Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Truth About Love: "I'm Too Old For This"

Last night I got the news that a member of my class at Smith had passed away. She was my age, I think—35—and she had a husband and two small children. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, she was pregnant. She started chemo while she was still pregnant and had her daughter a little early so she could start her second round.

My classmate worked at her job as director of development at a nonprofit right up until the day before her daughter was born, very small, but in perfect health. She fought her cancer with chemo. Then radiation. And a mastectomy. In January, she wrote to our class secretary to report that she still had six weeks of daily radiation and then, if that went well, reconstructive surgery. "It hasn't been so bad," she said. "Radiation should be a piece of cake compared to chemo."

"The kids are great," she wrote. "So much fun and getting bigger every day. I just took [my daughter] to the doctors for her second flu shot and she is now 90% for height! She's catching up to her brother and it looks like we'll have two tall kids. So relieved that she's perfectly healthy."

It did not sound as if she had any idea that in just over six months, two months after her daughter's first birthday, she'd be gone. As I understand it, she received the news that her cancer had metastasized to her liver and bones just over one week before she passed away. Until that news came, I think she and her family believed she was getting better.

I didn't know this woman as an undergrad, but as President of the class, I was among the first to be informed, thanks to a friend of my classmate who reached out to our class Secretary. It fell to me to make decisions, and after consulting our class Secretary, I felt it was best to immediately inform the class via e-mail, so that anyone who might want to attend the wake and/or funeral today or tomorrow could do so.

I spent my morning phoning funeral homes and churches and cemeteries to confirm the dates and times I'd been given. When I called the Alumnae House to find out if they had any recommendations or restrictions about protocol, I was told they would have to call me back; no one had ever done such a thing. In the end, the person in charge agreed that this was a special exception and gave me a green light to notify my class via e-mail.

While I didn't know this woman personally, her death has nudged open the door to a cellar full of sadness in my heart. It piles up in there, like the garbage when sanitation workers are on strike. When the door is wedged open, the thick swampy air clogs my lungs and stings my eyes. It makes me irritable. I feel upset, swimming in leachate and dizzy; my chest and my head throb with grief. I wanted to scream today, but I had no place to do so. I wanted to punch and kick and break things, but I had no place to do so. Today was the first time since I left there last fall that I missed the heavy bag that used to hang in the dingy basement of my old apartment.

I know that death happens to everyone; I have always known this. I know that one in four American women will get breast cancer. I know that I am lucky it wasn't me. But my good fortune at having cancer-free breasts is an erstwhile friend; it may have cheered me on some bygone days, but today, I just keep thinking about her children, and her husband, and her friends--and my friends. I keep thinking about her and what it must have been like to realize she would have to say goodbye and leave her children motherless. I think of this and I ache. I feel a sharp pain in my heart, like a nail driven into the flesh between my ribs. My jaw and my brow are sore from holding back tears. I can't let them come or they will drown me. I still wish I could scream.

Everyone dies. I know that I am never too young or too old to be next. I have already lost two friends from college and one from high school (ALS, brain cancer, suicide). At 35, I often feel old. I feel how quickly my reproductive years are slipping down the drain. I know how rapidly my earning years are dying on the vine. I see how quickly my skin is aging in certain spots where I've gotten too much sun. Even my little breasts are beginning to sag. And yet, despite how old I usually feel, when I thought of my classmate getting sick and dying, I felt an awareness of my youth that came on so quickly it made me lose my breath, like the moment you realize how close you came to going over the edge of something or getting hit by a car—snatch! Suck in your breath. That was close. I'm still here. We're so young. So terrifyingly young.

And yet, I've been dating someone who is more than ten years my junior. I was a lesbian in my twenties, so I missed out on this phase—men in their twenties—almost entirely. He's hot. I don't mind saying it. He has an ass more scrumptious than a cupcake. And muscles that make me melt. And yet…he conducts most of our relationship (if you could call it that) via text message or, occasionally, via e-mail. And this makes me feel old. And cranky. Like an old lady fussing about how fast the cars move nowadays. (But seriously--text messages?? YGBKM!)

I probably should have known from the beginning that we weren't a good match. We met in a bar, which is, I'm guessing, not how most love stories with happy endings begin. At the end of the night, he apologized for asking for my number. "I'm sorry to even ask you this…" he said. I found it an odd but endearing approach, so I gave him my card.

It took him a week to get in touch. And instead of calling, he e-mailed and said that he had just realized he'd forgotten to e-mail me. "I just remembered I forgot you," is not exactly romance on caliber with Lloyd Dobler. But I e-mailed back. And gave him my number. And over the course of the next few months, he filled up my cell phone's inbox with flirtatious text messages sent just before closing at whatever bar he was at—a behavior I never rewarded.

Eventually, we made it out for an actual date. He took me for drinks and then karaoke. Unfortunately, I drank too much and couldn't drive home. He drove me home in my car and once we got there, I started vomiting almost immediately. My roommate drove him home. It took three days to recover. It was like I had the flu or food poisoning.

On our second date, I tore my ACL. He invited me to play volleyball with him and some friends. I tried to get out of it. I was just feeling really sad about Calvin. But he convinced me to go. On the last point of the last game, I slipped in the acrylic house paint his friends had used to create lines for the court in their backyard. It'll be at least a year before I'm walking normally, a year of painful, tedious physical therapy and, it seems, reconstructive surgery.

On our third date, a moth flew into my ear and a skunk moved into my basement. On our fourth date, I thought we were going out alone, and then at the last minute, he invited everyone he knew via an Evite to join him as he celebrated his new job. I thought we were having a date; he thought he was having a party.

I've been practicing being more direct and honest in my communication, so I let him know that I had thought we'd be going out alone—on a date--and that I was disappointed by the Evite because I thought he and I had plans. We worked it out—via e-mail—and I joined him and his friends late in the night and had an okay time. It was the last day of the Year of Healing. He stayed over.

The next night he took me to a movie and we spent almost all of that weekend together. It was fun for me to have affection, someone to go to brunch with, a date. I told my friend Megan afterwards that it was such a nice change to date someone who was emotionally and physically available. It's been more than a decade since that happened for me. (In retrospect, this is, of course, an hysterically funny observation because of how wrong I was--LOL!—but, when I said it, I thought it was true; it's how he seemed.)

After our weekend together, though, he disappeared. He didn't call or e-mail. I got proactive and invited him to do something, but he didn't answer my e-mail.

After almost a week, I sent him an e-mail and asked if he had gotten my e-mail inviting him to get together. He said he had. I pointed out that an honorable person would not sleep with a girl and then ignore her for a week. He responded, via e-mail, to say "Acknowledged." But he didn't apologize. Eventually, he sent me a text message, saying he was "sorry, if it seemed like he was blowing me off." I wanted to tell him to go to hell, but I'm practicing reigning in my disappointment and not walloping people over the head with it, especially people who are trying to be nice to me. So, I texted him back and said, "Thanks." And I told him where I was. But, I never heard from him. (He claimed later he never got my text, but honestly, even if he didn't, shouldn't he have followed up?)

After nearly two weeks without seeing him, talking to him, or planning another date, I decided the only thing I really wanted was to know why. I asked him to meet me and he agreed. We sat on a bench overlooking a pond and I asked him to tell me why he disappeared. I told him he could be honest with me. The answer didn't really matter, I just really wanted to know what had happened so I could stop wondering.

He denied that he had disappeared. His defense: "But I texted you!"

I think for anyone my age—perhaps anyone at all—if the phrase "but I texted you" works its way into an important conversation about the future (or past) of your relationship, you can generally assume it's a bad sign. Of course, you might also assume that vomiting, severed ligaments, ambulance rides, insects in your ear, and/or vermin in your basement are bad signs, too. I, on the other hand, soldiered on.

"A text message, in response to my e-mail asking why you'd ignored my first e-mail does not really count as not disappearing," I said, feeling like I was (totally) stating the obvious. "You just seem to have lost interest. And that's fine. That's your choice. But I'd just really like to know why, because you seemed really interested. And you stuck around through all of that crap, all the injuries and debacles, and you gave me the impression you were a good guy, but then, once you'd slept with me, you disappeared. I mean, is this just some sort of clever shtick? You act like a nice guy—totally convincing--you don't make a move until the fifth date, then spend the whole weekend with the girl, before disappearing into the ether?"

"No," he said. "It was not a shtick. I'm an honest person."

"Yeah," I said. "But your saying that isn't helpful. A liar could sit here and say the same thing. It's what you do that really matters. And what you did was disappear."

Eventually, he admitted that he had, in fact, disappeared. He said he had done so because he was easily distracted, his life was busy and (this I had to pull out of him)…he was afraid of my expectations.

"And how do you know what my expectations are, exactly?"

"I don't know…I just assumed that you wanted…"

My left eyebrow shot up toward my brow and I looked at him like he was an abominable idiot. He had never asked what I wanted. I watched as it dawned on him that he could have simply asked me, instead of running away. It was clear that this thought had not occurred to him. He just assumed that I wanted him, really wanted him for some serious relationship. (Is there a text message symbol for "asshole?")

"For the record," I said, "I just wanted to have some fun."

Eventually, he began to realize that I wasn't just complaining about his behavior, I was telling him he'd blown it—completely. He let me know that he wasn't quite ready to lose me yet. And, since I am practicing being reasonable, I made room for the possibility that he could change.

"I'm getting the sense that if I called you, you wouldn't go out with me again," he said.

"Well, that's right," I said. "I don't want to spend my time with people who are indifferent to me. I don't want to sleep with someone who is so easily distracted and forgetful. I want to be around people who say to themselves, 'yaaayyy!' when they're with me. I want to have fun and being neglected isn't fun."

"Well," he said. "I think I'll leave the ball in your court. I'll say that I want to see you again, and if you want to see me, you can call."

"You can do that," I said. "But if you want to see me, you'll have to do better. I don't want you to leave the ball in my court. I want you to do some work. I want you to show me that you value my company. If you want to see me, you'll have to give me something more than a ball in my court."

In the end, we warmed up to one another. We laughed. We moved from the bench to a tree swing further up the hill and gazed out at the moonlight dancing on the water. We swung gently back and forth and as I shifted in my seat to swat at a mosquito, my arm pressed against his and I remembered how delicious his muscles feel, how surprisingly soft his skin is, and how warm I feel when he kisses me.

"I have a good time with you," he said. "Even this conversation has been fun."

I was proud of myself for sticking up for myself, for being direct and honest in my communication, for knowing what I needed and saying so, and for letting him off the hook, rather than masticating him with my self-righteous, indignant, rage. He had remembered why he liked me.

"What would you say if I said I wanted to come home with you tonight," he asked.

"I would say, 'let's go to your house instead,'" I said.

And, so, we did. And he drank wine and I sipped vodka and we laughed, and kissed, and spent a delectable hour breaking my celibacy streak even further and sweating in the heat. It was what I wanted, and at 2am, I kissed him goodbye and went home to my bed.

The next day, he was good to me. "Fuck the two day rule," he said in an e-mail. And he asked me if I was free the next day. I wasn't. I was going away for part of the weekend. He checked in again, while I was gone, via text, to see when I'd be back. I came back a day late and expected that he'd be eager to see me. When I returned, he invited me to a movie via text message, but I was too tired to go—it was something I'd already seen, anyway. I told him I'd meet him for drinks after and he said he'd get back to me after the movie if he was interested. I wanted to sleep with him again. I wanted him to want to sleep with me that night…but I never heard back.

A few days later, we made plans to watch a movie at my place. He slept over. It was okay. I didn't hear from him the next day, the day, it turns out, that my classmate died.

And that brings us to today, with the blazing heat and intolerable humidity and my heart grown so heavy it felt like the only thing keeping it from slipping out of its cage and into my belly was the nail someone drove in through my ribs. I left my best friend three long voice mails. I left a message for my friend and former lover, the one who can always make me laugh, the one who came when Calvin died and when I hurt my knee and couldn't drive to the interview in Connecticut; the one who can make me feel better, the one whose hugs feel more like home than anything I've felt in a very, very long time (a mixed blessing), but he didn't have time to call me back. He sent me some well-intentioned, but not helpful e-mails instead. There was no one else to call and nowhere else to go. I was on my own with this.

I spent the morning taking care of the details around my classmate's death—could we send flowers, can we send an e-mail, what should it say, when should it go, how will it get there, are the dates and times and places for the wake and funeral, reception and interment correct--and then sent an e-mail out to the class. I went to physical therapy. I worked hard. I ran unpleasant errands. I arrived home hungry, angry, and wishing I had someplace to scream. Or someone to hold me.

Instead, I did what I could for myself. I lugged in the groceries, put them away, checked my e-mails, and then took off all my sweaty clothes and settled in with a DVD, a cold drink, an ice pack on my knee, and the A/C in my bedroom on high. Just then, my 24-year old text messaged me, asking me to go see a movie. I said yes, but the late show.

He said okay.

A few minutes later, he called (he actually called!) and said that he wanted to invite some other friends, get a bunch of people to go. He had learned from past experience that it was better to check with me first. I appreciated that he learned, but was disappointed that this was what he wanted.

I told him about my day. About my classmate dying…about my roommate not paying his rent…about my knee being sore and just my general feeling of exhaustion and upset. I started to cry a little—my voice caught--and I told him I felt too tired and vulnerable to deal with getting a group of strangers (to me) coordinated to find seats at what would definitely be a sold out Friday night premiere of "The Bourne Ultimatum." I haven't met his friends and I just wasn't in a space where I felt I could interact socially with strangers. I hesitated…then lied and said I would understand if he wanted to go with a group instead of with me. He said he'd check in with his friends and get back to me.

I got in the shower feeling hot and dirty and sad and sore and heavy and tired. I took a deep breath and then let the cool water wash over me. As I washed my hair, a thought came to me as clean and simple as the milky white suds running down my shoulders. It was more than a thought, it was a knowing: what I want is a person who, upon hearing that I knew someone who died and was heartbroken and tired and vulnerable, would not say, "I'll call my friends and get back to you." What I want is a person who hears that and says, "Do you want me to come over?" I wanted someone to bring me food and maybe a movie or just any kind of good-natured care. I don't need much, but I need that. Or, I want it anyway.

Today, I wanted a chest to rest my head on and the knowledge that the owner of that chest really cared. "I can't sleep with someone who would be that disinterested in what I need," I thought.

As I stepped out of the shower, I sighed. It was a happy relief to know my own bottom line, to understand what I need and want. Knowing is the first step toward getting it. But, it also meant that this young man would not turn out to be the fun summer fling I had hoped he would be. (Bummer.) Being neglected really isn't any fun; I'd have to give up my hope that he could be the source of affection and companionship and laughter I'd been wishing for.

It took him two hours to get back to me. He didn't call me, as he said he would. He canceled our date via text message. "Hey," he wrote. "I'm too tired to do the movie. I'm going to finish Harry Potter and then crash."

My immediate thought: "Asshole." My next thought: "I'm too old for this."

I'm too old to have people break dates via text message. I'm too old to date someone who doesn't even really think of dates as dates, which is why he doesn't need to cancel them with an apology—or a phone call—and why he invites other people to come on them. It was just an idea he had, I think, to see the movie, and when it passed he felt no obligation to factor in my feelings about it at all.

I was angry so I wanted to do something clever, like write back and say, "Don't bother to call me any more," except he never really calls me anyway. Or, better yet, I thought I might use some text message lingo like "U R N ASS" to communicate that I had reached the end of my rope. But I couldn't think what to say in 80 characters or less. I even checked out an online dictionary of text messaging abbreviations. I read through every single one, but aside from BBN (Bye Bye Now) and YGBKM (You've Gotta Be Kidding Me), nothing, apart from the overly cheerful L8RG8R, really even came close to capturing the spirit of what I wanted to say.

Maybe it's because I was born in an era when phones still had cords, but nothing I could think to say via SMS was going to be quite good enough for this. Regardless of my age, my inclination is to communicate. And no matter how fast you type, text messaging just isn't meant for that. It's been five hours and I haven't texted him back. At this point, I guess I probably won't even bother. It turns out that I may not be too young to die of breast cancer—but I am definitely too old for this.

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