It's a long story and a short one, but I guess all of them are.
I'm 27. It's about that age: A lot of my compatriots are getting married lately — most monogamously, some to a primary polyamorous partner. I myself have a stack of relationships in my past. Some were monogamous, some polyamorous. Some have been on-and-off, some short-term, some long-term (5 or 6 years was the longest). Lately I've been processing some tough questions about polyamory, but I'd like to stick with it.
And I've been thinking a lot about what I want in a primary polyamorous partner. The kind of guy I could marry. I wonder if I'll ever get to that point. I wonder if I'd know him if I saw him.
I met Mr. Ambition at one of the aforementioned weddings. Several people recommended that I talk to him, and we liked each other right away. Mutual friends used words like "zealot" to describe him; let's just say he's got an intense history of dedicated activism. Charisma, integrity, and pure energy pour off him. His words are almost always articulate and challenging. He can socially dominate a room without thinking. He works a challenging job ten hours per day; exercises two hours; socializes several hours; sleeps and eats when he can. He gives hugs easily, laughs easily, hands out compliments like candy.
Mr. Ambition is most definitely not a neutral personality. Of course, neither am I.
At the time, I was just coming out of the worst stage of my research on pickup artists — a subculture of men who trade tips on how to seduce women. Also, I'd just had one of those breakups where I was too busy feeling stupid to properly understand how hurt I was. (Don't you hate those?) You can read all about those Dramatic Events in my upcoming eBook Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser. In the meantime, suffice to say that I felt … flattened.
Arguably, I should have had a sign taped to my forehead that read: "Emotionally Unavailable."
I went to dinner with Mr. Ambition later that week. At the end of the meal, he sat back and looked at me. "You're so authentic," he said.
"I haven't felt very authentic lately," I said frankly, but his words felt good. Like a balm. Like I was healing.
* * *
We got along excellently, had a lot in common, etc. Typical this-relationship-starts-well stuff. One evening, after we'd been out to eat in a big philosophical group, Mr. Ambition noted the hotness of my intense theoretical bent. "When you were discussing social justice and ethics tonight," he said, "I wanted to reach across the table and grab you."
He mentioned marriage within weeks. "This has never happened before," he told me. "I've never dated someone I thought I could actually marry." Whoa, tiger, I thought, but I had to admit that he hit a lot of my Ideal Characteristics as well. Intelligence, drive, charisma, and morality: it's hard to argue with that.
Our sexual chemistry was okay, but not climb-the-walls stellar. We'll develop that, I told myself. He's less sexually experienced than I am, and we'll learn each other just fine. Fortunately he's got some experience with polyamory, but in terms of S&M, he's another of those vanilla-but-questioning guys (I never learn). When we did S&M, I had to monitor the situation extra carefully because it was so new to him.
And for all his intelligence, it was really hard to talk to him about emotions. It wasn't that he was cold or distant; on the contrary, he's one of the most fiery people I've ever met. But he had a lot of difficulty explaining what was going on in his head. Indeed, he told me that he had a lot of difficulty knowing what was going on in his head. He did things like laugh when a friend hurt his feelings, then deny that he was hurt, even though I could plainly see the stricken look behind his eyes.
I wasn't surprised that he was more physical than verbal about S&M. Very straightforward: throwing me around, pulling my head back, digging his hands into my skin. He's incredibly strong, and sometimes I called my safeword simply because his strength scared me.
There was one particular S&M encounter … early in the evening, I called my safeword because I wasn't sure he was into it.
"Red," I said, and he stopped. "Is this okay with you?" I asked, and he nodded.
"Yes," he said. "This is good. Let's keep going." His voice was low and slightly rough; a marvel of certainty. He put his hands back on me instantly. My doubts disappeared.
We kept going. I watched my body, felt the lump building in my throat, monitored my breath as it became harsh and fast.
"Red," I said, and he stopped. "You're going to break me," I said, "I'm going to cry. If you don't want to deal with that, then stop."
This, by the way, is a difficult skill that I have learned: this ability to track my S&M reactions so clearly. I would never have been able to do it seven years ago, and I still can't do it during complicated S&M encounters. But now I can do it during simple ones. (Yes, "simple" and "complicated" are in the eye of the beholder.)
I really hate stopping an S&M encounter right when I'm on the verge of tears. It's worse than an interrupted orgasm. But I'd rather do that than break down crying and then deal with a horrified partner.
"That's fine," said Mr. Ambition. So we kept going. I cried. He started talking, and I was surprised by how harsh his words could be. That's more like it, I thought.
Some S&M encounters have a rhythm to them, a poetry: a beginning and an end that become clear to the participants as they go along. This one didn't — at least not to me. So I didn't rely on him to bring it to a close. After a while, I safeworded out, and took a breath to still my tears.
Mr. Ambition was quiet again. I was having trouble reading him. There was some energy caught inside him, coiled like a dragon, but I couldn't tell if it was violence or something else. I put a halt to my own emotional cycle and tried to focus on him. "How are you feeling?" I asked, but he couldn't tell me. I asked a few more questions, and he just couldn't answer. He just didn't know.
I never got another word from him on how he felt about that encounter. I wondered if I was being too careful in how I asked about it; I wondered if he wanted me to push harder; I wondered if I'd already pushed him too far.
I suspected there were some dramatic feelings trapped in Mr. Ambition. But I wasn't sure I currently had the warmth to coax them out.
* * *
In the past, I've fallen in love so hard that I felt like the world was black-and-white when I was away from my lover; I felt like I only saw color when I was with him. I have dated men where the chemistry was so intense, so obvious, that it hung in the air between us like smoke. I've had sex that felt like telepathy. It's pretty awesome when it works. And it's easier to get that with some people than with others: some guys, I meet them and it's like we speak the same language already.
With some guys, it's not instant, but it also doesn't take long to build our mutual vocabulary.
And then I've dated guys where the learning curve — both sexually and temperamentally — was much longer. It was less instinctive. But it was not impossible. So I know for a fact that people can build chemistry. Sometimes it's just there, but sometimes you can create it.
My relationship with Mr. Ambition was definitely polyamorous, but a few weeks in, I decided I was really into him … and I started managing my incentives. There was another guy I saw occasionally, with whom I had stronger instinctive chemistry. This other guy agreed with me that we didn't want a Big Important Relationship. This other guy will screw up my incentives if I hang out with him too much, I thought, and I limited my time with him. I set rules with myself: I didn't call him, I didn't text him. I knew: If I let myself get too intensely into this other guy, that could inhibit my ability to bond with Mr. Ambition.
I told the other guy that once my relationship with Mr. Ambition was more stable, we might be able to pursue something more intense. By the time we had the conversation, he said he'd already been thinking similar thoughts. That he didn't want to distract me from something that could be beautiful.
Similarly, there are one or two men in my life that I'm attracted to but don't want a sexual connection with at all. So I try not to see them unless I feel inoculated: I don't hang out with them unless I'm sure I can distract myself with my feelings about another man.
A lot of polyamorists say that "love is infinite," that we can love lots of people, etc. I agree with this in theory — but there's also a polyamorous saying that "While love may be infinite, time is not." And hormones aren't infinite, either. I've learned my hormonal reactions, I've seen myself get imprinted by people … I've seen myself develop feelings and fantasies for one guy that made me 100% immune to another hot guy's charms.
Do I have perfect self-control? Absolutely not. That's why I'm trying to influence my own choices so carefully. I know that choice plays a huge role when we build relationships. Choosing to commit is arguably as big a relationship factor as instinctive chemistry.
* * *
When I first got to college many moons ago, my roommate came from a family of immigrants with a tradition of arranged marriages. She and I stayed up late one night, perched on our dorm room mattresses, and I listened in fascination while she told me that her father wanted her to marry a man of her father's choice, rather than her own.
"I'm not sure whether I'll do it," she said. I watched her wave a hand airily. I was mesmerized by her casual acceptance of a custom that struck me as barbaric. "I mean," she said, "I'm cool with this guy that my dad's found for me. But I don't know if we're that cool. On the other hand, I can't deny the advantages of arranged marriages."
"Advantages!" I cried. I was so young … (Okay, I'm still young.) "What do you mean, advantages?!"
"Arranged marriages are more stable," she said. "Much more stable. I'm not sure I'd ever want to marry for love. That shit goes up in smoke."
From what I understand, there have even been studies about this: that people in arranged marriages report being quite happy, quite stable.
I've gotten the it's-not-passion-that-makes-a-successful-marriage message before, of course — often from super-white, super-American Americans. For example, there's that infamous 2008 article Marry Him: The Case For Settling For Mr. Good Enough. The article is sure to send any woman roughly my age into a panic. It's made enough of an impression that I still have conversations about it with other women my age — almost four years after its debut.
I don't like the Settling writer's attitude. She's written with horror and anger about S&M in other venues, for example; and the whole Settling article has a generally conservative bent. But she's articulating some real feelings and important thoughts, and while I don't agree with all of them, I do agree with some. At one point, analyzing television, she notes that:
While Rachel and her supposed soul mate, Ross, finally get together (for the umpteenth time) in the finale of "Friends", do we feel confident that she’ll be happier with Ross than she would have been had she settled down with Barry, the orthodontist, 10 years earlier? She and Ross have passion but have never had long-term stability, and the fireworks she experiences with him but not with Barry might actually turn out to be a liability, given how many times their relationship has already gone up in flames. It’s equally questionable whether "Sex and the City"’s Carrie Bradshaw, who cheated on her kindhearted and generous boyfriend, Aidan, only to end up with the more exciting but self-absorbed Mr. Big, will be better off in the framework of marriage and family. (Some time after the breakup, when Carrie ran into Aidan on the street, he was carrying his infant in a Baby Björn. Can anyone imagine Mr. Big walking around with a Björn?)
I've never watched "Friends" or "Sex and the City", but I know the feeling.
Personally, I'm more of a novel girl. The other day, I found myself thinking of my long-ago roommate and her thoughts on arranged marriage while I read Monica Ali's beautiful book Brick Lane. Monica Ali is an immigrant to the United Kingdom, and the characters in her novel all come to the UK from Bangladesh. Some of the characters accept traditional arranged marriages, while others make "love marriages" instead — often defying their parents, their whole set of cultural norms, to do so. Towards the end of the novel, one man reflects on the early days of his marriage:
We thought that the love would never run out. It was like a magic rice sack that you could keep scooping into and never get to the bottom. It was a "love" marriage, you see. What I did not know — I was a young man — is that there are two kinds of love. The kind that starts off big and slowly wears away, that seems you can never use it up and then one day is finished. And the kind that you don't notice at first, but which adds a little bit to itself every day, like an oyster makes a pearl, grain by grain, a jewel from the sand.
As you can tell, this character is currently unhappy in his "love marriage". Of course, the grass is always greener on the other side. What's the difference between the big love and the pearl love? Can they even be compared? Is it like apples to oranges?
But couldn't all this be a false dichotomy? Who says it's about arrangement versus randomness — chemistry versus choice? Can we have both? Can we find the big love, and nurture that so it develops into the pearl love, too?
My ultimate conclusion about the Art and Science of Flirting, from my "studies" of pickup artists and also my entire life, is that flirting is all about strategic ambiguity. Deliberate uncertainty. Manipulating ambiguity and uncertainty can contribute to many intense feelings.
Some people learn this, and decide that the only way to have a relationship with chemistry is to include a constant generous dollop of uncertainty about love, loyalty, or something equally important. These people decide chemistry can only derive from little pieces of confusion: tiny mismatches that lodge underneath the similarities that bring people together, constantly unsettling, like a prickly burr. But I don't think that's what I want.
And after all, S&M creates extraordinary feelings too, but plenty of people do S&M in very controlled circumstances: pre-discussed, with safewords and so on. Arguably, S&M is another form of mismatch, of contrast, of uncertainty — but it's a form that can be managed. So I know all about creating intense uncertain feelings in controlled circumstances, and using those to contribute to stable and reliable loving relationships. Don't I?
Eventually, my college roommate caused a gigantic blowup in her family by rejecting arranged marriage. Her father didn't speak to her for a long, long time.
* * *
On my birthday, Mr. Ambition took me out to dinner. Then we went to watch fireflies by the lake. As was inevitable for summer in Chicago, we ran into lots of people we knew. One of those groups contained an on-again-off-again partner of mine: Richard, with whom I have … shall we say, a complicated history. I respect Richard a lot, and I like him, and I'm highly attracted to him … but I'm pathologically wary of him for reasons that will become obvious.
We greeted our friends. "How are you doing?" Richard asked.
"Happy birthday to me, asshole," I teased. "How could you forget?"
Richard sighed. "Jeez," he said, "sorry I neglected to wish you a happy birthday within, like, the first 15 seconds I saw you."
I paused, and took a moment to recalibrate: he wasn't reacting in his usual adversarial, teasing-back manner. On the other hand, history has taught me not to fall for it when Richard seems unexpectedly vulnerable.
"I'm sorry," I said. I kept my tone light-hearted, friendly. "You know I love you, right?"
"Do I?" Richard asked.
I tilted my head at him. Without thinking, I kissed my own fingers, then put my hand gently against his face, as if I were about to stroke his cheek. Or slap him. I guess it was a way of distancing myself and kissing him at the same time. I think he understood that I intended it as an uncertain-but-intimate gesture. But I'm never sure, with Richard.
"Call me," I said.
"No," Richard said. "You call me."
Hours later, Mr. Ambition brought him up. We were having one of those sweet, intimate, disjointed bedtime conversations. Mr. Ambition was lying back, half-covered by a sheet, and I was admiring the play of light on his chest. "Richard really cares about you," he said.
I stiffened, and sat up. "Maybe," I said. "But I can't trust Richard."
"His tone seemed wistful, when he saw you."
"I can't trust Richard," I repeated. "It's always a game with him. Sometimes I think that we have a real emotional connection, but if I try to talk about it or give him emotional feedback, he just ignores me."
"Maybe he isn't really ignoring you," argued Mr. Ambition. "Maybe every time you say something, or give a little, it makes a tiny bit of difference. Maybe you just have to stay open. Keep trying. These things build up."
"You don't understand," I snapped. "You don't know him! Maybe he really cares, but even if he does, it doesn't matter! Things always end up the same. If I mention emotions, or if I act warm to him, he'll ignore me for a while … and then he'll be cold to me again. I'm telling you, I've been here before, with Richard. It's a trap."
Mr. Ambition didn't waver. "If you're strong enough," he said simply, "then you can walk into a trap."
His words made my heart crack, my breath catch. Made me feel like I've forgotten everything I knew about love.
When I was younger, I thought of my emotional strength like water: an embrace that could make someone I loved feel lighter. Water is a slow, eroding force that pulls beauty from the unexpected. Water makes wood into twisted driftwood sculptures; sharp glass into opaque dim jewels; rocks into soft sand. Water will eventually reveal the heart of everything it touches. If you let it.
I hadn't thought of myself that way in a long time. I felt like Mr. Ambition was calling me out, reminding me of who I wanted to be. Maybe I protect myself better, these days. But vulnerability is not always a bad thing.
I definitely could fall in love with this man, I realized.
"You're really amazing," I said, and threw myself on his chest.
He put his arms around me. "So are you," he said.
* * *
As a storyteller, I often look back on my relationships and pick out foreshadowing: the omens. And by now, I recognize the omens even as they're happening … and sometimes I change my behavior, but usually I don't. Perhaps this state is what they call maturity.
One night while we were out, Mr. Ambition sighed in an offhand way. He seemed tired, out of sorts. "I just want someone to take me on an emotional journey," he remarked to me. Then he added, "… No offense."
I mentioned this to a friend, later: "Mr. Ambition says he wants me to take him on an emotional journey," I said.
"An 'emotional journey'? That shit gets old, though," said my friend. I laughed, and agreed with him.
Another night, Mr. Ambition mentioned something about enjoying drama. I was with my best girlfriend at the time; she and I looked at each other. "Careful what you wish for," I said.
My friend said, "Yeah, I'm pretty sure Clarisse knows how to create arbitrary amounts of drama at any time."
"But I'm pretty sure I don't want to," I said.
Later, when Mr. Ambition mentioned that he doesn't usually know how he's feeling, he added: "My friends can often tell more about my own emotions than I can."
"So you basically outsource your emotional processing to your friends?" I asked.
Perhaps the worst omen was when Mr. Ambition told me, "I've never been hurt by love."
"Never?" I asked.
"Never," he said.
His certainty was so great that, in itself, it made me uneasy. Because I have definitely been hurt by love. And my greatest wounds were dealt by men who seemed sure they loved me. A man who seems sure might actually be sure, but he may simply fail to understand himself …. So these days, it's always men who seem certain that make me most uncertain.
There's another great quotation from that Monica Ali novel, Brick Lane. Here it is: "The thing about getting older is you don't need everything to be possible anymore, you just need some things to be certain."
I often felt like I was watching the relationship from a distance. I tried to resist thinking of our relationship using cold, manipulative pickup artist terminology and tactics, but sometimes I couldn't stop myself. I'd rather not talk about that.
I found more and more ways to manage my incentives. I noticed that one of my methods was telling friends and parents that I liked Mr. Ambition a whole lot. I think it was even true.
Most of all, I told myself that the lack of natural chemistry was a good thing, and not a bad thing; the lack of natural chemistry was why this relationship could last.
I was quite calculating about it, really, and maybe that was why he broke up with me. On the bright side, I kept my head during the breakup, which was nice, because I didn't keep my head during my last breakup. With Mr. Ambition, I didn't feel like my self-control slipped at all.
"We need to talk," Mr. Ambition said without preamble, when I met him in the foyer of his apartment building. "I'm having some concerns about our relationship." Once we were in his apartment, he said, "To be honest, I don't know how attracted I am to you."
I tried to measure his mien. I got the feeling, again, that energy was coiled tightly inside him. Like a dragon. "Are you breaking up with me?" I asked.
"We're just having a conversation," he said quickly.
We talked about sex for a while. Chemistry. "I don't think I like S&M, to be honest," he said. "I don't feel affected by it."
I thought: Are you sure? and You definitely looked affected by it, but it's both unethical and unwise to question someone else's experience. So I just said, "You know I don't want you to do anything you don't want to do. Have you felt pressured by me?"
"No, of course not," he said.
We talked some more. He ultimately said, "Look, are you totally satisfied with the sex we're having?"
"I mean …" I said. "It's not the most intense sex I've ever had, but it'll keep getting better."
"I think we should just be friends," he said.
"… Okay," I said. "Um. Is there anything else you want to talk about?"
Mr. Ambition seemed agitated. He seemed barely able to hold still. "I've never dated anyone that I respected like I respect you," he said. "Your charisma, your intelligence, your morality. But … I don't know. I don't feel like we're very authentic with each other. I don't feel like there's much warmth between us."
Maybe you're right, I thought. But either way, it's too late now. "Okay," I said. I thought for a moment. "I'm sorry," I added. "I really wanted this to work out." For a moment, tears startled my eyes, but I blinked them back.
"Are you all right?" he asked. He leaned forward. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
I looked at him and tried to think. I knew I was going to be very upset in maybe fifteen minutes. He seemed hurt, and I wanted to say something that would comfort him. I wondered if he wanted me to cry, and beg, and create drama; I wouldn't do that … but maybe it would help if I asked for something simple.
But I couldn't come up with anything, and I wanted to leave. So after a pause, I said, "You can let me go home and cry."
I said it as gently as I could. But Mr. Ambition seemed terribly distressed. "Ohhh," he said, and screwed up his face. He leapt to his feet. "I'm sorry," he said.
"It's okay," I said. "Is there anything else?"
"Sometimes I think men just aren't capable of the kind of commitment women are," Mr. Ambition said. He sounded defensive, even though I hadn't made any accusations. "Then again, you're not like most women. … You're kind of a hardass. You probably have this problem with a lot of the men you date, where you come across as kind of a hardass. … And to be honest, I don't think men really want to date women as smart as they are."
Jesus, I thought, you already broke up with me, can't you just let me go? Why do you have to rip into me like this? I wondered how much of what he was saying was about me, and how much was him trying to make sense of his own feelings. But even though I felt sure that he was confused, his words sent an icy spike straight through me. "I don't think men really want to date women as smart as they are …."
"I've worked really hard to become less argumentative," I said. "You should have seen me when I was a teenager. … I don't know if I can tone myself down any more than I already do." Even as I said it, I wondered why I was still talking to a guy who'd just said that men don't want to date women as smart as they are. I felt like a bad feminist.
"Oh, you shouldn't tone yourself down!" said Mr. Ambition. "It makes you attractive. … Attractive intellectually, I mean."
I sighed. "Yes," I said. "Intellectually."
"I'm sorry," he said again.
"I'm going home," I said.
"We're still friends, right?" he asked.
"Yes, but give me some time to get over this," I said. "Probably about a month."
"What do you mean?" He came after me as I walked to the door. "Like, you don't want to see me at all for a month? You don't want me to call you, or reach out to you, or anything?"
I looked at him, again, for a long moment. I regretted his stricken expression. Again, I spoke as gently as I could. "Maybe in a month."
He offered me a ride, which I declined. My fifteen-minute estimate was almost on target: twenty minutes later, I stepped into my bedroom, leaned back against my door and burst into tears.
* * *
I ran into Richard the next evening, and we spent the night together. Richard put a fair amount of effort into convincing me to talk to Mr. Ambition.
"It sounds like he didn't actually mean to break up with you," said Richard. "It sounds like the conversation got away from him. He didn't start that conversation intending to break up with you; maybe he was looking for reassurance, and you approached his questions too logically, and he concluded that you don't care. You really like him. It seems like it's worth trying to make it work."
You may have noticed that both of these men tried hard to convince me that the other man cared about me. I decline to analyze what that means about me and my current approach to relationships.
However, I will say that I tried giving Richard more emotional feedback than I have in a long time; I even told him I missed him the next time he went on vacation. And I did try talking to Mr. Ambition again, and he acknowledged that he hadn't exactly intended to break up with me.
But then Mr. Ambition and I had several of those encounters that I think of as "post-breakup talks". I hate that shit. Every evening ended on a confusing, inconclusive note. He kept saying that he was "confidently ambiguous." We weren't dating, we weren't not dating. It reminded me of a phase I went through with a college ex-boyfriend, back in my monogamous days: my ex and I spent several weeks post-breakup being "exclusive but not together". So preposterous. People are so broken.
Mr. Ambition himself has described uncertainty as an "emotional amplifier" … but sometimes it amplifies in the wrong direction. After a week or so, I got fed up and cut things off. He asked when we would talk again, and I told him I didn't want to talk for a while. A few days later, I broke my neck in a bicycle accident.
It's like a goddamn soap opera, isn't it? Sometimes I can't believe this stuff happens to me.
* * *
Mr. Ambition showed up in my hospital room while no one else was around. I was no longer afraid that I might die, but I was leaden with morphine, and anxious. I awaited the neurosurgeons who would come install a big scary spinal brace, and I felt grateful and glad to see Mr. Ambition. I hadn't been certain he would come, although if he'd had such an accident, I would have moved Heaven and earth to go see him.
"I came as soon as our friends told me," he said. "There are so many people who love you." He said my name, and spoke softly, and the words bruised my heart.
"Thank you," I said inadequately.
"I had to skip out on work to get here," he said, and sat next to my bed. "We're in the middle of important negotiations. A billion-dollar deal."
"I'm sorry," I said. "Maybe you shouldn't have come."
He laughed. "Don't you think you're worth a billion dollars?"
"Probably not," I said.
He took my hand. "Is there anything I can get you?" he asked.
I wasn't allowed to eat or drink before the surgery. "Tell me a story," I requested.
Mr. Ambition retold a story from Dostoevsky's The Idiot. It was about a big-hearted man who comes to a small community and befriends an outcast "fallen woman". The big-hearted man gains high status in the community, but when people find out that he's friends with the marginalized sex worker, they become angry. Despite their condemnation, the man stays steadfastly loyal to his friend, and by seeing the way he cares about her, eventually the community accepts her too.
It was exactly the kind of story I expected to hear from him. I thought of the moment, sitting in bed, where he'd said: "If you're strong enough, you can walk into a trap." The moment when I'd realized that I could fall in love with him.
After Mr. Ambition finished the story, the doctors arrived with the brace. This contraption involved using power tools to put four screws directly into my skull, which stabilize seven pounds of metal. For realz. I was awake while they did it, too. Luckily I got local anesthesia, so the screws didn't hurt while they were going in — but I heard the bone crunching, and I felt the pressure building. Also, my neck hurt a lot. It was reasonably horrible.
Some of my friends said later that they arrived at the hospital and tried to get into my room while the brace was being installed, and they couldn't get in, but they heard me screaming. I don't remember screaming, so I deny everything.
I tried to talk normally while it was happening. I felt like the whole affair was probably more taxing for the doctors than it was for me. I mean, at least I had morphine.
"I'm sorry," I said to one of the doctors. "People must say awful things to you while you're doing this procedure."
"One woman told me how much she hated me," the doctor said tranquilly.
I tried not to cry, but I cried. Like I said: soap opera territory.
Mr. Ambition never let go of my hand.
* * *
Mr. Ambition visited me in the hospital for hours every day. He brought me all kinds of awesome vegan smoothies. He met my parents, and got along well with them.
When she got a moment alone with me, my best girlfriend asked what was up with him. "You guys broke up, didn't you? What's next?"
"I'm not sure," I said. "We haven't talked about it."
When I was able to go home, Mr. Ambition helped move me in. My air conditioner had stopped working, which is not fun for August in Chicago, especially for a person wearing a fur-lined brace. He promised to lend me a fan.
I can't turn my head, so when Mr. Ambition arrived with the fan, I didn't realize it was him until he was standing right next to me. I was alone in my room, lying in bed, wearing only the brace and my underwear while I answered text messages. This was not as sexy as it sounds. Unless you're a medical device fetishist. In which case, I guess it was exactly as sexy as it sounds.
The fan was quickly installed next to my bed. I felt awkward because I was half-naked and wearing a complex brace. I felt awkward because I couldn't help with the fan. I also felt awkward because I was racking up unpayable debt to a man who was, to all appearances, my ex. I tried to cover my discomfort by answering some more texts; then I looked up at Mr. Ambition. I couldn't read his expression.
I felt oddly expressionless, myself. I felt wrung out. I couldn't think of any words I wanted to say.
Maybe that was our moment of truth: the moment had no chemistry at all.
I gave Mr. Ambition my hand. "Thank you so much for everything," I said.
"Of course," he said, squeezed my hand, and left.
* * *
After my accident, Richard sent me a quick email, then didn't contact me for over a month. I remembered what Mr. Ambition had said — encouraging me to send more emotional signals — so tried inviting Richard for dinner, and he didn't answer my text messages. When I finally ran into Richard, I asked why he'd been ignoring me, and he laughed. "I knew you'd accuse me of ignoring you," he said. I felt like I'd walked into a trap.
I was hurt, obviously. I was surprised by how hurt I was. The problem with my youthful water metaphor is that water is basically invulnerable, but I am not … and when I was younger and more open, I had much more trouble setting important boundaries.
On the other hand, I had to admit that it was funny, too. I mean, it wasn't like I didn't see this coming. I mean, one of my most popular essays includes a portrait of Richard at his most difficult. One of the friends I share with Richard made a comment about leopards and spots. Maybe my life is a soap opera, but it could also be a sitcom with the most amazing characterization ever.
I enlisted a cold, brilliant, evil-hearted friend to help draft my final letter to Richard. The letter was very short. Arguably, it was brutal. It read:
Economists recognize that the most robust relationships are formed through a plethora of implicit agreements. Apparently, these agreements are not present, and probably won't be. Cheers.
Economics arguments in the comments are encouraged. More importantly, readers may feel free to steal that letter for use on whoever is trying to pull their chain.
I received a couple texts from Mr. Ambition, a few days after he gave me the fan. He said there had been a death in his family. "But I don't want to talk about that, actually," he wrote. "I just want to check in and see how you're doing."
I thought about how he laughed when he was hurt. I thought about how he'd once told me that he wanted drama. I thought about his confusing reactions to S&M. I thought about how he outsourced his emotional labor to his friends. I thought about all the emotion I'd felt in him, coiled and caught and turned in on itself like a caged dragon.
I wondered if he wanted me to push him to talk.
"I'm so sorry," I texted back. "But I understand if you don't want to talk about it. I'm doing fine."
He invited me to a social event a week later, but I declined. I didn't reach out to him for a while after that, and he didn't reach out to me. I heard later that Mr. Ambition asked one of my friends whether they thought he owed me anything.
My friend told him, quite accurately: "No, you don't owe her anything."
If anything, I owe him. I'm not sure what I owe him, but I'm sure I owe him something. A billion dollars? Vegan smoothies?