Date three, maybe four. I’m standing on his New York City-sized balcony, swimming in a borrowed bathrobe that is plush and cocaine white in my memory but was probably more like navy blue and in need of a wash. We’re passing a joint back and forth through the open door: him inside searching for something on his laptop, me outside wondering where we’ll be a year from now. (Hint: not together.)

When he finds what he’s looking for, he pulls me into the apartment, onto his lap, asks, “Do you like fireworks?” It’s December. I follow his gaze toward the computer screen, my eyes catching on a digital Fourth of July display. A series of pixelated sparks explode and scatter and my chest warms, thighs tighten and come the fuck on, is that all it takes for me to fall in love? A screensaver?
Here’s what I know ten years later: on average, it takes much less than that.

***

My early twenties were romantic, if romantic means drunken, messy, and low-grade apocalyptic. I didn’t know how to be a real person yet, so I monkey-saw, monkey-did — cribbed my emotions from MGMT songs and mumblecore films, felt Capital-F Feelings, proudly hosted sleepovers on a squeaky twin mattress that was left in my apartment by the previous renter. (She moved after landing a role on a soap opera. See? Romantic!)
I fell for lots of guys back then, sparking left and right like a live wire. The broke Canadian from OkCupid (always poor because he couldn’t work in America). The almost-40 divorcé who agreed to spooning-only in the squeaky small bed. The Fireworks guy, who I still wonder about sometimes, still talk to sometimes. Dozens of others like them–some would become boyfriends, others would adopt boyfriend traits minus the title and exclusivity. Most of the time, though, I would go on a couple dates, spin out over How Great Things Were Going, then drink and cry and delete phone numbers when Things decided to be less great.
Some people have a Type; I thought it was good that I didn’t. Being open (read: without standards, without clear desires) deepened my dating pool. And besides, this ~inclusive~ approach to dating was what came natural to me. By my mid-20s, I could talk myself into pretty much anything. Any relationship, any sacrifice, whatever.

***

When I look back on that time, I see spark after spark after spark. That version of myself could’ve fallen in love with a fire hydrant. I want to say I was open, but I was just malleable. I want to say I was putting myself out there, but it was more like I was pulling other people in.
The night before I moved to Los Angeles, I downloaded Tinder and went on a preemptive, cross-country swiping spree. Didn’t want to arrive emotionally empty-handed, I guess. Or maybe I needed to distract myself from the fact that come morning, I’d be living thousands of miles away from everything I knew. Probably the latter.
When you have anxiety, it’s easier to worry about other people than it is to worry about yourself. My therapist would say that whenever I derailed our sessions with weekly Where Are They Now? updates on each of my friends, my ex. “Let’s talk about you now,” she’d say, when all along, I thought we already were.
Downloading Tinder was like downloading thousands of potential sources for worry. Fucking jackpot. With this amount of raw material, I wouldn’t have to think about the difficulty of finding an apartment sans pay stubs and good credit. I wouldn’t have to think about my ex, who was lapping me in our unofficial Moving On race. I could instead worry about what to wear on a first date, texts gone unanswered, the question-marked pasts hiding behind avatars. I could worry about everything but myself.

***

On Christmas Eve, I met a guy who told me he used to be a Fixer. He had a history of choosing partners who needed him in some way. People who were a little more fucked up than he was. He never knew why, exactly, until he read an article about himself. “Fixers have low self-esteem, they think they don’t deserve love. So they do things for people instead. Fixers hope that, if they can’t be loved for who they are, they can at least be loved for what they do.”
I felt dumb and sick and nude. This was the first time I was able to identify my Type: anyone who allowed me to focus on them, not me. So much of my romantic efforts had been about distracting other people from the fact that I existed: by showing them how Good I could be, by making myself useful or small or accommodating. So little of it had to do with who I was or what I wanted. Sitting across from the reformed Fixer, I couldn’t imagine a relationship that wasn’t predicated on my need to be needed. A relationship with no Under Construction sign. One in which I’m just a person, not a Fixer. Who the hell was I, if not that?

***

Since moving to LA, life hasn’t been so romantic. Living alone has provided plenty of administrative, me-centric distractions: I am constantly paying bills, or working to pay bills, or taking a bath to forget about bills. I am on the phone with the post office and I am vacuuming and I am removing chipped polish from my fingernails before I can pick it all off. I assemble furniture, I cook, I pet-sit for friends. I wear sheet-masks and deep condition my hair and karaoke an obscene amount. I still don’t know what I want out of relationship, so I do this easy thing where I don’t pursue them. I am single but not lonely or bored; the idea that I am a whole person with her own goals and desires keeps me pretty occupied. Excited, even.
That isn’t to say I haven’t met any spark-worthy men, I have. And an outdated version of myself would’ve done everything in her power to pursue them. Because sparks are fun! Pretty! They can light up an entire sky! But the old me was very good at confusing sparks for substance, for safety. The old me could talk herself into Anything, remember? And Anything can look like a spark if you shut your eyes tight enough. These days, though, my eyes are open. Cast inward. What I see is that my spark era has met its natural end. What I feel is, that’s okay. What I think is that next time, I’d prefer a slow burn.
Illustration by Ashley Lukashevsky.

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