by Joe Berkowitz and Hallie Bateman
Some people say they have no regrets. I regret things about this morning. (Also yesterday morning. Pretty much any morning.) Show me a person with no regrets and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t considered all the possibilities. It’s this kind of catastrophe-awareness, though, that can make dating feel impossible. By the time you’ve been through a few relationships, it’s hard not to size up anyone you have feelings for as an ambassador of future regrets. Time misspent. Integrity diminished. Memories that follow you everywhere like Pac-Man ghosts.
Every new relationship is a potential future ghost. It takes an almost delusional level of optimism to ignore the possibility. But we try our best. We’re like the nomadic survivors on The Walking Dead — skeptical of new people, but maybe not enough. The dwindling principal cast on that show always stumbles on a fresh community, gives them the benefit of the doubt, and then somehow it all ends in a bloodbath. Still, they continue searching. Even though I’ve never personally witnessed blunt zombie-fingers rip through buttery chest cavities, I relate to The Walking Dead more than any of the infinite TV series about thirtysomething white-guy malaise. It’s the unlikely suspension of distrust. No matter how badly I’ve been ripped apart before, I never lose faith in the dream of sustainable shelter from the zombiepocalypse of solitude. When I met my girlfriend on a holiday party couch, starting a conversation about her electric blue pants of all things, a voice in the back of my head was already whispering that maybe this time it will be better. Maybe this time it will be the last time.
Very few people up and join a cult as soon as they enter a prayer circle in the freegan farmhouse. Instead, they’re honeypotted with promises of enlightenment, and only gradually discover the creepy clause in the contract. By then, it’s too late and you’re already eliminating suppressive persons from your life and accruing operating thetan levels like cub scout badges. Similarly, when you start to see someone, all you see is their best stuff — the premium anecdotes, conveniently aligned opinions, and outfits with accent pieces. There’s no way to know the other details right away, like whether this person has ever had bedbugs or played quidditch. If we did, we’d all be making sober decisions early on instead of slowly revealing our dealbreakers by hanging out together. Once you get to know someone beyond the way their face makes you feel or their perfectly timed joke about Law & Order: SVU, once you memorize their scars and befriend their pets, it might dawn on you that you’ve finally met someone who ticks all the boxes and even adds new boxes. By the time you lose track of which outfits this person has seen you in, and stopped conditionally customizing opinions, it’s too late — you’ve joined a cult of two, like couples who CrossFit.
If you could train two puddles of vomit to say “I miss you already” a thousand times a day, it would be an accurate performance art piece depicting couples in their Honeymoon Phase. Aficionados would applaud your attention to detail, and Marina Abramović would petition to adopt you. “Honeymoon Phase” is a misnomer, though. An actual honeymoon is just an echo of the initial infatuation, with an all-inclusive resort tacked on. By the time most couples get there, they already know each other so well that any surprises count as full-blown betrayals, signaling a possible invasion of body-snatchers. But during the infatuation phase, even just discovering that my girlfriend also craves fried pickles or that she used to play the violin registers as news worthy of World War III headline font. Infatuation is nostalgia’s cool cousin who knows how to party. Staying in on Friday night is now a slumber party with your best pal, where you order Indian food, watch a horror movie, drink whiskey, and mess around. You feel like geniuses for figuring out you can even do this, and everyone else seems like idiots for being with anyone else. Boring stuff is exciting again, experienced through the new prism of We. That nine-hour train-ride to Vermont just whizzed by! Every new way you spend a Saturday has an aura of infinite possibility. This could be how it is from now on: so wonderful and disgusting everyone else could just puke.
Unlike companies on the New York Stock Exchange, only after single people are off the market can they go public and issue a relationship-IPO. Friends and family receive the announcement happily, but are unsure how much emotional capital to invest, without seeing key performance indicators. Everybody asks whether you two are getting serious, despite the fact that this is a bizarre question. (What are you supposed to say? “It’s actually not serious?” “We make love in the style of Monty Python?”) Now the stakes are suddenly higher. If it doesn’t work, you have a lot of ret-conning to do about why you were never right for each other to begin with and how this is for the best. So you make plans for the future, putting tiny down payments on staying together. You establish routines in dinner preparation chores, along with backrub style and duration. You experience a conscious coupling. There’s now a performance element to things — convincing the world as you convince each other that you’re basically the #relationshipgoals hashtag incarnate. You look to what everybody is saying, or not saying, for a sense of your street value, and hope it doesn’t turn out to be a bubble.
When things are going well, I always start to worry that the other shoe is going to drop — that there’s an entire Narnia-closet filled with other shoes. Any traits I may have downplayed at the beginning aren’t gone forever, but lying dormant. Some people say “if you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best,” but even I can’t handle me at my worst. I hate that guy! Maybe the ultimate lifehack is finding someone you want to never freak out in front of so you can trick yourself into being perfect from now on. That’s me calmly waiting while our flight delay is sorted out. That’s me, meeting her handsome guy friends with studied nonchalance. It’s not a lie if how I am for her is how I always wanted to be.
Even when it seems we’re past the point in a relationship of playing games, communication can still feel like an exercise in Cold War-era brinkmanship. We say things that seem designed to provoke, because we now know each other enough to potentially implant hidden meaning in any sentence. Each of us is basically a collection of things we’ve learned to say in different situations, which becomes a huge problem when you misidentify a situation. It always turns out that I only thought we were playing games when we weren’t — I might as well have initiated a round of chess with a cat. The only game we’re playing is taking turns on the high horse about who looks at their phone too often. And sometimes Mario Kart. If things were really this good, would I continue to worry so much, or do I only worry so much because things are really this good?
Nothing gets a new couple high on their own supply like having brunch with an inferior couple. You trade glances and sub-table knee-squeezes, aching with anticipation for the moment you can openly talk smack about them. So many other couples practically live inside a mobile dust-cloud of flying limbs while you, well, you’ve never even had a fight. Your existence is a möbius strip of montage sequences — watching the grunion run and skipping stones forever. When the first fight finally does arrive, it feels like a fluke. You make up fairly quickly and laugh it off. Just a misunderstanding that penalties out to some extra affection. How ridiculous that you were even fighting over something so stupid — you’re both such dumb idiots! It’s a little harder to make up the second time. Now, part of the fight is about the fact that you’re fighting at all and how you’re worried the spell may be broken. The slide from “We never fight!” to “We make up well!” feels like the point in a nice dream when you realize you’re dreaming.
Making someone fall in love with you is a magic trick. You misdirect attention from the parts of yourself you don’t want seen, stack the deck with the parts you do, and when it works, you make the rest of the world disappear. But there’s nothing less exciting than finding out how a magic trick works. Maybe you repeat a joke about Law & Order: SVU at the exact same verbal prompt as before, and now it’s clear it was always one from your repertoire. Also, that you have a repertoire. What comes after seeing the same outfits over and over again is hearing the same anecdotes and jokes for a second and third time as you go to more parties together. Once you’re no longer a new couple, something has to replace the novelty. That’s how a magic trick ceases being a trick. People mourn when the mystery starts to wear off, but that’s when you can stop being audience to a magic show.While you’re sitting there at some party, telling the same story again for the thousandth time, you absently touch each other’s arms as though you still can’t believe you’re both there and how lucky you are it wasn’t all an illusion. Abracadabra.