What do I talk about when I talk about a jerk? Not just the unavailable man, but the unavailable man who in the midst of his breakup pursues you anyway. He wafts into your life on a cloud of Eau de Jerk; new-lips-on-neck is its bright top note, but there’s insecurity at its heart,and the pervasive stink of your mutual desperation on the drydown. It’s very seductive, if you are unavailable yourself. It smells like infinite drama and certain intrigue. It smells more interesting than everyday life.
He sees your eyes light up at the first whiff. A micro-expression. Lasting only 1/25th of a second, this light stitches heart on sleeve in neon. You don’t realize you’ve shown it because you’re busy constructing boundaries to fence the scent. You’re building this fence because you know your pattern. Since you can’t actually fence a scent, it’s a good bet this fence will be penetrated. Likely you will be too.
If you really thought you were just going to be friends, you wouldn’t have invited him in after the movie that first time, a couple of months ago. And when he said, “How are we going to stay out of bed together?," you wouldn’t have said, “We’re not.” Because saying this while knowing he was still in love with his ex, makes you a jerk too. Wait. You’re not a jerk. Sorry about that. That’s me. I’m the jerk. I’m the other jerk in some really distracting jerk-on-jerk action. Also known as the Backburner Babe.
He disappeared for three weeks while trying to get back with his ex. I didn’t think much about it. I figured his ex walked away again, or he did, when I received three texts and two voicemails, all atop each other, inviting me out that very same night. Viva la drunk dial!
The final voicemail went something like this:
“Yeah, maybe that was a little abrupt, from a guy you haven’t heard from for a couple weeks. Anyway, hope to talk to you sometime this week. Hope you’re doing okay. Sorry I’ve been out of touch. I’ve been in the...final throes of the relationship...”
And here he pauses. The subtext of this silence is something like, hold on Backburner Babe, here come the words you’ve been waiting for!
“...That I just left.”
Another small pause, to let it all sink in. AlI I can think is again. The relationship you left again. He continues, “I hope you’re doing good. And um, I hope to see ya! Friends, that is. And just looking forward to connecting. And talking.” If you’re not from Northern California, “I look forward to connecting” is the rough equivalent of “See you soon!”
He’s letting me know two important things: 1. He is not emotionally available. 2. He would like to see me again. He’s sending me an invitation to Backburner Babedom.
A couple days later, he also invites me to dance. I say yes. I never say no to dancing. Unless I have the flu. But honestly, I mostly say yes because I have a long history of pressing lips and assorted other debris from slaughterhouse floors into awkward love Scrapple. If you’re not from Philly, this is Scrapple.
He brings beer, chips, salsa, in an adorable basket to the dance studio. Such an offering is really good for Scrapple. He offers to pay for me, though I’ve already taken care of it. Even better for Scrapple. I start craving the Scrapple. I am being touched. I am sweating with an attractive man. Sweet Jesus, somebody hurry up and give me more freaking Scrapple!
After dancing, over drinks, he tells me his heart is a “federally declared disaster area” for the fifth or sixth time. It’s as if he’s punched my digits into his jerkulator and come up with: Heather + sad story = boundless softness. He has the math right. The proof is when he invites me to a movie the next night. When I say yes he asks, “Does this mean we’re dating?”
I join him at the movies anyway. He slides his finger down the back of my hand inside the popcorn bag and I like it. I am trying to ignore the fact that he’s a movie theater loud talker. When he opts to whisper, his lips brush my neck, his nose my ear. Maybe just give him a little time to grieve? Maybe he’s a great guy, temporarily jerk adjacent? I mean,consider his heartbreak!
We stay in the theater as the credits roll. When I talk, he looks me right in the eye. Like he really sees me, really hears me. His steady gaze is blurring my jerk-o-scope.
“Can I ask you something?” I say, during a call where he’s mostly expounded on his ex’s insecurities.
“What do you know about me? I mean we’ve known each other for a couple of months now and I was kind of wondering.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what do you know about me?”
“Oh, I really have to go,” he says.
“Okay, then just give me the ten second version.”
“I know you were an actress. I know you’re a writer...”
“Uh huh.” I was really hoping he’d have a little more than that. Really. Hoping.
“...” He doesn’t.
“And?” I ask.
“I know you have a kind of existential loneliness.”
Good one, I think. Way to keep it general, while also sounding deep. I follow up with something simple, “Do I have siblings?”
“You’ve never talked about your family.”
“Yeah, I have.”
“Look, I really have to go. I think this is part of a longer conversation.”
“It’s really not.”
“I really don’t like the way this conversation is going. I feel attacked. This has really taken a turn and maybe we can talk later. I know I’ve probably talked a lot about my ex and...let’s talk when you’re not angry.”
“I’m not angry. I just kind of think you’re a jerk.”
“I gotta go.”
And that was pretty much the end of that. Except the drunk text I sent telling him he was the Mayor of Jerktown. And the email where he told me I was like, “A coyote in a leg hold trap...capable of biting anything that gets close.” That stung. Hard. Hard like truth. I took it to heart.
Sometimes I like to think it’s all my fault, because I’m the only one that can change the pattern. In a perverse way, it gives me my power back. At a certain point though, putting it all on myself is counterproductive. The truth is also this: He wasn’t trying to get close. He wasn’t listening to a word I said.
So why, you might ask, have I opted to (over)share this with you? Because it still stung. And because I thought I knew better. And because I’ve been a Backburner Babe for too long. And because so have many of my friends. Backburner Babes carry a scent too, until we don’t. A sharp top note of fear, a middle note that equates monogamy with boredom, and a queasy base note blend of horniness and insecurity.
When you feel your fence quiver and you respond by opening further to a man who repeatedly announces (by word or deed, or both) that he has no capacity to reciprocate, you are not practicing empathy. You are not being kind. You are being a dummy. You are probably being a dummy because Scrapple is all you really want right now. You are probably being a dummy because you are not ready to reciprocate in a lasting way either.
But if you are, if you really are ready, Jerktown is not home.
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