Before I get into this post, I want to make two caveats and a philosophical point.
The first caveat is that I think it a very bad idea for women to tell stories of men who were bad to them, especially to other men. These stories should be told to best friends, confessors and therapists, but not to eligible men. I am telling this story because I am married now, and B.A. vaguely knows the one-line version anyway.
The second caveat is that I think men are the caffeine in the cappuccino of life, so please nobody think that I am a manhater because I am not. I can spend whole quarters of an hour staring at a handsome man before he gets mad and demands, "What?" Occasionally I bake men pies and things. Men are often great fun, and if they are boring, one can think about something else, nodding occasionally and murmuring, "Gracious!"
The philosophical point is that straw can be spun into gold, if by straw you mean a painful experience and by gold you mean a nugget of precious wisdom you can take from the experience to help other people. The gold nugget of this story is that I learned what kind of woman I did not want to be. Another gold nugget, that I did not realize until later, is that our enemies can help us as much as our friends.
Once upon a time, I dated a bad hat. I met him in church a few years after being introduced to him and his girlfriend. His girlfriend was 10 years older than him and thus 11 years older than me. They had been together for years but, after a lot of fighting about why he would not move in with her, they took a break.
When I saw him in church, I was very much hoping to find a NCB with a good education. And lo, there was a man in church whom I knew to have a good education. Ascertaining--I forget how--that he was no longer with his long-term older girlfriend, I asked him out to my favourite restaurant.
At the restaurant, he told me all about himself and I listened to barely a word. I had it in my head that this good-looking man was the NCB I was looking for, and when the Bad Hat said that he had a drinking problem, I decided that he was exaggerating. Drinking problems did not fit in with my plans. When the Bad Hat told me that he was a bad guy, and gave me a few examples that would turn your hair grey, I decided that he was reformed. Reformed sinner could fit in with my plans. I was not rooted in reality back then.
The Bat Hat was rather charmed with my rosy-eyed view of him, especially as his ex-girlfriend despised him. (She wanted him, but she despised him.) Also, as I later realized, there was no better way for him to torture his ex-girlfriend than to date someone under 30. She was 40 and thought she was past baby-having age, and this made her feel absolutely terrible. She had been very beautiful as a younger woman and feared aging, especially aging alone.
Well, to skip over my rapid descent into co-dependency and to turn a novel-worthy psychodrama into a mere blogpost, I eventually told the Bad Hat that I would not marry him unless he went to AA. He went straight back to his ex-girlfriend. After a delightful night, he came to visit me and told me all about it. I threw him out, and then he spent a delightful weekend at his re-girlfriend's cottage. I went almost out of my mind.
In the course of our relationship, in which the Bat Hat had told me an awful lot about his ex (now re-), I had learned some secrets he had been very careful that she not find out. So I decided to enlighten her. I called her up and invited her out for tea. This was, I hasten to point out, years before I went to theology school.
On the day of our tea, I went to the hairdresser and had my hair put into two neat new braids. I had my nails coloured, I believe, "Pistol-packing pink." I won't say I looked twelve, but I was channeling twelve. I looked as young and dewy as an vengeful almost-30 divorcee can look. And then I went out to tea, terrified.
SHE arrived, slim in blue jeans, long brown hair barely touched with grey. I was super-slim myself back then, but if you put her at 40 and me at 40 together, she would win the beauty contest, that's for sure. Along with being slim and beautiful, she had a successful career and her own house and admiring colleagues, and all that I, at 29, thought I would ever want. She also had my now ex-boyfriend, too.
I ordered tea. She ordered a glass of wine. And as soon as she ordered the wine, I realized that she was terrified. I am not sure why. Maybe being summoned to tea by the 29 year old ex-girlfriend of your boyfriend is in itself terrifying. Or maybe she was torn between hating my guts and pitying me as a mere child. At any rate, she was rattled and she ordered wine.
It was a long conversation. I wrote it all down as soon as I got home, and no doubt it still lingers in a box somewhere across the ocean. I showed it to a very wise friend, and the very wise friend was angered by it and said, "She was patronizing you."
However, I don't remember that. What I remember is that she told me I could do better than she could when it came to men.
"You're not even thirty, are you?" she demanded.
I shook my head.
She explained how old she was and how she couldn't expect to find anyone better than the Bad Hat, and she had dated another man on their break, but the Bat Hat was better-looking and younger and although he was a bad man she was willing to put up with that.
The Bad Hat was not just an alcoholic. The Bad Hat was also someone who said, in an astonishing confession, "I like to hurt the people who love me." So when I say he was a bad man, and I report that she said he was a bad man, I am not making that up. It's a statement of fact.
So I sat across the table at this beautiful, successful older woman who thought she couldn't do better than a self-loathing, person-hurting, bad man-alcoholic, and I thought, "I don't want to be her when I'm forty."
And when she got up to go, she said, "I want you to remember this conversation when you're my age, and try to understand what it was like for me to talk to you like this."
Well, I'm her age now. I don't have her looks or her career or her success, but I could not care less because there is no way in God's little green earth that I would be romantically involved with an alcoholic, let alone an alcoholic who was also a bad man.
It isn't the high point of my life that the twenty-something girls who show up occasionally to our Mass are prettier than me. And, sure, reading fertility stuff is not my idea of a good time. But I rarely was the best looking girl in the room when I was 29 (as far as I know) and I don't think being fertility-challeged at 40 is a massive tragedy. A little sad, sure, but not a tragedy. And, above all, I respect the man I'm with. He's a good man. A very good man. And I know perfectly well that if I couldn't have a good man, I'd rather not have any man at all.
I suppose she found it humiliating. And if so, I'm sorry. She could have turned down my tea invitation, but she didn't. She also could have kicked her ex-boyfriend to the kerb when he came crawling back, but she didn't. I did; she didn't. And that, not age, not fertility, was the biggest difference between us.
A few years later, I was in a different city. I was toddling down the street when, through the glass door of a restaurant, I saw the Bad Hat's back. If you are ever in love with someone, no matter how badly it ends, you will know his back when you see it. It was definitely him, and he was at a table with an old woman. My heart banged in that uncomfortable, embarrassed, outraged way it does when you see an ex-boyfriend, and the old woman looked up.
It wasn't an old woman. It was her. She looked like hell. Four, five more years of the Bad Hat had etched themselves on her face.
I've been ditched for much older women twice. Both times I wept and raged and carried on. And both times I lived to bless the names of the women who replaced me. They struggled for years with a man's alcoholism. Perhaps they both took bullets for me.