The last three years have started with a crush.
2012 and 2014 were the same guy. Things with him started the same way – we talked for hours at a party, in a bar – and ended the same way – he never texted me back when I asked him to hang out – both times. The disappointment was worse the first time. We’re friends now, I think.
2013 was different. I had a crush on a friend of a friend for months. I’ll call him the Comedian. When I confessed my crush to our mutual friend, he told me that the Comedian really liked me and that I should go for it. I was terrified. I could think of exactly one time I’d gone for anyone and hadn’t been rejected. I sent him a Facebook message. We ended up planning a date for that weekend. I remember being at my friend Katherine’s engagement party, drunk on red wine, telling my high school friends about him, feeling nervous but like nothing could really go wrong. He liked me.
That Sunday night, fifteen minutes before I was supposed to meet him at a bar in our neighborhood, I broke one of my bottom teeth while eating a slice of pizza. I told him this later, even though I worried about whether it was a funny-enough first date anecdote.
We had cocktails and then dinner and I thought it all went well but I really had no idea. I hadn’t been on a date in a year and a half. He walked me home and said we should go out again when he returned from a two-week trip. That night, I couldn’t fall asleep. I was thinking about the future. Was our age difference too much? What if his friends didn’t like me? What if my mom hated his tattoos?
The next weekend, I asked our mutual friend these same questions while sitting by the fireplace at my favorite bar. My anxiety was high. The Comedian had only texted me once, two days after our date. And then, nothing. My friend told me that everything would be fine. That night, I stayed out until 4 am dancing and walked two blocks in the wrong direction before getting myself on the right path home.
I didn’t see him again until a week or two after he’d returned from his trip, when I went to a comedy show that he hosted. I was nervous. Our conversations felt awkward. We took a cab back to Greenpoint together. When we got out, I invited him to a small reading I was having at my apartment in two days. He said he might be able to come, but he’d have to check his schedule. “You don’t know what you’re doing two days from now?” I asked. He told me he didn’t know if he’d already said yes to something else for that night. I think I told him I didn’t like ambivalence, but tried to kiss him goodbye anyway.
A few weeks later, after at least one more rebuffed invitation, he texted me to say that he was seeing someone else. I was walking down McGuinness Avenue with my roommate, on our way to meet friends, when I received it. I still remember feeling surprised when I started crying.
“You need to protect yourself.”
My therapist tells me this constantly.
She said it in March when I started dating my friend’s co-worker, a teacher who I met one Friday at a happy hour in Cobble Hill. It felt fated. I never would have been at that happy hour if I hadn’t been dismissed early from jury duty at the Brooklyn Supreme Court, which was within walking distance of the bar. I ignored the fact that he spoke often of his disdain for his ex-girlfriend. I ignored the fact that we had little in common. For a few weeks, he would text me to set up dates on the weekend. Once, we went to see a movie. We got a drink beforehand at the bar where the Comedian worked sometimes. He happened to be working that night. I acted like a total weirdo and never introduced him to the Teacher. When the Teacher asked me jokingly how I knew him and if I was a regular there, I said he was an old friend. I think he knew I was lying.
When the Teacher stopped contacting me altogether, I became anxious and unsure of how to proceed. I wrote about that earlier this year on this blog, about how I decided to let him disappear and didn’t ask why. I said then that I didn’t want to know. That remains true. He texted me eventually, only to acknowledge his disappearance. I never responded.
Weeks later, I found myself saying goodbye to the Comedian at his going away party. His parting words to me: “Tell your new boyfriend he’s a terrible tipper.” I didn’t tell him that he was gone, that he was never really my boyfriend. Afterward, I complained about what he’d said. It was embarrassing, I said, to have been taken out by a bad tipper. I didn’t want the Comedian to think that I was a bad tipper. I went on and on until I admitted that I was more than a little satisfied that he’d cared enough to say anything about it at all.
This summer, at the hotel bar after my cousin’s wedding reception, another cousin mentioned the post I’d written about the Teacher. “I just really felt for you,” he told me. At once, I felt touched that he’d connected with what I’d written and ashamed that my wounds were so apparent. He pulled my mother into our conversation, repeating that his heart had gone out to me when he’d read my post. I saw my mother look around nervously. I knew that post had made her uncomfortable in some way. It was one of the very, very few things I’d written that year that she hadn’t shared with her Facebook friends.
In July, I began dating someone more seriously. It began as a crush. He was the manager of the coffee shop I went to every morning. He asked me out one Saturday morning while I was reading. We went on our first date that afternoon. That night, I told a few people what had happened, how excited I was, how nothing like this had ever happened to me before, how I’d practically willed it into being. A man I’d just met that night looked at me, his eyes wonky from beer and edibles, from one end of the picnic table in my friend’s backyard. “C’mon, Haley,” he said. “You had a crush on this guy for months and he just asked you out? Don’t waste your next six months on him.”
It was only two months before it ended. He told me that he didn’t feel like things would work out between us and that we should just call it off now before anyone got really hurt. I was surprised. I thought we were having fun. I thought I was happy; I knew others, including my mother, were happy for me. He kept asking me how I felt about what he’d said and I answered truthfully: I told him that I didn’t feel like it was the end, that if he hadn’t told me that he didn’t think things would work out, I would still want to keep dating. We talked in circles for what felt like three hours but was probably closer to thirty minutes.
When he left, after I ended our conversation by telling him how disappointed I was, how I could see that it would be irresponsible for us to continue dating, he told me I had something in my teeth. He was only telling me, he said, because I’d told him he’d had something in his teeth on our last date.
I tweeted about that later, him telling me I had something in my teeth. And then I tweeted two other things, one of them a bit more malicious than the others. He saw those tweets, which no one really would have known were about him except for him, and he emailed me days later, after we’d seen each other at the coffee shop a few times. To him, what I’d written had been hurtful. To me, what I’d written had been cathartic. I was upset that he couldn’t see this, that I needed to make jokes in order to make sense of what happened, though I never tried to explain it to him. I didn’t respond to his email. I stopped going to the coffee shop.
Weeks later, I had a panic attack in the middle of a concert in Williamsburg. I left before the band I was there to see went on. I got in a cab outside the venue, hoping I wouldn’t throw up. Later, lying in bed at home, exhausted from crying, I thought about the pressure that I’d put on myself to stop feeling anger and pain, to be the good guy in the story, the person who always did the right thing. I’m still doing this. I see it in the details I’ve chosen to include and those I’ve left out of the stories I’ve told in this essay. I see it in my inability or unwillingness to go beyond acknowledging my disappointment, to describe the painfulness.
“You’re not good at protecting yourself.”
My therapist said this to me recently. It hurt.
I don’t like being told I’m not good at something. I wanted her to be more generous with me, to tell me that I’d gotten better at it, at least. I don’t know if I’ll ever be good. It seems impossible to me, to exist in a state where only the good things are let in and the bad things are repelled by some invisible suit of armor.
I feel like I’m always talking about being afraid of the future. I annoy myself, talking about the same thing all the time, but I think talking about fear is important. I’m afraid that if I don’t talk about my fears, they’ll never get close to being resolved. I’m afraid of rejection. I’m afraid of new wounds. I’m afraid of confronting the past that still lives in my present. I’m afraid that if I don’t confront that lingering past, I’ll never repair its damage.
After my last breakup, my friend Edmund came over. I felt insane, babbling about what had happened, bringing up random details from the breakup conversation between sips of beer. He was patient. He told me he thought I was brave to keep opening myself up. Brave or stupid, I thought then. Now, examining the patterns of the past, I think, brave and necessary.