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 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 7: Bad Boy (still) and Dude

As payback for the oral he’d done for me before, Bad Boy manipulated me into giving my first blowjob. He pushed and pushed, and I eventually gave in. It was in his car, on a muddy dirt road outside of town. Afterwards, we had to turn the car around and we ended up getting stuck in the mud, so I got home quite late, and my dad was pissed off and waiting to have an argument with me when I got back. Fun times.

Things got weird(er) with Bad Boy and I started to not recognize myself. During the summer, we had a major fight and ended up half-dressed and shouting at each other in the street. I had always been bookish and reserved (still am). What the fuck? He made me crazy.

Sometimes when I was with him I got upset and frustrated. I don’t remember what would set me off, but I’d feel like I wanted to say something or do something but I was frozen, like all the words piled into each other at the back of my throat and none could get out, or maybe there just were no words. I was thrumming with trapped energy and frustration, feeling overwhelmed. To bring myself back to my body and sensations that I could manage, I’d usually punch a wall. One time when I was already worked up, he said my behavior embarrassed him. That only increased my frustration and explosive emotions. (We were out and there was no wall. Things might have taken a different trajectory if I’d punched him.) I’ve never had this kind of interaction with any other boyfriend before or since.

For a long time, I felt like I needed to be with someone, but at some point I started feeling like it had to be him. That was new. And weird, because I wasn’t actually that happy being with him. It was almost like an addiction.

Around Christmas, I ran into Dude (remember him from that New Year’s Eve party?) and we hung out a bit. He came over and we sat on the couch and talked. He started to put the moves on rather aggressively, so I backed away and told him I had a boyfriend, but he wasn’t deterred. (He should have listened to and respected my words, but now I wonder if my doubts about my relationship with Bad Boy made me sound unconvincing.) Dude insisted on kissing me, at which point I pushed him away. It wasn’t pleasant but at least he got the message, backed off and left.

I’d had a birthday recently and was now legal drinking age. My interest in drinking immediately waned; I suppose most of the appeal was the rule-breaking. Then I found out that an acquaintance was doing acid and suddenly that seemed like a great idea. Bad Boy helped me source it and was there when I dropped for the first time. Once (the first time?), he wanted to have sex but I didn’t and told him no. He said I wouldn’t remember it, and I gave in. Well, I remembered everything, including the fact that I didn’t want to and I didn’t enjoy it.

(Years later, I learned that it was sexual assault because intoxicated consent isn’t valid consent. I felt shitty about it all over again: I’m now a victim, a statistic. I agonized about whether to report it but never bothered, and now I know it would never have gone to trial anyway. I’ve come to terms with it all, at least.)

I dropped acid 4 times in the space of 5 weeks because suddenly I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do on a weekend, which freaked me out a little. I felt trapped — not really by the relationship (although that must have been a big part of it), but by life generally.

I also got sick: I developed a bunch of canker sores all over my tongue and the inside of mouth. I could barely eat because everything was either too sharp or too acidic, and I could barely talk because the feeling of my tongue against the inside of my mouth was too painful. The doctor never did figure out what it was. I wonder if it was from stress.

Eventually, Bad Boy and I decided to take another “break” though we continued to hang out sometimes. For a while, I fully expected that we would get back together, but we never did. That was a bullet dodged, but I wasn’t out of the woods yet.

Dark Ages 4: Small Town and a busy New Year’s Eve

I must have met Small Town in the fall of my first year of university; I don’t remember, nor do I remember much else about him either. I was interested in him because I was alone and he was interested in me. Even then, that seemed like a poor reason.

Small Town was about three years older than me, with a young and very unplanned child in his ex’s custody. He liked to go to the bar. (My first underage drink had been with Tall a few months earlier at a restaurant, and a little while later we got into a bar. Tall facilitated my meagre underage drinking but never had a drink himself; I got a mild buzz and felt like an idiot.) With Small Town, I got into the bar despite still being underage, drank and even enjoyed it a bit.

I slept with him a few times during our two months together. I wasn’t a virgin, and in a relationship you have sex, right? ‘Sex’ and ‘should’ again.

By the end of December, I was over it. Truthfully, I had never been into it in the first place. I stopped by his place early in the evening on New Year’s Eve, we had our talk, and I was a free agent in time for the parties that evening.

Party number 1 was at Buddy’s place. I had met Buddy a year or two earlier and we been friends for a few months. Eventually I figured out that he was interested in me, but for once I didn’t reciprocate at all. Still, he kept hanging around expectantly. At Buddy’s party, I met Dude. I enjoyed chatting with him, but it didn’t go anywhere.

At party number 2, I met Bad Boy. He was good looking, confident and flirty. I was hooked.

In the space of less than six hours, I had broken up with Small Town, missed or ignored two opportunities in the form of Buddy and Dude, and thought I’d made out well when I ran into Bad Boy. Little did I know the direction things would take from there…

Dark Ages 3: Tall and Drift

Tall was 6’2” (a full foot taller than me), athletic, good looking, with a shock of thick black hair — he looked like a model. And he was smart.

An early winter evening, we’re alone at my place. I very deliberately complain about my sore shoulders. Taking the bait, he tells me he had taken a course on massage — a lie. But he thought he needed some justification beyond my hinted invitation. Perhaps he honestly believed that the massage was his idea…

He had a curfew (the only person I knew who did) but snuck out of the house routinely to be with me. His place was about a 15-minute walk away (at my pace), but because of his long legs and the fact that he always jogged when he came over, it only took him about 5 minutes. He literally ran to me! He was a good guy, I thought I was in love, and maybe I was.

[Around this time, my mom informed me that she was pregnant, which didn’t seem to have been planned. She took this opportunity to tell me that she would “take me to the doctor” if I wanted. I got her drift, more or less. She didn’t seem to be overjoyed about the pregnancy, and she sure as hell didn’t want to be there talking to me about sex. Mortified, I declared that I was still a virgin; it was the best possible answer to an awful and unstated question. This conversation probably could have been somewhat more awkward, but I’m not sure how…]

In late spring, a group of us drove to a nearby city for the weekend to attend a high school drama festival. Who knows what the accommodation arrangements had been, but Tall and I conspired to be by ourselves in a room together one afternoon. A first for both of us: we tried to have sex. Although this was something we had both chosen, I was much too uncomfortable and tense and dry. ‘Sex’ came to the party with ‘should’ again, and they both ended up acting like assholes.

We successfully lost our virginity to each other on Mothers’ Day. (In subsequent years, I’ve repeatedly had the devilish thought of sending him a card.) Of the act itself, I don’t remember anything beyond thinking “this is not great at all”, and probably “why do people like this?” We were in the basement at his place, and his older brother came home around the time we finished. Tall shouted “Don’t come downstairs!” a couple of times, and he didn’t, but we couldn’t have been much more obvious. I’m fairly sure he smirked at us later.

Tall kept coming to my place after curfew and we’d just hang out. Things were cooling off — physically or emotionally or both, I’m not sure — but at the time I assumed that not wanting to be physical meant I had fallen out of love. (I now recognize it for a sexual shame pattern.) We were together for about 7 months, then agreed to split when he went to his dad’s for a month during the summer. I was choked when he met a girl on the plane and started seeing her immediately. I imagined, in vain, that we might get back together when he came back to town. I don’t know whether I was hurt because I was in love or because of the sting of rejection.

That summer, I got a bit part in a community theatre musical and met Drift. We flirted, drifted together, had some pleasant times, drifted apart again. This relationship was uniquely low-key. I have only one clear memory of him:

At my place, on my bed, in the dark. He’s sitting cross-legged and I’m sitting on him. We’re making out, I grind gently on his erection. No pressure, no ‘should’, just… nice.

I never knew him well, but I don’t think we had much in common. It probably happened because I wanted to be with someone and he was there.

Ah, high school. The events are generally bland, the emotions intense, and many of the memories cringe-worthy. For better or worse, things got more interesting in university.

Dark Ages 2: Lucas and Guitarist

Lucas and I had become good friends. And then…

Late summer nights, black velvet sky, occasional glimpses of northern lights. Hanging out with friends who didn’t know what we were up to. Exchanging secret, knowing glances. We should, we shouldn’t… Should we?

In the late summer, a few months after First moved away, Lucas started going out. I broke it off about three weeks in because I didn’t want to ruin the friendship, but we couldn’t keep our hands off each other and were back together a week later.

I think Lucas must have been the first guy to give me oral, but I’m embarrassed to say that I have no recollection of the event. At some point I got in my head that we would have sex (not that I particularly wanted to); I told him and he bought condoms, but it never happened. Just as well: this was the first (but certainly not the last) time I connected ‘sex’ with ‘should’, and put pressure on myself. I don’t know why Lucas was ‘should’ while First had been ‘shouldn’t’ — maybe because we got along better?

Perhaps I realized deep down that we were better suited to be friends, but when I broke up with him after three months, the timing was entirely down to the fact that I wanted to pursue someone else.

I tried out for the school musical for the first time and got a lead role. Blondie was the other female lead and her boyfriend, Guitarist, also had a major role. I got to know him, spent time with him.

Just the two of us at his place, an older house with wooden floors. Chilly night outside. The warm glow of lamplight inside. I sat on the shabby couch. He sat beside me on the floor, playing guitar and singing a song that he had written, sometimes looking into my eyes. I almost believed that he had written it for me.

He told me that he and Blondie had split; I dumped Lucas to date him. For three days.

Guitarist and I went to a party at Blondie’s house, and he dumped me. Another first. I was gutted, the emotional pain so intense that I figured it must be love and told him so (cringe). He was back with Blondie the next day. In my agony, I skipped school.

Of course I hadn’t loved him and I may not have even liked him all that much. It was the flat rejection that knocked me on my ass, regardless of the source. As excruciating as it was at the time, I had almost completely forgotten about him and being dumped — how’s that for perspective?