A Beautiful Mess

image - IStockphoto
image – iStockphoto

At an early age, I learned how to make the most of my education. In kindergarten, I convinced my friend Brandy to help me trap a boy under a table because I wanted to kiss him. Billy was my first crush. He had blond hair, dimples, and like myself, was a Mickey Mouse fan. The plan was simple—isolate and attack. I told him I found a cool toy under the table and without hesitation, he gladly followed me under. Once below, I signaled Brandy to push in all the chairs, thereby trapping us underneath. Before he could notice there was no toy, I grabbed Billy by the face and planted my first kiss. I smiled, taking in the sweet taste of victory, which as it turns out is apple juice. I wish I could say that over the years my methods of luring men have become more sophisticated. Unfortunately, they’ve worsened.

I pity the fools who try to go out with me. Dating me is like converting to Judaism. On average, I reject a guy three times before deciding I might like him. If he’s still interested after the third attempt, I figure he’s at least earned a date. I wish I could say I’m playing hard to get; however, that would imply that I have a strategy and know what I’m doing. Nothing could be further from the truth. At twenty-five, I am still as much of a novice as I was at five.

My mixed signals probably don’t help, either. Understandably, telling someone you “just want to be friends” usually is girl code for “try harder.” Plus, when girls say “it’s fine,” it’s not actually fine, and when we say, “no,” sometimes that means “yes” (except when it’s rape). Perhaps this is why Gums refused to take “no” for an answer, knowing that by “no,” what I actually meant was “not now.”

A few months before we started dating, I showed up at his door, soaking wet from the rain. It sounds cliché because it was. As a senior in college, most of my understanding of relationships came from watching romantic comedies. Unable to stay away, I told myself that I had to see him. We needed to discuss the future of our relationship—a ridiculous concept, considering we weren’t dating. But we were children then, pretending to be adults by doing what we thought was right— talking. It would be years before both of us would realize, talking doesn’t accomplish much of anything unless you really know what you want and are ready to be honest about it. In this case, he was ready. I wasn’t. So we sat for hours on his couch, a brown secondhand pullout that also doubled as his bed in his living room, talking in circles.

“It’ll never work… you’re too much like my ex,” I told him, referring to Sean, a high school sweetheart from Sacramento.

“I’m not your ex, Ali.”

“Yeah, and I’d like to keep it that way. If we date, we’ll break up and then our friendship will be ruined.”

“I don’t want to be your friend. I’m never going to just be your friend. I’m always going to want more. We belong together.”

“You only think I’m great because you haven’t dated me. I’m stubborn, needy, and I throw tantrums. Plus, I always need to get my way.”

“I have sisters. Trust me, I know how to handle women. Plus, you’ll always get your way with me.”

Immediately what came to mind was, this guy is crazy! Another one for the list—Reasons Why You Cannot Date Gums, No. 15: Welcomes dysfunctional people in his life, i.e. me. No matter what I said, he just sat there calmly, with a smug smile on his face, ready to refute my every rebuttal. Jerk. His persistence was flattering and yet contemptible, his tenacity I first loved and then came to hate. I couldn’t tell whether I wanted to kiss him or yell at him for not listening to me.

Though I wasn’t ready to admit it, Gums was everything I wanted in a guy. He met every neurotic requirement: oldest child from a big family, good with children, funny, same taste in clothes, books, music, and food. On paper, it was a match made in heaven. But that was the problem. He was too perfect, and therefore untrustworthy.

Exasperated by the conversation, I told him, “It’s just not a good idea,” and left. Clearly, I was getting nowhere and Gums was a glutton for punishment. However, like it or not, he was right. I just had a lover’s spat with a guy I supposedly didn’t want to date. It was too late to be friends. I was invested. I didn’t know then and wouldn’t until two months later, he had already won. He had wormed his way into my life and my heart. I never stood a chance.

I’m not going to say it was love at first sight. However, from the moment we saw each other, there was a palpable chemistry. Something drew me to him and at the risk of sounding like a Danielle Steel novel, I found myself in the meet-cute of a chick flick. Time slowed. The crowd blurred. In my head, the song Overjoyed by Stevie Wonder started playing in the background. Suddenly, I felt desperate to know who he was. Corny, I know, but that’s how it happened.

To be fair, any girl would have felt the same way. Even back then people crowded themselves around him because it was obvious he was going to be “somebody.” He was gorgeous, but not in the conventional way, so he didn’t see what other people saw, making him humble and personable. More than attractive, Gums was talented. As a performer, he knew very well how to be funny and entertain a crowd. Thus, he was the type of person you quoted at parties, because more than anything Gums was charming, and it was this charm that drew people to emulate him.

Not that any of those things truly mattered to me. Actually, what lured me to him was the way he looked at me. The first time we saw each other he smiled warmly, as if I were a friend he hadn’t seen in a while, a look that said, “Hey, it’s good to see you. I’ve missed you.” It was so natural and sincere that without intending to, I smiled back, “Likewise.” He and I had never met, and yet he felt strangely familiar.

It was the August before my junior year of college and like most RAs, I was participating in a weeklong preparation course. I spotted Gums on the second day into training. Both too shy to talk to one another, we exchanged a series of sweet yet awkward glances in the cafeteria. Verbal contact didn’t occur until a week after training, at a party called the Beach Ball, which all freshmen RAs were obligated to attend.

Like Billy, my kindergarten kiss, I had a plan for Gums. Another RA in my building, Ronnie, was a good friend of Gums. All I had to do was hang out with Ronnie and wait for Gums to come to me.

Halfway through my stakeout, there was no sign of Gums. Ready to give up, I excused myself to use the bathroom and when I came out, there he was, standing next to Ronnie. While I was happy to see him, his timing couldn’t have been worse. Having never formally met, Gums introduced himself and offered to shake my hand. Normally, this would have been fine. However, as it was, I had just come from the bathroom and my hands were still cold and damp from washing. Nobody likes shaking a wet hand, least of all me with my crush. I don’t care if the hand belongs to the Queen of England or the Dalai Lama; it feels gross. Knowing they’re clean doesn’t offer much comfort either. The only thing I can think of is, one of us just peed. In this case, I was the pee-er. Stupid bladder, I lamented.

Not wanting to make a scene, I shook his hand while muttering an apology. Confused, he pursed his lips and squinted at me. What for? Hoping to clarify, I said, “My hands are still wet from the bathroom… don’t worry, I washed them.” I should have stopped there, but instead I kept going, “Usually, I avoid wearing a one-piece bathing suit, because they’re such a hassle to pee in.” Awesome start, Ali. Earlier that night as I got dressed, I had imagined us talking about many things; my urine was not one of them.
To my surprise, he laughed and asked, “Did you pull it to the side like little girls do at the beach?” Cupping his hand, he reached down, and mimicked pulling the crotch of an imaginary bathing suit to the side while hopping around like a kid on hot sand. His candor caught me off guard, as did his familiarity with how to pee in a woman’s one-piece. I laughed and immediately knew I was in trouble. This one wouldn’t scare easy.

Ours was a slow start. This was mostly my fault, or technically, my boyfriend’s fault for standing in our way. At the time, I had just rekindled my romance with Sacramento Sean. Rather than recognize my chemistry with Gums as a sign that I didn’t love Sean, I decided to stay in my comfortable relationship for another eight months. Meanwhile, Gums and I would have weekly run-ins around campus and make small talk about cafeteria food as a way of ignoring our attraction. Luckily, Sean and I broke up later that spring. Shortly thereafter, Gums and I had our first date.

I invited him over to play Mario Kart and when we got hungry, I suggested we go to my favorite Thai restaurant in SoHo. When the check came, he paid the twenty-dollar tab with his babysitting money. Then like a gentleman, he “walked me home,” or as we like to say in NYC, rode the subway with me, passed his stop, and dropped me off in front of my apartment.

Anyone who has watched a movie or read a book knows what came next. Smiling, Gums leaned in and kissed me tenderly, as in, without tongue. I remember thinking that it lacked luster. After months and months of dancing around this attraction I half-expected it to feel something more along the lines of an I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter commercial, the definition of true romance. Instead, it was more… eh. Not bad, but needs improvement. To be fair, my mind was elsewhere.

Three weeks prior to my date with Gums I started seeing the Muslim RA in my building. That’s right, Mr. Judgment Day himself. People say timing is everything and in this case it was. That winter was one of the hardest times in my life. I was going through a lot of family problems when one night while out with friends, the RA kissed me and I kissed him back. Whether it was the alcohol or my pent up emotions, I’m not sure. All I knew was that it made me feel something I hadn’t felt in a long time: happy. The rest just snowballed from there.

Anyhow, in an effort to make things between us “casual,” the Muslim RA suggested I see other people. Taking his advice, I went on a date with Gums. Poor clueless Gums didn’t know any of this when he kissed me. Nor had I any reason to tell him; we had only gone on one date, a good one at that.

The Muslim RA just happened to be crossing the street when he came upon Gums and I in our liplock. Proving just how un-casual things actually were between us, the RA angrily ran inside the dorm, but not before shooting me a look of pained fury. “So, I’ll call you!” I awkwardly and quickly told Gums as I ran after the Muslim RA.

Once inside the building, the RA confronted me. “He doesn’t really care about you, Ali. You’re just another notch on his belt!” he screamed, tears streaming down his face. He cried. I cried. Then we started dating. Healthy.

The next day, Gums called to apologize for the unexpected kiss, and asked if I wanted to be exclusive. He sounded so sweet, so innocent, so… so… desperate. His jump from our first kiss to a monogamous relationship scared the shit out of me. Plus, it wasn’t a good time, since now there was the RA to consider. Not wanting to complicate things, I told Gums flat-out, “There’s someone else.” Crushed, he didn’t speak to me for most of the summer. He graduated and I started my last year in college.

That winter, after things with the RA officially ended, Gums called and asked me to hang out. I hadn’t seen or heard much from him after that summer. He graduated and started working. As for me, I tried to keep my distance out of respect for the RA, who still hadn’t forgotten about the little kiss. Still, we’d talk now and then; as hard as we tried to cut ties, even back then, Gums and I couldn’t go more than two months without contacting one another.

Though I wanted to see him, the idea made me pause, knowing that this was no simple invitation to hang out. Unable to resist temptation, I told him, “Sure.”

Still pretending to be uninterested, I didn’t bother changing out of my sweats or looking in a mirror. I have unfortunately high self-esteem, allowing me to delude myself into thinking I look good all the time, even in sweats. Not to mention that the last thing I wanted to do was give him the impression I was trying; that would be leading him on. I quickly learned the error of my ways. Regardless of who is coming over, you should always take a second to look in a mirror.

The first thing he said was, “What’s wrong with your face?”

“That’s mean.”

“No really, what’s wrong with it?” he asked as he reached over and plucked a small piece of toilet paper from my forehead, a mini-Japanese flag. Earlier I used a piece of toilet paper to stop a popped pimple from bleeding and had forgotten about it. Humiliated, I buried my face in my hands and doubled over into the fetus position. I wanted to hide, shrink, or if possible, turn invisible. Trying to regain composure, I stood up but all I could do was laugh, awkwardly.

When embarrassed or uncomfortable, my immediate reaction is to laugh uncontrollably, with serious full belly laughs that force you to grab your stomach and go red in the face. In a crowded place like New York City, my quirk is easily camouflaged, as my surroundings typically offer more entertainment than a girl laughing to herself. However, when alone in a room, face to face with the guy you’re sort of maybe interested in, it can be both problematic and unfortunate.

Had I any control over my laughter, I would have played it cool, pretended to be the type of girl who can laugh at herself or doesn’t take life too seriously. Alas, I’m not that girl. I’m a girl who laughs when she’s embarrassed, so my laughter continued well past the point of being fun or socially acceptable. Leave it to me to take an already uncomfortable moment and make it even more painfully awkward. It was a vicious cycle. The longer I laughed, the more awkward it became, and so finally I managed to choke back my laughs as I coughed from a dry throat. As we walked to my couch, wide-eyed, I mouthed to the air, “FUCK!” Strangely, he thought nothing of it. He found the toilet paper and my laughter endearing.

Some weeks later, we kissed for the second time. It was almost a year since our first kiss; this time, I was completely single. To this day I maintain that he tricked me. He called me late one night after getting off work and asked, “What are you doing? I’ve had a bad day. Can we get a drink?” He sounded really upset, angry even. When he came over I handed him a glass of wine; he grabbed the bottle and proceeded to chug. His behavior was completely out of character, and it intrigued me. Slamming the empty bottle on my counter, he barked, “Let’s go to a bar.” One drink later, we were both drunk and putting on airs.

“I’m so over you,” he slurred. “I’m finally over you.”

“Like hell you are.” I slurred back.

Sure enough, by the end of the night we were curled up on a couch, kissing. Who’s over who now, I thought, followed by, oh wait. Suddenly, I realized this had been his plan all along. Well played, sir. Well played.

As the courting continued, so did my mortification. Two weeks later I took Gums to my favorite bakery in the East Village. Having almost identical palates, he ordered my personal favorite, a lemon tart topped with fresh berries. On principle, I avoid ordering the same thing as my dining partner since I make it a habit to eat from both our plates. This way I get to order what I want, as well as the thing I want second most. Not that there was any doubt in my mind. There was a certain dessert I had been eyeing for weeks, a chocolate mousse served in a giant chocolate teacup, topped with cream, berries, and a chocolate music note. So beautiful, so decadent, it was hardly a dessert to eat alone. I relished the opportunity to finally try it.

After sitting down, I daintily picked up the teacup by its chocolate handle, extending my pinky (naturally), and took a bite. Had I taken a second to think, I might have realized the following: real teacups are usually used for sipping, not biting, and chocolate teacups in general are more fragile than regular teacups. To no one’s surprise but my own, the cup broke, catapulting the mousse onto my face.

Everything from the bridge of my nose down to my chin was covered in a thick layer of chocolate mousse. Instinctually, my hands shot up as I attempted to shield myself. Like him or not, I had no intention of letting him see me in chocolate-face. Thankfully, when it happened, Gums was still looking down at his tart. He glanced up, only to see me cowering behind my hands as I screamed, “Napkin!”

How do I manage such feats? I sulked, waiting for him to grab some napkins. True to form, Gums remained calm. With a handful of napkins, he lowered my hands, and gently wiped my face clean. “You’re a mess,” he said, “but a beautiful one.” He was the first guy to see me for who I am, and call me by name. I knew in that moment that I’d love him forever.

When it comes to relationships, there is an unspoken agreement between men and women that obligates a man to tell a woman she’s beautiful, regardless of how she looks. If they’re smart, they’ll know that the truth isn’t worth the hassle of, “What did you mean by that?” As Gums’ first girlfriend I expected to do my fair share of training. However, I happily discovered that Gums never hesitated or needed prompting to tell me I was beautiful. In fact, “perfect” was the word he’d use, and always with a sincere tone. “You’re my dream girl,” he said, as we lay in the grass of Union Square Park. Cynic that I am, I quipped back, “Only until you have another dream.”

A year after we broke up, I asked Gums if he remembered any of these embarrassing incidents. He didn’t. Why would he? He was never the one affected by my insecurities or quirks. I was the one who made it a point to feel uncomfortable. After reminding him of all the mortifying moments, he said, “Oh. Yeah. Those things don’t matter when you really love someone. I wanted to understand you, and so I did.”

“You didn’t know that you loved me then.”

“Yes I did. Everything I wrote, thought about, was you. I’ve always loved you.”

It was that simple. Turns out I didn’t need to warn him about my many flaws in advance. He knew who I was long before I did. Somehow, Gums always loved me in spite of being a beautiful mess. TC mark

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