Just a short time ago, I watched a new television show for the first time. Love Prison is the delightfully-named new reality show that airs on some channel – I have no idea which one since I wasn’t wielding the remote – in which two people who met online and have been corresponding for an extended period of time finally meet.
Each person is greeted separately by a stoic-looking woman who introduces herself as one of the producers of the show. She hands over a typed set of rules to the hopeful participant and she refuses to crack a smile while the list is read out loud so the viewers at home get an opportunity to hear that these two people will be shoved into a house on an island and that they will only get one hour a day of “yard time.” The rest of their stay is confined to the indoors.
Everything will be recorded.
Not one of these people confronted by an asshole with a low-level production title bails on the experience. Not one of them dives off the dock and swims for safer shores.
The two arrive separately, ferried over to the house that the show lovingly calls “a prison,” and after it is revealed that there is a giant bunk bed for later slumber, eventually the two meet.
It’s always awkward at first. These are two people who have communicated only online, by text, and by phone, so the first encounter rings with a strangeness that makes sense. The exploration of their cell, decorated shabbily by a production designer who I’d bet has just snagged her first job out of college, allows the two to interact a little, but there’s still a weirdness to the whole thing.
As the hours and the days pass by, it begins to become clear if the two people will actually start to like one another in a real way. Eventually, one of them gets off his or her bunk and straddles whoever has chosen the bunk bed below. And all seems great until a television screen that has never been turned on flickers with static in the other room and out pours text and footage of each of the people’s lives that is designed to raise questions and concerns for the other.
See, there are no secrets in Love Prison. Love Prison is just like life – you know, where nobody ever keeps secrets.
There was so much to be confused by as I watched the show for the first time, but the one thing I could not get over was that here were two people who had been in touch with each other for a long period of time. They felt like they really knew each other. They texted one another several times a day and had been doing so for months and months. And still, it would take some of them two days to finally kiss? What the fuck?
Now, my intense reaction to the prudish (or cautious if you’re a prude) participants was most certainly influenced by the fact that I had an experience very similar to the one being televised. Sure, there were some key differences: I wasn’t forced to stay indoors. I wasn’t being filmed. And I hadn’t signed a release form giving a production company and eventually a network license to manipulate my image in any way they saw fit.
Oh, and I wasn’t stuck in a poorly furnished shack. I was in the W at Union Square.
Jim and I met online. I had just joined a dating site, which made me feel an odd and uncomfortable mixture of freaked out and nauseated, but I was comforted by the fact that at least it wasn’t JDate. I might be Jewish, but I seem to not have the genetic makeup that allows me to be attracted to Jewish guys. I sometimes wonder if the gene I lack is also what prohibits me from doing math or knowing geography, but I think that gene is just one of intelligence that I’m missing.
I’d be better at figuring all of that out, but I once failed Science.
The site I joined had a strange layout. Pictures popped up of guys who lived very far away, even though I’d programmed my zip code in the right way. But one guy’s face would appear on the top of the page almost every time I signed on, and eventually, liking his smile which made it seem like he was both confident and a wee bit arrogant (dear lord: what is wrong with me that this is what I am attracted to?), I checked him out.
He was cute.
He had good teeth.
He wore tees that looked like they would be soft to the touch.
He listed “Kerouac” under his interests.
And he lived in Buffalo.
Buffalo? Where in the hell was Buffalo? I mean, I knew it was in New York and I knew that it snowed a lot there and I knew they had a football team that never won, but how far away were we talking about? Three hours? Four?
I wrote to him anyway: Why are there no cute boys on Long Island who list Kerouac as an interest?
I pressed send and forgot about it. I also began to forget about the fact that this site would bring me true love, as it just seemed complicated and incredibly annoying that every guy who had ever ingested a steroid apparently looked at my picture and decided I was a soulmate.
About an hour later, my phone made that ping sound that told me I had an email, and there it was, sent directly to my regular email account through the dating site.
It was Jim.
I’m flattered – and you’re gorgeous, he wrote. And then he asked me where the town I lived in was located.
I went online and looked at a map. Turns out, unless I moved to Montauk, I actually couldn’t live any farther from Buffalo if I tried. It would take about eight hours to get there by car. And so, the relationship was over before it started.
Except it wasn’t. We stayed in touch by email. It wasn’t flirty, not then. It was just communication and the two of us telling funny stories about our lives to each other. He was smart and he told a story well, something I appreciate like other girls appreciate good calf muscles on a guy.
I liked him. He was the first person I liked in a long time.
And he lived in Buffalo.
We moved from emailing on the site to emailing each other directly. We started to send each other pictures of ourselves. I asked him politely not to send cock shots, which I think confused him, but he complied with my wishes. And I wondered who that moronic girl was who had apparently told a crowd of men that women enjoyed seeing random pictures of dicks sent over text or through email.
In the very beginning, I would sometimes read his emails to my best friend.
He sounds like he was created in a laboratory just for you, she said once with a laugh. It sucks that he lives so far away.
I went to the first Jets game of the season and, when I got to my seats right on the 50-yard line, I turned my face to the sun and my stepfather snapped a picture of me. I sent it to Jim while I was still at the game.
You are truly beautiful, he wrote back. And then he told me that his team had lost that day.
We started to text one another a few months later. We still had not heard each other’s voices. And weirdly, I was so emotionally guarded at that point that I was okay with how this strange relationship was evolving in infant steps.
One night, late, I got a text from him. I was washing my face and trying to remove glittery eye shadow with a q-tip when I heard the text come in.
I yearn to meet you, he wrote, and he didn’t strike me as the kind of guy who typically used words like that.
That’s very sweet, I responded. Quick question: is this alcohol-induced yearning?
There was a pause between texts and I felt kind of rude for not just smiling and feeling excited by his words.
No. I’ve actually only had one drink tonight, he responded, and I sent him back a smiley face.
It was December when we finally made plans to meet. We had by that point been in touch for about five months. I had been seeing other people here and there and so had he, but we never talked about that side of our lives. That part seemed separate, and if I had learned anything in my life, I had learned to compartmentalize my feelings.
It’s a quality that once felt like a skill. Now it just strikes me that it’s me skillfully lying to myself.
But back to the planning: he was going to come to me. For three days. And that, of course, meant that I would have to start using my elliptical for something other than hanging spangly skirts off of.
There are some things I am just good at, and being a hostess is one of them. I will always make sure you feel comfortable. I will stock my refrigerator with food you like to eat. I will clean enough so that your very first impression will not be that I am the kind of girl you could never live with.
I realized that I had to work the day he was coming in. And I couldn’t take off that day because it was right around the end of the semester and my students had films due.
So I made a new plan. Jim would come into the city and I would meet him there after work. We would stay at a hotel that night and play in the city the next day. Then we would drive back to Long Island and go to an Islander/Sabres game that he had gotten us tickets for. Late on Sunday he would head home.
I booked a room at the W because I love their beds and I had basically grown up in Union Square. As this was an experience far out of my comfort zone – meeting essentially a stranger in a hotel room like I was a hooker – I decided that hotel room should be located on the streets where I felt most myself. Jim liked the plan – shocking, since we were meeting in a hotel room, which almost guaranteed that he’d get laid – and it was on.
In the weeks before we finally would meet, we began to speak on the phone. He was easy to talk to and the time would pass quickly.
You have a very cute voice, he told me, but I still wished that my voice wasn’t little or cute, and I wish that still today. It doesn’t match the rest of my personality – and that really pisses me off.
The day we met, I drove to the city after work. At one point, at that spot in Queens where there is always traffic, I felt like I was going to throw up and thought that my only option would be to do it in my purse. I was so nervous that I almost turned around and went home, or at least I thought about it. This was the message I thought I could leave on his voicemail to explain my absence: Hey! You can check into the hotel. I put it under both of our names. Have a great time in the city! If you meet a girl in Fashion P.R., tell her you have money and she’ll almost certainly go home with you. Sorry I didn’t make it, but I died.
I’m sad to say that the only reason I didn’t leave that message was because I wasn’t sure that his voicemail would pick up, and I couldn’t very well tell a real voice that I had faked my own death, so on I drove.
I arrived at the hotel. He had already checked in. The man at the desk gave me a key. I thanked him and then I turned back around.
If this is weird, I’m really sorry. But how do I look? Is the lipstick too much? Is this top too low-cut? Can you tell that I’m not wearing a bra?
The guy wasn’t ruffled in the least. A slow smile spread across his face.
All of you looks amazing, he said, and though I normally might have been creeped out by that, I almost hugged him in the moment.
Some elevator rides take forever. This one didn’t. I was up on our floor in a second and walking to the room. I put my key card in the door, and there, lying on the bed, was the man I had been speaking to for about six months.
I remember kind of flinging my bag and my coat onto the floor next to his bags that had been placed there neatly and the two of us hugging.
I remember telling him that I was nervous and he said that he was too.
I remember looking around and saying I expected the room to be bigger like the W I had stayed at all the way downtown, and I saw that he thought the room was luxurious.
I remember that I was all but naked in about an hour.
Now, I’m not the kind of girl who shimmies off her clothing at a moment’s notice with some random guy. Frankly, my life might have been a little bit more fun if I had embraced my sluttier side, but that was never me. But I didn’t feel like I was with a stranger. I felt like I was with somebody I had really gotten to know and had built an attraction with. And it wasn’t until later on when we got dressed and went to grab dinner that I thought, I had sex with this guy before I had a meal with him.
That’s why the whole Love Prison thing confused me. Now, I get that the fact that they knew they were being filmed might have been one reason for their inhibitions to take hold, but what, pray-tell, do you think will happen when you sign on for a reality show? Do you not consider the ever-present cameras? And even if you choose to maintain your pretend-chastity, why are you not kissing the person who has become central to your world over the last bunch of months?
Or is it me who is weird and these Love Prisoners are the ones who are normal? I’m really pleased to say I couldn’t give a single fuck about the answer to that one.
Jim and I were together for a year. I knew I really cared for him when I flew to Buffalo in the depths of February. The flight was so quick that I think I read a grand total of one chapter of a book. He met me at the airport and I remember that he just smiled when he saw my face.
He took me everywhere, and every place we went, I ate something new. Fun fact: the first time I ever ate a buffalo wing was in Buffalo. It’s not that I hadn’t been curious before, but I couldn’t stand the sight of people eating them. The gnawing. The licking of fingers. The orange color in the corners of mouths. All of it: gross. But my affection for Jim was reaffirmed when, not only did I eat wings in front of him, but watching him eat them didn’t make me wish I that I suffered from glaucoma.
He was the kind of guy who liked to do a lot. I thought it was very sweet that he had made all of these plans while I was there, but the real truth is that almost nothing brings me more happiness than lying in bed and watching television with someone I can sometimes undress. But off we went, every single day of my five-day trip, sightseeing, walking around, drinking, and eating more than I had in a year.
Is he your boyfriend? asked one of my best friends at work.
Yeah, I replied. I think he is.
There are certain things you long for in terms of love – or at least things that I long for – and an eight-hour physical separation is not one of them. Long-distance was one thing when I was in college, and even then, when I was being supremely honest with myself, it was a thing I regretted being a part of because distance sucks. Distance churns up things inside of you like loneliness, like fears, like probable infidelity. But this guy was just that good, and I was willing to hop on a road I’d never been on and head for the destination of who-the-fuck-knows-where-this-is-going-so-perhaps-I-should-just-try-to-enjoy-the-ride.
And I’m still glad that I did.
We saw each other a lot. It was not enough, but it was a lot. Normally it was me who went to him, but I didn’t mind that. I liked going to Buffalo. I felt like I was on vacation. I even made myself believe that Buffalo could, in any realm, be an actual place to vacation.
Sometimes I flew, but as the summer rolled in, I began to drive there. I took Wookie with me. She would recline on the front passenger seat and I would walk her when I stopped to fill up my tank. Somewhere around hour six of our journey my eyes would start to blur and my back would begin to tense up. But I would drive on and I would tumble out of the car hours later, and Jim would be there to hoist the bag that was filled entirely with shoes over his shoulder while shaking his head and laughing that I did that eight-hour drive in stilettos.
What can I say? I liked getting out of the car looking sexy. Only later would I realize that I could drive in flip flops and stop off on a side street right before I got to his house to put the good shoes on, to fluff my hair and apply my lip-gloss.
That’s the kind of knowledge that comes with experience.
Also the kind of thing that comes with experience? The understanding that someone’s ex-girlfriend, a girl he used to live with, should probably not be his very best friend. I was open to the idea that maybe they were simply just great friends, but the moment I met her that idea shriveled up before my cautious eyes.
We were going to see Pearl Jam, a band I loved and had never seen live. One of the people he invited to join us was the mother of his ex-girlfriend, a woman he was incredibly close to, and I thought it was sweet that their bond was strong. That said, I am really respectful of boundaries, and I told him that I didn’t want to make this woman uncomfortable by being there in the role of his girlfriend.
I was told not to worry in the least.
The mother was not physically well, so we went to pick her up. We literally drove down roads inhabited only by tractors and ended up at an actual farm. Seriously: there was a pig.
There was also an ex-girlfriend. As we arrived, I saw a cute little dog scampering about and I said, Oh good! She has a dog! I liked to play with and pet any dog I came across, and only hoped later on that the dog was not rabid. This dog was not, but it was also not the mother’s.
It belonged to his ex.
I turned to him with a smile on my face and saw that he was pale and then I looked into the pen where the ponies were kept (there were fucking ponies) and saw a girl just a few years younger than me brushing the animal’s tail and looking nervous but trying to look smug.
Looks like I’m meeting your ex-girlfriend, I said cheerfully, and I hopped out of the car and walked directly towards her. I stopped to introduce myself to her mother, who was very warm and welcoming, and then the little dog ran up to me and jumped, so I easily swung him into my arms. When that dog licked me sweetly on the nose, I saw the girl’s expression harden in a way that might have very well been quantifiable.
Hi, I’m Nell, I said to her. It’s nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.
She barely glanced up at me, focusing on that pony’s tail like the secrets of the world were weaved through it – or perhaps a trap door that would spring open and send me plunging into dark nothingness and away from her mother’s farm, her shih tzu, and her ex-boyfriend, who she clearly wasn’t over.
Here was my immediate thought process in the moment, and it came to me fluidly, already perfectly formed:
· I didn’t know Jim when they had been together.
· I was not the reason for their break-up.
· If they wanted to be friends, I was okay with that choice.
· If she had put herself into this unenviable position that she probably thought of as strategy, that was fine with me. I thought it was weird, but it was what the moment had become, so let’s do this, sweetheart. Because we are only going to have the awkward first meeting of the ex-girlfriend and the current girlfriend once, and you’ve chosen for it to be now.
I stood there at the fence where she had enclosed herself with the ponies and waited until she looked up and engaged with me. I would not fucking move. I would not allow her to make me feel awkward about a situation that she had created. And I was actually willing to try to be friends.
She finally spoke to me and when we left, I waved goodbye to her in a friendly way.
By that point, Jim was pretending that he wasn’t internally comatose, but I ignored that part. It takes a full emotional-leveling to get me that comatose, and this situation wasn’t nearly enough to put me there.
But I gave the girl credit for her attempt.
The relationship that Jim and I created moved along nicely. We moved from the summer into the autumn, and all of a sudden it was winter again. We had held hands through all four seasons, and I started to think about maybe moving to Buffalo. It would be a tremendous risk. I had a dream job, but I also knew that a job wasn’t enough for me anymore – a realization that was new for me. For a long while, it had felt like enough.
I didn’t feel so tied to Long Island. I had friends who lived everywhere, and the ones I loved I knew I would stay in touch with. I had parents who whisk away to Florida like other parents go to the dry cleaner. I knew they’d visit, no matter where I lived. And I knew that if there were a teaching job available in Buffalo, I’d get that job. That confidence in my career abilities never fluctuated, even as my confidence in other areas did.
I liked Jim’s friends. They added me on Facebook and welcomed me into their lives. His best guy friend and I would text each other sometimes. His father was lovely, and I didn’t only like him so much because he would often call me stunning, though that didn’t hurt either.
There was also the best fast-food taco place in Buffalo with better tacos than anywhere else in the world, except for a place I found around me years later.
All hail Salsa Salsa.
I started resolving that I would be moving away at some point soon. I actually bought snow boots with only a tiny wedge heel. It took me almost a full year to make that purchase. To this day, it’s the only footwear I own that doesn’t have a heel.
But all throughout the good times, the ex-girlfriend was always there. She would drop by on a summer afternoon to meet my dog.
Is she blind? she asked me.
Nope, I responded with a smile, thinking, I will scratch your eyes right out on this lawn if you insult my dog or her corneas.
She showed up for his parties. She texted him while I was there. And I always acted like it didn’t bother me because I sort of understood her fears. Here’s the thing, and I’m gonna say it plainly: I’m fucking competition. If you’re going to see who your ex-boyfriend is newly dating, you don’t want to walk in and see me. I’m smart. I can hang anywhere and with anyone. And, bad hair days aside, I’m really pretty. I was this girl’s worst nightmare, but it wouldn’t have been a nightmare if she were really over him.
And it wouldn’t have become my own nightmare if he were really over her.
He wasn’t, and it eventually became clear. I could not understand her hold over him, but I knew that it was cloaked in history and in memory. They had known each other since they were about twenty years old. They were attached.
I saw the undeniable connection they still shared on the night of his Ugly Christmas Sweater party, a theme I didn’t fully understand. Who wants to look ugly, even ironically? Look: I’ll play along. I bought a hideous sweater on eBay, but I made sure it was a cardigan and tossed it over a dress that made me look like a drunken and whorish Mrs. Claus. The dress was short and it flared out right above my thigh and I looked great. His ex-girlfriend showed up in a horrifyingly ugly Christmas sweater, nicely following directions, and she wore it over a turtleneck. A turtleneck. It was December and I was all but naked, and she was wearing a turtleneck.
And across a crowded room I watched his eyes find hers.
We broke up in January. It was terrible. The light outside would only last for a few hours and it kept me in a state of what felt like permanent darkness. He was never able to come right out and tell me that he was still in love with his ex-girlfriend, who populated his life with far more regularity the moment she got her first look at me, but I knew that’s what it was about.
I felt like I had been lied to and shoved into scenarios with a person he took pains to say he didn’t care about romantically anymore. That really hurt.
I did the normal break-up things; I’m not all that unique sometimes, though when I live like a cliché, I think that a piece of me dies. Still, I spent a few weeks eating nothing and then a few weeks eating everything. I spent a long time on the phone with my friends, who I hope did something like file their fingernails while listening to me say the same sad words over and over again for a week. I flew down to Florida with my friend Nicole and tried to pretend that I was happy and that the sun beating down was good for me, but one day I broke and sat sobbing outside the golf course on a cement curb. I went out and met new guys. I still texted with Jim.
A bunch of years have passed by now, and I don’t regret any of it anymore except for how long it took me to get over the pain. The feelings I used to have – the love and the anger – have faded into a pale pink shade of affection. I wish him and his wife well, and I don’t mind anymore that she probably spent a year sticking sharpened pins into a voodoo doll that greatly resembled me, though I do sometimes wonder if maybe that’s why sometimes I have such bad cramps.
None of it matters anymore.
During the last date I went on, the guy pulled into a gas station.
Want me to get out and pump? I asked him with a grin.
He laughed and got out of the car and started pumping gas. And the purse that was on my lap began to vibrate and I reached my hand into the depths of the leather and I pulled out my phone and I saw a text from Jim. We had been chatting infrequently about how it would soon be hockey season.
When I saw the text I felt nothing. I figured I’d write him back at some point, but even if I didn’t, it wouldn’t really matter to either of us. When I gazed out the car window and saw the other guy, that’s when I felt a flutter.
I have not been back to Buffalo in many years. I missed it at first – a lot. But I know it’s not the actual place that I missed or the wings that I ate when I was there or even that taco place, though holy shit, those were some insanely good tacos. It was the present I thought I had and the future that I thought I wanted.
That it all didn’t work out the way I expected it would is actually a very good thing. Jim is happy and he has the life he probably should have had all along. And me? I’m happy too. I grew up and I learned a lot and I made long road trips on my own and I survived a broken heart and I entertained having a whole other kind of life, which I think is something that takes great courage.
And I have a great pair of snow boots.