A while ago a guy with unclear intentions but incredibly good interpersonal skills was trying to convince me to like him. I couldn’t really tell you if it was friendly or romantic so much as it was a need for affirmation from someone he thought “got things,” but I do know that I doled out a lot of sarcasm over the course of four strong drinks and was left with a rolodex of really well-articulated, just-left-of-center compliments that keep floating up as time passes like air pockets from some sunken ship.
At the time I was proud of myself because I didn’t fall for “it,” whatever “it” was. I’d kept my upper hand and I’d walked away and at the end of the day I had been very adult for a 22-year-old baby in that position. My way of dealing with anxiety is denying it the right to exist. Swallowing it and burying it and ignoring it and turning it off and soldiering through whatever The Event is with the understanding that I’ll have to process things at some later time alone in my bedroom, and that’s how I handled that night.
I’d gone — because of course you go when someone invites you somewhere nice and he’s handsome and funny and you’re going to sit across from each other on a quiet patio and hear about your writing and what it makes him think — but I’d swallowed it. I’d gone to absorb it without any understanding of what my role in it was. Without knowing how I felt about it, or acknowledging that I was present and complicit in the events, and at the end of it I had this meticulous mental transcript of an hours-long conversation with someone I’d wanted to meet for a long time, but I didn’t have a single feeling.
I had the excitement at being able to recount quotes and back-and-forths to curious friends, and the momentum of feeling some kind of life plotline take form, but I didn’t have the human experience of having gone out for drinks with a guy whose opinion mattered to me. I didn’t have any personal context for anything that had just happened, because I was waiting for the story to form still. I was waiting to see a thesis.
After the texts had stopped and the e-mails had petered out, I was left with that night for the most part, and I gave myself the space to analyze. The time I allot myself to feel the feelings and think the thoughts and hope the hopes was upon me, and after running it through my sieves and my emotional spellchecks I just chalked it up to whatever. He was too old, I am too young (always), too dumb, too earnest — whatever the case, it was gone. The story had punctuated itself. It was a vignette. It was a nothing, a brick, a garnish to accompany some bigger thing I hadn’t lived yet. Some preamble to how great my life gets at some later point.
I didn’t know, is the answer. I didn’t make anything of it because there wasn’t enough material for me to make anything.
“Whatever happened to ___?”
But this past October I was waiting for a friend at a street corner outside a restaurant and realized I was standing next to his building. The apartment I’d never been to but had heard stories about. And I felt weird, knowing. Knowing accidentally and standing accidentally. It felt rude, somehow, still inhabiting the planet he did without it being on purpose.
I looked up at the illuminated windows and wondered which ones were his. If the iMac on the third story was the one he’d written to me from. If the white walls on the fifth floor were the ones he’d been planning to hang some art on at some point.
I hadn’t thought about him in months, but the pharmacy on the ground floor was his pharmacy. His toothpaste was that toothpaste.
And that’s when it was real for me. That’s when I felt sad, I felt a loss, felt naive for ever being hopeful and dumb for thinking that the compliments had been anything short of a means to some sort of end I hadn’t been capable of providing.
I crossed my arms the way I do when I’m pensive in public, and walked slowly the way I do on those same occasions, and I sat on a bench outside the restaurant and only looked up when the manager came out and told me, “Hey, smile,” and, “it’s warmer inside.”
I half-assed some eye contact, and had a fun dinner once my friend got there, but that walk home was such a walk for me. That walk where you feel the weight of a near-hit in human understanding. Of two people acknowledging one another but things not matching up. No change for a twenty. Some metaphor I’m missing.
It felt big, though. The walking and the realizing that it had taken me a year to even allow myself to feel let down. To feel disappointed in someone. Because I’d been so busy hunting for clues and reading my relationships like a Xeroxed packet for a class where finding just the right phrase is gonna make everything make more sense, I’d forgotten to participate in my own life. I’d forgotten to stop narrating it and sitting on the backs of my heels waiting for someone to perform for me and actually assert myself onto the present tense.
I’d like to think I’m getting better about it, since acknowledging a problem is the first step to dealing with it, but who really knows at the end of the day.
Who really knows how many false starts there are going to be, or people who think they see me because they’ve seen something I’ve written, or people I’m not going to be able to be Christine enough for.
The important thing, I guess, is that I keep trying. Do better next time. Be less skeptical, be less scared of feeling embarrassed, stop playing it like a chess match and fuck up whenever I want to. Fuck up unabashedly and wholeheartedly and never the same way twice until I find a life I love living and am proud to have carved out for myself.