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I ended up getting the salmon. For whatever reason red meat turns my stomach when I have a hangover, and anyway, salmon was also a dish that fell out of my usual price range.
Jimmy and my friend each ordered the steak. They didn’t like seafood. “Just something fishy about it!” Jimmy cracked. My friend laughed, and I managed half a chuckle.
“So Anna,” Jimmy said once we’d ordered. “What kind of music do you like?”
The truth is I don’t do a good job of keeping up with music. In general, I’ve always ended up listening to whatever the guy I’m with is listening to, which is not so much an identity thing as it is a laziness thing. It takes a lot of time to keep up with music, and I’d rather be watching Law and Order or reading or napping. When people ask me what I like, I say that my tastes are eclectic, and I throw out a few laudable standards like Simon and Garfunkel and Ella Fitzgerald, and now, thanks to the advent of Hamilton, I can also mention musical theater and still sound cool.
I had a feeling Jimmy wouldn’t know what the word “eclectic” meant, so instead I said that I liked indie music. Unfortunately, Jimmy didn’t really know what that meant, either.
“Like the stuff that’s on college radio stations,” I said
“So you’re a hippie chick,” Jimmy replied, taking a swig of his Bud Light. “I feel ya.”
I cocked my head to the side. “Not really,” I said.
“Me,” Jimmy said, “I’m pretty basic. I like country, you know, some reggae, rap.”
I could have told you this much about Jimmy. I’d taken one look at him and put him squarely in the category of frat boy tastes. Thus far, everything was checking out.
And then, I had a realization, and the realization was this: I’d spent my life trying to make men happy even when I knew I had no interest in them. This had in turn led me on some horrible dates, including one with a man who had described in gruesome detail how he wanted to kill the mice in his apartment and then another with a man who spent the entire evening telling me that I was either winning or losing points each time I answered one of his (quite banal) questions.
So ok, I thought. I’ll be myself. I won’t worry about being likeable, and he’ll realize we aren’t right for each other.
“I like country,” I said. “I mean, some of it. Like Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash.”
“I still think you’re a hippy chick,” Jimmy said with a grin.
I frowned. “But I’m not,” I said.
Jimmy laughed and shook his head. “Yeah, yeah,” he said. “I believe you.”
Before I could respond, the waiter was back with more wine. Jimmy and my friend moved on to making faces with the baby, and all I could do was smile and nod and pray for the night to end.
When my ex and I broke up the first time, I went out and got a pixie cut. My first day back on campus after I got the cut, this bitchy girl in my department looked at me askance and said, “At least it will grow back.” I went to the bathroom and cried and cried and then had to take the back staircase to avoid running into my ex-boyfriend, who also had an office in that building.
When we got back together two weeks later, my ex ran his hand through my hair and told me that he still thought I was beautiful.
But we broke up again, anyway, because beautiful was not the same as attractive, and attractive was all that mattered.
I quit eating. I didn’t really want to lose weight; I just wasn’t hungry. I felt sick to my stomach all the time. I spent my evenings drinking tea to stave off the nausea I felt whenever I thought of what the trajectory of my life would be without him. Then, I’d cry until I passed out from sadness and hunger.
It sounds pitiful. It was pitiful. And perhaps some of it was mourning the loss of him, but I think I was mostly mourning the loss of the person I’d been with him. I had a rather low opinion of myself in those days. I had just finished a graduate program that only admitted me, I was sure, because I kept pestering the director about my place on the waitlist. My ex, on the other hand, had been admitted with a full fellowship. I thought that he was smarter than I was, and that he was more talented than I was, and that the fact of his liking me—loving me—would make me at least worth half of something.
And then it ended, and all I could surmise was that I was actually worth nothing.
After the second break up, my ex and I went for a very long walk, probably because he felt bad for me. The walk didn’t help—everything I saw reminded me of all those days in the future when he would no longer love me and when, without his love, I would be nothing. A girl with a dog walked past, and I started crying thinking about how one day he would go out with a girl who had a cute little dog and who lived on a cute little street like the one we were walking down. We walked by a restaurant, and I started crying again, this time thinking about all of the dreadful dates with dreadful men that awaited me.
“But you’re so pretty,” he kept saying. “You’ll find someone, no problem.”
There is no more useless thing than a person who is leaving you telling you that you are loveable. It is a lie. It is a lie every time.
Jimmy belched deeply and sonorously.
“Whoops,” he said. I mustered a pleasant smile and focused on my salmon.
“So,” Jimmy said. “What do you do?”
I took a sip of wine. “I teach,” I said. “English. At the college.”
Jimmy laughed. “Uh oh,” he said. “Better watch my grammar!”
Grammar, I thought, was the really the least of what Jimmy needed to watch.
“But I’m also a writer,” I added.
“Cool,” Jimmy said. “What do you write?”
I hesitated because this was another one of those questions I hated. I wanted to say literary fiction but thought it might sound snobby and besides, maybe my writing wasn’t so literary after all. “Literary” denotes quality, and I tended to assume that my work was mediocre at best.
“Wait,” he said before I could answer. “Let me guess. You write children’s books, don’t you?”
I wanted to tell Jimmy that in the last short story I’d written, a child gets eaten by an alligator. I wanted to tell him that I didn’t even like children’s books when I was a child, that I usually hated the kids in those books, those kids with their happy families and simple lives.
But of course none of these were things that I would say to someone I’d just met, and neither were they things I’d say to my friend, who I was still trying to convince that I was normal.
Instead, I said simply, “No, I write novels,” even though this was not true and the real answer would have been that I’ve written a bunch of first, second, and third chapters for various novels, and never anything beyond that.
“Ah,” Jimmy said. “Let me guess. Romance novels.”
I sighed. Poor Jimmy. He was so busy turning me into a character of his own creation that he couldn’t help but turn himself into a character of mine.
“No,” I said. “I write about sadness. I write about trauma. I write,” I said, “about how much it sucks to be human.”
Jimmy and my friend looked at me as though I’d just said that the world was on fire and I’d lit the match.
That’s it, I thought. I’ve done it. I’ve destroyed any semblance of normalcy. I’ve unveiled myself as the freak I truly am.
But then Jimmy laughed and said well that sounds very interesting, and we all went back to eating and drinking, except for the baby, who just sat there babbling and smacking the table.
After the break up, I determined that I would make myself into the kind of girl that the right guy—the right guy being an improved version of my ex—would want to be with. I bought vintage sundresses and wore my eyeliner cat’s eye style. Weekends, I’d bike downtown to read interesting books in the coffee shop and buy day old bread at a bakery. I’d bike home with the baguette sticking up out of my backpack, looking, I imagined, like an elegant French woman.
I had in fact bought a self-help book about how to be more like a French woman, the premise of the book being that French women were prettier, happier, and just in general better than American women. Following the book’s advice, I’d spend my evenings making extravagant meals just for myself, things like roasted chicken, paella, or moussaka. I’d decorate the table with flowers and candles, and then I’d eat my dinner on the single china plate I’d found at a rummage sale at the Quaker church. I was elegant. I was cool. I was miserable.
But still that thought nagged and persisted that if I could do just the right things, I would find the right man and I would be happy. I thought of myself not as a person but as a character, as a picture. I’d wake up on a Saturday morning and think, if I wear this dress and go to this park and sit under this tree and read this book, then I will create the perfect tableau and that tableau will be a thing worthy of love.
When we finished our meal, my friend invited me and Jimmy back to her place, and, because I was feeling bad about sounding so dark and miserable earlier, I capitulated and went. I told myself that I would use this as an opportunity to convince Jimmy—poor Jimmy—that he and I were not meant to be.
And yet I still managed to answer every question right. When asked about my favorite movie, I rattled off a list of Czechoslovakian films from the 1960s, and that sounded “neat!” When asked about what I did for fun, I said that I liked to read, and, when pressed further on the subject, I tried to explain a book I’d just read about the intersection of psychology and economics (a book that I had, in truth, found rather dense), and that sounded “cool!”
If Jimmy thought I was pretentious, he didn’t say anything. He just kept smiling and nodding and saying that he’d have to check out whatever I’d just mentioned.
When my friend’s husband got home, he cracked open a beer and joined us. He and Jimmy started talking about sports, and my friend went up to put the baby to bed. I know little to nothing about sports, so I nodded and smiled.
I studied Jimmy. I wondered if he was still suffering from the breakup of his marriage in the way that I was suffering from the breakup of my relationship that was not a marriage. He did not look as broken as I felt. Maybe he processed things differently.
Or, maybe he was just capable of picking himself up in a way that I was not. After all, if he could look at me and make all the mental leaps necessary to somehow determine that I could be the right person for him, if all he needed was a girl who was pretty, a girl he could easily taxonomize as a children’s book writing hippie chick girlnotwoman then ok sure. I could see why it was easy for him. I could see how he could move on while I was stuck seeing my ex as the only person that I could love who could love me back, except that, well, obviously he couldn’t.
But then I’d made the same mental leaps as Jimmy because while my ex was not a great person or even a good person, I loved him. I loved him.