The words marched from my mouth as Terrence jerked his truck from the curb. I closed my eyes and listened as he gunned it to the stop sign at the end of my block.
I was standing inside my building at barely a minute past 9 p.m. I was supposed to be with Terrence at his apartment, enjoying the dinner he made for the two of us. It was our first date, and the first time, after seven years of dating in Manhattan, that a guy had offered to cook for me.
It was also the first time a guy kicked me out of his apartment for refusing to give him a blow job. Before he dumped me off at home, Terrence capped off the evening by saying, “You’re not in high school anymore. A woman in her 30s should be cool with giving head.”
Terrence wasn’t the first clown I’d dated. Before him, the guys I attracted had two things in common: They were emotionally unavailable and already in committed relationships with drugs and alcohol.
Anthony, who looked like he fell right out of an episode of MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” hunted me for months. After I gave him my number, I couldn’t understand why he only texted me late-night on the weekends or why, when we were out together, he spent most of his time in the bathroom. It turned out that Anthony was a booty-call-loving coke-head, whose nose had seen the back of every toilet of every bar in Manhattan. Eventually, I demanded he lose my number. When he wouldn’t, I changed mine.
Then there was Kevin, a 40-year-old bartender I’d met when I was 25. On several occasions, he drove to my apartment and passed out in his car before making it inside. On one night, after he managed to make it upstairs, reeking of alcohol, I gently told him I thought he needed help. Kevin became furious, and the only way I could eject him from my apartment was to pretend to call the police. I broke up with him the next day, which shocked Kevin because he couldn’t remember anything from the night before.
Over the years, I admittedly had ample opportunities to examine the dysfunctional relationship choices I repeatedly made. But, it wasn’t until the blow job debacle that it all clicked. On that night I stood at the bottom of the stairs that led to my apartment and said, “I am done.”
I meant it. At that moment I evicted myself from the hope-filled fantasy worlds I built up around these men and dropped back into reality. I was no longer willing to make concessions for anyone who blatantly took me for granted. Instead of straining to figure out how to prove to a guy I was worth his time, I would decide whether or not he was worth mine.
Moving forward, I started being unapologetically honest with men about what I was looking for in a relationship. I also started giving priority to a guy’s actions instead of his words. If someone showed up in my life fluent in excuses and lies, I directly explained I only understood the language of dependability, reliability and respect. And if the message got lost in translation, I walked away. I was no longer willing to wait around to see if things would change.
As a result, my confidence grew, but more importantly, I learned to respect myself and take my needs, wants and desires seriously ― whatever they may be.
That’s when I met Ryan.
The Midtown bar I ended up at the Saturday night we met was packed with flesh and thick with sweat. While my friend negotiated a spot at the bar, I threw my hands up and bobbed my shoulders on the dance floor. I noticed a tall guy in a worn green baseball cap sliding up next to me.
“I’m a pitcher for the Mets!” He shouted in my ear.
Not only was he a terrible dancer, he was also a horrible liar.
“You’re ridiculous!” I shouted back.
He smiled. “Can I buy you a drink?”
Drinks led to a round of shots, a sloppy makeout session at the bar and a question that set off a series of events which led to the unlikeliest of outcomes. He asked, “Wanna come home with me?”
Growing up, my stepmother frequently schooled me on the hazards of promiscuity. “Tramping around” or giving hand jobs, kissing on the first date, and the ultimate of sins, one-night stands, would send the message that I was “easy” and not worthy of respect. Even as an adult, I had obeyed her rules as they applied to the salacious world of one-night stands, and never had one.
Unfortunately, with so much focus on how not to become a “tramp,” she neglected to teach me how to avoid emotionally unavailable men. So at the bar that night, I decided to trash all the rules and replaced them with my own dating guidelines. Ryan was cute and a good kisser, and at that moment I had a desire I wanted to fulfill.
After checking in with my friend, Ryan and I crawled into a cab headed for his place in Astoria, Queens.
As we lay together in the dark, we split a pair of earbuds and listened to Pink Floyd’s “Meddle” album. When I said I was thirsty, Ryan retrieved a jar of Claussen’s pickle juice from his refrigerator, took a swig and handed me the rest. When I told him I loved animals, he lamented about Snowflake, his favorite albino gorilla that had recently died.
Away from the eardrum-busting cacophony at the bar, I realized that Ryan and I had the same ridiculous sense of humor. But more importantly, something about his presence and the way he treated me made my past and the jerks who lingered there seem strangely insignificant. The painful experiences that at one time had consumed me suddenly felt like scenes from a bad B-movie that I was calmly watching unfold.
I never thought digging my underwear out from the twisted sheet of a stranger’s bed would produce such intense clarity.
The next morning, my breath felt hot and reeked of rotten pickles. I rolled over and looked at Ryan. In the daylight, I noticed the tiny dimple that appeared on his left cheek when he smiled.
I weighed my options. I could risk humiliation and ask Ryan for his number, wait for him to ask for mine or I could follow my first one-night stand through to its prescribed end and leave numberless with only a story to tell. Fear of imagined rejection distanced me from the knowing I discovered hours before. As a result, I lied and told Ryan I had to go. Without asking why, exchanging numbers or last names, he flatly said, “OK,” and kissed me goodbye.
By Monday, I’d downloaded the “Meddle” album and listened to it while buying a jar of Claussen’s pickles at the grocery store. I Googled Snowflake, the albino gorilla, and browsed the Mets’ upcoming schedule. I couldn’t shake Ryan from my mind, but the feeling wasn’t born from desperation.
The doubts that caused me to bust out of Ryan’s bathroom and flee the scene began to pale when I realized, despite the circumstances, I’d made a connection with this guy. And instead of surrendering my future to more fools like Terrance, I was going to take a chance on Ryan, a guy I decided was worth the risk. After some thought, I concluded the only way to do it was to go back to his apartment and leave my number.
That Wednesday afternoon, assuming Ryan would be at work, I hopped on a Queen’s-bound N train from Brooklyn. In my bag, I packed a fresh roll of Scotch tape and a note folded in a cream envelope that read:
It’s Dawn from Saturday night. If you’re interested, I’d like to drink pickle juice with you again. Here’s my number.
Despite being hungover when I left his place days before, I remembered the 10-minute walk from the train station to Ryan’s apartment. When I arrived, the front door of his building was oddly wide open. Inside, the superintendent was sloshing a dirty mop across the stairs that led to Ryan’s apartment. I smiled at the super, who grunted in my direction, and taped my note to a round mirror opposite the front door. With the deed done, I bolted back to the train.
Over the next three days, with no response from Ryan, my mind volleyed between two conclusions. Either the super ripped my note off the mirror and tossed it, or Ryan found it, handed it over to the authorities and gave my description to a police sketch artist. I was relieved when, on day number four, Ryan texted, and we agreed to meet up at the same bar where our adventure began.
With Ryan, there was never one dramatic, Hollywood-esque moment where I realized he was my guy. Instead, it was the accumulation of thousands of thoughtful acts that built our foundation. When he knew I’d be spending the night, he stocked his fridge with my favorite iced tea. After I fell helplessly in love with the city of New Orleans, he bought me a framed fleur-de-lis to hang in my apartment. With Ryan, I didn’t need to ask him to be dependable, reliable or respectful. Unlike the jerks I’d always dated, he was all of those things naturally.
Three years after we met, Ryan and I were standing across from each other and exchanging vows in front of family and friends. It suddenly occurred to me that it wasn’t so long ago that I was standing alone at the bottom of the stairs that led up to my Brooklyn apartment, spitting out the words, “I am done.” And now I was holding Ryan’s hands as I said, “I do.”