In the years between the chronological end of Boy @ The Window (February ’90) and when I began dating my wife (December ’95) of now thirteen and a half years, my relationship life was hit and miss, at times in a silo, and for two of those years, almost completely nonexistent. Grad school took up much of my time and energy, and there were times I barely had the money to catch a bus to campus at Pitt or Carnegie Mellon, much less go out for a dinner and a movie.
It was at the end of ’94, after becoming ABD (All But Dissertation for those not pursuing PhDs) that I felt I finally had the time to take my dating life more seriously. I realized that I’d been separating my sex life from my wanting-a-more-serious-relationship-life. Casual sex was fine, but I still found it more daunting to be in a relationship when I wanted more. So did the women in my life back then.
These realizations came to a head in my relationship with a woman I’ll call AMB for the purposes of this post. I’d known AMB off and on since ’90, as a result of a mutual friend whom I’d worked with during my Western Psych job years. By ’95, she was in grad school herself at the University of Maryland, working on her master’s degree in history. It was a different area in the field, luckily, so no frequent debates about how many historians can dance on the head of a pin.
During that summer and into the fall, we began seeing each other off and on. I found it wonderful at first. After years of grad school, of not even being remotely attracted to anyone who was a historian, I could have a conversation with someone about my doctoral thesis research and about my family at the same time. And all without having to explain it as if I were teaching a class or their eyes glazing over!
But there were issues right from the start. At the time, AMB lived with her mother in Maryland, and with me not owning a car, it was a four-and-a-half-hour trip by bus, longer by train, and costly on a grad school budget if I planned on renting a car. My dissertation research, though, brought me to the DC area frequently. So I visited her in August, October and November, while she came to visit me in July and October as well.
There was also the matter of her little one. At the time, I couldn’t have imagined working on an M.A. or PhD with a young son or daughter to raise. And although I admired how AMB was juggling, she was also struggling with this as well. Between her ex and the psychological abuse that came with him, her daughter, her mother and grad school, it was no wonder that our phone conversations could turn from boyfriend-girlfriend to psychologist-client on a dime.
The biggest issue, though, was defining the nature of our more-than-friendship as it began to evolve after July ’95. Depending on the week and what set of friends were around, AMB either introduced me as her “boyfriend” or as her “friend.” The first time this occurred, we were around a group of her U Maryland friends during my October visit, the weekend before the Million Man March. But one-on-one or over the phone, she didn’t slip up. I found it a bit strange, even as someone who didn’t date between December ’92 and October ’94.
Then, on AMB’s last visit with me in Pittsburgh, at the end of October ’95, she did it again, at Hillman Library, among a group of our mutual acquaintances and friends. What really clinched it for me, though, was when she added that I was her “hero.” That was a record scratcher for me. Really? How many lives had I saved? Could I shoot laser beams out of my eyes or phase through walls? After having put two younger women on a pedestal in my previous life (Crush #1 and Crush #2, Wendy and Phyllis — see blog), I couldn’t — no, I wouldn’t — allow someone to do the same to me. Especially someone with much more serious issues in her life than dating and high school.
So when AMB invited her up to her hotel room, I came up, but I definitely wasn’t in any mood for anything other than an explanation. She didn’t really give me one then. And three weeks later, after ditching our date to see the Kiss of the Spider Woman musical (it was playing in Baltimore at the time, headlined by Vanessa Williams) by going to see it with her friends two days earlier (all without telling me in advance), I’d had enough.
On this date eighteen years ago, we had a two-hour phone conversation, where I broke up with AMB. I told her that I’d tired of our “oscillating relationship, where I was just a ‘friend’ one minute, and a ‘boyfriend’ the next.” I told her that she needed to figure out herself and her relations with her ex, her daughter and her mother if she really wanted a more meaningful relationship in the future.
I’d broken off relationships before, but not like this. Mostly, I’d just ignore phone calls and email, or say something so sarcastic that the woman would get the message. This was hard. I was destroying AMB’s image of me as a hero, not just agreeing not to kiss or hug her anymore. Or maybe, just maybe, I was doing what a real hero does, which in this case meant not taking advantage of another human being at their most vulnerable.