I emerged from the ruins of an eight-year monogamous relationship ready to date—like, feral. My vibrant city of San Francisco was teeming with hot boys, hot girls, and hot girls who looked like hot boys. I spied them at my usual haunts—the literary readings where I performed my stories, the recovery meetings where I bared my sober-alcoholic soul. I felt like a crazed wolf gazing out at these sweetly grazing mammals. Concerned friends urged me to take some time off (a month, six months, a year). But I knew I was not that girl—the girl who does a cleanse instead of looking for a hookup.
So I called my best gay boyfriend and asked him how to get my game back. "You gotta be ready to get rejected," Lee said. A simple piece of advice, and profound enough that it stuck with me through the next four years of falling in and out of love. My dating blitz was wild, fun, humiliating, exhilarating, and very educational. However, the novelty of my bed being a lazy Susan wore thin. I had poor impulse control when it came to sex and romance. If dating was a game, I needed some rules.
One rule was: Beware sex. I mistook my first post-relationship romance for True Love instead of what it was—hot sex with a sociopath. I was so out of my mind with the tsunami of dopamine this Johnny Depp look-alike provoked in my nervous system that I ignored a ton of red flags. After our demise, I realized that having off-the-rails sexual chemistry is not necessary for a stable relationship: The off-the-rails-ness of it is actually detrimental.
Second: No depressed people. Regard, for instance, the boyfriend who took me on a yacht that sailed down the French Riviera. I thought it would be the time of my life. Instead, I spent my days dashing into bathrooms to cry tears of anxiety and disappointment. I could tell his moody cruelties stemmed from the dark cloud of depression hanging over his well-coiffed head, and while that elicited my compassion, it didn't change the fact that someone whose untreated mood disorder is powerful enough to ruin a Mediterranean cruise is not fit to be dating anyone.
Relationships like these siphon your self-esteem, and I wanted off this merry-go-round! I'd always believed there was someone out there capable of the same level of openness and kindness that I was. Someone who was Marriage Material.
A little less than a year after Cruise Dude, I found myself at a fundraising benefit. My friends were talking to a sparse group of people I didn't know. One of these strangers walked over. She was striking: pale skin and switchblade cheekbones sharp enough to have sliced the part into her perfect 1950s hairdo. She asked if the seat beside me was taken, and when I said no, she folded her lanky frame into the chair and struck up a conversation. I was charmed by her sweetness. She absolutely did not have that dark cloud I'd mistaken as sexy for so long.
On our first date, Dashiell told me that she loved her job. This was astounding. I dated artists, for whom jobs were the necessary evil that paid the bills while keeping them away from their life's true purpose. Dashiell was a…businessperson. I had seen them on TV! They were mostly dads, or women from the '80s with shoulder pads. I tried not to hold it against Dashiell that she loved her businessperson job so much. I'd just see how things went with this strange creature.
Over dinner, I'd found Dashiell wholesome enough to be positively exotic. That I liked her, too, seemed not only a romantic boon, but a sign that all the work I was doing was paying off. I'd been training myself to be attracted to someone who was generally well-adjusted, and it appeared that this was happening! Now I just needed to make sure we liked kissing. We talked a bit outside my house, and then I made the move. Improving on my traditional seduction ("Wanna make out?"), I simply went in for the kiss—a swoony, dizzy, knee-weakening, dopamine-releasing makeout. I totally wanted to club her over the head and drag her up to my lair, but I didn't. I had devised a new rule: No sex until the third date.
I'd never thought about pacing in a relationship before. I was always so spun out on chemical cravings that I wanted everything to happen all at once. It was sort of delightful to be stretching out our dates: no crazy texting, no seeing each other every single day. Having a proper courtship. We'd both been in relationships with mean or unstable people and wanted to take our time.
A little less than a year after we'd started dating, Dashiell moved into my apartment. Six months after that, she surprised me with a jewelry box. When I slid open the final drawer, I found a diamond ring. I blinked, as if it were a hallucination. "What?" I yelped. I was suddenly hot and cold, dizzy and giddy, laughing and crying. Dashiell asking me to marry her was the biggest natural high I'd ever experienced.
The years I'd spent trudging through my love swamp had taught me every stupid lesson I needed to learn to get my romantic shit together. Without those relationships, I wouldn't have my rules. And without those, I don't think I would have even noticed Dashiell. How would I have spotted her through the throngs of miserable ne'er-do-wells I was swooning over? Dashiell wouldn't have fallen for me, either, that spazzed-out, love-drugged, hypomanic chemical mess. Doing things differently brought out a different side of myself and made me a whole different person. The only person who loves her more than Dashiell does is me.
Adapted from How to Grow Up (Plume) by Michelle Tea, available on January 27. This article appears in the February 2015 issue of Marie Claire, on newsstands now.
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