The Knockout

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I think I might need anger management.

A good way to tell whether someone knows me–really knows me–is to ask them how I am under stress. A year or so ago, when my department was discussing future leadership, one of my colleagues offered privately that I might make a good chair. Part of his argument was that I am “calm.” When I conveyed this to a friend of mine, he started laughing. Hysterically.

When I was on Tinder, a guy asked me via text, “Are you pretty laid back?” I considered his question over the course of several days, I discussed the merits of various responses with friends on Facebook, I did some research on the subject, and I replied in a lengthy message about conviction, assertiveness, and gendered assumptions about women. I never heard from him again. I should have saved us both some time and replied, “No.”

One of my ex-boyfriends told me I was “high strung.” He paused dramatically, then clarified, “Like an Irish setter.” Sure, he was a one-legged convicted felon who lied to me about his identity for several weeks when we first met, and he was high pretty much 24/7. But he was a good judge of character.

I try to remain calm, and most days I succeed. When I am well-fed, rested, and stress free–or, successfully ignoring the creeping demands on my time–I am pretty chill. The summer is better, because the email tide at work stops rolling in, and I can catch my breath. But if I am honest with myself, I contain my anger because it is in my vested interest to do so. Blood sugar, tiredness, and stress are contributing factors, sure, but the most important variable in whether or not I lose my shit seems to be whether or not I can get away it.

My friends know me to be an intense person, but few of them have actually seen me mad. They have seen me assertive, they have seen me bitchy, but they have never witnessed the fulsome power of my rage. If they had, they would not be my friends anymore, because I have a knack for identifying lines that people never knew they had and crossing them with the cold determination of a Panzer division. I have great capacity for empathy, and I pride myself on being able to understand other people’s perspectives. It’s part of what has made me a successful teacher and scholar, and it affords me some measure of redemption. But in moments of anger, my emotional sensitivity allows me to zero in on what will hurt the other person most. If I know them at all, I can level them. I see it in their passive, broken faces as they endure the onslaught of my words. In that moment, the only thing they hate more than me is themselves. There is no going back from that.

I have had two meltdowns in the last two days. In both cases, I was absolutely justified in feeling anger, if not in how I expressed it. In the first instance, an unleashed, 50-pound dog attacked my 12-pound little sweetheart (who was leashed), grazing her leg with teeth marks that hinted at how close we both came to catastrophe. (I am pretty alone in this world; if there is no dog, there is no me.) The owner, a neighbor with whom I have had some issues–namely, that he hits on me when his wife isn’t around–stopped the attack but then proceeded to slam his own dog to the ground and bash her head into the dirt with both hands. Both the attack on my dog and the man’s attack on his dog were terrifying. I literally ran away. In the second instance, a driver hit my parked car with some force during an aborted attempt to parallel park. Rather than assess the damage and leave a note, she left and parked elsewhere, thinking no one had witnessed the accident.

In both cases, a little voice in my head whispered, “Don’t do this.”

“Don’t open the door to your neighbor’s wife, who is undoubtedly here to apologize and inquire about your dog’s wellbeing.”

“Don’t get out of the car. Don’t follow the other driver.”

I didn’t listen.

Compelled by my rage, I invited both confrontations. My neighbor was so flustered by my obvious hostility when I opened the door that she refused to come into my house. I hectored her on the porch and watched her collapse inside herself as I issued an indictment of her dog, her husband, her marriage, her childrearing, and what I termed her “simpering apology.” I was probably right on every count: Her dog is a menace, because they failed to socialize it properly as a puppy and because her husband is abusive to it. Her husband is a menace, because he gets handsy with female neighbors when she’s not around, and he beat their dog like a savage. Her marriage–well, it seems like she puts up with a lot, and the way she bowed to my rage makes me suspect it’s not the first time someone has cut her off at the knees. And her childrearing–I’m sure she’s a good mother in many important respects. But her behavior during the attack on my dog and her husband’s attack on their dog makes me wonder. The last words I said to her were, “If you think that kind of violence is normal, I fear for your child and I fear for you.” Then I slammed the door in her face.

The young driver who hit my car didn’t know what hit her. She claimed she was going to return to my car, but I am skeptical. Still, Rational Me would like to give people the benefit of the doubt. But this morning, overtired and stressed about being unprepared for an exam just minutes away, I hit her with both barrels when I found her. Irresponsible, incompetent, immature–I don’t remember exactly what I said, but my spontaneous alliteration was positively Sorken-esque. If I were on the receiving end of one of my tirades, I might think, “Wow, I didn’t know people could talk like that in real life.” And then I would burst into tears. She stammered an apology that was profoundly inconvenient to my assessment of her as a person without remorse. I wasn’t having it, and she left in tears.

In both cases, I was shaking and shaken. Then, once the adrenaline dump subsided, I was overcome with shame and regret. When I picture what I must have looked like from the outside–course and loud and raving–I am mortified. That is not the person I want to be. That cannot be the person I am.

But it is.

I accomplished nothing with these confrontations. My neighbor–a woman who might very well be living in an unsafe home–will never again regard me as a decent person, let alone a friend. They will change nothing in how they correct their dog, because I have zero credibility as a person of restraint. If other neighbors hear about my outburst, they will be shocked and appalled. (Just today, an elderly neighbor brought me cookies with a note thanking me for being “the perfect neighbor.” When I think about her witnessing my outburst, it makes me want to die.) In the case of the young woman, I taught her nothing about maturity or accountability, squandering my spot on the moral high ground for a chance to roll around in the mud.

I think there is something wrong with me that I can hurt people this way, yet I manage to hide this terrible skill from most of the people in my life. I would never behave this way to someone who might physically overpower me, or someone who could get me fired, or someone whose love was not assured, or someone who could return my volley with anything approaching equal force. I only do this when I know I can get away with it. And that is a very grim assessment of my worth as a human being.

This doesn’t happen often, especially if I can avoid talking to customer service reps on the phone. It has been years since I really let go on someone in real life. That’s why these back-to-back confrontations have me so rattled. I thought I was doing better, but perhaps I was just stringing mines this whole time, and now I am tangled in the trip wires. I feel ruined, completely defeated, as if recovering from my own devastating knockout blow. I hope I wake up tomorrow feeling better about myself than I do tonight. What’s done is done, and there is no going back. All I can do is work harder in the future to keep it together, to see the other side. Be kind. Be still. Heed that little voice that whispers, “Don’t do this.”

And maybe ask for help.

 

If You’d Like, I’d Be Happy to Explain Carrier-Mediated Facilitated Diffusion* to You

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I got an A+ on my first-ever college Biology midterm!

I loathed BIO so much when I was younger–not sure why–that I did everything I could to avoid taking it in college. I am also not particularly strong in Math, so I had this bright idea that I would learn about the stars by taking Astronomy, and I would learn about aquatic mammals by taking Oceanography. Wrong on every count!

I eventually learned, Astronomy is Math, and I had confused Marine Biology with Oceanography–which is also Math. DOH. I rounded out my science requirements in college by taking two courses in Physical Anthropology, which involved a lot of the same brute memorization that is required in Human Anatomy & Physiology.

Anyway, I am doing well, in part because I am trying really hard. But I think it’s also because I’m taking the course at a community college, and it is probably not as challenging as it would be elsewhere. It also might be that students are kind of doofus-y these days, and faculty have adjusted their standards accordingly. (It’s been a long time since I’ve taught freshmen and sophomore courses.)

Case in point: one of my classmates missed a critical email from our professor about the exam, which caused him to miss the exam altogether. He admitted, as he was pleading his case to me about why he should get a makeup (“Dude,” I kept thinking, “I’m a professor, but I’m not your professor!”), that he had not checked his college email account. WHUT? And today, when we had the exam, about 1/3 of the class arrived late, including several unapologetic young women who showed up after it was over. Everyone looked annoyed–the instructor with good reason, but the students also seemed genuinely irked that she had not held up the entire class to accommodate them.

I have no idea how other people are faring in the class, nor what will become of them (100% of the class is interested in healthcare careers). I just know that I made 100 flashcards, read every word of the textbook, poured over the lecture slides, and hunted up YouTube videos to augment my understanding.

I am so relieved that it paid off!

 

* I still can’t explain Redox Reactions or Buffer Systems to save my life!

Don’t Question the Steps, Just Dance!

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Today was insular yet interesting, a lovely mix of reaching out, reaching up, and hunkering down.

I took my first biology exam today, and it had me very, very nervous. The amount of material was overwhelming! We had to know the basics of anatomical directions; the regions, cavities, and systems of the body; the organization of living things and the requirements for life; basic chemistry (atoms, ions, chemical bonds, solution chemistry, etc.); and the anatomy of a human cell, including the name of every protein, carbohydrate, lipid, nucleotide, and organelle therein, as well as their composition and function. WTF!

And when did human cells become so complicated?! From what I recall of biology in middle school–the last time I took it!–a cell looked like a cracked egg and consisted of a membrane, a nucleus, and some cytoplasm.

What, then, is this monstrosity:

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I know what this is and how it works! 😀

It appears that scientists have discovered a whole bunch of extra crap in there, and I am expected to know what it is and what it does at the molecular level. Thankfully, I actually like sorting my proteasomes from my lyosomes, and I can now label and (sort of) understand everything on this diagram.

I also love how dirty some of it sounds:

“Can I use my secretory vesicle to transverse your phospholipid bilayer?” she asked thirstily.

I did my level best on the midterm, depleting what I thought would be three exams’ worth of index cards in a marathon flashcard session. And it was ok: I missed one out of forty questions. Had the exam not been open-note, I would have missed perhaps five or six, which is still respectable. I am pleased and hopeful, even though I have no idea where this is headed.

While I was getting ready for the exam, I texted about my nerves with a few friends, and they wrote back with all the affirmations and assurances I needed to hear. I am so grateful for their support.

Interestingly enough, one of those friends was J*. After my exam, we talked for the first time in five months, and it was wonderful.

Most of my closest friends will shake their heads ominously and ask, “Why would you muddy the waters with that piece of dirt?” And I can’t blame them, because they love me, and they worry for me, and they remember the disappointment and heartache I experienced with him as it was unfolding. Plus they never met him, so they regard him more as abstraction and distraction than as an actual human man that they might like.

The reality, though, is that J* is one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and I have missed having him in my life. And when we talked today, he said he missed talking to me too. That lifted my spirits immeasurably, not because of some fragile hope that the path he is on will one day lead back to me. Truth be told, my heart does go there sometimes late at night, when I can’t sleep and need a story to put my mind at rest. But that’s not why I loved talking to him today. It’s because I loved hearing his story and learning that he’s ok. Better than ok, actually–he’s excited for a new job, a new living situation, and a fresh start in a new town. I am happy for him. Talking to him also made me happy because the one thing I can’t abide is his indifference. Though I know to my core that no time is ever wasted (a sincere thank you to the poet Richard Brautigan for that wisdom), it would pain me to know that my time meant nothing to him.

And yet, even if that did happen, I would remain hopeful and still. Relationships ebb and flow, people come and go. I know this. Some of my closest friends right now–I didn’t talk to them for years, once upon a time, and now we walk together . People tend to find their way back to love, all kinds of love, if you don’t place barriers in their path. So you never know how someone might filter in and out of your life, because it’s not an orderly process like, say, protein carrier-assisted passive diffusion across a phospholipid bilayer. It’s more like osmosis: water flowing back and forth, in and out, filtering through aquaporin channels or caressing the gently undulating tails of the phospholipids themselves, until it finds its equilibrium. (I never realized the beauty of plasma membrane transport until just now!)

I don’t know the right metaphor, and maybe biology isn’t even the right science. It might be astronomy, with friends traversing hidden corners of the universe, then reappearing suddenly as a bright light streaking across the sky. But no, comets are predictable. People are not, though they can shine just as brilliantly.

Maybe we’ll just leave this one to the humanities and the Analects of Confucius: “To have an old friend come from far away–isn’t it a joy!”

I almost titled this post, “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back,” because I am exploring a way out of an unsatisfying career by returning to the soothing embrace of school. And, ok, talking to J* long-distance again does feel very 2014. But I stopped myself from using that title, because the saying implies linear directionality–you’re headed towards something, but you’re having trouble getting there. Instead, I don’t know which way I’m headed, nor towards what, and I have no idea who, if anyone, will be with me when I get there. Even if I do take two steps forward for every step back, the steps do not go in the same direction. And sometimes the steps back aren’t so much a retreat as a return, to a warm and comforting place I need to experience from time to time.

“Two steps forward, one step back. Repeat!” We’re all doing this, all the time, crossing paths with one another in the process. That’s not walking a line.

That’s dancing!

If Scarlett O’Hara Had Taken A&P, She Wouldn’t Have Had Time for Boys

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I’ve felt panicky the last few days–butterflies in my stomach, nausea, a tight feeling in my chest. Perhaps my heart attack will commence shortly?

There are a few things going on.

First, I’m nowhere near ready for the classes I have to teach this semester.

Second, the class that I am taking is kicking my ass after only one week. It’s not the amount of material, though it is daunting. It’s that the course design assumes a working knowledge of chemistry and basic biological processes–at the cellular and molecular level–that I simply don’t have. The last time I had Chemistry was 10th grade, in 1988. The last time I had Biology was 8th grade, in 1986. The mental bandwidth it required of me to focus for 3 hours in class both days, plus study time, was absolutely exhausting. And I had just a tenth of the work that I will need to complete starting next week.

Third, I am questioning whether I have the stamina for nursing and if I want to do it at all. Part of the questioning is my own exhaustion, which triggered a string of migraines, and part of it is that two of my role models are struggling. One of them is having trouble finding desirable work. Another is having health problems and experiencing on-the-job bullying that may cause her to quit. It wasn’t until I watched their narratives of late-in-life success fall apart that I realized how invested I am in those stories. Apparently I need to have people with whom I identify–ie, not 22 year olds–succeeding on this career path so that I can imagine an alternative story for myself.

What I’m left with is the thought that, if this doesn’t work out for me, I will be stuck in my current job for the rest of my life. Or, perhaps worse, I will have left academia and will be unable to return. Then what?

“Where shall I go? What shall I do?” I’m feeling a little Scarlett O’Hara-at-the-end-of-Gone With the Wind. I wish I had a Tara I could return to, some place to give me strength, and the time to figure this out. But I don’t.

What I’ve got is a course to design, 16 chapter-length essays to read and edit, a manuscript proposal to review, three articles to write, a program assessment to plan, and I need to master basic chemistry so I can understand cellular respiration.

Time to panic!

I’ll add here, that just rereading the above is helpful. I am trained to analyze texts, and my default setting is “criticism.” When I see words in print, even words I myself have written, my brain automatically alights on a critique: “There are other options besides your current job and nursing.” I’m sure you see that too. It is a false binary, the result of depression-induced tunnel vision. The time pressure is self-imposed as well. I can drop the class I am taking. I can retake it if I get a C or worse. I don’t have to decide if I’m leaving my job for at least a year. I don’t have to decide anything today.

There’s Miss Scarlett again: “Oh, I can’t think about this now! I’ll go crazy if I do! I’ll think about it tomorrow…. After all… tomorrow is another day.”

gwtw

 

 

Another New Beginning

Tomorrow is the first day of the new term for me as a student. Once again, I am terrified. I am taking Human Anatomy & Physiology I, and I wonder if my tired, damaged, old brain is up to the task. I picture myself getting hectored by the professor–a very stern woman about 5 years older and 3 inches taller than me–and I am unable to produce a coherent answer.

But, all I can do is try.

I have no idea what is going to happen. I love that.

Et Tu, A&P Textbook??

Five days until the start of the new semester, when I will begin Human Anatomy & Physiology I. I am terrified! And a little mad.

My new $200 textbook arrived in the mail yesterday, and I eagerly started flipping through. My initial reaction was horror: HOW WILL I EVER LEARN ALL OF THIS.

And then I calmed down and started to skim the introductory chapter. The first thing that really caught my attention was the concept of the  “reference man” and the “reference woman”–the prototypical humans to which the book will refer in all the lessons.

He weighs 155 pounds. She weighs 125.

What. The. Fuck.

According to the Washington Post, the average American woman currently weighs over 166 pounds, and the average American man tops 195.

I get it, WE ARE TOO FAT. But it seems to me, there’s no reason to low-ball the weight of a prototypical human by that much. How is 155 an easier number to work with than, say, 175 for a man or 150 for a woman?

Seeing the number 125, in particular, stung a little bit, because for some reason that is the number that has hung in my head my entire life as “the ideal weight” for a woman. I suspect that I heard it in health class when we talked about nutrition, and again in gym class when we got weighed (in front of other girls, no less), and that I read it in 1980s fashion magazines. 125 pounds is actually fairly robust on a woman of average height (5’5″), compared to the size-zero ethos of today’s fashion industry. But I’m tall–5’8″–and somehow no one ever pointed out to me when I was a kid that it was normal for me to weigh more than the average girl. I constantly felt–and was made to feel–like I was a fucking monster.

125 pounds on a woman 5’8″ is Scary Skinny. I know, because I once weighed 128 pounds. I looked like a bobblehead.

But somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I can’t shake this idea, that a “normal” woman weighs 125 pounds. Unfortunately, my mother encouraged this thinking.

Here’s an example that is not going to make you like my mom, so just trust me, she’s a lovely person in other contexts.

The summer between freshman and sophomore year–perhaps not coincidentally, the summer that my mother’s father died and that my sister left for college–my mother got it in her head once again that I was too fat. Other moms might think, “My kid is going through puberty, and being a teenager is hard enough. I’ll set a good example, provide healthy options, and let it ride.” But not my mom!

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Trust me, this was a sick look in 1987!

Nope. My mom coerced me into joining Weight Watchers for teens. When I say coerced, I mean that she shamed me for being too fat, she normalized the idea of dieting, she incentivized my participation by offering that it would be a bonding experience between the two of us, and she said I had to do it. Oh, and she bribed me by offering to buy me a chambray denim jumper that cost $55 (about $115 in today’s money), if I made my “goal weight.”

I kept that jumper until about 10 years ago–changed the buttons out, wore it as a skirt, hung onto it well into my thirties. Why? Because I fucking earned that jumper. I suffered for that jumper. Fuck that jumper.

When I started Weight Watchers at age 15, I was 5’8″ and weighed 144 pounds. That’s a BMI of 21.9, smack in the middle of the normal range.

Going to those meetings was awful, because all the other kids in there were genuinely obese. ENORMOUS. And they looked at me suspiciously, probably enviously, because I had the body they wished for. I still can’t believe that a second “responsible adult”–the teacher of the class–allowed me to enroll, essentially legitimizing my mother’s project of giving me an eating disorder. Fuck that lady.

After a couple of months, I reached my goal weight, and I got the jumper. I weighed 136 pounds, which is on the low end of normal.

Eh, what’s the harm?

In between, I was taught to obsessively measure servings of ketchup. I weighed bananas. I weighed myself, as I still do, every day, naked, preferably after I’ve emptied my bladder and colon. I ate dry rice cakes. In anticipation of the weekly weigh-ins, I ate NOTHING. That summer, I denied myself any pleasure from food, all so I could look “trim” (to use the preferred term of the WW “teacher”) in a medium-sized jumper with a sweetheart waist.

By that point in my life, it was clear that I was never going to weigh 125 pounds, so even getting down to 136 felt like failure.

At present, my weight fluctuates between 160 and 165. I am ambivalent about losing weight, because I like to eat and because I have shockingly nice breasts, and I don’t want them to disappear. Many people in my life think it is weird that I fixate on my boobs so much. Part of it is that they are the one feature on which I have gotten consistently positive male feedback. And part of it is that in jokingly appreciating my girls, I am also speaking to a 144 pound, 15 year old kid with freckles and braces and a mom who found a million tiny ways to say she wasn’t pretty enough, and I’m telling her, “It’s ok that you’re tall and you have curves. It might even be a good thing.”

Because when you marinate in a sick culture like ours your whole life, and the people who are supposed to raise you to be strong instead train you to be weak, then you kinda can’t hear it often enough.

So, fuck you too, A&P textbook. Your Reference Woman is too small.

But I know a jumper that would look great on her!

First-Date Friday: Victor Vegan

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What with the holidays and all the time I’ve dedicated to emotionally decompensating, I kinda forgot to keep dishing on my first dates.

My fifth Tinder date was with a nice man we’ll call Victor Vegan. Victor was a few years younger than me, a bit wan, but otherwise decent looking. The main thing he had going for him was that he was a musician, composer, and academic with a faculty position at a local college. I suppose we had a lot in common, in the sense that we both had administrative responsibilities we liked to complain about. But I’m not sure the inefficiencies of Banner software and the Blackboard course management system are what you want to be talking about on a date. We also had some things not in common, and they were to be the end of us.

I went out with Victor three times over the course of about three weeks, and, cutting to the chase, I was the asshole in this relationship. I learned a lot from it–namely, that I knew nothing about dating–but I still feel bad about how I handled it.

My first infraction was that I agreed to go out with Victor mostly because my long-distance thing with J* had started to sour. J* stood me up when he visited my city, and so I forged ahead with the next man to show me some interest. I met Victor at the same coffeeshop where I had met J*, and I recall genuinely enjoying his company. But I still can’t say whether it was true interest in him or merely relief that I had actually managed to put on grown-up clothes and leave the house that day. The date’s big bonus was that J* was trying to call me while I was on it. I allowed the date to continue because I liked the thought that ignoring J* would drive him nuts (it didn’t). Coffee turned into a walk, and the walk tumbled into an early dinner.

It was at dinner that I started to have concerns. Victor was ostensibly straight, but he kinda seemed like he might be gay. There was something about how he carried himself, and he ordered the girliest drink I have ever seen a grown man consume. But mostly it was his backstory. Although he was politically progressive and working in academia, he had grown up in the rural South in a fundamentalist Christian family. Tall, height-weight proportionate, gainfully employed straight dude with most of his original hair–and he’s still single? It struck me that he might still be in the closet, even to himself.

My second concern was Victor’s preoccupation with food. He was vegetarian but considering a return to veganism, and he took a rather evangelical approach to juicing. The only person with whom I have ever had such a lengthy conversation about food is my niece, when she was eleven, and we talked for an hour about the pros and cons of various types of candy. (Unless it’s Red Vines, Circus Peanuts, or Mary Janes, there are no cons.) And yet, here I was with Victor, discussing ingredients, preparations, sourcing, ethics, the finer points of garnish, and on and on and on. The oddness of this becomes even more acute when you realize that I don’t cook. In fact, I haven’t had a working oven in eleven months, and it hasn’t made a lick of difference in my eating habits, which rest solidly on salads, prepared meats, frozen things in boxes, and my aforementioned love of candy. I have long had a problematic relationship with food–body dysmorphia and obsessive dieting, in particular–and I am suspicious that some people use vegetarianism or veganism to mask disordered eating. (See: Orthorexia.) I have certainly enjoyed the social caché that comes with dieting, so I know how structured eating can slip into disordered eating. And I have worked hard to be ok with my body at its present size. So Victor’s preoccupation with food struck me as unhealthy–for me.

Even so, I agreed to a second date, this time at a nice restaurant of his choosing. We had a good enough time, and thankfully discussion of his $16 veggie burger occupied a smaller percentage–perhaps one-third–of the conversation than it would have on our first date. Then we went for a walk. Somehow he managed to lead me to a secluded park bench, and next thing I knew his tongue was discussing vegetarianism with my tonsils. His aggressive approach to making out did not suggest so much a straight man overcome with ardor, as it did a gay man trying to assert heteronormative masculinity. For me, the kissing was rote, though I hoped I would get into it eventually. I never did. I leaned away, and he leaned in. I leaned back further, he leaned some more. If he had not had his arms around me, I would have fallen off the bench altogether. He was totally oblivious to my disinterest.

Back at the car, I committed my second dating foul, when he asked me if he could make me dinner at his apartment. I will pretty much do anything for a free meal–well, almost anything–so I immediately said yes. He was a nice guy, what’s the harm? When I told my friend about this, she had a slightly different take.

“You know you agreed to have sex with him, right?”

“Wait, what now?” I asked, surprised.

“Yeah,” she explained, as if to a child. “When he asked you to come to his apartment for dinner, that means sex.”

“Huh,” I said in wonderment. “I did not know that.”

I was still pining for J*, who by this point was applying for jobs in my city, but my friends had put my dating life in receivership. I had to keep dating other people, and lord knows who was going to be next. So while I wasn’t feeling it with Victor, I felt like I needed one more date to figure out if there was any potential.

Let’s just pause here to assess: You know you’re bad at dating if you’re a straight woman and you can’t quite figure out whether a gay man with an eating disorder is your one true love.

The third date was for tapas, then a movie, and thankfully it provided all the clarity I needed. The other thing that Victor and I didn’t have in common was being super-green. I like the planet, I really do. I recycle, I try to limit my driving, I support environmental causes, I use my own bags. But I also like clothes to smell clean or, if not clean, to not smell like people juice. Victor was very environmentally conscious, and his commitment to the planet became apparent as we sat next to each other in the theater. He clearly used one of those hippy-dippy green detergents that doesn’t contain chemicals, which means they also don’t clean for shit. He smelled like sebum, which is basically people juice. And if you don’t wash your clothes regularly, or you use crap detergent, it can get pretty vile. By the time the movie was over, I was nauseated. By the time we reached my train stop, I was ready to make a run for it. I could still smell him on my clothes when I got home, necessitating a shower and a trip to the grocery store for peppermint ice cream to help drive his oily scent from my brain.

I ended it with Victor not long after, and I did a terrible job of it. I had no experience with breaking it off with someone, and I didn’t know how to go about it. We had never spoken on the phone, so I didn’t like the idea of calling. I worried that he would be excited that I had expanded our communication repertoire, and then disappointed that our first phone call was also our last. We had never exchanged email addresses, so it felt like a violation to write to him at work. That left text message, the bluntest epistolary instrument this side of the tweet. I wrote him a lengthy text in which I tried to be kind, but I sent it after too much silence. He seemed fine, actually. But still–I could have done it sooner and with more grace.

The coda, of course, is that J* dumped me by text message several months later. Karma’s a bitch, ain’t it?

 

2015 Year in Review: Poisoned, Set Adrift

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2015 began with a poison kiss.

I didn’t even know I had New Year’s Eve plans until a few hours before midnight. J* texted me while I was at the gym to see if I wanted to spend the evening with him, and I rationalized, “Hey, better late than never.” We agreed that he would pick me up at 7 to drive an hour to visit friends of his in a far suburb. That gave me a leisurely two-and-half hours to finish my run, stop off at the store, and slap on the pretty stick. About 30 minutes later, he texted again, wanting to know if I could be ready to leave at 6, just an hour hence.

I was still on the treadmill.

With a mighty effort, I managed to get home, stop sweating, and be ready when he arrived to pick me up. We were trying to be there in time for something called “an Irish toast,” though neither of us understood what that meant. Because I thought we were going to his English friend’s home, I imagined a custom of some import, a break in the evening’s festivities at which our absence would be noted. J* drove with urgency and then like a madman. At one point, lost in conversation, he missed our exit, trapping us on an airport service road. He got angry. Then, when we missed the last bailout, he got angry some more.

I had witnessed one of his outbursts on the phone, but never in person. Now, I was trapped in the passenger seat of a car that felt like it was going way too fast, driven by a grown man having a tantrum. He muttered and yelled, addressing himself in the second person. He slammed his fists on the steering wheel. He shifted the manual transmission in waves of anger. When he slowed in the airport parking lot to ask for directions to the exit, I looked at the glittering terminal in the distance and wondered if I should make a run for it. I froze.

I dated a violent man once, so in those seconds of uncertainty, I reverted to what I knew: be quiet, stay still, act small. Even so, when J* challenged me to confront him, I foolishly took the bait.

“Go ahead, say whatever you’re going to say,” he demanded.

“I’m not going to say anything,” I fumed, “because I don’t want to get punched in the fucking face.”

In the twisted logic of our relationship, my words became the most grievous transgression of the night, a presumed accusation–that J* was an abuser–we never quite got past. I offered context that he declined to consider and apologies that neither of us quite believed. He offered very little, pushing back hard that my words exceeded his actions in their terribleness. In retrospect, that argument exposed the power deferential of our relationship: his ambivalence towards me could put me on my heels even if he was in the wrong. In the end, having resolved nothing, we just moved on.

We arrived at our destination–not an English home, but rather an Irish bar–about ten minutes to seven. J* bolted from the car without a second’s pause, leaving me trotting after him in heels across the icy parking lot. We exchanged no words to bridge the angry divide between us. Moments later, I was meeting his friends for the first time, smiling a plastic smile that I hoped would hide my deep discomfort.

As it turns out, an Irish toast is simply an acknowledgement that it is midnight in Ireland. The bar distributed little flights of Guinness, a canned version of Auld Lang Syne blared from the PA system, and then it was done. A piece of actual toast would have been more satisfying.

It was 7:01 PM, and the five hours to midnight spread before us like a cold and lonely road. I drank a lot, I ate too much, and I spent a lot of time in the ladies’ room. As the hours passed, J* and I found our way back to each other. He held my hand, he touched me lightly under the table, he checked to see if I needed anything. At midnight, he smiled broadly as he took my face in his hands and rendered that sweet but fateful kiss.

I was wary but hopeful as our lips met. Lost in softness and warmth, we failed to notice the poison seeping like a fog. Within hours, I was toxic. Within the month, I was adrift.

We went to J*’s friends’ house, where we watched them drink themselves into oblivion. Then we drove back to my house, where J* dropped me off as unceremoniously as a taxi service–no hug, no kiss, no promise to see me again.

Days later, my body started to go haywire–my first bout with the fun! fun! fun! of serious hormonal imbalance.

Two weeks after that, J* broke up with me in a brief text message.

Three weeks after that, a trusted neighbor assaulted me in my living room, violently groping me and attempting to tear off my clothes. I fought him off but did not call the police, because he was leaving the country the next day, and I wanted to put as much distance between us as possible. Even now, he lurks at the edge of my dreams. And when he returned to his house, just 16 feet away from mine, last spring, I found myself feeling panic every time I had to walk the dog.

Spring semester, I endured a two-month bout of bronchitis and a crushing to-do list: teach three classes, give four presentations at three conferences, attend a hundred meetings, grade a thousand typed pages (that is sadly not an exaggeration), write a million emails. All of it felt like work. By fall, I felt broken.

My relationship with my sister deteriorated. In January, she unfriended me on Facebook for a slew of infractions she declined to mention until I noticed I could no longer tag her in family photos. She made it nearly impossible for me to see her children, who used to be the lights of my life. Where we once had monthly excursions, I took them out just twice all year. My parents remained neutral or erred, understandably, on the side of seeing their grandchildren. Throughout the year, my family gathered frequently without me, having decided preemptively that I was too busy to join them. My mother started to forget me.

My friend was sick. He got sicker. In May, he died. My friends, also his friends, lost their friend. My friend, his widow, lost her husband. My loss was so small compared to hers, but still–the losses associated with this one man piled up atop one another, so that everywhere I turned I saw someone I cared about struggling to breathe through their grief.

Days after my friend died, I reached for J* and he reached back. After months of silence, we struck up an amazing, awkward, amazing friendship. It was an invitation to healing but also more pain. In August, I fell into a hole so deep I could barely see the sky. J* pulled me out. Then he left the country without saying goodbye.

The remainder of 2015 was defined by depression, loneliness, workplace misery, family problems, health problems, and another painful breakup. I could not make anything turn out right, as though the poison coursing through me wilted everything I touched. In that powerless state, I felt adrift.

The year began with a crazy night and a fateful kiss, but, like all measurements of time, midnight on New Year’s Eve is an arbitrary beginning for a period of decline that probably started years before. In some corners of this story, I can say comfortably that someone else was the agent of my misfortune. But in others, it was fate or chance or no one, and in still others, it was me. I made choices too. I opened a door, or closed one. I said things I shouldn’t have said and failed in a hundred different ways. J* kissed me, and I kissed him right back, even though I knew I shouldn’t. Other people–who knows, maybe even 2015 or the Universe itself–might have shoved me out to sea, but I’m the one who untied the raft from its moorings.

Now I write this blog, as if from the safety of that raft. Life often seems like a forbidding sea, and only the moon and stars at night help differentiate sky from the dark water all around me. The writing helps.

I tell my story, I vent the poison.

I plan a new future, I chart a course to safety.

I don’t know what 2016 has in store for me. But just in case, I am staying in this New Year’s Eve.

And the only person I’m kissing… is the dog.Photo on 2013-11-04 at 16.58 #6

The Perfect Day

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I don’t like this time of year, what with its relentless focus on endings and beginnings, its ruthless celebration of children and families, and its vicious indulgence in nostalgia. Not to mention, you’re a loser if you don’t have a date.

It isn’t all bad. There is my friend who makes care packages for homeless people–600 this year! There is the holiday concert at my niece’s school, replete with happy kids so excited about their clarinets and alto solos. There is the t-shirt I got with my dog’s name on it, perhaps the greatest article of clothing ever gifted to me. There are the holiday lights that help to blot out the inky darkness, which seems to begin around lunchtime. There is a lot of candy.

No, it isn’t all bad. Just…most of it.

I haven’t always felt this way. Most years, I decorate the house inside and out. I practice Christmas carols at the piano. I send out a funny Christmas letter to connect with old friends. I volunteer. I try.

This year, I haven’t even switched out the fall wreath for the winter one. (Yes, I am That Lady, who has artificial wreaths for every season.)

Last year, in fact, I had a perfect day, just a few days before Christmas. I am starting to think it might have been the best day of my life, and as I ruminate on it, I wonder: Will I ever have a day like that again?

It was fall graduation, and a young woman whom I had mentored through personal, legal, and financial problems was finally graduating with her Bachelor’s degree after several years of struggle. Seeing her walk across the stage when her name was called–that was perhaps my finest achievement as a teacher. Later that same afternoon, I hooded my first two doctoral students, also an incredibly satisfying moment.

That day, I never looked better. My skin was clear. I was down almost ten pounds. I was wearing a fetching black dress and heels with fancy fishnet stockings–a rare sartorial success for me. Over that, I was sporting my brand-new academic regalia, purchased in collaboration with my parents (multiple years’ worth of Christmas presents) to celebrate finally achieving tenure. My hair looked great, all straight and shiny beneath my tam, which I perched at a cheeky angle. I was beaming as I walked across campus. I took a selfie, and I actually had someone to send it to.

On the drive home, J* suggested I come to his place, and he would make me dinner. That felt wonderful–a place to go, and a handsome man to greet me warmly when I got there. He told me my body looked great in that dress, and I gently laughed it off as though I heard compliments like that all the time. We snuggled into the couch to watch a documentary, basking in the twinkling white lights of the Christmas tree. Then he had to meet some people, and I went home to walk the dog and go to bed. Not a perfect ending to most people’s perfect day, but it was good enough for me.

Perfect, actually. I felt at home in my own skin, I felt successful professionally, and I felt loved. I even had the grace to realize, as it was unfolding, how special it was, and I was so grateful.

It all started to unravel about a week later, and the unravelling has accelerated with each passing month, until here we are in December 2015, and there is almost nothing left.

I’ve gained weight. My hormones are a mess, so I get to enjoy my first serious bout of acne in middle age. I cut my hair, and it looks terrible most days. I haven’t worn the dress or stockings since that day, and the shoes are going south due to neglect and misuse. (Speaking as a former shoe-care professional, suede is a bad investment.) I didn’t attend fall graduation this year, and I’m certain I wasn’t missed. J* is long gone, and there is no one new on the horizon. I won’t even get started on the mess that is my family. It was a mess last year, too, but I had people outside my family for whom I was a priority, so that made it seem not so bad.

This year, it’s just me. Me and the dog, and the fall wreath, and a long, long night.

First-Date Friday: Drunky Joe

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My third Tinder date was Drunky Joe (I don’t remember his real name). I have no recollection of the texting or what caused me to agree to go out with him. I think he had two kids, but that wasn’t it. He had fuzzy hair and a big nose, and I have fuzzy hair and a big nose. Maybe that was it. By this point, I was thinking, “Don’t judge, you never know.” Plus, J* was out of state and possibly never coming back (though he claimed he was going to move to my city in a few months). My friends put my personal life in receivership and told me I could not hitch my wagon to J*’s star and that I had to keep online dating.

I complied, reluctantly.

I met Drunky Joe at an Irish bar roughly near my parents’ house and in the same neighborhood where I was supposed to meet my entire family for my nephew’s birthday. I figured that would be my “automatic out” if things went badly.

I arrived, and because it was mid-afternoon, the bar was empty save for a pair of regulars and Drunky Joe, who had obviously been there for awhile. Before I even sat down, they all demanded that I tell a joke. I am terrible at telling jokes and can only remember one.

“Why did the baby cross the road?” I asked gamely.

“Why?”

“Because it was stapled to the chicken.”

They all laughed, because they were hammered, and I sat down. Drunky Joe was wearing white shorts, a billowy white shirt, boat shoes with no socks, and a puka shell necklace. I assure you, we were not within 100 miles of the ocean, but good for him for owning that look! He seemed pretty drunk and also like he had spent a lot of time on a barstool. He made a lot of jokes about drugs, and he asked point blank if I smoked weed. (Nope. I have my reasons, and they are entertaining. Perhaps I will tell you sometime!)

Around this time, I was trying really hard to be healthier, so I found Drunky Joe’s obsession with substance use and abuse particularly unattractive. Also, his nose wasn’t just big–I have a big nose too, remember!–but rather, in person, it was clear that it was bulbous and red, which is symptomatic of long-term alcohol abuse. Bummer, and especially sad because he had young kids.

The only other things I remember about the date are that he had really skinny legs, as though he never got any exercise; that he really wanted to go to Burning Man, which was cool and transgressive fifteen years ago, but now seems to be the province of wealthy poseurs; and that he wanted to see me again. Um, sure? I only had three online dates under my belt, so I didn’t know how to handle this suggestion gracefully.

We did the awkward hug and parted ways. I went to the restroom to–because I am totally on top of things and awesome, also–finish wrapping my nephew’s birthday gift. This was made especially difficult by the fact that I was tipsy. I’d only had two drinks, but they were on an empty stomach and, well, I can’t hold my liquor. :/

I lingered in the ladies’ room for an eternity, because I was trying to avoid Drunky Joe, who had gone to the men’s room. I worried he was going to want to extend the date by walking me to the birthday party. I was right. He texted me later that he waited for a long time, then figured I must have slipped out ahead of him. NOPE. Just hidin’!

The funniest thing about this date had nothing to do with me hiding in a bathroom, drunk-wrapping my nephew’s birthday present, or Drunky Joe himself. It has to do with how I got there.

The plan was for me to drop my dog off at my parents’ house so my mom could have granddog time, then I would meet “a friend” for a drink, then I would proceed to the birthday party from there, then back to my parents’ to fetch the dog. But as per usual, I was running late late late. I asked Drunky Joe to push the date back 15 minutes, and he agreed. Then I did my makeup in the car while driving to my parents’ house, like the lipstick lady in “Airplane.” I couldn’t stop sweating. Still late! I realized that if I didn’t have to look for parking–if someone could just drop me off–I would only be perhaps ten minutes late past the extension I had arranged with Drunky Joe. In desperation, I called my dad and asked if he could help me out. He’s a sweet, accommodating man, plus he’s retired and doesn’t have enough to do. He agreed. 

If you’re keeping score here, my dad drove me to a Tinder date and dropped me off out front. This is one of those moments when time slows down and you realize that your life is going really well.

I didn’t have the heart to tell my dad I was meeting a stranger from the Internet, so I said it was a blind date. He said nothing. This is why I love my dad: he is the only person in my family who doesn’t judge me (at least, not to my face).

After the date, and after hiding successfully from Drunky Joe, I called J* on my walk to the birthday party. Five minutes on the phone with him was so much better than anything else I had going back then. Eighteen months later, and it probably still is.

Drunky Joe followed up on Tinder, but I didn’t reply. One of us–I can’t remember who–swiped the other into oblivion. Then, less than a year later, he showed up on Tinder again–meaning, he recreated his profile using a different email address, which gives you a second crack at all the ladies who swiped left.

He was still rocking that puka shell necklace.