Many remember the good times in a relationship, the wonderful moments when two people make a connection and feel less lonely, the intoxication when love and desire begin to undermine reason, the comradeship of finding someone with whom you can share thoughts, feelings and ideas. I remember many of the these initial rush-of-love moments, but since they occurred more than thirty years ago they’ve lost some of their vibrancy.
But I can clearly recall those moments when a relationship suddenly and unexpectedly imploded, and I’ve never been able to forget the slow burn-outs when a love affair took much too long to turn to ash and blow away. A sudden rejection turned out to be a more merciful way of ending things, much more preferable to a prolonged period of being bound to someone whom you no longer really love and who you know doesn’t love you.
I ended two or three relationships, usually in an indirect manner. I would call less frequently or propose fewer dates when I began to feel the energy and good will between me and a lover begin to die. At other times I was on the receiving end of an abrupt dismissal, or was left dangling for a long time until the obvious conclusion occurred to me that I had been dumped. What went around came around, but I recall feeling devastated and unfairly treated when I was the one who was cast away. I suffered from the doubt that I was unworthy of being loved, and sometimes took three or four months to patch my tattered ego back together after a rejection. I seldom took into account that my actions might affect others in the same way.
The most devastating dump happened to me when I was a freshman at the University of Dayton. I met a girl named Madonna at a mixer for incoming scholarship recipients. She had short, blond hair, brown eyes, and was very intelligent. I noticed her when I walked into the room, but she made the initial approach and she peppered me with questions. We didn’t exchange telephone numbers, but I assumed we would meet again as we were both enrolled in chemistry and biology classes. I saw her a few days later. She was wandering around erratically on the lawn of the Roesch Library while squinting down at the ground. I was intrigued by her eccentric behavior, and when I asked her what she was doing she told me that she was studying grasshoppers. We began talking once more, and I eventually asked her out. She told me in a vague, offhand way that she had a boyfriend named Bob at Kent State, but didn’t hesitate to accept my offer.
We both were commuter students and lived at home with our parents. When I arrived at her address off of North Main for our first date she served me a beer in a frosted mug and asked if I smoked. I thought she meant tobacco (I was very green), but was brought up to speed when she pulled a joint out of a small, tin box. We smoked it and then drove to a theater showing avant garde animated movies. The weed, the surreal cartoons and the intoxication of her company made the evening float by like an odd but enjoyable dream.
I remained in a state of enchantment for about two months. I fell madly in love with her and forgot that Kent State Bob existed. Madonna was a playful lover, a good companion and a person who appeared to have a strong sense of morality. She had attended Chaminade-Julienne, a Catholic high school in downtown Dayton, took her Catholicism much more seriously than I did, and was concerned about my lack of faith. Of course spiritual matters weren’t a matter of pressing concern when we were rolling around on a sofa in her parents’ rec room, or steaming up the windows of her car.
We decided to go to the homecoming dance, and I made reservations at an Italian restaurant near her home. I could tell that something was wrong when I arrived to pick her up. She wasn’t hostile, but she didn’t smile at me or look me in the eye. She and her Mom fussed with her dress for several minutes, and then we drove in silence to Antonio’s. She spent the meal pushing her meatballs around her plate and spoke to me with difficulty. The easy flow of conversation that we usually shared had dried up, and I wondered what I had done. She waited until I paid the bill and we were sitting in my car in the restaurant parking lot to unburden herself.
She told me that her conscience was bothering her about cheating on Kent State Bob, and that she would have to find some way to choose between him and me. I understood, though nothing was said directly to me, that Bob was unaware that I was his rival. She then suggested that I take her home as she had ruined the evening. I felt sorry for her when she began to cry and tried to jolly her into a better mood. I talked her into going to the dance.
Madonna began to drink heavily almost as soon as we arrived. She mixed beer, wine and booze, and started to look ill after we had been there for about an hour. I drove her home. She told me as we sat parked in her parents’ driveway that she was going to be sick, but wanted me to come inside anyway. I held her hair back as she vomited into her bathroom sink, and then helped her get into bed. I believe that I lovingly tucked her in.
The next two months gradually became more and more hellish for me. I could tell that her affections were washing away from me, but nothing I did stemmed the outflow of the tide. As I grew more desperate to hold onto her my jumpy and sometimes irritable behavior did nothing to support my cause. I couldn’t stand the feeling that everything I did and said had a bearing on her decision, and felt angry that Kent State Bob wasn’t suffering through similar trials. The contest was unfair.
One day she told me out of the blue that I was like a pretty dress. That sounded insulting and I asked her what she meant. She explained that I was like a pretty dress in store window that she wanted to buy, but found the price too costly. She thought that one day the rough spots in my character would smooth out, but she couldn’t be sure. I was an attractive bet, but too risky. When she told me this she acted as if she were doing me a kindness.
I should have gathered up what was left of my dignity and walked away at that moment. She was telling me in her oblique way that it was over. It didn’t occur to me that I could have told her that she was like a fickle princess in a fairy tale who dangled her affection before her suitors like a prize that had to be won. Instead I hung on.
I dreaded the break up call that I knew was coming, and wasn’t surprised when she finally got up her nerve and dialed my number. But I was devastated nonetheless. Nothing prepared me for the hollow feeling in my chest that suddenly appeared when she hung up. My heart was gone and was replaced by an amorphous blob of numbness. At times the numbness gave way to a strange, throbbing sensation that was quite painful. I’ve experienced worse moments since then, of course, but at the age of 18 it was impossible for me to know that the loss I felt was not all that great. I had to learn to judge the scale of events by going through much harsher times.
No other break up ever affected me as strongly, and I guess I could thank her for that. She toughened me up. I could also thank her for teaching me to stick up for myself in a relationship, and that mutual respect is the ground of anything worthwhile that can be shared by two people. And I could thank her for teaching me to never test the love of those closest to me. But I don’t really want to.