Out of all of Mari Andrew’s Instagram posts that I have saved on my phone, there’s one that I return to time and time again. It’s simply six pairs of lines titled, “Relationship History.” Each of the six relationships is broken down into two lines: one indicating the length of the relationship; the other, the intensity. Perhaps you can already imagine the pairs aren’t all balanced. In the caption, Andrew mentions spending seven years getting over three dates she spent with someone.
My someone was Max.
Why have I continued to want to see him a year later? Why was I so intensely attached to our situation? How did I feel about it then? How do I feel about it now? What storylines did I create before, during, and now? What were my requirements? What patterns were showing? What meaning did I attach to the relationship? His actions? The short answer could be I actually — almost — believed he wanted me. So when he later didn’t, it proved once and for all that I was unlovable.
He was already a mythic figure to me, even before we knew Skater Boy’s name was Max. I felt as though he was smitten with me immediately — something that stuck with me for the year before I saw him again because it was such a contrast from the usual response I received when chasing guys. The intensity of the attraction I felt towards him was acute, sharp. Like getting the wind knocked out of you. If someone like that could be into me, then maybe I was desirable. Already, I was layering on the possible meanings. So when I saw him later that year, as I handed him a cup across a different counter in a different coffee shop, it only felt more miraculous that he still seemed to want me.
The fantasy of him was so perfect.
He, unlike my exes, liked to dance. He was stylish, wore jewelry, had a nose ring. He threw artsy gallery shows and house parties where there was live painting and music. He was the first guy I spent the night with, which I didn’t even consider might connote different things for each of us. He was cuddly and generous with words of affection and admiration. He said he felt lucky to have me.
He didn’t know how loaded that could be for someone so convinced they were a disappointment. I believe that people who were abused repeatedly in the past play out the story built by their abuser(s) with different people — thinking that if we try again, try harder, try to change ourselves, we can kill the ghost of their abuse. And maybe also find peace by obtaining their love and acceptance. The darkest, most poisonous part of this narrative is the idea that we affect — even cause — their behavior. The little kid who had “you are worthless” screamed at them, thinks the actions of their abuser were their fault, that they deserved it. Broken: it’s a devastatingly normal way to see yourself if you grow up like us.
But Max wasn’t like that. He wanted me. And because he was cool and stylish and artsy and popular and wanted me, that meant I was cool, stylish, artsy and popular enough, too.
But he was messy. I made so many excuses for him, refused to even entertain negative ideas about the relationship. On some level, I must have known the darker realities. I was preoccupied with him all the time, I would feel this visceral jolt that made me sick to my stomach every time I saw him, and I slept restlessly when we shared a bed. I thought the reason I struggled to be and want what he wanted was because there was something wrong with me. There it was again: “broken.” I was working so hard to push away anything that didn’t fit my carefully curated narrative.
The first time we went out together, he only answered and confirmed the date an hour beforehand. I paid for food because I wanted to, but he promised he would cook me dinner in return. Next time I ended up making us dinner, while he showed up without the bottle of wine he had promised to bring. Yes, I would’ve liked to hear from him while he was out of town, but that was manageable. What was not as manageable was him telling me he didn’t have cell service in Vegas the entire time he was there. The doubt and the distrust continued to creep in.
Relatable to some of you, I’m sure, but for those who are confused, here’s an explanation: I still felt unlovable. Unlovable enough to think that him acting like this, or him making me feel this way was okay — to not think anyone could or would treat me better, that I deserved better, or that it might even be better to be alone. I still craved someone outside of myself telling me I was good enough. Max is just one someone I’ve tried. There have been a few.
I repeat the pattern… until what? Maybe I actually inch towards creating higher standards for myself every time. Maybe I just say fuck it and dump people on a whim that the reason I’m miserable is that my low standards are not being met. Maybe one day, feeling powerful on a bathroom break between dance classes, I’ll see my one-day-a-week boyfriend posting flippant jokes about falling in love and getting his heart broken on Tinder and I think, “I don’t have time for this bullshit.” Maybe it still takes me a few months, fucking a few other guys, and at 4AM one morning, I’ll briefly consider moving to New York with him, before ultimately, I call the whole thing off. Maybe that won’t be the last time.
Maybe Max sends me a DM now, a year later, saying he’s sorry. Saying he wanted to reach out but it wasn’t possible, because he lost his phone. But he thinks my hair looks really good buzzed… what do I do?
Art by Quin Feder. Photos (in order of appearance) by Ana Salazar and Dariana Portes. Gif by Mole Hill.