Minda Honey | Longreads | April 2018 | 20 minutes (4,980 words)
Let’s start at 16-and-a-half, a half-a-lifetime ago. I was gone off this boy who lived around the corner from me. He was two grades ahead in school, a senior. We rode the bus together. His name sang with alliteration fit for a newscaster. Tall, Black, beautiful in that stony, delicate way only young men can be. Already toxic, poisoned by his father, knuckles split and scarred from fighting. One morning, on the ride to school, he showed me a picture of his girlfriend, his other hand in my lap, beneath my uniform skirt. “You should shave,” he said. I listened.
In the afternoon, on the walk to his house — I’d walk past mine and double back later, just to spend more time with him — the younger boys would crowd around, their white school shirts untucked, sneakers untied. They wanted to hear stories about his fights. They wanted to know if he’d play basketball with them. They were gone off him too. We knew something special when we saw it. When he smiled, his cheekbones rode high and his eyes stretched into slits as thin as pennies.
Once, when it was just the two of us, the younger boys elsewhere, he looked down at me walking alongside him. My backpack’s straps dug into my shoulders, the bag weighed down by AP textbooks. He said, “You’re going to be pretty one day when you get those braces off and stop hunching over like that.” I listened.
School out for the summer, I walked around the corner to the boy’s house and into his living room. I left without my virginity. It was all over before I’d even understood what we’d began. Afterward, he turned on BET and pointed out which girls in the music videos he thought were fine.
Back then, there wasn’t consent culture. There were just fast-tailed girls who let their hearts race places they didn’t belong. Girls who wanted it. I wanted it. But not yet. Not like that. Wanting is a welcome mat for danger. There is no safe place for PG-13 lust, for innocent desires. For girls there is “Just say ‘no.’” And for boys there is “Just the tip” — a coercive game that can give way to rape. Only we didn’t know that the first time around. And who would want to play a game like that more than once?
The next time, I say, “I don’t think we should …” The next time, there are no games, just rape. He didn’t listen to me.
He had a problem with taking things that didn’t belong to him. The last I heard of him, one of his friends told me he had a baby on the way and had been locked up for pulling a gun on a pizza delivery guy at his own apartment. It wasn’t hard for the police to figure out where to find him. Who knows if it’s true, but when I Google his newscaster name, a name he shares with many men, the only link relevant to him is a Florida mugshot from around the same time for an out-of-state felony charge.
In the photo, he doesn’t look stony, delicate, beautiful. He doesn’t look like anything to me. He’s wearing a white shirt, just like in the photo of him I have in the box full of high school keepsakes under my bed. It had been taken when he still looked like something special. I don’t ever look at it, but I’ve never been able to let it go.
In college, I started drinking a few months shy of my 21st birthday. That’s not true. Not completely. I didn’t just start drinking, I started binge drinking. The first time I called my boyfriend while drunk to come see me at my dorm, he said, “No, I don’t like drunk girls.” But that didn’t stop me. We’d been dating a few years and would go on to date a few more.
Although I’d known him in high school, it took a drunken night at a friend’s house party to tell him about the boy who’d lived around the corner from me. Five years had passed, and I’d never said word about it to anyone. I don’t remember a whole lot from that night in college, just sitting in a corner in a dark room, leaning into the safe harbor of my boyfriend’s shoulder, sobbing to him over and over again, “I don’t know why he did that to me.”
Back then, there wasn’t consent culture. There were just fast-tailed girls who let their hearts race places they didn’t belong. Girls who wanted it. I wanted it. But not yet. Not like that.
“That’s his problem, not yours. He’s the one with the problem,” my boyfriend said.
He was 20 then. Today, I see grown men who can’t call out other men. They give nothing but grace to offensive men. They’re men who want to make excuses. Men who say, “Well, I wasn’t there. How do we know what really happened?” “What did she do though?” “Why’d she even go over there then?” Who say everything except, “He’s the one with the problem.” He’s the one with the problem. He’s the one with the problem.
Maybe that’s why I knew what my boyfriend said was true but didn’t know what to do with that truth. Why that truth didn’t make me feel any different the next morning. Why I let the boy-from-around-the-corner’s problem continue to be my problem.
My boyfriend didn’t like drunk girls, and he didn’t like having sex with me when I was drunk. “It’s the only time you want to,” he said in bed in our first apartment together, the one in the old Victorian house that got broken into twice. If the language had existed then, he might have said what he wanted was ongoing enthusiastic consent. But he didn’t have those words then. All he knew was it didn’t feel right to him. Drunk me didn’t feel like me to him.
Sex while tipsy can feel effervescent. But sex with the kind of drunk I like to get feels more like a buffer, like peering in on my life through a grease-smeared window. It allows me to safely appraise what’s happening to me from a distance. I feel as serene as a movie astronaut suited up and floating in the endless silence of space. But it’s nearly impossible to explain to someone who loves you why you prefer intimacy at a distance.
We broke up around my 24th birthday, six months after moving to Orange County, California, together. I didn’t know how to date as an adult. I was like a little Precious Moments figurine looking up at men with big watery eyes and my heart cradled in my palms. Perfect fuckboy prey. I needed a distraction from my heartbreak, and they needed a woman with a sense of lack to exploit.
I met Chevy in a small bar in downtown Santa Ana that’s still there and might even still have the same black pleather couch he was lounging on when I first saw him. He was wearing a thick, probably fake, gold chain. I was a few feet away on the dance floor. We were the only two Black people in the bar, and in the South, where I’m from, that meant you spoke, you nodded, you acknowledged each other. But I was learning that OC Black folk act funny. When he got up to go to the restroom, I waited a few minutes, then followed him. I caught him in the hallway on his walk back and stepped into his path. He tried to step around me, thinking my move was unintentional. I stepped back into his path and looked up at him. He was a whole foot taller than me. I asked him, “So when you going to dance with me?”
The next time I saw him, he met up with me outside a bar near his place in Fullerton. “Wow. You’re pretty,” he said when he saw me. I was confused; he reminded me I hadn’t dressed up for the bar the night we met. I’d been wearing a tank top with a strap held in place by a jumbo safety pin and shoes I’m almost ashamed to describe — Supra sneakers with gold glitter and a gold snake print. Gawd, he hated those shoes.
Being appraised by men had been a new thing that came with being single again. Chevy wasn’t shy about telling me if he didn’t like what I was wearing, if my hair was frizzy, if I was being too loud. And I always listened. Always made corrections for him.
“If I was dressed so awful, why’d you ask for my number?” I asked him as we sat under a streetlight and watched groups of girls in colorful club attire flit past us like schools of fish. It was spring, but the air that night was already that perfect summer warm that reminds you of being young and aimless.
He shrugged, “You had potential.”
In Chevy, I saw potential too. Potential for my next great romance. Chevy told me then that I’d never be his girlfriend. “I always cheat on them,” he said. The bill on his black fitted Dodgers cap made it hard for me to look him in the eyes.
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I didn’t take Chevy at his word. The first time I went to his house, I came with a cookie sheet and cookie dough because it was too hot to bake at mine and his place had AC. His roommates were smitten. Upstairs, in his room, there was cardboard on his wall that his friends had tagged with spray paint. His clothes were neatly hung, his shoes in an orderly row in his closet. Nothing on the floor. Bed made.
We didn’t get any further than making out because I was on my period. Chevy immediately lost interest. He sat up and began putting on his shoes. “I’m going to go to the studio.” I’m not sure if I said anything, probably a weak little Oh.
I followed Chevy down the stairs and out onto the sidewalk. An elderly white couple was walking up the block. We heard the chuck-chuck sound of the locks jamming down on their beat-up old Honda. Chevy and I exchanged a look to confirm we’d just been the victims of a racist act. Well, mostly him. I’m certain on that dimly lit street I looked ethnically ambiguous, but Chevy looked like a tall, dark-skinned Black man no matter the time of day. He pulled out his key fob, and the headlights on his Audi blazed to life. I felt embarrassment in the air, but I wasn’t sure who owned it. Them? Him? Me?
The next time I saw Chevy, it was to fuck. I’d texted and called him a gazillion times from my friend’s house party. I was so drunk that I tried to slide across the edge of a pingpong table my friends were playing beer pong on, and it collapsed when I hit the middle. All the red Solo cups rushed downward, showering me in beer. I had to have a friend run me home so I could shower and change.
When Chevy arrived, I led him back to my friend’s bedroom. He didn’t have a condom, but my friend had placed a plate of them in the bathroom. He returned with a Magnum. I liked to call them golden tickets.
Afterward, I curled up on the couch in the living room. He asked me if I was alright. “Yeah, just leave. I’m sleepy,” I told him and rolled over to face the back of the couch. He left. Back then, that was sufficient. Now, there’s so much conversation around consent and whether or not you can give it after you’ve been drinking heavily, especially if your partner isn’t as drunk as you are. It wouldn’t be the same now. All I know was that back then, I never felt weird the next morning after drunken, near-blackout sex with Chevy. Or anyone else.
In my 20s, in a weird way, every alcohol-doused dalliance that didn’t result in violating whatever vague definition of consensual sex I was operating on confirmed to me that what had happened to me as a teenager was not my fault. I smashed through all the rules. I was drunk. I was in a short skirt. I invited men I hardly knew into my bed. And they didn’t rape me. I took these risks, slammed my body against the wall of propriety over and over expecting to shatter, but I never did.
This would become a routine with Chevy and me. I’d get drunk, I’d call him, and he’d scoop me up from the bar. This was before Uber. It made for a safe and inexpensive way home. My girls always grimaced when he arrived. He was standoffish, and when he did speak, it was often to say something jerky to one of us. But he was reliable for a ride and good in bed. When I asked him how he got so good, he said, “I watched a lot of that Real Sex doc on HBO when I was a kid.”
Chevy had rules. He never stayed after sex. He never went down on me. And he never wanted to hear about anything happening in my life. If he couldn’t come get me after last call, he’d listen to my tipsy chatter at 2 a.m. He rarely ignored me. I never became his girlfriend, but the girls who did didn’t like my calls. And his girlfriends probably liked our drunk sex even less. After a while, I stopped caring about them. I’d been there first, and I’d be there after they were gone too.
I’d probably known Chevy three years before I learned his last name and that he had a brother. One night he was being lenient. I’d lured him over with a pic of an AriZona Iced Tea, a Black & Mild cigar, and a Magnum, which I’d captioned, “Rapper trap.” As I strutted around my bedroom in some stilettos he’d wanted to see me in, I mentioned my promotion at work and a grad school admittance I’d received but ultimately decided not to take. “I didn’t know you cared about that kind of thing,” he said.
Sex while tipsy can feel effervescent. But sex with the kind of drunk I like to get feels more like a buffer, like peering in on my life through a grease-smeared window.
I stopped strutting. My ambition had always been a defining characteristic. No one who knew me would be surprised by these things. But Chevy didn’t know me, not really. He only knew me as the drunk chick he picked up after last call. Even when we hung out at my place, we mostly just talked about mixtapes or watched The Boondocks. Your 20s are probably the only time that you can be as into someone as I was into Chevy without actually having any deep conversations about anything. When a friend — who’s older than me and a therapist — asked me about my attraction to Chevy, I told her, “There’s this sadness to him. And I want to take some of it for him.” She was too polite to tell me that what I’d said was crazy, but her eyes didn’t lie.
That night, Chevy went down on me for the first time and was still beside me in bed when morning came. He looked me in the eyes, touched my cheek, tilted my face toward the sunshine, and said, “Good. You still look pretty without makeup on.” How romantic.
Periodically feelings for Chevy would swell up inside me. If I ever tried to talk to him about us being more than what we were, he wasn’t having it. I treated his affection like a Rubik’s Cube. If I did this or said that, twisted this way or that way, maybe I’d unlock his feelings for me. I found the more distant I became, the closer to me he wanted to be.
I began behaving more and more like him. I’d let days pass before responding to his text messages. I rarely answered his phone calls. When he complimented me, I’d snark him. It wasn’t until he lost his job, his home, and his car that he wanted to date me. By then, I’d moved up to L.A. I went to work for a large corporation in a role that came with a company car. I wasn’t trying to be with Chevy. I used him as a human palate cleanser between the men I was legitimately dating.
I moved to Denver. I kept texting with Chevy and calling him drunk. I met a man through a friend, and when I’d asked that man how he met his wife, he’d told me how they’d been off and on for years. How she’d always been the girl on the side, but one day he realized she was “the one.” I told Chevy about that man and he said, “See? That’s going to be us when we’re done with the games and the bullshit.”
A few days later, the man started sending me late-night texts. I blocked his number.
Anytime I went back to Cali, I’d see Chevy. We didn’t sleep together on those visits. We talked about family and work and our dreams. We went places — during the day, fully clothed. I think we may have even held hands while walking down Venice Beach. When I moved back for grad school, it wasn’t long before I called him drunk from a bar. Carless, he took a 30-minute Uber ride at 3 a.m. to see me. “Just make sure you’re awake when I get there,” he said.
The next morning, after receiving his services, I sent him to the bus stop with a granola bar and some old Apple earbuds. I didn’t know how to stop being shitty to him. Under all that bravado was years of hurt feelings from him rejecting me.
In my 20s, in a weird way, every alcohol-doused dalliance that didn’t result in violating whatever vague definition of consensual sex I was operating on confirmed to me that what had happened to me as a teenager was not my fault.
I continued to ignore his calls and let hours slip by between texts. Summer had just started when I got an angry 8 a.m. message from Chevy, “You didn’t call me back.”
I checked it, rolled over, and slept a few more hours before responding, “It’s too early to be this angry.”
“My mom died.”
I called him. But even as he was telling me what happened and what was going to happen next, I wondered, Are we close enough for this? We’d known each other for six years, yet when I’d found out at the beginning of the year that my mother was sick, it hadn’t even occurred to me to call Chevy, much less mention it to him. I’d cried into my beer at a bar with a couple friends from my program. Maybe we were close enough. Maybe there are no rules when you lose your mother.
Over the remainder of that year, I began to take him more seriously. He was saying all the right things. Texting me regularly. “Maybe we should try a relationship,” I said a couple of months into the new year.
After a literary event where I read an excerpt from my memoir, he was moody. When we got back to my place, he was drinking heavier and smoking more weed than he usually did. I should have asked him if he was OK. I should have asked him about his mother. But I didn’t. I’d spent so many years perfecting an emotionless veneer, I didn’t know to crack it to ask him hard questions. Again, I thought about how long I’d known him and how little we knew about how to be together. He needed someone, but because he’d set all these weird parameters for our relationship, he was standing right there in my room, sleeping right there in my bed, and was completely emotionally isolated from me.
How could it be possible to press your lips against someone else’s hundreds of times but not know how to part your mouth and say what needs to be said to them? How can it be that a man can sweat all over you during sex but can’t let you see him cry? How can you see someone’s naked body from every single angle but have zero insight into their inner world? Why was I letting a man drowning in toxic masculinity lay out the rules of engagement?
But how much of it was me, and how much was just the way it worked between men and women? I hardly had any friends who weren’t putting up with similar levels of fuckery from the men in their lives. Men who didn’t seem capable of loving us without baring their teeth at us at the same time.
The rest of the night didn’t go well. In the morning, Chevy launched into a story about a woman who works in the office at his job. How she followed him home on his lunch break to smoke weed with him. She was so into him after that. He couldn’t believe she’d gotten the wrong idea. I knew he was telling me a parable about us. Subtext: This is not what you think it is.
How could it be possible to press your lips against someone else’s hundreds of times but not know how to part your mouth and say what needs to be said to them?
He grew distant. The following weekend, I split a pitcher of sangria with a friend and texted him. I demanded to know what was up. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I’ll probably hit up this house party tonight,” he texted back.
“Not with your weekend. With us.” I’d always had a sense of how tight the emotional tether was between us. That week I’d felt it go slack. In the past, I would have just let him go M.I.A. for a few months, let the feelings die down, then drunk-dial him for the usual. But I’d been serious about wanting more from him, just not serious enough to demand it while sober.
He explained he thought we were just casual and saw each other when we saw each other. I sent him a text message as long as a CVS receipt. What he’d described was what we’d had until he’d spent years convincing me otherwise. Insisting he wanted more. Blaming me for why weren’t together. He wasn’t responding fast enough, so I called him. “I CAN’T FUCKING BELIEVE YOU,” I shouted.
“I’m hanging up, Minda,” he said.
“Because you’re yelling at me.”
“I’M NOT YELLING, CHEVY,” I yelled into the phone. I paused. “You’re right. You’re right. Okay. Good night.”
For months I didn’t speak to him. I moved back to Kentucky without telling him. When I did finally call him again around Thanksgiving, I’d been drinking and wanted him to know I missed him. I didn’t tell him I was lonely and uncertain about my dating prospects. He apologized for his behavior, saying grieving hadn’t been easy. I apologized for not being there for him. We began texting and talking on the phone. Again, things began to escalate. He was planning a trip to see family in August and decided to squeeze in a Louisville trip.
One night, I ended up out with friends and a guy who I’d been doing some writing work for. We shut the bar down. He insisted I go home with him. I texted Chevy. No response. I called him. No response. I sent him an angry text about how he didn’t respond to my texts. No response.
I went home with the guy. The next morning, Chevy texted that he’d been in a basement bar with poor reception, then his battery had died.
A couple weeks before Chevy was supposed to visit me, he started pressing me about my dating life over the phone. “Don’t you want to be real with each other?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “Has this ever been about being real?” With Chevy, it always felt like the beginning of the end. Nothing was real. It was a relationship contingent on ifs. If he stopped being a fuckboy. If I stopped binge drinking. If I could trust him. If he could love me.
I admitted I was sleeping with someone. He didn’t want me to sleep with the guy again so close to his visit. “You’re going to sleep with him and then with me a few days later?” he asked.
It wouldn’t have been the first time.
“Don’t you want to know about my dating life?” he asked me.
“No. It’s never mattered to either of us who you were dating,” I said.
“So, you don’t want to know?”
“Fine. Tell me.”
Turns out, Chevy had started seeing his ex-girlfriend again. He’d been with her that night I hadn’t been able to get a hold of him. He’d lied to me. And he was lying to her too. He hadn’t told her that he’d be coming to see me. He was essentially angry at me for treating him the way he was treating her.
Over the remainder of that year, I began to take him more seriously. He was saying all the right things. Texting me regularly. ‘Maybe we should try a relationship,’ I said a couple of months into the new year.
I pointed out that I was free to do what I wanted; I wasn’t his girlfriend. “And you never will be if you keep behaving this way,” he snapped. Before I hung up the phone, he told me not to act like I didn’t care but not to be too mad at him either.
When that call ended, all my feelings for Chevy ended too. Like a hair tangle giving way, like dried food on a dish coming unstuck, my heart had suddenly, finally, and completely released him. I’d been living like a moth when really I was the flame.
I’d recreated myself in Chevy’s image, and he despised me for it. And I despised me for it. What endgame had I been after? Like I, somehow, by matching his shitty behavior and apathy, was going to convince this dude that doesn’t want to be with me that he does? And then what? We raise some shitty kids together? Or more likely, we move to some deserted island where we spend the rest of our lives debating our top five rappers and never talking about our mothers. That is not a life.
Your fuckboy doesn’t suddenly get it together for you. Instead, you get yourself together and move on up out of relationship purgatory.
I’d been trapped there because I was using fuckboys like fire escapes to race away from my feelings before they engulfed me. I was there, like so many women, with all the fuckboys, the creeps, the ain’t-nice guys. The ones with the problems. And I didn’t even know it because disrespect in dating is so commonplace. I could write lists and lists, tell so many stories of the men I’ve let sneak into my life at the seams of old wounds. An anthology of assholes.
And those are the ones I dated. That doesn’t include the ones that have been hollering things at me from the windows of passing cars since I was 12. The men who’ve been grabbing at me in nightclubs since I turned 18. The ones who looked at me with direct, unmitigated wanting under the white light of department stores just this week. Each one pulling a trigger for trauma without warning. They’re all my problem. How am I supposed be anything but fucked-up over this?
But Steubenville happens. And Bill Cosby happens. And #metoo happens. And #timesup happens. And we all argue over whether or not what allegedly happened between Aziz Ansari and that girl counts. Because to so many of us, it looks like they were making moves across the same game board we all are. And it’s made us want to flip it over, pick up the pieces, and start again. And I’m starting to feel a little less fucked-up. A little less like I have to have answers for these problems.
This moment is emotional maturity meets cultural upheaval. I’m learning to own my body and my feelings just as our society’s figuring out how to make that a safe thing to do. I feel like that Charlotte Perkins Gilman short story. Like we’re all that woman frantically peeling at the yellow wallpaper, but instead of freeing some spooky chick, we’re peeling off strip after strip to expose a new pattern and we aren’t frightened by what we find because it’s so fucking beautiful.
One Friday last November, I drank too much. Started too early, kept going too late. At a networking event after cashing in a fistful of drink tickets, I sent a text to the guy I was dating but was no longer interested in dating and hadn’t figured out a way to be direct with. He was the one Chevy hadn’t wanted me to sleep with again. When I’d tried to have an important talk about the status of us, the guy’s hands wriggled beneath my skirt, his fingers plucking at my tights. He wasn’t listening to me. He was talking over me without saying a word. I kept his hands at bay and left after I thought I’d said enough to end it, but he’d called me the next day as if nothing had changed. When he arrived at the event, I made a mild scene. Afterward, I cried at a bar with friends. “I have feelings too!” I insisted. I emerged from the restroom and proclaimed I was so emotional because my period had just started. “SURPRISE!”
In the morning, I was appalled by the Facebook posts I had made the night before. The ugliness. Emotional, ranting half-gibberish. I deleted them all. I announced I was taking a six-week drinking hiatus. I broke up with the guy properly. But what I didn’t do is what I usually do when my heart takes a blow. I didn’t call Chevy. The queen of drunk-dialing has abdicated her throne.
But I still slip on the crown from time to time. I still binge drink. I still get with the wrong men. But now, at 33, it’s more like a catch-and-release program. It’s weeks instead of years. It’s their problem, not mine. I’m not fixed, but I’m not broken anymore either.
Politics as a Defense Against Heartbreak
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Minda Honey is writing An Anthology of Assholes, a memoir about dating as a woman of color in Southern California. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.
Editor: Sari Botton