Saturday, April 12, 2008

He "Hops" From Girl to Girl: Why Mr. Beer Man Left A Sour Taste in My Mouth

In the picture, my arm is wrapped around his shoulder and I’m laughing. I’m wearing a cardigan that felt soft on my body and, after a glass of champagne, so did my heart.

Aaron is looking at me and smiling. I used to like the way he looked at me.

I suppose it’s his secret weapon. He used it the night we were sitting across from each other at a wine bar, a table full of our mutual friends, obscure Belgian beer and plates of goat cheese and olives laid out before us. I was about to bring a piece of bread to my lips when I noticed him staring.

It wasn’t a casual stare by any means. It was a deep, piercing stare that I felt in my toes. And it lasted forever. There was nothing coy about the way he looked at me. His eyes seared into my flesh and suddenly I felt hot all over. And totally self conscious. So I looked away.

But you can’t look away from a guy like Aaron for long. Thoughts of him interrupt your sleep. Imagining what it would be like to feed him a grape, run your fingers through his hair…

I decided to email him. And I got a response back minutes later saying he was waiting for me to contact him. Apparently, he’d had a crush on me since the first time we met at a party months before.

“Let’s go for a drink,” he said.

It was that simple.

But then, beginnings always are, aren’t they?

Flash forward six years and several thousand beers later, to the two of us in his L.A. apartment. I came for a visit (on his request), under the premise that he'd take me out to dinner, we'd cook together and I could get a fresh perspective on the slightly turbulent life I was leading at the time.

Turns out I got none of that. All I got was the image of him splayed out on his couch, watching sports. I opened his apartment door after a night out with a friend, and he was belching and scratching himself.

"Did you have fun with your friend?" he asked in a tone far too syrupy to be real. "He's special, isn't he?"

If I thought he had a heart in his moldy little body, I'd say he was jealous.

Years ago, after the first time his eyes seared into mine, I would've given anything for his jealousy. His passion for life, confidence in his dreams and free-spirited attitude reeled me in, hook line and sinker. Every time he'd come into town on break from grad school, we'd spend entire weekends together, dining out and staying in. He would call while he was away, telling me where he ate and what he made for dinner that weekend. We'd talk about our dreams, he'd encourage me and I'd ooh and aah about his wonderful adventures.

Never, in all that time, did he make me feel insignificant. But he did when I stood in his apartment, still wide-eyed from people watching and celebrity spotting. I wanted to tell him all about it, share a part of my world with him, just as I suppose I always wanted. But he wasn't interested.

Unless I was bent over his couch, he didn't see me at all. Not a single part.

We had dinner once while I was there. And it was only because he was hungry. I ate off his plate. There was a giant pile of crab legs before us, and as I hungrily tore into mine, I told him he was bad at being kind.

"It's not what I do," he said. "I know it's what you need, but I can't be that guy for you."

"If you can't give me what I deserve, then I don't want what you have to give me," I said, shocking myself and him once the words escaped my lips.


I really meant it. I actually believed I'm worth more than second-hand seafood and a chorus of belching. Finally.

I guess I should thank Mr. Beer Man for finally revealing his lack of heart to me. All this time, I was lured in by his culinary prowess and his passion for life. I forgot that a passion for me should also be on the list.

The picture was taken not long after we met. The way he's looking at me was real. I know he saw me for who I really was. I know he still does.

One night, when he was drunk, he told me he doesn't treat other girls the way he treats me.

"Do you think everyone deserves the same respect?" he asked. "You're different. You're not bland. You're not boring. You're interesting. You have passion. You're better."

When my cab drove off, I watched him standing there in the middle of the street. He looked sort of small. Nothing like the tough, cocky guy he tries so hard to be. He stood there until he was a speck in my rear window. I'll never know exactly what he was thinking, and the good part is, I no longer care. I do know one thing, though. You don't always have to go back to the restaurant to remember the meal. Sometimes, the memory is enough to keep you full.

Friday, April 11, 2008

We Had Fun When No One Was Watching: King Kong Held Me Tightly, Then Let Me Go

My Ipod is playing a song from King Kong. It’s the haunting instrumental that played when Kong and Ann were skating together on a frozen pond. Kong was falling and sliding around and Ann would help him up and laugh and then he would laugh (as much as a giant ape can). No one was out to kill him and he was sharing this genuine moment of joy and happiness with the woman he loved.

You can guess what comes next. In movies, just like real life, moments of purity and innocence always come to a screeching halt.

The relationship George and I shared was very much like that of Kong and Ann. At first, he wanted to steal me away from everyone and keep me all to himself. He was selfish and brutish that way, and I loved it. I was his refuge and his happy place. I made him laugh and broke down the walls he had all around him. I would’ve been his prisoner forever if only he knew how to make me feel the same.

Instead, he starved me. For so long I subsisted on the breadcrumbs of affection he threw my way. Most times I was parched and gaunt. He was depleting me of the things necessary to sustain my heart. Just like the lonely beast from the movie, George had no idea how to love.

We had our moments of quiet skating, though. Sometimes we’d steal away from our jobs and lie together on a blanket under a tree in our favorite park. We’d take our shoes off and just wrap our bodies together, silently breathing in the purity of that moment. I have a picture of him with eyes closed, face touching mine, looking so in love. He sent me an email once that said he wished he were a squirrel so that he could climb up on my shoulders and sit with me all day.

“I wouldn’t need much,” he said, “just a few acorns and you, always.”

Whenever I got sad, I’d imagine him so small and helpless, hovering against my body for warmth. I would have loved him forever. But ours was a relationship doomed from the start. We fought all the time. Mostly because he couldn’t communicate and never showed me affection. The older he got and the more wrapped up he became in his career, the less I saw him. The less he touched me or held me. Afternoons in the park were now just a silly fantasy. I was lucky if I saw him once a week for a quick meal and stilted conversation. He changed in the four years we were together. I guess it was the stress. But he withdrew into himself and I was dying. I needed intimacy. I needed to hear words of kindness and love. Instead, I heard only silence.

Today as I was taking my walk, I set my Ipod on shuffle. Just as I rounded a corner, the wind blew lightly against my cheek. It reminded me of the air on the day George and I lay huddled beneath that giant oak tree, both of us hoping that moment would never end. I remember our shoes, tangled up next to each other on the grass. Suddenly, as if on cue, the King Kong song starts playing. It’s been years since I heard that song. We watched the movie together when it first came out and were both touched by the innocence of that scene. He made me a CD for Valentine’s Day with only that haunting melody on it. He also gave me an orchid and a poem he wrote in French. He loved me. Somewhere in a place hidden, like in the forest where beast and beauty shared their last moment of freedom, he loved me. But like the movie’s final happy scene, it was destined to end.

Soon, police and helicopters surrounded the pair. People tried to shoot at Kong. He held tightly to Ann, wanting to shield her from harm.

“Go,” she cried. “Go.”

He turned to look at her, and in that moment you could see everything he felt for her and always would. There was sadness, gratitude, longing and great love. Those big eyes held so much love.

She knew. She always did.

He held her tightly, then he let her go.

And he ran off in the night somewhere far away. She knew she would never see him again, but she would never forget the good times they had when no one was watching.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Words, Not Wine, Got Me Drunk: At the Table with Mr. Corkscrew

I guess a lot of people leave their hearts in San Francisco.

Perhaps they misplace it at the Ferry Building, or drop it in the Bay as they’re trying to feed the fish. It’s a lot easier to do than I would have imagined. Mine just sort of fell out of me, after squeezing its way through my esophagus. I started coughing and wheezing, sounding like a cat ridding itself of a hairball.

I guess it was a heart ball. When it landed on the carpet in front of me, I could see years of sadness and confusion tangled inside. It was blood-stained, and there were fossilized tears at the center that looked like tiny shells in a sea of moss and dirt. I’m sure the heart ball didn’t come out just because of him, but his treatment of me during our last visit had an effect not unlike that of ipecac. It was time to vomit him out once and for all. After all, it had been six years since we started this soul-crushing affair.

We met in 2002, at a communal table in a Napa Valley restaurant. I was the bored food writer, disabling a quenelle with my left hand and heralding a Cosmopolitan with my right, and he was the charming wine buyer with a puckish smile and two inebriated companions flanked on both sides of his smallish frame. We had been passing flirtations back and forth like a roto-virus in a Kindergarten class all evening, and when the drunk guy between us got up to go to the bar, our bodies were magnetically drawn to each other. We went on a date later that week and kept in touch after I flew back home, 2,000 miles away. I held out hope that things would take off from there, that we’d build something with our words and later, our bodies and our hearts.

He would send me emails the length of War and Peace, yet his prose was flowery and superficial, scattered across the computer screen like a Japanese crossword puzzle. You know they read backwards, the Japanese. Adrian felt backwards. His heart, like his words, always seemed upside down.

I said things like “potential” and “effort,” and he said things like “capricious” and “ephemeral.”

Why, then, did I always try to keep rewriting his story? Maybe it’s because I believed that if the ending were anything like the beginning, it would be worth years of patient editing to get there. Red marks be damned, I wanted a love story out of the deal.

It seemed only natural. Even the middle read like a great novel. On my last visit to San Francisco, he took me to the symphony, for moonlit walks across the city and out for tapas. There was fried chickpeas and chili powder; poached eggs and bacon on wilted Italian lettuce; wood fired broad beans and tomatoes; and celery root puree with roasted apples and Buddha’s hand oil drizzled lavishly across the top. And there was even dessert: a warm serving of his lips, drizzled across the small of my back, his arms, a shell of skin surrounding a frozen parfait of me, now thawing into a pool of sugar-crusted hope. When I was lying in the dark, so close to him we were almost sewn together, I thought I tasted a promise — an as-yet-unknown promise, punctuated by a silent announcement of consideration.

And when he dropped me at the airport, hugging me so fiercely I thought I might explode into peanut-shaped fragments, I truly believed he had invited me not only into his city, but also into his heart.

“Next time, I’ll take you to SPQR,” he said, the gleam of a small child in his eyes.

The whole way home my mind played a symphony of “next times.” Next time I will wear that red dress with the slit. Next time I will bring him my dog-eared copy of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” He likes Kundera. Next time I will make him a frittata for breakfast, with sundried tomatoes and freshly grated Parmesan.

But now is next time, and he is gone. Gone to see the world without me.“Was just in Vail for my annual trip,” he wrote. “Thailand is in two weeks. My business partners don’t like me being gone so long, but ah, life is out there, waiting.”

And so am I. Sometimes I want to slap myself for being one of those dreadfully obtuse girls I normally make fun of — the ones who mold their perception of reality around the first man who pays them a kind word. I’m not that girl. I’m the fiercely independent type who shuns marriage, has no desire for children and travels the world solo. But this time was different. Something about the way he touched me, the undulating swirl of blue in his eyes…

I emailed him after several weeks of an empty inbox, asking what went wrong, and he gave his usual reply: “Intention and action are, unfortunately, two very different things for me.” Yes, they always were. I had always given in to the excuse that he just wasn’t ready. He was a successful restaurateur. He was inundated with responsibility. He had no time for someone 20 minutes across town, let alone me, who lived 2,000 miles away. His superficial words and inattentiveness told me all I really needed to know, yet I waded through the years like a cautious beachcomber, hoping the next time we met, he would look at me and know I was the time he wanted to spend.

“I don’t care if you live in Egypt,” I imagined him saying. “I would scale the pyramids to get to you.”

Okay, so a little far-fetched, but I’d at least hoped he’d throw in a line or two about frequent flyer miles or something. Good thing I’m already adept at flying solo.

Now it's time to become adept at rewriting this story by creating a plot line that doesn’t result in him finally loving me, but me loving myself enough for the both of us. You know, the antithetically obtuse girl who scales her own pyramid and realizes that love shouldn't require editing. The best kinds are always a little grammatically incorrect.

In my new ending, I want to be the girl who accepts the fact that she will never catch the man who whispered into her ear the night she wore the pink orchid in her hair, “Let’s see what happens.”

Sometimes I imagine Adrian in my arms again, the way it was when I thought we were both part of the same dream. He’d confess that he has always been afraid of me. “You’re the closest thing I’ve ever known to real,” he’d say. “And I’ve forgotten what that feels like.”

For six years, San Francisco was real to me. I loved the hills; the way the wind floats magically from the Bay and blows kisses at your face and the sound of trolley cars clanging their bells in the distance. I loved a man who lived there, too. Or at least, I loved parts of him. His cheekbones, the way they seemed drawn into his face like the curves of Lombard Street, the feel of his fingertips on my stomach, like tiny flecks of sugar on a rugelach.

And his heart. So close, but like me, thousands of miles away.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Moving Backwards, Then Gunning It: Six Years of a Broken Heart with Mr. Oil Slick

So I had a moment of weakness. Or eleven.

I just couldn’t help myself. When I hear that voice on the other end of the phone, it makes me want to rip my clothes off then and there. And when that voice shows up at my door wearing an earring and a black leather jacket, that’s usually just what happens.

I know in the long run, the choice I make to take him back over and over again will hurt me far longer than it will make me feel good. In fact, the pleasure I get is so fleeting. Maybe it lasts a week or two, maybe a day. The pain has lasted six years. I hate that I’m so weak. Even more, I hate that this man knows this and plays on it with such ease. He doesn’t care what happens to me after he leaves. That’s not his problem. It’s mine. And it’s serious.

I was emotionally healthy before I met him. I’d just come out of a four-year relationship with a man who adored me. He was honest and faithful, kind and respectful. He never left me. I left him.

When I met Ari I no longer had stability or love surrounding me every day and I suppose I was searching for it in strange places. Like in the Indian restaurant where Ari worked. In the beginning, I didn’t think he was a bad boy. He seemed shy and gentle. We’d talk on the phone for hours, every day for a week before he even asked me out. We didn’t kiss until our third date. He wasn’t very good. In fact, nothing about that experience made me desire him. But several days later, when he sensed my hesitation, he said something that shocked me: “Show me how you want to be kissed.”

That’s every woman’s dream. A customized boy toy! I was hooked from that moment forward. Once I showed him what I liked, he showed me things I didn’t know I liked. Things I’d never felt before. He was a genius in the bedroom. It was like dirty dancing in the belly of a volcano.

Soon, I became a slave to his touch. I’d wait by the phone, taking it with me in the shower, just in case he called. I’d wait up long past my bedtime in case he wanted to come around for a late-night visit. It seemed I couldn’t sleep without him. I couldn’t work, either. I was always thinking about him. He was like a drug. When he didn’t call, I started blaming myself. It must’ve been my hips. Or my ass. I wasn’t a good enough lover. My hair was too greasy.

Because he didn’t want me, I was convinced no one else would either. That’s why I needed him to come back. When he did, I felt worthy again. I was confident and secure. You can imagine, then, that if this ridiculous affair lasted six years, so did my emotional instability. I flirted with highs and lows, vacillating between self-love and self-hatred. I tangled with passion and hung on the edge of frigidity. I lost myself in a big way.

I had a chance to find the girl I’d lost all those years ago when I returned from pastry school in London last January. London was a marvelous place. Full of museums, great boutiques and a steady stream of my one weakness – images of Ari everywhere I turned. It was two years since I’d last seen him, yet now he was all I could see. Every day. On every corner. Standing next to me on the tube. Gathered around a table in a Soho curry house. Talking on a cell phone. And in my fantasies every night.

I sent him an email and his response included several exclamation points and an urgent plea to call him as soon as I got into town.

“When are you gonna make me some pastries?” I could hear him cooing as he typed.

It reminded me of the time he worked at the Cheesecake Factory and acquired an entire pumpkin cheesecake.

“I want to bring it over and lick it off your body,” he teased.

Obviously he remembered the delicious year we spent Thanksgiving together and wanted to recreate it with something a bit more pliable than pie.

But that was then. And this was now. It had been long enough and I’d finally recovered from the last time I was strangled by his disappearance from my life.

I was sweating when he opened the door. He looked the same, but his hair was longer. He had a bigger earring and much more confidence. In fact, I detected the stench of bravado. I stood by his dresser and he turned on the radio. I placed my hands over the buttons on my coat, knowing that as long as I kept it on, I’d be safe. He had different plans.

“Wouldn’t you be more comfortable if you took off your boots?” he asked.

He had a point. They weren’t helping the sweating situation, after all. I took off the boots. And I might have removed my blouse, too (seriously, it was really hot in there).

He pulled me to him and wrapped his lips hungrily around mine. It was a marvelous kiss. It was tender, yet wild, passionate, yet gentle. The difference between this time and all the others, however, came from the fact that his kiss was no longer enough. Nor was the feel of his hands across my stomach. Nothing, not even the warmth of his breath or the way he pulled me toward him, meant anything anymore. I only came for answers.

“Why did you leave me?” I asked, lipstick smeared across my face.

I’m sure it was a silly question to a guy like Ari. Why not leave? Leaving is what he does.

“I leave when things get too close,” he said. “I was in love once and that was enough. I only want to have fun.”

I wished I could have made him understand how fun it was to sit by the phone every night, wondering why he didn’t want me. On this particular day, however, it was fun looking at this man on the bed next to me, the one with a flashy earring and tousled hair, and realize he no longer had any power over me. He had so little, in fact, that his repeated pleas to stay or the way he looked at me with ink-stained eyes, stirred nothing but pity in me.

How many girls had he flirted into bed that week? Even worse, how many of those women believed they were the only ones? It made me sick to think I used to be one of those girls. A girl who would give everything away for a little bit of adulation and physical pleasure.

I felt very light when I stood up to slip on my shirt and slide on my boots. And I felt happy too. I vaguely remember him saying something about “next time,” as I opened the door to leave.

“Next time, you’ll be alone,” I said, not looking back, moving forward for the very first time.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Fixing A Wounded Heart: The Electrician Tries to Repair My Faulty Wiring

“I hope that one day I can make you believe just how wonderful you really are.”

Believe it or not, my mom wasn’t the one saying those words to me. It was a man. A man from my past who loved me six years ago and who was standing before me now, just as smitten.

It was a man who is gentle and kind, honest and faithful. A man as open as the Grand Canyon who doesn’t say words he doesn’t mean.

“You are so sexy,” he tells me as he kisses my neck. “Do you have any idea how sexy you are?”

No, actually, I don’t. I only know how NOT sexy I am.

To me, the idea of being desired seems impossible.

I spent the last four years of my 20s steeped in a deeply dysfunctional and empty relationship. I was with a man who never paid me a compliment and barely desired me. I was never sure what, exactly, he liked about me, but I think he viewed me as that of a best friend. Hang out, eat dinner, go to movies, never have sex. Yep. That’s pretty much what I do with my best friends.

But it’s not what I wanted to do with a boyfriend. Still, I stuck around hoping he’d come around. But he never did. As a result, I fell deeper into myself, feeling more unworthy with each passing day. You can imagine what that does to a person. It’s probably similar to a dog that gets beaten by its owner. Like humans, dogs are never born thinking anyone would want to hurt them.

But slowly, as that hurt is inflicted on them, they withdraw into themselves. Soon, when their owner comes near, they flinch instinctively. They cower in fear. It’s never a question of if, but only a question of when. Some days their owner pets them and feeds them treats. “Maybe he’s changed,” they think. “He wants to love me now.”

But before they can even wag their tail, they get kicked again.

Even years after they escaped and found a loving family, they can’t shake the feelings of fear and inadequacy that filled their life for so long. It never goes away. So even when their new owners love them all the time and wouldn’t dare hurt them, inside, they’re too wounded to believe this love is real.

I guess I was like a beaten dog. I stopped believing there was anything good about me. I was empty. I didn’t believe a man could ever really want me. For me, it was only a matter of when. When the next one would decide I was worthless.

But instead, this one was telling me how great I was. How sexy and wonderful and beautiful and funny I am. And the crazy part is, I know he meant every word.

“How could any man ever not desire you?” he’d ask. “I have a good mind to beat him up.”

Secretly, I wished he would. I wished someone would hurt him like he hurt me. But I know I need to let that go. It’s time to heal from the past. And this man who wanted me all those years ago and still wants me now might just be the key to helping me do that.

He’s an electrician, after all. He is an expert at fixing broken things.

“How good are you with hearts?” I ask him.

“Mine’s broken, too,” he says. “I know what to look for.”

He looks me square in the eyes and brushes the hair from my face.

“It’s his fault for not seeing all that you are,” he says. “Not yours.”

I think about what he says. It’s been difficult, but I realize now, after comparing these two dramatically different men, that it never really was about me. I spent so many years thinking I wasn’t enough. Not pretty enough. Not sexy enough. Not good enough to make him love me.

Now I’m starting to realize he was the one lacking. He wasn’t smart enough to see how cool I am. I mean, I think I’m cool. The Electrician definitely thinks so.

He’s been working on me for days and I can feel a tiny current coursing through my body. It’s not time to turn the switch back on, but I know there’s a spark inside of me that wasn’t there before.

Monday, April 7, 2008

A Failed Science Experiment: Hey Kids, Let’s Make Someone’s Heart Explode! A Lesson in Internal Combustion with The Mad Scientist

He would be in Paris in two weeks.

He emailed to tell me this, though I’m not sure why. We hadn’t spoken in a year, yet he emailed out of the blue to tell me he’d be in the most romantic city in the world, which, as it just so happened, was only a two-hour train ride from where I was at the time.

Imagine that. I was studying in London and he knew this when he decided to casually mention his European travels.

“I love Paris,” I remember responding. “I have a friend who lives there and I could visit when you’re there, if you want.”

If you hadn’t spoken to a man you were in love with for over a year and he emails when he knows you’re just a two-hour train ride away, wouldn’t you assume he’s hinting for you to come visit? I did. Stupidly. And the response I got still makes the vomit rise in my throat.

“I’ll be super busy the whole time,” he said. “Besides, didn’t you say it would be hard for you to see me if you knew nothing had changed between us?”

What’s the French word for asshole? Or how about emotional tease?

Creve Coeur. I know that one. Means heartbreak. Finally a French word I can understand.

If life had dealt me a different hand, I might actually be going to Paris – with him. If he felt for me what I was beginning to feel for him right before he dumped me, he’d actually want me there. He’d say something like, “Darling, don’t you think we could come here for coffee after my lectures on electron superimposition into the centrifugal solarsphere?”I would gaze into his eyes and say, “I don’t know what any of that means, but they’ve got brioche as big as Dolly Partons breasts, so yes, coffee would be lovely.”

He is a scientist, you know. One of those traditionally geeky guys who looks at a microscope in the same hungry way a frat boy looks at a woman’s ass, and gets equally excited about encyclopedias and Nova specials on PBS. When I met him I was a jumbled mess of atoms, surrounding a porous shell of what should’ve been a heart. I wasn’t looking for someone else to pour acid on it. So when he looked at me in the crowded bookstore, it was the first time I felt something move inside my chest. It was tiny, almost imperceptible, but I know it came alive that day, in that moment. And later that evening, as we sat on black leather couches sipping martinis, the beat grew stronger. It was practically a bass drum months later, when he came to visit me and touched my bare skin as Billie Holiday crooned gently in the background.

When I visited him, he had a box of chocolates he bought me on his last trip. It was half melted, but I was secretly touched by the gesture. He hid packets of hot chocolate around his apartment and when I found them, we made steaming mugs topped with marshmallows and laughed and kissed while trying not to spill anything. I made him pancakes and he ordered in sushi. We watched movies, made love, drank lemoncello from frozen shot glasses and made love again. It was the most naked I’ve ever been in my life. Naked in a way that has nothing to do with clothes but has everything to do with exposing yourself fully to another human being.

By now you’re probably wondering what went wrong. So am I. If you know anything about love, you know it often leaves you wondering. Maybe for years. Maybe forever. He told me I was beautiful. He said I was funny and intelligent. He told his parents about me. We liked the same music, enjoyed independent films, loved culture and travel and he was picking up on my love of food. But as the Bachelor said on a recent episode to a girl he’d just rejected, “You had so much of what I was looking for, but in the end, you didn’t have enough.”

That’s just how it goes sometimes. Does that mean I’m okay with the outcome? Of course not. I wanted to be the girl for Mr. Scientist. I wanted to fit inside his universe. But instead, I got to find out what it’s like to find a man who fits in mine. That’s a very cool discovery, if you ask me. Screw Halley’s Comet or extra terrestrials. I finally found where my heart was hiding.

Someday soon, someone else will find it too.