Inception: The Relationship Edition

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just not properly equipped to be in this relationship.”

Frank Hampshire had sent me  a text message asking if he could catch the next train to come see me.

No, I said. He could call me.

I knew what was coming even though there had been no preemptive discussion. I have a 6th sense — I see dead relationships. I always know when we’re over, even when all signs say otherwise.  In retrospect, I probably should have made him pay the $20 in transportation fees…

giphy (3)

What exactly Frank Hampshire meant by “not properly equipped,” it’s hard to say, but he was right. We were fundamentally ill-equipped for each other, despite a Thanksgiving-dinner-grocery-shopping list of reasons why we had been great plus-1s over the last six months.

We had hit that perfect grove of a stable relationship — game nights with his friends, concerts and outings, Seamless or Blue Apron and pirated movies at his place, a holiday with my parents, my toothbrush in his medicine cabinet and my shirt in his closet. There wasn’t anything glaringly out of place. But then one cold January morning, after a perfect night of laughter out with friends, I woke up in his apartment, looked around, and knew I had better take my toothbrush.

Frank was still asleep. From his bed I had a perfect panorama of his apartment. Through the bay windows in front of me I could see the whole of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I loved that view. Dawn was breaking but the sky ached with the weight of late winter grey clouds. On the windowsill, I could see the sombrero ashtray his mother brought him from Mexico — the ashtray he swore he never used, even thought I caught him leaning his head out of the window dragging long puffs on a cig from his secret stash more than once. And I could see his elliptical machine — the one he definitely never used because it was thick with dust and  which had become symbolic of our divergent lifestyles. If I turned my head to the left, I could see into his closet where the purple dress shirt I gave him for Christmas because it made his blue eyes pop hung in a sea of white and solid blue.

And I could see him.

For all the things that had been good about us, the things that had gone unsaid were becoming palpable.

It’s like inception — once that idea “this is over” creeps into your head, you can’t get rid of it. You can say you’re being silly. But it bores away at you. And before you know it, you’re trapped inside a collapsing deep daydream. No matter how much you try to reason your heart into believing you’re in love, you just know — it’s over.

leonardo-dicaprio-in-the-water-in-inception
Like Leo, we’re in a dream that was about to collapse, and for us there was no way out

 

 

 

 

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The Worst Break-Up Ever

90sbffThe worst break-up I ever survived was not with a boyfriend. It was with my best friend.

When I got my college freshman room assignment, the first thing I did was shoot an IM to my teammate, Suki. We were only slightly better than acquaintances, but we lived in the same area, trained at the same fencing club, and were both going to be spending our next 4 years at Columbia together. Great news! We were assigned single rooms a floor apart. We spent our summer preparing for college life by becoming bosom buddies. By the time orientation week started, we were thick as thieves, bonafide best friends.

As the year unfolded, our bond as friends grew stronger. There were few things we did apart. This was our first big mistake. We were always invited to things as a set, and when only one of us were invited to things, we’d usually bring the other. While we were each on different academic courses and had a handful of friends that didn’t overlap, for the most part we were peas in a pod, attached at the hip — one person to the majority of the outside world.

Nothing could possibly come between us. But 19 year old girls can let anything come between them, and in our case, it was 2… make that 3 boys.

What exactly happened over the course of a year and half is less important than the fact it culminated in me calling her a slut, she locking me out of our shared dorm room and both of us flushing our friendship down the toilet. She had picked boys over our friendship while putting other relationships at risk. I take loyalty very seriously. There was no option for recovery.

We had timed our break-up well — a week before reading week, 2 weeks before finals, and a month before we called it quits for summer recess. We lived together, but she had an upperclassman friend who would let her crash at his place on week nights. I’d go home on the weekends. Without coordinating it face to face, we had worked out how to avoid each other.  There was a mural on the wall behind our beds — something we had started working on one sleepless night when we didn’t feel like studying but never really finished — I took a sponge to it.

I sat in a kind of quiet depression through that summer. I was fragile and jaded. I had confided in her in a way I had never confided in someone before — she knew all my secrets. How could I trust anyone — friend or lover — again? I lashed out at friends that tried to push us back together. Perhaps a few other relationships fell by the wayside. The collateral damage was almost too large to measure.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that 9 out of 10 boyfriends become ex-boyfriends. But best friends, those are supposed to last a lifetime… so when best friendships come crashing down, we’re left feeling abandoned, betrayed, and wounded in a way no significant other can ever effect us.

Of course, a decade later you get the benefit of saying “things happen for the best.” And for us, the end of our friendship was probably the best thing that ever happened to us both. She found true love outside our complicated polygon. We found our unique identities. I moved on, and while I’m more cautious about who I let into my life, years later, I learned to trust again.

 

So, Let’s Hang Out? Considering “The End of Courtship”

“Ok. Let’s do this! Let’s hang out!”

I confess, I was caught completely off-guard. It wasn’t exactly the declaration of affection or attraction or, hell, even interest that I had hoped for from a guy I considered “most likely to be cast as leading man in the movie that is my life.”

"Let's do this!" was more game-time cheer than romance. I wanted romance.
“Let’s do this!” was more game-time cheer than romance. I wanted romance.

“Let’s do this!” was less romance and more pre-game pep-rally.

Were we going to jump off a cliff together? Maybe metaphorically. But if his “I want to hang out with you” was the 21st century equivalent of Mr. Darcy’s “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you,” then we were certainly in for a bumpy ride.

But such are the times we live in….

In all likelihood, you or someone you know shared that NYTimes Sunday Styles piece about dating in the age of texting and social media. About how traditional courtship has been replaced with the flippant one-offs of the hook-up generation.

For the most part, I thought the essay was a gross generalization that painted a bleak picture favoring an ever-increasing divorce rate.

But Alex Williams was on to something — “hanging out” has exited the realm of friendship and infiltrated the realm of courtship, leaving singles (particularly, single women) hoping to make the jump from “gone fishing!” to “got him!” in a perpetual state of confusion.

“Let’s hang out.”

When I was a college student with more male than female friends, this was something I heard fairly often. In those days, it’s meaning was crystal clear: we’re going to keep it casual, keep it low-key, throw on a movie or pull out a deck of cards, open a bottle, maybe some people will join us, and by the way, we’re going to keep it platonic.

Oh! How fast things change!

Imagine my surprise when, a half decade later, a “let’s hang out” has translated into everything from “I’d like to take you to dinner” to “let’s hook-up” to “I’d like this to be serious.”

“Hanging out” as a colloquialism is the new “hooking up” — an appropriately non-committal term that keeps your options open and your morning-after stories vague.

Saying "let's hang out" is like putting on a suit of armor to protect yourself from harm
Saying “let’s hang out” is like putting on a suit of armor to protect yourself from harm

It’s a sort of self-protective statement, one that doesn’t put your heart on the line while still implying an interest in spending time with the other person. A sort of “let’s see if we click as friends” is partially implied — and isn’t the fundamental base of a successful relationship a strong friendship? Isn’t it a good idea to see if you can be friends as well as lovers?

What’s the problem?

More of my 20-something friends are married or in domestic partnerships or engaged than are single. Is Williams’ point, that this behavior might be fostering the kind commitment-phobia that makes it more difficult for people to really develop worthwhile relationships, accurate?

Maybe it is and I just cultivate romantically stable people? (unlikely…. you’ve never met some of the guys I dated…)

Let’s be honest, if you’re an urban singleton, getting a foothold in the industry of your choosing, filling-up your time with friends and social groups, drinking up all your environment has to offer, the notion of keeping it casual when it comes to dating is your best laid plan (pun intended.)

Here’s the problem — it’s the phrase itself.

Instead of "hanging out" consult the thesaurus. Let's phase out that phrase
Instead of “hanging out” consult the thesaurus. Let’s phase out that phrase

“Hang out.” It’s still flippant, casual, an afterthought. If  saying “I want to see you” carries implications of  serious commitment and so you shy away, say you want to “get together” or say you want to do something specific.

We don’t need the guy that says “I want to spend every waking minute with you” (though, when faced with a choice between him and Mr. Let’s Hang Out, Mr. Let’s Hang Out is shown wanting). But it’s nice to feel like we’re more than an addition to a plan.

“Hanging out” leaves lots of things hanging in the air. And frankly, hanging out gets old quick. Before you know it, she/he will be hanging up the towel on this casual courtship and moving on.

 

 

 

 

How Complimentary

“I just don’t understand how you could want to be with someone who’s always telling you how beautiful and wonderful you are. Doesn’t that get tiresome?”

I admit, when a guy gives me a compliment, my response is very Miranda Hobbes -- skeptical.

This was my mother’s response when I told her the guy I was dating had a way of stopping mid-conversation to tell me he thought I was “gorgeous” or that “no other woman in the room came close.”

I looked at her in a way that suggested she should be put in a straight jacket and sent to Bedlam. Last I checked, it was nice for a boy to call a girl pretty every once in a while.

But, I’ll confess: when a guy tells me I’m beautiful, my response is very Hobbesian… Miranda Hobbes that is. The “Sex and the City” starlet always took Steve’s outpouring of niceties with a grain of salt — her inner cynic couldn’t help it.

Talking to Annie a few days after another absurdly perfect date, we realized  that modern women have been ruined — we’ve been raised to be Mirandas, distrusting of compliments, skeptical about sincerity. When I hear “you’re beautiful,” an internal eyebrow raises and the compliment is met with a tidal wave of skepticism. Why’s he saying that? What’s his deal? Is there really spinach on my face and he’s trying to tell me there’s spinach on my face without directly saying “there’s spinach on your face?”

It's hard for my inner cynic to shut-up... but slowly, it's learning

It doesn’t help that I matured in the company of men — compliments were frequently followed by a request for my economics homework.

Eventually, Miranda wised up — Steve really did just like her that much…and as it turned out, she really liked him that much.

As for me? Well, I think my inner cynic is starting to shut up and accept this for what it is — something nice. I’m not sure I’ll ever be good at taking compliments, or that the voice in my head will ever totally stop saying “you’re lying” when he says “you look wonderful,” but if there’s one thing I have decided, it’s that hearing “you’re beautiful” and “I like you” will never get tiresome.

The Progress of Love? The Stages Stay the Same, It’s the Content that Gets the Update

45 minutes after meeting each other, they were off in the corner of the lounge lip-locked. A few days later, text messages inquires attempted to arrange a proper date — neither had the time and the exchanges ceased. A week passed and she awoke to a Facebook friend request, a miracle considering she never game him her last name. As she clicked “accept,” it occurred to her that they might have done things totally out of order…

Back when I was a bright-eyed student enrolled in Art History 101, I was given an assignment to write a short paper on a painting housed in New York’s Frick Collection. I settled on a series of 18th century baroque panels by the French artist Jean-Honore Fragonard entitled “The Progress of Love.” Floral-ridden and chocolate-box-esque, the 4 tableaux track love from its uncertain beginnings to a happy ending. Beginning with “The Pursuit”  the artist takes us through “The Meeting,” “The Lover Crowned,” and “Love Letters.”

It’s been a long time since I thought about these paintings, but as I compared dating notes with a few girl friends who recently acquired/deactivated boyfriends, I decided the scenes set among the frilly, baroque gardens of earthly delights needed a 21st century make over…

The Pursuit (the attempt at seduction):

She's out with her girl friends, but that doesn't stop him from making his approach.

In Fragonard’s day, when masquerade balls were probably the 18th century’s closest approximation of OkCupid, The Pursuit really only happened in the flesh. Today, technology grants us endless ways to approach (stalk?) our future lovers, but at the end of the day, we still prefer a good chase in the real world…

Much Like Fragonard’s leading lady, today’s heroine is out with her girl friends when He makes his approach. He catches her off guard — the last thing she had on her mind tonight was getting lucky. He nonchalantly slips in next to her at the bar and leads with a corny pickup line because he figures  it’ll make her laugh.  It does. The usual questions are asked and answered. He offers to buy her a refill. She accepts. There’s an occasional arm touch or shoulder tap. Her friends drag her away – they have places to go! She won’t give out her number. But shouts back her name, spelling it out for him. If you want to find me, you’ll find me, she tells him. Lucky for him, he has a good memory. He tracks her down on Facebook. A friend request. Accepted.

She’s out again with her friends, a drink down the hatch when they convince her to message him and find out what he’s doing that night. The doors are wide open. Messages fly back and forth for the next few days. He’s busy. She’s busy. He’s busy. She’s busy. Radio silence. A week passes, then finally he tries again. They agree to a proper date…

The Meeting (the moonlit assignation)

The Moonlit assignation, or the First Date

First dates don’t happen on weekends anymore. Weekends are reserved for real friends. Weekends allow you to behave out of character. Weekends have consequences.

They agree to meet on Tuesday night, after work, for drinks and dinner. She has a 9AM meeting Wednesday morning with a big client — the perfect built-in out for when things start to go rough. He’s decided she’s worth impressing and takes her some place upscale but understated. By now, they’ve both forgotten what the other person actually looks like in real life, and are surprised to find they’re attracted to each other.

He’s nervous and spills her drink. The ice is broken, literally and figuratively, and the subsequent conversation is lively. Before they know it, the maitre d’hotel is kicking them out — it’s closing time. He wants to kiss her. She’s sorry it’s a Tuesday, hugs him instead (what restraint!) and they agree to meet again.

Love Letters (the continuation of a happy union)

after the meeting comes the love letters... or love texts

In Fragonard’s series, this actually comes last — the happy couple send letters to reinforce their eternal love for one another. Today, I’m not sure how many people exchange handwritten love letters any more. However, the exchange of love notes in 2010/11 take on many forms, thanks to BBM and text messages. Fingers shoot across miniature keyboards in rapid-fire, concise exchanges. “Wanna come over?” “what r u wearing”  “;)” NC-17 camera phone images strengthen the lust, while the occasional “i miss u” or “dinner 2nite?” tug at the heart strings.

The Lover Crowned (they finally get it on)

When she was 18, her mother gave her a copy of “The Rules.” Recently, she’d been watching “Millionaire Matchmaker.” Both advocate waiting until a relationship turns monogamous before sleeping with the guy. She always felt this approach got her into more trouble than it was worth, but she’s been trying to stick with it. They’re a few weeks into things and out to dinner when he asks her if she’d like to join him at his sister’s wedding next week. Gulp!

“So..um…what’s up with us?” she asks, knowing that she’s about the meet his whole extended family. Is she “a friend” or “the girlfriend?”

The verdict? She’s the girlfriend…

They go back to his place. Clothes fly off — in the morning, there’s shirts in the kitchen, pants in the living rooms and trails of random garments hanging off the furniture. Thank goodness it’s a Sunday morning.

Finally, she gets to close the book on The Rules.

Next stop? The Swing?

Fragonard's "The Swing"... I don't think this one needs an update 😉

Another Reason to Love Sundays

We race through Mondays to Tuesdays, onto Wednesdays through Thursdays, from Fridays into Saturdays holding a venti, extra-shot, non-fat latte in one hand and a smartphone in the other. Ah, thank heavens for Sundays! For on Sundays, we get to meander through the day holding an iced mocha in one hand and our sweetheart’s hand in the other.

a sweet Sunday at MoMA