Bridge. He stopped short at one point, pulled me in and kissed me. We stayed entangled in each other for a while. His hands, tough and calloused from biking the lengths of the city, spanned the imperfections of my body, the tangled bird's nest of my hair. We were fully ensconced in the physicality of our mutual attraction, forever trying to pull the other closer. When he suggested we continue on, he put his arm around my waist and I sighed into him. It hadn't lasted long enough for me; these things never do.

Seconds later he paused again, incredulous, and said, "We're not even at the halfway point!? I stopped because I thought there was cause for celebration."

I let out one of my ugliest cackles then -- an unpleasant, grotesque noise, like a seal cracking its skull against the wall of a small tank -- and I put my hand over my mouth, embarrassed by how much space in the world I took up. It was one of a small handful of times I felt self-conscious with him. But.

"I like your laugh," he told me. "You're quite smiley for a New Yorker."

It was only true when I was around him. That was my firework moment.

"You're going to hate that bridge when you never hear from him again," my mother told me, two days later. She was right; I hope it falls.

Somehow, things continued on. Our similarly long work hours made way for late-night meet ups that lasted far longer than they should have, considering his early mornings. He sacrificed sleep to see me, but we all have different priorities.

He was funny, though his friends didn't think so. On our third date, he drew a cartoon dog on a card, slid it across the table to me and told me to keep it, joked that I should add it to the bedroom shrine I'd constructed in his honor. I admitted to having Googled him. He has virtually no Internet footprint.

In between dates I was an over-analytical mess. I will never be a detached cool-girl, my wiring is set to insecure and neurotic -- I keep track of the time between texts, the days without contact. He is not a drug dealer but owns a flip phone, which does not make for fast and constant communication, so we barely spoke between meet ups. I questioned his interest in me, I wondered how someone so good, so total, could really see me and still want to keep seeing me. 

But he did. "I like kissing you," he told me, more than once. Our physical chemistry was intoxicating, all-enveloping, at times too much. We often waited until the tail-end of the date to kiss, because once we started it was near-impossible to stop. I am sorry to those who drank near us, to anyone reading this now.

Things never quite progressed to sex, but he was hardly chaste in the way he touched me. He pulled me onto his lap at a West Village bar, put his hand up my dress, made me feel desired without having to say the words. He went down on me in the middle of West 4th Street on a self-dare, channeling a kind of recklessness he wasn't used to.

"I never do things like that," he said with surprise, each successive date later, "I still can't believe I did it."

Every time he walked me home, we'd make out in front of my building until the guy who parks his car in the lot next door would drop by to feed the stray cats around 2AM. It became a small inside joke: "I bet that guy is wondering where we are." I hope I never see him again.

Our taste in music didn't overlap, but he insisted on introducing me to the repetitive world of ambient electronic music. He made it sound poetic, appealing, meaningful. And to him, I guess it was. The fact that I -- an adult woman who has seen the now-defunct boyband One Direction live 20 times -- even attempted to understand his deep appreciation for a genre I will forever define as esoteric video game bleeps and bloops speaks volumes to how much I liked him and wanted him to like me back.

But he was right, a total of one time -- I connected with a single song, and I wrote up a short blurb about it for work. He was flattered, texted me two days later to tell me he'd sought it out on his own and re-read it. He said he loved it, that he thought I really got it.

He did this a few times, alluded to thinking about me in the interim. He said he wondered whether 'Ali' was short for a longer name and came up with two possible options, though both were wrong. He said he brought up my work site to his friend, asked if she'd heard of it. He said he'd clicked on a Kardashian story there, knowing he'd see my name next to it. He told me about the times he considered texting me but ultimately decided against it. The buttons on his phone were so small, after all.

He was attentive and present in a way I don't even expect from my closest friends. His memory was sponge-like -- he made sense of me, in all my inarticulate, scatter-brained inelegance and remembered every single thing I told him in vivid detail. I thought it was evidence of significant interest, the painstaking way he listened to my bullshit spillings over, as though he gave a flying fuck about who I was at my core. I am not used to being heard. I realize now it's more likely he has a good memory.

He showed me his parents' house on Google Earth, gave me a virtual tour of his hometown, Bendigo. It was charming and sweet, and offered some small town backstory, though he gave plenty of himself to me as it was. I told him Australia looked like South Jersey.

One night, he discovered he'd left his keys at his office back in Manhattan. I offered to reschedule but, undeterred by the possibility of a stolen bike, he insisted on seeing the evening through to its end. He warned me he'd have to leave by 11 to ride back into the city and then home again, but he stayed with me until 1 AM. I really thought he liked me.

We continued to see each other, but like a bed of sloths wading through a vat of melted tar, things progressed at a glacial pace. At one point I brought this up, said I'd like to see him more often. He said sure, we'd get together whenever we both had the time. But I felt something shift, an unease in his demeanor I mistakenly chalked up to as surprise, at the time.

"Did I just fuck everything up by saying that? Did I scare you off?" I asked him.

"No, of course not. This doesn't change how I feel," he lied, like a liar. "And besides, you should never not say something in fear of scaring someone off. Never demand less than what you feel you deserve."

He did this often, spun my negatives into positives in a way that skirted the edge of condescension without ever quite landing there. He made me feel good about myself without expecting anything in return.

He reassured me with a kiss. Then he kissed me again. He ended things a week later.



I picked a bar with a pool table for what became our final date, because early on he'd told me he played in a league when he lived overseas years ago. "Get ready to be stunned," he texted back.

I got to the bar first, and was immediately struck with a precognitive, weighted sadness, like every person I'd ever known and loved had dropped dead all at once. I still feel that way now.

Conversation was easy, as it always was -- we talked about death, nightmares, travel. He taught me how to play pool, succeeded in giving me one more pleasant memory of Us, one final thing to invoke his memory every time I see it: A pool table, present at the vast majority of average, shitty dive bars that pepper my ugly neighborhood.

He offered to walk me home after, and we paused at a real estate office to gawk at the absurdly high prices. It costs too much to live in New York City.

As an unobservant sack of shit clearly unable to read the room, I took that moment -- seemingly lighthearted and playful -- to invite him to my birthday.

"I think we need to talk," he said, and everything stopped short around me.

"We're a good match," he continued, gun cocked straight at my chest. "Not a great one."


Before I continue on, let me paint a picture of the inside of my brain for you. You live in The Sadlands. The weather: perpetually 98% humidity combined with a light mist. The embarrassing spoken-word part from that one Halsey song plays on loop at all times. You do not own a pet because they begin to slowly suffocate to death upon arrival and you are forced to watch. Soylent Green is people. You have never felt happiness because you live in a trash heap filled with rat feces and dead bears and you work in an underground sewer that exposes you to lethal doses of radiation everyday. To get to work each morning you must walk down a street littered with shards of glass and withered husks of skin. Your shoes are made of felt. You always walk it alone.

One day, someone shows up and asks if he can anchor himself inside you and you agree - equal parts desperate and curious. Things quickly change; the clouds part. Your setting becomes Disneyland, New York City, the suburbs of Wyoming - whatever makes you happiest. And the best part is you're no longer alone! There is a multitude of shared happiness that fills your heart until it feels swollen to near-eruption.

And then, some time later, it bursts. Your heart has been skewered and you are bleeding out. Your lungs have been punctured; they're filling with blood; you're drowning. Your world descends into the before, but it is suddenly worse than the before, because he leaves with parts of you that you'll never get back. Your world is worse than chaos because it is still and because you're aware.


He said wonderful things to me then, as I stood there in silence, mouth agape like a dead fucking fish. It's as though his mental thesaurus had landed on the word 'special' and he applied every fitting synonym he could think of to me to compensate for breaking my heart. Rare, unique, uncommon, he called me before moving on to the banal: funny, smart, interesting, charming. Great conversations. He said I made him feel comfortable in a way that was atypical for him. That I had a calming presence. That from the moment he met me, he felt at ease. That he was shy around most people, but never around me. That he hadn't felt a connection this strong in a while. That no matter how tired he was from work, he looked forward to seeing me each week.

Everything he said he felt about me sounded like the beginning of real romantic affection. His sudden dismissal of whatever we had made no sense, though I recognize feelings seldom do.

I tried to turn on the analytical part of my brain, pinpoint his disinterest. I asked him what it was about me that was so wildly unappealing it warranted undoing the past two months we'd shared. I wanted to hate him.

"There are so many appealing things about you," he responded. "I can't think of a single unappealing one.

"I genuinely believe you're a total catch," he continued, before skewering my heart with a rusty butterknife. "Just... for someone else."

At points I tried to appear detached. But anytime I attempted coolness, cruelty ("I don't need you to touch me," I snapped, as he tried for physical comfort when his words failed to land) I immediately regretted it. None of it was his fault. None of it was mine. He just didn't want me anymore.

We talked for an hour, and it devolved into repetition: How wonderful I was, how rare, how special, how unique. Like a fucking Chupacabra. How I should call all the shots in my dating life because I am so great, so incredible. How he didn't understand why I'd ever been ghosted. How he's probably looking for something or someone who doesn't exist. How, unlike him, I'm not hopeless and will find someone deserving of my affection. He failed to understand that I had.

I chalked it up to my appearance. I am not beautiful, I cannot even fake pretty, but at least I am aware. That, I could understand. But: "I find you very attractive," he said, when I asked if the problem was my face. I wanted to stick both thumbs far into his eye sockets and press down, hard. 

Words are hollow when the proof of their validity is eternally pending. How wicked to be told several wonderful, poetic things about your character from someone who matters to you, only to have your actual self-perception — weighted with negativity and self-loathing — realized time and again, instead? To be awakened to the reality that you, in all your complicated multitudes, may never be the right fit for anyone, no matter how you try and shrink yourself down.

He said he was tempted to keep seeing me each week, that he enjoyed our conversations and my company so much he could've kept things going for a while. But that it wouldn't be fair to me. That I would eventually realize he wasn't worth it, and by then it would be too late. It was a very elaborate excuse to get out of my birthday party.

He made declarative statements that weren't true: "You're angry." "You're upset with me." "You're pissed."

I wanted to be, and I'm sure he wanted it, too. I prefer volatility, an ignition of volcanic emotion that helps you burn faster through the sorrow. I wish I'd touched him with scalding fingers, rendered him black ash. But I just wanted him to hold me, to take it all back. I wanted him to stay.

"I'm not upset with you," I told him, and I wasn't. "I'm just sad." 

He walked me the rest of the way home, insisted on holding my hand while he did it. This was his one cruelty, his refusal to let me pull away. 

Earlier he'd said he wanted to see me again, to stay friends, as though neither of us had ever wanted to fuck the other. That he didn't want to lose our specific connection. I want to believe this, because it lends significant validity to all the decent things he said about me. That I am rare, unique, special, worthy and deserving of the kind of love I'll probably never find. I feel the same way about him, he's unlike anyone I've ever met. But I have enough friends.

When we got to my door, he held me too tightly for far too long. I asked him again if he genuinely wanted to keep in painful, platonic touch and he was adamant, "Of course I do."

"I don't know if I can do that," I told him, as quietly as I could. "But I'm really going to miss you."

"Then I'll see you soon, yeah?" Probably not.


I can no longer walk around my own neighborhood without remembering everywhere he touched me. Even the waterfront, a former source of comfort for me, elicits heavy grief. We sat together there once for hours, and he was vulnerable and revealing to the point of nakedness. It felt like a significant unburdening at the time; I'm no longer sure he felt the same.

The specifics of our beginning are mostly lost on me now, nearly two months later. Part of me is sorry I didn't write any of it down. Another part begs for amnesia spanning the dates I knew him. A final part wishes I were dead. 

But toward the end of our very first date he pulled away, mid-make out, looked at me and asked softly, "What do you want?" I wasn't sure what he meant, but I surprised myself with the answer. 

"You," is what I wanted to say, "All of you." 

But it was too soon to admit that to someone I'd spent a mere five hours with, so I kissed him instead. It didn't matter in the end, because he didn't want me, anyway. Not in the way I wanted him.