Several years ago, a friend who evidently did not know me very well tried to set me up with her husband’s best friend. “He’s a great guy,” she said. “And his divorce should come through any day now.”

“He probably doesn’t want to be dating yet,” I suggested. I was twenty-five, and divorce was a thing that my friends’ parents did, not a thing that my potential dating partners did.

“Oh he’s ready,” my friend said. We were walking around her townhouse community. She was pushing her ten-month old son in a stroller, and I was surreptitiously checking my phone to see if the guy I wanted to hook up with had texted me back.

“He needs to date,” my friend went on. “His ex-wife was a total bitch. She cheated on him like, right after they got married.”

“That’s sad,” I said. I looked at my phone again. Nope. No new texts.

“She got drunk one night and told him. Then she took their new puppy and drove away. Got in a wreck. Killed the puppy.”

“Oh,” I said. “That’s—that’s really horrible.”

“So yeah. He totally needs to date someone.”

And, because there’s no chapter in He’s Just Not That Into You that deals with how to dissuade your friend from setting you up with a man who can only be described as a walking vortex of sadness and loss, I smiled and changed the subject and assumed that was that.

At the time, I lived alone with a cat in a mouse-riddled apartment in a trendy part of town. The best things about the apartment were the expansive front porch, the claw foot tub, and the cable that never got cut off from the previous tenants. The worst things were the leaky ceiling in the kitchen, the black mold in the pantry, and the aforementioned mice, who mostly hung out in the broken radiator in my bedroom. It was the first place I’d ever had to myself, and I thought it was wonderful.

My friend, on the other hand, had an actual condo with an actual mortgage. She and her husband did things like save up money to take vacations. I spent what little salary I had on vintage clothes and Chanel No. 5, which my cat knocked off a mantle and shattered all over the floor almost as soon as I had gotten it. For my vacations, I sat under the large fan in my living room and read used travel books.

I did not feel as though my friend and I inhabited equal places in life, nor did I feel like hers was a life that I wanted. Still, I saw in her life something exotic and interesting, and, though I would have never admitted it to myself, something pleasant.

 

A few weeks later, my friend invited me to the soft opening of the very fancy restaurant where her husband worked. A soft opening, in case you didn’t know, is a night in which the staff of a new restaurant practices for friends and family before it opens up to the public. Often, the food is free, as it was on this particular evening. Because I was teaching on a lectureship that was meant to provide more in the way of experience than actual salary, the possibility of a free steak dinner appealed to me, and so I agreed to go.

I showed up at the restaurant to see my friend standing at the bar, balancing her baby on her hip and talking to a man who I knew had to be he of the ex-wife and the dead puppy.

They saw me before I could rearrange the look on my face from one of abject horror to one of gracious acceptance, a transition that we southern women can usually manage in a matter of milliseconds. I was still hungover from the night before. I’d finally hooked up with the guy I’d been trying to hook up with, and it had been both exciting and a disappointment. I was a month out from a longish-term relationship with a man I had assumed that I would marry, and so it was exciting to have sex with someone different, but it was also disappointing to have sex with someone who was not my ex-boyfriend.

“Are you ok?” my friend asked.

“I’m great!” I bleated. “I just had something in my eye.”

My friend nodded and shifted her baby higher on her hip. “This is Jimmy,” she said. Jimmy extended his hand to me, and suddenly, what I thought was going to be a handshake turned into a hug.

“Oh,” I mumbled into his golf shirt. “Nice to meet you.”

“Heard lots of great things about you,” Jimmy said when he finally relinquished me.

“I wouldn’t believe all of them,” I said with a laugh that I hoped would convey No, really, I would not believe all of them.

The bartender leaned across the bar and asked if I wanted a drink.

“Oh, yes,” I said. “Pinot noir.” I’d just read an article about how pinot noir was the most sophisticated wine, and while I did not want to impress Jimmy, I hoped to demonstrate that I had very high standards.

Jimmy ordered a Bud Light—“in the bottle!” he said. He turned to me and commented that it tasted the same, anyway. I raised my head in what could possibly be construed as a nod. I did drink Bud Light on occasion, but only on dollar draft Tuesday at the neighborhood dive, and then only in an attempt to be more uniquely ironic than the hipsters with their PBRs.

My friend ordered a girly cocktail with a stupid name as the bartender slid my pinot noir towards me.

“Now that’s a dang big glass,” Jimmy said, and I nodded.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s a red wine glass.”

Jimmy cocked his head and considered that. “Yeah but why is it so big?” he asked.

Actually, it was a good question and one that I didn’t really know the answer to. But, because I was twenty-five and often answered questions that didn’t know the answer to, I stumbled through an explanation of how the glass helped the wine to breathe.

Jimmy considered this for about half a second before he shrugged and said, “Sounds complicated. Must be why I like beer.”

I nodded. I didn’t have anything to add. My friend, either sensing that the conversation was stalling or, more likely, tired of holding her child, ushered us towards our table. Waiters buzzed around us, their faces tight with concentration. My friend caught her husband’s eye and winked at him. He smiled and winked back.

Ah, married bliss. Or something like it.

 

I tried to imagine what this was like to have a relationship like theirs, wherein winking was not corny but rather a true measure of affection. I could not. My ex and I had had one of those relationships wherein we’d go to parties and drink gallons of whatever. He was twice my size, but I had a higher tolerance—or at least I knew when to stop drinking, knew when I was standing on the fulcrum of fun and disaster.

Most nights ended with him horizontal in some position: sprawled out on his bed and unable to take off his shoes, lying on my kitchen floor and telling me how much he loved me, and once, on a very bad night, passed out in the middle of the hall, blood trickling down the side of his head from where his guitar case nicked him as he fell.

He was older than I was by ten years. We met in grad school. Before that, he’d worked at a crematory. I thought that everything about him—the drinking, the bouts of melancholy, the way that towards the end of the relationship he relished telling me just how unattractive he found me—were just things that writers who were smarter and more talented than I would ever be did.

We broke up twice. The first time lasted just three weeks; the second lasted for good. It was after that second breakup that my friend and I reconnected. She and I had gone to high school together back in Georgia, and then we ended up living in the same town in North Carolina. We figured it out via Facebook, and the next thing I knew, we were spending our Thursday nights eating Vietnamese take-out and watching American Idol. I didn’t really like American Idol—I thought it was cheesy and beneath my usual bar of sophistication—but I was in that post break-up mode of “trying new things” and anyway, I was lonely.

My friend and I hadn’t been particularly close in high school—she was a couple of grades ahead of me and had been in the group of cool theater girls who had shiny hair and who all the guys flirted with at cast parties. I did theater too, but I was one of those theater girls who was shy and intense and often angry. I did not have many friends.

I was surprised that my friend was now my friend rather than my acquaintance. I was seven years out of high school, but I still had sharp memories of being a freak. I decided she’d probably either forgotten this about me or, more likely, that she was lonely, too. She’d just quit her job in order to stay home with her kid. Her husband was at work most of the time. And there I was, a single woman without children or a significant other competing for my attention. Basically, I was the best friend a new mom could hope for.

Sometimes, my friend and I would spend our afternoons at the pool in her complex. I hadn’t been given classes that summer, so I had precious little to do. Most days followed the same pattern: wake up late, make an egg sandwich, read, pretend to write, make a tomato sandwich, read, pretend to write, and then go for a run following a route that would bring me just close enough to my ex’s apartment to not count as stalking.

The pool afternoons were a nice break. My friend and I would slather the baby with sunscreen and push him and his various accoutrements up the hill to the pool, where we would then spend the next hour or so marinating in the shallow end and passing the baby back and forth in his float.

We’d go on weekdays, which meant it would be us and other moms and babies. Once, we struck up a conversation with a very tan woman of indeterminate age. She had a tattoo of a hummingbird on her shoulder, and every time she moved her baby, the bird fluttered. The baby had on a cute gingham print swimsuit and a matching floppy hat—a level of taste I found surprising in a woman with a hummingbird tattoo.

“Do you want kids?” the woman asked me after she had ascertained that the baby was my friend’s and not mine.

I cocked my head and squinted. “I guess?” I said. “I mean, once I meet someone I’d want to have kids with?”

The woman nodded as though I had made a profound point.

I’d never been asked this question. The friends back in my real life didn’t have kids, nor did they talk about having kids. It seems like it should have been a question that came up when I was with my ex, and yet, for whatever reason, it never had.

“Kids are just so great,” the woman said. I noticed she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, which might have been because she was at the pool, or not.

I nodded. I did not think kids were so great. They never did things that I found interesting; all they did was want and need and demand. I never knew what to say to them. My repertoire of child-appropriate questions ran out after “what is your favorite subject in school?”—a question that I knew to be profoundly boring and yet the only question I could ever think to ask.

And then there was this: I always felt as though I was being judged when I was around kids, as though how “well” I did with them would predict how good of a mother I would be, which in turn reflected my suitability as a woman.

I always figured I’d have kids. It was what women from my corner of the world did. My mom told me that I’d find my own children interesting. She said that she hadn’t really liked kids before she’d had my brother and me. And, because my mom and I have always been similar, I believed this.

But the more time I spent around my friend and her baby, the less I wanted kids. My friend’s life when we weren’t at the pool seemed to be relegated to watching TV with her baby in her townhouse living room. The living room was dark and claustrophobic, with one window that looked out onto the parking lot. There were no trees, only the blinding blue sky.

 

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.

 

In my mid twenties, I thought about this a lot: when my mom was my age, she was married. She was settling down with what was supposed to be her forever husband while I was still roaming through the wilderness.

My college boyfriend wanted to marry me. He was nice enough, but he was nice in a way that was suffocating. He didn’t think I should—or could—do any of the things I wanted to do, like go to grad school or apply to Teach for America. As we were breaking up, he told me that I had great dreams and all, but that I was too ambitious. I would never be a successful writer or actress and it was about time I faced up to that.

“You’re smart,” he said, “and talented, but just not enough.”

And what I heard was this: you are not enough.

He said this as we were breaking up, so they were probably words uttered out of spite. But still, they stuck with me, especially out in in the real world when success didn’t roll into my lap like I’d thought it would. Every time I ended up in another stupid job wherein I had a boss—usually a man—who treated me like I was an idiot, I’d wonder if I hadn’t made some colossal mistake in not settling down. I’d given up what could have been a life of “perfectly mediocre and occasionally happy” in order to chase a dream that probably was too ambitious.

I didn’t want to be like this. I wanted to be hard. I wanted to care more about myself than I did men. I wanted to be a raging 21st century woman who didn’t need to be loved. I never considered that the more sensible option would be to be a raging 21st century woman who knew that she deserved to be loved.

Meanwhile, my childhood acquaintances, the ones I thought were so stupid and so simple and so, well, boring were getting married. They’d post happy mason jar and burlap wedding pictures, and I’d hate them. I’d go to Wine Wednesday with my girlfriends and down glass after glass of cheap merlot while we all decried the futures we imagined we were doomed to inherit, futures filled with loneliness and cats and our stupid, unfulfilling jobs.

But no, I’d say, ever the optimist. Better days await! Our jobs will get better! We’ll find men who are as smart and as driven as we are and who are ok with us being smart and driven! And these men will be better than the boys we’ve walked away from.

And then I found one and he walked away from me.

 

My friend came downstairs looking both tired and peeved yet still beautiful, like a renaissance Madonna.

“Sorry,” she said. “He was fussy. He didn’t want to go down.”

Her husband got up to get her a beer, which she took like a life preserver.

Jimmy, on his third beer by then and obviously feeling more confident, turned to me with the twinkle of a question in his eye. I jumped up from the sofa and announced a bit too loudly that I needed to go home and feed my cat.

“I’ll walk you to your car,” Jimmy offered.

“I’m fine!” I said, and I flew through my goodbyes and thank yous to my friend and her husband so quickly that I figured Jimmy would not have a chance to get up. I’d been rude or at least brusque, but whatever. It was better for him to get the picture now. Because surely, he had. Surely, he knew where we stood.

But then, as I stood outside my car and fumbled with my keys, I heard a door open. I turned around and there was Jimmy, beer in hand, asking for my number.

“I’ve really got to go,” I said.

“But it’ll just take a second.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t.”

I climbed into my car and drove off, but not before I watched the goofy grin Jimmy had been sporting all evening cloud over into a bitter sneer. Even in the dim light of the summer sunset, I could see in his eyes the look that men give when they are thinking about what a fucking bitch you are.

 

My ex-boyfriend thought I was a bitch. He didn’t say it, but he thought it. I knew because he’d give me that look like a door had slammed shut in some passageway where his eyes connected to his brain.

And I could be a bitch. I was, for one thing, quite jealous. My ex was more successful than I was. If I’d been more mature, I would have been happy for him. But I was not mature. I was in my early twenties; I was a child, and I loved him the way that children love, with a tight fist and a starving, greedy belly.

Then of course there was this: he was a man succeeding in a man’s world, while I was a woman trying and wanting desperately to succeed in that same world and failing.

But I never considered the context of my life in this way. I never imagined that my failures might also have something to do with my environment. I never considered the penalty of being a woman.

 

Later that night, as I lay in bed beside the man with whom I had been trying to hook up, a man who was just interesting enough that he would distract me from my sadness for the next few weeks, if not the rest of the summer, I thought about Jimmy and his persistence in the face of my obvious disinterest.

I told the man about it as he traced his fingers down my back, across skin that had just months before been touched by a different man, a man that I had loved, that I still loved. The new man laughed and shook his head.

“I just don’t get it,” I said. “I did everything I could to show him that we weren’t right for each other, but he kept at it.”

“That’s just how men are about pretty women,” he said. “Someone looks like you, nothing else matters.”

I thought for a moment about resting my head on the man’s chest and looking up at him, about making a face that would somehow make him love me, and that by virtue of his love, I might love him back. I thought about softening my edges, about becoming the kind of woman that men actually stayed with, of filling my brain with the kind of sunshine thoughts that would make me a sunshine person, a sunshine woman, sunshine girl.

Instead, I rolled away from him and pretended to fall asleep. I thought about my mother, who told me once when I was thirteen or fourteen that if I was too picky when it came to men, I would end up alone and wouldn’t that be terrible? Ten years later, when she found out that my father had spent the better part of their marriage having affairs, she had different ideas. There are much worse things, she told me then, than ending up alone.

But when you are twenty-five and the world stretches wide ahead of you, and the promise of night after empty night screams out like a wild creature from the depths, you close your eyes and make compromises that you know are mistakes because you live in a place and a time that has taught you how to rage and that has taught you how to compromise but that has never taught you how to be alone.

Pages: 1 2 3 | Single Page