We had both started work on a PhD. Different faculty, same building. I was walking on a cloud. Job security! After years of plodding along, jumping from one chaotic teaching position to the next and getting some extra cash for obscure artistic projects, I felt like I’d hit the jackpot. That I was writing a PhD about a writer I had never read more than 20 pages of, didn’t seem to matter. My promoter was so talkative, it never showed that I didn’t know the least bit about avantgarde writers in the interbellum era. I got the position, like you get most of the best jobs in this world, not thanks to any knowledge or through any particular skill, but by sucking up to the right people, big time.
We met at the coffee machine. We called him Eddy.
Giving names to things you both use, creates a first layer of intimacy, a private language.
You always had some trouble putting together a regular outfit. That day you were wearing
a flowery grandma dress with faded blue jeans underneath and cowboy boots. Very grunge
You always looked bored, because everything was just too easy for you. I liked the way you dragged your feet passed my cubicle. You looked so convincingly sleepy, it made me smile.
In a very quiet sort of way you radiated more self-confidence than any girl I had ever met. When we would go for lunch in the garden of a nearby restaurant, you would blurt out things like: “By that time I will already be the head of the department.”
Your cocksure attitude gave me a feeling of peace.
“If you behave I will hire you to serve me coffee. And maybe if you really behave, you can serve me something else too.”
In your attitude towards me, you displayed an uncommon degree of verbal cruelty.
I would say:
“We can have a candle light dinner on the roof of the faculty building.”
And you would say:
“Great, I can throw you off after. Or right before. More food for me.”
“Be sure to make it look like an accident.”
“Oh, don t worry, everybody knows how clumsy you are.”
When we did have the candle light dinner I asked:
“So when do you plan to throw me off?”
“Oh, I have decided it’s too soon. I want to torture you some more first.”
We only met when you felt like meeting. Which wasn’t often. You took your PhD very seriously –easy work or not – and you had three girlfriends who were entitled to spend at least one night a week with you.
Whenever you texted me to ask if we could meet, everything had to give.
I started rushing as soon as I had put my mobile back in my pocket. A whole battle plan would develop in front of my eyes:
-get home, hit the shower
-50 push-ups to inflate the muscles a bit
-buy a bottle of vodka and multivitamin juice to make your favorite cocktail
-buy one freshly baked brownie in the chocolate bar
I never arrived at your door without a sweaty brow.
Friends started to wonder why I had let a girl enslave me-kiss me to life, would have been more exact- virtually overnight. They looked at me like I was volunteering to shovel coal to keep hell’s furnaces blazing. I couldn’t answer their questions. I was puzzled myself. It had something to do with the stern, inflexible look on your face. Like it was sculpted. It was hard to please you. I could almost never do anything right. Not that you would ever scold me or anything. You’d just upbraid me, in some off-hand way.
I would be two minutes late and I would apologize and say:
“I am sorry, but I had to walk my friend’s dog. He is in hospital, so he can’t do it himself.”
“Well, it’s interesting to see where your priorities lie.”
I’d bring a bottle of wine from a shop on the outskirts of town where they were supposed to have the best wine North of the Seine and you’d say:
“White wine? To go with spaghetti? Interesting.”
When you did say something nice, it washed my brain with endorphins, because I knew it must have been a very sincere compliment. You said I always found a topic to talk about it. Though sometimes I did it to show off.
What was I looking for? A strict, disciplinary mother or just a hard to please girlfriend? Me falling asleep on your chest and not the other way around, made it all the more worrisome.
I felt like a puppet on your string, but the puppet felt he belonged there. Any other girl would have cut the string and chucked the puppet out of the window. Bojana dropped me. And I dropped Elise. Who can stand someone who passionately pursues the fulfilment of your needs? Who seems to thrive on satisfying you?
“I never needed anyone to feel complete, but still you complete me. You complete what was complete already. I think the most important thing is that with you I can combine the freedom of being single and have the security of having someone who embraces my uniqueness, without trying to mold me into something I’m not and you are there when I want you to be there.”
The best compliment you gave me. Huge ego boost.
One year into our relationship, friends had to agree I was a stray bullet which had finally found a direction. You were the only girlfriend, up until that time, they all respected and didn’t look at with pity or dread, but with enthusiastic glee.
I renamed you Zenobia. After the famous strategist who bested the Roman legions more than just a few times.
The same quiet confidence, dignified realism and unpretentious beauty emanate from her portraits.
It’s hard to drop a pet name like Zenobia into a conversation, but I used it when I wrote you mails or letters or when I texted you.
For a time it worked quite well. You liked being treated like a queen. Though you never said so. The few times I met your parents, they did say so much. “We never thought a guy could put up with our Josh”
They changed your name to Josh. A habit I didn’t copy. Too male sounding.
It wasn’t hard to put up with you. You were lazy in the house. Yes. And a bit lazy in bed. Yes. But we never fought.
It’s hard to pinpoint what went wrong exactly.
Me losing my scholarship for my PhD didn’t help. Didn’t make that deadline. Was used to be giving second and third chances when I messed up or when I was nonchalant. But not this time. No more PhD. The board was quick to decide. Crisis, you know. No money reserves, specially not for guys who don’t meet their deadlines.
I was afraid you would break up with me straight away. I was unemployed. And hating myself for letting an opportunity like that slip by. You said: “Ow, come on, don’t make such a big deal out of it, a PhD is just an excuse to put off entering the real job market.”
That’s what people who are cozily working on their phd tell the suckers who are faced with the strain of less comfortable jobs. Back to being a high school teacher. Back to a degree of self-loathing not uncommon for teachers.
Then it hit me that I could put up with your criticism only because I felt so confident thanks to the PhD status. Now that I felt like a lowly teacher again, I needed some support. And you did support me. Nothing changed. It didn’t matter to you. It did matter to me. And I needed your verbal balm on my self-inflicted wound. You weren’t forthcoming. I started fighting back when you had sarcastic remarks. But while your sarcasm was mild, mine was harsh and scathing. I especially started spewing irritating comments on your laziness. Now I had the right. I was a working man, you were “wasting tax money”.
But the worst was: my comments bounced off of you, like stones thrown at a German Panzer. And after one long harrowing rant of mine you said, with full equipoise: “You’re never going to rid yourself of those insecurities by attacking me. If a PhD is so important to you, then make sure you get another opportunity. Opportunities are like buses, there’s always an other one coming.”
The break came when we were having dinner at your friend’s place. 5 people there. And me the only one without a phd on the way. I was silent and moody all evening. Couldn’t stand the conversation. “How many pages do you have?” “How many books did you read so far?” “What did your promoter say?” “Don’t you just hate editing all those references into your first draft?”
You broke up with me three days later. Three days of uneasy silence. You said: “Look, it’s not that I mind your self-confidence is so low, and that you’re full of insecurities, it’s that it hurts your ego so much when I try to help you to get over them. I think it’s better if you stopped seeing me, and worked on it, start anew, stop teaching, try something completely different, being so full of bile is really not going to solve any of your problems.”
I felt mortified. I was feeling terrible and the cure was to break up with me?
I didn’t know what to say. And for some reason, I have no idea why, all I could think to do was to stick out my tongue to you. I felt so stupid for doing that, that I never wanted to see you again. And I never did, as soon as we’d giving back all the stuff we had borrowed from each other.
I was convinced there was a lesson to be learned in every break-up. This one puzzled me for a long time. I liked you. Sex was, well, adequate. Maybe I was in a period where I wasn’t so demanding about that, but it was adequate. Conversation was good. We never fought. We laughed quite a lot. There was a barrier sure. But ok, we hadn’t known each other that long. So my insecurities killed this one?
If that was true, it didn’t matter which woman I found, one way or the other, my insecurities would undermine any kind of relationship. I needed someone to talk to. And the first woman I told about my chronic insecurities became my next girlfriend.
And I felt good for a time, as if the mere act of realizing the existence of my insecurities had dispelled them. But no, easy cures to self-confidence pitfalls are like easy diets to lose weight: they don’t exist. Three days after Georgina I was in the fast-lane speeding towards my next break-up.