Even the skyscraper seemed too romantic.
a romance that wasn’t.
I like meeting men who possess a different sort of intelligence than I do. Logical and rational people who can take bikes and radios apart and then put them back together. My online dating profile requested someone who was good at math and wouldn’t think it was weird if I asked them to graph an equation in exchange for a poem. I just wanted someone who’d stimulate me.
And so I met Dem, a Turkish student who was in his first year of his physics PhD. On our first date at a crowded bar, I found out he didn’t drink—not ever. He rocked back and forth in nervousness (and with slight resemblance to Dustin Hoffman in “The Rainman”) while I straightened my too-fancy vintage blouse and downed a few drinks. We stepped outside, walked to an organic supermarket, and strolled around Cambridge sharing a chocolate bar.
Dem was intelligent, candidly so, and once we stopped trying to be on a date we felt at ease. We landed in the center of a baseball field, looked at each other, then tried to scale a giant barbed wire fence. We talked about academia and living with it, relationships and our vices, feelings of displacement and of home, about how we were given honest dispositions, and about how different we were from each other. I couldn’t get over the fact that he didn’t drink, couldn’t imagine a life without ever having my head over a toilet bowl or sending an alcohol-inspired text message. What was a life without bars, without loud, jubilant friends who danced on tables before yelling at traffic out the windows of taxis? What was a life of international travel without the social lubrication of drink? And what was my own life if I needed these things?
But Dem’s life was so simple that it seemed complex. He liked sports, playing soccer in the sun and afternoon swims at the pool. He liked being with friends, discussing international issues, doing math problems, and playing chess. He cooked Turkish food in his dorm and watched bad TV shows that were easy to understand. He had recently broken up with his girlfriend of five years after they decided they couldn’t bear the distance. Once, as we lay together in a hotel bed in downtown Boston on St. Patrick’s Day, he told me that while he felt compelled to remain outside of society, I’d never be able to separate myself from it. Some friends-of-friends barged into the room and I panicked, wanting to protect Dem from the scene of American drunken pseudo-adults reveling in their holiday. I felt an almost literal tearing in to two, understanding the perspective of the drunken bros, while also feeling more at home and more palpably alive with Dem. “You are the nicest girl, but your world with that is not your world with me,” said Dem. On the sidewalk afterward, I retold the story of what had just happened to us. “You’re romanticizing this,” he said, “This is not such a romantic tale. You are you and I am me.”
Dem made me think about stories and how the ones I told myself about my life constructed what it had come to be. Was my narrative of falling in love on a different city’s sidewalks only a romantic and poetic version? Was it really just a meeting of two people underneath a skyscraper? Even the skyscraper seemed too romantic. Was dancing beside a waterfall at a club in Las Vegas, drunk in a pretty black dress after a birthday party, a true story of glamour and excitement? Was it instead just the partying of a drunk and stupid girl?
After Dem explained the concept of the quantum computer to me, I told him about Narcissus and Goldmund, a book by Herman Hesse about two friends who are dramatically different. Narcissus, a monk, is a serious, logical, yet respected and compassionate scholar who befriends Goldmund, a passionate artist and student in his monastery. Narcissus lives inside of books within a monastery’s walls, while Goldmund goes out into the vast European countryside to experience the thrill of drink, dance, women, and art.
Dem told me that he found beauty in the imperfect, in the assumptions we cannot but have to make, in the asymmetry of physics, and in me. I said I hated being beautiful, but he claimed this was where my confidence came from, that my beauty was my bazooka. “But a bazooka is so big,” I said, “when a person is carrying one, you see the weapon and not the person.” He lay back into the sheets, cradling my words as though he fathered them, before telling me that, yes, he could see, yes, he understood.
There was something innocent, honest, introspective, and intuitive in Dem that I wanted to protect, to hide, to water and feed. But after we slept together, he told me he’d been with only one other person, his ex-girlfriend, and I saw a flood of my ex-suitors enter the bedroom, holding wine glasses, pouring me libations, begging me for blow jobs. It was the first day of spring and the sun poked and pricked us as we walked through Cambridge. I told Dem that we could not take this further, my eyes overcome with momentary tears. Dem remained composed, understanding our difference, my Narcissus.
Today, I construct our time together into a romance while knowing life isn’t as narrative as this vignette. This, too, is just a version of the story.
Dem and I said goodbye at a subway stop, but I saw him again when I was angry at someone else, grateful for his kindness, his directness, and his example of loyalty. I’d play Goldmund and he’d play Narcissus, but we are a lot more human and a lot less binary than characters in a novel. We are Emma and Dem in our expanse and our entirety.