Meanwhile—as the search for the One continues, in a romantic landscape that is bleak, unaccommodating, sometimes downright hostile—the Discarded keep turning up like bad pennies. I’ve learned not to erase their contact information from my phone, to avoid being unpleasantly surprised when I check messages from unknown numbers only to hear voices I thought were long- and definitively-banished.
The Discarded comprise only a handful, and, for the sake of my ethical sensibility and dignity, I’m grateful that there are fewer of them than of those who have cast me aside as unfit for their own idiosyncratic reasons. But while their numbers are hardly legion, they have all taken on a demonic character nevertheless (well, let’s not give them more credit than they deserve: perhaps “malicious spirit” or “poltergeist” would be more accurate than “demon”).
These are not the truly good ones, those men with wonderful qualities, who seemed to like me but whom I couldn’t like as well in return. No, these are the ones who—as A, always the less equivocal one, would put it—are on the KUD list (that would be Kick Until Dead). I don’t wish any of them actual harm, but their distasteful presence in memory and imagination provokes the kind of deep, abiding, unforgiving resentment that could take on corporeal form to haunt the depths of Middle-Earthly mines and catacombs.
For each of the Discarded, there was some combination of factors which made dating them, at minimum, lost time. In the worst cases, I ended up hurt and offended in the moment, then ashamed and angry at myself for not being more savvy and more outspoken sooner, and, finally, unable to enjoy any memory of time spent with them afterward. I don’t believe in regret, in general, particularly when I know I was trying to act in good faith throughout. So what’s the right name for experiences, the memory of which induces first a flicker of amalgamated hurt, offense, indignation, irritation, self-recrimination—and then demands to be forcibly shoved aside and deliberately repressed?
First, there was the guy from Davis Square. He has a lot of good qualities, really! He also has fantastically poor executive function—no judgment, no impulse control. Faced with a decision between two options–“beneficial” versus “absurdly self-destructive” –he launches himself at the latter with enthusiastic, delusional, righteousness. In my defense, I had grave reservations about him from the beginning, but couldn’t resist the attention he paid me. Luckily for me, my relationship with him was effectively, necessarily, ended when, while I was out of town, he slept with another woman, got evicted from his apartment, and then, in the ensuing brawl with his roommate/ex-girlfriend, allegedly tried to strangle her, and was jailed for several months for attempted homicide.
While he was in jail (which was several months, as he couldn’t, suspiciously, make bail), he wrote me long, rambling letters (with, as one friend marveled, lovely penmanship and no cross-outs!) where he alternated between excusing his behavior, denying it, accusing me for deserting him, and asking me to send him books. I was aghast: my parents didn’t raise their daughter to receive mail post-marked “Suffolk County Jail.” I found it hard to believe this man criminally violent; I found it very easy to believe that his life could spin so wildly out of control. I was relieved to be clear of him.
But then, several months later, when he was finally released, he called and texted a couple of times: “Hey, I know I was a jerk, but maybe we could get together and talk things through?” Not knowing how to use my phone as one, I tried to block his number. To my horror, I rang him by accident; fumbling to stop it, time slowed down, and I watched as the phone tumbled in slow motion in the air for long seconds before I could grasp it and shut if off. Too late. Immediately, creepily, the text showed up: “you rang…?”
Then there was the one from New Hampshire, who cooked steak for me and brought me a very nice pearl bracelet from a business trip to Japan. In his mind, he was very good at taking care of me. He was also paranoid, misogynistic, homophobic, jealous, and controlling. I had to wait for him to gallantly open the car door for me. And if I absent-mindedly let myself out, he would tsk-tsk me, and have me sit back down until he came around to hand me out. We could have (cheap) wine with dinner together, but if he phoned me, he would ask “are you having wine right now? that’s bad for you, you know. Very high in calories.” He gave me “helpful” advice about abdominal exercises. I asked him what problems led to his divorce. “My wife was unhappy because she wasn’t aging as well as I am. She looks her age (late 50s), and I look after myself so well I look like I’m in my 30s. I tried to help her, but she didn’t appreciate it.” I’ll bet she didn’t appreciate it, I thought. Finally, he saw a photo of me from a few years ago and said, “you’ve gained weight—you look much smaller there.”
(And one of the many things which make me angry at myself is that I went out with several men who never said an admiring or kind thing about my appearance, and I never realized it until this moment of extremity. Never again).
So that was the end of him. But he called me a few months later, to see how I was doing, doubtless motivated by a concern for all the weight I was gaining without him around to direct my behavior. I didn’t answer. Then, I was out just recently, enjoying myself, dancing, when he materialized in front of me like someone had said his name three times quickly. I wished desperately for a box of salt, to draw a circle of protection around myself. No such luck; the fiend must be confronted. He asked if we could talk; I looked meaningfully back at my friends, imploring them telepathically to get in the way. They thought I was being hit upon and were waving and making encouraging faces at me behind the guy’s back. He asked me why I hadn’t returned his phone call of months earlier. Invoking Jane Eyre, I thought to myself, “Speak I must…” and defiantly said, “because I figured you were calling to check on how many calories I’d taken in that day.” He was shocked, wounded I would think such a thing—not because he cared about my feelings, but because he didn’t want me doubting his manly nobility. I went on, “You called me fat. I wasn’t interested in hearing that again.” I extricated myself, returned to my friends on the dance floor, never so grateful for Taylor Swift as I was in that moment, needing badly to Shake. It. Off.
Then there was the sociopath from Lowell, who actually attempted to gaslight me (that is, he would say/do things, then deny that he did, then suggest I might be crazy for misconstruing his behavior as such). He negged me. He went on a long recitation about why tattoos are inauthentic and pretentious. “I’m not criticizing yours in particular, I just don’t know why anyone would defile their body in that way, and imperialistically appropriate the ritual practices of other cultures. But yours are quite tasteful.” He frequently started diatribes with “You women all do/think X…” (note to self: the next time any man says “all of you women…” get up and leave at once).
In our last phone conversation, he said he was having trouble getting to know me because I was inauthentic and robotic. Perhaps I was demonstrating a certain amount of watchful reserve and self-protective diffidence—which is completely reasonable when confronted with his manipulative and offensive behavior. I’m proud of myself that I had the sense to recognize what he was doing, and got out while the getting was good. But I was pretty badly bruised by that one, and felt as though I’d brushed up against something truly noxious.
That was a couple of years ago. But then I got a message from him just the other day:
Hi [P2], how are you doing? OKC keeps showing me your picture, so I took it as a sign 🙂
Lot’s has happened and a lot has changed with me. I’m practically your neighbor now, I’m living in Brookline Village. I was just wondering if you would like to get a drink together sometime. In any case, hope you are well.
—[Horrible Sociopath from Lowell]
I could have just let it go—lots of reasons to do that. On the other hand, I was furious with him, and with myself for putting up with it as long I did. Horrible people get that way because others let them. When we don’t call them out for their behavior—from the clumsy to the truly harmful, even malicious—we teach them it’s ok to keep doing it. This was my line in the sand. Invoking Jean-Luc Picard this time (in turn invoking, who—Melville?), I thought: “this far and no farther!”
It’s a sign of something all right….mainly that OKC is purgatory and my memory is better than yours.
In the handful of dates we had, you didn’t treat me with any kindness, or even interest beyond the use of my body, and the use of my car to help you move. The last time we spoke on the phone you called me robotic and inauthentic. I hope that lots (no apostrophe) has truly changed for you indeed.
Now that I’m thinking of it, I should have added—you’re a horrible sociopath, and while I don’t wish you any actual harm, I wouldn’t be sorry if you spent a terrible weekend fearing for your life after a doctor’s office called with the STI results and just left an enigmatic message: “your results are in. We should really talk about them in person. Give us a call Monday. Have a great weekend—byeee!”
Then most recently there was poor old Mr. Collins. He wasn’t coping well with the breakup and wanted me back. He also really, really wanted to put me in my place.
If you have already found your perfect guy then disregard my offer [to get back together]. But if not, then I invite you to consider what is arguably the most important contribution of social psychology — namely the “fundamental attribution error.” I presume that you are already familiar with it. But in case you are not, the FAE refers to the tendency to assume that the behavior of others is best explained by their traits rather than their situation. I feel like you came to a decision about our relationship without a full understanding of my situation. I wish that I had been more forthcoming about that. There are many things you still don’t know. I wish that you had tried more conversation about what was on your mind before coming to a unilateral decision about our relationship. You didn’t really give me sufficient time to try to explain or respond. I don’t think that was really fair or an ideal way to handle things.
Ah well, probably water under the proverbial bridge but I do think of you as an extremely rare find and thus worth making a little extra effort to let you know that I don’t consider you disposable. Old fashioned I know, but true.
One friend, after reading that exchange, exclaimed, “He really likes you!” Which made me feel kind of badly about hurting his feelings. Except that 1) my feelings wouldn’t be improved by going out with someone I couldn’t really get excited about and 2) my feelings were being hurt by this childish, passive-aggressive lashing out (and I’m glad I saw him at his worst, because it makes me feel like my gut instinct, that this was not the right path for me, was right):
You cite the FAE. Thank you for the tutorial…My decision was based partly on instinct, but also based on experience, insight, sound critical thinking, and the counsel of my good friends. Most importantly, it was my decision to make. Nevertheless, in just one paragraph in your email, you make a bid to win me back, while simultaneously admonishing and condescending to me, and suggesting that I’m somehow lacking the mental, ethical, and/or intellectual capacity to make good relationship decisions. Which begs the question: why do you want to be with someone whose character and intellect you think is flawed? And since my character and intellect are just fine, thanks, why would I want to be with someone who thinks they’re not?
On the bright side, all of these experiences have taught me a lot, including the very vital lesson that I have good instincts which won’t steer me wrong. I’ve grown tremendously….blah blah blah. Sure, there’s a bright side—no, you know what? There hasn’t been. These experiences have been, to varying degrees, horrible.
I’m not supposed to care, none of us is. Because, haven’t you heard? Dating is just a big ol’ game, we’re all just in it to have fun. If we don’t end up with Prince Charming, then at least we can dine out on our witty anecdotes about all of our crazy-but-true misadventures. And if our feelings get hurt, that’s our own fault for not being tough enough, for taking things too seriously. “Can’t you take a joke? Don’t be so sensitive!” Nonsense. To quote Lady Mary, “That’s the bully’s defense,” used to justify every kind of insult, every instance where a grown-up has, not just the choice, but the obligation to be kind, respectful of both self and others—and instead acts with childish selfishness and pettiness.
I’d say I’m completely fed up—because there are moments when I, and all my single friends, male and female, sure feel that way—but then, what can one do, give up and sink into spinsterly decrepitude amongst the clutter of the Discarded? What a grim fate that would be. So one must keep making the effort. And yet, that effort seems terribly, noxiously inefficient, and I can’t abide inefficiency.
And of course, as I write this, I’m on my way out for yet another first date. Ever the optimist, me! But I also just had my Tarot cards read, which revealed the presence in either my present or my future of romantic obstacles. There may be more Discards along the way. At least fore-warned is fore-armed: I’ll keep my wits sharp…and I might just surreptitiously draw a circle of salt around my bar stool…