Dark Ages 20: Bad Boy, a special case

Dark Ages is a series about my dating history. I left off six months ago, saying that Bad Boy would be getting his own post “soon”. Oops. But now, finally, here it is…

My relationship with Bad Boy was seriously fucked up, but there was also a level of complexity that I was unable to understand back then. From time to time over the years I’d look back, shake my head and wonder what the hell had happened. It took years, but I think I’ve unravelled it all.

During the relationship

We met, had a bit of a romp that night (but no sex), and started dating immediately. I vaguely recall that it seemed good at the beginning. I don’t know when it started to go bad — within a couple of months I suppose. Things soured gradually.

I had low self-esteem to begin with and it got lower while I was with him. I had gone from feeling like I needed to be in a relationship to feeling like I needed to be in a relationship with him, even though I wouldn’t have said that being with him made me happy — if I’d even thought to ask myself that question. (I don’t think I knew what happiness looked like. Either that or I didn’t think my happiness in a relationship was particularly relevant to anything.)

Once when I was feeling down on myself, I asked him if he thought I was pretty; he couldn’t answer the question without first referencing his own appearance and getting affirmation that I thought he was good looking. He pressured me for sex constantly, and, not allowing myself to be aware that I didn’t want it, I just gave it to him.

I’ve always been quiet, low-key, and low drama. This relationship turned me into a “half-dressed, shouting at each other in the middle of the street” crazy person. I didn’t recognize myself. There were times when I’d get upset about who knows what, he’d do or say something in response, and I’d end up vibrating with tension and frustration, ready to scream, wail, punch the wall, or all of the above.

The immediate aftermath

It wasn’t until I was well out of the relationship that I started being able to see what had happened. I’ve always been very honest, so it never occurred to me that he would lie to me, repeatedly, about trivial things. And I was naïve.

Here’s an example: his dad owned a small business (true); his dad went on a business trip to LA (maybe); he accompanied with his dad on that trip (probably not); he got driven around in a limo (ridiculous lie); he saw a major band at a concert (lie). At the time, I was a bit envious that he’d seen the band, since it was one that I quite liked.

And another: he had seen a modestly famous singer perform (probably a lie); he met and danced with her (ridiculous lie). But it made me jealous, which I suppose was his intention.

His lies taught me to be skeptical, cautious and closed off. Or rather, they reinforced my natural tendency to keep myself closed off. I had been badly hurt and I concluded that it was safer to keep my distance.

Much later

Over the years, I’d look him up the odd time in the phone book, and later on Facebook. I was very happy to have nothing to do with him, but I hadn’t been able to heal all the hurts and I was still wary. I kept an eye on him the way I’d keep an eye on a spider on the basement floor that was getting too close while I tended to the laundry.

Then out of nowhere, he tried to friend me on Facebook. I saw that he was still living in our hometown, while I had moved to another city. I ignored him. He pestered me, asking why I didn’t friend him. I explained that my friends list was small, I only connect with people I want to stay in touch with, and we hadn’t been in touch. He eventually huffed off, but not until he took a dig at me for “not being over him yet”. Whatever.

About a year later, he got in touch again and now wanted to meet up. Fuck. Wolf and I had just moved back to our hometown so I no longer had the convenient excuse of living in a different city to avoid a meetup. I suppose I could have lied or blown him off in some way, but my sense of integrity wouldn’t allow me to do anything but face the issue. So I messaged him; I successfully resisted the urge to tell him it was the worst goddamned relationship I’d ever had, and instead said simply that I didn’t understand why he wanted to meet up because “our relationship was not good”. Major litotes right there. Even so he completely flipped out. It was just bizarre. And his overreaction rattled me.

He wouldn’t let it go, but he did regain some composure. If I capitulated now, it might save further unpleasantness in the long run. I rarely find myself worried about my personal safety, but we lived in the same city now: if I thwarted him at this point, would he escalate and try to stalk me? [To my male readers: you may not be aware of it, but it’s a commonplace for a woman to perform a cost-benefit safety analysis regarding a personal interaction with a man. It’s most definitely A Thing. The options are often stroke the guy’s ego versus risk being harassed or attacked. A woman sacrificing her pride and authenticity on the altar of safety is nothing new.]

Eventually, I agreed to the meet, at a new restaurant where we had no history. I guess I was hoping for some kind of closure, and I admit I was a little curious. I had dressed up: I was going for devastatingly beautiful ice queen and it wasn’t hard to feel remote and emotionally distant. He had unintentionally taught me to be on my guard, and demonstrated how well I’d learned that lesson. I leaned back in my chair, creating physical distance. My responses were polite and never overly enthusiastic. I’ve had job interviews that were more warm and cuddly.

He looked different: he had gotten into body-building (quelle surprise) and had bulked up. His face looked a little different too, in a vaguely Mickey Rourke-ish way. Had he gotten into boxing? Botoxed his lips? I suppose it was just the years, and we had been so young. He managed to make himself reasonably pleasant, smiling and joking. He asked me if I was nervous, and then he admitted that he was. Except for some superficial changes in appearance, he seemed like the exact same person he had been ages ago; it was disconcerting.

And as we sat shooting the shit, the lies began again. What had I been up to in the intervening years? One interesting thing I’d done was to visit Thailand. Oh, he had been to Thailand too. Well, maybe; I could see him wanting to hang out at tourist beaches. I also spent a year in Japan. What a coincidence, he had ridden a motorcycle through Japan. Whereabouts? Ah, he couldn’t remember the names of the places. Like hell he’s been to Japan. I left it. We went our separate ways and thankfully I haven’t heard from him since.

I dub thee “Narcissist”

Soon after this meeting, a book* about narcissists caught my eye at the library. I didn’t really know anything about narcissism, but it piqued my interest and I wondered if it might describe him. I took out the book.

High but brittle self-esteem? Check. When didn’t get his way about the Facebook friend request, his “flipping out” looked a lot like a narcissistic rage, a sort of grown-up temper tantrum. When we were dating, he had wanted to feel good about himself and used the narcissist’s strategy of putting me down so he could feel that he was better than me. For the narcissist, facts are malleable: they exist to serve goals like looking impressive, hence his lies past and present about trivialities. Narcissists want you to think highly of them and be impressed. There’s a shallowness: they lack self-awareness and thus they don’t grow.

Narcissists have deep hurts from childhood, and as a result empathetic people want to help them. Beware: it’s a trap! A kind person will want to give a narcissist a hand up. The narcissist will take that hand and use it to pull you into the pit with them, then trample you down, stand on top of you and gloat.

Even though I hadn’t yet learned about narcissism when I met up with Bad Boy, my intuition guided me well. I had already figured out that he had lied to impress me and otherwise manipulate me, so when he began lying I took everything with a grain of salt and offered only polite reactions. No gushing. Like smothering a fire with a blanket so it can’t get oxygen, I deprived his ego of fuel and he simply fizzled out. Our meeting was civil and I haven’t heard from him since.

I was over him a long time ago, and now that I understand his narcissism, I’ve finally healed from the harm he caused me.


* Wendy T. Behary, Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2008).

Because I didn’t make note of the title at the time, I went back to the library to track the book down so I could footnote it here. While flipping through it, I found information about the sorts of people who tend to fall prey to narcissists. I suppose this spoke to me at least a little when I first read it, but now that I know myself so much better, I can see that young me would have been a narcissist’s favorite snack.

Dark Ages 19: insights

After I started this series, I soon realized that not everyone finds thinking about their dating history as “a depressing trudge down memory lane”. When I looked back, I saw lots of treading water in aimless and dissatisfying relationships, painful breakups, and few memories actually worth savoring. So I didn’t think about it. But sifting through these old layers in a methodical way has revealed patterns that I hadn’t previously been aware of.

First, some background. When I was little, I knew that you were supposed to get married and have kids. Yet by age 5, I already knew that I didn’t want kids, and I soon concluded that this wouldn’t actually be a problem because no one would want to marry me anyway. So self-esteem was clearly an issue from a young age. (I never dreamt about having a wedding either, but I’m grateful for that.) My parents weren’t physically demonstrative so I grew up essentially without touch.

Most of the childcare was done by my dad. My mom was present, but I’m inclined to blame her emotional distance on the sexual abuse she suffered at her father’s hands. My dad recently told me that after they split, he (my dad) wanted to take me camping (I would have been 11 or 12) and my mom was worried that he was going to abuse me; nothing of the sort ever happened. Interestingly, around that time it occurred to me to be afraid of being abused by him. Did I come to that thought independently, or did I somehow pick up on what was unsaid?

By the time I was about 12 or 13, I tended to feel more comfortable with boys than girls. It seemed like there must be some manual about how to be a girl and I was the only one who hadn’t gotten my copy. My mom never taught me to be “feminine”. There seemed to be all kinds of rules about being a girl that didn’t make sense and I didn’t know the rules so I didn’t play. I didn’t like shopping or makeup, I didn’t dress to be attractive, I didn’t like skirts and dresses, I didn’t travel to the school bathroom in packs with the other girls. I wore jeans and T-shirts, read a lot, rode my bike, kept to myself, and took martial arts classes.

I don’t know why I started dating precisely when I did, but it feels like a switch was flipped — suddenly it was possible and I needed to have a boyfriend. (I never worried about “being alone” in an existential way, and besides, the majority of my dating took place while I was still living with my parents.) I was seeking external validation: being able to attract male interest of a specific sort was a way to prove to myself that I had some worth. My relationship with my dad is generally OK, but the most hurtful thing I’ve ever heard was something he said to me. Prompted by some complaint from his girlfriend (now wife), he told me, “I love you, but I don’t like you very much.”

Feeling the need for a boyfriend made me somewhat opportunistic by necessity. I didn’t give a lot of thought to my preferences about appearance and personality, which were generally vague and unarticulated. Still, personality was vastly more important than looks, and I think my sexual shame contributed heavily to downplaying the role of physical attraction. I preferred intelligence but compromised easily. The most important quality in a guy was that he was interested in me: I found that very attractive indeed, but very occasionally it wasn’t enough (Buddy, Dude). After Bad Boy, I bounced from one guy to the next for months without the slightest sense of direction. I figured that this demonstrated I must be attractive, at least, though I didn’t find that conclusion entirely reassuring.

I may have sucked at choosing boyfriends, but I was really good at commitment. That’s not a good combination, as it turns out. I’d start dating someone and then feel like I should stay with him for some reason that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

While my parents were together, their relationship was generally civil but not warm and there was the occasional fight (shouting). This would be my model for relationships: duty and commitment without warm feelings or physical affection. My dad confessed to me recently that he was frustrated with the lack of affection and emotional connection, but I have no doubt that my mom felt too vulnerable to let him in. My mom told me recently that while they were together, my dad cheated serially. I’d wager that he was looking for the emotional and physical intimacy he couldn’t get at home.

Is “commitment” even the right word for what I learned from them? I think commitment should involve mutual promises to be good to each other. What I saw in my parents’ marriage wasn’t commitment but perseverance. The notion that a relationship is something to be enjoyed and not merely endured completely escaped me for a long time.

It took a long time before I learned to identify a bad relationship. I’m not sure I really did learn that lesson until I fell into a good one and had that as a point of reference. After Bad Boy, I was spooked for a long time but at least I eventually learned to check in with myself from time to time to see if things were still good or if they had taken a turn.

I wasn’t good at knowing when a relationship should end or actually ending it. I dislike confrontation and I dislike hurting people. I took too much responsibility for the pain of others because their pain hurt me too: that’s a boundary issue due to sensitivity and things I learned at home. I ended two relationships because I thought it was the right thing to do (Small Town, Badger). On two occasions, I broke up with a guy to date someone else (A/V, Gamer). I was dumped once and I found it embarrassingly excruciating (Guitarist). With the rest, things failed to get off the ground, weren’t going anywhere because of distance issues, fizzled out and/or ended mutually.

I wasn’t good at knowing when to start a relationship either. Regrettable things happened when I made snap decisions. I took it slow with Gamer and it went OK; we’re sort of in touch but have little in common these days (for one thing, he goes to sports bars now). Things went better when I actively put the brakes on. Although the split with A/V didn’t go well, we rebuilt our friendship and I still consider him a good friend. And then there’s Wolf, my partner for lo these many years.

I had/have a thing for creative types, which I suppose I knew at the time. A few of my boyfriends and most of my crushes have been musicians. There were artists, writers and actors too. I was into art and singing, so it’s not impossible that I was attracted to what these guys were doing (more than who they were) because they were doing the things I wanted to do, more or less. My preference for creative guys didn’t prevent me from trying sporty guys (Tall had the redeeming feature of also being creative, Small Town didn’t), but I’d call it an unsuccessful experiment.

So my challenges were: low self-esteem; the necessity of being in a relationship; commitment, in the form of perseverance; external validation; not knowing what I wanted other than wanting to be wanted; lack of physicality; and the thread of sexual shame throughout. Self-esteem still pops up as an issue sometimes, but I’ve experienced a lot of healing in all of these areas – from increased maturity, my relationship with Wolf, and now through self-awareness and personal growth.

As it happens, I also learned a lot about Bad Boy – not so much during this process specifically, but in recent years. He’s a special case, and he’ll get his own post soon.

Dark Ages 18: Wolf’s version

My partner, Wolf, offers his recollections of our first meeting. My brief version of that story is here. I wish I remembered more about it, but I was ‘fresh meat’, meeting a whole house full of new people and my focus was on Gamer, since we were ‘courting’ at the time.

I know it was late, already well dark. I suspect it was a weekend, but that’s unclear. It was summer, or at the very least, the warmer part of the year. I know we were drunk. I don’t remember much really.

I remember her. She wore black jeans and a black and white striped top, stretch knit that clung to her. She had the athletic curves of a dancer, big round eyes, high cheekbones, a long aquiline nose with a silver ring in one nostril. Those are the principal physical characteristics, but she was also a collection of subtle contradictions. She was small, tiny almost, but not overtly feminine. She looked light enough to pick up, but her body language warned you that if you tried without having permission, she would feel like lead, she would fight, you would win only if you didn’t care about getting hurt, and you would get hurt. One could have called her cat-like, but only if you were the sort that really knew what that meant. She was not, by any meaning of the word, ‘kittenish’.

We may have been a gathering of intoxicated men (barely men, at that age) but she was no sheep amongst wolves. We were, at best, a pack of excited foxhounds and she was the wolf in fox-clothing.

We didn’t talk much that first time. She was ‘with’ Gamer, or at least that was his impression, which he made very clear to us before she appeared. We were at least respectful of that.

That night, on the way past each other in some cramped part of the house, she playfully nipped my stomach with her fingertips, a casual bit of contact to break the awkwardness of the moment. ‘Ooh!’ she said, it seemed in a brief moment, in response to how I felt to her. Did my abs please her? Or was that just some empty flirting?

No, that’s silly, I’m not her type. I’m not anyone’s type. None of us are her type, including the guy who had staked his claim. Does he know that? Probably not.

I guess I was half right – she wasn’t his type after all. I’ve never been a good judge of my own place in things. But I remember that shirt.

Dark Ages 17: Gamer’s warning

So why did Gamer warn me away from Wolf back in the day? The warning came while Gamer and I were hanging around together but before we had become an item, and I naively didn’t think to question it in the moment or at any time while I was with him. Even if I had, I don’t think I would have gotten any clarity.

The way Gamer had presented it, he had allowed me to believe that Wolf was some kind of player. Nothing could have been further from the truth, as Gamer was probably well aware.

I had told Wolf about the warning in our early days together and it was the source of many a good chuckle (for me, anyway) once it became apparent just how well matched Wolf and I really were. So I asked Wolf what he thought it was about.

One possibility is that Wolf may have been the only single guy there and thus represented a risk of poaching. And Gamer may have pegged Wolf as someone I might have taken an interest in. This would amount to Gamer proactively defending his “territory” against a specific threat. But I don’t think this is quite it, because even if Gamer had been that territorial, Wolf would have been an odd choice for singling out, and I don’t think Gamer was perceptive enough to notice that Wolf and I would be compatible. But it’s true that Gamer was pursuing me.

There’s another possibility, and it’s one that I find much more intriguing. A few weeks before that party, Wolf and Gamer and some of their friends had been at a festival. Gamer had had a drunken tumble with a girl; Wolf had had a tumble with her as well, and it seems that each of the guys knew about the other. Of all the people at the party, Wolf was likely the only one who had this information about Gamer and Gamer didn’t want it getting back to me for fear of what I might think. So, taking the offensive, Gamer apparently crafted a mini-story about Wolf that Gamer could use to protect himself.

In our early days together, Gamer told me a bit about his sexual past. I was left with the impression that he had been going to bars looking for love and finding only sex, and that after a while he began to feel that he was being used. But in retrospect, I wonder if this was the festival story dressed up with a goodly helping of spin. He had an outgoing and confident manner, and at the time I believed that he did well with women. But now I think that the confidence was to an extent an act. Further, he seemed to lack awareness of how others perceived him, overestimating his social standing. He had a friendliness with strangers but never came across as any kind of ladies’ man while I was with him. I’m left wondering whether he parlayed that one drunken tumble into a “history” and revealed it at a time and in a manner that he hoped would score points with me.

I’m reminded of the notion that when people tell you something, they may or may not tell you anything factual about the topic, but they always reveal something about themselves.

Dark Ages 16: Wolf

[“Dark Ages” is a series wherein I reconsider memories of boyfriends past through the lens of new knowledge and hope to make it worth my while (and not just a depressing trudge down memory lane) by learning something new about myself.]

 

The month before I moved out felt like a sort of separation from Gamer, and the move itself was the split. Somehow this seemed to take him by surprise. I knew he was an optimist, but was his optimism completely blind? I couldn’t understand why he never seemed to have noticed that our relationship had been falling apart. A couple of weeks after the move, he called me at work and said he loved me. I certainly cared about him and he was a decent guy, but I had fallen out of love with him a long time ago. I gritted my teeth and said he probably shouldn’t say that word anymore. And when I hung up, I cried because I’d hurt him. But I had already moved on.

That first month with Wolf was a little awkward. We had known each other as friends for some time but we getting to know each other romantically was a different game. His parents must have wondered where the hell I came from because I was suddenly at their place constantly. I already had years of dating under my belt (um, so to speak), but I was his first proper girlfriend; he was a bit younger than me, but I had started dating rather early and he was starting a little late.

At the end of that first month there was another road trip, and we crashed with another acquaintance. Our hostess asked me, privately, what was up because she had noted a bit of tension between us and figured that the relationship must be just starting or just ending. But things improved after that.

My apartment, which had in a way more or less changed my life, was an inexpensive bachelor suite downtown, in brick apartment building that had been lovely once but was now a bit gone to seed. The suite featured high ceilings, tall windows, badly worn wood floors, and some slightly odd details that I assumed had made a bit more sense in an era without electricity, such as the little window from the bathroom into the closet. When I got home from work, Wolf was always outside the building waiting for me: worried about being late, he made a point of arriving early, which I found charming. I didn’t have a car of my own (I had been driving Gamer’s), so Wolf came over, and then we might hang out for a bit at my place before he’d take me back to his parents’ place in the suburbs and cook for me. Once supper was ready, we’d retreat to the cool basement with our plates, eating and watching TV in the dim, wood-paneled space. We’d spend the rest of the evening there, in semi-privacy, and I’d head home at bedtime.

It was about a month and a half before we finally slept together, and the first few times were awkward. I was theoretically the worldly one, while he was… not, but eventually he began to loosen up.

We had all the privacy we wanted at my place as long as we weren’t too loud, not that there was much risk of that. On the weekend, he’d come over fairly early in the morning to find me awake but still in bed. Why bother getting up and dressed? He’d be joining me in the sheets in about five minutes anyway.

Once he relaxed with me, our libidos matched reasonably well. And we continued to get along really well and spend all our time together. But after 10 months or so, I began to notice that I felt the need to be a little tipsy in order to have sex. This was not a good sign.

I continued checking in with my gut: did I still like Wolf? Yep, no problems there. My previous experiences didn’t provide any helpful insights: things cooled off with Tall, I concluded I’d fallen out of love and we agreed to end it; I definitely fell out of love with Gamer and at some point things had cooled off. This seemed different: I was very happy to be with Wolf and had no complaints about him, so my negative feelings about sex were apparently somehow independent of the relationship. Those feelings were definitely difficult to accept, and I never really did accept them: sex is something that you’re supposed to enjoy, I didn’t enjoy sex, I felt shitty for not enjoying it, and I felt shitty for withholding it from Wolf. What was wrong with me?

Eventually, I started feeling uncomfortable even with hugs. There was no such thing as innocent touch — all touch was suspect. I asked him to back off further, and felt shitty to ask, but he agreed without complaint because it was important to him that I got what I needed, even if that might not be what he wanted. He never pushed me, and he reassured me that sex or the lack thereof didn’t really figure into his feeling that he wanted to be with me.

So we eventually developed an understanding: sex would not be a significant part of our relationship. But we were wonderfully compatible in all other ways, which is why we’re still together so many years later.

Dark Ages 15: Gamer and Wolf

[“Dark Ages” is a series wherein I reconsider memories of boyfriends past through the lens of new knowledge and hope to make it worth my while (and not just a depressing trudge down memory lane) by learning something new about myself.]

 

I wasn’t happy. Stuck in a relationship and stuck in the big city with little money, few friends, and no fun.

At some point, Gamer and I came up with an idea for a business and, because we were broke, we decided to try to save money by moving home — back to our inexpensive hometown, and back to the parental abodes. I didn’t believe in the business idea particularly deeply, but I enjoyed coming up with ideas and plans. More importantly, having the specific goal to save money for a project seemed to legitimize the decision to move home: it gave me permission.

By the time we moved back, we had spent a little over a year in the big city and we were approaching our second anniversary. Overall, my stress was significantly reduced: I had effectively no expenses, I had my friends and family, and living in my hometown was easy and comfortable in so many ways. But there was a new stress. I hadn’t been able to move back home because there was no room for me in either house: my dad had moved into a smaller place, and my mom had given my former room to my half-sister. That’s how I ended up living with Gamer and his parents for eight months.

Things got better with Gamer for a while, but then the relationship cooled off again. The reduction in stress had improved things temporarily, but deep down I still didn’t want to be with him. So although I wasn’t reliant on him to help pay the bills or help me move across the country, I was now reliant on the goodwill of his parents to keep a roof over my head. And under those circumstances, I thought it would be in poor taste to break up with him. But I withdrew emotionally and physically. Not surprisingly, I ended up feeling trapped again, but this time in a slightly more comfortable cage.

We were still a couple, and we still shared a bed. One time he tried to initiate something during the night by touching my back and waking me up. It pissed me off to be woken up, and the fact that he wanted sex put me on my guard immediately and made me feel deeply uncomfortable.

But I was still loyal. When he decided to shave his head, I braided it and cut it off neatly so he could keep it. And after he’d finished with the clippers and his conservative parents saw and reamed him out for making himself unemployable, I came out swinging. (His parents were, I think, entirely in the wrong on that issue. His inability to get a job had nothing to do with his grooming: it was mostly his lack of effort in looking for a job, and the crummy economy didn’t help anything.) I dislike confrontation but I sure gave them an earful, which, considering I was in their house only because of their generosity, was probably not a great idea. But still, the hair was gone (until it grew back) and he was more or less a grown-up, so what good would a lecture do?

I don’t remember when Gamer and I discussed the possibility of an open relationship, but I do remember mentioning it to my friend Metal. He was short and slim, with long blond hair, and not bad looking. I liked him as a friend and wasn’t particularly attracted to him, but he was male, and being a musician earned him some bonus points. At the time, that seemed like enough. So I dropped my hint, and he either didn’t understand or just tactfully ignored it. Just as well, really.

Then I started fantasizing about Wolf, the guy Gamer had warned me away from a couple of years earlier. We had been running in the same circles for some months at this point, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that most of what was going through my head was complete fiction — I hardly knew the guy. I decided that getting wound up about him was silly, especially while I was still technically with Gamer, and I turned off that line of thought. But what I knew about Wolf I liked, so I started spending time with him and just getting to know him as a friend. Wolf, Gamer and I hung out together sometimes. Wolf was intelligent, self-contained, and had an air of competence.

Then, a breakthrough! My part-time job became full-time and suddenly I could see a way out. I decided to save up for a month; I stayed at Gamer’s on the weekend and during the week I crashed at my mom’s, on the bottom bunk in my half-sister’s room, which had once been mine. Gamer’s place was across town from my work and mom’s was really close and I hated the drive, but the deeper reason for the arrangement was simply escape. It was sort of a break-up in slow motion.

During this month, I allowed myself to think about Wolf again, and this time I wasn’t making it all up. I had gotten to know him fairly well and now had actual facts on which I could conclude that I was indeed attracted to him. One evening, we met up for drinks and nibbles. It was early spring and the air, though still quite cool, seemed heavy with potential. As we prepared to part in the parking lot, I hugged him, too long, and then we went our separate ways. On another occasion I was hanging out at his place, staying late while willing something to happen, but he never made a move.

At the end of that month, there was an event going on in another city; Wolf was driving, so I and one other person caught a lift with him. Mutual friends gave us crash space on their living room floor. And at one point, when we had something resembling privacy, we started playing around and kissing. Finally.

The following Monday was moving day. I was free! And it seemed that Wolf and I had started something together.

I have no recollection of what I said to Gamer to officially end it. But I’m sure I told him.

Dark Ages 14: Gamer

[“Dark Ages” is a series wherein I reconsider memories of boyfriends past through the lens of new knowledge and hope to make it worth my while (and not just a depressing trudge down memory lane) by learning something new about myself.]

 

End of summer, not long after my ill-fated visit with Ed. Looking back, I can see that I’d had some fun times over the summer, but it didn’t seem that fun at the time. I wasn’t happy.

One shitty evening, I called up my friend Gamer and told him my sad story. We spoke for a good while and he commiserated, but eventually and regretfully announced that he had someplace to be at a specific time. He didn’t want to blow me off, and he was going to a meeting for a group that I might like, and did I want to come with? I dusted myself off, got overdressed and waited for him to come pick me up. It was a welcome distraction.

A week or two later, a friend of his was having a party and many of the group members (only a few of whom I’d met) would be there. When I arrived at the house on a farm just outside of town, a bunch of guys swarmed out the door to meet me in the parking area. It was rather disconcerting, but I found out later that Gamer had gone on at some length about how hot I was, and so all the randy young bucks had to come out and see. One of them was Wolf (fairly tall, slim, quiet), but Gamer specifically warned me away from him with no explanation. By the end of the night I was still puzzled as to why — Wolf had barely spoken to me.

After hanging out together as friends quite a lot for about a month, Gamer and I started going out. I wasn’t keen to leap into a new relationship since my recent track record seemed pretty poor and I was still gun-shy, so I took it slow.

Gamer was skinny, a little taller than average, with long, thick, curly black hair. (If he brushed it out and let it frizz, it stuck out at an angle just like Roseanne Roseannadanna’s.) With his thick black hair and his full but nicely shaped eyebrows, he had sort of a Mediterranean look, though that wasn’t his background. It amused him to wear 70s polyester; I thought it made him look a little oily. He had been in his high school band (percussion) and had been a lifeguard over the last few summers.

Things were good. We knew each other pretty well to begin with, had interests in common, and were compatible. Being with Gamer was easy and comfortable. We declared our love multiple times a day but, because I was well and truly spooked from my experience with Bad Boy, I developed a habit of checking in with myself regularly to look for signs of dysfunction.

I hadn’t yet cut all ties with Bad Boy, and Gamer and I met up with him once for drinks. It was… odd. Being around the two of them at the same time was impossible because it seemed that I was a different person with each of them. And I didn’t like the person I seemed to be around Bad Boy.

One time, Gamer was over late and didn’t want to go home. The complication: I was still living at home (as was he) and I needed permission. I got it. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other and so we had sex, quietly. It was well past bedtime and I figured everyone was asleep. Still, in the morning my mom forbade him from staying over again. I pushed back, feeling pretty confident that I knew what the issue was but, for some reason, willing her to say it out loud. She didn’t. Conversation over.

A subsequent sexual encounter went much better. I was on top and had enough clitoral stimulation that I was able to orgasm during sex (as opposed to oral sex or masturbation) for the first time. Bonus points for perversity: in my mom’s bed.

Then there was the time that I took the ecstasy that Kent had managed to source for me. What I remember most was the overpowering, squirmy desire just to be touched, for hours.

Gamer and I had started with condoms but I eventually decided to go on the pill, so we both went to get checked out, as you do. I was clear. He had HPV and got treated. We ditched the condoms. I got infected. I didn’t know anything about HPV and Gamer hadn’t provided me with any info from his doctor. Did the doctor tell him that he was still contagious? Did he think to tell the doctor that he had a partner and we were looking at dispensing with condoms? Gamer should have had information for me, but there was a communication breakdown at some point and I wasn’t told. I knew it wasn’t deliberate, but I was angry as fuck. I’m still not best pleased. But shit happens, it’s a common infection, and I haven’t had any symptoms in yonks. It’s probably gone from my system, but it’s impossible to know for sure.

About three months into the relationship, which was midway through my last year of university, Gamer had the idea of moving to the big city when I was done my program. And so we did. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but everything about it was challenging: we had a total of four flat tires on our overloaded trailer on the drive out; our crash space arrangement was with a friend who was living with her mother (and I’m not sure the mother had advance notice); it was hard to find a place to live mid-month, the place we found wasn’t great and the neighbors fought loudly; we both had a hard time finding even crappy jobs; our work schedules kept us busy on weekends when our preferred leisure activities were scheduled; we were broke; and we had no family or friends to help us.

Not too long after the move, my feelings towards him cooled, although I still cared about him. The relationship might have fizzled around then anyway, or the stress might have done it. I felt stuck. I couldn’t afford to live on my own, and I couldn’t move home on my own.

By this time sex was infrequent. He pressured me to an extent, enough to put me on my guard, but I also felt guilty and wrong for not wanting it. At one point I confessed to him that I’d fantasized about being with another woman and was concerned about what that meant about my sexual identity. (I now think it wasn’t that I preferred women, it was that I feared male sexuality.)

It was the beginning of a very long ending.

Dark Ages 13: Eventually Ed (again)

[“Dark Ages” is a series wherein I reconsider memories of boyfriends past through the lens of new knowledge and hope to make it worth my while (and not just a depressing trudge down memory lane) by learning something new about myself.]

 

I was spending part of the summer studying in another city. I met a second cousin and his family for the first time, and stayed at their place (and did my laundry) on weekends. There were two daughters, their ages flanking mine by a year on each side. I got on better with the younger one, and I hung out with her and her friends. One of them (Arcturus) and I argued rather a lot, which the group decided was a sign that the two of us were meant for each other.

Late one Saturday night, after we’d been out dancing and drinking, the others decided to make it happen, and in my groggy state I found myself agreeing to stay over with him. We swung past my cousin’s house to pick up my overnight stuff and then they dropped us off at Arcturus’ place. But I wasn’t and never had been interested in him; I’d agreed to the arrangement because I was too tired to think straight and speak my mind, which would have amounted to turning him down publicly. So I got into Arcturus’ bed, turned my back, and tried to get some sleep. Not the most restful night I’ve ever had, although it was spent absolutely chastely, without so much as a kiss. If he was surprised or disappointed, I never knew.

Ed and I had kept in touch through the summer and had a courtship of sorts, involving letters, phone calls, photo-booth photos and a mix-tape. We arranged that I would go visit him for a few days at the end of August, staying with him and his mom. I would fly there and, to save money, catch a ride home with some friends of mine. I was excited.

But when I arrived, I got a chilly reception, and it wasn’t just that the weather was unseasonably cold. When we spent time together he was withdrawn, and instead of conducting a torrid affair or (more likely, given our ages) dating somewhat awkwardly, I felt like I was there to visit his roommate who had forgotten about the arrangements and had gone on holidays without letting me know, and so he was stuck entertaining me. Eventually he confessed that, before I had come out (but, I suspect, after the plane ticket had been bought), he had already decided that he didn’t want a long-distance relationship.

So, rejection. And I was stuck in inhospitable territory for a few days until my friends could rescue me. Awkward, and painful.

Dark Ages 12: Achilles

Most of the rest of that summer was spent in a large city that I’d never visited before, across the country from my hometown. During the week, I lived in a dorm and took a full-time language class. My friends were mostly girls, for a change. Evenings were spent on campus or sometimes downtown. On the weekend, I stayed with relatives in the suburbs.

One Friday morning after class, my friends and I returned to the dorm while two guys (one with long blond hair, one with shorter dark hair) were at the front desk looking into renting rooms for the night. We started chatting: they were hitchhiking and living on a shoestring budget, so even though the rooms were inexpensive, they were very hesitant to part with their cash and were considering sleeping in a park. By this time I’d decided that the blond one was cute and there was some potential here. I sensed the subtext behind their plea for assistance, as well as the way my friends were responding, so said with some confidence that I was sure we could find them some crash space for one night.

It promised to be an excellent day. On Fridays, we only had class in the morning; the optional activity that afternoon was horseback riding and I’d signed up; and my favorite indie band was playing at a bar downtown that night. And then these two guys turned up. At some point, it became apparent that the dark-haired guy, Achilles, was more interested in me than his blond friend was. Fine by me: I found Achilles slightly less cute but he seemed smarter, and I wasn’t feeling overly fussy.

I was the only one of my group who had signed up for the afternoon outing, so I arranged to meet them all downtown, outside the bar. Shortly after I arrived, Achilles and I walked a couple blocks to a fast-food joint to get a large 7-Up to be doctored with vodka, and possibly also some food. On the way there, a prostitute in a short skirt and impossibly high heels called out to Achilles, but she apologized when she realized that he was with me. The sun hadn’t set yet.

The gig was a blast, but it had been a very long day: after a couple hours of horseback riding followed by a couple hours of dancing, I was done, and Achilles and I were the first to head back. Back at the dorm, things progressed as you might expect, and eventually I was confronted with the issue of whether I was going to sleep with him or not. I hadn’t expected to, but in the heat of the moment it seemed like a reasonably good idea. The problem was that neither of us had any condoms and getting some would have been pretty much impossible at that hour. So when he suggested that he’d put it in “just a little”, I agreed. As always, I was very tight (or rather, tense) and was going to need at least a couple minutes to relax. And while I tried to relax, my brain re-engaged and I remembered that putting it in, even “a little”, in the absence of a condom or any other birth control was A Very Stupid Idea, and I called a halt. (He was probably really regretting not having any condoms at that point.) He bedded down on the floor for the night. We spent a bit of the next day together and he saw me off when I got on the bus to go to my relatives’.

A few days later, I found out that one of guys in my class was from the same small city as Achilles and knew him, or knew of him. Achilles was apparently very popular at home (funny how it’s hard to gauge popularity without an entourage to give context), which gave my self-image a boost, but I was also a little concerned he might treat the encounter as a conquest. Not that it mattered much — we never saw each other again.

Dark Ages 11: Brief encounters, guys with accents

About a week after I met Ed, my grandma took me on a trip to England and Wales. We arrived at Heathrow on a Tuesday, took the airport bus into town and checked in at the B&B near some university dorms, then spent a few days seeing some of the sights.

There was a tiny park near our B&B that the students used for tennis and sunbathing. Introverted and awkward at initiating small talk, I somehow managed to approach a group of four and start chatting with them. Maybe I picked this particular bunch because they were smoking a joint at the time, or perhaps the joint came later and was a happy coincidence. Either way, I had drugs on the brain and I had decided that I wanted to try to get my hands on some ecstasy (no, not that kind, the other kind), and I hoped someone here might be able to help me out. That was Saturday.

On Monday, we started our tour of Wales, and stopped for the night in Wrexham. I struck out on my own for a little walk in the early evening because I was fidgety and looking for a little adventure, possibly because I’d spent the better part of the day on a coach with a bunch of retirees. I shunned the quaint, quiet churchyards and headed for signs of life and traffic. And there was traffic. Foreign as the place was to me, somehow it still struck me that there was an awful lot of traffic for such a small place, and it seemed that most of these people were cruising rather than driving to a specific destination. In the process, I met a bloke who asked me if I was “courting”. I denied it, because I believed it to be the correct answer, or at least it was the correct answer for me to give him. In my notes from the trip, I recorded that I had gotten some kind of pleasant male attention in Wrexham (and this encounter wasn’t it), but alas, I have no memory of it. (Maybe some guys looked at me while they drove past, who knows.)

Thursday evening was Cardiff. I found a club and went in, but it was very dead until the pubs let out some time later, so I ended up sat at the bar, drinking strong cider (they didn’t have sweet) and chatting for a good while with a bloke who turned out to be a co-owner, and was about 14 years my senior, with an ex and an 8-year-old child. He taught me the word “squiffy”, which I remember because that’s more or less the state I was in at that point in the evening: slightly buzzed and happy. When I finally dragged myself away, I intended to walk back (it was maybe two blocks away) but he offered me a ride and I accepted. I had a vague feeling that wasn’t a great idea; was I being fretful or was I getting a message from my gut? But he drove me straight back, no funny business. He did give me a goodbye kiss, which, in retrospect, was almost certainly the reason for the ride in the first place. (I imagine he was thinking I was more or less jail-bait.) By the time I finally returned to the room that I shared with my grandma, it was late and dark; she had turned out the light and gone to bed but hadn’t fallen asleep yet (probably kept awake with worry). And I was somewhat drunk. Smooth.

We returned to London on Saturday, and back to the same neighborhood. It was probably that day or the next when I ran into Kent, one of the lads I had met at the little park. Kent was medium height, slim, with shaggy blond hair and a pleasantly laid back demeanor. We started hanging out.

My grandma was a little put out with this arrangement, probably because I was spending time with him instead of her and she was a little anxious that I was out in London on my own. But Kent was sweet (even my grandma thought so) and showed me some parts of London that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, such as Primrose Hill near the London Zoo.

My grandma and I had another jaunt, this time to the Midlands for a few days. I didn’t manage to meet anyone on this side trip, probably because we were hanging around with her equally elderly friends in a little village. After that, it was back to London one last time.

Late May, afternoon light. His dorm room, in a characterless block almost across the street from my hotel. Summery heat, bright sunshine. Sitting on his bed in a state of undress, and him down to his boxers. “You wanna?” he asks, refreshingly directly. “Not really,” I cheerfully reply.

And then there was that time in London when, late one night, I very quietly masturbated while my grandma was in the other twin bed, just on the other side of the night stand. Um, yeah.

In my sparse notes, I managed to record a little non-trip related angst. Four months after Bad Boy and I had broken up, I was still entertaining the idea that we’d be getting back together even though I had realized by this point that I felt like shit when I was with him. Drummer had given me some earplugs and I’d used them on a particularly noisy flight. I mused about Ed but had already cooled towards him, though things would warm again later, at least a little.