As Polly Esther, The Awl’s existential advice columnist, Heather Havrilesky gives advice in this space every Wednesday. Here’s an excerpt from her memoir Disaster Preparedness about a bit of advice she once received.
“Find someone early, don’t wait!” My father’s thirtysomething girlfriend leaned across the table to deliver this advice in a stage whisper. I was only nineteen years old, and my father was within earshot. But Alice had tossed back a few glasses of red wine and she was winding up for one of her soliloquies. She didn’t have kids (not that she didn’t want them!) and she needed to save me from the same uncertain fate.
“Really?” I stabbed my steak with my fork, hoping she’d see how little I felt like discussing this in front of my dad.
“Yes, really.” she said, sitting back in her chair. “When I think about the great guys I dated in college, guys who would’ve married me in a heartbeat? Jesus…” She trailed off, looking over at my noncommittal, 50-year-old professor dad who was polishing off his halibut, hardly listening to her words.
I studied Alice across the table. What was wrong with her? She was reasonably attractive, smart, opinionated, and she seemed to like drinking. She was anything but boring. Maybe she was too demanding or too bossy and she went on and on about herself? Maybe she seemed confident on the outside, but once you got to know her she was insecure and needy and got teary at the drop of a hat? There had to be some reason she was dating a man 15 years her senior, a man who clearly wasn’t about to marry her or give her the babies she wanted. Sure, my dad was good-looking and successful, but he also juggled much younger girlfriends far and wide, including one or two in Europe, to visit when he gave talks abroad. “One girlfriend, or three,” he told me once. “But never two. If you have two, they’ll find out about each other, and they’ll be pissed.”
This was the sort of pragmatic advice my father bestowed: advice that made no sense (three girlfriends wouldn’t find out about one another somehow?), advice that had nothing to do with me.
My mother was even less helpful, limiting her counsel to some vague assertion of my appeal as a person, while inevitably managing to cast doubt on that appeal along the way. When I had a problem with a boyfriend and needed her input, her response was, “Who cares? If he’s not interested, I’m sure someone better will come along as soon as he’s gone.”
“Who said he’s not interested?”
“I’m not saying that, okay? I’m just saying it’s irrelevant. You’ll always have men eating out of your hands, no matter what you do. Why bother with someone who’s lukewarm?”
“Who said he’s lukewarm? Is that your impression?”
“Heather! Jesus! I’m just saying, there will always be lots of men who are interested in you, so why get hung up on someone who’s on the fence?”
And so it went. Any practical discussion of whether this particular boyfriend was on the fence or not was out of the question. It didn’t matter how much I said I liked him, or how much I wanted it to work. It was beneath my mother to mull whether this or that guy liked me or not, and it was beneath me, too. Why couldn’t I see that? She preferred to look at the big picture—I was a catch, damn it!—and ignore the little day-to-day bumps in the road. She wished I would hurry up and do the same thing.
My dad preferred the big picture, too. “All men are assholes!” he’d announce, almost gleefully. “Never forget that.”
“You’re a man.”
“Yep. That’s how I know.”
But instead of looking at the big picture, instead of casting a suspicious eye on the guys around me, instead of knowing that for every lukewarm asshole in my sights, there was another asshole waiting in the wings to take his place, I wondered suddenly if I shouldn’t nail down one particular asshole as soon as humanly possible.
After all, to hear Alice tell it, while college was a fertile paradise, teeming with virile young men anxious to settle down and start earning money to support their beautiful wives and darling babies, post-college life was a barren wasteland, populated by lecherous middle-aged divorcés who wouldn’t so much as lend you their bus pass after a night of hot sex.
So in keeping with Alice’s very practical advice—the only practical advice I’d probably received about love in the first 19 years of my life—I spent the next 15 years hoping to marry every single guy I dated.
I wanted to marry the ambitious but slightly shallow yuppie who knew way too much about expensive wine for a 21 year old. I wanted to marry the stubbornly childlike aspiring filmmaker who thought marriage was a bourgeois trap designed to damn otherwise spontaneous people to lives of mediocrity and silent longing. I wanted to marry the older divorcé who lounged around the house in MC Hammer pants, quoting his favorite passages from Conversations with God. I wanted to marry the balding, perpetually unemployed stoner who had a life-size cutout of the Emperor from The Empire Strikes Back in his bedroom. Instead of assuming that there would always be attractive, interesting men around, I adopted Alice’s scarcity mentality. I stretched out each relationship well past its natural shelf life. I remained committed despite big flaws and major incompatibilities.
Even so, like the school principal who’s determined to stick with even the hardest cases, I had impossibly high standards of behavior. I tried each boyfriend’s patience to no end. I was fault finding and relentless: This is not how the man I’m going to marry should act! I’d try to redirect his behavior, using polite but explicit terms. Hmm. How can I inform him, nicely, that my future husband should not talk about the wine at great length, or say things like “My mama didn’t raise no dummies—except for me and my brother!” or wear MC Hammer pants? How can I make it clear that my future husband should mention how pretty I am much more often? How can I make it plain that my future husband should ask about my day, then listen like his life depends on it?
Every step of the way, no matter how frustrated I became, I never realistically evaluated our differences or made a rational assessment of our inability to move forward as a couple. I thought each guy constituted my one last chance to nab a husband before I lost my looks or resorted to dating middle-aged swingers. I just had to make this one work, there was no other option.
The irony was that, right before Alice delivered her little speech, I had just broken up with the perfect guy, the ultimate future husband. Henry and I fell in love the first day of college. We stayed up late every night, listening to music and making out and marveling over how perfect we were for each other. He was unbelievably cute and he was crazy about me. He hung on my every word. He couldn’t wait for his parents to meet me. He raved about how incredible I was, how much he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. On Valentine’s Day, he got me a huge heart-shaped box of chocolates, a necklace, a teddy bear, a heart-shaped balloon, and a dozen roses with a card that said: “This is what it’s all about.” I wanted to be caught up in the moment, but I couldn’t quite tamp down my skepticism. “Really?” I thought. “This is what it’s all about? Valentine’s Day? It’s all about buying a bunch of red crap for your girlfriend on a manufactured consumer holiday?”
But Henry was a romantic. He could get whipped into a state of almost hysterical sentimentality over any little thing: a walk through campus, a trip to our favorite BBQ joint, you name it. There was music playing in his head. He was at the center of his own little romance novel, and I was the ravishing lead with the flowing hair and heaving bosoms spilling out of her bustier.
College life isn’t kind to romantics. That spring, as I reveled in the joys of drinking cold beer with rooms full of cute, flirtatious upperclassmen with broad shoulders and deep voices, Henry confessed that he sometimes worried that I would get bored and break up with him, sooner or later. “No, no. That’ll never happen!” I told him immediately.
Then I thought, “I’m going to get bored and break up with him, sooner or later.”
That fall, just as Henry had predicted, I became fixated on a mercurial guy named Finn. Finn would ramble on about highly personal stuff whenever he got drunk (which was often)—his relationship with his father, his ongoing existential crisis. He was smart and very intense and could talk for several hours straight, always viewing the world in alienated, suspicious terms. He seemed a little depressed and whenever he sobered up, he couldn’t remember any of our conversations.
I became obsessed with Finn. How could I resist? Henry was totally dedicated to me. Finn barely even noticed when I was in the room. Henry wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. Finn was liable to pass out or wander home with some other girl at any second. Henry listened to my every word with great concentration and focus. Finn could hardly focus on my face.
So I dumped Henry. He was depressed for months. He wandered the hallways of his dorm at night, weeping audibly, keeping all of his friends awake. The breakup was tougher for me than I expected. I missed Henry, and didn’t realize how much I’d derived my happiness and confidence from his presence. There was only one thing to do: follow Finn around until he agreed to go out with me.
Eventually, Finn and I started hanging out regularly, but we were never officially dating. There were no flowers on Valentine’s Day, no cards singed your best friend always and forever, no mix tapes with sentimental titles featuring sappy songs by Don Henley, no long phone calls. I just showed up where I knew Finn would be, and at the end of the night, he’d ramble on about himself as we walked to my dorm room together. Unlike Henry, who was always worried about the tone of my voice or what that look on my face meant, Finn hardly noticed anything about me. But he refused to discuss whether or not he was on the fence about me—this talk was beneath him. He had bigger, more existentially pressing fish to fry—just like my mother did! When he woke up hungover and saw his pale face in the mirror, he called himself an asshole—just what my dad would’ve called him! In other words, while Henry felt unnaturally positive and warm, Finn felt like home.
Also, he was really tall and he didn’t listen to Don Henley.
This is how your mind works when you’re 19. But once I had that awful conversation with Alice, I was tortured, because why was my future husband getting wasted and puking into that trash can, then flirting with a random woman he just met by the keg?
Even so, this pattern continued for years. I rejected relationships with stable, genuinely interested men to go out with lukewarm, inappropriate, unavailable, self-involved, off-kilter mutants. It would be unfair to call them assholes. Most of them were nice guys, guys who could easily make a less demanding woman very happy, guys who I made pay dearly for their future-husband status. And even as they pulled away, I became more determined to imitate what I thought a fulfilling relationship should look like: I prattled on endlessly about the farthest reaches of my emotional landscape, analyzing and unpacking past experiences, unleashing a torrent of what I thought were hopelessly charming anecdotes, escaping into rambling monologues on the unacceptability of patchy facial hair or pug dogs or insupportable fashion trends. I figured I deserved to loom large, to confess every detail of my history. I thought I should be accepted and embraced for everything I felt and thought, for everything I’d ever felt and thought before. I figured I should be celebrated and adored, like some kind of a demigod.
In other words, I was a lukewarm, inappropriate, unavailable, self-involved, off-kilter mutant. Maybe this was the glue, the common ground that kept me and my so-called future husbands together.
Yet, inevitably, each future husband would decide that he would prefer not to be my future husband. This took longer than you might imagine—somewhere between 18 months and two years in most cases. Often, I was forced to end the relationship myself, but not without provocation: Typically my future husband had proclaimed his total unwillingness to be my future husband several times before I finally relieved him of his duties.
This pattern finally shifted the night that my last so-called future husband, Dave, returned home from an East Coast trip. During an expensive welcome-back dinner (I was buying, of course), Dave described telling his friends (and their happy, baby-flanked wives) how I was ever so anxious to get married. He told them I had become despondent when I didn’t get an engagement ring for my birthday. He related this story to me cheerfully and matter-of-factly, munching away the whole time.
Of course he was right. I’d wanted an engagement ring for as long as I could remember—from anyone, really—but that’s not what had made me so upset on my birthday. I’d been annoyed because he ran out to the drugstore that morning and returned with a copy of Finding Nemo (because he loved that movie!) and then asked me for some wrapping paper to wrap it with. That was not how my future husband should act, was all.
I was horrified. My boyfriend not only got me a crappy animated movie for my birthday, but he turned around and told all of his friends that what I really wanted was a ring! Then he had the audacity to tell me about it.
“So . . .” I asked, willing myself not to lose my cool right there in the restaurant. “What did Ellen and Ava and Rebecca say?” I needed to know what the wives, with the babies on their hips and the adorable toddlers running around in their four-bedroom houses, had thought about this.
“They said you should dump me,” he replied, stuffing his mouth full of fish. I looked down at the untouched salmon on my plate, and suddenly it dawned on me: This was not how my future husband would act because this was not my future husband! This was just some balding, unemployed comedy writer, eating a good dinner on my dime. Hot damn, why was I even having dinner with this guy?
But I didn’t say another word. I got up and walked out of the restaurant, and sat down by a fountain outside. It was time to take the very practical advice offered by these wives, albeit secondhand. It was time to look at the big picture. I was 34 years old. I would always have men eating out of my hands, I told myself. I tried to picture myself at 65, old and gray, surrounded by fawning men, all of them chowing down on grilled fish.
Dave came outside, sat down next to me, and smoked a cigarette. I told him that he should move out. He finished his cigarette, and we went back inside and finished dinner.
I wish the story ended there, with me the picture of grace and self-restraint, silently moving forward alone, but that’s not my style. Instead we returned to the house we shared and I cried for at least an hour, and then, surrounded by a pile of snotty tissues, I proceeded to deliver a series of lengthy treatises on my utter desirability as a future wife, including some extended musing on the totally unthinkable, insane notion that anyone, let alone someone with a full-size cut-out of the Emperor in his bedroom, would willfully turn his back on the prospect of marrying me, glorious me, wonderful me, hot mustard and me, me!
Let’s face it, if you have to expound upon your countless qualities as a future wife, you might as well just staple bologna to your face and screech like a wild bird. Making a strong case to a man about your viability as a prospective wife is about as wise as informing your current girlfriend that you know that she’s going to dump you, sooner or later. I think that’s what my mom was trying to tell me, years before, but somehow it took me 20 years to figure it out.
When Dave moved out, I was Alice’s age. Was there something wrong with me? Yes. I was attracted to indifference. I settled, and then tortured my boyfriends for it.
At age 34, it was way too late to find someone early, as Alice had strongly recommended. I figured it was probably too late to find someone at all. I decided I would just have to adopt a baby on my own eventually. In the meantime, I’d get a few more dogs. I would work on my songwriting. I would write a novel or two. I would paint the rooms of my house weird colors. I would be messy and odd and interesting, the sort of woman who didn’t worry about what men thought, at long last. I’d be the sort of woman who knew that men would always be interested in her, but didn’t particularly care either way.
This dog-lady vision was comforting to me, somehow. And soon, instead of telling men I met that I was the perfect catch, I started to tell them the truth, based on what my ex-boyfriends had told me over the years: Like Alice, I was reasonably attractive, smart, opinionated, and anything but boring, but I was also very demanding and way too bossy and I went on and on about myself sometimes. Furthermore, despite appearances, I was insecure and needy and got teary at the drop of a hat.
That fall, I met someone new. He was smart and handsome and thoughtful and funny. Even though I was tempted to gloss over my flaws a little, I told him the truth. I warned him that I was impatient and demanding and emotionally overwrought and sentimental and earnest and exasperating, and I could be a serious pain in the ass.
“So, in other words, you’re a woman,” he said.
And I thought, That’s exactly what my future husband would say!
Previously in series: Say I’m Alright
Also by this author: 3 Tired TV Tropes & 3 Shows That Toppled Them
Heather Havrilesky is The Awl’s existential advice columnist. This excerpt is reprinted from DISASTER PREPAREDNESS by Heather Havrilesky by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) 2010 by Heather Havrilesky. Photo by Taryn.