On Tuesday, I was part of a special Valentine's Day edition of Tell-All Boston, a monthly literary event. The theme was about rejection—in this case, essays that had been rejected by the New York Times' Modern Love column. For many essayists, Modern Love is their white whale. As a writing instructor, it's the goal I hear most often from my students, aside from publishing a book: having an essay run at Modern Love.
I've only submitted to the column one time, back in 2015. That essay was—you guessed it—rejected. So I cut it down and read a version of it on Tuesday. A version of this essay eventually ran at Refinery29.
My Boyfriend Gave Me Up For Lent
“I gave you up for Lent.”
He takes a swig of his beer, a drag of his cigarette. He’s naked, and my eyes fall to his round belly, the thin trail of hair, his husky build. I think about how much I missed this soft, sturdy body.
He says it matter-of-factly, like there’s no further explanation needed. It’s the verbal equivalent of a shrug.
We are sitting in his room. It is sometime in the early morning hours, when most of the world is asleep. Or maybe dawn is breaking, and people are beginning to rise to head to work.
I bend down and do a line of cocaine off the counter. My breasts swing forward, heavy. I inhale deeply and feel the familiar trickle down the back of my throat.
It’s the first time we’ve spoken — let alone seen each other — in 40 days. Our biweekly meetups had stopped suddenly, without warning. My texts went unanswered. I was sure I’d been ghosted. As a Jew, the possibility of Lent had never even crossed my mind.
I sent an embarrassing number of drunk text messages, and left an even more embarrassing number of incoherent voicemails. I got nothing in return.
Then, seemingly out of the blue, his name appeared on my phone. It was 4 A.M. and the words were familiar. “Hey, want to come over?”
Our relationship had never been particularly healthy. We met in a bar and bonded over cocaine, hard drinking, and rough sex. We’d go home together after the bar closed and stay up all night, talking, screwing, drinking, snorting. Repeat, ad nauseum.
Aside from the partying, we didn’t really have much in common. I’d been thrilled to cast my vote for Obama when he won his first term. He pouted when the results came in; he had hoped for McCain. I dressed to stand out in a crowd, flaunting bright colors, loud patterns, and sky-high heels. He’d prefer to enter a room unnoticed, wearing t-shirts and jeans. I was a gossip, a loudmouth, a drama queen. He coveted privacy and discretion.
Our relationship never really made sense to anyone that wasn’t in it. Most of the time, it didn’t even make sense to us. But, in a haze of booze and cocaine, our differences seemed to disappear.
“I can’t be seen with you in public if you’re going to dress like that. I’m sorry.”
I looked at him in disbelief. “Are you really breaking up with me because my clothes are too flashy?”
Yes, he was.
He said I embarrassed him in front of his friends with the outfits I wore. “I like girls in jeans and a tank,” he reminded me. I felt like a child who had been scolded by a parent. In an instant, I was two inches tall. Not good enough, never good enough.
I said I would dress differently if he’d just change his mind. I was desperate to hold onto him. But it didn’t matter. His decision was final. That was that.
He wasn’t kidding when he said that he wouldn’t be seen with me in public dressing the way I did. After we broke up, he hardly ever spoke to me in front of other people. Twice a week, we hung out in the same bar — the bar where we’d met. He stayed on one end, with his friends. I sat at the bar, talking to mine.
I spent most of the night hoping that something would change, that he would walk over and say hi. Sit down and have a drink. Put his arm around me and smile. I’d try to make eye contact or find any excuse to try to talk to him. I laughed too loudly and flirted too aggressively.
Instead, every night at closing time, my phone would light up.
“Hey, want to come over?”
I always went.
This continued for over three years. Week after week, I’d go to his place in the dead of night. I’d leave other dates with very nice guys — men who were actually into me and who had no problem being seen with me in public — to sneak into his house under the cover of darkness, careful not to wake his roommates.
I hoped that he would wake up one morning and realize that he really wanted to be with me. I figured that having him like this was better than not having him at all. I took him in whatever way I could get him, because when I was with him all my doubts about myself melted away. It was proof that I was worthy of love.
The thing about him that kept me holding out hope was that I knew he cared about me. He was the kind of guy who would rather not get laid than have to spend hours hanging out with someone that he didn’t like. The fact that we spent these nights together on a regular basis was evidence that he liked me, that he maybe even loved me in his way.
And so we’d drink, use, fuck, talk, and pass out. The afternoons that we’d wake up and he didn’t immediately kick me out were my favorites. We’d spoon until the early afternoon, limbs tangled together. He’d kiss my mouth, bring me coffee, turn on the game. Those days gave me hope, let me keep thinking that maybe one day things would be different. Maybe one day this would all be real.
The longer this went on, the more unstable I became. Aside from his roommates, very few people knew that we were still sleeping together regularly. To the rest of the world, I was just a pathetic girl who just couldn’t get over him.
“She’s crazy,” they’d say, loud enough for me to hear.
I was the unhinged ex yelling, “Why don’t you just go home with her already!” across the bar as he chatted up another woman. I was the scorned lover who couldn’t move on, who sent texts at all hours of the night begging to see him. I wore the bruises from our consensually rough encounters like badges of honor. I flaunted them as proof that we’d been together.
He gave me this bruise two nights ago when we were having sex. See? It’s not over. We’re not over. He’s mine, so back off.
I was possessive of someone that I had no right to ownership over, as if there’s ever someone it’s OK to act like you own. But in my head, he was mine. And since he wasn’t willing to tell the world that was the case, I felt compelled to do it for him.
You generally don’t give something up for Lent unless it’s hard for you to do. The year before he decided to give me up, he’d stopped drinking soda for 40 days. I was the equivalent of soda.
But we were each other’s vices. We weren’t necessarily good for each other but we didn’t know how to leave each other alone. I tried, I really did. I dated other people, but continued sleeping with him behind their backs. I’d leave dates to meet him when he beckoned me.
Maybe this is the night it will be different.
I told myself it was the sex that kept me going back. And that was part of it, sure. Our chemistry was electric. But the truth was that I needed the validation. I needed to feel worthy. I needed to hold onto him as proof that I was desirable. And when he called, I could finally exhale.
When he called, I knew I was good enough. In those moments, in those hours, I was enough. And sometimes, that’s enough.