What does it mean to be the one not chosen?

Last week I devoured all three of Lea Thau’s “Love Hurts” episodes in a single afternoon. Thau hosts the Strangers podcast, which I’d never heard of until a couple friends recommended it. Read this description and tell me you’re not curious:

Producer Lea Thau investigates why she’s single. She goes back to guys who didn’t want to date her in recent years and asks them why. From ages 15 to 38 Lea was never single, but since her fiancé left her while she was pregnant, finding love again has been hard these last few years. Is she too old? Is she too broken from that last big heartbreak? Is she too much this or not enough that? While looking for answers, the man she is dating disappears. This is the first installment in a series.

A fourth episode is due out tomorrow and I can’t wait. The series is, hands down, the most honest and straight-forward thing I’ve heard or read about online dating in particular and modern love in general. (Better, I’d add, than the Modern Love column, which I sometimes like but often find suffers from its 1500-1700 word limitation.)

I want to call Thau ballsy, but my feminist inclinations suggest I ought to find a better adjective. But that’s how these episodes feel: vulnerable and exposed—and that’s the biological reality of balls, isn’t it? Thau confronts romantic love—and, more specifically, romantic rejection—without worrying too much about justifying her own dating experience as a legitimate subject for discussion: I know that going back to guys who’ve turned me down, asking them, ‘Why not me?’ can seem so arrogant and whiny and self-involved and potentially aggressive, like, ‘How dare you not want to date me?’ but I hope it doesn’t come off that way.

I think of all the people I might ask that question, and all the people who might ask that question of me, and I can feel the sweat from my palms dampening my keyboard as I type.

The one thing Thau does that I’ve always avoided (on this platform at least) is talk about her experiences with dating as they’re happening. You could argue that it’s difficult to get much perspective that way, and the classically-trained essayist in me values perspective above all, but maybe there’s something to be said for reflecting on the dating process in real time. She perfectly captures the neurotic swing from sanity to anxiety that seems a requisite part of dating:

You feel joy…. You remember that before you met this guy, you’d finally come to a place where life felt really good, where you could let go of this idea that you had to meet someone now, and actually felt that your life was pretty awesome. Not just as a cover up like before but in a more genuine way. Finally. And you think, maybe there’s a way back there before too long, even if the first guy you kind of opened up to disappeared. Then two days go by and you think, “He still hasn’t fucking been in touch? Even just to wrap things up? He doesn’t even feel like he owes me that?”

I’ve made several good friends through online dating, but Thau’s experience is closer to what has been, for me, the reality of dating. You feel a strong connection with someone and then he disappears. Or you disappear. I have backed out of dates under the flimsiest of excuses. And I have learned the hard way that you must assume—no matter how explicitly someone declares their interest in you—that that person is actively dating other people, unless they’ve clearly said otherwise. It takes practice to learn to be kind and accountable in this process. But learning how to date with integrity has little to do with actually finding someone to love. (And more to do, perhaps, with finding your niche of furries or Pastafarians or Stevie Wonder Truthers.)

So then what about my dating life right now?  Continue reading

the body snatchers

When I was twelve or thirteen, we got cable TV for the first time. Our house was up on a hill, bordered on three sides by cow or tobacco fields. When we first moved in, it was far enough from the road that the cable company wouldn’t foot the bill of putting in an underground connection. And my parents were not willing to pay the cost of installing cable, much less a satellite dish.

But then another family built a house beside ours and I guess that was enough to change the cable company’s mind. There was money to be made. So we got cable and, along with it, HBO. We didn’t pay for HBO, but we got it somehow. And in 1994 having HBO was a major middle-school status symbol, so I watched it all the time, if for no other reason than to be able to say at the lunch table, “So I was watching HBO yesterday, but then my dad made me go outside to see if the groundhog he shot from the upstairs window was dead or not.” (This is something my dad did actually try to make my sister and me do. But only once, because he hadn’t yet learned that such a request would make his adolescent daughters burst into panicked tears.)

For six months I watched the same movies over and over and the one I remember the best was the 1993 movie Body Snatchers. It was scary enough that I wouldn’t watch it right before bed, but on a Saturday afternoon, I’d put down whatever book I was reading and tune right in. I didn’t know then that the movie was based on a book, or perhaps more accurately, that the movie was a remake of two other movies (1956, 1978) that were based on a book by Jack Finney. In this particular version, the main character is a teenager, Marti, who begins to discover that everyone on the military base where she lives with her family is slowly being possessed by a race of pod people. This is most horrifyingly conveyed when Marti’s step-brother sees his mother’s body disintegrate as her pod-replacement steps from the bedroom closet. I vividly remember her naked body: half in shadow, half in light, beautiful but no longer human.

I haven’t exactly forgotten this movie, but I also haven’t given it much thought in intervening years. That is until I read a great article about the original Finney novel on NPR yesterday. And, to get back around to this idea of love stories, it got me thinking about love. Maureen Corrigan writes:

Like so many other great genre writers […] Finney had a knack for unearthing shallowly buried psychological anxieties. People we love can change, Invasion of the Body Snatchers tells us, and sometimes that change is terrifying.

I think she nails it here. It’s terrifying to see someone you love become cold, unrecognizable, without affect. Maybe it’s the product of dementia or illness or alcoholism, but, as Corrigan goes on to point out, it also happens in love. People who bring us unbearable joy can, without warning or explanation, become distant and strange. They look like the people we have always known, but they are not. They are doubles, aliens, immune to our heartache and petty human desire.

I remember once saying to my mother as she was putting her make up on, “You and Dad would never get divorced.” It was a statement hiding a question. “I don’t know,” she’d said, casually applying mascara. “Sometimes people fall out of love.” I think I argued with her that day. Sure people could fall out of love, but she and my father weren’t those people. They wouldn’t. But we are all those people.

I like writing and reading nonfiction because, when it’s done well, there’s a sense of intimacy with another living person. There’s an authenticity, a pliable realness, that fiction can’t quite touch. But I love fiction for it’s ability to reach under our skin and tweak a nerve, giving rise to a response that we can’t–or haven’t yet–put into words. I think in love, this pod person embodies our deepest fears. We invest ourselves in someone while not knowing, or being able to control, whether the person we love will always be the version of themselves that we fell in love with. Or if they might simply decide one day we are not what they wanted after all. And sometimes it’s this risk that makes love seem like it might not be worth the trouble.