I’d just gone through yet another breakup, and I was determined to figure out what it was that I did wrong. As I set out on my quest, I remembered what an improv teacher told me years ago: The end is in the beginning.
I’d met him while working in the writing center my second year of graduate school at Cal State Northridge. I was 44 and was going back to school after a divorce. He was 36, charming, handsome and an intellectual (he double majored in philosophy and English lit). His face was my kryptonite. There was an instant attraction, but he had a girlfriend. He told me all about it. Their relationship was stressful. She wanted to move in and have kids, and he wasn’t sure she was right for him. Then they broke up. He asked me out on a Friday. On the following Monday, he told me he had gotten back together with his girlfriend. She had convinced him he owed her another chance. He said he knew it wasn’t the right thing to do but that it was necessary.
I choked back tears as I walked to my car. A man knows what the right thing to do is, and he does it, I thought.
When he quit working at the writing center, I thought I’d never see him again. Two months later he showed up to ask, “Do you want to have lunch?” It turned out he and his ex were finally over. A couple of lunches and a dinner later, we were dating. He knew upfront that having a relationship with me included a relationship with my kids, who were 12 and 9. I had never introduced anyone to my kids before, but he was, as far as I was concerned, the one.
He doted on all of us. He spoiled my kids with electronics, spent hours at the retro arcade with my son, and somehow appreciated my daughter’s obsession with slime. He rarely showed up without flowers in hand. He traveled with us to my parents’ house in Arizona for the holidays. We hiked the Indian ruins with my brother and sister-in-law. “Baby, you make me a lucky man,” he’d said.
I took a full-time teaching position while he self-published his poetry. And we talked about someday moving in together. We discussed the kind of wedding we wanted. We decided that for our honeymoon we would go on a tour of chapels in France. (I especially wanted to visit the Strasbourg Cathedral, also known as the Pink Cathedral, and St. Michel d'Aiguilhe, which is built atop a volcanic rock and takes about 260 steps to reach.) My friends remarked how devoted he was to me. His mother marveled at how loving and supportive we were with each other. His brother told him he’d never seen him this happy.
He told me it was because we were like two pieces in a puzzle; we just fit together. “Baby, that makes me a lucky man,” he would say.
Then he started a coding program, the first step toward a new career. We were excited about the opportunities this would bring us, moving us closer to our plans. Classes were grueling. He was often frustrated by his slow progress. I tried my best to comfort him. Once, he looked at me with tears in his eyes and told me how terrified he was to have to make a living. (He lived off family money.)
I stuffed down the butterflies.
About a month later, on a neighborhood walk, we decided to tour some open condominium models. In truth, we were probably years away from living together (a move would disrupt the kids’ schooling, and, really, I was in no hurry). But we nonetheless fantasized about what it would be like if that were our home, assigning the rooms and spaces.
The next morning he turned to me with tears in his eyes, “I’m getting stressed out thinking about moving in together.”
That time, I nearly choked on the butterflies.
“I’m nervous about living with someone again too,” I said, trying to comfort him. “Transitions require honesty and openness.” (If that sounds like a platitude, I fear I'm guilty. I have no idea where it came from, but it’s something I tell myself over and over again to maintain some control of my feelings.)
A few weeks later he called, sobbing. He’d had a severe panic attack. He couldn’t do the coding program and have “boyfriend obligations.” He was conflicted, he said, because he knew that breaking up wasn’t the right thing to do but was the necessary thing to do.
And, just like that, it was over.
I vacillated between anger and sadness. I thought I was his soul mate; it turns out I was just his “boyfriend obligations.”
That’s when I set out to figure out what went wrong. But the more I thought about it, the more it sounded like a middle school relationship rather than an adult one. And I remembered my improv teacher and the reasons why he told me he broke up with the woman before me, and the one before her, and the one before her.
This was his pattern, not mine. It occurred to me that he was never going to move in with me or marry me. He’d never even lived with a woman. He’d also never had to earn a living. I realized that, at 37, he was stressed about growing up and having “obligations.”
But it’s duty that makes life meaningful. And I wanted a man to share that with.
So I had my answer.
I knew what I did wrong.
I wanted a man who accepts his obligations; actually, he chooses them.
But instead, I’d dated a man-child.
The author is an English teacher and is on Twitter @Poeville.
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