On Love And Self-Worth

“I’m not the kind of girl you bring home to your parents,” I would blurt.

No matter whom I was with—the aspiring punk rocker matching me drink for drink at a dive, the privately educated hedge fund trainee at a Michelin star restaurant, or the amiable one-night stand under the comforter of my university-issued twin bed—the reaction was always the same.

First it was bemusement, then curiosity, and finally a subtle flicker of bedroom eyes. Without fail, men would lean in to me and, in the intimacy of that conspiratorial huddle, say, “Tell me more.” It didn’t take three years of law school to know that they really meant, “Show me.”

Sometimes I bragged. I was an American girl in my late teens at Oxford University, completing a bachelor’s degree in jurisprudence. I played up the “gownie girl who isn’t afraid of a little townie fun” persona to my best advantage by wielding five-quid words over three-quid pints with the boys. I skipped tutorials and used my book money to get prolifically tattooed. Silver spoon? Meet paper plate.

Let’s call this version of me “The Cool Girl” in homage to the archetypal woman who is feminine enough to be attractive but raw enough to hang out almost exclusively with the guys. The Cool Girl didn’t want romance in her life, viewed vulnerability as weakness, and, to the surprise of absolutely no one, didn’t have a great number of female friends.

Other times, I got honest. I told them how my first boyfriend in high school would rather I wait for him in the car than face his conservative Taiwanese mother who made a habit of pretending I wasn’t there.

Unmindful of my straight-A record and well-to-do Chinese parents who kept up appearances, Mrs. C— would glide past me as I waited for her son on her living room sofa without a word of greeting. I never mentioned it to her son, and I never did figure out why she rejected me so thoroughly from her home.

Looking back, I suspect that she saw a girl who wanted to get out of the Los Angeles ex-suburbs, who didn’t want to stay at home, cook dinner every night and have kids right out of college. But I never asked, so I’ll never know.

Regardless, no matter the angle of my pitch, my romantic encounters would always end the same way. We’d part ways for the night, they’d text me or message me on Facebook, and I’d decide whether or not to seal the deal. I’ve never been the girl that all the guys wanted, but the guys who did want me were never shy about letting me know that they did.

The trouble all started when I bought into my own narrative. At some point in my life, the words “I’m not the kind of girl you bring home to your parents” became less of an intriguing opener and more of a personal mantra of worthlessness. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but I can vividly recall when I first noticed the change.

I met Alex in our college’s notorious basement bar where students served other students and I frequently served myself. We had a mutual friend and ran in loosely the same circles, but we had never taken much notice of each other prior to the final year of my degree. He was an Etonian and a mathematics prodigy, well-versed in classics, culture, and the mannerisms of the gentile. In contrast, I trudged into my lectures in all-leather outfits and an anti-authoritarian chip on my shoulder the size of California. In short, he looked like he belonged amongst the Dreaming Spires. I most certainly did not.

The common thread between us was that we were both profoundly lonely. We had each been “rusticated” the previous year, meaning that we were given the option of taking time away from our degrees to sort out our myriad personal issues, and most of our friends had graduated without us. I was in the grip of a severe bout of depression triggered by academic stress and family problems, and he was trying to live up to the “golden boy” trajectory of his teenage years.

Despite the fact that I had pegged him as the most emotionally unavailable man in the room (and therefore suitable as a potential bedmate), we confided in each other post coitus the worst versions of ourselves, past and present, and mutual understanding grew naturally between us. I made it clear early on that no, I wasn’t the kind of girl he could bring home to his parents, and he listened without denying it, or denying the possibility of it happening.

Now, as a caveat, I’ve never been a believer of love at first sight, because I’ve never known anyone who has been hand-on-heart hit with Cupid’s arrow and managed to make a full-blown lasting, healthy relationship out of it.

That’s not to say that I believe that love is a myth. It’s just that my idea of love is informed by years of being a quiet child and watching my immigrant parents tear each other apart in frustration, reconcile, and, thusly joined, throw their discomfort and their unshakeable sense of “otherness” against the white-washed picket fences of the American dream. They’ve succeeded in scaling those fences in their 30 years of living in the States, but deep emotional wounds were sustained in that struggle.

Having borne witness to the manifold miscommunications of my parents, I constructed an idea of love whereby I could turn to my partner and say, “I’m hurting. This is what is hurting me. Please help me do the right thing,” without fear of being belittled, abandoned, or irreparably harmed. I dreamed of finding an equal partner who would walk with me over hot coals and knowing that we would be stronger for it.

In spite of this lofty ideal of love, I could never achieve it due to a strong instinct to hide behind The Cool Girl, whose slogan was “fuck everything and run”. The F.E.A.R instinct was not an easy one to shake.

In the first six months that Alex and I dated, I tried to leave him four or five times, which was fairly common behavior in all my previous relationships. Alex, however, was the only boyfriend I’d ever had who was as equally committed to logic over passion as I was. He would roll his eyes extravagantly, huff, and ask, “Is there a reason that you want to leave me?”

His comical act of annoyance would never fail to stop me mid-rant, and after a pause, I would always have to admit that I had no better reason for trying to run other than the F.E.A.R. instinct and my habitual reliance on my mantra of not being that kind of girl.

Alex never dignified my insanity with a response, as he knew that he had already shattered my tenuously logical argument of “I’m a terrible, selfish person who will never do right by another human being. I should leave you because you will leave me once you see it.”

As he came to understand my complete demoralization in the realm of love, he delivered the killing blow to my beloved proof of insufficiency. “Let’s agree,” he reasoned, using all his deductive powers honed by a world-class degree in Mathematics and Philosophy, “that we will never stay together beyond the point that we cease enjoying each other’s company. Therefore, you can trust that so long as we are together, I actually do want to be with you.”

Yes! Now that was a relationship I could get behind. Not long after he defeated me with his fabulous talk of reason, I confessed that I loved him, but only after getting well and truly smashed on a bottle and a half of red wine, two whiskey and cokes, and a number of pints of cider. Thankfully, the feeling was mutual.

In truth, we were surprisingly well suited to each other from the beginning—we shared similar views, we excelled in different areas that kept our conversations interesting, and our chemistry was undeniably fantastic. Over time, Alex discovered that I was kinder than he anticipated, and he was far less committed to his gentlemanly repression than I expected.

Within a year, he introduced me to his parents, a quintessentially English couple that lived a bucolic life in the surrounds of Winchester. I turned up on their doorstep with a monochromatic wardrobe, badly dyed red hair, and two snakebite piercings in my bottom lip.

They welcomed me into their home with aplomb and, over the course of a three-year relationship with Alex, gave me my first experience of being wanted and welcome in someone else’s home.

Alex’s father, a retired lieutenant-colonel, gently teased me as if I were his own daughter and invited me to lunch with his fellow retired officers. Alex’s mother treated me like a close girlfriend, working side-by-side in her garden, complaining good-naturedly about her children, and attending art and fashion exhibitions with me in the City. His family opened their doors to me many times whilst I was in England and gave me a home when I had no other on the island.

Under their gentle, unobtrusive watch, Alex and I grew into the adults we nearly gave up hoping to be. We graduated, and I sought out help for my addictions and landed a job in insurance litigation east of London. Alex stepped out of the shadow of his boyhood precociousness and built up a good reputation at a financial firm in Windsor.

We built a home life together in that quiet suburb, and I worked three days a week at my office two and half hours away by public transport and out of our two-bedroom flat for the remaining two days. The ratio of time away to time at home was golden, and we called each other every night that I was away.

We spoke at length about moving to the States for a couple of years, returning to England to marry, and have a pre-determined number of children (two). We attended the weddings of our friends, content in the knowledge that they would be attending ours in due course. Nothing, I thought, could deviate me from this path.

But, as most stories go, that was then, and this is now. Today, I am 26 years old, Alex is 27, and nearly 2 years have passed since Alex flipped his car on a racetrack experience day, sustaining a traumatic brain injury so severe that he remains in a persistent vegetative state.

He resides in various long-term care hospitals in England, and his prognosis is still “unknown”. After being heavily involved in his hospital care for 5 months after the accident and a weekly visitor for a year, I returned to Los Angeles to take up a job in entertainment law and try to learn how to move forward without Alex and from the expectation of the life we had planned.

The results of the past year in Los Angeles have been mixed for me. I’ve learned that I’m great in a crisis, that I distract myself from grief by working to exhaustion, and that I’m pretty good at making new friends. I’ve learned that I can stay clean and sober through anything and that I know how to ask for help.

I’ve learned that grief sometimes gets harder as time passes because nothing fills the hole left by someone who loved me so much that he even convinced me to love myself. I’ve learned that it’s okay to let life set me back and not to try to fulfill two people’s destinies at once because I am afraid of losing the future that Alex and I thought we had.

I’ve had to remind myself time and time again that my life has been made different now, and it causes me no end of frustration.

Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned that it’s okay to love Alex for the rest of my life and be open to the possibility of loving someone else romantically too. Alex, for all his pedantic, pithy turns of phrase, once said the loveliest thing to me. As I was being flayed apart by anxiety the night before my first day of work, he counseled, “I love you, I think you’re wonderful, and I’m so glad that other people will get to see that too.”

He never mentioned it again, but I think of those words every time I face my fears, old and new.

I’m dating again, and it’s equal parts thrilling and terrifying. There are men who only want to see me as The Cool Girl, even though I left her behind a long time ago. There are men who only want to hear my story without acknowledging that I am still writing it. But there are also men who want to get to know me as I am now, and not as I was. There’s still a lot for me to work through on my own time, and some days I feel like I am the wrong person to be putting pen to paper.

But for everything I have yet to discover about myself and about this new life, I do know one great thing.

I am absolutely the kind of girl that you can bring home to your parents.

//Full disclosure: This piece was submitted to Modern Love and soundly rejected. Good thing I have this blog, then!

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