Being single wasn't something that was exactly easy for me -- not because I was one of those women who was always pining away for dates while doing nothing to meet men who might be inclined to invite me out, nor because I was dying to get married. No, it was because, as with many things in my life, I was completely clueless. I spent most of my childhood and teen years pal-ing around with my brother and his friends, so I wasn't particularly uncomfortable around boys. As a matter of fact, I always seemed to befriend boys much more easily than I did girls.
The problem was that I had absolutely no ability to discern a boy who wasn't attracted to me from a boy who was. I just assumed they weren't, since I thought all the girls I knew were far more attractive than I was, and I'd learned from experience that any boy who made my heart skip a beat was likely to be madly in love either with my sister or one of my friends, but never with me -- most likely because I always turned into a shy, blushing, bumbling idiot around such boys, whereas my sister and friends were always ready with some interesting or smart response to everything they had to say.
Thus, I had a few awkward encounters when I was in my twenties with young men I assumed felt the same way I did, that we were like brother and sister. And what I like to think of as the perverseness of life is epitomized by the fact that one of the most beautiful and heartfelt love letters a young woman ever received was presented to me by one of these "brothers." Give me a thousand men I love who don't love me over one man who loves me whom I don't love. I felt horrible. But, of course, one man wasn't enough for Life Perverse. That same year, I received another (not quite so eloquently written) letter from another brother admitting he'd been having some incestuous thoughts. This, you have to understand was during the year in which I was convinced I'd never utter the words "my boyfriend" again, because, as always, I was busy doing my bumbling idiot act for two young men who quite obviously didn't want to be seen with such a person. How could I not have known the two love-struck ones felt the way they did until they spelled it out for me? Maybe it wasn't an act. Maybe I truly was a bumbling idiot.
Anyway, by the time I was in my late twenties, and a good number of my friends were getting married and even having babies, I'd decided men were far more complicated than I'd ever suspected. Why was it that every other female I knew seemed to meet men who made it abundantly clear from the get-go that they thought she was extremely attractive and that they couldn't get enough of her? I had roommates who would say to me when the phone rang, "Could you answer that, and if it's Jay/Mike/Ralph, tell him I'm not here? I wish he'd leave me alone." I never had any men pursuing me like that. Or so I thought, until all of a sudden, one day, I'd be saying goodnight to someone I'd been thinking of as my "movie buddy" for well over a year, and he'd suddenly grab me and kiss me the way I'd always wanted to be kissed (you know, the way Jimmy Stewart kisses Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story). He'd walk off to his car, and I was left standing there with the "WTF?" bubble over my head. This happens enough times, and you begin to think you're meant to live a When Harry Met Sally kind of life. I expected some friend of mine from college and I would suddenly discover we both were madly in love with each other.
Surprise, surprise. I was completely wrong. The man I married turned out to be someone I'd never laid eyes on until the day he came barreling into the library where I worked, looking for some good music. I made some recommendations for him, and then he decided to stand around the desk and chat with me for about an hour, even offering to help others with their questions. I had to remind him, politely, of course, that this was my job.
I wish I could tell you I remember every detail of our conversation. Unfortunately, I didn't happen to know this was the man I was going to marry, and I'm afraid I didn't treat him with the sort of care and awe I should have. I do know I began to wonder if I should ask him to leave, as I was afraid his presence was discouraging others from asking for my help. And I also happen to remember the two most important pieces of that conversation. We talked about both books and music, and he recommended to me before he left that I read Anna Karenina and listen to Big Head Todd and the Monsters.
About a week later, he came barreling back into the library, ostensibly to ask me more questions about music. What he was really doing was asking me out. Finally, a man was truly pursuing me. Did I recognize this for what it was? Of course not. I was working in a public place. When you work in a public place, forget innocent until proven guilty. Everyone (especially someone who comes back to see you) has to prove he's not a raving lunatic before you believe it. His "smooth" offer to come over and listen to music sometime sounded like something out of a Thomas Harris novel to me.
Sure, he was cute, and sure, he'd recently left his job as a boarding school teacher to try writing full-time and was temporarily living rent free at his father's house while his father explored the world aboard freighter ships, but that wasn't exactly the most believable thing, now, was it? I mean, freighter ships? Can't you just see the headlines, "Former Boarding School Teacher Hiding Father's and Others' Body Parts in Freezer?" I started to give him my home phone number, thought better of it, and gave him my work phone instead.
Did I mention the fact this was during a period in which I had absolutely no time for dating? I was finishing up a semester in which I was taking two courses toward my graduate degree while working full-time. In a few weeks' time, I was going to be taking a month's leave of absence, so I could spend a week in North Carolina for the holidays, Christmas at my parents' house and New Year's at my sister's. I would be returning to a few days of rest before starting one of those intense interim courses in which a semester's worth of material is covered in two weeks. I stuck the phone number he'd given me in exchange for mine in my wallet, thinking maybe I'd give him a call after the holidays and see if he'd like to meet for a drink or something, so he could start producing evidence to convince me he wasn't an ax murderer.
Then he called me. At work. While I had a long line of people waiting for me to retrieve magazines. While my boss happened to be standing right there. Well, what would you have done? I told him I couldn't talk, that I had no time to do anything, and that I would call him back when I did have some time. In other words, I succeeded splendidly in "playing hard to get," with absolutely no intention of doing so, having always been horrified by the thought of playing games. He'll tell you that what I said was, "Don't call me, I'll call you," convincing him I was blowing him off without ever having given him a chance.
Being as clueless as I always was with guys, I went off to North Carolina still thinking I might call this guy when I got home. I'd have a few days before my class started. Maybe we could even have dinner rather than a drink. I had no idea he was seething at this point and that his only desire was to tell me how wrong I'd been to judge him before giving him any sort of a chance.
When my sister and I arrived at her house a couple of days after Christmas, I found myself browsing her bookshelves (you know, moth-to-light sort of thing). There, I found a Penguin Classics version of Anna Karenina. I pulled it off the shelf and said to her, "Funny. This guy came into the library recently and told me I should read this."
Her response? "You've never read it? Oh, Emily, you have to read it! Take it."
I did. I loved it. I decided a man who would recommend such a book was definitely worth knowing. I went out and bought Big Head Todd and the Monsters, which I also loved. I dug around in my wallet to make sure I still had that phone number. When I got back home, I called him. He wasn't there. He was so surprised I'd called, though, that when he got the message, he immediately called back to hear me say,
"I have two things to tell you. I bought Big Head Todd and the Monsters, and I'm reading Anna Karenina." For once, the bumbling idiot had disappeared, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Now tell me, honestly, as much as you may love The Unbearable Lightness of Being (and I do), Milan Kundera's Anna Karenina story just doesn't hold a candle to mine, does it?