My college boyfriend broke up with me twelve or thirteen times. I am fiercely persistent and relentlessly committed to getting what I want. Ending our relationship must have felt like negotiating with a two-year old in the midst of a grocery store temper tantrum.
I was 20 years old when we met, and instantly captivated by his one-of-a-kind charisma and out-of-this-world intelligence. We were drawn together by the type of emotional magnetism that fills up the pages of trashy romance novels, but that I’ve experienced, just that one time, in real life. Our first date lasted 72 hours. I learned recently that racy, passionate love is my drug of choice. And Rak, was, intoxicating.
Even the thought of breaking-up with him sent me into a spiral of violent withdrawals and clinging desperation.
My most vivid breakup memory is of a 3 a.m. conversation on the hardwood floor of his cold, dusty bedroom after a long night out with our friends. Hours earlier, he’d snuck away from the crowded living room and disappeared behind a deliberately closed door. Not slammed. Just sealed. Forcefully, with intention.
When I squeaked it open, just wide enough to get my body through, I found him huddled at his desk, hunched over his computer with all the lights off. There was a single, red candle burning in the corner of the room and while he was trying his best to appear intently occupied, I knew he was just keeping his fingers moving to fight back the rage.
He looked up at me and as soon as our eyes met I gulped down a deep breath, instinctively bracing myself for the impending blow-out that had become a familiar routine between us.
“There’s only one batman.”
Rak was older than me, taught himself how to speak English watching sesame street and came up out of poverty to be the valedictorian of his high school. He was at UCLA on the biggest, fanciest academic scholarship you can get and got straight A’s with little effort. He knew I grew up privileged, and white and spoiled rotten and he took every opportunity to educate and enlighten me about the complicated ways of the world. He was constantly trying to challenge my youthful and naive perspective.
That night, I learned about superheroes.
On the off chance I can re-direct the war-path, I offer something light-hearted:
“you mean to tell me that you skipped out on the party with our closest friends to catch up on comic book history?”
“This is exactly what I’m talking about.”
I watch his initially calm, mildly dejected facial expression transform. His passive eyes became narrow with anger and his open lips closed quickly, and tightly, creasing the corners of his mouth.
“We can’t both be batman.”
I stuff down a snarky response about it being too early to consider my Halloween costume and try to stay focused.
The next few hours are blurred in my memory by tears, and screaming, and tears again. I accused him of being fraudulent and inauthentic, calling out his shameful, normative gender-role values that undermine his credibility as politically progressive. He called me obnoxious, and entitled, and immature. I took a swing at his integrity, and masculinity. He came roaring back with my lack of personal awareness and tragically limited life experience.
I told him I wished we’d never met.
He suggested I leave his room, then his life, forever.
Around 5:30, I slumped into a tight, round, ball on the corner of his bed, in silence. When the sun came up an hour later, I picked up my things, and drove the half mile back to my own apartment. Exhausted, dehydrated and indescribably sad.
When we got back together three days later, I knew we were already over for good.
Two years of escalating arguments and roller-coaster emotions ended during a heated phone call the week before he left for grad school at Harvard. He begged me, one last time, to go with him and when I declined- pointing to our inconsistent relationship history and my fear of breaking up, yet again, 3,000 miles away from home- he told me, matter-of-factly, to “fuck off,” then hung up the phone.
Eight years passed before we spoke another word to each other.
In those eight years I had only one, real boyfriend. He emerged simultaneously with the above phone conversation, and for this, and other reasons, never stood a chance. I went on dates here and there, and, especially in my mid-twenties, developed a thing for casually sleeping with guys I was already good friends with. If you’ve read any other thing I’ve ever written you already know about the four year span where I refused to date anyone but my law-school best friend.
Eight years. Zero success in romantic relationships.
Most of the people who are close to me have a theory or two about how and why I remain so hopelessly inept at dating. I have such a natural (sometimes inexplicable) aptitude for almost everything I’ve ever attempted, that the stark contrast in my dating life is nothing short of comical.
and a little pathetic.
A year ago, I attended a three-day self-development conference wherein I was forced to examine the underlying cause(s) of my persistent, romantic failure.
I expected to uncover “issues” with my dad and nascent feelings of abandonment and betrayal from my relationship with my older brother.
Sure, there was some of that. But nothing came up more potent and obvious than an old, tattered comic book clipping I thought I’d buried, long ago, in the past.
There is only one Batman.
A story I’ve carried into every interaction I’ve ever had, with every man I’ve ever met since that night at Rak’s apartment when I was just barely an adult. An explanation for all the times the men I was attracted to didn’t like me back. The reason first dates always ended in a deep sigh of relief (and disappointment) on the inside of my car as soon as I could get the motor running. The subtext of my response to the next-day, hopeful message or email or phone call:
“I’m sorry, I have to be honest, I’m just not into you.”
My attraction to alpha-male, outgoing, assertive types never synced up with the passive, quiet boys who asked me out. In the rare times there was mutual affection, the relationship heated up quickly, and intensely only to erupt weeks later in a fire of incompatibility I always saw coming but never took action to avoid.
There can only be one Batman.
A couple of years ago, I decided that romantic partnership just wasn’t in the cards for me. Like an athletic college scholarship or Olympic gold medal or 36 inch in-seam pants.
Being alone seemed like a decent trade-off for all the abundance and success I had in all the other areas of my life.
“Women just can’t have it all, I guess.”
In the late fall (around the time I first started writing this post), I went to a workshop led by Suzanne Conrad, a female force-to-be-reckoned-with and one of the many extraordinary leaders I’ve had the privilege of knowing through my work at lululemon. She led us through a series of exercises I never expected to impact my romantic life. As usual, my butt was in the seat of self-development to improve my leadership and accelerate my career goals. If I can’t have it all, I want to have as much of it as I possibly can, as quickly as I can have it.
The details aren’t important because the result was simple. I cleared a space so many years occupied by the superhero mantra I’d learned a decade earlier, and decided I would open myself up to something new:
To previously unexplored possibilities, like that “batman” is not a fixed personality trait or singular way of being. That the list of characteristics I’ve been seeking in a partner were developed in the same era I decided I wanted to be a district attorney, right around the fifth grade. That the biggest reason it hasn’t worked out romantically is that I haven’t allowed it to, haven’t believed it would, and haven’t put down the baggage I was carrying that always got in the way.
It is not easy to undo three, fourteen, thirty-one years of habits and behaviors. It is not easy to let go of lifelong held beliefs that have shaped every aspect of my identity. It is not easy to give up what I know because fear of the unknown is crippling. Scary. An old, familiar nemesis I’ve been battling for as far back as I can remember.
What I’m learning, is that the un-doing and the letting go and the giving up are equal parts of a process. There are days when I am clear and confident that I can be who I am and be in a relationship. There are others where I’m convinced, again, that I’m destined to be alone. There are times when I want to retreat back into the comfort and security of having it all figured out.
But then, there are moments, increasing in number, where I experience progress.
I am two months into dating someone and I am mostly terrible at it. Constantly looking for an exit strategy and preemptively living out our demise. He is not who I pictured and doesn’t match the detailed description of the partner I’ve been seeking, unsuccessfully, for two decades. I go over the “the list” that comprises “my type,” then remind myself that for all the listing and typing, so far, it hasn’t worked out.
I cling to the life of a single woman and barely clear enough space for another human being to squeeze in.
I picture the dark room and the red candle and feel the pang of heartbreak in the pit of my stomach.
I take a deep breath, shake off the memory and force myself back into the process.
Of being the me I know and the me I imagine and the me I haven’t uncovered yet.
Being batman. Not being batman.
Or giving up the idea that I have to be anything. And just being, instead.