At 14, I began my journey down the long, emotionally hazardous road that is Dating.
Thinking all I needed was an intoxicating perfume, a terrifying amount of hormones coursing through my bloodstream and a big smile plastered on my face, I was in for a rude awakening, when at 14, my first boyfriend and I broke up. Red and swollen, my young eyes got their first look at reality: Love hurts.
That's when the lectures started. The Czarina, ever the stoic, encouraged me to play hard to get. She bought me both volumes of The Rules, and practically quizzed me on their contents. For the most part, she managed to convince me (brainwash me?) that playing hard to get can serve as Heartbreak Insurance. Or at the very least, Dignity Preservation.
"You see?" she said, in a tone of voice usually reserved for elementary school teachers. "If you don't act interested, he won't think you are, and that will make him want you more. And if you date other people and only see him once in a while, it's more difficult to get all wrapped up in one guy, anyway. It really is the way to do it, honey. Do you see how it can prevent you from feeling like this in the future?"
I looked up at her, sniffed, wiped the tears off my cheek and nodded. Anything to prevent going through this again sounded like a great idea to me. Despite some initial questions and misgivings, I embraced this concept with open arms, hanging on every word and explanation coming from my mother's mouth. Wanting to show her I was a serious student of the methodology, I vowed to become Ice Princess -- The Czarina was Ice Queen, so it was only fitting that I be her protege. After all, I was lucky enough to live with a Master-- between the years of 1963 and 1976, she dated approximately 80% of the single men on the Eastern Seaboard, and several hundred more during her year abroad in London. Or so it seemed to me.
Did I believe in the philosophy? Yes.
Did I always follow it? No.
Alas, my dream of being crowned Ice Princess was not to be. As if my extreme shyness was not enough of a hindrance, I failed to attract the same level of male attention that my mother did. So practicing these tactics was difficult. Which means, I never really got very good at them. I can't do math, but I would guess that over my dating lifetime, I average one boyfriend every three years. I remember 2000 and 2003 as being Entirely Dateless Years, actually. My average relationship length is about 6 months. I'm not complaining, just trying to illustrate to you the difference between my dating history and my mother's. A heartbreaker I never was.
If we were Shakespearean characters, she would play Lady Macbeth, and I would be Juliet Capulet, complete with the tragic end due to an unfortunate misunderstanding and lack of communication with her intended. I was fairly hopeless. But this never stopped me from striving for Ice Princess perfection. I have always trusted The Rules and the philosophy behind Hard to Get. I just need more practice.
After being adrift in the Ocean of Singledom for long stretches of time, I have to admit that spotting a piece of Potential Dating Real Estate on the horizon can send me into a tizzy. And when I finally get my feet on the malleable soil of a New Relationship Island and walk ashore to find a potential paradise of happiness and acceptance, I have a tendency to be more grateful and excited than anything else. No more swimming alone! This person likes that I'm here! Woo-Hoo! Let's do cartwheels!!
This is, of course, not how an Ice Princess behaves. So to put it bluntly, when presented with the opportunity to play Hard to Get, I would, more often than not, eff it up. Royally.
Upon the inevitable breakup and sobbing hysterically on the phone to The Czarina, I receive the same lecture I've been getting since 1996: stop showing and telling them you care and start playing hard to get or else you will have to keep going through this. Emotional investment only gets you hurt. Let him make the emotional investment in you. Men don't stay with you because you bake them yummy cookies. They stay with you because you are elusive and they can never get you. You need to stop being so gushy... [there's another 45 minutes to this lecture, but I won't bore you with the details. I'm sure you can guess how it goes.]
Every argument I make against playing hard to get is met with a solid and indisputable rebuttal on The Czarina's behalf. Every one of these phone calls ends with me conceding defeat and acknowledging that yes, she is always right, especially when it comes to romance. And her credentials back it up: a very happy marriage of almost 30 years, several proposals from different men and one legendary year when (at age 18 or so) she had a date every Friday and Saturday night.
How can I not listen to her? Not only is she my mom, who loves me, but the woman is a master at getting men to fall all over themselves for her. She knows what she's talking about! And I have nothing but a train wreck of a relationship resume. After dating for 15 years, I often feel I have learned nothing.
Women who can maintain emotional distance, put up walls and possess the ability to be cold fish amaze me. I look at them as though they are Wonder Women -- that's how foreign it is to me. They are these mechanical, robotic Bionic Women. Cold, unfeeling, unaffected, strong and protected. They are safe from the bullets of heartache. They are wearing impenetrable vests of aloofness. And men seem to love it.
Meanwhile, I am running down a hillside, a la Maria Von Trapp, singing about how wonderful love is as I twirl around picking flowers and petting bunny rabbits. My internal dialogue is reminiscent of Sally Field's Academy Award acceptance speech. I am vulnerable, warm, eager and emotional. When the Heartbreak Mafia come to town, I am mowed down over and over again like a victim of the St. Valentine's Day massacre. So while I am aware of my faults, I still have a hard time denying my true nature: I'm a gusher, dammit. I wear my heart on my sleeve, for the most part, and I probably always will, for better or for worse.
It's like we are a modern-day American version of Sense & Sensibility.
As much as I wish I could be The Czarina and deny a man for a YEAR (as she did to my poor father, who only wanted to take her to lunch!), I think we all know I could never do this.
In fact, if you know me in real life, just the mental image of me actually saying "No, thanks," to anyone I'm remotely interested in should have you laughing so hard, you fall right out of your chair.
Even The Czarina is starting to give up on me. "You're just too much like your father," she's started to say.
After many painful breakups, I can say that maintaining emotional distance is starting to come more naturally to me. In fact, I'm starting to become really good at it: I am now petrified of developing feelings in the first place. I am uncomfortable with "getting to know someone". The thought of kissing someone for whom I have an emotional attachment leaves my knees shaking--and not in the butterflies-in-your-stomach good way. It's similar to that pit you get inside of you when you are on a rollercoaster--a sickening feeling. This has not been a conscious choice on my part. I did not have an epiphany or some new appreciation for playing Hard to Get. This has been a Darwinian adaptation. I simply cannot go through another painful breakup. It would kill me, I think. Or at least send me running towards the nearest bottle of Prozac.
So for a while, now, I have decided to take a little vacation from romantic emotions. It's been easy, being alone: no emotional hurricanes or disappointment in my travels. Just smooth sailing, with the occasional port-of-call in such exotic locations as One Night Stand, Flings, Harmless Crush and Bad Dates.
These places serve as re-fueling spots, providing me with a hint of what real relationships are like, without much of a downside. I linger long enough to feel like a desirable woman, and then...I get a taste of relationship in my mouth, and I run back to the safety of my Single Girl Man-o-War, fleeing from the flood of bad memories and pessimistic premonitions. Emotions can drown me. It's safer and easier to just stay alone, high and dry, on my ship. And so, that's where I've been for a while.
But along came Cute Neighbor. Armed with dimples and the ability to make me laugh, his relaxed and spontaneous ways have caught me off guard and unprepared. The Wannabe Ice Princess is still ingrained in me, but I can feel her slowly melting away with every conversation I have with him. I can tell he's being open and honest with me -- so if he's not playing any games, why should I? I haven't won a game of Hard to Get yet, so maybe it's time to just stop playing and start being myself. Maybe all this time, it's been the rules that have held me back.
I don't know why suddenly, I'm abandoning the only dating mantra I've ever believed in. Maybe I'm tired of the same ending, and realize that unless something changes, it will happen again. Maybe I feel I have nothing to lose. Maybe he's allowing me to trust again. Maybe The Rules are antiquated in this day and age. Maybe I'm just exhausted from artificially maintaining distance and calculating my next Ice Princess move.
Whatever the reason, I'm not ready to let down my anchor quite yet, but I am looking forward to exploring this one. I've just got to get my land legs back. Because right now, I'm a little shaky.