Dealbreaker: He Told Me I Needed To “Be Happier”

On our last date, we sat next to each other on the floor of an Afghan restaurant, sharing a plate of kaddo bourani and a bottle of wine. He looked at me for long stretches of time without speaking, then he looked at the waitress, at the carpet, at the other diners. We came to the restaurant hoping to smoke, but the hookah bar had closed months ago. So instead, we drank.

As a preface to the story, I met David a week before my younger brother went into the hospital with an unexplained bout of summer pneumonia. Over the course of three weeks, my brother’s newly-diagnosed HIV morphed into AIDS as his T-cell count plummeted. My family thought he would come home within a few days, but he got worse. He couldn’t breathe without an oxygen mask. Every time a doctor patched a hole in his lungs, another hole appeared: unbidden, unwelcome and terrifying.

My first date with David coincided with the first week of my brother’s hospital admittance. I waited until after visiting hours ended, then drove to a restaurant and made small-talk with a shaggy-haired beanpole of a thirtysomething man, his disposition quiet to the point of reticence. We talked about his published book review at The Washington Post and his recent attempt at a screenplay. The check came and we split the bill. Everything about the interaction seemed platonic, even-keeled.

“So should we make out in the parking lot?” he asked, all smiles.

“Are you … kidding?”

“No,” he said. “Come over to my place.”

He lived in his father’s basement. If there’s such a thing as the semi-employed writer archetype, he fit the bill. But he kissed me and I needed for something in my life to feel normal, so I kissed him back and we went to bed. I felt grateful for the diversion. On the drive home later that night, I left a message on my best friend’s voicemail where I described David as a younger version of Steve Buscemi’s Seymour in Ghost World, a man who couldn’t relate to 99 percent of humanity, but still had his charms.

David became my escape valve. If I needed to leave the ICU waiting room, I could take a break to walk outside for a cigarette and call him. The night before my brother died, I talked to David for two hours as the sun descended into the sky and my cell phone battery faded. I didn’t want to go back into the intensive care ward; he let the stillness of our conversation stand without hanging up. Neither of us wanted for me to go back into that hospital.

As a rule, “Inception” is the worst movie to see four days after your brother dies, particularly because the film runs for 148 minutes and when it’s the last showing of the night, you’re going to fall asleep in the theater and wake up to see your not-boyfriend staring at you with concern. After the movie, David started to drive me home, but then I raised my eyebrow in that way and he made a U-turn back onto the highway toward his house. Yet our attempt at intimacy turned out to be too much. Midway through, I pushed him off me, not wanting to touch him or anyone else. I felt overwhelmed by the force of his body, his very solidness. He stayed quiet and rubbed slow, soothing circles into the small of my back.

I moved an hour way to another state for a new job and I assumed we would break up because of the distance. “Can you wait for me?” David asked. So I waited. We called and texted throughout the week and he drove to my apartment where I prepared elaborate home-cooked dinners on weekends. We listened to The Clash in bed and talked about his religion, his friends and his work. I kissed him back and joked around. For a month, I tried.

After what turned out to be our last dinner together, he came back to my apartment, turned out the bedroom lights and stretched out on top of my blankets. He kept his body at a distance and directed his words to the bedroom ceiling: “You need to be happier. You’re too self-deprecating. This will never work.”

Sour-minded Seymour was actually more of a closet Pollyanna, as it turned out. He couldn’t point to any specific examples of my unhappiness or disparaging comments. It was my overall personality that proved too sarcastic for his liking. How could I have misread him over those past two months – how could either of us have been so far off the mark in our perceptions of one another?

“I’m more used to women who really need me,” he said. But I’d never expected for him to hold me up in life. I believed that on some unspoken level, he’d understood my grief, even when I didn’t talk about my brother with him over dinner or on the phone. I saved those conversations for my family and close friends. I thought of David as a source of relief and welcome distraction, someone to help me pass the time.

That wasn’t good enough. Six weeks since my brother’s death and I needed to get on with the work of being happier, being positive, being better.

One day it’s fine and next it’s black

So if you want me off your back

Well, come on and let me know…

I drank the rest of the wine, and then turned the lights back on. I found his coat and I told David it would make me happy if he left.