When I ditched the bad boyfriend habit, I found myself.
I believed in soulmates and thought Pablo was mine. One, because we were both sober, and two, because he owned as many books as I did. When I’d spotted him on the train reading a philosophy book “just for fun,” I asked him out on the spot. He said yes.
Once we started dating, Pablo sent me Mark Strand poems. He said, “May I kiss you?” before leaning into me. I fell hard for him, and even harder for all the things I projected onto him: potential, emotional stability, sexual availability. I downplayed each fact that cut against my projections. Like his habit of playing video games for hours every night. The dead-end job he hated that didn’t quite cover the bills. His aversion to touch.
By month three, I’d begun to beg him to turn away from the computer while we talked. By month six, I was in the humbling position of begging him to have sex once a week, even though we were both able-bodied thirty-somethings who professed to like each other. In month seven, I paid his rent.
I should have let go sooner, but my reasons for staying seemed sound at the time. I was a sober woman over 30 who’d fallen for the cultural lie that I was nearing my expiration date as a viable partner. Every other single guy I knew either drank to excess or was an avowed commitment-phobe. There was no convincing me that I could find a better match than Pablo. Instead of breaking up, I tried to be less needy, to stop wanting so much. I doubled up on 12-step meetings, leaned on my friends. I asked Pablo for as little as possible.
In hindsight, it sounds dismal. But at the time, it was the best relationship I’d ever had. When he wasn’t on the computer, Pablo laughed at my jokes and drove me to work. The guy I dated before Pablo was clinically depressed and wouldn’t leave his darkened apartment for days on end. The one before him worked 80-hour weeks and spent his scant free time in dive bars discussing The Replacements discography. The one before him, my college boyfriend, sold weed out of his off-campus apartment. Next to his predecessors, Pablo was a catch.
I was determined to hold on. I didn’t want to fail, and I didn’t want to be alone.
A cab driver was the first person I told. We were speeding down a deserted Lake Shore Drive as the sun was rising over Lake Michigan.
“I’m breaking up with my boyfriend,” I said. The cabbie turned down the radio and asked me why.
My voice broke as I explained that I’d just come from the hospital where my best friend had given birth to a luminous baby boy. “I was right there in the room. You should have seen him—so wriggly, so vital.” The driver handed me a tissue and said he was sure that I too could become a “great mother” one day.
I stared at the defiant sunrise and admitted to myself and the cab driver that if I wanted any part of what I’d experienced in the previous 12 hours—the birth, the baby, the family—then I couldn’t stay with Pablo.
The night before Clara’s wedding we gathered in the party room at Joe’s Crab Shack for Champagne toasts and seafood. Pablo agreed to come with me, even though we’d pretty much officially broken up by then. I’d stopped tromping over to his apartment after work to watch him play video games. I’d stopped asking him if he was interested in sex. By then, I’d bundled up each request and slid them between the slats of my ribs.
And damn, wouldn’t you know that when I stopped asking—providing the fumes for our mismatched hearts to sputter along—we had nothing left to say. We certainly had nothing left to fight over once I stopped pestering him with my audacious wants.
No more will you have dinner with me.
No more will you be my plus-one for this boring work thing in a cool venue.
No more will you show me your face, your heart, your body.
No more No, No, No, No.
There he was across the table, our first time in public in weeks. I’m not saying I ignored him, but what’s the right word? What’s the word for paying exquisite attention to the buttery sea bass filet melting on my tongue? For studying the tang of the Caesar dressing with the salty pinch of anchovy? For savoring the night air on my shoulder? What do you call spending an entire meal attuned to the cracked pepper under your incisor, the heft of the cloth napkin in your lap?
What do you call it when you finally bring your focus to your own scalp, throat, elbows, neck, belly, breasts, legs?
Was I really ignoring Pablo or finally not deserting myself?
“What’s different about you?” he asked as Clara’s mother passed us a tray of cannoli and tiramisu.
I laughed at the way he was squinting at my face, and then told him I’d I was sick of wearing mascara. “After 17 years of L’Oreal Paris Voluminous, I’m done. For fuck’s sake, I’m not in Texas anymore.”
He told me I looked “fifty to one hundred times hotter” without it. I wanted to say:
I don’t care what you think.
Thanks for noticing something for once.
Too bad so sad.
Instead I focused on twisting fettuccine strands around my fork, dragging them through the sauce to really coat them, and slowly filling my mouth with richness, flavor, and full-fat hope.
After dessert, I walked him to the subway and leaned on the grimy red rail. We watched drunk Cubs fans falling out of Rock Bottom Brewery’s revolving door. We knew I wasn’t driving him home like I used to. We knew I had changed, and it wasn’t just the mascara. We knew that the parts of me willing to quietly suffer had slipped away.
Pablo leaned in to kiss me—really kiss me—with a hungry tongue and something approaching genuine longing for the first time in months. Maybe ever. I leaned into him, tasting his after-dinner mint, his lost-ness, his isolation, his “I want to be alone.” I tasted him but felt myself: My belly expanding to its edges. The small of my back in his palm. The slick thrill between my legs. I was hungry, but not for the chase he was offering. I put him on the train and gave him directions to the church for the next day.
Clara’s wedding day was a flawless blue-silk-sky day. Chicago only gets four a year, and we were awed by our luck. A woman with a round metal brush gave us all up-dos. When it was my turn, I said, “Ouch, that hurts,” for the first time in my life. I smiled like a drugged dental patient as she switched to a soft brush and coaxed my fine strands up, up, up.
We carried Clara’s veil. We marched in straight lines. We helped Clara’s grandmother find the powder room. I sobbed with clean abandon through my naked eyelashes when the bagpipes played “Amazing Grace”—its wheezing bellows chiming inside my half-Irish heart, the thrum of a buried lullaby.
Pablo found me in the church courtyard after the ceremony, and I tried not to notice his wrinkled suit and his flat affect. I put my hand on his lapel and said a prayer of gratitude, literally a Thank You God for letting him be the one who greets with the world with a “No,” who turns his back on life so he can be alone with a book or hunched over the computer. For letting him have his shit, which was not my shit. I’d tried to fuck and spend and love the stasis and isolation away from him, but in the end, they were his to keep.
At the reception, we feasted on pea shoots and asparagus and pink salmon in caper sauce. We delighted in buttercream-frosted cake. Pablo found me on the dance floor, long after I’d lost my shoes and my up-do. I was drunk on joy and all that mocha frosting. He was holding a book, Greek Philosophy, Thales to Aristotle; he wanted to go home and read it.
The last of our fumes had burned away to nothing. There were two thousand years of thinking between us and no more kisses. He tucked a napkin into Aristotle to mark his page and left before the moon was full blaze.
I danced with the flirty groomsman who had rosy cheeks and military-short hair. I begged the band to play Michael Jackson and when the opening riff of “Beat It” pealed through the air, I cried real tears of absurd pleasure. Sure as shit I moonwalked across that dance floor even though I was barefoot and wearing a long taffeta dress, the hem of which was coming unstitched. Everything I needed was right in front of me. Turns out I didn’t need my shoes, and I no longer believed in soulmates.
Christie Tate (@christieotate) is a Chicago writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Hippocampus, Nailed Magazine, and others.