Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.
The other day, I was telling my friend S about one of the more entertaining break-up conversations I'd had. This was a long time ago, when I was dating D, a younger man who had first approached me on the sidewalk one sunny Saturday, asking if I was a dancer. ("How did you know?" I asked, incredulous, until he pointed to my feet, which were covered in blisters and band-aids. "Oh," I said.) Within the first five minutes of our conversation, he told me he had been involved in the magic scene as a child and that the magician crowd was, well, an odd lot. "They're, I don't know, a bunch of pedophiles," D said.
Then there was a pause, which felt increasingly heavy, like I had a bowling ball on my chest. Out of one corner of my eye, I could see St. Vincent's in the distance. Pedestrians raced by us. Was this really happening? In anonymous New York City, a stranger alluding to a history of abuse, without context, caught even me off guard. Unsure, I said, "Oh." Then, I added, "I'm sorry."
D stopped mid-stride, shook his head, twice, and said, "No. That's not what I meant. Wow. Didn't see things going this way."
I laughed, hard. It was that uncomfortable.
Despite beginning with a miscommunication, I had a pretty easy time talking to D. In the short time that he and I dated, we kept things casual, meeting up for drinks, occasionally going dancing. At first, I wasn't up for anything serious. Soon after, though, I realized I wanted a real partnership, something that didn't seem likely with D, who was in a different phase of his life. Plus, as well as swimmingly as we got along, we were not in love. So one night, I explained this to him, saying, "You know, I feel like we should stop seeing each other so that I can make room for what I really want."
I expected that D would understand, which he did. I did not, however, expect that the first words out of his mouth would be "I think you'd be an amazing mother" -- which they were.
"I think we could be a great team," he continued. "But the truth is, I still like to parade hot girls in front of my guy friends to mask my insecurities. I've grown a lot since we met, some things have changed, but I have a ways to go. I just want to be honest with you."
I appreciated this for all the reasons we appreciate people telling it like it is, i.e. it demonstrates a certain amount of respect, we know where we stand, etc. After, I told friends, including C, my perpetual bachelor pal who cracked up and said, "He did not say that to you. Wow." Another friend, who is married, said, "God, that is so shallow." And yet another friend turned to his wife and exclaimed, "See! That's exactly what I was telling you all those years!" Her reply? "Mmmmm, no. If you said it like that I would have laughed."
Amidst these responses, I realized that there was something I hadn't fully admitted: I still had feelings for someone else. So I was unavailable too.
When I recently told the story to my friend S, who is having communication issues in her relationship, she said, "The fact that someone has enough self-awareness to admit that makes me really happy."
Truth was, it had made me happy, too, but for a different reason. D's admission had served as an invitation to strip away my own layers of self-consciousness. In that moment, I realized that I could expand my own limits of truth-telling. This is something I have been at for a long while. In fact, it was the (intellectual) driving force as I wrote this book: how honest can we really be, with one another, with ourselves?
Years later, I'm keeping at it, even when I do a poor job or can tell the person on the receiving end thinks I'm being a pain in the ass. The momentary discomfort is, in my experience, always worth it. As E.M. Forster famously wrote, "Only connect!" After all, why else are we here?