Let me share an example from high school. I’ve already written about my first kiss, which occurred the summer after my eighth grade year, but my first relationship of any true depth—or trauma—began about halfway through my freshman year. This girlfriend was the first in a series of what my dad, with sarcasm that I inherited, calls “real winners.” Facebook, and perhaps good taste, prevent me from using her real name, so let’s call her Jezebel.
Spending time with Jezebel was like spending time in Colorado. I attended a wedding a couple of weekends ago in Breckenridge. I needed sunglasses during the ceremony, the sun was shining so fiercely at Ten Mile Station, 11,000 feet above sea level. During the reception, however, the sky dropped sheets of wet snow. Hot and cold, hot and cold, that’s what dates with Jezebel were like.
Unlike other cold-blooded creatures, she did not take on the temperature of her environment; the environment took on the temperature of her heart, meaning that temperature inside my car would drop about twenty degrees once she shut the door.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “Well, she just didn’t like you that much,” and that would be a logical conclusion. You can, therefore, understand my confusion when her friends told me that she’d told them that I was the only guy she wanted to date. Hmm. When we actually spent time together, she welcomed my presence and conversation about as much as a rash.
I gained some insight into this frigidity later on, but between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, I bloodied my head—and my heart—trying to analyze my way through a wall of ice.
She lived a good forty-five minutes away from me, so on date nights, we’d meet at a halfway point, Bellevue Mall. After buckling up in the passenger seat of The Toast, my ’88 Honda Accord, she would stare straight ahead and say nothing.
“How was your day?” I’d ask.
[Here we go again. Lucky me, getting to romance Jadis, the White Witch of Narnia.]
“What did you do?” I’d ask, trying to get some traction.
[Maybe English isn’t her first language. Maybe she’s uncomfortable trying to form whole sentences with subjects, verbs, and predicates. I wish I spoke Spanish.]
“Were you just hanging out at home all day?”
As you can imagine, this kind of painstaking conversation would snuff out my excitement. Where does one purchase a down jacket for the heart, to keep out the cold? If I were smart, I would have gutted my savings account to acquire one.
On one particular night, I decided to take Jezebel to Calypso Café. By the time we drove across town and pulled into the parking lot, I was as love-starved as a man marooned on an island, Robinson Crusoe or Tom Hanks’s character in Castaway.
We sat down at a two-top where I ordered a Chicken Breast Pita with Aruban honey lime sauce and Jezebel ordered the Tropical Chicken Salad. After fifteen more minutes of extracting words like so many molars and incisors, our food came.
Maybe it was a desperate need for comic relief, or maybe someone pumped nitrous oxide into the room because there was a simple explanation: Calypso Café mixes curry into the mayonnaise used in its chicken salad. Whatever the root cause, when the waitress set down Jezebel’s plate, I lost it.
Ice cream scoops of bright yellow chicken salad? How absurd! This was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. Tears streamed down my face as I approached the border of lunacy.
I met Jezebel’s stony gaze. She failed to see the humor of the situation.
“Stop laughing at my food, ” she said.
“I can laugh all I want. I’m paying for it,” I replied.
I’m not saying that was a sweet thing to say, but even sweet guys—I was one of them at the time—reach their limit of patience.
What she said next shocked me into silence, though I should have known that her meanness would trump mine. She’d had more practice.
“And that’s your privilege.”
[Did I just hear her correctly? Did she just say that it’s my privilege to punish myself by taking her out on dates? No. She. didn’t.]
* * * *
Whenever I tell this story, the listeners, especially the men, say, “I hope you took her home!”
I wish I had. I can’t even remember what happened later in the evening, but I’m pretty sure we ended up making out, which always left me with one of two feelings. Either I felt like I was kissing a mannequin because Jezebel’s face was frozen and unresponsive, or on the rare occasion that she opted to come alive at the stroke of midnight and kiss me back, I felt like she wasn’t sharing intimacy with me as much as using me for momentary escape.
If that scene in Forrest Gump in which Jenny prays, “Dear God, make me a bird so I can fly far, far away,” were a physical gesture, kissing me was Jezebel’s prayer asking someone to help her escape.
From whom or what she never told me.
All I remember about that night are her words of entitlement: “And that’s your privilege.”
Behind what I have since dubbed her “Princess Complex”—her assumptions that 1) as a man, I was obligated to practice chivalry and bear the full financial burden of our relationship and that 2) she was under no corresponding or complementary obligation to care for me—was a deep reservoir of pain. Ghosts hovered above those waters.
Later experiences caused me to reflect back on my relationship with Jezebel, and I found reason to believe that they were the ghosts of men with ugly appetites.
Ten years passed before I began to understand that her treatment of me had almost nothing to do with me at all. Her inability to love and care for me said nothing about who I was then or who I am now. I carried that cargo of lies for over a decade, and if I hadn’t paid close attention to each new woman, then those lies could have shaped my perception of myself and my relationships with women for another ten years.
The point I want to make in this essay is that knowledge gained from an experience with one woman is not necessarily applicable to subsequent experiences with the same woman or a different one. Experiences with new women, however, can untie the knots of our past relationships. Becoming a student and choosing to learn from women rather than dismiss them as crazy persons necessary for sexual pleasure and procreation gave me greater access to myself.
Sure, you could argue that if I had avoided Jezebel’s crazy country, then I never would have picked up the cargo, but as a traveler, I want to carry myself with more grace and dignity than that attitude allows. It suggests a fundamental antagonism between men and women that I refuse to endorse.
Men and women need one another’s differences. Both sexes need the other’s craziness to stay sane. I should not have allowed Jezebel to speak to me that way, but neither should I have run away. I should have asked more questions, and without trying to save her, which was and is beyond my power, I should have left her country better than I found it. I hope I did.
I also hope to call one and only one country home one day. I will need a lifetime to learn how to appreciate her sweet, necessary craziness, and she, mine. We all need a lifetime to be changed.