The Firsts

The Firsts

The Firsts 695 883 Emma Sloley

My ex-boyfriend was the one who told me about the death of my other ex-boyfriend. My husband was there too. We were having dinner at a fancy restaurant in Melbourne, Australia, the city in which I grew up and where I had met and fallen in love with all three of the men in question at different times. I was only in love with one of them now, my husband Adam, but I still felt a great deal of affection for Dean, the ex-boyfriend who was still alive. Whenever Adam and I returned to Melbourne from our home in New York, we would catch up with Dean and his vivacious and talented wife Lisa. We were all great friends, had attended each other’s weddings, and the fact of mine and Dean’s former relationship felt so remote as to be faintly comical. It had happened to some distant other selves who resembled the selves of today in only the most marginal and arbitrary ways.

Between the appetizers and the main course, Lisa turned to me and said something like:

“Oh, did you hear that weird guy you and Dean knew died?”

“Which guy?” I asked, dread pooling in my stomach. It had been fifteen years since I lived in Melbourne but there were still a few friends we all had in common, and I ran through a panicked list of them in my head, trying to sort them into varieties of weirdness and imagine which of them might have been marked for death.

“What was his name again?” Lisa said, grabbing Dean’s arm. “You know the guy!”

Dean looked uncomfortable, sheepish. “Shit, sorry Em, I totally forgot to tell you.”

He explained that someone had told him a few months earlier that my first boyfriend, Daniel, had died. It was Lisa’s turn to look chastened. She hadn’t realized or had forgotten that Daniel and I had dated. She had simply remembered him as some eccentric person on the periphery of our social world and offered up his demise as a piece of morbid but trivial gossip.

I wanted to know more but I dreaded hearing the details. It felt like a piece of news I had always been anticipating and dreading in some way I’d kept secret even from myself, one of those inevitable postscripts that gets attached to a certain kind of life. There are people about whom other people are always issuing dark warnings: She’s an accident waiting to happen. He’s going to come to a bad end. We understand this to mean that the person in question suffers from a fatal self-destructiveness, and certainly Daniel fit that bill. He had always seemed on a collision course with some sort of peril—he lived such a high-octane, risky life that I often worried for his health and wellbeing, even after we broke up. I could well imagine him crashing his sports car or falling afoul of an enraged parent, ending up incapacitated or broken or destitute, but somehow actual death hadn’t ever figured into my concern. There was a beat of uncomfortable silence while everyone looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to weigh in, but when I didn’t speak the subject was changed and the discussion moved on.

I hadn’t even thought about Daniel for years. We hadn’t kept in touch, and I had wanted it that way. Unlike with Dean, the romantic relationship with Daniel hadn’t ended amicably and then been neatly alchemized into friendship. We didn’t break up on bad terms exactly, but there was a certain queasiness I came to associate with his memory.

I had met him at a nightclub when I was seventeen years old and he was twenty-eight. I was there with friends but he was alone, lanky and handsome and leaning up against a pillar in a black leather jacket with a drink in hand, scanning the room. I can’t remember exactly how the conversation started, but we weren’t very far into it before he expressed surprise at my maturity and conversational skills and said the magic words, “You’re so grown-up for your age.”

I had no idea back then that this was classic grooming language of predatory men. I was intensely flattered. As the third-born of four girls, I received multiple daily reminders that I was still a little kid. Being treated as an adult was like being admitted to some posh club whose velvet rope I’d walked longingly past a million times. It didn’t seem strange to me that night, or for many years afterward, that he didn’t have many friends. That he went to nightclubs alone and somehow always ended up befriending younger girls. I was astonished that a sophisticated person like him could take an interest in someone like me, a gawky, bookish teenager who possessed none of the signifiers of beauty of the era: voluminous hair (preferably blonde), an athletic build, big boobs. I had no idea men existed who actively eschewed traditional notions of beauty in favor of chasing the ugly ducklings, the vulnerable shy kids.

Even after we started dating I couldn’t believe he had singled me out, although my parents no doubt understood why. They knew such men existed. I soon discovered he was married. He claimed he and his wife were estranged, although her belongings were mysteriously still in the closets at his house. When I wanted to break up he used every charm weapon in his arsenal to win me back, including the classic lament: “My wife doesn’t understand me.” The wife was impossibly beautiful; willowy and stylish, a former model who had perfect posture and wore a leopard-print hat when she drove her convertible white MG around town. She was also his age. I couldn’t for the life of me work out why he would choose me over her. In the end it didn’t matter: she left him shortly after she found about me. I was the last straw in a towering straw-pile of infidelities. It didn’t occur to me that my youth itself was an asset. If I ever thought about it, I naively assumed my virginity and tender age were defects he’d reluctantly had to accept because he had fallen in love with the rest of me.

 

Daniel was addicted to beginnings, and not so much into keeping things around as they aged, as it turned out. He would completely change the décor of his apartment every year. When we met his home was an airy, mid-century modern design fantasy in an obsessive black-and-white color scheme, down to the black and white chocolates he kept at the door for visitors. The only shot of color was a wonderful modernist painting called The Tower of Babel. A year later, he threw it all away and redecorated with elaborately carved antique wooden furniture, somber oil paintings, and Art Nouveau lamps that transformed his apartment into a moody Gothic set-piece. He also changed his personal style frequently, generally in concert with whomever he was spending time. For the few years he was with his wife, he was a clean-cut, preppy sophisticate, the kind of upstanding fellow a well-bred heiress would take home to meet her parents. In the photos I’d seen of both his weddings, he wore a tuxedo and top hat, like some caricature of a plutocrat. After we started dating, he seamlessly moved into a bohemian college student phase, letting his fair hair grow out long and wild, and dressing like a stoner in tie-dyed t-shirts and baggy jeans. After we broke up and he started hanging out with even younger people, he morphed into an MDMA-devouring club kid, and after that…well, thankfully I lost track of him and no longer had to bear witness to these startling and slightly disturbing metamorphoses. In some people, constant reinvention can be a charming, even necessary part of an identity, but with Daniel it felt like he was forever trying to wriggle into the skin of another, better self. Or perhaps just shed the skin of his own loathed self.

His most consistent behavioral trait was his obsession with young, naïve women. He had no friends his own age or older, or none that I ever met. He mistrusted other men: I think in his relationship taxonomy they represented both a threat and an inconvenience. He couldn’t see the point of them. But young women—he only ever called us “girls” — were constantly drawn into his orbit. He represented a world of glamor and fun, of endless dinner parties and picnics; of long, passionate talks about the meaning of life and impromptu drives into the countryside—the most seductive and radical break possible from the dull expectations of our suburban lives. He was incredibly generous, an extravagant giver of gifts, and I can see now that he loved not only the reactions to the gifts but this grandiose idea of himself as a charming benefactor. Naturally, there was an expectation of reciprocation. Sex, of course, whenever and as soon as he wanted it, but also undivided attention and devotion. He would often say things like “You’re such a temptress,” and “I can’t control myself around you.” This idea that you are dangerous, unable to be resisted, is highly alluring, especially when no one has ever looked at you with lust in their heart. It frightened me a little, the intensity he brought to these declarations of loss of control, but I suppose they were thrilling in a way too. Until they weren’t.

There were other advantages to being in his orbit. He took me to my first ballet, my first hotel, my first opera. He assumed I knew things, so he talked to me about complicated and sophisticated subjects. He was the most well-read person I’d ever met, and he knew far more about art than I did as an art major. He introduced me to travel, the Russian classics, and taught me how to mix a martini. He was erudite, whip-smart, a great conversationalist. In some ways, he wanted me to succeed. While I was still an art student (a very bad one), he helped me arrange a gallery show, and then convinced some of his friends to buy my paintings without me knowing. He wanted me to discover life, and in hindsight I think there was an innocent, almost parental, joy he took in my achievements and discoveries.

He was also abusive: psychologically, emotionally, and on the rare, shocking occasion, physically. His anger was sudden and incandescent, and you never knew what would ignite it, because the rules were fluid and ever-changing. (Although, like most controlling people, the thing that enraged him the most was being thwarted.) His penchant for young women was a feature, not a bug, something I only realized years after we stopped dating, when Matthew McConaughey’s famous line from the film Dazed and Confused became a kind of mantra for him: “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.” He was paranoid, suspicious of banks and institutions to the point where he kept cash hidden inside first-edition books. (See, he loved firsts.) He drank and smoked pot to excess, and he was a consummate liar, about subjects both major and minor. He lied about having a wife—and another one before that, whom he simply erased from the story—and later about the girl he was cheating on me with, whom he had gotten pregnant. He lied about which high school he had attended, part of his life-long class-consciousness and shame about coming from a working-class family. He lied about where he got the money to start his furniture business. He claimed, preposterously, to have found a check for $5000 lying on the sidewalk. I never found out the real story, but clearly there must have been something shady hiding behind the obvious lie. But he would also, fascinatingly, lie about trivial things like what time a party started or what he had eaten for breakfast. Lying was a grim survival mechanism, but it was also a game to see how much he could get away with.

These things bothered me at the time, of course, but they took on a more sinister cast the longer we were apart. The lying seemed pathological; the gaslighting and teenager-chasing sociopathic. The older I got, the more he struck me as one of the saddest people I’d ever met.

We didn’t speak any further about Daniel’s death that night over dinner with Dean and Lisa. The details came later. I learned Daniel had suffered from tongue cancer for several years and had retreated to the countryside, where he lived out the rest of his days with his girlfriend-of-the-moment acting as nurse. At least he had someone there at the end, I told myself, but I couldn’t stop imagining him dying alone, a broken late-middle-aged man in his country cottage, surrounded by all the nice things he’d always accumulated as a stay against loneliness. The great conversationalist, silent at last.

In the months afterwards, I felt a melancholy I couldn’t shake. In the end, I realized that I was in mourning, not for Daniel exactly, but for some part of myself that was gone forever. The first version of me. Daniel had been a troubled and destructive person, a monster in many ways, but he had also been my first love, and in some small yet vital ways he had contributed to the person I ended up becoming. And what are we to do with monsters when they happen to be the first one to really see us? To treat us as though we are a full and valid human being? I don’t think there’s an easy or comfortable answer, apart from acknowledging that in some small way we see them too, in all their flawed humanity. So I’ll just say this: I’m glad I got away. I’m glad he got free.

Header photo © Loretta Bloom.

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