DATING for me was always like that video game: you try to follow the dance moves, and the further you get in the game, the trickier the moves become, until you are just a flailing mess. I was clingy and desperate and wore my heart on my sleeve, falling madly in love repeatedly, only to meet with heartbreaking rejection at every turn.
Which is why it is nothing short of a miracle that two years ago I was swiftly and happily married.
Until then I was a case study in “He’s Just Not That Into You,” or so I’ve been told. I haven’t read that book: friends warned me that it would trigger too many unpleasant memories. Apparently it is all about women like me: women who wear blinders about the men in their lives, who come on too strong and fall in love with the wrong people over and over.
I’m sure there are many of you out there. And if you’re one of us, here’s what I have to tell you, what I wish someone at some point had told me: It’s O.K.
It’s O.K. to fall deeply for one loser after another. It’s O.K. to show up at a guy’s house with a dozen roses and declare your undying affection. It’s O.K. to have too much to drink and call your ex 20 times and then to be mortally embarrassed when you realize your number must have shown up on his caller ID. It’s O.K. to stand at a phone booth in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, drenched like a sewer cat in the pouring rain, crying your eyes out because the man you are infatuated with has decided that he needs some space.
It’s O.K. because I believe that all of these grand gestures and heroic attempts to follow E. M. Forster’s simple advice to “only connect” are not really about this guy or that guy. Making a fool of yourself for love is ultimately about you, how much you have to give and the distances you will travel to keep your heart wide open when everything around you makes you feel like slamming it shut and soldering it closed.
Not to digress into too much pop psychology, but I sometimes think that I never had a chance at being one of those girls who could play it cool. My parents’ marriage was a soap opera saga of dramatic exits and mind games and affairs. When I was little, my father would force me to choose which parent I loved more. If I chose my mother, he would react with fury. If I chose him, he would smother me with hugs and kisses, luxuriating in his victory, then promise to come back for me soon.
Soon could mean two days or two weeks or two months. I learned early on that love meant never having to follow through on your promises.
My mother, bless her heart, tried to keep me from becoming a desperate girl with a daddy complex. In seventh grade I got my first boyfriend: one very handsome junior high school star athlete named Chuck Douglas. We went to different schools, so our relationship consisted of long, meandering phone calls, most of which were initiated by me.
One day, when my mother could not reach me after school for three hours straight, she came home early with the intention of beating some sense into me. When she found me sprawled underneath the dining table, the phone cord wrapped like a bracelet (or a handcuff) around my arm, she took pity. She led me into her bedroom and asked me how often I called Chuck.
“All the time.”
“And how often does he call you?” she asked.
“You can’t chase boys,” she said. “They don’t like it.”
I was 13. Chuck Douglas was dating me, a certified nerd, in a sea of buxom cheerleaders. My mother’s words meant nothing. I was already lost to the cause.
In college I discovered women’s studies and somehow managed to wrap the words of Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis neatly around my now well-solidified boy craziness. “I’m a feminist,” I declared. “I don’t need to wait for a man to ask me out.”
So I asked out guy after guy after guy: the very epitome of he’s just not that into you. I dated numerous gay men who were not yet out of the closet. It became a kind of service after a while, coaching ex-boyfriends out of the closet. I went out with a techno D.J. who invited me to go sailing with his parents. I hated his taste in music, and he was a terrible kisser, but I still cried a week later when he dumped me.
IN my 20’s I had two long-term relationships that nevertheless ended, and I found myself back out in the wilds of the dating world. At this time the hot self-help dating book was “The Rules.” There were many rules that were supposed to help you lasso a man, but the one I remember said that you should never accept a date for Saturday after Thursday.
“The Rules” reminded me of that conversation I had with my mother about the swoon-worthy Chuck Douglas. I understood that the rules were good for me, but so is tofu, and I just can’t stand the stuff.
My friend Cassandra insisted that men are like lions; they want to chase their prey. She suggested that I smile at a guy I was interested in instead of barreling him over with conversation. “See what he does,” she said. “If you’re feeling playful, then maybe give him a little wink.”
Soon after, I was invited by a friend to take a trip to South Africa. One enchanted morning my friend and I were having breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Across the room I spied a charming man with the kind of friendly face that you feel you have known forever. Leaving the restaurant, I stood up and saw that he was looking my way. I smiled. He smiled back. Feeling bold, I winked, then tripped on a step and fell on my face.
The next few minutes were dizzying as I was surrounded by hotel staff offering me ice and bandages. Then I heard a voice amid the cacophony; it was the man I had winked at. I turned away, mortified.
“You should see a doctor,” he said.
I insisted that I was fine.
“Well, let me be the judge of that, because I happen to be a doctor.”
He took me out to dinner that night and every night for the rest of my trip. We exchanged phone numbers and even though I lived in New York and he lived in Sydney, Australia, I called and called him because I was so sure that what I felt for this man was, if not love, then certainly magic.
It wasn’t. To give the guy a little credit, we lived continents apart. Even if he was that into me, it would’ve been a hard row to hoe.
It was about this time, when I was in my late 20’s, that I read a nugget of advice, probably in a women’s magazine, that I took to heart. This article suggested that if you knew you were going to meet the love of your life in one year, you would really enjoy this year. This seemed reasonable.
So while I still tended to wear my heart on my sleeve and to commit too quickly, I also had some really fun one-off dates with guys I knew were never going to call. I went to the theater and to hip-hop shows and tried to relax about the whole dating and mating thing.
About a year later I met the man who would become my husband. The friend who kept reintroducing us insisted that, unlike the vast majority of men I was meeting in New York, Jason was a guy who could hold his own. He was not a “Sex and the City” Mr. Big, a type I was well acquainted with: the über-successful guy who keeps you at arm’s length. Nor was he a starving artist who was willing to fall in love while nursing commitment issues about things like holding down a job and paying bills.
Jason was a regular guy: he had a good job, owned a house, liked his parents. Eight months after our first date he proposed.
SUDDENLY the role I had been playing my entire dating life was reversed: I didn’t want to get married. I’d never been angling for a ring. What I had wanted all through my 20’s was a really great boyfriend: someone who called when he said he would, who would get up early and go running with me over the Brooklyn Bridge and who would jump at the chance at weekend getaways in the Berkshires.
I wanted someone with whom I could read the Sunday paper in bed, who would sit next to me during foreign movies, who would bring me chicken soup when I felt ill, who would send me flowers on Valentine’s Day and sometimes for no reason at all.
Jason said he wanted all the same things too. But to him the relationship I described was marriage, not dating.
So I said yes.
Which is probably why after two years of holy matrimony I still make the mistake of calling Jason my boyfriend. He is in every way the best boyfriend I’ve ever had. No one ever told me that a really great marriage can make up for two decades of horrible dating. No one ever said that all those guys who were just not that into you can be, for women, the psychological equivalent of notches on a bedpost.
I’m happy now that I dated the D.J., the doctor, the candlestick maker. When I look back at those relationships, I can see that in the midst of all the drama I managed to have a goodly amount of fun.
What would have happened if any of those relationships had lasted, bumbling along in all their glaring wrongness? Instead of just being dumped and consoling myself with pints of Chunky Monkey and viewings of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” I could have been facing any one of these men in divorce court, or being forced to see them every Saturday afternoon, when we met to swap custody of our children or our cocker spaniel.
Thankfully, all those men were just not that into me. They did me a bigger favor than I could ever have known.
MODERN LOVE Veronica Chambers lives in France. This essay is adapted from “The May Queen: Women on Life, Love, Work and Pulling It All Together in Your 30’s,” edited by Andrea N. Richesin, to be published by Tarcher/Penguin in March.