Thursday, August 31, 2006

The last Chapel Hill boyfriend

Note: I had no idea that this story would be so long. In fact, I had to leave out some details because it was getting unwieldy. Writing it was a bit more painful than I expected because I have a lot of regrets about my behavior. I hadn't thought about the whole story for years...I usually just tell it in bits and some of you may recognize parts. I may do some more editing, but I hope this is coherent. I'm not sure I'll have the energy to come back to it.

I celebrated my 30th birthday at "Hell," a stinky basement bar in Chapel Hill. Hell was frequented by a vaguely hipster crowd of grad students and townies. It was a Friday, our department's normal happy hour night, and I invited anyone I bumped into to come. One of my housemates baked a cake and surprised me with it and people sang "Happy Birthday." I blew out the candles and passed out pieces of cake to friends and strangers. Everyone wanted to buy me a beer, so I got pretty toasty. After the happy hour rush, JenA and I went to the movies (200 Cigarettes). Afterwards, we went back to the bar.

That's when I met "Ed Stevens." (He was often referred to by his full name since he shared it with a well-known person.)

Ed knew some of Jen's friends and he used that as a pretext to come and say hello and wish me a happy birthday. I was not thrilled about turning 30. I was still in school, had been single for too long and hated living in CH. I had no work to do and my dissertation was stalled. I liked my living situation, I had plenty of friends and I was comfortable with the town, so I wasn't a hopeless wreck, but I knew things had to change.

Ed was very funny and he kept me laughing the whole time we talked. He said he'd seen me before and wanted to talk to me then, but he'd been too shy. I asked him what he noticed about me (remember, I was quite drunk) and he said, "It was the way you walked…you were so sure." I thought that was interesting. I believe he wanted to give me a ride home, but I'd ridden my bike and I didn't want to leave it. He didn't want me to bike while drunk, but I reassured him I was fine. Under other circumstances, I might have let him give me a ride, but I wasn't sure if I was interested in Ed and letting him take me home would have been a signal of interest. I did give him my number, though.

The reason I wasn't sure if I was interested had a lot to do with his size. Ed was cute and funny and had a good head of hair. He was also intelligent and clearly very attracted to me. All on the plus side. On the minus side, he was huge. Probably 300 pounds (my guess at the time was 280). By any standards, he was at an unhealthy weight.

But I wasn't concerned with his health (of course, at some level I was, but it wasn't going to determine whether or not I dated him). When I thought about dating him, I wasn't sure how I would feel about it—could I find him attractive? How would I feel about seeing him naked? Being ashamed to be seen with him wasn't an option. If I was concerned about how others would react to us as a couple, then I couldn't even consider dating him. It wouldn't be right. But I don't recall that being an issue. Some of my friends already knew Ed and they liked him. He was a likeable guy and made a good impression on most people. I have dated guys I was actually embarrassed to introduce to my friends because of their unpredictable behavior. Ed was never going to embarrass me. He was a good guy and had lots of friends, all of whom would be delighted if he had a girlfriend. The social aspect wasn't part of my thought process. No, I was more concerned with whether I could accept him as he was and not expect him to change.

Of course, I had to find out whether or not I liked him as a person. So, when he asked me out the first time, because I'd liked him to start with, I said yes. I was very excited that he was interested. I was nervous and even lost my appetite. I was quite taken with him. And I loved the attention.

The way he asked me out was hilarious. I had a message on the answering machine from someone with an Australian accent thanking me for participating in an animal rescue organization and asking me if it would be ok if they dropped of a herd of some kind of wild animal for me to take care of—and then a number to call. I didn't recognize Ed's voice at first, but after a second and third listen, I finally figured out that it was him.

I called him and left a jokey message on the same theme, though not half as clever as Ed's. When he called me back, we talked on the phone for hours. He used to laugh a lot at my stories and tell me I should write them down and that I could do stand up. He even suggested that we work together on something, but that never happened. Also, around that time, I'd gotten a short story accepted for publication (in an obscure college literary journal) and he help me craft the bio they requested. He was good with words.

We went out to dinner for our first date and he took me to a very nice place. Chapel Hill has several high end, good quality restaurants— catering to the professorial crowd. We went to that Italian place with the Vespa parked out front, on the north side of Franklin Street. It was way out of my budget, and even though I offered to pay, Ed wouldn't consider it. Not only because it was our first date, but because of my limited finances. It set the tone for the rest of our relationship because he always paid when we went out. He liked to eat at nice places. I do too, but I couldn't afford it as often as he liked.

The first date went well, even though we were nervous. He picked me up and then, of course, got to give me a ride home. I invited him in and we sat, nervously, on the couch while he worked up the nerve to kiss me and I tried to decide if I wanted him to kiss me. There was some discussion about how I wasn't sure how I felt and how I wanted to go slow. But he already really liked me and I already liked him. Inertia was already moving us forward. I think we were both very lonely.

We did kiss and it was good, which made me happy. He was so sweet and considerate—and cute, cute didn't hurt—that I started to think it would be possible to make it work. Sure, he wasn't my ideal type physically, but he didn't disgust me—far from it. As I got to know him and like him better, he became more attractive to me.

And so it went. We had some great phone conversations; we shared a lot and laughed a lot. Being together was easy and comfortable and I enjoyed hanging out with him and his friends. His friends were great and very welcoming towards me…so it seemed like we had it all covered. Alone time was good, social time was good, the kissing was good. He was a good boyfriend candidate.

It was not long after I met Ed, that I came up to DC for an informal interview. I had applied to where I work now and one other agency. The other agency paid for me to come up to DC and give a talk—and attached to that talk was a day spent interviewing with lots of different division directors. As part of that trip, I also stopped by to say hello to my now-boss and tell him I was still interested in the job here.

When I came to DC that weekend, things with Ed were very fresh—he wasn't officially my boyfriend yet—but I found that I missed him. I thought I wouldn't want to call him, but I did and it was great to hear his voice. Being away from him actually made me more sure that I wanted to date him. When I got home, we settled into a normal couple routine pretty quickly.

The first time he made dinner for me it was a sign of things to come and I should have heeded it. Ed invited me to dinner at his house one night at 6pm. It was a Thursday night and I knew I wanted to watch Friends at 8pm. I might have even mentioned it to him…but if dinner was at 6 or 6:30, I figured we could watch the show together. When I arrived, not only was the food not cooked, he hadn't even begun the prep. We were having steak with a special sauce, the recipe from one of those fancy restaurants he liked, and a vegetable and a salad. The ingredients for the sauce were not chopped, the veggies weren't rinsed, the salad dressing wasn't made. I was concerned because I'd arrived hungry and it was clear that we would not be eating for hours. I was gave him tons of points for cooking me dinner, but the poor planning almost negated his good intentions.

I sat at the kitchen table and watched him as he very slowly and deliberately (and inefficiently) started the prep. It was painful. Even though I don't love it, I'm a good cook. When I thought I had a sense of what he was doing, I hopped up and started to help. My chopping technique was promptly corrected. I asked what I could do. "Nothing," he said and I sat myself back down. I watched, in horror, the ultra slow prep process. As we neared 8pm and the steaks weren't even ready for the broiler I said, "Look, I really want to watch Friends." He said, "Ok, we can watch it together."

"Um, yeah, but don't you have to finish cooking?"

"Oh, is it on now?"

"Well, not this second, but it's on in a few minutes."

"You mean, you want to watch it now? You don't want to keep me company?"

"I do want to keep you company, but I want to see the show. It's ok, right?" I didn't wait for an answer. I went to the living room and turned on the tv.

I'd been keeping him company for TWO HOURS already, with no food. I was hungry. When hungry, I get grumpy. (Tip for future boyfriends: keep Jamy fed.) I couldn't stand watching his slow-motion prep for one minute longer without him letting me help. When the show was over, the food was almost done, but I we didn't sit down until 9pm. I was starving and we didn't say much while we ate, even though everything had turned out well and was quite tasty.

And, not long after that, we slept together for the first time. There was some awkwardness due to his size (most of his weight was in his belly), but nothing that couldn't be resolved. If you want to be with someone, you manage. There was no sacrifice involved for me with that part of the relationship. My memories of that stuff are hazy…but I'd say that sleeping with Ed was mostly a positive experience. Because our relationship had a miserable ending, everything was tinged with regret, but it had nothing to do with the physical aspects of things.

But I should have paid attention to the night he cooked me dinner. It was an indication of how things were to go. He would be slightly needy and I would try to help and he wouldn’t let me. Or he would take what I meant as helpful suggestions as criticism. In a crazy gender reversal (but one that I've experienced before and since) I would offer help when what he wanted was a sympathetic ear. By the time I figured it out, it was too late. It got worse and worse. He would be needy or complaining and I would make suggestions and, instead of ignoring me, he would get furious because he thought I was saying he wasn't as good as me. He would yell and scream. He would tell me how horrible I made him feel about himself. He would say I was destroying his self esteem. I had to watch every word that come out of my mouth for fear of offending him.

For example, I remember listening to him discuss the pros and cons of the Atkins diet with a friend and working hard to hold my tongue. I couldn't express my opinion that it was a crock. That eating fewer calories was the way to lose weight and that's why Atkins works. I didn't get to have an opinion because that implied that I thought I knew everything and was better than him. I still caught hell after that discussion because, it being me, after all, I was making faces and rolling my eyes and generally expressing my disagreement nonverbally. He noticed and called me on it and accused me of being something or other bad: unsupportive, unkind, mean. Etc.

I realized later that he hated himself.

I wasn't a saint. All was not perfect on the physical side. Once we were engaged in some bedroom-type activities and having some logistical difficulties, and I said, "It's not quite working right…I think your belly is in the way." Somehow that turned into a conversation about my body (I'm sure I started it) and if he was happy with how I looked, which he was, except, "Well, there's just that one part I would change." And of course, it's the one part of my figure I'd always considered a flaw (though I don't anymore) and I was FURIOUS because who was he to say anything even slightly negative about how I looked when I was doing him the favor of overlooking (though obviously not entirely) the fact that he was ENORMOUS? I said none of this outloud, but it's how I felt.

Ah, yes, so ungenerous, so unreasonable. So imperfect.

That's the only time I felt physically unappreciated by Ed. I have a bad habit of blurting out unnecessary truths at intimate moments and I can't fault Ed for getting back at me. But he never mentioned it again and I have every reason to think he found me attractive.

In the end, our problems had nothing to do with Ed's size. His size was an indication of his self-hatred. Our problems had a lot to do with his self-loathing. I noticed that he ate A LOT. After a big dinner, he thought half a pint of ice cream was a reasonable serving of dessert. And he might go back for seconds. He did no exercise. In high school, he'd been an athlete, but somewhere along the way, he lost the motivation to do anything. Ed couldn't see how large he was; he didn't want to see it. But he knew there was an issue and we discussed it a few times—only when he brought it up. He assured me that he was healthy, he'd been to the doctor, his heart was fine, and he didn't have any weight-related illnesses. He drove everywhere, even when I would have preferred to walk, which I found annoying. He said he wanted to start being more active and I suggested that we take walks together—which we did exactly once. It was less than 30 minutes and he was exhausted afterwards. That's when I started to understand how bad it was.

He was also in therapy, which seemed like a good thing, but he had an unhealthy relationship with his therapist. He told me, "First I need to work out the stuff with my mother, then I can work on the weight." The therapist, a clinical social worker, gave him a pass on that. Could she not see how much it was holding him back? How much he was hiding from life? He was burying his feelings in food? How it was symbolic of his self-hatred? Yikes. I met his mom once and she was fine. Not the easiest woman in the world, but loving towards Ed and friendly towards me. As far as I could tell, the mother issues were under control. I wondered what it was going to take for him to face his self-hatred issue.

Early on, he repeated his therapist's words to me because I was worried that he was dropping his friends to spend time with me. His friends usually wanted to go to bars and I wasn't always in the mood for that. He'd cancel with them and come to my place and I wasn't sure that was a good idea. He said, "It's ok, we're in our symbiotic phase." That didn't sit well with me at all. "What are you talking about? That doesn't sound healthy."

"No, it's ok. That's what my therapist called it." He said.

"Really, not the 'honeymoon phase'? 'Cause I really don't ever want to be in a symbiotic relationship with anyone."

And the humor changed. That was weird. He was professional-grade funny. Great timing, great jokes, a funny guy. But after we were a couple, I didn't find him funny anymore. All his jokes made me wince. In particular, he made this video for work and we watched it at his place with a couple of his friends. They laughed like crazy. I laughed too…because it was funny. But it also made me sad. So many fat jokes. All I could see was the self-hatred fueling the humor. It was so painful it almost made me want to cry.

Later, of course, came the recriminations for my insufficiently enthusiastic response. I didn't know what to say to him—you hate yourself and it's so clear to me that I can't laugh anymore? I was at a loss for words. And he felt unsupported and unappreciated by his girlfriend. What a mess.

In what turned out to be the last month of a three-month long relationship, things were quite tense. It came to a head during the weekend we spent in Miami. When we decided to go to Miami, things were ok. Not perfect, but we were happy enough to think it would be a fun trip. He had to be there for a week for a conference and he invited me to come for the weekend after it ended. The plan was for me to arrive Thursday, spend the night with him at his work-sponsored hotel and then move to a different hotel for Friday and Saturday nights.

There were a couple of complications. First, Ed was a loud snorer. I'd gotten into the habit of sleeping in his guest room when I spent the night at his house. I would lie down with him in his bed, we'd watch the Daily Show and we would drift off to sleep. Usually, he fell asleep first and his loud snoring kept me awake, so I would move myself into the guest room. I fussed a lot the first time I stayed there because his snoring kept me up. He suggested this solution and it became our habit. He also had a little kitten who liked to come into the guest room and jump all over me and wake me up, so I would keep the door closed. He rarely spent the night at my house because of the kitten, who needed attention, and the snoring, which could not be avoided in my tiny place. When contemplating the trip, I said we needed a room with two beds so I could sleep. He had no problem with that.

The other issue was that I was at the height of my fear of flying. So the prospect of a plane trip was a little scary. But I decided I could handle it.

We agreed that I would pay for my plane ticket and he would cover the hotel room. I wasn't completely comfortable with this. I said, "If we can find something modest in Miami Beach, that would be fine with me. There is no beach front in South Beach anyway, and a block or two away is much cheaper." I'd actually stayed in South Beach and I knew the less glamorous places are just fine and much, much cheaper. But he was set on having an "upscale" experience so he said he'd pay for the hotel and I didn't have to worry about the cost. We were checking things out on the internet, sending ideas back and forth and finally he picked something. It seemed fine to me, though the website was a bit of an oversell and I had some reservations.

When the weekend came around, we were not getting along well . We'd come very close to breaking up and had had lots of fights, most of which revolved around what a terrible, judgmental person I was. Too exaggerate, he would say, "You don't think I do anything right!" I would say, "That's not true." He would say, "You're doing it again!" Yikes.

I'd paid for the ticket, the room was reserved and canceling didn't seem like an option. We decided to make the best of it, enjoy it as a vacation and try to be nice to each other.

When I arrived, I wasn't a total wreck, despite my fear, and I was happy to see Ed. He hugged me and listened sympathetically about the trip. His hotel room was nice and big—with two beds!—and I took a short nap. We met up with some of his friends for dinner and before that, we walked down to the beach. It was friendly.

Unfortunately, it wouldn't last. The next day, we moved to the South Beach hotel. When we got to the room we were shocked. It was so tiny, I almost thought it was a joke. The room was full of one smallish bed and there wasn't space for anything else, not even a desk. There was a tiny dresser and no tv. In the bathroom, the shower (no tub) didn't have a rim, so the water got everywhere when you turned it on and only one person could be in there at a time. Poor Ed was crestfallen when he saw the room and he looked at me, waiting to hear, "I told you so." I did feel irritated that he hadn't listened to me during the planning process but I held my tongue and finally he said something and I laughed nervously and we agreed it was a disaster but that we'd have to make the best of it—finding a new place was too much work for such a short stay.

When I saw the size of the room and that there was only one bed, I knew I wouldn’t get any sleeping and I was almost pre-grumpy because of that. (Tip for future boyfriends: keep Jamy well-rested AND well-fed.)

The first day, we took a very long walk, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but that left Ed tired and chaffy. We had a good dinner and some drinks and some arguing and I might actually have slept. Because Ed had no interest at all in going to the beach (so why did we have to stay near the beach?), I got up early Saturday morning and jumped in the ocean for ten or fifteen minutes. He was a little cross when I got back, but it wasn't too bad. I don't remember what we did that day, but it was a long one.

The hotel promised a "continental breakfast" which turned out to be two croissants and two apples left outside our door in a brown paper bag. The last day of our stay, one of the croissants had a bite out of it. A BITE. Complete with tooth marks. Ed was in the bathroom and I called the front desk and told them we needed a new croissant. They didn't believe me, but I insisted. Ed got out of the shower and I showed him the croissant and he was stunned, but I said I'd already handled it. He was furious (with the hotel, not me) and I did everything I could to keep from laughing, but I failed. When things get beyond aburd, I can't contain myself.

The last morning of our stay, I suggested,"…let's get breakfast before we go to the airport." He agreed. The plan was for me to run down to the beach for a few minute and while I was gone, he could take a shower and pack. He took the longest showers of anyone I've ever met (30 minutes, minimum), so I figured I could get everything done that needed doing while he was showering.

I got back to the hotel room in a big rush because I'd lost track of time. Ed hadn't showered OR packed . My keen powers of observation (open suitcase, dry bathroom floor) clued me in. I said, "So, I guess we're not going to breakfast."

And he exploded. He yelled, he screamed, he told me how unreasonable I was, how nothing he ever did was good enough. At first, I defended myself. I said I was annoyed but it was no big deal. I asked him, "Didn't we have a plan?"

But he wouldn't stop. He was furious. It was the worst screaming he'd ever done. I sat, quietly, and waited for him to finish. Finally he asked, "Don't you have anything to say?"

I answered, "No. I'm done. But you will NEVER speak to me that way again. Never. It is completely unacceptable."


Then I said, "Take your shower, because I need to get in there when you're done." And he did.

We didn't speak in the taxi or at the airport. When we got on the plane, I started to get nervous. The flight was bumpy and I was white-knuckling it. Ed didn't ask if I were scared, he just started talking to me. He asked questions and told me jokes. It was one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for me—after all that shit we put each other through, when I really needed him, he took care of me. We were a terrible couple, and boy did he have issues, but fundamentally, he was a good person and he didn't want to see me suffer.

After we landed, he drove me home. I thanked him and we didn't speak for about three days. An infinity in relationship time. He called me first, "So, uh, what's going on? Should we talk?"

"We can talk if you want, but I think we should let this go. It's not happy for either one of us."

"You're right. It's not fun anymore. I guess we should stop."

"Yes, I agree."

And we were broken up.

We met for dinner once before I moved. He even paid (I was still a poor grad student). He gave me some pictures from Miami. I wondered why I'd dated him in the first place. But at least I thought he was funny again. Strange how that works.

Grateful for: the end.

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