[I read the following piece on January 22, 2018 at This One Woman, a comedy and variety show inspired by the life of a different famous woman every month. If you find yourself in the Chicagoland area, I highly recommend checking it out!]
I met him at a 4am bar after some significant day drinking. My friends and I had just finished a “jazz cigarette” outside when he approached us with a bravado that, in more sober occasions, would have been ignored or prompted an eye roll. It enthralled me. In supercut fashion, we met, made-out, and went home together: Automatic Boyfriend! This “method” I had employed in my early 20s still worked after turning 30 and it still involved lowering some standards.
Growing up, I had always been raised to treasure my brain. Like Gillian Flynn’s parents, who are both professors, my parents are retired teachers and like her main character Amy in Gone Girl, I was a treasured daughter; the “Amazing Anita”. Although, my parents never wrote me into any passive aggressive children’s books. I was the baby, the girl, the spoiled one who got away with everything. I was raised to be independent, to do anything I set my mind to and like Amy, it was important for me to be “good at everything” all of the time.
I was trying this relationship on for size, to see if it would fit, something I had been doing that year, with mixed results. What did it mean about me, the men I chose to date? What did it say about my capabilities, my standing in the world?
Months earlier, I had escaped from a domestic nightmare: five years of a committed relationship only to realize that I had been miserable for the last two.
I had morphed from a radical feminist roller derby player to pretend 50’s housewife with 4 part-time jobs and a dwindling creative life, without realizing it, like a frog in gradually boiling water.
This new guy, in a long line of many, liked that I was smart, but quickly discovered that he did not like when I was smarter than him.
His electrician co-workers had nicknamed me “the bookworm;” I wasn’t sure if that was a compliment. He found me sexy and I thought he was cute. If I squinted, he was like the rockabilly man of my dreams with slicked back hair and classic Chicago plaid fashion. He drove me around and bought me dinner and drinks. That was enough for me back then. But academic scholar, he was not.
At the time, I was working as a Director of a Library and Archives and had assigned Gone Girl for my work’s book discussion group. Gillian Flynn once described Amy as a “perfectionist, self-righteous, driven kind of personality…[a] control freak…[a] list maker.” This fit me to a tee, in both my professional and personal life. I also resonated with Amy’s take on the “cool girl.”
For those of you unfamiliar, the passage goes like this: “Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman… Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.”
Amy goes on to say that women are pretending to be what they think men want. She finishes with this clencher, “(How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.)”
It’s a powerful passage and I saw some of myself in it. My domestic nightmare was partially my fault for trying to be the “best girlfriend ever.” Of course, it helped that he completely and utterly took advantage of that.
I was trying to not make the same mistake twice, but swinging a pendulum in the opposite direction is not the same as finding a solution to the main problem.
For some reason I can’t remember, I purchased the book on my phone and my “bookworm” truly came out to play. I couldn’t put it down. Even while on a date with my boyfriend, I would sneak off to the bathroom to read, flipping through every small page with fervor. I laid in bed next to him and ignored his sexual advances to read more.
It was the kind of book that got under my skin and stayed there until I had all the answers and read to the last sentence of the last page. When I finished, I wanted to throw the book across the room in a fit of rage, but didn’t because it was on my phone. I couldn’t decide if I hated the book or not.
I didn’t like any of the characters, save for Nick’s sister Go. I had read the book like feeding an addiction and once done, I was left empty and cold while my boyfriend snored next to me.
I remember a library patron with whom I was friendly ask me about my relationship status and I told her about my boyfriend. She said, “Oh if he is dating you, he must be amazing!” Without thinking about it, I said, “He isn’t.” That was the first nail in the coffin of our relationship.
I sensed the end coming when we started arguing about the Columbian Exposition of 1893; which happens to be one of my favorite historical Chicago events. One of the other duties of my job that I loved was conducting original archival research and creating presentations on my historical findings. I had not long before given a lecture on the Exposition. We were disagreeing on the origin of the nickname “Windy City.”
He believed it was coined because a reporter overheard a man complaining about the wind because his hat blew off at the Fair. I shit you not. I argued, correctly, that the nickname came from newspaper folks from other parts of the country chiding our politicians and their hot air about the greatness of our city. Then he uttered the deathblow to our relationship, “Google it.”
I tried to give him my best skeptical librarian look: over the glasses low on the nose, eyebrows raised, incredulous. He repeated, “Fucking Google it.” I responded with, “You aren’t going to like what I find.” Because I knew I was right. And I was.
When I broke up with him, I told him that I needed to spend some time alone. He said he’d understand better if there was someone else. I thought that was the saddest thing anyone has told me during a break up.
Years later, I bumped into him unexpectedly at a storytelling event, of all places. I barely recognized him. He had gained weight, grew a magnificent beard, and let his hair escape from all that pomade. He introduced me to his wife and baby girl. I was happy for him and myself. I was single and feeling good about it. We wished each other well and went our separate ways and I guess, in the end, we both got what we wanted.