As a teen, I didn’t have much luck with girls. Part of it was that I didn’t come from a line of glib conversationalists. I didn’t dress snappily. I used words like snappily. I focused mostly on studies. For Friday-night fun, I belonged to a Christian youth group, which might best be thought of as a group prophylactic.
Once, I called up a girl named Barb who sat in front of me in Physics who was smart, pretty, and deliciously cynical. I asked her if she wanted to be my girlfriend.
“The problem,” she said “is that I have a lot of schoolwork this semester, and….” Blah blah blah.
One day, I was rummaging through my mother’s mementos and discovered an old photograph that intrigued me. It was a picture of my mother’s old high school friend Betty. She was devastatingly pretty. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I imagined that she came from fascinating parents with interesting pasts. Maybe they had been aristocracy in Mexico before the revolution, and then lost everything with the onslaught of Pancho Villa’s army. I imagined that he was a European Languages scholar or a rancher. There was a twinkle in her eye that seemed to imply she and all her people knew things I didn’t.
In college, I continued my long tradition of striking out with women. Sometimes, I thought it might be because I never wanted women who wanted me. In some way, it seemed to imply that they didn’t deserve me. That was a pattern that happened again and again.
“You’re too intense,” my friend Michael said. “You should loosen up a bit.”
One of the few times I smoked dope, I lost track of time. I wandered around in a tunnel of timelessness. Looked down at my feet and saw my 7-year-old bare feet. Had a profound revelation that implied exactly the same thing Michael had advised: Loosen up. Never forget this lesson. It will transform you. It is the answer to everything.
I was high for three days afterwards, but after I sobered up, it still seemed like a good strategy. One day in my senior year, I interpreted loosening up as getting drunk. It had worked for Hemingway, Chandler, and my father’s favorite author, Thorne Smith.
“He wrote the Topper novels,” my Dad said. “They say he couldn’t write unless he was drunk. He wrote a novel about a man who marries a witch. They turned it into Bewitched.”
They say that I threw up on my date. They say that she jumped up, screamed, then ran outside and jumped into the pool. I didn’t end up with that girl, either.
A few years later, Chloe was a very different kind of beauty. She was a blonde beauty who did everything with grace. She seemed to float through life on a cloud of I’m Beautiful and Nothing Else Matters. There was an angel motif in her apartment. As we began dating, I tried to get to know her, but very soon, it became clear that it was like trying to get to know a brick wall. We took long walks and I used my journalistic interviewing skills on her.
“What’s your first memory?” I asked.
“I was four years old and I remember a lamp flying across the room.”
But not much else was forthcoming, and when I tried to push it, she became angry.
Liquor had no part in that relationship, but dysfunction did. It finally foundered when I discovered, nine months after the fact, that I had been The Other Man when we had first started dating. Soon, it became clear that she was playing both of us. And that was the end of that.
Five years later, I got together with Claire. She didn’t have that cold, forbidding beauty, but instead, an alert-eyed, ever-present beauty that doesn’t attempt to game you. I’ve had to train myself that cold beauty is usually a mask for lamps flying across the living room. There seems to be a direct mathematical relationship between the amount of makeup a woman wears and her degree of manipulativeness. Claire’s beauty walks down the stairs in flats and looks you straight in the eye. Claire’s beauty says Hi, not Buy me something. Claire’s beauty is that she’s always present, always open, always loving to everyone and everything.
Years later, I can finally say that I’ve mastered this loosening up thing, and without ever drinking. I’ve never thrown up on Claire. In fact, yesterday Claire asked me if I wanted to have a beer with her.
“I’ll have a sip of yours,” I said.
“I was afraid you’d say that,” she said.
“It’s empty calories.”
Beer doesn’t transform me, I’ve realized, it just transforms my waistline.
Recently, when leaving a Thai restaurant, she waved at the aquarium.
“What were you doing?” I asked.
“Waving at the fish,” she said.
“I just wanted them to feel acknowledged.”
(In a way, this very post is like me waving at Claire, the fish in the aquarium: “Fish Girl, you are acknowledged.”)
Once, I was talking with a married male friend and we saw a poster of a superhot Sports Illustrated model.
“Yeah, she may be as sexy as hell,” he admitted, “but somewhere, some poor guy is putting up with her sh*t,” he said.
Betty, I’ve been told by my mother, got married to her high school boyfriend and they had a family. Once the kids were grown, she was so demanding, selfish, and arbitrary that her husband left her. Surprisingly, none of her children even wanted to be around her. Christmas and other holidays are now spent alone in her big old house. She’s miserable with everyone. She’s in her eighties now. She never gets out. But once, she was very, very pretty.