(This entry is a continuation of M.J., Part Three.)
After that trip in the early spring of 1983 which his car broke down outside a historic Virginia plantation, it didn’t take me long to figure out what made M. J. tick. The economics professor I’d been dating for most of one semester and the better part of another really only came to life sexually when I showed him contempt.
Unfortunately, we were at a stage of our relationship when that was all too easy for me to do.
For months we’d had a quiet, respectful, and timid relationship in which he’d given me gifts, taken me out to places where the menus hadn’t seen a refreshing since the nineteen-fifties, and subjected me to silent, boring sex under the covers of his bed with the lights off. When his car had ground to a stop and I’d had to handle matters because he was too preoccupied with fretting and fuming and stomping around his econo-box, I’d snapped at him. I’d stomped off to call a tow truck without consulting him. I’d mocked him in front of the tow truck driver. Probably most damning of all, I’d eaten his share of the sympathy cookies the nice lady with the telephone had given me. Right in front of his face. Without even a pretend offer to share.
The result? When we got back to his apartment, M. J. had practically assaulted me in the hallway, he was so overcome with desire and need. When I was easy and pliant, he’s been reserved and a bit clammy. The minute I showed him exactly how little I thought of him, he couldn’t get enough of me.
The following weekend he showed up with a box from the small department store in Merchant’s Square. He gave it to me with an air of expectation, as we sat in the parking lot of the gymnasium at the back of campus. I opened up the green cardboard lid, pulled back the tissue paper, and found myself staring at about three pounds of some of the ugliest wool ever knitted into a sweater. It was of a hue so grape-purple that if I ever pulled it over my head—and there was no way in hell I ever planned to—I would’ve been greeted with cries of Hey! Kool-Aid!
“What is this?” I asked him, appalled.
“It’s a sweater,” he said. “I thought you’d like it.”
“I’m not wearing this,” I told him. “Sorry.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“Because it’s hideous.”
He stared at me, then lunged. We ended up having sex in the back seat, right there in the parking lot.
For a couple more weeks we followed a similar pattern. I finally balked at going to the cafeteria for senior citizens on Richmond Road where all the food was boiled to within an inch of its life before being slopped into the steam trays, and we ended up banging like beasts parked behind the dumpster in back. I told him that if I had to listen to him talk about Reaganomics one more time, I’d fucking blow a gasket, and I ended up getting skull-fucked in a restroom along the Colonial Turnpike at eleven at night.
There was just some twisted part of M. J. that flared to life when I was nasty to him. That incident with the tow truck, though, had tipped him far enough out of my favor that really all I could see were his faults—the tasteful yet ridiculous and unwearable presents he gave me, the old lady kisses he gave me under normal circumstances, the clammy-fish touch of his skin against mine, the weird mole on his penis. The more I focused on those faults, the less I wanted to see of him, and the meaner I was.
Eventually I just stopped seeing him altogether.
That was the idea, anyway. He called one Friday night to tell me he’d be picking me up at our usual time, and I told him that I had something else to do. I didn’t feel compelled to make up a bullshit excuse. I didn’t feel I had to soften the blow that way. I just had something else to do, I said, and thanked him and hung up. The weekend after, I did the same thing. He didn’t even call the third week. I felt secure he’d got the message.
My big problem in my youth was an inability to conceive of confrontation. I’d do anything to avoid it. But here’s the thing: if I’d sat M. J. down and told him that I wasn’t interested in seeing him any more, there would’ve been an argument and then a couple of days of hurt feelings, but very likely it would’ve been over and I could’ve moved on. My method of breaking-up-by-avoidance dragged out for the rest of the semester, and caused months of pain and annoyance and outright anger.
Because what M. J. started doing was to stalk me around campus. Somewhere in the back of his brain, he’d decided that me ignoring him was my attempt to fan the flames of his desire for me; the more he was denied and rebuffed, the more desperately he had to have me.
So when I would turn around and see him following me across the campus, I would roll my eyes and go back to my walking and pretend he wasn’t there—though it was hard to miss him following behind me like a sad, whipped puppy with a loyalty complex. I hoped he’d just ‘get the message.’ He seemed to interpret my scorn as a promise the most explosive sex of his entire life if he’d persist and stalk me harder.
Which he did, relentlessly. He followed me to classrooms at night where I was studying with friends, who would see his bearded face peeking in the door and announce that some weirdo kept looking in. He would follow me to the library on weekends, and stand in the stacks to stare at me mournfully until one of my study buddies would point him out to me. When I was working at the ice cream store where I earned my income, he’d sit in his car, parked in a space outside the big plate glass windows, staring holes through me while I pretended he wasn’t there.
I passed him off for a while as a friend of my parents—but it became pretty obvious, even to my oblivious companions, that no college kid really talked to his parents’ friend that much. They wanted to know why he was following me so much, all the time, all around the clock. They wondered if he was that way about me, a thought they’d usually accompany with titters and embarrassed glances. It had to end.
Eventually it did, in a hissing match outside the door of a classroom in the business building where I was studying right before final exam time. My friends had noted that ‘that weird guy’ was outside again, which caused me to slam shut my books and stomp outside to have it out with M. J. once and for all.
I didn’t want to see him again, I told him. He had to stop following me. He was embarrassing me. My friends all called him ‘that creepy old guy.’ My supervisor at work was on the verge of calling the cops because she thought he was a flasher. All the frustration of several weeks of stalking came spilling out of my lips.
M. J. looked up at me—he was a short man—and said in a plaintive voice, “But I love you!”
And I just shook my head at him, turned on my heel, and stomped away. That was the end of it, for real this time. I never spoke to him again, never saw him. I don’t know what happened to him, other than that his year-long position ended and he moved on to some other university.
When I look back on my life, there are plenty of incidents of which I’m not proud. That encounter nears the top of the list. Rather than hurt someone just a little, in a straight-forward way, I dragged out the pain and the suffering for weeks, and then topped it off as spectacularly as possible by packing in as much hurtfulness into a couple of minutes as I could muster. I still hear that cry of astonishment—But I love you!—in my nightmares. It haunts me.
M. J. didn’t love me. He might have convinced himself that he did, simply because it justified all the relentless pursuit in which he indulged when I started spurning him. Even when we had been dating and engaging in zestless sex, he’d never mentioned love, or any emotion stronger than a hunger for cafeteria fare or peanut soup. I didn’t love him, either. Toward the end, I didn’t even like him.
He still deserved better, though. If we learn more from the ways we err than the ways we succeed, my time with M. J. was an education. If I could, I’d tell him I was sorry. Sorry for being a know-it-all of eighteen; sorry for being so untaught about the ways people communicated outside of the bedroom. Sorry for being a total dick, certainly.
Neither of us were particularly what the other was looking for. We could have found some common ground, however, if I’d been a little less inept at meeting a challenge head-on. I wish I’d been man enough then to try it.