Shall We Dance?

“One rarely falls in love without being as much attracted to what is interestingly wrong with someone as what is objectively healthy.” – Alain de Botton 

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” – Rumi

There’s a sadistic ritual for the affluent youth growing up in my hometown. It is a time-honored tradition, dating back to the 1930’s. Formally, it is called “The Barclay Classes,” nicknamed “Barclays” by those darlings lucky enough to take part. Young ladies and gentlemen of Pelham New York, yes indeed, you can waltz, fox trot, and cha cha your way into adolescence — on your parents’ sparkling dime — while you also learn how to nibble on a tea sandwich, cultivate the “ease of small talk,” and acquire the art of a proper handshake. Miss Manners would be so very proud.

Let’s see what the Barclays website has to say about all this:

“Confidence, poise and good manners learned early in life stay with us forever and will distinguish your child in any social, business or academic situation. We use ballroom dancing as our teaching vehicle. …Being confident and relaxed with dancing will prove to make all future social events for your child fun and enjoyable.”

My dear parents, never the ones to be swayed by high-society whims, nonetheless firmly believed Barclays would be an advantageous opportunity for their well-mannered, frightfully innocent, impossibly shy, anxiety-ridden daughter. And so, from 6th grade through 8th grade, I spent many a torturous afternoon held captive in the elitist Pelham Country Club, wearing puffy satin dresses, tight patent leather shoes, and delicate white gloves… being forced against my will to endure the absolute, without a doubt, worst possible thing in the world: To. Dance. With. A. Boy.

Ick. Disgusting. Gross. Touching. Thank god those pretentious pearl-wristed gloves were a solid barrier between my unadulterated hands and those little man polyester suit jackets. Like Catholic school nuns, the fine and dandy Barclays teachers asked we “leave room for the holy ghost” on the dance floor. If it were up to me, I would have gratefully left enough room for all 12 apostles. To add insult to injury, we had to maintain eye contact with our dance partners, as it would be impolite not to.  It was one thing to count beats to the box step. It was a whole other ordeal to adoringly gaze into the eyes of my male classmates – boys who cheated off me in Earth Science (he’s now a VP at Viacom), ignored my existence in the hall (he now manages a hedge fund), or slammed me with a dodge ball in gym class because I’d be “an easy out” (he’s actually still my friend).

But, dance we all did. Nervously. Awkwardly. Self-consciously. Our teachers made certain we knew every fashionable rule imposed on a societal ball worthy of a Jane Austin novel. That included “cutting in” – carefully tapping a frocked belle on her shoulder, to take over the dance with your chosen gentleman. Yep, that’s right. Teach a 12-year-old lass that it’s perfectly acceptable to steal another girl’s man, as long as you interrupt nicely. Try that trick later in life, and you’ll meet with catastrophic results. We were also taught to sit daintily and quietly, ankles crossed, hands folded in lap, impeccable posture, while the distinguished Ralph Lauren-clad boys furtively crossed the room to ask us ladies-in-waiting for a whirl around the floor. Another brilliant lesson: Yes, girls, sit there silently, looking pretty and demure, don’t worry, a boy will eventually come along to claim you.

Now some 25 years later, I’d advise my lovely mother to seek her money back from Sir Barclay. Because, while I am the epitome of poise, grace and delicacy in my daily interactions, professional dealings, and dining manners… my proverbial male “dance partners” in life have been nothing short of messy, confused beats off tempo, movements out of rhythm, melodically disconnected from my real self.

We all carry with us a story of our past relationships. Those romantic and non-romantic partners who shifted us, enlightened us, hurt us, and matured us. I have searched for years to find a celestial blueprint connecting all these partners, wishing to unearth some sort of pattern to these men, simply so I could understand how to break it. For a while I thought “No more Midwestern boys from states beginning with the letter M.” Yet after leaving my Midwestern college, and moving back to NYC, that rule ceased to be demographically relevant. Then I thought “Avoid all boys with monosyllabic Biblically-derived names.” But, first of all, that encompasses practically all Americanized names popularized in the 1970’s (i.e. Matt, Mark, Luke, John, etc). And secondly, throw in two guys with slightly more exotic names, and that rule went out the window.

I ultimately came to the realization: there was no externally divined pattern of names or origins. The pattern is, in fact, all mine.

So, I curtsy. And you bow. And now we dance. Names have been obscured to protect the innocent.

I never had a boyfriend in high school. But, I had a lot of boys who were my friends. These guys were all smart, talented, competitive, driven, dependable, preppy, funny, cute, well-read, and well-groomed. We sat at the same lunch table. We studied for APs en masse. We ruled student activities as a group of leaders. We shared fries and milk shakes at the Thruway Diner after hours. We sent each other postcards from summer vacations. And we carpooled to parties and town events. These were boys that any girl would be proud to take home to mom and dad. But I didn’t date any of them. And moreover, I didn’t want to. My guy friends were endearing, connective comrades of the male persuasion. Boys I enjoyed having close (but not too close…) to me; boys who never dared to breach the line of demarcation I subliminally drew on the dance floor.

But there was one high school boy whom I found captivating. “S” was a year older than me, and was the consummate skater boy. So dark, so mysterious. He wore head-to-toe black, including a ski cap, his chin-length dark hair tucked underneath, and he skipped classes to hit the pavement alone with his skateboard. He played electric guitar in a band with a witty name, and he smoked cigarettes outside the school. He was placed in my Pre-Calculus class my Junior year, seated in the desk directly behind me, alphabetically our last names being a few fated letters apart. The sheer anxiety of passing back handouts to him… Xanax would have been helpful. And the best part is – this boy had no idea who I was. I bet he didn’t know my name—just that I was the brainiac girl in math class who could solve for any value of x. But he was fascinating to me…. only from afar. He projected a sense of resplendent torment; he seemed to be a wounded soul. And for that, I was unwittingly drawn to him, curious, unnerved, wanting to get closer, but never capable of uttering hello. So, from afar he remained. And I quickly and distractedly returned to my books after he graduated.

“S” is significant only in that he’s the first incarnation of the men who have orbited my life…Men whose enigmatic countenance hinted an air of unresolved trauma. Men whose piercing eyes betrayed a haunted and hidden anguish. Men whose vocal tones evoked a longing for a life happier than which they’ve suffered. I am talking about profoundly damaged, metaphysically predestined, astrologically-explosive connections. Simplified to: You’re tragic. So am I. And now we can be tragic together. Oh, how devastatingly exquisite. How very 19th Century Romantic. But all those epic Victorian and Russian novels end with the unrequited heroine throwing herself in front of a train; or composing a tear-stained farewell letter to her beloved as he marries her sister; or lying heartbroken over unfulfilled kisses on her consumptive death bed. It was my therapist who, 16 years ago, (semi-jokingly) diagnosed me with “Tragic Heroine Syndrome” — likely not in the DSM, so she threw in “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” for my insurance company.

And there was always a distance between “me and him” — whoever the “him” may have been at the time. A disconnection within the connection. Forget about Biblical names and M-states, these men were all sublimely unavailable (emotionally, geographically, romantically; sometimes all three at once) and intriguingly unattainable (a maze of ever-shifting boundaries, entryways, and walls). There was closeness without intimacy. And intimacy without closeness. These relationships play-acted the ultimate dance: come closer, turn away. Step forward, step backward. Hold me tight, let me go. Spin me around. Back to the beginning. Now repeat. And within these un-choreographed sequences, I positioned myself the untouchable and unlovable belle of the ball… a Cinderella without her glass slipper; a Rapunzel without her long hair; a fairy tale where the prince and the princess are fated to destroy each other, rather than live happily ever after.

So, who were these men who kept my dance card spinning?

I met “E” in college. He was charming, intelligent, charismatic, independent, and sardonic. But also cunning, reckless, cold, and unstable. A Jude Law doppelganger. A Midwestern golden boy who found me uniquely intriguing. And I bowed to revere him for almost a decade. I was moved by his magic and subtle manipulations. I was drugged by his tender masks and cruel calculations. In his tango of laser-sharp attention and brutal disengagements, I felt concurrently majestic and insignificant; loved and unworthy; unique and ordinary. I confined myself to our passive-aggressive games, with E in Chicago; me in New York. Forget about the kind, nourishing men who tried to win my affections. My heart was held captive by a mythical idol 1,000 miles away who ultimately chose to love a man instead of me.

I met “L” while studying in London. An eccentric tree-hugger type with a coy and evasive personality. He never gave a direct answer to any question. In his presence, I was distant. In our distance, I tried to regain presence. In the rain at Piccadilly, he told me my green eyes were beautiful. I looked away. In Waterstone’s bookstore, he requested I travel with him to Berlin. I declined. In his flat, he tried to hold me close. I disentangled myself. His life went one way; mine another. We reconnected years later. L was in Atlanta. I was in New York. He called me a temptress. And he kept me tempted with only one email per week. Still a master at misdirection, his quirky emails gave me everything and nothing. Flirtation without substance. Attention without intention. That lured me to him more, until the day he married the woman he had been covertly hiding from me.

I met “V” at a party. A magnetic and seductive European playboy who could have been a Dolce & Gabbana model, had he not also possessed a strategic brain for business. His tales told of a jetsetter’s life. He drank to excess. He swept into VIP rooms. Forgetting my Barclays lessons, he taught me to waltz in a Tribeca bar at 2am. He emailed me from Arabian airports, and challenged me to a contest of virtual wit. But he was a fleeting fringe fantasy. A spellbinding distraction. The pinnacle of an escapist mentality I employed to thwart the very concept of love. He was the flawed hero to my tragic heroine, but in a dashingly expensive suit and a posh jet off to Dubai. And when I wouldn’t casually limbo into his bed, he swiftly faded like the mirage that he was…

I met “J” in Manhattan. In his trance, in his energy field, I was locked. For five years, I was the perfect Echo to his even more perfect Narcissus. He was broken, scarred, damaged and hurt – an enthralling paradox of boundless contradictions: soulful and empty; calming and maddening; rational and unbalanced; anxious and peaceful. A pendulum perpetually in motion. Needing me, then avoiding me. Omnipresent, then radio silent. Stable, then disorienting. And I allowed myself to swing with that. I could not disengage. He prayed to God. He prayed for me. And he prayed for himself. He wanted to be saved. I wanted to save him. He wanted me to save myself. We couldn’t save each other. So, he tiptoed away. Without a sound. And he sent his friend to return my key.

There’s a school of thought, psychologically speaking, that what we’re really seeking in love is not happiness, but rather familiarity. To quote one reference: “We chase after more exciting others, not in the belief that life with them will be more harmonious, but out of an unconscious sense that it will be reassuringly familiar in its patterns of frustration.”

If this is true, then my instinct is toward disaster. My attraction is toward abandonment. I question if I need a cyclical dynamic of fluctuating compassion and callousness to feel comfortable with love. And if this is my childhood past projected present, then I feel like a psychotherapy cliché – the result of an emotionally impassive, confusingly erratic, confidently powerful, yet passionately loyal father who challenged me (but supported me), rarely hugged me (yet cared about me), tried to control me, and then unceremoniously left me (without warning nor a farewell) on the day he suffered a heart attack. Is it really all that simple? How I came to equate love and companionship with cruelty and distance. And if so, does the origin of this pattern even matter?

If we identify our partners through semi- or sub-conscious attractions, then maybe our “object-choice” can indeed emerge as a self-destructive unhealthy pattern… a pattern we obsessively and repetitively engage in… not to intentionally create barriers to love, but to connect us to a defining love we remember, or lost, or want to make right, or dysfunctionally feel we deserve. Unfortunately, there is little sustenance nor sustainability in this pattern. Can I blame these men for being tricky and tragically unavailable, any more than I can blame myself for being mournfully available to them? No. I can’t, and I don’t. There is no “fault” here. There is only consciousness, forgiveness, and change.  I chose these men because I was hurt, wounded, traumatized, and the safest thing was to love someone equally in pain, someone too abstractly tormented to love me back.

Entwined in two decades of love-hate relationships, I am tired of this dance. I’m enervated, dizzy and nauseous from twirling. And I do not wish to be the lone ballerina in a solo show. So now, almost 30 years later, maybe I’m finally ready to take that class at Barclays.

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