DATING: Change of Heart

At a bachelor auction for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, I paid $550 for a date with a hottie. I didn’t anticipate a lesson in what life should feel like.

It’s hard to explain how free cheese led to my emancipation, but I’ll try.

A horde of women in their Thursday-night best pack Beau Nash. I’ve come here reluctantly, at the insistence of a girlfriend, for a bachelor auction benefiting the Susan G. Komen Foundation. It sounded like an okay idea at the time, and I am never one to say no to a meal that I neither cooked nor paid for. However, despite the buffet, I am mostly miserable. The AC can’t keep up with the body heat. The din assaults me. I don’t like crowds, and I don’t intend to stay long. I am certainly not going to bid on a man. What kind of girl do you think I am?

For me, it’s about dinner first, entertainment second. I have come to eat Brie, sip wine, and stand in snarky judgment of the 42 fools who have agreed to be gigolos for a good cause.

It’s not that these are bad guys; they’re just not my type. Some are dads, and I don’t date dads. Some have been on reality TV, and I don’t date men who chase fame. One stands onstage, rips open his shirt, and pounds his sculpted pecs with both fists. I don’t date men who play Tarzan in public. There are plenty of regular guys whose bios, under “Favorite Article of Clothing,” list cargo pants (fashion victim), a Gluek’s beer t-shirt (recovering alcoholic), or a gray sweater (no imagination). For “Hobbies” they name country dancing (too Billy Bob’s) and knife throwing (I prefer spooning). Several note that they are attracted to attractive women (duh). I am pretty sure there’s nothing here for me.

Then I see The Guy.

Bachelor No. 35.

Tree tall, he stands a head above everyone else in the crowded bar. A dark curl lolls over his forehead, and he casts a seductive spell even before he meets my gaze with inky eyes. “That one,” I say, nudging my girlfriend and flipping through the auction program. “He’s hot.”

When I realize he is talking to a friend of mine, I sidle over. She introduces me to The Guy and confides that they’ve been “kinda sorta dating a little bit.” She urges me to bid on him. “He’s great, but I don’t really see it going anywhere,” she says. I shake my head and remind her of my boyfriend.

Oh, did I mention my boyfriend? We’ve dated nearly three years. For the last 10 months he’s lived in Oklahoma, and the distance has left us both lonely. He recently mentioned that maybe we should see other people. One night when I asked him if he thought we’d ever get married, he said he “might consider it in the future.” I was stupefied. Three years and that was the best he could do? It’s not that I want to get married, mind you, but I do want my boyfriend to think enough of me to see our future together. Even when I explain exactly that, he is aloof. I agonize for weeks over his indifference. My therapist asks me if it makes me angry. It does.

But tonight, I am not angry. Only slightly sweaty.

I study The Guy’s photo in the program. His grin is genuine, and the lazy curl begs to be brushed back. It’s an outdoor shot, and he’s wearing a t-shirt. He looks like a man who laughs a lot and owns a big, friendly Lab. His profile, like the others’, offers a few telling snippets.

Favorite Article of Clothing: Brown Gixus Italia boots. (I dig a man with shoe sense.)

Hobbies and Favorite Pastimes: Ashtanga yoga (an unlikely coincidence), reading (my passion and profession), movies (I see lots), cocktails (I’ll have another), travel (I’ve been to 24 states and four foreign countries), and kissing (pucker up).

Attracted To: Smart girls.

My heart skips a beat. Destiny speaks. Or maybe the voice I hear is the first clue that I’ve lost my mind.

I am no stranger to auctions. As a child, my grandmother took me to bid on antiques. It was fun to hold the paddle and signal when she told me to. I’d ride home in the back seat clutching a coveted porcelain jug shaped like a spaniel or a vintage copy of Black Beauty. As an adult, I get my auction fix from eBay. The euphoria in the final moments of bidding is like crack in my pipe.

The Guy is looking better than a pair of $12 Prada pumps with just three minutes to go. I elbow my way through the throng to a central location where I can keep an eye on him and his fan club. The woman standing next to me asks if I am bidding. “If I were going to bid, I’d go for that one,” I say. I don’t care if it’s rude; I point.

My thoughts ricochet. If I were going to bid. I have a boyfriend. The Guy dates my friend. Even if it is for charity, I don’t have the money. Still. If I were going to bid, he would be The Guy.

He slips up behind me and whispers, “You look like a movie star.” I roll my eyes. Whatever. I often hear I look like Susan Dey, but made-for-TV movies don’t count toward celebrity status. Still, the comment is somehow enough to tip my mental balance. I forget the cheese. I forget the friend who introduced us and who has since sought me out to retract her suggestion that I buy The Guy. I forget my boyfriend. I forget my pledge to pay off my Visa. Overcome by impulse, I bid.

A tiny blonde one-ups me. I stamp my foot and give the hussy a don’t-you-dare glare. It feels good to be a winner.

For the next half hour The Guy and I mingle with the jubilant crowd. With 42 prized bachelors and 42 proud women who’ve just spent small fortunes for a chance to play the love lottery, it’s a giddy scene.

When the restaurant starts to clear, I settle up with the charity: $550 for The Guy. Outside, in front of the Crescent, I tell The Guy that I had planned to get a ride home with my girlfriend and had taken the trolley to the party. My girlfriend’s long gone, and the trolley has made its last run; I need a lift. No worries, he says, handing the valet his ticket.

“Let’s go someplace,” he says before we get to my place. I say no. He insists. I explain that it’s late and I have to be at work early the next day. I am not a reckless person. I look both ways even when crossing a one-way street. I won’t buy a book unless half a dozen people have told me it’s good. I always sniff the milk before I pour it. And I don’t stay out late during the week. No one calls me spontaneous.

In his car, in front of my building, we sit and talk about the party, sharing small details about ourselves. Then The Guy kisses me. I do not resist one hard, hot kiss after the other. Too much time passes before I remember my boyfriend. I realize I am in trouble. Big trouble. I hop out of the car, scramble up my stairs, and make a confessional call to my boyfriend.

No big deal. That’s what he says when I tell him about The Guy. When I tell him how much I paid, he says, “Get your money’s worth.” This jealousy-is-for-jerks attitude is far better than rage, sure, but I want him to be jealous. I don’t want permission to go out with The Guy; I want my boyfriend to declare me off limits to all others. I want him to want me, to demand that I don’t see The Guy again. I want a demonstration of love, but he doesn’t give it. And that hurts.

This isn’t new. From early in our relationship, I have struggled with his icy demeanor and lack of compassion. We seem to speak different languages when it comes to love. For example, on our first Valentine’s Day I wanted romance. He wanted to watch Saving Private Ryan. Nevertheless, I’ve hung in there, even when he failed one year to acknowledge my birthday, even when he “forgot” to tell me he was moving to Oklahoma. Though there have been moments of brilliance in our relationship, I have mostly felt alone with him. His stoic nature frustrates me, and I feel unheard and unloved by him. When I tell him this, he says, “You want me to change, and people don’t change.”

A week later, The Guy sends me an e-mail: meet me at The Quarter at 9. We’ve met for drinks once before, but we haven’t been on our official date. (The date package I won was to include dinner at Metropolitan and dancing at Umlaut.) Before I answer, I reason with myself. He’s a nice guy. I did buy him at an auction. What harm could it do to have a few drinks? We can be friends, right? My boyfriend said it was fine. So what if I am wildly attracted to The Guy? It’s not like we’re going to end up naked in my apartment. But after a few rounds on the patio and some stolen evening kisses, that’s exactly what happens. Before our clothes hit the floor, though, we’re both so freaked out that he says he needs a cheeseburger and leaves. I lie in bed, alone, and realize again that I am in trouble. Big trouble.

I have a chance soon thereafter to avoid further indiscretion, when, after I tell him I have a boyfriend, The Guy suggests we go on one fabulous date, then call it quits. I flatly refuse to let him walk away from me, explaining that fate has set us on a course, and that, for better or worse, we’re obligated to see to the end.

It’s hard to say if it’s the crazies or the cocktails that muddle my judgment and cloud my memory, but the next few weeks pass in a blur.

On a rainy Sunday we eat brunch at the Meridian Room, stroll through 500X Gallery, then catch a movie at the Angelika. One afternoon, I join him and his boss for happy hour beers at Snuffer’s. Afterward, we make out for an hour in the dark of his parked car. It’s on a Wednesday at Medici that we run into his ex-fiancé (!). There are a few tense minutes, but a spoonful of sugar—or, in this case, a third Jack and Coke—helps the medicine go down. Later, McKinney Avenue seems like an appropriate place to raise my skirt and show my bare bottom.

To say that these events disrupt my life is an overstatement. I still go to work, practice yoga, see my friends exactly as before, but The Guy has me thinking. For the first time in nearly three years, I am consistently having fun. I am living rather than merely existing. But it’s more than that. For the first time in nearly three years, I also feel listened to and appreciated. Not only does The Guy ask me about myself, but he also seems interested in my answers. Unlike my boyfriend, he calls me to say good night, he comforts me when I have a bad day, and he checks on me when it storms. I begin to wonder if he can give my boyfriend a lesson—or if I just need a new boyfriend.

Now, it’s not that I think The Guy is The One. By our third meeting, we encounter deal-breakers. He wants kids, and I am more of a dog person. And I realize that he is capable of disappointing me in exactly the same ways as any other guy. But time with The Guy forces me to consider if I wouldn’t be happier with someone else. The effort required to find someone else, however, is daunting, the idea chilling. Besides, the devil you know beats the devil you don’t. Right?

By now (unbeknownst to my boyfriend), I am seeing The Guy a couple of times a week, and with each date things escalate. One night at the lounge at the Magnolia Theater, The Guy and I talk movies with the bartender, and I drink my first-ever unadulterated martini. At Paris Vendome we order steak frites and white wine. He feeds me fries and kisses my ear. When he walks me home, I invite him in. Insanity has replaced all sensibility, and I do something I swore I’d never do again: I wake up next to a man who snores.

Sickened by my gross lapse in judgment, I promise myself that this is the end of me and The Guy. But it’s not.

One night, a month or so later, we meet a friend of his for drinks and dinner. At Teppo there’s more sake than sushi, but the company’s so good none of us notices. When it gets too late for much else, we head to the Magnolia Hotel, where his friend has a room while she’s in town on business. She is smart and sexy, and she doesn’t say no to skinny-dipping or kissing girls. That the third-floor patio of the Iron Cactus has a view of the hot tub doesn’t matter. Neither do we care that when daylight comes we’ll all have to go to work. Abandon is the order of the evening, and I think downtown Dallas smells like Paris in the morning. But you can’t listen to me. I am not entirely lucid. I haven’t been for months.

Oh, I’d like to say my erratic mental state caused me to break up with my boyfriend, but I can’t. Our problems ran deep and wide, as my discovery the day I ended my relationship showed. Quite by accident, when I returned from a trip to New York, I found out that my boyfriend was in Dallas. We hadn’t seen each other in a month, and it was obvious that his intention was to slip in and out of town without my knowing. It reminded me of an incident last year when for a week he led me to believe he was out of state when he actually was in Frisco. That time I let it go, but this time the hurt I felt pushed me past the threshold. I called him up and said, “We’re done.”

“What’s your problem?” That’s all the sneak said, and I knew that there was no point in explaining for the umpteenth time that I felt he ignored me, that I felt neglected, forgotten, forsaken, forlorn. For six months, I had pleaded in e-mails and instant messages, over the phone and over fried eggs for him to meet me a quarter of the way (not even halfway, folks, a quarter). I crusaded and cajoled for his attention and affection. I blamed myself; I blamed him; I blamed the media. And I got nowhere. I told him this, and he said, “Do what you have to do, Allison.”

We both hung up. It was over.

So there you have it. I went out one night for a few cubes of cheddar and got caught up in a moment. My story proves that you never know when a moment is going to turn into something momentous. I want a life less ordinary, to be an average girl with a decidedly unaverage existence. I want to be an exciting exception to the hum-drum, grow-up, get-married, have-kids, country-club, supper-club, I’d-rather-be-clubbed-than-carry-on rule, but I wasn’t living that way. I’d gotten sidetracked by my desire for a man who didn’t really love me. The night I bought the promise of a few hours of fun, I got a wake-up call that reminded me why at 33 I am still single: life is too short to settle.

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