Ben Karlin: Failed Relationship Expert
This is some dude who wrote some book about failed relationships, it isn't so much the subject matter that intrigues me, it's is writing voice
that is so awesome.
We didn't meet cute. She was taking baths on the downlow with a friend of mine while her boyfriend pined away in Ignoramusland, aka Houston. It's not polite to name names. Hers was Jill.
We took up, falling fast and hard in the waning light of life in a college town after you're done with college. You know, the time when you're supposed to have left already but just can't surrender two-hundred-dollar-a-month rent and the idea that these were, are, will be the best days of your life. They weren't, aren't, and won't be. But it's awesome to think so.
Let me tell you a little about her -- for me though, not for you -- in order to reclaim that which has been smothered beneath a calloused heart. She had flaxen hair, wispy and cut short around her opal face. She was fair and thin -- not scrawny, taut. She had cheeks that shot into perfect circles every time she smiled slyly, which was quite a lot. She was a troublemaker. She made me feel like I was a troublemaker, too. I was not a troublemaker. I am a wimp who still doesn't know exactly what spark plugs do.
We moved through the early stages of our relationship in paces that seem stunningly familiar now -- but at the time felt like a fever dream. We lingered outside each other's front doors not wanting nights to end. Walked hand in hand through the farmers' market, envious of no one, living in the goddamn now.
We held out, carnally speaking, partially out of the now comically puritanical notion that it would be better if we waited. (The other part had to do with the fact that she had technically not broken it off with Clueless T. McCuckhold down in Texas.) The whole time, one question slowly built in my mind: What if this is the person I never run out of falling in love with?
Alas, like poorly fenced-in pit bulls raised by angry Mexican youths, the complications of life can only be kept at bay for so long. Eventually, they will attack and tear you apart, and unless there is some passerby to pull you out of their vicelike jaws, you will be grievously injured, if not killed. Come to think of it, most of that last sentence is just about pit bulls.
The point, however, is that upon leaving our college town -- I'll call it Eden to protect its identity from future pilgrims who may flock there to trace the origin of this very story -- mistakes were made. Some were mistakes of vanity. Others of youth. Still others of the vanity of youth. Eventually, these mistakes would pile up and their weight would become too much for any one man, or relationship, to bear. Here are those mistakes.Mistake #1
I told her I was moving cross-country -- to Los Angeles -- and wanted to stay together but didn't want a long-distance relationship. Instead of inventing a new form of relationship, I simply moved without discussing it further. One clue this might not be the most mature tack: at least once during this period, we had sex where weeping was involved. "What, are you sad? Did it hurt? I thought it was quite good!"Mistake #2
Expressing indignation, rage, and heretofore unseen emotions when I discovered she had started seeing someone else in my absence -- even though I gamely, albeit futilely, attempted to penetrate Southern California's hyper-Darwinian mating scene. Yes, by my own design I left things impossibly murky and vague -- but that was for my benefit. Not hers! She was supposed to be pining for me. Hoping that I came around.Mistake #3
I came around.
On a last-minute, half-baked romantic whim, I flew from Los Angeles to her parents' home in Iowa, where she was visiting. This was a surprise move, confusing everybody, especially the parents, since they knew she was doing some other dude. I didn't know that. Yet.
Why did I fly to Iowa? What was it that kept me coming back when Reason and Practicality were screaming, "Let it go, dickwad!" (You should know that Reason and Practicality are mean.) Well, though the heady days of falling and falling and falling in love were shrinking in a rearview mirror, there was still hope. That niggling itch that if you keep at it, persevere, it will come back. Maybe not permanently, but in waves big enough and frequent enough to make everything else worth it. I wasn't ready to give up. And what came of it?
For a few days we enjoyed something resembling romantic bliss. But, as I soon learned, it would be the roller-coaster style. The kind that makes you puke. I helped her move -- not to L.A., where I lived, but to Chicago. On the drive, we went into further detail about each other's sexual exploits during our time away from each other. My part was easy. Zero sexual exploits. "And you? What's that? More baths?" What is it with her and bathing with dudes? Now I got really angry. And sad. I was probably more angry than sad, but I found sadness seemed to affect her more. So I went with that. In a dramatic flourish bordering on the baroque, I demanded to be dropped off -- not in Chicago, but twenty miles outside the city at O'Hare Airport, where I told her I would pay any amount of money to escape this nightmare. (This was not true. In my mind I had decided I would spend no more than six hundred dollars for a ticket.)
Finished the drive. We arrived at her new place and I went right down the street to a bar on the corner. Drank two shots of Jameson, which seemed like the appropriate thing to do. I was in uncharted territory here. Maybe it should have been Jack Daniel's. You know what, I just realized it should have been Jack Daniel's. I walked back, and -- at this point I am really taking my cue more from popular music and seventy-five years of American cinema than anything resembling actual human behavior -- I told her I'm not going to run away. I was going to stay and fight. We enjoyed romantic bliss, again. Cue the nausea. Vomit from the Jameson.Mistake #5
We made a new plan.
This plan called for complete sacrifice -- from her. She would bide her time in Chicago as a lame-duck resident. I would go back to Los Angeles and pick up my life as if nothing had changed, save for the fact I would be talking on the phone more late at night. As late as it was for me, it was two hours later for her -- and she had the job that started at nine. I made my own hours and frequently didn't put on pants until one p.m.
Three months later, I flew back to Chicago to pick her up and drive cross-country together. We stopped in Sedona, Arizona, and got so high we slept through New Year's. That was fun. And not technically a mistake, though I believe we did have dinner reservations and that is a very uncool thing to do on New Year's Eve.
We arrived in L.A., but not to live together. (This is a mistake within the larger mistake, but not necessarily one that warrants its own number.) I helped her find an apartment a few blocks away with a friend of mine, convincing her this gave us something to look forward to -- a step to take together. I will admit, at this point I was starting to believe my own bullshit and, worse still, had lost the ability to determine what was bullshit and what was truth. Now, this is an easy call. Bullshit. The truth: I was afraid to live with her for fear of it not working out and feeling guilty that I dragged her all the way to L.A., only to have it end badly and now we live together and it sucks for everyone. In poker and the stock market this is called hedging your bets. In relationships it's called being a pussy.Mistake #6
This really is the killer and I will say all the others can be dismissed as mistakes only in retrospect. They are situation specific, original, and unprecedented. This, however, is a really stupid thing I did and something I should have known not to do. I introduced her to all my friends and encouraged her to hang out with them on her own. Now, the operative word here is all. Some is fine. Many is all right. Just about every one would be okay, too. But not all. Not the ones you know are dodgy. Not the ones whose dodginess you have personally witnessed for years. A dodginess legendary amongst his contemporaries. That's just buying a ticket for an express train to Crushtown.The Dumping and the Damage Done
We drift. We don't break up, but we don't try too hard to address issues either. She tried. I know I tried to try. One time we were in a car with my dad and he mentioned casually how his mother died. Turns out I never knew. I was embarrassed because I was twenty-six and you should probably know this kind of stuff at that age. Especially since by my standards my dad and I had a "good" relationship. According to Jill, that was "telling." I thought about trying to turn my emotional retardation into a plus. "Won't it be exciting to watch me grow up before your very eyes? And there's nothing illegal about sleeping with an emotional preteen!" Alas, I didn't know how to talk to her. Or at this point, if I even wanted to.
Time to take stock of the relationship. Not together. That would have been foolish. I decided to go someplace exotic, but not too exotic so as to undercut the weight of all the stock-taking. I chose Scotland. I had some friends in Edinburgh and I could go and wander around soft mossy hills, awash in sheep dung and low clouds. I went in the dead of winter, so there were only five or six hours of light per day. Then I went to the northernmost part of the country, as if I was trying to escape the revealing light of the sun itself. This added gravity -- especially since I was the only person in all the hotels I stayed at. Do you get it? I was alone. Isolated. A four-year-old could psychoanalyze what I was doing! I thought long and hard about where we were at. What I wanted. What was fair. What was right. I also spent a good deal of time wondering why they call eggplant aubergine. That's just way too fancy a word for, let's be honest, a pretty shitty vegetable.
Soon after I returned to the States, a letter arrived. It was from one of my best friends -- the dodgy one -- telling me he had developed strong feelings for and was now in love with my . . . I guess ex-girlfriend. The letter made no explicit mention of "bath" time, but it wasn't difficult to imagine.
What followed wasn't pretty. Letters and accusations flew. On more than one occasion I uttered the words "I would rather starve than eat your bread." (Thanks for the assist, Pearl Jam!) Gifts and baubles were repackaged and left on doorsteps. Not a small thing, considering one such gift was a decoupaged coffee table. That bitch was heavy.
Then the sadness. Prolonged, boring, mopey. Plotted countless acts of revenge. Odd how there's no plural for the word revenge itself. I wanted revenges. And not of the "living well" variety, either. I longed for calamity. Locusts. Fire and brimstone. A pox on their house and cars that gave them endless mechanical problems. But mostly I felt bad for myself. Overly bad, like "I've been martyred on a cross of two people I had dared to trust" bad. I admit here and now, I started writing poetry as an outlet. Buried somewhere in a storage facility or a basement thick with spiderwebs and creaky ski boots is a yellowed legal pad with the words "The Night Table Years" scribbled on the first page. When I die, someone will find it, be momentarily excited, then read it, and then, I hope, burn it.
Years passed before I found myself in something even remotely resembling a serious relationship. Self-mythologically speaking, I'd say it was because it just took me that long to find someone I actually cared about. In reality, I was broken and disinterested. Also, that whole thing about L.A.'s hyper-Darwinian mating scene. Tough nut to crack.
Jill and I didn't meet cute and we certainly didn't break up neat. In fact, we never saw or spoke to each other again. But in the years that followed, I came to realize it most certainly wasn't all her fault. In fact, it may be no more appropriate for her to ask for my forgiveness than it is for me to ask for hers. But I'm the one writing, so I get to do both. And, in the same way military cadets eventually thank their drillmasters for their cruel tutelage, I offer my gratitude. Everybody gets crushed. For the lucky ones it only happens once.
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