When Bad Things Happen to Good Girlfriends


I once dated a 31-year-old who was also (simultaneously) dating a 19-year-old I used to babysit when she played with my little sister. I once dated a guy who decided he didn’t like me after I had traveled four hours by bus to see him and expressed this by ignoring me for the weekend that I was visiting. I dated another guy who tried to convince me to have an open relationship— because, as he put it, “dating other people is fun!” I dated a guy who loved to take me to the best restaurants in Manhattan but tended to forget his wallet; later I learned of his running mental log of money he had spent on me. And how could I overlook the guy who confided in me that he had been diagnosed as a nonviolent antisocial sociopath. He’s the same guy who became enraged when he learned I investigated nonviolent antisocial sociopathic behavior, only to discover it didn’t exist.

Somehow, not only did each of these boys dump me, but I also carried on for some time afterward, believing I was tragically ill-fated, walking around in a woe-is-me fog.

I’ve been dumped again . . .The truth is, though, that about five months into each of these relationships I knew it was over and I began silently willing it to end. But I did nothing about my secret desires. I refused to act on them; instead I faithfully waited for the boys to dump me. What is it about the five-month mark that renders me helpless against my better judgment? No matter how harrowing any relationship gets, I soldier through it and see it to the end. Unfortunately, it’s not that I’m cavalier—I’m just too wary to act on my wiser instincts. And for this reason I am willing to accept some of the blame. If you think about it, I could easily improve my situation if I just listened to myself.

I am Rosie the Riveter of comatose love.

My friend once told me, “You have had a lot of these, haven’t you?” He meant breakups.

My prime example happened only a couple years ago. There I was, in my apartment, experiencing the breakup blitzkrieg of the century. By this time I was, by all logical accounts, a different version of myself—older, more sophisticated, on my own in the big city—yet not much had changed since my high school days of perpetually getting the boot. That night I opened the front door. My boyfriend stepped into my apartment, gave me a kiss, and said, “Baby, I’m sad.” He sat me down on the edge of my bed, where we were illuminated only by the dim glow of the spotlights at ground zero. And that’s where it ended, or started, depending on how you look at it.

I’ll call this ex-boyfriend Singer (in homage to Woody Allen’s character in
Annie Hall to further emphasize our ultimately and permanently separate destinies).

“How do you tell the most perfect girl in the world that she isn’t perfect for you . . . ?”

Part of me was softened by his flattery, and part of me wondered how long it took him to come up with that. Singer had somehow come up with the perfect breakup line.

He had the full waterworks display that left teardrop stains all over his pinstripe suit. He rubbed his eyes and gasped for air. He suddenly appeared juvenile, almost infantile—he swam in his second-year-banker attire; his Brooks Brothers collar and tie hung limply around his neck, his shirt partially untucked.

He blubbered and stuttered. “I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. Well, not a looong time, but a long time.”

The guy was a one-man breakup show. He was so busy spinning his lament, I wondered if he noticed me at all—I, who was horrified and making mental journal entries of his words (“things never to tell anybody ever”). I, who kept zoning out, into a state of confusion while he cried.

Wait a minute. Was I supposed to be sobbing too? Did it matter? He wasn’t even looking at me. Could I just get up and walk away in the middle of his soliloquy? What would he do? I almost giggled at the thought.

And how much could I get away with? Doesn’t the victim get the insanity credit card to use at her will? Couldn’t I start screaming and throwing stuff that would shatter and make a lot of noise when it hit the wall? Couldn’t I yell at him and tell him that he wasn’t cute enough for me and all my friends thought so? Couldn’t I expose my even dirtier little secret: “I don’t care what your frat brothers say, you’re not a good dancer!” Or what gnawed most at my gut: “I’m the one who’s been thinking about this for a loooong time.”

But soon his speech was done, and my imaginings lost their opportunity. Singer collected his toothbrush from the bathroom and his spare shirt from the closet—so methodically, as if he had rehearsed it. And when he was done, he left. Forever.

I leaned against the door, looking through the peephole as my boyfriend of nine months turned into my ex as he disappeared down the hall. Once he was far out of sight I slid down right where I was and sat on the floor, hugging my knees. And I stayed there for a long time after he left.

Is it so hard to imagine that a reasonably marketable twentysomething girl would stay with a guy when, nearly five months into the relationship, she couldn’t come up with one good reason why she was still with him? All I can offer is that the power of good memories is seemingly limitless when it comes to carrying a dead shark far out to sea.

I would guess that in most cases, relationships are not all category 5 from the get-go. Singer and I had some good times—which is what clouded my understanding that things were not ideal.

A mutual friend had introduced us at a club. When I met him the lighting was dim with a dark-blue tint. The pop music was deafening. I could barely hear Singer when he spoke. Truthfully, it would often be this way—with margaritas and gin and tonic and dancing and mood lighting and indistinct conversations between us.

Singer belonged to a tight-knit group of frat guys–gone–financial analysts known as the “Yale boys.” They were smart and funny 24-year-olds. They were dapper and polished, even when they were sloppy drunk. They wore expensive jeans and sunglasses. They were fit and smelled great.

Most of them had girlfriends who welcomed me instantly. Soon I had a new, young, New York City family. We crowded into sidewalk cafés for brunch and watched football on Sundays (though I usually read while they watched and screamed at the widescreen TV).

Evenings we went out to dinner— reserving several tables and ringing up long bills. Late nights we hopped the bar-and-club circuit.

Singer’s family welcomed me as well. I met his parents for dinner at their home; I met his extended family at a Korean restaurant in midtown, where we cooked strips of meat over an open flame.

Singer met my family at my grandfather’s funeral.

In the week or so before he died, my grandfather lay in a coma at St. Luke’s hospital, after a stroke. My grandfather had it written in his will that he did not want to be kept alive by life support, and the grandchildren didn’t know that at first, myself included. So when our family sat us down and explained it to us, they waited several seconds for our reaction. It was my cousin who cried first.

We brought my grandmother to visit him at the hospital. I watched her as she held on to my grandfather’s fingers, turned his wedding band round and round.

After the tubes were removed my family and I slept in hospital chairs next to his bed, praying for him to wake up and waiting for him to die. The nurse would come in and add morphine to the plastic bag that dripped into his arm.

In my grandfather’s last days Singer met me outside the hospital. He brought food for me—he knew we hadn’t left my grandfather’s side for a meal. We sat on a park bench in spite of the rain. He didn’t mind that I sat there in silence, or at least he didn’t let on that he did. During one visit he turned to me and said, “You are so strong.”

It was because of times like these—moments of solidarity—that I often swept the hints of doom, or painful mediocrity, under the carpet. Looking back, I even ignored my own prophetic moments.

A few weeks after I met Singer I wanted him to meet Neetika, my best friend. We had arranged to meet at the Rink Bar at Rockefeller
Center. Neetika and I were already there.

I was nervous then, because meeting Neetika is the equivalent of meeting my family, my father even. My boyfriend must have strong family values, high moral repute, and impressive career ambitions, and he must display gentlemanly behavior and he must adore me. Yup, Singer might as well have been meeting my old-world-Spaniard father.

But minutes, then hours passed and Singer never showed up. At one point I thought I spotted him on the balcony ledge that overlooked the bar (which is actually down below, in the ice-skating rink). I pointed out the figure to Neetika. We stared, I think I even waved, but it wasn’t him.

Finally I called him, and he said he was stuck at a business event (which turned out to be a beer fest at a nearby outdoor bar). He said, “Tell Neetika I’m sorry.” I got off the phone and apologized. I said to her, “You’re disappointed.”

“I’m disappointed because he disappointed you,” she said. “I’m disappointed because you thought you saw him and you got excited and it wasn’t him.”

About two months later, Singer and I were across town from his apartment when it started to rain, thunder, and lightning. We were running east, across 52nd Street—all the cabs were claimed. Not another soul was out.

We were soaked through our clothes; our shoes spit water with every step. We dashed from scaffolding to awning, corner to corner. We passed the dramatic Cartier window display, and Fifth Avenue sparkled with a vintage tint. Madison Avenue wore the remnants of the India Day parade—red flecks of foil and paper stuck to the street and soggy crepe paper dressed lampposts. Singer was about to make another dash when I pulled him back by his arm.

“Wait,” I said. The sounds of relentless rain and wind echoed down the deserted street. “Isn’t this so beautiful right now?”

He looked around and scoffed. “Beautiful?” he said. “Not really.” And he took off, yanking me behind him.

The disappointment over little things like not enjoying the rain disappeared quietly into one of my many mental folders. Unknown to me, signs like this were adding up. And then there we were, five months into some strange, uncomfortable relationship.

The fifth month marked the beginning of the denouement.

My climactic disaster struck in a loud and crowded club. I recall a girl in boots and a miniskirt walking up high on the bar; metal beads hanging from the ceiling, clamoring in the chaos, and groups of people crammed together, everyone dancing differently to the same pounding song.

I recall a look of avoidance in Singer’s eyes. His hello kiss was tepid. He put a weak hand on the small of my back and guided me through the crowd. He was going through some boyfriendly motions but without reassuring substance. At one point I realized he had let his hand drop, no longer touching me.

I asked him what was wrong. He said nothing. The fact that he wasn’t annoyed by the question worried me.

“Are you happy?” I persisted, loudly over the music. He shrugged his shoulders. Reality spread over me. I got his message—he didn’t even need to say a word.

I fumbled, searching for my coat. I found it at the bottom of the pile. I fled into the night—past the bouncer, past the line of New Yorkers begging to get in, shivering, huddled on the sidewalk, waiting just beyond the red velvet rope.

Singer did not follow me. I hesitated to hail a cab. I thought for a moment that maybe he would come bounding out to save everything, save us. I gave him a chance, but he didn’t follow me—he just wasn’t that guy, the guy.

In what felt like a spontaneous decision, I jumped in the backseat of a cab, told the driver where to go, and I wept. Out loud.

All I could think of was when Singer had put a white rose on my grandfather’s sinking casket. I remembered because I had kept my eyes on that rose as the casket went down into the ground. I remembered because I silently called after it: “Do you like him? Is he good enough for your granddaughter?”

Everything after that night was a balancing act I struggled through.

I knew things were bad, but then I recalled the time my younger sister had come to visit. She was feeling sick and Singer got in the cab with her and walked her back to my apartment, holding her up, with one arm around her shoulder, telling her everything was going to be OK.

I would argue, he didn’t chase me out of the club that last night—not even to see if I was safe. And then I would counter-argue: But everyone says relationships take work.

I would argue that I’d be some kind of failure if I gave up. How could I give up on my own, earnest intentions, however buried in the past they might have been? I just couldn’t.

The day after the bar catastrophe, we somehow patched things up.

And then the hard part began. Suddenly I learned I had to stay within certain boundaries, so as not to make any waves. I asked for less of Singer’s time. We sat silently over our weekend breakfast bagels, and when we were done he didn’t have to walk me to the subway. He no longer told me I looked nice when we went out. One night, he even got into his cab and took off before I got in mine. I pretended even to myself that I was OK with it.

I spent a lot of time doing things by myself, and my friends and family would ask for him and I’d make justifications. And they would give me that “I could never do that” look and comment on how “independent” I was. All of this went on for four more months.

When was I going to learn that sometimes it is OK to give up?

No, seriously, when was I going to learn? It had all happened before—in past relationships there were different catalysts at the five-month mark, but they all spawned the same painful, grinding phase. And the breakups had all happened before as well. Yet afterward I consistently behaved as though I never saw it coming.

After Singer left our breakup crime scene, after the silence had settled in my room, I called my mom. I was curled up in bed, with my forehead propped against the windowpane, looking out at the boats bobbing in the Hudson River. I could barely get the words out:

“Mom, Singer and I broke up.”

Silence. “Oh . . . Well, you didn’t think you’d date him forever, did you?” I could hear my father in the background wrestling with pots and pans. He was cooking dinner. His muted voice came from beyond, “What happened?” My mom repeated my drama.

She said, “Your father says this has to hap-pen. And this will happen many more times. And it will make you stronger.” I could hear her turn away from him. She whispered, “And honestly? Your father always thought the guy was gay anyway.”

“Mom. He’s not gay, he’s a metrosexual!”

“Actually, we all kind of thought he was gay.”

I got off the phone immediately.

The next day I went to the gym, in a good-faith effort to keep my blood circulating, and a bird marked its territory on my shoulder. I was devastated. I suddenly didn’t know how to do anything. I walked over to the gym receptionist and weakly pointed at my shoulder. She responded with a maternal smile and handed me a tissue. She told me the white chunks on my shoulder were signs of very good fortune.

The next day I walked into a Soho salon and sat in the swivel chair. The stylist held her comb and stared at me blankly. “What do you want done?” she finally asked. “Anything but this,” I responded with a slight nod toward my reflection.

Five hundred dollars later I walked out a blonde. (I had walked in a dark brunette.) After sitting for hours as a foil medusa under a heat lamp (while having play-by-play flashbacks of the big breakup and gagging occasionally), I wondered if I was cured yet.

I wasn’t.

I refurnished my wardrobe and refused to clean the shopping bags that piled high in my room. I came home every night, kicked them out of my way, and crawled into bed in my dark, papery womb.

I baked heart-shaped angel food cakes for dinner and had Dean and DeLuca gummy raspberries for lunch. And that’s all I ate.

I watched Under the Tuscan Sun and Someone Like You . . . over and over and over. I truly admired the way the heartbroken heroines lost their minds. We shared a tragic joke.

I read and loved Le Divorce. I followed my roommate around the apartment reading her sad, romantic quotes from it. “Isn’t that so true?” I would say.

At some point, though I couldn’t say exactly when, I started eating real food. I guess I had to eventually. But I also traded a pity party here and there for a happy hour with my friends. My progress was staggered. Soon I dyed my hair back to black. Then I cleaned my room. I read a new book. I started a new job. I applied to graduate school.

I emerged.

I’ve begun to see relationships as if they are broken down into increments. Every little step, like a checkpoint, serves as an opportunity to make a conscious decision. Does a specific good really outweigh a specific bad? Am I willing to fight for that? Can I overcome the circumstance and go forward? Am I lying to myself? Can I live with giving up?

I am still learning how to consider each and every one of these questions at each and every milestone. It’s maddening and it’s depressing. But I’m convinced it’s going to help keep me far away from the five-month misery.

In the meantime, I am dating a man who holds the door, who sends me love notes, who brings me chocolate. I’m taking this one crazy step at a time.

When he handed me a no-reason gift I whispered, “Thank you.”

We have been together for nine months.

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