Monogamy doesn't come easily for everyone.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. I am going to introduce my grad-school boyfriend, Scott, to my family. I think they'll get along. He is studious and social and has published five papers already. He wears glasses and likes button-downs and remembers which polite phrases go where.
I am also having sex with Avi, who is not my boyfriend. He is bipolar, or at least something diagnosable, but he has wild hair, which rises in coarse curls, and elfin eyes that are so much wittier than his words.
I just texted Avi, "Come down now."
Down, because I'm in Manhattan and he's in upstate New York. Now, so that we can have sex before my boyfriend arrives. Of course, it's not just for sex, or, maybe more accurately, sex is never just sex. This time, like all of the other times, the "not just sex" part has to do with my boyfriend, and how I don't really want him to be my boyfriend.
It's actually a theme. I almost never love the boys I date, but I date them anyway, because — well, there isn't a good reason.
When I was twelve, my first boyfriend was also twelve. He picked his nose languorously in public. I asked him not to, but it was a hard habit to break. I liked him, even though I thought he was gross and maybe ugly. I liked the excitement of pressuring him to kiss me, perhaps more than I liked him. But the excitement and the boy himself got tangled together, and sometimes I forgot that they were separate things. Sometimes, I even thought I wanted to stay with him forever and build a big-windowed house with him, where we'd eat whatever we wanted because we'd be grown up and our parents couldn't say things about how processed foods are bad for you.
I cheated on that boy, with another boy who was not much more impressive. And then I cheated on the second boy with a third boy. And the third boy with a fourth boy. After a few months of cheating, I'd swap one boyfriend for the next, until eventually, I was in college. There, I decided things were serious now, and so I stayed with the same boy for close to three years and only cheated on him once. The difference was, when I cheated on him, I didn't trade him in. I had an epiphany: maturity meant coming back, no matter what. I was proud of myself.
When I was fourteen or so, my best friend yelled at me. She said I needed to grow up. She may have called me heartless and amoral. Her parents were religious; she'd been "born again" at ten-years old, so she used words like "amoral" fluently. I sat there and tried not to smile. The boys would never know I'd cheated, so why did it even matter?
She said I should really think about why I was doing what I was doing. I had a few theories — three main ones, actually. One, it was possible that I just didn't care enough about the boys. Two, it was possible that I was greedy. Three, maybe I was scared.
"What the hell are you scared of?" my best friend said. (You knew things were serious when she cursed.)
"I don't know," I said. "Being alone?"
"But you're not alone," she said. "That's what makes it cheating."
She was right. It didn't make sense.
It is the night before Thanksgiving and Avi is asleep beside me. I've got my laptop on the bed and am emailing Scott. "Write me something romantic," I type. It is a desperate plea, actually. I want to be convinced that I should love him. I'm not sure how a desperate plea should look, typed into email format, so I leave it at that.
He writes me a love poem. It is truly terrible. He says something about how my legs are so smooth they shine. I know this isn't true about my legs. No matter what, they're always a little stubbly. I hate his love poem. I write back in poem form, to show him that I'm better than him, strangely ill with disappointment. I am lying in bed with another guy, writing my boyfriend an angry love poem.
He doesn't respond. He is probably confused and a little hurt. Or he just thinks that I am being inappropriately emotional, possibly because I am about to get my period. Tomorrow, when we are on the train to my parents' house, he will try, sympathetically, to open up a discussion.
I finally fall asleep. In the morning, I make out with Avi for a while and then tell him to leave.
Thanksgiving goes wonderfully. My parents think Scott is incredibly smart and polite. For a while, everything is great. And then, in a few weeks, I send Avi a text. I am angry at my boyfriend. He acts like his research is more important than me too often. He has to spend yet another day in the library. I still don't like having sex with him very much. I've been trying to like it. But I find myself looking around; reading book titles off the spines on his shelf. The posters on his wall are uncreative and they bore me.
Avi comes over.
A month later, I wake up in bed with my boyfriend, and decide I need to break up with him. "Good morning," he says. He looks closer. "Is everything okay?"
"No," I say slowly. "I can't be with you anymore."
He has no idea what's going on. He hasn't even sat up in bed yet, and I have broken up with him. He's barely even awake.
I'm sorrier than I've ever been. He's such a smart guy. He knows everything about Lacan. I feel like I'm trying to protect him, though I know it doesn't look like that exactly.
A week later, I text Avi. "I don't have a boyfriend anymore," I say. "We can do whatever we want." He sounds excited at the prospect.
The thing is, we've already been doing whatever we want. When he comes over, it isn't the same. And when he falls asleep after, he looks like a child. I suddenly feel like I am doing something horrifying. I remove his arm from my chest and set it down. All of a sudden, his face makes me feel nauseous. What was I thinking?
He'd planned to stay for a week, but I kick him out the next morning.
And then, for the first time since I was twelve, I am really single. It is terrifying. Frantically, on my second night of singleness, I sign up for a dating site. A forty-year-old guy writes to me and asks me if I like bike rides. I cancel the account.
I start to cry a lot. I sit in Riverside Park and let the rain fall on me, like in a movie, except I get cold too quickly. I go back inside.
My friends say, "Yeah, that sucks, but being single isn't so bad." I don't blame everyone for thinking that I kind of deserve this. There's a part of me that thinks I should want to repent, but I've never been religious enough, and I don't even know what repentance is. Hair shirts? A soup kitchen? Never having sex again? I don't feel like a sinner, I just feel lonely. I feel sorry for myself.
When we met, Scott looked at me over his glasses in the ballroom of a conference center. We were all elbows and knees — dancing to corny music from our professors' younger years. His eyes were so dark brown you could've called them black. He was smiling, a nerdy and seductive smile that said, "I think you might be mine." He was wrong, but something loosened and then tightened inside me in quick succession. I felt like I might slip.
I liked the way Scott's glasses looked on my nightstand. One day, before Thanksgiving, I realized I might miss them if they were never there again. Then I imagined what Scott would look like if he found out about Avi. It was the first time I had ever been able to picture it. I winced.
Avi fell apart one day, in my bed. He was always acting a little crazy. This time he said, "I thought you'd fall in love with me." And then, for an entire minute, he said nothing but my name. A minute is a really long time. I begged him to stop.
"You need to stop, now," my mom says, when I finally tell her about my cheating habit, over the phone. I'd forgotten that it was the sort of thing you're not supposed to tell your mom, but she doesn't seem shocked.
"I'm a cheater," I say in an appropriately miserable tone.
"You're not a cheater," she snaps. There's a lot of evidence to the contrary.
"A cheater is someone who will always cheat," she says. "A cheater is someone who has a problem. You're just young. You don't know what you want yet."
"It keeps happening."
"So stop. Enough. Stop being lazy. You're not a pawn. Don't pretend you can't control yourself."
As we speak, I pace back on forth on the Target rug I've had since college and somehow have never thrown away. Lazy is the right word. Scott had the boyfriend stuff and Avi had the sex stuff and I had let them be separate, instead of waiting for someone who was good at both. I'd been assembling mismatching pieces, and accidentally built a bomb.
After the breakup, it takes about two weeks for things to start getting better. I thought it would take a lot longer. Time passes and I stop feeling scared. I go to work. I see my friends. We talk about being single, we laugh, and then we talk about other things.
A cute guy asks me out and I say no. I don't even have to think about it. I'm not ready. I feel a little heroic.