Relationships have never been my strong suit. The second I started seeing someone one, I would start fantasizing about how I’d get out. Things shifted by the time I hit my late 20s, when, instead of just imagining my exit strategies, I actually started planning and executing on them.
Of course, this was a defense mechanism — a byproduct of my commitment issues — carefully crafted to protect me from heartbreak. I knew that at the first whiff of smoke, I could simply follow the evacuation instructions that I had practiced over and over in my head, and — poof! — crisis averted.
Compounding this clever exit strategy I’d concocted was the fact that I had commitment issues and an intense fear of and settling down (yep, women feel that too).
I was convinced that I’d be inviting the kind of vulnerability I’d always dreaded into my life — and that the same partner year after year would eventually stagnate my personality.
My solution was to keep one high-heeled boot dangling just outside the door at all times. Then, a new challenge arrived in the form of a man named Jonathan.
Jonathan was a nice guy, which made me all the more suspicious. Moreover, he wanted the real thing — marriage, commitment, stability, old-fashioned love — which, like a spray of DEET, made me want to fly as far away as possible. Somehow, I resisted the urge to sabotage the whole thing.
Before I knew it, we’d been dating for a year. Ever the cynic, I kept searching for a sign that he was a fraud. Could he actually be a moral, loyal guy who was good-looking, in his thirties, and single? Was it possible that he loved going to musical theater yet never missed a boxing match? Did he have nothing more than the garden variety of problems that I could handle? Also, could I talk him out of singing in that barbershop quartet?
Even though we had moved in together, my fortress was still up. Things came to a head in January when we planned a quick vacation to Florida together. Jonathan flew down on Wednesday, and I was to join him that weekend.
I called him the morning of my flight to see if he needed anything. He requested some computer files. I thought, to make things easier, I’d copy over his entire Documents folder to my laptop and bring that down. But his operating system was older than mine, so during the transfer, some files would trigger a pop-up window that I was prompted to “Accept” or “Ignore.”
Then it happened: a file popped up called “All Girls I’ve Ever Been With.”
As someone who has had her diary read, I knew what a betrayal it would have been to open the file — an invasion of his privacy and an admission that I didn’t trust him. So I hit “Accept,” finished the transfer, and hailed a cab to the airport.
Yeah, right. We all know that didn’t happen. I opened that file within two seconds of reading its name. I needed to know who this guy really was.
Anger pulsed through my veins. The contents of the document precisely reflected its name. It was a very comprehensive list of all of the girls Jonathan had been with in his life. Fifty-four in all!
There were notes beside some of them: “Big breasts; bad kisser; great smile; nice underwear; liked to touch herself.” I scanned each name, each bullet point, my blood pressure rising.
At the end of the list, there was my name: number 54. Beside it, simply, “Comedienne.” I wanted to punch the screen. This was it. The evidence I’d been looking for.
A disgusting list reducing old girlfriends and experiences to their physical attributes. There were no notes beside any of these poor girls’ names that said, “totally related; had great talks; super-intelligent,” or how about “funny”?! No, there were just misogynistic comments about bodies.
Mostly, I hated that there was a list, period — and that my name was lumped in with a bunch of failed experiences. I wanted to believe that somehow I was different from the rest; the exception. Much like I’d believed he was more evolved than the other guys. But he was just another dumb guy.
I couldn’t tell him over the phone. How would that work? Would I move out before he got back? That wouldn’t be satisfying enough. No, I wanted to confront him in person. Who cares that I was ruining our vacation? He’d ruined my life.
That’s when I brainstormed “Mission: Delete Jonathan.” I’d start by telling him that he could take me off his stupid list, and then wish him luck finding a girl who fit in better amongst the Sarahs and Laurens who came before me. I’d tell him he didn’t deserve me, and then I’d turn on my heels, drive back to the airport, and get on the next flight.
As I pulled up to the condo I could see Jonathan race down the outside cement stairs to greet me. We walked down a path surrounded by lovely palm trees and beautiful hibiscuses in bloom, and I fought to control my urge to smash my suitcase over his head.
Jonathan closed the door behind us and asked innocently, “Are you okay? Did something happen on the way down?” I immediately burst into insults, starting with “sexist pig,” and moving on to “lousy misogynist who couldn’t see past a girl’s body,” and I reminded him that he certainly didn’t deserve me.
“What are you talking about?”
“I found your stupid list. You must have felt like a really big man writing that list,” I seethed.
“Don’t pretend to be an idiot.”
“I’m serious, Ophira, I don’t know what list you’re talking about.”
“The list of all the girls you’ve been with! I found it when I was transferring your stupid files.”
I could see it dawn on him, and then he sank into a chair. Crap. This was really happening.
“No that’s not a list… well, it is a list, but I wrote it like a year ago, when we first met, because I wanted to do a comic strip for this anthology, and I was trying to organize my thoughts.”
“Well, you have the thoughts of a misogynist pig. It’s revolting how you think about your exes.” I’d run out of words to describe a woman-hater, so I was recycling.
Jonathan exhaled hard. “I know exactly how that must have come across to you, but that’s certainly not how I see you or women in general. It was for this story that I never wrote. How can you not know that about me? You know how I see you.”
“Yeah. You see me as a ‘comedienne.'”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“No one uses that term! It’s like calling someone a spinster.”
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“Oh, sorry, I didn’t know. I thought that was fine.”
“Okay. I’m sorry. I love you. It was just a stupid list. And for what it’s worth, I never want to update that list,” he said very softly.
Slowly, I began to consider the idea that maybe it was a little ridiculous to assume that he was some sort of psychological mastermind who could hide who he truly was from me for over a year.
I stewed, crouched on the corner of the air mattress, trying to let my anger deflate, and finally permitted Jonathan to hug me. Then, much to my surprise, we became intimate. Even though it was on an air mattress, it was some of the best we’d ever had. Take that, number 22!
As we fell asleep, it also crossed my mind that I should be happy there were 54 girls. Imagine if I were one of four? Chilling.
But it took this incident, my go-to defense mechanism, to prompt the epiphany that would impact my relationship — and my entire approach toward relationships, for that matter. It was time to stop wasting energy waiting for “the other shoe to drop” — and have a little faith in what we had, for once.
The only way to find out if this thing was going to work was to free me of the cavalier identity I’d so carefully cultivated; it was time to dump my exit strategy and actually invest in the relationship — knowing full well that I might get my heart broken. Badly.
I didn’t expect it to be easy. But at that moment, I’d made a decision, and I was determined to stick with it.
Ophira Eisenberg is a stand-up comedian, writer, and host of NPR’s weekly trivia show, Ask Me Another. Her debut memoir Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy is available on Amazon.