My 23rd Year
There are three photos of me at my college graduation.
1) I’m coming in with the rest of my class, capped, gowned and wearing my mother’s pink and black polka dotted sunglasses. Everyone else is marching with gravitas, but my arms are high in a victory V, my mouth wide open and excited. I love that picture.
2) I’ve just accepted my diploma and I’m rounding the corner of the stage, slightly blurred, looking like I’m about to topple, face like – WHOA.
3) Taken shortly after no. 2, I’ve paused for a smile that looks childish to my four-years-older eyes. The sunglasses would be perfect for a Buffett concert, my tassel has successfully been transferred to the other side of my cap, and I radiate achievement. I’m awash in newly shined post-graduate hope.
Afterward, we didn’t stick around for champagne or pictures. We went straight to an Outback for my inaugurated-to-the-real-world dinner: me, my mom, my boyfriend, his parents, and three dear friends who had driven in from the East Coast for the occasion. We had cheap steaks, cheap drinks and cheap cake, and nursed a three-day hangover, exhausted and thrilled with it all.
Then, some two months later, I turned 23.
Whenever someone in my life turns that age, I default back to middle school, singing Nobody likes you when you’re 23 with ironic sincerity. But when I was 23, I needed to listen to my own words—the person who liked me least was myself.
Shortly before my birthday, I went home to New Hampshire to register my car, met an artist with Greek ancestry, dark moppy hair, and a thick hipster mustache that, at the time, gave me the shivers. The night of my early birthday party, two days before I left to return to my boyfriend and New York, we made out in a tent we had erected in the backyard for those too drunk or unwilling to drive.
I don’t regret it. The boyfriend I would be returning to had treated me less-than-well for two and a half years. His first infraction was hanging out with me daily, getting closer to weaseling through the walls I’d erected, then telling me he didn’t believe in dating in college. The second was lying about his sexual history so that it matched mine, all so I’d stop crying and let him take me to bed. The third was a multifaceted series of strikes, though none of them retired him to the bench.
He’d walk away from me in the middle of an argument or important discussion, leaving my abandonment issues raw between us. If I pushed him too far in those moments, he’d hold my shoulders, face cold, and declare without empathy that the relationship was through. I would cry and beg until he finally relented, sometimes for days. He would promise to marry me one moment, then look at me with resentment in the next, as if he was shackled to a dangerous animal. He broke me in many ways, but the final fracture occurred just before I left for home.
I was standing in the middle of the parking lot of our apartment building, nervous as hell about going home by myself. My relationship with my mother wasn’t good in those days, and visits often ended in screaming matches and guilt iced on thick. I hadn’t been home alone in years and didn’t know how I would fare. Then – a panic attack. I shook and cried and was paralyzed in place, incapable of taking a step toward him no matter how many times he hissed, “Keep quiet! The neighbors can hear you!”
The Greek artist was kind to me, as fleeting as our evening was. He kissed me gently. He held my hand. He offered me his shoes as we trekked to a Dunkin Donuts in the wee hours; I was barefoot. I traced the tattoo on his chest (“Be strong, I love you”), and he told me it was for his father, who had died of cancer not long ago. We kept up a sexting relationship for a few months afterward, but since we were seven hours apart, nothing of merit came of it.
I wish it had.
The day after I had kissed the Greek artist, I called my boyfriend and came clean. Despite his cold treatment to me before I left, he said he didn’t care, and I was shocked into staying with him for about a week, out of propriety more than anything. But it was a façade I couldn’t keep up for long. I came out of the bedroom one morning, sat on his lap, cried, and told him that I couldn’t keep going, that it was over.
I looked at a new place that day, and signed the lease the day after. I moved out within a week. I christened my new place the ‘70s Porn Apartment due to the shag-carpeting, bar in the living room, and stage lights pointing down at the spot where my bed would go. It was a shithole, but it was my shithole. I felt free.
So why, then, did I chain myself back up?
Despite a willing Facebook chat cybersex partner and a cook at the Applebees where I worked who was interested in me (not to mention a downtown area filled with bars to meet boys), I kept falling back into bed with my ex. It seemed that once I earned my diploma, I had stopped learning.
Because we were no longer together, he had no problem with coming over past midnight for sex minus the sleepover. He wouldn’t let me visit his new apartment, even after we’d let ourselves say ‘love’ again, never mind even telling me where he lived. One day, we were in his car, on our way somewhere, but he needed to pick up something from home first. Instead of bringing me into his place, or even telling me to stay in the driveway, he dropped me at a Dunkin Donuts around the corner, where I sat pathetically until I was needed again.
This pseudo-relationship was not a high moment in my life. I’m not proud of throwing a Vitamin Water bottle at his window past 2 am so he would come and talk to me. I’m not proud of throwing myself at him over and over, not taking his rebuffs seriously, until he caved and deigned me with the opportunity to take him to bed.
I’m certainly not proud of how long it went on – a full year after I had seemingly cut the cord. With him, I cheated on guys I had committed to emotionally and on Facebook. I cheated on him with some of these guys. That was a rule of moral conduct I had never broken before him, but his influence was toxic, addictive.
But I learned enough that a few weeks past 24, I was done, and done for good. I learned that there were men in the world that wouldn’t treat me like something to be squished under a foot, men who would walk the distance to me when I cried instead of leaving me stranded, men who gave me unconditional respect.
In reality, there is just one man. I met him in my 23rd year, during an internship I’ll write about another time. That year, he became my boyfriend. My 24th year, he became my fiancé. My 26th year he became my husband.
I can’t say that I had completely purged my ex from my system before we became involved. Human lives are messy, especially in your first year reckoning with the real world. But in the end, he was only a stepping-stone, one of the last, in my path to self-respect. In the end, I pulled the trigger and shot the relationship with my ex dead. In the end, I realized he was an inoculation against future poison: a little now, but you’re protected forever.
He may have been a dreadful decision to make, and make, and make, but he’s one of the most important lessons I learned in my 23rd year – suck the poison out of your life, no matter what it takes. Otherwise, there’ll be no room for self-respect.