I had him, now I've lost him, and I'm sad

I can't believe this guy even went for me at all, but he did, and I fell for him.

By Cary Tennis

Published February 11, 2009 11:19AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

For a number of reasons (going-nowhere job, got thrown out of my house and had to move back home, fought with friends, had to have a very painful surgery), 2008 was the worst year of my life. But the biggest reason my life was so miserable that year is probably the most trite: I met a man, and it didn't work out.

Earlier in 2008, I went to a friend's party and met a beautiful man there. At that time, I had been celibate for several years, and though I am not necessarily ugly, I am not particularly attractive either. For some reason, this beautiful man stuck by my side the whole night -- since I'm not much to look at, I suppose he found me amusing -- and eventually I worked up the courage to kiss him and I went home with him that night. Perhaps it had been because no one had wanted to touch me for years, but I thought the sex was, well, fantastic. When we woke up the next morning, and he didn't immediately kick me out, and in fact, wrapped himself around me and asked, "Do you really have to go?" my cold, black heart melted a little.

When we parted ways that afternoon, I asked him if I could see him again, and he hemmed and hawed and said it'd be hard, because we live in different cities. In retrospect, I should have said right then, "OK, that's fine. This was fun. Take care of yourself," and never spoken to him again. But I didn't. We kept in contact for a while (I guess maybe he thought it was the polite thing to do? Though our conversations were generally amusing and flirtatious) and I asked him again if we could see each other, and again he hemmed and hawed. Then I didn't hear from him for three weeks. I felt the rejection acutely. I cried every day. Occasionally he would send me weird and maudlin e-mails and text messages, like consoling me unbidden via text message the minute my basketball team got knocked out of the NCAA tournament. Otherwise he would ignore my polite and infrequent messages.

For some reason, a few months after our first meeting, he agreed to keep me company for a day while I was visiting his city. We spent a lovely day together, which culminated in making out in a train station and me stupidly telling him that I Liked Him liked him. He put me on the train and kissed me goodbye. I got a few more weird text messages and e-mails over the next few weeks, and eventually, they stopped coming. I made one last-ditch attempt to engage him during the summer -- ignored. I have not contacted him since. I got the hint.

Here I am, six months later, writing to you. The pragmatic part of my mind knows he's, y'know, just not that into me and I need to forget about him and move on. The vengeful part of my mind thinks, "He could do so much better than me, obviously he just goes after the low hanging fruit, that 'do you really have to leave?' thing is his shtick. What a loser." The irrational part of my mind wonders what did I do wrong, and what should I have done differently, and why doesn't he realize I would have been such a good girlfriend to him, and his ex is a horrible bitch for messing him up so much, and if I were thinner and prettier he would want to be with me, and on and on and on.

Now the pain is less a stabbing agony and more a dull ache I live with, but can't quite ignore. I've tried therapy, exercise, prayer, sports, volunteering, drinking excessively, sobriety, sleeping with other men (the one nice thing to come out of this mess is that I realize there are actually attractive men out there who are sexually attracted to me) to forget about him. Things could be a lot worse; I could not have my health, or a job, or a roof over my head. But I almost wish I had never met him, because then I wouldn't have had those few highs of happiness and contentment that make the valleys of my past and current misery feel so much lower.

What do I do? How can I forget about him? How do I go on?

Alone Again, Naturally

Dear Alone Again,

Sometimes I am just moved by a letter and want to write to the person to say thank you for the particular kind of knowing vulnerability your letter shows. Thank you for etching out a complex of emotions that I'm sure many people share. Thank you for the bracing echo of toughness here -- you offhandedly say the pain is now less a stabbing agony and more a dull ache you live with but can't quite ignore, and although I ought not take pleasure in your suffering itself I take pleasure in the precision with which you render gradations of awfulness way outside the scale of day-to-day suffering. I like that. I like what seems like honesty in it. I like it as a reminder of how quickly things can tumble. We are none of us princes or princesses (actually once I saw a real princess in the airport in Paris and I remember that; I think actual princesses really do have different lives). But most of us we are not princes; we do not command the universe. We suffer. We do not get what we want. We sit and wait and hope. And then something opens up and we reach for it and lo and behold it is the fragrant, thirst-slaking substance of our most fervent dreams. Then it goes away and we are back to daily life and can't believe we're supposed to live without it now. We had it, it got away and we are inconsolable.

That is what you have described for me here, and I just want people to read your letter and to think about you. You are a gentle and brave soul, and you are part of our tribe.

Yes, we are a tribe, I think, a lost tribe of the world.

And you know what breaks my heart? There is mystery and glamour in this piece and yet I detect you putting your gloss of hopelessness and despair over it the whole way. And it breaks my heart. You first devalue your own suffering by calling the precipitating incident "trite." Then you say you guess he stuck with you because you are amusing, because you are not much to look at, you say. And thus you consign yourself to the ghetto of the not much to look at ... and none of us gets a chance to say, Wait! Don't shut yourself in that damp, chilly closet of nonchalant self-murder! Don't do that! It hurts to watch it. It hurts us! And then we also, uncharitably, may come to suspect you are doing it for that very reason -- to hurt us! -- and, thus goaded into uncharitable feelings, none to our credit, we suspect you may be taking us for a ride, inviting us to join in your irascible blend of self-pity and self-castigation. But I don't think so. I trust you. I think you are showing us who you really are. And again that's why this tears me up.

I believe, too, that you have arrived at an assessment of your faults and your attributes that has some nuances as well as some jagged edges, and that you use this self-assessment to mitigate  the underlying pain of feeling rejected and lonely.

So, anyway, the lovely man sticks by your side all evening, and you go home with him and have a fantastic night of lovemaking, a fantastic night! And again you put that heartbreaking gloss on it: You assume the pleasure you take is because you haven't been touched in years. And what if it is because you haven't been touched in years? How does that devalue it?

Argh. It pains me to the point of inarticulate sputtering. So. You go with him and you have a fantastic night of lovemaking, with a second helping in the morning. And then he goes away and you are unsettled and unsatisfied.

What do you do? you ask. How do you forget him? How can you move on? Well, I think you have moved on. What you are having are the complicated, difficult, sometimes painful thoughts that we have when we have had a big disappointment.

You say, when he asked to stay, your "cold, black heart melted a little," and I laugh because I appreciate the raw, unsparing view you take of yourself, but also I want to tear my eyeballs out because you are being so cruel to yourself. And I want to remind you that in that moment you had choices. And you probably telegraphed to him this same bleak, self-hating pessimism. I'm not blaming you really; maybe he wasn't such a great guy. But there is no doubt in my mind that you also gave signals that said you felt you had no chance with him and why bother and so forth. So that when he slipped away, it was in a sense a foregone conclusion. And that makes me sad, too. So you are tearing me up. Now don't apologize. I like sad movies, too. And I admire people like you; I admire how you can take so much punishment and keep pushing on through the hell. It's something I rather relate to, and admire.

Can I give you advice? Can I help you? Well, sure, to me you seem rather like an open book. You are not a hard case. A decent therapist could probably whip you into shape in no time if you would allow it, if you would allow a little icky tenderness to be applied to your blistered skin, if you would allow a little of the little girl you once were to come back into your life and be cared for, if you would allow just a little silliness and a little hope back into your life. I'm sure there is lots of pain underneath the withering sarcasm, but it can be borne.

So: For over a month, your letter had sat there, staring at me. I would go back and read it and pound the desk and want to shoot nails into my head and think to myself, one day I have to run this letter. But what do I have to say? Not today. I'll get to it. So finally I have run your letter, mainly because I wanted others to see it. I don't know that everyone will be as moved as I am; I may have a particular weakness for your personality. We are probably somewhat alike, and thus my empathy for you is maddening. Plus I don't feel I have anything smart or clever to say. I just have this big feeling that you are enormously sweet and quite dangerously cutting and somebody should come into your life and just be a nice guy and gently coax you into being kinder . My only fear is that if a nice guy comes into your life, if you have not dealt with this cutting, biting, uncompromising, demanding and perhaps perfectionist side, you will cut him to ribbons without really meaning to, and he will run out into the street and collapse from contagiously low self-esteem.

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Cary Tennis

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