He took me to sushi on our second date and I told him how it’s neutral Zen glamour reminded me of the Japanese restaurant I’d waitressed at in New York in my twenties. The uniform so by far the nicest thing in my closet, I wore it to a wedding. A dress with stains like salt flats in the armpits, that forced me to hover around the reception, arms clamped by my sides.
“The big broad comedy version of that,” he started, “is she gets to the wedding and has forgotten to take her name tag off.” He was a half hour writer, I was one hour. He smiled at his own pitch, and I felt like he got it. That he got me.
I was attracted to him and never fake laughed once, until the end of the night, when he said, “People working on themselves, if I hear anymore about people ‘working on themselves…’” and I giggled praying no self-help mantras scribbled on post its fell out of my purse.
We started dating. He said I was confusing — a mix of a 50’s housewife and Gloria Steinem. I fell in love because every time he spoke I was surprised by how emotionally intuitive and funny he was. Like when one of my job interviews got cancelled and I rolled out the slogan “Rejection is God’s protection.”
“Well,” he said, one eyebrow raised, “if it rhymes, it’s definitely true.”
At which point we laughed until we were pink.
The night I really fell for him, though, was the night we had plans and he texted that he couldn’t make it. He’d had a meeting at a poncy members only club earlier about a feature. Disappointed, I asked him to call me. Hours later he came over, explained he wanted to be the best version of himself around me. After the meeting, (which didn’t go well) he went to the horrible valet which is like a Tesla/RangeRover/SmartCar parade. His old truck wouldn’t start, and the valets explained that his car wouldn’t “go.” He had to call a tow truck and the whole debacle crushed my heart. Because every time I walk into the stuffy place, I feel like I am at a wedding in a waitress uniform again. I fell for him that night. For his vulnerability and his reticence. For the guy part that didn’t want to be a mess and the sensitive part that knew that standing me up was hurtful. I thought we could work. I thought it was my kind of guy who could hold both.
A few weeks later, on my couch, he noticed a book, the Dalai Lama’s “The Opening of The Wisdom Eye.” He picked it up, thumbed through it, settled on a page and read aloud. I listened, sort of soothed. Most of the quotes were about grappling with death.
“’How to escape the pain of death, the fear of death,’” he looked up. “For you and me, I think you could take this book and replace the word death with…”
I waited on breathless, trying to imagine what he’d say, poverty? Show business? Skinny jeans?
“Marriage,” he said, grinning.
I laughed because he was right. Jokes are just uncomfortable truth. I also laughed because, I had worked really hard to examine and let go of my fear of marriage. I was 39, he was 42, we were both full of unspoken anxieties. Life was scary but I had been “working on myself,” and the idea that someone could be in my imperfect life as my imperfect partner. I told myself that it could be beautiful.
I loved this house I was renting, I heard owls at night and they sounded the way I felt — calling out but not in a needy way. Then he would arrive, and I would feel calm. Being next to him felt good and right to me, but he didn’t reach for me easily. I’d done all this “working on myself” so I knew (yuck) I had to talk about it.
I told him I really liked kissing, like I could kiss for hours.
“Hours?” he said terrified.
He suggested that I’d confused physical attention with feelings. I thought he’d confusing kissing with roadwork.
I love kissing, mostly because it forces you to get so still, it’s a direct route to the present. It started to feel like he didn’t like the present.
The last night we were together, we were going out with one of his friends to a place whose selling point was giant clear bags of shellfish seasoned in orange spices and dumped with ceremony onto the middle of the table. We wore bibs and drank beer. If you’ve ever eaten crayfish you know, there’s a lot of labor for little meat, so I quickly became more interested in drinking than shelling. I thought it was fun.
When we got home I was all buzzy and excited. I felt close to him. I felt let into his life. And he felt… sick. I had never dated someone who felt sick so often. Or who never raised their voice. Ever. When things upset him he just picked up his keys, and his computer and walked out. Which felt the worst of all.
But that night, he lay down on the couch and held his stomach. I put on my nightgown, sat down and put my hand on his leg.
“I’m sick,” he said, “please don’t touch me.”
I saw him on my couch, and snapped. I had mad thoughts, like, why did you eat that gross bag shellfish? Why don’t you like being touched? Why do you look like you’re in pain more often than not? And the truth is, if a person looks like they are in pain then they probably are. Things weren’t progressing with his writing projects, and he was not talking about it with me. I wanted him to feel like the macho self-sufficient joker I met six months ago, so I didn’t press. I wanted him to feel good around me, so I stopped asking. Which was a huge mistake.
It was making him sick. Or maybe it was the fish, either way, I lost my ability to be gentle.
I told him he should leave. When what I wanted so badly, what I would have given anything for would have been for him to say, I want to stay.
But he didn’t. He just got up and grabbed his keys.
My stomach fell out and I went from owl to rage filled howler monkey. I screamed all the things in my heart.
“I just want you to want to stay,” I screamed.
“You can’t even see that I’m sick,” he said, his face grey green.
And I couldn’t. I saw a guy who would do anything to maintain his space while I felt closer and closer. But really, both were true.
A few days later he referenced my violence, and I understood (but resented being coupled with Ike Turner for slapping his chest with an open palm). He had never liked big emotions. That’s when I knew it wouldn’t work. I knew even though going to get a coffee with him was more fun than going to Disneyland, I needed to stop. I didn’t want to be our joke anymore. I didn’t want to equate marriage with death, and I didn’t want my own fear of being left to stop me from having a real relationship. Most of all, I didn’t want to do what I’d been doing which was not ask hard questions that wouldn’t garner pretty funny answers. Of him, or me.
It doesn’t really matter how crazy you are about someone if you’re so scared of upsetting them that you sidestep the most banal questions for fear of emasculating him. That’s not how relationships are built. All the softness in the world can’t nurture a little superficial petri dish of communication. The worst part is, the other person feels uncared for. When in truth, it’s the very overthinking about how to make myself his soft place to land that generated it. In wanting someone to feel loved so much, they feel unseen. It’s incongruous and sad.
I wanted to work on it.
Ring in New Years 2016 with Jen Pastiloff at her annual Ojai retreat. It’s magic! It sells out quickly so book early. No yoga experience required. Just be a human being. With a sense of humor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or click photo to book.