I didn’t even realize I sucked at love until I was sitting alone by a fountain in a foreign country trying to get my hopelessly useless international mobile to work. In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to hear a familiar voice, or even better yet be back across the ocean where I could try to make things right, but neither was about to happen, so I settled for a good ugly cry instead. While locals looked on with a lack of interest that seemed to suggest I was not the first American girl to pick this spot for a breakdown, I reflected on how I wound up there, feeling so very alone, a stranger in a strange place. And that’s when it hit me. I sucked at love. Not so much at falling in love – that came way too easily to me and way too often – rather at the act of maintaining it. But I’m getting ahead of myself. You see, I didn’t just wind up by a beautiful sixteenth century fountain having major life epiphanies overnight. No, it was a long series of events, right turns instead of left, makeups and breakups, what if’s and second tries that brought me to that moment. So let’s start at the most logical place… somewhere in the middle.
I’m a freshman in college. After having to do my entire senior year on homeschooling, I am lucky to even be there. But I’m young and vain and all I can concentrate on is that I look frail, pale and sickly. The medication I’m on makes me tired and nauseous all the time. I’m lucky to make friends with girls across the hall because in general no one wants to be friends with the awkward sick girl in the medical single. I want to be a theater major, so I start putting in the required hours. My first assignment is to sit in a box on the stage and have stuff dropped on me. I’m the inner mechanics of a trash compactor in a one act play. I have to catch the various things the actor drops in and make it look like smoke is bellowing out the side. Because the box I sit in is so big and heavy I stay on the stage for the entire production. Not glamorous, but easy enough. I bring a flashlight and a magazine and try to stay awake while I wait for items to fall from the sky. Sometimes I doze off. Things fall on my head. Oh well.
The one act play that’s running in the spot after ours has masked elves and fairies running around the theater at the same time we’re there. Masks freak me out so this doesn’t bode well. After our rehearsals and performances, it’s the stage crew’s responsibility to clear and set the stage for the next play. Being in the trash compactor makes me stage crew. I weigh ninety pounds. Awesome. I almost drop a piece of the set I’m struggling with when one of the elves I’ve seen with his mask off, and was therefore able to look at without panicking, walks across the stage. Days earlier I had seen him coming into rehearsal and my little seventeen year old heart had pitter pattered. He seemed handsome and funny and everything else that was good and great. Alas he was a senior and I was a lowly freshman with a boy cut and pasty skin. Completely off his radar.
So I stand there pining away in what I think is secret about to break my foot with a piece of set when it suddenly becomes light as a feather moving across the stage. I’m dumbfounded until I look to my right to see a smiling face picking up my slack. “You like him?” his voice is slightly strained as he’s doing my job for me. I am mortified. “Who?” I bluff. He motions with his head towards, let us call him The Extra. He motions his head towards The Extra with a sly smile. “Maybe.” I concede. I‘ve been found out and my cheeks blush. “I know him,” he says, and then we’re done moving the set; I use the term we loosely. We’re standing in the wings when he announces as if he’s proud of himself, “I could introduce you.” “Really?” I’m sure I ask it with a little too much enthusiasm. He takes a pen from his ear and writes his aim screen name (remember aim?) on my hand. He tells me to IM him later. I leave the theater that night with a spring in my step, or at least as much of a spring as I can manage given my current condition.
I’m not much on patience, so the minute I see my new friend’s away message go away later that day I’m ready and typing. We make a plan to meet in the commons for the lunch and he’ll invite The Extra along for the introduction. By afternoon the next day I’ve already decided where The Extra and I will live once we’re married and named our eventual three kids– two girls and a boy in case you’re wondering.
I show up for lunch and my new friend is there, but no Extra. He apologizes for not being able to get ahold of him and we chat about my classes. He tells me about each of my professors and what they do and don’t like in assignments. It turns out he’s a junior and a theater major as well. We part ways with him promising a re-do on an introduction to The Extra and as I walk away I run into my friends from across the hall who apparently know all about the boy I was just eating lunch with… or at least want to.
One of the girls goes on and on about how hot he is as we walk to class. She plays a fairy in the play with him and then adds that she never sees him talking to anyone at the theater. I find that odd given how friendly he was, but there isn’t much time to think about it because she’s asking me to introduce her and I’m agreeing. It strikes me that I’ve started a chain of ogling from afar and promised introductions and something about it seems oddly exciting.
I wind up having many more lunches with my new friend, and eventually I forget that he’s never introduced me to The Extra… or maybe I just stop caring. He begins helping me with assignments and picks up slack for me at the theater with each new production. At my fairy friend’s behest, I invite him over to my room for a “party” consisting of a few friends, cheap vodka and popcorn– my finest offerings. She does her best to get his attention, but he sits close to me and all he talks about is the random things we’ve done over the course of the past few weeks. He makes it sound like we’ve known each other forever, referencing things like we share inside jokes. I see my girl friends giving me the eye, wondering what’s going on between him and I, but their guess is as good as mine. He kisses me on the forehead goodbye that night, and for the first time I realize I’ve grown to like him.
We become inseparable and I begin thinking this is how falling in love is supposed to happen. Steady and slow and easy. Not a mention is made of our relationship status and nothing more physical than a hug or a quick kiss hello and goodbye passes between us, and yet I feel so incredibly close to him. I’m almost ready to tell him how I feel when I find out I am a fool.
We’re sitting on his dorm room floor, I’m sketching out a stage for a theater design class and he’s typing something on his laptop. He breaks the silence and drops the words on me that should have been a sign that I would never be able to have an honest relationship with him without even making eye contact.
“My girlfriend is coming to visit next week.”
I remember feeling like I must have suddenly developed one of those brain disorders that makes you hear the wrong words when people speak. It had been two months since I met him and in all that time, in all the afternoons spent studying, nights spent cuddled up watching movies, never once did he mention a girlfriend. I was at a loss for words when he dealt the blow that made it even worse.
“I’m going to need you to take down some of the pictures in your room when I bring her over to meet you.”
I truly felt like I was in some bizarre-o world, where he hadn’t just posed with me and all my friends taking selfies before it was cool with arms wrapped around me, kissing my cheeks. The pictures I had just taped to my wall the week before. I should have told him he was a jerk. I should have said don’t bring her to meet me. But I didn’t. My only act of rebellion was leaving one picture, the one he picked, from the pile of drugstore printed images as his favorite, hanging beside my bed when he brought Margaret to my room a week later.
Margaret, a tall skinny and beautiful ballet student, eyed me and the image disdainfully as she fake smiled and said how nice it was to meet her boyfriend’s new “little friend.” He stood beside her looking pained and saying we should all go have a meal. I thought the torture would be done with this weird field trip to my room, but no. I go along for an uncomfortable pizza trip before returning to my room and crying for the rest of the weekend.
When Margaret leaves that Monday, he messages me all day asking me why I’m mad at him. I don’t answer and go about trying to get over the situation. He gives up trying to get me to talk to him by Wednesday and that makes it worse somehow. My fairy friend a little too delightfully points out the fact that I’m all upset about the end of a relationship that never really existed and my self pity increases tenfold.
I eventually decide I need to stop being so pathetic and decide to go to a party another theater kid is throwing with a guy friend from and fellow theater major from down the hall, we’ll call him John. He’s secretly rendezvousing with fairy girl from down the hall, despite the fact that she too has a secret boyfriend we’ve recently all found out about, and the irony of it all isn’t lost on me. John’s upset about her unwillingness to break-up with her actual boyfriend and needs a night out as badly as I do, so the two of us venture out safely in the “friend zone.”
We get to a small pub style venue on campus filled with our fellow thespians and we instantly know we’ve made the wrong decision showing up together. One after another, people keep asking if we’re dating. We do our best to say no without being hit with a “doth protest too much” or insulting each others’ worthiness. I sit down at a stool at the mock bar and wait for someone behind the counter to acknowledge my desperate need of a hot chocolate extra whip cream to make this awkward night at least a little better when I hear his voice.
“Don’t tell me you’re dating that John kid now.” It’s my new old friend, we’ll call him Indecision. Fresh off breaking my heart, he’s now ready to criticize my hypothetical dating choices. I give him the same line as everyone else, maintaining John’s dignity as a datable member of the population, that I just happen to not be interested in. Indecision flags down the girl behind the counter and orders two drinks. But I don’t want one he’s ordered for me and I don’t want to be around him, because with him squeezed between me and the person on the stool next to me, all I can think about is holding him like I did that one night when we passed out watching bad cartoons. He can tell I’m somewhere else and says, “Talk to me.”
“About what?” I ask even though I have so much to say. So much to ask. Why did you lead me on? Why are you with her? Why don’t you love me? But instead I let that question hang hoping he answers questions I leave unsaid. Instead he looks at me sadly and says, “About anything. I miss you.” And I’m a fool once again.
We go back to how we were and I pretend Margaret doesn’t exist. I go through another serious bout of illness and he carries me to the ladies room and sits on the floor with me as I throw my guts up. He tells me I’m beautiful as I complain about how disgustingly embarrassing it all is and wipes away my tears when I’m having days when it’s hard just to get to class. I give him a shirt for his birthday that I pick out special because it will look nice with his eyes and he tells me about how his family was homeless for awhile and gifts were not something he was ever used to. He wears that shirt every other day and I tell myself he loves me, not her.
And then Margaret comes to visit again and my world is shattered. I’m hurt in a way I’ve never experienced before, and in my immaturity I want him to feel that hurt too, so I date his roommate. It results in our friendship crumbling and him requesting and receiving a room transfer. He swears it’s because of a personality conflict, but I know the truth. We stop talking for the rest of the year and eventually I break up with his former roommate.
Over the summer, I start a relationship with someone who will become known as If Only Things Had Been Different, and return for a new school year happy and healthy. I quickly realize Indecision lives in my building and now with the time that has passed, we slowly begin to stop and chat for longer periods of time. I realize his friendship was important to me and now that I’m happily involved, I see no danger in letting him lounge on my bed and run lines or sharing a futon three floors up while we watch a movie on his laptop, even though he’s now free of Margaret. But then Indecision begins to answer my dorm phone and tell my boyfriend I’m busy and can’t talk. He drops by when my boyfriend is visiting and acts a little too at home in my room. He acts… jealous. It’s odd and I tell myself it’s me reading into things just as I did before. I’m happy with the way things are, I have my friend and boyfriend and I don’t want there to be any issue there.
And there isn’t one, not for lack of drama but because just as everything is going great my condition acts up again and I’m back home finishing the semester and having to take the next one off. I keep in touch with Indecision and all of my other college friends online the best I can, but as I struggle with my health issues it’s hard to stay engaged. They take a toll on everything and the only thing I’m able to think about a majority of the time is how I’m going to be able to live a normal life.
So I’m shocked when Indecision messages me shortly before his graduation telling me that he had had feelings for me all along and tried to make that known before I had left school early that year. I’m sure he’s intoxicated by the way he’s typing and my only reaction is anger at the “why tell me now” of it all. The conversation ends without any resolution and the next time we talk he’s back in his home state across the country and he acts as if he had never made the revelation.
We continue to talk over the years. However mad I had gotten over what happened between us in the past, there was a certain comfort in having someone left that knew me so well. Indecision was, in my mind, one of my best friends. Someone who had seen me at my absolute worst and told me I was still beautiful, still worthy of love. And the story would have ended there, with Indecision and I, as lifelong friends, if I didn’t suck at love so much… but that’s a story for another day.
As Rebecca Wells so brilliantly put it, “There is the truth of history, and there is the truth of what a person remembers.” I’ll try to bridge that gap as I tell you the story of how I eventually figured out I suck at love. Come back weekly for new installments.