We didn’t officially meet until we sat across from each other at a dinner party for Sukkot (the traditional Jewish celebration of the harvest). I confessed to my friend I thought he was cute; he told her boyfriend something similar about me. Within a week, we were inseparable.
Table for Two
Four months later, on Valentine’s Day, we sat across from each other again, this time in a dimly lit restaurant in Boston’s North End. We were there to reenact our favorite Disney scene, the one where Lady and the Tramp share a plate of spaghetti and end up kissing by accident. Turns out Josh, who in public gave the impression of being a smooth operator, was actually one of the most thoughtful, sensitive people — let alone men — I’d ever met. Even though we lived a five-minute walk away from each other on campus, he’d call during the day just to see how things were going. When I told him how upset I’d gotten after a fight with my mom, he never rolled his eyes or checked his phone, but held my hand and nodded attentively. And somehow, over the course of our relationship, I’d changed, from the defiant single girl who used to make gagging noises when couples kissed in public to the kind of girlfriend who smooched shamelessly in the middle of the campus center and felt only a little guilty about ditching her crew to spend the weekend with her significant other.
So, on Valentine’s Day, I swooned when Josh announced he had a surprise plan for dinner at a fancy restaurant. I remember it was raining, and we ran from my dorm to catch the shuttle bus into the city. In the street we held hands, just happy, as we always were, to be together. After dinner, as we sat lingering over our empty plates, Josh pulled out a bag from his blazer pocket and presented me with it. Inside was a card featuring the lyrics to the chorus of “You are my sunshine,” with my name at the top. And a box of chocolates. “Thank you!” I said. “I love it!” But I didn’t, not at all. I knew I should have felt pleased — So adorable! So romantic! — but instead I felt the remnants of spaghetti and marinara sauce start to move up in my throat. “I — I — didn’t get you anything,” I told him. “I guess I forgot.” Josh, I noticed, wasn’t upset, but he also didn’t look particularly surprised. Had he anticipated my empty-handedness? Was it typical of me to be so callous as to leave a devoted boyfriend gift-less in the middle of a romantic restaurant on Valentine’s Day?
Suddenly the room felt warm, and very, very small. The nervousness I felt that night never quite went away. It wasn’t just that I was ashamed of showing up without a gift — I was annoyed that Josh had gotten me one, and I couldn’t really understand why. But I shrugged it off as a blip in our relationship, a classic case of cold feet before getting serious. Definitely not something worth dwelling on.
Sealing the Deal
A few months later, Josh sent me a Facebook request to be “in a relationship” with him. “I accept,” I wrote back jokingly. “We are in a relationship.” Within minutes, I received a phone call. (We were in our respective hometowns for spring break, I in New York and he in Washington, D.C.) Was I embarrassed to be in a relationship with him? Josh wanted to know. “No,” I told him, “of course not.” The truth is, I just didn’t want anyone knowing my personal business. If people wanted to know whom I was dating, they could ask me. “And besides,” I asked him, “what if we break up? Then we’ll have to take it down and everyone will know.” “Wait — you think we’re going to break up?” “No, definitely not. But if we do —” We went back and forth like this for a while, Josh telling me he couldn’t be with someone who clearly had insecurities about the relationship, me refusing to get bullied into doing anything I didn’t feel 100 percent comfortable with. I kept thinking back to the Valentine’s Day dinner, and deep down I knew I hadn’t just forgotten to get Josh a present.
There was something about being in an official relationship that more than freaked me out. I meant what I’d said: What if we break up? What if, I wondered, I’m never this happy again? It was entirely possible we would realize we weren’t right for each other in the long term, or that Josh would wake up one day and decide he just didn’t like me anymore. Better to keep it casual and not risk the heartbreak.
A few days before graduation, Josh broke up with me. I cried, whimpered “Please,” and begged him not to leave. I remember him standing there outside the library, hands in his pockets, feet spread shoulder width apart, as if physically defending his position. All my hesitancies about the relationship had turned into a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy and now here I was, alone again.
The breakup lasted about a week. After that, Josh and I dated on and off for the next few years, never really seeing other people, but never really seeing each other. In many ways, I felt it was the ideal arrangement. If we never put a label on it, then, presumably, no one had to get hurt when feelings changed, as I expected they someday would. Around springtime last year, Josh and I stopped talking as much. I attributed it to his job, and how much responsibility they must be giving him at the government agency where he worked. Then, one April night, I checked Facebook — and there it was. A photo of a woman. Who wasn’t me. Underneath someone had commented “pretty girl” and Josh had “liked” it. Right away, I drafted an email to my best friend: “Josh is dating someone. I’m going to vomit.” The worst part came in July, when they made it official. As in Facebook official — they were “in a relationship.”
In the months that followed, I checked Facebook obsessively, looking for more evidence of this mystery woman who’d stolen my not-quite-boyfriend but surely didn’t deserve him. She was, I learned from photos, everything I hadn’t been — not only because she was curvy, had straight hair, and loved trying exotic food — but also because she apparently shared Josh’s notion of what constituted commitment, Facebook relationship status and all.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Josh, wondering what he’s doing to celebrate Valentine’s Day this year. Are he and the girlfriend going to a fancy restaurant? Will he give her a box of little chocolates? Do they have a favorite Disney movie they reenact on special occasions? Does he love her — more than he loved me? But maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe it wasn’t about love at all. I couldn’t give Josh what he wanted — not just a card, but also the maturity to embrace the possibility of failure, of a breakup, of someday not being loved in return. In order to place more confidence in the relationship — with Josh or, more likely, with my next Valentine — I need to first find more confidence in myself. Until then, I guess, it’s spaghetti for one. Buon appetito, and happy Valentine’s Day.
*Names have been changed.