When Chivalry Is More Control Than Care

By | March 22, 2019

I messaged her on Facebook, using an idiotic subject line: “an inconvenient truth.” After a few heated exchanges, she agreed to have dinner with me.

That evening I smoothed my green tweed skirt as I waited for her to arrive at the southern-style restaurant I had chosen. Perversely, I had picked this place because it was farm-to-table and my ex-boyfriend had told me at some point that his new girlfriend liked locally sourced food. Perhaps I had overdressed.

She arrived, smiling nervously, her cheeks pink from the cold or too much blush. Like me, she had worn a knee-length, woven skirt. Neither of us was much for makeup, but we had put it on for each other all the same.

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Though I had seen her around, I mostly knew my ex’s new girlfriend through the ephemera she left in his car: oversize black sunglasses, tinted lip balm, stretched hair ties. After some small talk, I got to the heart of the matter: I said her boyfriend was stopping by my apartment on his way to work, something he’d been doing ever since I moved out several months before.

After our breakup, I took an apartment near our old place, wanting to work things out. Though we decided to date other people, we fell into old habits, and he started leaving cute notes on my car, written on the back of valet stubs and tucked under the windshield wiper.

When I told his girlfriend about the notes, she said, with a pained smile, “That’s romantic.”

“No,” I said. It was controlling.

I had believed in the romantic gesture, the aggressive wooing through copious gifts, fancy dinners and handwritten letters, all of which heightened my sense that we were in love.

I was only beginning to understand the insidious side of romance, how his recent notes and morning visits were less about wooing me than checking up on me, less about generosity than possession. Every morning, whether or not we met up, he would drive past to see if my car was parked in front of my apartment. When it wasn’t, he would later accuse me of having slept somewhere else.

And the notes with a simple “hi” or the red inked hearts? These, too, were reminders that he was watching.

This was not the conversation I had intended to have with her. I had just wanted to tell her that her boyfriend was cheating, because when he was my boyfriend and cheating, no one had told me.

Naïvely, I had hoped things might have been different otherwise. But I didn’t just want to leave her burdened by that knowledge. I wanted to give her an opportunity to relieve herself of its weight.

“Actually,” she said, and then she went on to tell me he had been showing up outside of places where she was hanging out, even when she hadn’t mentioned where she would be.

What I wish I had said is that those kinds of romantic gestures are a trap. Instead, she and I took our unfinished puzzle and put away the pieces. We paid the check. I told her to call me sometime. We hugged.

Romance, I have since learned, isn’t just a sleight of hand that can make you see something that isn’t there. A belief in that kind of romance can also be a distraction. Years later, I almost didn’t see the man who would become my husband.

We met on Valentine’s Day (of all days), though I wasn’t doing anything to celebrate it. I had just had dinner with a friend and we decided to dip into a warm bar. Inside, the bartender informed us the bar was hosting a singles night. She held out numbered stickers, the kind they give you on the first day of kindergarten, and we reluctantly affixed them to our sweaters.

The idea was for patrons to send each other Valentines using the numbers instead of giving up their names. It also flagged how long everyone had been at the bar. My number was 62.

My friend and I ordered beers. Five minutes later, a shirtless man with sagging brown corduroys and a pair of children’s fairy wings strapped to his back tapped me on the shoulder.

“Uh, this guy at the end of the bar wanted me to give this to you,” he said, handing me a note. It was in French.

I looked over at the man, who raised his glass at me. He had the droopy leer of someone who had been drinking for a while. His tag read “1.”

I waved, shrugged and said, “I don’t read French!”

“He’s cute, no?” said the guy with the fairy wings, who, lacking his own tag, seemed to be playing Cupid. “He wants to buy you a drink,” he added.

As he walked away, my friend jagged her thumb at Cupid and said, “I think he likes you.” I looked again at his thin body and corduroys and shrugged. After our single drink, my friend and I went home.

The next night, we ended up at the same bar. This time her ex-boyfriend joined us. I was mostly there for support. Amid their tart exchanges, I saw Cupid again, now wingless, wearing beat-up Sperrys and skinny jeans. He sidled up on the bar stool beside me and started asking questions, as if he were tapping around a wall looking for a hollow where he might put in a door.

The conversation grew intimate, and I began to recount my ex-boyfriend woes. He told me about his ex-girlfriend, who had cheated on him while she was in rehab. She had a habit, he said, of pushing him out to sea and then reeling him in when she felt lonely.

As the bar was closing, he flashed me a puckish smile and invited me back to his place to “make out and snuggle.”

Our clothes came off quickly. Staring up at him while we were having sex, a nervous itch came over me. Afterward, he asked me to sleep over and promised to make eggs and bagels in the morning.

I smiled and said, “Sure.”

Instead, I woke up when the sky was still black and slipped out with my boots in hand so as not to wake him. Outside, I was surrounded by old warehouses and leering industrial machinery. I followed the horizon back to my apartment and slid into bed as the sun came up.

For the next few days I avoided the bar where Cupid and I met. I was ambivalent about our tryst and feeling fragile about where it might lead.

When my ex and I first met, our eyes locked across a crowded cafeteria. It was teen movie magic. He cracked a joke, I laughed; we started hanging out. He kept me hooked with chivalrous gestures like picking me up from work when I could have just as well walked home. But our relationship was toxic. How could I trust my instincts after that? Were they even my own?

A few days later, I ended up back at the bar, and there was my Cupid. This time we went back to my place. I told him I had to walk my dog.

We slipped off our clothes and got into bed, our bodies entwined. And then he stopped, looked me in the eyes and said, “Where did you go?”

When I was 22, I fell into an open sidewalk grate and landed one floor down in the basement of an abandoned building. It happened so fast I only remember feeling suspended in midair as my brain tried to process that I was falling. I landed on a pillow of leaves that had collected on top of a crushed oil tank. I was in a dark hole, but I was fine. It wasn’t until I looked up and saw how far I’d fallen that I realized I had been in danger. It took even longer for me to notice I had been injured.

When Cupid asked where I was, it was like seeing the star-flecked sky from the pit of that basement.

“We can’t do this,” he said, “if you don’t trust me.”

“O.K. — ”

Nine years later, he and I do not make reservations for Valentine’s Day, but we make sure the dishes are always washed when the other person is having a bad week. And every morning, after our coffee and dog walk, we slip on our coats and board the train for work together.

I sometimes wonder if my ex’s girlfriend came to the same conclusion: that real love isn’t so grandiose. I saw her once, long after our dinner. We were both at a crowded market with new boyfriends. She ran up and embraced me. And then, before I could say anything, she slipped back into the crowd, linking arms with her new beau.


Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

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