I laughed nervously. “Of course not.”
Finally, he answered: “Not really, no. I mean, I wouldn’t turn sex down, but I wouldn’t go looking for it, either.”
After a minute, I asked, “Do I come off as a slut?”
His voice softened. He wrapped his arms tighter around me. “No, not at all. You actually come off as a lady.”
Maybe he wanted it to sound like a compliment, but my doubts about his sincerity made it feel more like a blow. I wondered if he was lying to make me feel better or to ensure more sex later.
As a child, I was always told, “Use your words” — shorthand for saying precisely what I mean and what I expect from people. As an adult, I’ve noticed that a lot of people aren’t very good at using their words, especially before and after hookups. Few ever seem to say precisely what they mean or what they expect.
Regardless, I smiled and said, “Really? Thank you.” I kissed him on the cheek, the temple, the forehead. “And you come off as a gentleman.”
And he did. But I secretly hoped that he was the same as me, that his chest also simmered with hidden indiscretions, and that the speed with which we slept together was as typical for him as it was for me. Because if it wasn’t, I would have to wonder if, upon discovering the truth, he would recoil. I would have to wonder if he would think of me as dirty or morally deficient, even though he already said he found me gentle.
“Wow, you’ve got a beautiful smile,” he said, idly stroking my waist, my stomach, my hips, my thighs. “You’re really the full package.”
“You don’t have to say that.”
“I know I don’t,” he said. “But I mean it.”
He told me I was smart, funny, creative. “You’ve got good karma, Gab,” he said.
I said, “You see things in me I didn’t know were visible.”
I don’t know why I fell for it, especially when I hadn’t even gone looking for it. For some reason I’ve always been susceptible to thinking my life would be vastly improved by the solution to a single problem. In high school, I thought, “It will all get better when the braces come off,” or “when my skin clears up” or “when I go to college.”
And now, older and supposedly wiser, I find myself thinking it will all get better when I find romance. When I have a man who wants me despite how fallible, loud or political I can be. Someone who, with a kiss, can snap me out of my self-pitying reverie. I think about how long I’ve been ready to find the beauty in another human being, to caress the scars of someone as flawed as me and to feel that person reciprocate.
That night I hadn’t been looking for romance, but my two-time lover embedded himself in my consciousness when he told me I was the girl of his dreams, and I can’t help but think how cruel that was, considering how it all turned out. Our goodbye was a kiss on the mouth and a wink as he stepped off the subway.
He had grinned and said, “I’ll see you later,” but he never saw me again. I have since learned that “later” means the same thing it did when I was a child and wanted to do something extravagant: It means “I don’t want to” or “If I feel like it.”
Now I’m told, “You only like him because he flattered you,” and “Good sex can trick you into thinking you like anyone.”
“What did you expect, Gab?” my friend said. “You can’t form a connection with somebody that fast.”
I shrugged. “I didn’t mean to. This felt different.”
She sighed. “Your problem is that you jump into things too quickly.”
I thought there must be something terribly, medically wrong with me if I could so badly misinterpret a situation. I wanted to see a doctor. I wanted a diagnosis. I wanted to ask my lover if he had found himself disappointed, if I wasn’t who he wanted me to be.
My friends tell me I need to love myself. I’m told this will make my life better, much in the way braces and clear skin were supposed to make me beautiful. When I ask how to do this, my friends become philosophers and say, “You need to find it within yourself.” Their advice is so abstract that I wonder if they, too, have searched and cannot find it.
How do I search within myself? I imagine reaching down my throat and rummaging until I find some bright little mass labeled “self-love.” It has been hiding, perhaps behind some bothersome organ or within the folds of a stubborn muscle. And when I find this magical panacea, I will say, “Oh, there you are. Where have you been all this time?” And I will set it back inside of me, this time in the correct place.
My question is: How will I know when I have found this thing that I never realized I lost, and what will happen when I do?
But I don’t really think my problem is a lack of self-love. I enjoy sex for its own sake every bit as much as a man does, and I’m honest about that. What confuses matters is all this sweet talk, followed by the vanishing act.
“Ghosting is the most cowardly way to end a relationship,” I once said to a male friend in a room with a guy who had ghosted me years before.
“Would you really rather someone tell you to your face that they don’t have feelings for you?” my friend said.
“I’d rather have that than be made to feel like an idiot,” I said.
Not too long after, a man I slept with told me I was beautiful while we were walking to my apartment in the middle of the night. He caressed the back of my hand with his thumb and smiled, but it meant nothing — under the orange glow of streetlights, I knew, even broken glass looks stunning.
“I feel so lucky right now,” he said. “I can’t believe a girl like you would give me the time of day.”
I texted him the next week, but he never responded. Annoyed, I noted that I wouldn’t even have thought to text him if he hadn’t blanketed me with such gratuitous flattery.
And then my two-time lover called me a lady. He added me on Facebook and told me to keep in touch. He said my skin was soft and my smile was beautiful and he couldn’t believe he had found someone like me.
He said, “I’m never mean to girls.”
I smiled. “So you’re a self-proclaimed nice guy?”
“Yes. What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing,” I said, draping my leg over both of his. He slid his arm beneath my head like a pillow. “But I don’t want a guy to be nice to me just because he feels obligated to, you know? I want him to be nice because he means it.”
“That makes sense,” he said, tangling a hand in my hair and kissing me on the forehead.
I don’t wander into casual sex expecting it to yield a relationship. I have never understood why some guys seem to think flattery is the key to a bedroom they’ve already been welcomed into. They say they would love to date me and then wonder why, the next day, I think they want to date me.
I neither require the flattery nor deserve the ghosting. With hookups there’s no need to be mean — just say what you mean. Use your words.