A Non-Love Story
The first time I noticed the look, Simon and I hadn’t been dating that long.
We were out of town celebrating his birthday, and I watched the same exact look pass over the faces of the hotel clerk, the bookstore cashier, and the server at an upscale restaurant on the town square.
It was a look I can only describe as of pity or confusion, because what else could it be for someone to look at us: a beautiful young woman dating an ugly old man.
I was 33, recently separated. Having been neglected in my marriage by a man I’d been with for ten years meant I had very little sense of my place in the world of men now that I was “single.” I didn’t feel attractive or desirable and had been oblivious to any male attention I might have received while I’d been married.
The first man I dated following my separation was Simon.
Simon was unattractive to me. So much so, that I had no idea how I’d get over it.
I confessed to a friend shortly before our first date that I didn’t know what I’d do if he kissed me, if I’d be able to stomach it, but Simon and I had a lot in common and he made me laugh.
I’d always prided myself on valuing personality over looks, so I showed up for my first date with him, nervous and unsure. When he kissed me, shortly after I walked through his front door, I squeezed my eyes shut and paid attention to his tongue, lolling and cumbersome in my mouth like a slug, and felt relieved that that was out of the way.
My husband, unlike all the men I’d dated before him, was handsome.
In the early days of us dating, he’d often catch me looking at him. I felt surprised a man like him would be with a woman like me. I was insecure, introverted, and nerdy. I often hid behind my glasses, slinging my hair over my face in a concerted effort to keep any attention off of me.
Before the man that’d become my husband, I’d mostly dated fellow intellectuals: men with glasses, rail-thin or chubby, men who never went to the gym or gave much thought to their own personal appearance.
My husband was clean-cut, preppy, just a few years older than me.
He could have been a member of the Kennedy family with how much he resembled a healthy honest Irish-Catholic. What led to me filing for divorce had soured me to handsome men, to any man who might resemble a politician. Simon was the obvious converse.
Eighteen years my senior, Simon was tanning-bed tan and bald. He wore glasses with those transition lenses that took too long to lose their tint, and he always had visible nose hair, which he’d try to tuck back into his nostrils instead of just plucking.
Early on, I bought him a hair grooming kit and pinned him down to remove some obvious ones, but in our short period of dating, he didn’t take on the maintenance much himself.
He was also set in his ways. “Dressing up” for him meant wearing soft bohemian short sleeve shirts nonchalantly unbuttoned at the top to show the rope necklaces he wore nestled between his graying chest hair or donning an oversized blazer that made him look like his mother had dressed him in clothes he’d one day grow into. He carried a satchel with him always, refusing to take it off even when sitting down in a restaurant. He was defiantly confident and self-assured in a way that now seems rooted more in overcompensation.
Beyond the physical, Simon was repulsive in other ways. He slightly lifted his leg and farted on our second date with a well-timed cough that he must have thought would cover it up (it didn’t).
He was hard of hearing, though he wouldn’t admit it, and he talked exceptionally loud.
He disdained other people’s bodies, especially women, who happened to be overweight while being overweight himself. He was cheap and vain, only allowing photos of himself to be taken from the neck-up or at high angles to hide his large stomach or portray his face as thinner. He was also moody, resentful, and vindictive. He lied constantly about things that mattered and things that didn’t.
But I felt adored, worshipped by Simon. He told me constantly I was beautiful. He took photos of me when I wasn’t looking or made me pose because I’d “worn a cute outfit.” He read books I said I loved and often quoted lines from them to me. He was interested in me and what interested me.
After a painful and neglectful marriage that had been like climbing my way onto a piece of wood after the sinking of the Titanic, I took everything Simon would give me. I fell in love with him in the way only reserved for those trying to escape pain: stupidly, recklessly.
When people of Simon’s acquaintance met me and were wowed by my looks, I blushed in enjoyment. Next to Simon, I was even more beautiful. I was a novelty, a person of curiosity, with more than one of his friends asking, in a not so discrete manner: “Why are you with HIM?”
For a while, our relationship was secret. Even though I was legally separated and no longer sharing a home with my husband, dating before I was officially divorced was considered adultery in the state of Tennessee. Since I worried my husband would use my “affair” against me in the divorce proceedings, Simon and I stayed in or went only to certain parts of town. Because we went out so little, I didn’t have to see the looks or maybe I wasn’t very aware of them until the chinks in our relationship were already starting to show through.
Those looks spurred the doubt that would lead to me breaking up with him. When Simon would introduce me to people as his girlfriend, they blinked at me in confusion, or when people saw us in public, his hand on mine, they’d gawk, again confused: was I his daughter? A friend?
Whenever I’d catch another look, I’d find myself thinking, “Why am I with him? Clearly I shouldn’t be!” And as the divorce seemed closer to being resolved and our relationship could then be public, I started to realize I didn’t want the world to know I was dating Simon. I felt too young, too beautiful, to be with a man the world saw not fit to be my match.
I was also dogged by the nagging sense that I was using to him avoid the pain I knew I should be feeling after my divorce. My friends had warned me I should be single after my separation. Whenever I talked to them about my issues with Simon, they brought up that advice again gently.
Once the infatuation I had thought was love had faded, every little thing Simon did began to annoy me. All of the things I’d overlooked before, like the fact he always carried a man-purse and refused to wear a proper button-down even for his job, weren’t cute or quirky anymore. They were obnoxious. And without even those qualities for me to hold onto, he was no longer attractive to me at all.
I used the normal reasons when I finally broke up with him: it wasn’t him, it was me. I needed some time alone. Maybe one day in the future, once I got it together…but only he believed those lies. I knew once I left, I’d never date him again, never suffer strangers giving me those looks or re-take another photo of him because I hadn’t held the phone high enough the first time.
The fact was that I did need time to myself, but I also wanted to touch and be touched by good looking men, by young men, and I would never date someone I did not find attractive again.
I did take the time I needed and did begin dating when I was ready to again.
Now when I am out, I hold the hand of my exceedingly handsome boyfriend. He is muscular, rugged, with rich brown eyes and a smile with a darling dimple. More than one of my own friends or acquaintances has said to me, “Wow. He’s a looker!” I’ve never once gotten that look I saw whenever I was out with Simon, that look that made me question why I was with the person I was with.
But I have thought to myself, more than once, now that I’m with my current boyfriend, that maybe I am the less good-looking one, that maybe HE is getting those looks whereas I got them before, and wouldn’t that be just my luck, a perfect example of karma, if that were the case?