First-Date Friday: Hurricane J*

from-the-calm-to-hurricane-1892Two days before my first-ever online date with Col. Asshole, which was the day before I met J*, my friend died. These stories will always be connected in my mind, because they meet at the intersection of grief and hope where life is lived most richly.

Ana was my neighbor of five years, and she had been critically ill most of that time. She was in her mid-50s, but she seemed much older, having survived kidney failure, the amputation of all her toes, a heart attack, a stroke, multiple falls and broken bones, and a million other trials, including war, loss, perilous border crossings, and endless poverty. Through it all, she was mostly positive and always strong; I called her a “warrior woman.” We had very little in common, as she was born and raised in Central America, very traditional, a woman of no formal education, and had different politics and beliefs. What I loved about her was the way that she loved. Her children made terrible mistakes–teen pregnancy and fatherhood, drug use, catastrophic financial mismanagement, violent criminal activity–that would represent unspeakable, irrevocable failures in my family. And yet she loved them, fiercely and without end, no matter the mistakes they made. I loved living on the periphery of that love, like sitting on the shores of a calm but powerful sea, because every now and then I would catch its breeze. My heart sang when she would refer to me as one of her girls.

Ana died. Three days later, I met J*. And within days of that first meeting, I had come to believe that Ana sent J* to me, that somehow, in a final act of motherly engineering, she summoned a great storm to wash away the loneliness in me that worried her so.

More particularly, I believed that she had J* run over by a truck so that we could meet on Tinder. (Yes, I know how that sounds!)

Ana believed in witchcraft and spells. She didn’t engage in them, mind you, because she was a Christian and they were the Devil’s work. But she had the option, and she definitely believed in them. And when she would squint her black eyes in disgust at something that displeased her, she made you believe in dark power too.

J* believed he was just going for a bike ride while visiting his friend from out of state. He got clipped by a pickup truck pulling a trailer and was sent flying, resulting in serious bruising and abrasions that prevented his departure from the area. This happened about 1,000 yards from my house. The accident occurred before Ana’s death, true, but in my grief at her passing and amidst the great surge of hope I felt when I met him, it seemed like she must have had a hand in it.

What do you do when you’re bored and laid up after getting run over? You see who’s on Tinder. He found me! He was funny, he asked the right questions (“What are you reading?”), and his photos suggested an average-looking man who might actually be handsome if he’d been photographed at better angles. (Turns out, I was right, so don’t give up on someone just because their profile pictures suck!) Most importantly, he was recovering from his accident right nearby. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, and we decided to meet for coffee an hour hence, because he was leaving for home (some 270 miles away) the next day. Both of us engaged in the mad scramble to appear effortlessly presentable on short notice. I texted something like, “Why don’t we cut each other some slack.” He wrote back, “Deal.”

We met at my regular coffee shop. I got there first, unsure of who I was looking for. I was doctoring my coffee when I heard a man cheerfully call my name. I looked up and saw him standing about 10 feet away, backlit–no shit, it’s so corny, but it’s true–by light streaming in through the windows behind him. He was literally tall, dark, and handsome, with broad shoulders, sunglasses perched rakishly atop his soft, dark curls, and he had black eyes the likes of which I had only seen once before. He was wearing khaki pants and a light blue polo shirt. He was smiling.

We sat outside and talked. We didn’t have much time, because he had to fetch a friend at the airport, and it passed so quickly. It’s hard to isolate what I learned that day, because over the next year I came to be–in his words–the person who knew him best. And he came to be one of perhaps two or three people who know me at all.

Over the next year–and I mean, exactly 365 days–J* blew in and disrupted everything, in full awareness of his destructive power. He was the one who coined the term “Hurricane J*,” not me, and he did so long before we ever met. As our together-story unfolded, I imagined myself as the rock, the immoveable mass around which the storm could rage without effect. But at other times, I was clearly the poorly situated trailer park, shredded to bits by the wind and carried away by the surge. I still don’t really understand what happened, much like those sad people standing in the rubble of their homes the day after a Category 5, who grasp for metaphors to explain the incomprehensible. I don’t know what it was, I just know that–for me, anyway–it was big.

But that day, that first calm day, he was just a kind, sweet, curious man who liked listening to me tell stories. We had coffee, he departed to pick up his friend, then we met up again to take my dog for a walk. We strolled back and forth along the path, we stood in the cold waters of a creek while my pup splashed in the dappled shallows, and we lingered at our cars until long after dark. I learned that he was a former infantryman/medic turned trauma nurse–a potent mix of tough and tender that made me tingly in my bathing-suit area. He also dispensed with some pretty unsavory details: a divorce, a vasectomy (actually, a plus!), a complicated family history, and a history of emotional volatility. He disclosed the divorce last, as though that particular detail would be the most troubling to a prospective partner. In fact, the worst was a story he shared before that, about how he used to beat his ex-wife’s dogs for imagined infractions as a way of releasing his pent-up frustration. I suggested that, on future first dates, he lead with the divorce and close with the dog beating, because it really doesn’t get any worse than that.

But all of that was in the past. He was more than four years sober, and he had made a new life for himself in recovery–a life of gratitude, service, and honesty. It was such a compelling narrative; I was hooked.

This is First-Date Friday, so what happened next, and after that, and next again is a story for another day. What I will say is, Hurricane J* challenged me as no other man or relationship ever has. I grew more, I loved more, I hurt more, I loved some more again.

“What is it about him?” several friends demanded to know, their frustration and concern palpable in the query.

“He is a beautiful disaster,” I told told them. “And I just can’t look away.”

As strong as my feelings were, and as much as J* affected me, I often wondered during that year whether I had any effect on him at all.

A hurricane is mindless destruction, there is no explanation or meaning in its actions, and–unlike a tornado–it provides just enough ebb and flow to wreak havoc in your life for months: the ominous warnings in the weeks ahead, wind and waves that build over days, intermittent downpours as the eye spins slowly overhead, a devastating storm surge that carries everything away, then weeks without power or succor in the aftermath. It is no accident that J* used this term to describe himself, but it was more indictment than badge of honor. “Hurricane” was the ultimate term of self-loathing, because the storm doesn’t care about the people it affects, and it never ends so much as it just moves on, without apology and without ever looking back.

365 days after that first date, J* and I had a falling out so degrading that I’m not sure it’s a story I can ever fully tell. It wasn’t even the breakup–that was months in the rearview. It was worse, a revelation that threatened to undermine once and for all the fragile faith I placed in him. And still, I hung in there, because he was the storm, but I was the rock.

One day, in the wake of that final tempest, we were chatting happily about nothing important, and the conversation came around to the first time we met.

“I bet you don’t remember what I was wearing,” I said.

“Your little jeans skirt and a green t-shirt,” he answered correctly, without a moment’s hesitation. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw you.”

I was stunned. A hurricane would never say that! Those were the words of someone who allowed himself to be affected by me, if only a little; of someone who cared for me, even if it was just once upon a time.

I don’t know if J* was the hurricane or just a man I met on Tinder who maybe saved my life. (Time will tell.) I don’t know if Ana sent him, though I love to imagine that she did, because it suggests a comforting order to the universe. There was definitely a storm. And somewhere in the storm, there definitely was love.

 

Thanksgiving

To follow up on my last post and its little cliffhanger:

I made the call and left a voicemail. He called back. We talked. He was funny! We made a date. I went on the date.

I can’t tell you about it, though, because that’s a story for First-Date Fridays, and I have two dozen first dates–plus a few aborted attempts–stacked up in the queue ahead of this one.

Patience.

As I have said to a couple of broken-hearted friends lately, no one knows how their story will end. We don’t even know where we are in the story, or who will–and won’t–be on the next page. Including loved ones, including ourselves. We can look back on what’s already been written, and we can seek to understand it, but we can’t change what’s done and gone. We can also wonder about the blank pages to come. Where will I be? What will I be doing? Who will be with me? And, taking nothing for granted, how many more pages are there anyway?

Four days ago, I would have loved to learn that I was merely living in a short story, and it would all be over soon. I am feeling better today, so I’m thinking I might be able to tolerate a novella or even a full-length book. If I could fall in love, find happiness in my work, and (or?) have my loneliness assuaged, I might someday desire to live an anthology!

But that is mere anticipation. All I can live is the present page, in the little spaces between the letters and words that write my life. I am glad to be here. Four days ago, I was in a hole so deep I could barely see the sky. I am grateful for the sky. I am also grateful for the hole. But I am most grateful for the page on which it has all been written.

Later today, when we go around the table and account for that which we are thankful, I will adhere to the script and reply, “My family and friends,  my job, the dog.”

But I will be thinking: me.

What’s Good?

I have had been laid low recently, a combination of physical and emotional ills. If not for my little yellow dog, I would not have left the house, and we have spent most of the last four days nestled in bed together. I find myself disconnecting from the world–declining invitations, ignoring overtures, disappearing from social media. My mantra is “Reach out to people who reach back,” but just now I feel as if I can scarcely lift my arms, let alone reach for someone.

(If you’re one of those people who has reached out, I am so sorry for not responding. Please don’t give up on me.)

The flexibility of my work schedule–the non-financial compensation that academics so highly prize–is counterproductive for me when this happens. Because of the looming Thanksgiving holiday, I could stay in bed for a good two weeks before anyone would notice. But my relationship to my work–that is a story for another day.

Today, I am trying not to close doors as soon as they open, even though a future beyond this low horizon is impossible to imagine. I responded to a text from a new suitor I met online (not Tinder; a different site). He’s “old school,” so he called me and left a nice voicemail. I wasn’t expecting that. But just returning the call feels like an impossible task for which I need to: clean the house, or at least the bathroom, ok, maybe just the toilet; take a shower, but wait–I need to go to the gym first, but I’m too gross to go out in public, so I should take a shower, then go to the gym; then I’ll tidy the house and clean the toilet; discard the dead plants and throw out the rotting Halloween pumpkins; take the dog out; sweep the leaves off the front walk; maybe find a shred of self esteem under there? Shower again. Then call.

It’s just too much.

The woman who crafted the online profile, the woman this man wants to talk to, is a stranger to me. I look at her pictures, and I read her witty self-descriptions, without recognition. Just trying to be her, let alone a woman who can endure the endless disappointments of online dating, would be the performance of a lifetime. I imagine trying to talk to this man, and I can’t script a conversation that doesn’t end with me in tears. (This poor man. Little does he know, he has drifted into the eye of someone else’s midlife hurricane!)

In an effort to rally, and in homage to my friend who writes the most hopeful blog and Facebook posts, when I know for a fact she ain’t always feelin’ it, I am going to make a list of Martha Stewart-style Good Things to try to pierce the gloom and let some light filter in. Because it’s just a phone call, right?

Good Things (aka Fronting):

  • I am not a Syrian refugee.
  • I am not an ISIS bride.
  • I am not Bashar al-Assad’s food taster.
  • I am not Putin’s botox injector.
  • I do not have to wipe Kim Jong-un’s ass (because you just know someone does, amiright?).
  • God willing, I will never have to see Donald Trump or Ben Carson naked.
  • David Vitter LOST, and 250,000 Louisianians will have access to health care as a result.
  • My dog is super cute.
  • I live in a nice house that is mostly not falling down.
  • I drive a car that is less than five years old.
  • I have a car.
  • I have a steady income and health insurance.
  • I am not trapped in a hurtful marriage.
  • My parents are both still alive, and I get to spend time with them.
  • One of my best friends is in a happy, committed relationship for the first time since I’ve known her.
  • I just bought a pair of teal slacks.
  • None of my teeth are sore.
  • There are leaves in need of raking, which is an exercise in mindfulness if ever there was one.
  • I binge-watched all of that show “Ballers” on HBO yesterday and think the Rock could get an Oscar if he found the right role and director.
  • I have an HBO-Go password, which belongs to an ex-boyfriend’s roommate’s friend, who once got so drunk he peed the floor, which the roommate filmed and my ex-boyfriend shared with me.
  • I do not struggle with addiction.
  • When the guy I like, but who doesn’t really like me back, texted me the words “great tits” unbidden yesterday, I had the self-respect not to be I’m Cool With It Girl and didn’t text him back.
  • Sometimes making a list, giving a name to the Black Dog that haunts you, and telling other people about your struggles, can help.
  • I really do have great tits.

 

 

First-Date Friday: Col. Asshole

Ed. Note: I will be dedicating Fridays to my online dating experiences. This won’t lighten things up, so much as inject a little schadenfreude. Enjoy!

I started online dating in the summer of 2014. I had tried it twice before, with terrible results. First was an E-Harmony profile. Within seconds of it going live, an actual male human contacted me through the site. In terror, I slammed my laptop closed, thinking maybe he could see me. I promptly deleted my profile. Sometime later, I set up a Match.com profile that lasted about a week. There was one guy to whom I gave my phone number, but with the caveat that I was on a deadline and couldn’t talk until the weekend. He called within 30 seconds, left a voicemail, and I never called him back. I rationalized that it was because he couldn’t follow directions, but in truth, I was terrified. There was also a guy who emailed me through the site to ask why I didn’t want children. His tone was blank and hostile, and I resented his entitlement. “Why don’t you want children?” is an enormous question for which there is seldom a simple answer. And I hadn’t even explained it to myself yet. I shut down my profile immediately and cancelled my subscription shortly thereafter.

Last summer, I got my first-ever smart phone. (a late adopter, yes) My friend Meagan was visiting and puckishly put me on Tinder. Swipe left, swipe right. It is addictive.

My first-ever online date was with a guy we’ll call “Col. Asshole.” I can’t remember his name, and I even put him in the Spreadsheet (yes, I have been on so many first dates that I created a spreadsheet to remember them) as such.

I knew very little about him going into the date, but he had a dry sense of humor that made me laugh, which is rare. We met at a coffee shop. He was blonde, clean cut, very fit, and about my height (5’8″), though he claimed a few extra inches. (This will be a common theme.)

It was clear within the first few minutes that I absolutely hated him, but I also found him kind of fascinating. Basically, Col. Asshole was the dating equivalent of sticking your finger in your navel, discovering a really foul odor, and then continuing to do it out of rank fascination with your own disgustingnessdownload. We talked for over an hour, partly because I wanted to hear his world view, partly because I wasn’t really sure how much of my time I owed him.

He claimed to be the “head” of Marine Corps Intelligence. I never verified if this was true. (He was definitely a Marine; you can’t fake that shit.) I can say with certainty that if he had told me what he did for a living, I never would have gone out with him. And he had ample opportunity to tell me, so I suspect that he concealed his occupation in full awareness that it might be an impediment to getting laid. That’s ok; I usually hide the fact that I’m a professor from potential suitors as well.

That he was a Marine wasn’t the problem. It was that he was ideologically bankrupt. He was a soldier in the global war on terror, and yet he clearly had no firm belief in the necessity or efficacy of the project of combating Islamic extremism. He didn’t even have much belief in the Marine Corps or the United States. A true believer would have been conventional and frustrating, but reassuring. A climbing, calculating automaton–I couldn’t deal. I realized right then that I can’t be attracted to men who aren’t, in some small way, dedicated to the process of making a better world. Or, if they aren’t making the world affirmatively better, then at least they can’t be profiting from making it worse.

Col. Asshole was pretty smart, and he knew what I did for a living, so I half think he trolled me on the date. For example, having established that I prized living in my ethnically and economically mixed neighborhood, I asked why he chose to live in his neighborhood. “I love yuppies,” was his quick reply. (If he was trolling me, well done him!)

He had also told me he had a Master’s degree in the humanities, so going into the date I thought perhaps he was a sensitive type. Nope! He got an online interdisciplinary degree that required no in-person contact with faculty, and he did his thesis on Evelyn Waugh solely because “it was conceptually easy.” WHUT? The degree itself was just a credential to rise in rank; there were no medals for intellectual curiosity, creative expression, or self-improvement on this Marine’s chest. He told me he saw no value in graduate education or why it required brick-and-mortar classrooms or in-person instruction, knowing full well that I am a professor at a university who runs a graduate program. It was almost as though he sensed that I saw no reason why we had a Marine Corps, because it’s redundant to the other services! We could not have hated each other more.

After a long discussion of US foreign policy–which revealed him to be as paranoid as every other member of the intelligence community I have ever met–I thanked Col. Asshole for his time and left.

I know the perils of meeting people online, how you can craft a false identity for them to accord with your own desires. (Let me tell you about Afghanistan Man sometime!) Driving home, I realized that I had done exactly that–taken the ephemera he provided me (photos, a few biographical details, some dry wit) and molded them into a man I wanted to meet, but who could not have been further from the man he was. I decided right then that I was deleting Tinder and never online dating again. But I didn’t, because Tinder has an insidious way of capitalizing on the drug of hope and catering to the gambler in all of us: “Maybe THIS is the guy.” Swipe right. “It will be the next one.” Swipe right. “Just one more.”

That night, I texted warmly with another match. His name was J*.

We had our first date the next day…