How to Fail in Love, or: What a man will do

Chapter V

[Warning: This chapter deals with sexual assault. Names have been changed.]

We didn’t last.

We could hash out the reasons for months – and we did – but in the end, perhaps it was inevitable: a transient soul meeting an intransient heart.

Chicago brought its share of challenges for Selene and me, financial and personal, but whereas in San Francisco there were common foes to unite us, now it was just the two of us sharing a single bedroom apartment in the North Side neighborhood of Buena Park.

There was much to love: the city, the neighborhood, our apartment. Within walking distance of Wrigleyville and Boy’s Town and right off the vital Red Line, we were just minutes from the Loop. We also had “our” bar for cheap drinks and billiards whenever we needed a casual date night.

Selene was able to return to school to finish up her senior year (a main reason for choosing Chicago) and my job search lasted a mere two and a half months instead of five. Granted, my job was as a sales associate in the cavernous Forever 21 on Michigan Avenue, but it provided a paycheck. Bills were being paid, life was being lived.

Unfortunately, our visions of the future were not in alignment. Over the year in San Francisco, Selene transformed from a shell-shocked new explorer to the woman who traveled to Chicago ahead of me to make arrangements. She was stronger and more resilient. Just because someone can move, though, doesn’t mean they want to.

As the months passed, Selene dropped hints about backpacking Europe together. It was an appealing idea – the classic travel narrative – but to do so would require staying at least another year in Chicago to save money. It’d mean abandoning 10 Cities/10 Years.

Other factors were leading to our dissolution, as well. There were the usual abrasions that build up on the body after two years together, exacerbated by our abnormal circumstances: Suspicions of infidelity and apathy, fights and spying, the subtle but inevitable erosion of passion. We took each other for granted, only seeing one another from the corners of our eyes.

I pulled the trigger. One March night, Selene once again brought up a European divergence, now more of an urging than a suggestion. I could no longer deny the inevitable. I felt incensed because of what she was asking me to give up, but also mortified because of what I was forcing her to forgo: a life of her own.

We argued through the night, much of it in tears. When the sun arose the next morning, we were sharing a bed but no longer together.

Neither one of us could afford to move out. Overnight, our apartment had suddenly become claustrophobic. It was late March and my move wasn’t until September. We had five months ahead of us, cellmates in a rented prison.

Some days, we were utterly miserable. Others, we found equilibrium. The fact of our underlying incompatibility was always there, but with that out in the open, we were looking at each other straight on again. At times, it felt like love; that is, when it didn’t erupt as hate. After everything else fell away, we still had passion. You can’t have the warmth of fire without destruction.

August, 2010

Four months after our break up, Selene moved out. She was staying in Chicago and had found a new apartment with a roommate who’d arrive from Philadelphia in a few weeks. Though we were cycling through one of our regular bouts of acrimony, I helped her move across town. That was to be, more or less, the end of it. We were both alone now.

2:00 am

I can’t remember the last time I slept uninterrupted through the night without the aid of intoxicants. There’s always a device by the bed, a tether to consciousness, to an unsettled world. It’s nigh impossible to disconnect.

It was late and I was asleep, but only barely, when a familiar chirping stirred me. Grabbing my phone in the dark, I read the glowing words.

“I was almost raped.”

I shot up in bed. Selene’s message sent shocks through my nervous system, that word exploding like napalm from every synapse.

In a fog, I texted back.

“Where are you?”

When she didn’t respond immediately, I called. She answered through choked sobs.

“He’s in my apartment,” she said. “I left.”

I knew who “he” was. Tommy, her friend, was stationed on a base north of the city and had come down for a Saturday night movie with Selene. I confess, Tommy had previously been a cause of discord between Selene and me. They weren’t romantic (he was married), but theirs was a charged, flirtatious friendship. I had never met the man, but jealousy preemptively bred hate nonetheless.

After the movie, Tommy went out with his buddies for drinks. Ostensibly too inebriated to return to base, he called up Selene and asked to crash at her place. She offered him her couch. What happened next is a common chapter in the stories of far too many women.

Tommy came to Selene’s room and made advances, which she rebuffed. She closed her door. Soon, he came back and attempted twice to force himself upon her. She fought him off and, with no other choice, abandoned her new apartment.

These details I learned later, but at that moment in my darkened room, all I knew was that he was still in her apartment and Selene was somewhere alone.

“I’m heading over there!” I yelled, already dressing.

“Please don’t! I need somewhere to go. Stay at our apartment. Please!” Fighting every instinct, every screaming, wrathful cell in my body, I complied. Selene’s stricken voice was drenched in tears. I stayed. I waited.

When she arrived, she was pale, her eyes sallow and red. She lied in our former bed and I pulled the blankets over us as she cradled into my body. It was like our first night in San Francisco all over again, except I never fell asleep. I wanted to be of comfort to her, but my body was so tense with fury that it must have felt like hugging a statue.

I worked the next morning. I imagine I must have offered to call out and stay with Selene, but for whatever reason I still went. I hadn’t slept, my body was sore from clutching Selene to me all night, and my anger hadn’t subsided. It was a Sunday morning, so the train was, thankfully, mostly unoccupied. I found an isolated seat in the corner, curled up against the glass as tight as I could, and wept. Bitter tears burnt my face.

At work, I managed some semblance of composure, but it must have been obvious that something was seriously wrong. Don, a jovial, good-hearted friend approached and asked what was wrong. He hadn’t been the first to ask how I was doing that morning, but I had brushed most inquiries off with the usual prevarications. When Don asked, though, I could no longer contain the anger.

“Jesus. What are you going to do?” He asked.

“I’m going to kill him,” I promised. Don coughed a slight, nervous laugh, realizing there was no humor in my tone.

I pride myself on eschewing macho male stereotypes, but in this situation all I could think of was fighting. I craved a violent solution.

The problem was, I had little recourse to enact revenge. This wasn’t a movie, I wasn’t going to sneak onto a military base and display some heretofore unseen fighting acumen. Any hope of punishing Tommy required he return to Chicago. I also needed help.

The following day, I found Tommy’s private email address and, creating a fake account, sent him a message with a simple subject line: “Careful”

I opened the missive by laying out what I knew had happened between him and Selene. I put it in exacting detail so that there could be no question of “interpreting” events differently after the fact. I warned that I knew he was married and I could contact his wife easily.

Then I made my demands:

You will come back into the city, Chicago, at a time that is convenient for me. We are going to meet face to face, man to man.

I ended with:

You will not tell Selene you are coming here. In fact, you will not talk to her at all, ever again. Forget you ever knew her.

Meanwhile, Selene didn’t want to return to her apartment, so she stayed with me. Around her, I hoped to be a calming presence, but I was nothing but boiling agitation and rage. She knew I wasn’t letting the matter go, but I kept her in the dark about my intentions. Tommy couldn’t go unpunished. I had to prove – to her, to myself? – that this crime would be met with sufficient vengeance.

Our SoCal friend, Kate, vowed to fly out and “beat the shit out of” Tommy, but I assured her I was taking matters into my own hand.

At work, I enlisted Don and another friend, Aidan, to my cause. Knowing most of the details, they offered their tentative support, not entirely sure how seriously I intended to pursue my plan. Trained as boxers, both men were muscular and intimidating in all the ways I was not. I can’t discount the racial component either: they were black men and I was planning to rendezvous with Tommy on the South Side.

I had no devious master plan, no Machiavellian revenge plot: I wanted Tommy in my presence and I wanted to hurt him. Only his blood would pay for his sins.

But Tommy didn’t respond to my email. Two days passed before I sent another taunting email. I tried to sound threatening, in charge, but the truth was, if he didn’t respond, there was essentially nothing I could do. 

He responded. No denials.

I know i was so very wrong for this, i wish in so many ways i could reverse my actions, not because Selene turned me away, but because it was a darkness within me that i have been fighting for so very long.

It wouldn’t hold up as a confession in court, but it was enough for me.

Over the next few days, we exchanged a half dozen emails. I gave him a date to meet me. He provided excuses why he couldn’t get away from the base. I told him if he didn’t show, I’d forward our email chain to his wife and his CO. Meanwhile, Don and Aidan were, judiciously, backing out of my plan. They understood better than I that no one was making it out of this unscathed.

Finally, Tommy sent one last, clearly rattled email:

I have told my command and my wife what truely happened, they have all read your e-mail. I was given a direct order to tell you such and that i will no be meeting with you under any circumstances.

I attempted to goad him out of hiding, but he didn’t respond. So, through a fake Facebook account, I sent his wife our emails. And there it ended.

I have no idea what became of Tommy. I don’t know what he meant by “what truely happened.” Maybe his wife never read the messages or didn’t believe them if she did. If nothing else, I wanted the people in Tommy’s life to learn the kind of vile man he truly was. I suspect some already knew. I can only hope his “darkness” was never unleashed on another woman.

Without resolution, my anger wouldn’t abate.

A week after escaping assault, shaken but not broken, Selene returned to her apartment and a life that would continue in Chicago without me.

For the remainder of the month before I moved to Tennessee, Selene and I feinted at an amicable friendship. I wish I could say our final parting ended with hugs and fond reminiscing set to an acoustic song like some treacly TV series finale. Alas, our last meeting ended in rage-fueled tears – mine.

Still holding onto resentments from our relationship, I laid blame at her feet. I accused her of leading Tommy on by flirting with him. I did what so many before have done, what too many continue to do: I implied that a woman who dares display her sexuality gives up her right to bodily autonomy.

This was Selene’s struggle, and I had made it about me. I thought it was my war to fight, that I was Selene’s soldier. What she really deserved was an ally.

The Chapter Ends

We’d been good and bad together in equal measures. We had the singular ability to lift one another up, and tear each other down.

I left Chicago in a daze, 100% certain I would never see Selene again; 100% sure I would. I was halfway through.

Selene was no longer the girl I’d met in Costa Mesa two years earlier. So much had happened to her since moving to San Francisco – to both of us – and she’d been transformed. She couldn’t be the person she had been even if she wanted to. Change – positive, negative – is the inevitable result of stepping out one’s front door.

Skydeck View Cropped

It was September. After two hard years together, our roads now diverged.

Keep reading: Chapter VI – Nashville

A Return Trip

In less than a week, I will fly out of Nashville on my way to Seattle.

But before I hit the Emerald City, I’m taking a detour through the Windy City.

As you know, Chicago was my previous city, a city that encompasses all that I love about urban living.  Getting a chance to return for a few days and see old friends has me pretty pumped.  I don’t make return trips often.

In fact, only one other time.  While living in San Francisco, I returned with my girlfriend of the time to Orange County to accompany her at a family funeral.  This is that story.

The Family

The family included a rather deplorable mix of cheaters and liars, and the funeral provided me the opportunity to hear much of their sordid history.  If I confuse some of the details, you’ll have to excuse me, it’s been a few years.

As I recall, my ex-girlfriend’s (let’s call her “Susan,”) father had learned that his mother had had an affair decades ago, but hadn’t confessed it until recently.  Susan’s father was actually the product of this affair, and thus not related to the man he was raised to believe was his father (and only a half-sibling of his brother and sister).  The funeral was for Susan’s great grandfather, the father of the man who raised her father, but who was not in fact his true progenitor.

If that sounds a little confusing, believe me, I know.

I wasn’t close to the family (to say the least), and didn’t want to be there, but Susan wanted me there so I went.

The Father

Now, Susan’s father didn’t like me.  Not from day one.  When he found out she was taking a year off college to move with me to San Francisco, he blew up, storming out to the yard where we were playing horseshoes (?) and cussing me out to my face and essentially disowning his daughter.  This was a 225-lbs man staring down me, a gaunt 145-lbs man.  While at the time I felt angry about his attack, I understand his point of view.  His daughter had only known me a couple of months and had left a long-term boyfriend to be with me, out of the blue.  If I were a father, I’d probably freak out, too.

Lucky for him (and her), I didn’t turn out to be a con artist or a flighty man taking advantage of a susceptible girl.  By the end of our two years together, Susan’s father had to begrudgingly admit I had done right by his girl.  But it made no difference to me, he had already lost any trace of respectability in my eyes.  This is why:

The Recession

While back for the funeral, Susan and I stayed at her family’s house.  This was around Christmas, and even though I don’t celebrate the holiday, I was reluctantly included in their celebration (neither I nor the family really wanted me to be there).  During those few days back, her father took every available opportunity to make snide remarks to me, mostly slight digs at my personality and jobless situation in San Francisco, generally when Susan wasn’t within earshot.

As you may know, my move to San Francisco coincided with the first severe trough of the Great Recession.  It would be nearly 5 months before I landed my job as a supervisor at an independent bookstore.  Up until then, it had never taken me more than 5 weeks to find a job, so by December, I was pretty despondent.  Susan had managed to land a temporary job by this point – something she would have for a little over a month – but our money situation was tight.

To help out with the bills, I had taken to making money however I could, including participating in a mock jury and other research opportunities.  I spent two weeks in a hospital participating in a drug trial.  During the trial, I was given two drugs, one an opiate and another a drug meant to counteract the effects of that opiate.  The idea was to find a drug cocktail that could be given to heroin addicts to help them kick their habit without the severe withdrawal effects.  Unfortunately, it worked.  For two weeks, I spent every sober minute on a single floor of a hospital, most of that time in my one bedroom with the windows blocked so that no sunlight could come in.  If I wanted to see any sun, I had to walk down the hallway to the elevator terminal to look out a picture window that looked out onto a courtyard in the middle of the hospital buildings.  But that was as close as I could get to freedom, because I couldn’t even ride those elevators to another floor.

I was compensated well for my time and the study provided rent through December.  While Susan had to pay upfront, I paid her back in entirety.  I wasn’t happy with the situation, and certainly she wasn’t either, but it was necessary until I could find consistent income.


Back in Orange County:  It was the morning we were to return to San Francisco after the funeral and I was carrying our suitcases out to the car while Susan got ready inside.  Her father was outside in the garage, as he usually was, working on his motorcycle.  He watched me load the bags in the car and then stopped me as I walked back toward the house.

“Finally pulling your weight around here,” he commented in reference to me loading the car.  “It must feel good to be a man again.”

Here it was.  Having not abandoned his daughter or taken her money, he latched onto the next apparent flaw: I wasn’t a real man capable of taking care of my girlfriend, his daughter.

I could accept his distrust of me because it was reasonable (though wrong).  But having this person equate my manhood with my ability to make money was the final straw.  I was sick of dealing with this neanderthal.  I’ve had my manhood questioned plenty of times in my life, and I’ll have it questioned in the future.  The notion that a man is only a man if he is supporting a woman is pervasive in society, even though it’s an archaic, backwards view. 

Let’s set something straight:  If I had been doing nothing but sitting on my couch all day and waiting for her to bring home her wages, there certainly would have been room for judgment.  But I was struggling every day to find work (as a great deal of America is, even still), or any other form of income.  It wasn’t a proud period in my life, but I was not lying down on the job.

Now consider this man:  In a scenario fit for a daytime soap, Susan’s father had found out that he had a long-lost aunt through his mother’s illicit affair.  That aunt had been very wealthy and, upon her passing, had left him a large house in Utah and somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000 in other assets.  Susan’s was not a particularly well-off family, despite the stereotype of Orange County, so a hundred grand represented a considerable sum of money for them. 

What did this man do with that money?  Did he buy his family a larger house?  Did he put aside a hefty sum of it to help his kids pay for college?  Did he put aside savings to support future grandchildren?  Nope.

He bought a stable of run-down cars and a motorcycle and sat them on his front lawn like toys in a playpen.  While his daughter attended college and struggled to pay for it, taking out loans that she’ll be paying off for the rest of her life, he was splurging to have his driveway widened to fit more cars.

This was the man questioning my manhood. 

Well, if manhood is defined by how you care for your family, especially your children, whether that be financially or emotionally, he was a failure.  At times unfaithful to his wife and a reluctant father from the start, circumstances had given him a major opportunity to redeem himself and be a better parent than his mother had been.  Instead, he selfishly indulged his materialistic need for useless possessions, wasting a miraculous opportunity.

I hadn’t even wanted to return to Orange County, let alone see Susan’s family again.  I had put up with this man’s insults and jabs all weekend, but this final display of disrespect was all I could take.

I didn’t speak another word until we were nearly two hours out of Orange County.  Susan recognized I was pissed but I refused to explain the situation until I had put distance between me and her father.  When I did finally confide to her what had transpired, she called him up and bitched him out, but words were irrelevant by this point.

I knew the true heart of that man, and it was nothing I could respect, and nothing I needed to respect me.*

There are moments where you get to see an example of how to live, and you can decide if it’s something worth emulating.  I know, if I am ever a father, I want to be nothing like this man.  He earned his family’s love like an abusive boyfriend, intermixing spurious displays of affection with reprehensible acts of selfishness.

If that is manhood, who needs it?

*The great irony of this story is that a year later, he and his wife were borrowing money from Susan because they were in debt due to a poorly thought out business idea.

This is what you get when you mess with us

Note:  I try to keep my philosophical musings to a more theoretical/universal level so they don’t fall into the trap of anecdotal irrelevance.  However, on this particular topic, my recent experience is too fitting to ignore.  Considering the voyeuristic nature of our culture, this is probably the type of thing that I should be writing about regularly if I want more readers.

Phew, for a minute there, I lost myself

Oh, karma (karma karma karma karma chameleon).

In my experience, even for people who claim to be agnostic or spiritually skeptical, the idea of karma still holds weight.  They will not subscribe to the larger Buddhist philosophy behind the concept, but they’ll freely ascribe events to the rules of moral cause and effect.  The idea, stripped of all of its broader implications, can be simplified to this:  If you do bad things, bad things will happen back to you (the less often mentioned corollary is that if you do good things, good things will happen to you).

“Karma” is the lazy shorthand for the juvenile but persistent belief that there is universal justice, and even the most hard-nosed rationalists among us (myself included) indulges in the fantasy when we are faced with an unpunished injustice, whether personal or global.

There are two frequent times when I hear people bring up karma.  The first is when straight arrows explain that they don’t ever break the rules because they just know the moment they go rogue, the universe will punish them.  The second is when friends are trying to comfort a mistreated friend by claiming that the universe will rectify the situation.

The first situation is the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that offers apparent support for the concept.  In my experience, ‘good’ people (to be simplistic about it), are pretty lousy at being ‘bad’.  Either their guilty consciences cause them to give themselves away, or their relative inexperience at acting outside the bounds of their normal moral code leads them to screw it up.  It’s a classic case of misattributing the cause of the effect.  They aren’t being punished for doing bad, they just suck at it.  People who are routinely bad are better at it, thus they don’t get punished as much.  We know this is true because if ‘bad’ people were consistently punished for their deeds, there wouldn’t be any.

The second situation gets more traction in the popular imagination.  We all would like to think that people who hurt us will get their just desserts.  Unfortunately, it just isn’t the case.  Think about everyone’s favorite example of evil: Hitler.  The man who committed the most atrocities of the past century certainly should have been on the receiving end of the mother of all Karmic Retribution.  So, what happened to him?  He died.  By his own hand.

That’s hardly a punishment.  We all die.  If death is karma at work, then I guess we all lose.  (For the purposes of this post, I’m ignoring those people who believe in hell.)

But Hitler is too evil to grasp.  A topic of this level needs street level malfeasance.  We need personal wrongs.

Let me introduce someone:

My ex is a woman who cheated on a succession of boyfriends with multiple men over the period of years, I being one of the boyfriends.  Having opened up my unusual life (and my 10 Cities project) to her, I thought I would be the corrupting force in her life.  Certainly, her parents treated me as if that were the case.  How naive I was.

In the karmic version of the universe, her actions would warrant retribution.  It’s not that her misdeeds are so much more severe than others, or that infidelity is the unforgivable sin (though it is deeply traumatic in its violent abuse of trust).  My interest is in the pattern she has established.  Quixotically convincing herself of her pure-heart, she acknowledges the hurt she causes while justifying it for the sake of love.  It took a dramatic showdown between the two us for her to even grasp, slightly, how much harm her actions produced.

Cheating once is a horrible mistake.  Repeated infidelities represents a character trait.

The Karma Police claim that she (and her ilk) will reap what they sow.  Certainly in some cases, this is true.  But in plenty of other examples (and this one in particular), it is not so.  Her actions have led her from one man to the next, each one (including myself) willing to overlook the obvious warning signs, blinded by the overwhelming devotion she pours onto them.  She does not suffer for her actions.  She finds herself in the welcoming arms of another man, and if anyone will be punished, it is likely to be him.

Now it is possible that Justin Timberlake got it right and what goes around truly does come around, but all evidence suggests that there is no pattern to the splatter paint distribution of good and bad in our universe.  There is no cosmic force putting things right that once went wrong (and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home).

It is true that her character flaw may lead her to wreck yet another relationship, but if the pattern holds there will be yet another man in the wings (the benefit of cheating, there always is), her every loss countered by a gain.  This is the balance of the intrinsically corrupt:  The resulting backlash from their selfishness is offset by their gain, and at worse they break even.

Reality doesn’t support the belief in karma.  There are undoubtedly counterexamples from your life of wrongdoers who felt the sting for their actions.  But if karma is a capital ‘T’ truth (and as a religious doctrine, that is its claim), then even one exception disproves it.  The anecdotal histories are littered with bad people getting their comeuppance, but to truly unravel a universal concept, one must open the floodgates to the universe of examples, not just the ones that support your view.

The appeal of karma is obvious.  It’s the same as the belief in God, or in heaven and hell.  It provides us an ordered version of  the universe  where decency is rewarded and sins are punished.  In reality, the universe is random and if there is any sort of pattern, it’s that “Hurt people hurt people.”  Unfortunately, the abused person rarely gets the opportunity to punish the abuser.  They lash out at someone else, and that innocent person (at least in this particular matter) is punished for another person’s wrong.

Religious belief (whether it be formalized and organized, or the new agey pick-and-choose type) persuades people that the universe is ordered and logical, and ultimately fair.  But when life reveals that this isn’t true, moral foundations rot.

(That ex of mine?  She is a Christian.  Devoid of any deep theological understanding of the religion, but still nominally so.  What does she take from that religion?  Comfort from Jesus in her dark hours, but no reason to treat others with respect unless it benefits her.)

Morality based on unseen forces will always prove less resilient than morality based on justifiable respect for human (animal, global) value.

I’m not claiming all atheists have this.  Atheism isn’t a moral system.  Personally, my moral foundation hasn’t changed much since I was a WWJD-bracelet wearing Christian.  I’ve hurt people, of course I have, and I will continue to do so. I am not blameless:  I was one of the men my ex cheated with when she was with her previous boyfriend.  (I guess Karma got me.)

As with everything I write, there is an ideal and a reality, the latter never living up to the former.  I want to be a better person than I so often am, as most of us do.  My motivation for improvement, though, isn’t fear-based.  My unpunished wrongs don’t teach me, “No one’s watching, it’s a free-for-all!”  My desire is always to be a better person, even if my rough edges and crude language sometimes portrays me as a moral relativist.*

My morality is simple:  Do the best you can for the most people, regardless of artificial boundaries (class, race, state, country, etc.)  It’s the Golden Rule for the Global Age.

For every example of Karmic Payback, there is an example of shitty people getting away scott-free with being shit.  I have to accept that the universe may never punish my ex** (and in fact, it likely will reward her duplicitous nature with more willing bedfellows), just as you have to accept that the asshole in your life will likely slide in the cosmic court.  If revenge is your bag, I’m not totally opposed to it (I’ve indulged), but it’s the slipperiest of slopes and unless you’re completely in control, you’re playing a dangerous game.

For better or worse, no one is watching your back.  The true test of your character is how you act once you accept that.

*Here is where the religious trolls come out and say, “Better is a term of relations.  Better than what?  If you don’t believe in a central moral truth given by God, then everything must be relative and you can’t have any morality.”  There have been a myriad of books written on the biological view of ethics (for instance, this one), and I don’t feel the need to go into it in this post.

**This is not to say that she hasn’t had her fair share of hurt and pain in her life.  This speaks to the ‘Hurt people hurt people’ point.