My first impression of Nick was that he was too thin. Even as he closed the distance between us, a casual gait carrying him forward at high speed, his frame remained the width of a rail, his legs more narrow than my wrists. (I expected him to be thin based on his pictures, but I had to admit that the reality was somewhat unsettling.) Already, I could tell that he was one of those men that didn’t realize the importance of clothes, particularly the way they fit on a slender frame. The boyish voice of Scott popped into in my head, reminding me that slim guys need a slim cut. Otherwise we look like skeletons, I recalled my ex telling me on our first date. While I still hadn’t come to terms with the pain Scott caused me, I couldn’t help but smile at the tangential thought of his obsession with fashion. Maybe this was the right beginning – this Nick guy clearly wasn’t fixated on the fit of the oversized polo shirt he wore. Of course, Scott was right: my date looked like he belonged in an anatomy class, suspended in the corner by a pole.
My date waved from afar, strolling past mothers who were emptying their cars of children and lawn chairs and food. From what I could tell, the park I selected was hosting a softball tournament for preteen girls. Aluminum bats, leather gloves, kids with their hair pulled into high ponytails served as the park’s backdrop.
“Amber?” he asked, now close enough that I could hear him.
“Yup,” I said. I hope I look enough like my pictures. This was the same thought I always had when I met anyone from a dating app, moderately terrified I would be told that I’m bigger or uglier than my profile suggested.
“Nice to meet you, Nick,” I continued, reaching out to shake his hand. Dates were like an interview, after all. And just like I would with any hiring manager, I made sure to hold his hand firmly. I’m assertive!
“Nice to meet you,” he said, pulling his hand away slowly. The only word I could find to describe his voice was “blunted.” There was hardly any inflection. I’m in for a treat, I thought, expecting to be bored by the lanky stranger I had agreed to meet.
“I think the trail starts there,” I said, pointing towards the paved ground ahead. This wasn’t the hiking trail I had been hoping for, but he was yet another guy that forced me to figure out the details of meeting up for the first time. I was tired of getting drinks — alcohol made you fat, like so many other things — so I opted for a physical activity and a location halfway between the two of us. I didn’t put a lot of effort into these things.
Given our lackluster greeting and the questionable impression Nick made, I didn’t expect our first date to clock in at over thirty hours.
I’m not the first person to recognize that they’re in love with being in love. Of course, I believe that the concept of being in love with being in love is simply a generous way of reframing, “Hi, I have an addictive personality.” Maybe I’m just being cynical. I do know that I’m projecting, independent of my prior insight’s validity. Personally, I see love as another dirty habit I engage in. Losing myself in a new romance or a friend is as numbing as alcoholism, and it kills time better than my usual vice of choice. (B-U-L-I-M-I-A. I think it’s a funny word, but it’s still hard to say aloud.)
Still, this isn’t the impression I typically make, or want to make at all, which is why I try so hard to be cold and distant at first. Actual love (including the self-directed variety) is too vulnerable. My desire to lose myself in someone else is too dangerous. Given my history, I’m reasonably certain the latter event is inevitable, despite the Ice Queen disposition I’ve tried to adopt. Genuine love, whether it’s for myself or another person, will be sacrificed along with what little personality I’ve scraped together thus far. When I open up, the only thing I reveal is that I’m desperate to please, even if I give up the bits and pieces that allow me to feel like a person with interests, dreams.
This was the exact lesson I learned from my brief relationship with Nick, wasn’t it? A guy who needs me can save me from my addictions – until reality replaces infatuation, and the cycles I’ve known all my life repeat, tied together in an infinity knot. The threads are limited, representing only sacrifice and survival. Bleak, I know, but the paths I’ve taken in my life can’t be undone, unpaved, unwound. I can almost predict my future based on how and where these lines have traveled, and I’m more terrified to experience something new than I care to admit.
With Nick, I ignored the red flags, telling myself that mine were worse.
Sometimes, I feel like I survived only so that I could relive and replicate the trauma that’s chased me throughout my life. On better days, I consider all the potential I contain, my ability to change this narrative of abuse, both self-directed and externally inflicted by others. I’m not dead yet because I desperately want to find happiness. I’ve made that decision more than once – and acted on the will to seek better for myself, even when it meant facing the unknown. Always, the difficult part is keeping that momentum going. Eventually I fall into filling myself on my addictions; I’m too afraid I’ll collapse otherwise.
I thought Nick was a different path. I was in love with being in love with the change he represented. Finally, someone nice. He was not Scott in all the ways that mattered most. If I lost myself in him, as I had with Scott, I’d be safe.
Wrong. I was a fool to be so surprised when he left. There was a different insight I wish I had made at the time, when I first left Scott and ventured into the realm of dating again. I need to learn how to be in love with myself first.
“I know you’re not alright,” my therapist said.
My jaw throbbed. I always wondered if he knew when I was acting on my symptoms. He specialized in treating people like me, after all.
“I have something to tell you about your boyfriend,” he said. “Nothing bad, but I want to hear what happened first.”
He knew about Nick?
“He left,” I said. I was smiling. I did that whenever I felt like I was on the verge of crying -grin like a lunatic, an inappropriate context almost always accompanying the expression. A subconscious part of me equated baring my teeth with protection. “He took everything. He left. When I got home yesterday, all of his shit was out of the apartment. Everything.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I’m sure you have some thoughts,” he said.
“Well… I don’t know, we were fighting, sort of. About a lot of things,” I began. “He knew we were moving in together, but he made some choices that put me in this position – I paid for a lot of our furniture, and used a lot of my savings, and it was just hard to think it was fair… and I don’t know, there’s just so much that came up. I wanted him to be neat, and I think I nagged him too much. I was worried -”
“He’s a hoarder.”
“His parents are hoarders,” I said. “And he definitely has the same impulse to hold on to things. I don’t know if it’s hoarding or more like… that’s just what he knows, after living with them his whole life. But I didn’t want that for us.”
Remember when he told you he cleaned out his bathroom? Nick was practically waving his red flags that day. “I did my best,” he told me as I walked into the room, his affect strange and difficult to describe because it seemed so unlike him. He was sitting on the floor, his long legs folded over each other, head hanging down. I’ve never seen him like this, I thought.
The only progress he made was clearing out one of the recessed shelves by the shower, but even then, he had simply found new homes for the random of collection of items that once lived there. I knew to be gentle in my response – so I told him it was okay, but that we could definitely do better.
“I’ll help you,” I said, stroking Nick’s head, now pressed against my hip, my fingers occasionally caught by tangles in his coarse blond hair. Instead of recognizing that my new boyfriend had a serious problem, I used his dysfunction to satisfy a part of me that enjoyed being needed. I spent what remained of my night encouraging him to throw away excess bottles of suntan lotion, women’s makeup (I was both relieved and disturbed when I discovered that these items were leftover from his half-sister, who had moved out almost a decade ago), and useless As Seen on TV items like towels woven around reusable freezer packs. I remembered feeling so satisfied by the end result. In retrospect, I knew that a selfish, co-dependent part of me found joy knowing that he’d required my help, that this event proved I could prevent him from becoming like his parents.
“Was there more?” my therapist asked.
Yes, more than I realized, I thought. “Food, too,” I answered. “That was an issue. He wasn’t really helping with meal prep, and the food I made… I cook a lot of quinoa and beans, I guess, and he was like, ‘This is really carb heavy.’ This was a couple days ago, but he’s always made comments like that. And it’s probably shitty of me to be mad. I was, though. I didn’t drop it. I don’t want to control how someone else eats, or how they feel about food, but at the same time… I mean, come the fuck on. He knows I have an eating disorder.”
“How long were you two fighting?”
“Just since we made the move,” I said. “I didn’t think he’d leave. I thought this was all given. It’s stressful.”
“Yeah, I don’t disagree with you. Actually, first… let me tell you about what happened, why I know you’re not alright. Your boyfriend called me yesterday. He kept saying, ‘I know Amber’s your patient. I can’t be enough for her. I can’t do it.’ Repeated it non-stop. He sounded panicked – and a little crazy, honestly.”
“Oh.” I didn’t know what else to say. My stomach felt like it was being strangled by my embarrassment. I had never expected Nick to behave this way, to inconvenience a stranger with this drama he brought into my life. “I’m sorry.”
“No, no. Don’t be sorry. I’m glad this happened. To be forthright, I don’t know if I’d believe you – that he just suddenly left for no reason – if he hadn’t made it so clear that there’s something off with him. It sounded like he snapped when I spoke to him. He was worried that he wouldn’t live up to what you needed. It was strange.”
“I guess this means it’s over,” I said, the fatuous smile of an idiot still plastered across my face. “This is funnier to me than it should be, but he said that he couldn’t make that decision while in whatever state of mind he’s in, to end things. He left a check for me on the table where the memo read ‘for therapy,’ though. Felt fucking crushed when I saw that.”
I waited for my therapist to say something, but he just looked at me. I hate this, I thought, trying to fill the silence.
“My self-esteem isn’t so low that I’d say ‘yeah, I’ll put the bullshit you just put me through behind us’ if he decided to come back.”
That was dishonest of me to say, I realized later. When I arrived home to my empty apartment, several pieces of artwork leaning against the living room walls, still unhung, I thought, I want you back.
If he had been waiting for me on the couch, I would’ve sat by his feet like a dog.