Broken at Love: Taking your vows

Broken at Love Contributor

First, a quick note on last week’s column, which was about my experience of dating “Lobster Salad,” a Libertarian hedge fund manager. (Recap: We broke up ultimately not because of our divergent political views, but because our personalities were completely incompatible.) I would like to clarify: Though I certainly enjoyed the nice dinners out and other material perks of being in Lobster Salad’s company, that’s not why I stayed with him for those two tedious months.

Instead, I dated him because I was so eager to be coupled up, to have a plus-one, to line up a sympathetic (or at least breathing) human being to be there for those waking-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-thinking-about-how-death-is-inevitable panics. I thought it was better to pretend that he might be the right one than to be with no one. Staying with someone for that reason is arguably more problematic than if I just wanted to keep getting wined and dined at Convivio. I’ll own up to having been pathetic, but not materialistic.

Moving on … This is a series of musings about relationships and dating, and if I were going to catalog every episode chronologically, I suppose I’d have to start with my first regular social interaction with a member of the opposite sex — at age 5, watching Sesame Street on the floor with my neighbor Ricky before afternoon kindergarten. Monday through Friday, Ricky and I would drink Hi-C together, and I totally had hand, at least until Big Bird’s friends on the Street started doubting the existence of Bird’s best friend, the benevolent beast known as Snuffleupagus. (Spoiler alert: Snuffleupagus is real.) Bird kept trying to arrange an introduction between his peeps (some human, some muppet, none marshmallow) and Snuffy, but a series of near-misses prevented the meeting. And each time Big Bird’s friends expressed skepticism over Snuffleupagus’s existence, my level of frustration and agitation and anxiety grew. Meanwhile, Ricky kept on drinking his Hi-C, apparently uninvested in the fate of Snuffy, that lovable oaf, and unperturbed by the Sesame Streeters’ lack of faith. He probably thought, she’s crazy. Who cares if Maria and Gordon and the rest of the gang believe that Snuffy exists? We had drastically different takes on Sesame Street, and by the time first grade started, we weren’t even pals anymore.

So, I could start with Ricky and the Hi-C, work my way up through the awkward Zima-fueled interactions with scrawny teenage boys in high school friends’ basements, through college loves (and heartbreak … and Bud Lite), through the consumption of untold gallons of vodka tonics in smoky, and then unsmoky, Manhattan bars, recapping years and (shudder) decades of dating. But I’d rather start in the middle. With all apologies to Fraulein Maria and the do-re-mi song, the middle can also be a very good place to start.

So here it is: A couple of years ago I was working on a football story for a New York newspaper, and my editor suggested that as part of my background research, I talk to the 30-something male author of a book related to my topic. I tracked down the author’s e-mail address and set up a phone interview. The call went well, and a flirty e-mail conversation  —and an exchange of goofy pictures — ensued. The author of the book, it turns out, was smart, witty, self-deprecating, educated, gainfully employed and attractive (with an adorable brillo pad-esque Jewfro that made my own frizzy curls seem tame by comparison). He had a big-time sports TV job and wrote novels on the side. What more could a gal ask for? (Well, I suppose I could have asked him to master the spelling of my four-letter first name, but … you can’t have everything.)

Mr. Sports was straightforward in his pursuit of me. But when he pressed me for a date, I demurred, fearing that consorting with my “sources” would somehow sabotage my efforts to get my big story published. Even if my editor didn’t find out I’d seen Mr. Sports socially, maybe the universe would punish me for daydreaming about a life of romantic bliss and box seats to playoff games, and the article would somehow be rejected or scooped or (quel horreur!) banished to the Saturday edition.

But I continued to enjoy my e-flirtation with Mr. Sports, and he continued to try to convince me to let him take me to dinner. I was flattered by his persistence, and curious to meet him in person. Not to mention that “he was my source for an article I was writing” is a much better how-we-met story than “he found me while trolling for chicks on match.com.”

Eventually, the story was published, and I agreed to meet Mr. Sports to celebrate. He picked the location — a Mexican restaurant downtown — and I carefully selected my look-good-without-looking-like-you’re-trying-too-hard outfit. When we met up, I was pleasantly surprised to find him as adorable as in his photo. We had a drink, and moved on to dinner. The banter flowed as comfortably as it had over e-mail. He complimented my appearance, which I took as validation of the 30 awkward minutes I’d spent with an eyeliner pencil in my hand, trying to achieve the “smoky” look without ending up with black smudges under my eyes, a la Tom Brady on a sunny day.

But then, halfway through our main courses, two or three glasses of sangria into the proceedings, conversation shifted to his progress, or lack thereof, on his second novel. Mr. Sports, it turned out, was not an overgrown, overpaid frat boy, but a tortured artist who wanted to make a contribution to humanity not through his work network programming, but through his writing. And he laid down a bombshell the likes of which I’d never heard in my many years of dating.

“I’ve taken a vow of celibacy until I’m 100 pages into the new novel,” Mr. Sports said, fixing his penetrating blue eyes on my face as I gulped frantically at my sangria.

When I came up for air, I nodded, attempting an expression of sympathetic commiseration, an understanding of the novelist’s agonizing creative “process.” What I was thinking was, who uses sex as an incentive for writing? I’ve been known to reward myself with dessert upon the completion of an assignment, but tying sex to one’s craft is a little creepy. And how long does it take to write a novel? Had he settled in for months — or even years — of celibacy? Was he 25 pages into the new book? 50? Had he at least done some character development, some introduction of themes? Or was he on page 4? Because even if I decided to overlook this “quirk” and start (chastely) seeing him, I don’t have that kind of time.

I’d like to say that I handled the revelation — and the rest of dinner — gracefully, but instead I think I sputtered some lame questions about the novel’s storyline and signaled for the check. I was flummoxed, confused and a little disappointed. I never went out with him again. It was really like any other one-and-done courtship, except that when my friends asked me for the post-game recap, I didn’t say, “He wasn’t very attractive,” or, “I wasn’t that into him,” or, “He wasn’t that into me,” or, “I couldn’t stop thinking about my ex,” but instead, “He’s taken a vow of celibacy until he’s written 100 pages of his next novel.” They accepted my post-mortem report matter-of-factly — honestly, nothing fazes us these days.

A few months later, while on a vacation out West, I was browsing in Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Ore., when I came across Mr. Sports’s first novel. Intrigued, I bought it and read it right away. It wasn’t the kind of story that normally would have resonated with me, and once I got over the novelty of reading a book by a mysterious someone I’d been on a date with, I got a little bored with it. But then I came to the part where the protagonist, you guessed it, undertook a vow of celibacy. Apparently this was a big theme with Mr. Sports.

Even later I found out that a friend of mine had known Mr. Sports, vaguely, in college; they’d taken the same literature course. She told me he was so brilliant that whenever he was called on to make a comment in class, she would put her own hand down, too afraid to follow his genius. She also said that she thought Mr. Sports “used to swing both ways.” So there you go. Not only was I an intellectual lightweight when compared to this guy, but I probably would’ve been too intimidated to sleep with him — it’s the old Elaine Benes lack-of-access-to-the-equipment conundrum. The vow of celibacy was probably the least of the reasons why it wouldn’t have worked out.